Rafa Nadal King of Clay Prince of Hard

Nadal US Open 2017
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Rafa Nadal, a tennis player pigeon holed early on in his career as a clay courter has become joint second on the leader board of the world’s most prestigious hard court Major, the US Open.

Rafa Nadal has now won 4 US Open titles- in 2010, 2013, 2017, and 2019. He sits alongside John McEnroe in second place and behind, in the open era, Connors, Sampras, and Federer with five. He’s joint third all time, with pre-Open era champions William Larned, Richard Sears, and Bill Tilden having seven apiece, Tilden winning the last of all those titles in 1929.

The US Open has the lowest number record for most titles won by one player-five- of all the slams- Nadal having 12 at Roland Garros, Federer eight at Wimbledon, and Djokovic seven at the Australian Open. That could be due to it reputedly being the toughest slam to win with the once punishing schedule- Super Saturday (in which the semi-finals were played the day before the final); the heat, second after Melbourne in its brutality and often just as punishing in its humidity; and the noise- the planes to and from LaGuardia, the loudspeakers carrying sounds from one court to another, and the constant chatter of the crowd, and it being the fourth Major of an already gruelling season, which may account for why no man has managed to defend the title since Roger Federer in 2008.

Four times Nadal has focused enough to come through all the challenges of winning in New York and his latest US Open win means he has won 19 Majors- 12 titles at Roland Garros, 4 at the US Open, 2 at Wimbledon and 1 at the Australian Open.

Nadal’s wins at each of the game’s four slams has earned him membership into one of tennis’ loftiest club- those who have won the Career Slam. He’s one of only eight men to do so- Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic the others, and one of only four men to do it on three surfaces.

The US Open, for Nadal, was the last piece of the puzzle (for Agassi, Federer and Djokovic it was the French, for Budge the Australian, for Laver it was, like Nadal, the USO), but it’s now the Major at which he has the second biggest haul of trophies, after Roland Garros.

With Nadal’s fourth US Open win and 19th Major, there comes plenty of debate as to who is the Greatest of all time, a debate which can never really, unlike a Major final, be won. Comparing players and their achievements over the years is hard in tennis as the conditions are so variable.

The US Open surface Nadal won that 2010 title was not as fast as the one Federer first won on or that McEnroe won on. The New York surface has been modified in recent years to provide a higher bounce, and a slower one, too, the ball gripping the court a fraction longer, closer to how the ball does on the Roland Garros Clay than say the Australian Open.

Nevertheless, the pro DecoTurf surface is still a hard court with its unforgiving nature on the knees, the different demands it makes on a player’s movement, and the bounce, while it may be slower and the ball sits higher, is still lower than that of Clay, the trajectory still more hard court than clay, and the ball, on a hot, dry sunny day, can still fly through the court.

Nadal, who won Roland Garros as a 19 year old in his first main draw appearance first adapted his game successfully to grass, utilizing the slice, coming to the net and flattening out his shots when needed, then modified it fruitfully to adapt to hard, winning the Australian Open in 2009, but while those modifications have helped him achieve the career slam and rack up all time great stats at two of them, it’s the sound structural qualities of his game which have got him to where he currently stands as a legend of the game.

The serve, when on, gleans him plenty of freebies; the forehand, especially the down the line one, winners galore; the backhand holds up to pressure if need be; the aggressive baseline game which makes him such a great claycourter means he can better anyone from the back of the court, from where most of the tour play, forcing the errors which make up so many points won in a match; the net game, one of the best in the game gives him the edge over those who do not venture forward; the tactical nous means he can use all his skills and shots to outplay anyone; the touch on the drop shot adds the element of surprise; and perhaps most of all, his mental toughness means he can come out strong and come back, if he slips, even stronger. Those qualities have combined to produce a game that would succeed on any surface on which you could paint tramlines and bounce a ball.

There are no weaknesses and every little modification- being more aggressive, taking the ball earlier, flattening out the shorts, tinkering with the service motion-just help build on one of the game’s best ever bases give him even greater versatility when the need calls for it.

Then there’s his being a lefty- who, of all the righties out there, other than Novak Djokovic, goes backhand to forehand with Nadal on any surface in a big match and might be favored to survive?

Nadal’s cross surface success has much to do with his versatility not just as a player, but as a champion too, and he has won each of his US Open in both similar and different styles.

In 2010, Nadal was arguably in his best ever form, the world No.1, Roland Garros and Wimbledon champion, turning up in New York with his deadliest ever serve, a huge forehand down the line and on a mission to complete the career slam, defeating Novak Djokovic, just a few months off his 2011 form, in four sets in the final, that dropped set his first of the championships.

In 2013, Nadal had returned to the tour after seven months out with a knee injury, winning his fourth event back, in Indian Wells, won Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros, and picked himself up from a first round Wimbledon loss to Steve Darcis to win Montreal and Cincy back to back. At the US Open, his great run leading into the event, securing him the second seed, paid off with a generous draw- a wild card, in Ryan Harrison in the first round, qualifier Rogerio Dutra da Silva in round 2, Ivan Dodig in round 3 (Dodig beating Verdasco and Davydenko en route), 22nd seed Philipp Kohlschreiber in round 4, a match which saw Nadal drop his first set of the championships, Federer’s conqueror Tommy Robredo in the last eight and Richard Gasquet in the semis. In the final, Nadal beat a bruised Djokovic, the Serbian coming off a five setter versus Stan Wawrinka and struggling mentally after a string of bruising Major defeats, none more dispiriting than his five set Roland Garros semi-final loss to Nadal. While 2010 had been all imperious run to the title for Nadal, 2013 had been, while still impressive form wise, more about keeping your head while everyone around you is losing theirs.

In 2017, Nadal was back to his best, winning Roland Garros after a two year La Coupe des Mouquetaire trophy biting hiatus, and was by far the best player in the USO draw with Federer having one of his bad days versus del Potro and Djokovic slumping. That 2017 victory was asterisked by some for the draw Nadal made his way through– Dusan Lajovic, Taro Daniel, Leonardo Mayer, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Andrey Rublev, Juan Martin del Potro, and Kevin Anderson. That asterisk has little effect on the record books, however- Nadal was the champion; he did not succumb to a bad day at the office, his body was in working order, and he had no issue dealing with opponents who had upset higher seeds. Amid all the hype and noise, being a champion is a less than glamorous affair, an almost workmanlike drudgery to earn the kudos.

This 2019, we saw a little bit of everything of Nadal- a champion making his way to the title with a pinch of luck, heaps of grit, and truckloads of champion’s instinct.

His game, further modified due to age and injury- a more efficient service motion, a more aggressive mind set, was also, given the right draw and conditions, which he was, well-primed for the task ahead.

From the very start of the tournament when Nadal walked on court looking ripped, stylish and on trend in his black and purple get up, and fresh- did anyone in the draw look as ready and eager as Nadal from the very first ball this US Open?-he had US Open 2019 Champion etched in the sweat above his brow.

Once again, the second seed benefitted from a favorable draw with Djokovic and Federer seeded to meet in the top half semis and potentially put each other through hell as they did at Wimbledon. Nadal defeated John Millman in round 1 in straights, had a walkover in round 2 versus Thanasi Kokkinakis, beat Hyeon Chung in straights, dropped a set to Marin Cilic, straight setted Sascha Zverev’s conqueror Diego Schwartzman, and defeated Matteo Berretini in straights on his way to the final.

There were struggles in those sets, battles within the war, but so there should be in a Major, and like the champion he is, Nadal came through them and made the final.

He had not had to face an in form Djokovic or Federer, but they had not had to face and beat an in form Nadal in their RG victory campaigns. That is how tennis works- you play who is across the net.

You play yourself, too, and when Nadal has struggled, he has had confidence issues, and in the final he would have to beat both Daniil Medvedev and his own self-belief.

The championship match was as good as we could have hoped for. No one can ever say Nadal did not earn his 2019 US Open trophy win. The final saw the Canada Champ go up against the Cincy one, the two best players of the US Summer hard court swing going head to head, one of the New Gen versus a legend of the game.

When Nadal led by two sets and a break, the narrative seemed to be that Medvedev had worn himself out making his fourth hard court final of the stretch and that Nadal was just too, well, Nadal. But Medvedev dug deep, broke back and won the third and fourth sets in an electric match, which in the fifth saw Nadal serving for it only for Medvedev to break back and stay in contention.

Nadal finally won 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 and as a video played showing his 19 Major wins, the tears came. This meant something a little more, by as small a margin as Major champs are split, than the other wins. Even at the age of 33 with his body breaking down in the AO and USO Semis in 2018, with his game seemingly far far off the pace in hard court Major finals as had been the case at the start of the season in Melbourne, Nadal was still able to come through what the 2019 ATP tour had to offer and win arguably the toughest Major of all, closing the all-time Major haul list with Federer down to one, and go five sets with the best hard courter in the game aged 23 and under, and go all the way.

Four US Open victories, second on the all-time list. In an age where Players are judged on their Major titles like never before, Nadal will not be seen as a clay courter, but as an all surface player who just happened to be the greatest ever on Clay.

The King of Clay, a prince on Hard. Not a bad living epitaph if you can earn it.

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US Open Fourth Round Preview Andrey Rublev Vs Matteo Berrettini

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There are many strands of competition on the ATP tour- the first one, in that it is done on the biggest stages in front of the largest audiences, is between the Big 3 and their few competitors. The second is among the next in line, the players who once that strand has dissolved will replace them.

Andrey Rublev and Matteo Berrettini’s fourth round US Open match belongs in the second strand. Aged 21 and 23 respectively, these two will be hitting their prime, and I mean prime in the old fashioned way, 24-27 years of age, when the Big 3 have hung up their rackets or father time has called enough, whichever comes first.

Rublev has plenty of pedigree- a one time Junior world No.1 and a 2017 quarter finalist in New York who, on his way to the last 8, dismantled Grigor Dimitrov when the Bulgarian was still a prospect.

Berrettini has not been on the radar for as long as Rublev, only really breaking out this Spring, winning in Munich and reaching the Wimbledon fourth round.

In both men’s deepest slam runs they were dismissed by none other than Nadal (Rublev) and Federer, their inexperience exposed.

In this contest, though Berrettini is the seeded one (24), Rublev is the slight favorite due to a larger slew of big wins behind him. Beating Tsitsipas and Kyrgios in highly charged matches on his way to this stage plus the memories of his ’17 win also tip the match in his favor.

Match up wise, they are 1 apiece, both winning their matches in straights, Rublev this year in Marseille on indoor hard and Berrettini last year in Gstaad on Clay.

Which one, hard or clay, the US Open plays like is different depending on who you talk to. But it seems, once again, a little slow.

Slow works for both men. Rublev has the aggression and ball striking to hit through all surfaces, Berrettini has the baseline skills and willingness to work his way up the court that works on all surfaces, too.

Who to pick? I’m going with Rublev. He’s playing very well this Summer and seems on a mission. The US Open is proving to be his stand out slam, too, and players of his caliber often play their best at the slam at which they break out so I think he’ll bring something special to this one.

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US Open Men’s Seeds in Danger

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Day 2 saw Tsitispas and Bautista Agut knocked out- which men’s seeds could be saying goodbye to New York on day 3.

Coric (12) Vs Dimitrov

Coric has been injury struck and is low on match play; Dimitrov is going under the radar (ranked 78) and has lost his last two matches to a player of the caliber of Wawrinka so while he may not be winning a lot, he’s been going up against one of the few active slam champs in the game.

With both men relatively under played and getting their games back together, this really could go either way.

Both men have very different games and the hard courts even things up a little. Interestingly, this is their first match.

Cristian Garin (31) Vs Alex de Minaur

de Minaur got his North American Summer Swing off to a great start winning in Atlanta and then after first round losses maaking the Cincy last 16.

Ranked 38, de Minaur is a tough draw for Garin in the 31st seed’s breakout season.

The Chilean had a gritty five set win over Eubanks in round 1, what he may have needed after going 2-2 this Summer with a match, his first, with de Minaur on the cards.

de Minaur will run and run and could keep Garin out there a long time, and his hard court skills and tenacity means he has a nice chance of sending Garin out of the tournament.

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US Open Men’s Seeds in Danger Day 2

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Day 1 saw Opelka beat Reilly while Basilashvili narrowly avoided an upset at the hands of Fucsovics. Which seeds are in danger on day 2?

S Tsitsipas (8) Vs A Rublev

Tsitsipas seems to be having some bad luck with draws of late- Hurkacz in his Montreal opener and then Struff in Cincy, losing both matches in three sets.

This time, he’s drawn Rublev who so fearlessly and inspiring beat Federer in Cincy.

Rublev will come out swinging so Tsitsipas needs to be up for this one

D Shapovalov Vs F Auger-Aliassime (18)

A repeat of last year’s first round in which FAA so crushingly had to retire with anxiety issues.

FAA is a different player a year on while Shapovalov has struggled of late, but this is a Major and these two are countrymen and all the pressures and emotions that come with that mean this one is too tough to call.

A Zverev (6) Vs R Albot

Since losing in the Wimbledon first round to Struff, Albot has gone 6-4 from Atlanta through to Cincy, and beaten Cilic on the way.

Zverev also went home early in SW19, and had a fairly decent showing in Hamburg, reaching the semis, and then went 2-2 in Montreal and Cincy.

Zverev has a habit of losing before his scheduled seeding position in Majors and it is anything but far fetched to suggest he could be upset by Albot.

M Klizan Vs M Cilic (22)

Anything could happen with these two.

Literally, anything. Which makes it the match of the day, for me.

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US Open Men’s Seeds in Danger Day 1.

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There’s usually plenty of shocks on day 1 of a Major and with the US Open the final one of the season, there’ll be plenty of motivation for the underdogs to get a memorable win.

Fognini (11) Vs Opelka, 2nd match, court 17.

Fognini has always been a seed ripe for the picking in the early rounds of Majors. He’s got a game to succeed on any surface, but not always the focus, though he has a better handle on that aspect of the game in recent times.

Opelka is up and coming and having a break out season. He reached the Atlanta semis and went 2-2 in Washington and Cincy, so he’s match fit.

With his huge serve, the crowd support that comes with being a home player, and drawing one of the more vulnerable seeds, Opelka could get the upset here.

Fucsovics Vs Basilashvili (17), 1st match, court 6

The outside courts in New York tend to be faster than the main ones, which favors Fucsovics here, whose aggressive game is primed to do well on a medium fast hard court.

Fucsovics leads Basilashvili 3-1, winning their last match in Stuttgart, though this is their first hard court meeting.

Pella (19) Vs Carreno Busta, 4th match, court 6.

Some upsets are only so on paper, and this would be one of them.

Busta has had a better career than Pella, the highlight being his 2017 semi-final appearance in New York, and is a better hard court player.

Not that this match won’t be a battle- Pella has made strides in his career in the past couple of seasons and is coming in on the back of his own best result in a slam- the Wimbledon quarters.

Both men are uber-consistent from the back of the court, more than capable of playing inside it, and are two of the grittiest players on the tour which makes this match tailor made for the US Open.

Kohlschreiber Vs Pouille (25), 3rd match, court 9

Pouille seems to be displaying better focus since teaming up with Amelie Mauresmo, but Kohlschreiber is a wily veteran who will know just how to get under Pouille’s skin if this match gets dicey, which I expect it to.

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US Open 2019 Men’s Preview Djokovic on Course for USO Trophy No.4

Canadian Open
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By the time the U.S. Open comes around each season, everything—right from the Tours to player thinktanks and entourages, businesses of the sport, the partners involved, and of course the devoted followers—is at fever pitch.

And why not.

One: the host city, New York City.

Yes, the other cities to host a grand slam tournament have a unique charm all of their own, which is what brings us to point two.

The US Open marks the last major of the calendar year: so, that’s one last shot at glory for every professional tennis player.

It’s certainly not easy being a racquet-wielding athlete, and every single one of them will testify how much it would mean to win just one of the four majors, leave alone raking them all in by the plenty Djokovic style, and that holding aloft a Major trophy is what they all shoot for year-in, year-out.

Novak Djokovic, the top seed and World No. 1, comes in as defending champion.

Interestingly, this is the only non-Clay major tournament that the Serb has never successfully defended and that’s one box he will be seeking to check off by the end of the fortnight.

He enters Flushing Meadows having played a much lighter schedule following the epic victory at Wimbledon. Djokovic had opted out of the Canadian Open before making the semi-finals in Cincinnati (l. Daniil Medvedev).

Rafael Nadal, the reigning French Open champion, has also been managing his playing time. But more importantly, he secured the second seeding courtesy his first successful defense of a non-clay court title. Nadal’s triumph in Montréal (d. Medvedev) was his 35th at the Masters 1000 level. The Spaniard then withdrew from Cincinnati in order to prepare for the Open where he, like Djokovic, is seeking a fourth crown.

Roger Federer, meanwhile, seemed to make light of a soul-crushing defeat at Wimbledon. The Swiss spoke about a caravan trip that he enjoyed with his family in the aftermath of that final, while asserting the proverbial finish line wasn’t in sight just yet. The Swiss, who again overlooked Canada, saw his return to hard courts cut short by the fiery Andrey Rublev in Cincinnati. How much of an impact will that be, we will soon know.

The other name that has done rounds in this stretch of the season is the 6’6”, 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev. The powerful Russian hit a purple patch in an action-packed three-week stretch that culminated with the biggest title of his young career, in Cincinnati (d. David Goffin), besides runner-up finishes in Washington (l. Nick Kyrgios) and Montréal (l. Nadal). In so doing, he rose to number 5 in world, usurping compatriot Karen Khachanov as the country’s best player. It also marks the first time a Russian man is in the Top 5 since Nikolay Davydenko in 2010.

The draw ceremony took place August 22 and all eyes were on where the likes of Federer, Medvedev and the rest of the pack would fall.

The Tennis Review editor Christian Deverille and sports analyst Karthik Swaminathan dissect the men’s draw.

First quarter:

Djokovic will kick off proceedings against Roberto Carballes Baena and could face home-boy Sam Querrey in the second round, the American famously ousting Djokovic in Wimbledon 2016.

The Serb is seeded to face compatriot Dusan Lajovic (27) in the round-of-32 and either 16th seed Kevin Anderson (who has only played in Queens and Wimbledon since Miami) or 23rd seed Stan Wawrinka (who has also struggled since comeback from surgery) in the last 16.

The talented Pole Hubert Hurkacz, who is in Djokovic’s section for the fourth time this season, could meet Wawrinka in round 2, and it remains to be seen if he can cash in on the opportunity.

Awaiting our defending champion in the quarterfinal… could be Medvedev himself, who would by then be on an 11 match winning streak.

Other seeds in this section include Taylor Fritz (26), Nikoloz Basilashvili (17) and Fabio Fognini (11).

Christian’s pick: I’m going with Medvedev. He has the momentum and he’d face Djokovic in the quarters, which gives him a much better shot at getting the upset than if he were scheduled to meet the world No.1 in the semis or final.

This pick may be more wishful thinking than anything else, but sooner or later someone under 30 has to break through, and with Medvedev’s recent form, there’s no current stronger candidate.

Karthik’s pick: Hard to look past Djokovic. He has made the semi-final at Flushing Meadows every year since 2007, barring 2016 when he did not participate. While he could have his hands full with Medvedev (who even took a set when they played in Melbourne earlier this year) and a spirited Wawrinka or Hurkacz, it is almost customary to see him raise his game at majors—especially in the last few rounds.

Three-to-see first-round matches:

Hubert Hurkacz v. Jeremy Chardy

(11) Fabio Fognini v. Reilly Opelka

Marton Fucsovics v. (17) Nikoloz Basilashvili

Second quarter:

Roger Federer kicks off against a qualifier in round 1 and then either another qualifier or Damir Dzumhur in round 2.

His seed for round 3 is Lucas Pouille (25), but any one of Adrian Mannarino, Philipp Kohlschreiber or Dan Evans could make it through that section to meet the Swiss.

Goffin (15), Pella (19), or 2017 semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta, who Pella faces in round 1, could await in the fourth round.

Seventh seed Kei Nishikori looks to have a relatively straight forward path to meet Federer in the last 8, though his lackluster run into the event (early losses in Montreal and Cincy) could indicate a dicey first few rounds as he plays his way into form.

Nishikori’s section also feature his 2014 young Gun comrades in Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, the unseeded Bulgarian and 21st seeded Canadian potentially playing each other in round 3.

Christian’s pick: Nishikori. He’s not coming in on the back of any form, match wise, but he has a strong record in New York and is a great best of five sets player. Federer really struggled with conditions in New York last year and Nishikori could exploit that should they meet.

Karthik’s pick: Federer really couldn’t have asked for a better draw following his truncated hard court warm-up post Wimbledon.

Nishikori and Coric have troubled him in the past, but over five sets, it is the Swiss who will still hold the competitive advantage.

Three-to-see first-round matches:

Philipp Kohlschreiber v. (25) Lucas Pouille

Nicolas Jarry v. (21) Milos Raonic

Cristian Garin v. Christopher Eubanks

Third quarter:

Rather than labelling this section the “group of death”, we’d say it is has ‘melee’ written all over it.

Dominic Thiem, the highest seed in this section, hasn’t found his rhythm yet. The 25-year-old will start his campaign against Thomas Fabbiano and could face Sascha Bublik, the 22-year-old Russian-born Kazakh, in the second round ahead of a possible third round against Kyle Edmund.

Gael Monfils or Felix Auger-Aliassime, the youngest player in the Top 100, could lie in wait in the fourth round.

Meanwhile, Stefanos Tsitsipas—the second-highest seed here—opens against the mercurial Andrey Rublev and could face Nick Kyrgios in the third round. A bruising last 16 clash against Roberto Bautista Agut is a realistic possibility. Who’d be the last one standing? We dare say even a crystal ball wouldn’t get this right!

Christian’s pick: Dominic Thiem. The US Open plays quite similarly to Roland Garros in how the ball grips on the court and then bounces high, exactly how the Austrian likes his bounce, giving him plenty of time to take huge cuts with those powerful strokes.

Karthik’s pick: Man, I’ve never been put in a spot like this before. But remember this is a glimpse of non-Big-3 tennis. I’m going to stick my neck out and say Agut. He has made immense strides this year and, among others, has had a decent post-Wimbledon showing: quarterfinals in Gstaad (albeit clay), Montréal and Cincinnati.

Three-to-see first-round matches:

Denis Shapovalov v. (18) Felix Auger-Aliassime

(8) Stefanos Tsitsipas v. Andrey Rublev

Steve Johnson v. (28) Nick Kyrgios

Fourth quarter:

Rafa Nadal has John Millman in round 1, a qualifier or Thanassi Kokkinakis in round 2, 32nd seed Fernando Verdasco in round 3, and John Isner (14), or 22nd seed Marin Cilic in round 4.

In the quarters, the second seed is projected to face Sascha Zverev (6), though Karen Khachanov or Diego Scwartzman might be safer bets to reach that stage.

It’s, for Nadal, a perfect draw- he matches up well against the opposition, but they’re all tough players who’ve played their fair share of big matches and gotten some upsets.

So, the three time champion will go into week 2 tested, but he won’t be run so ragged, as he was last year after that brutal last eight Thiem encounter, that his vulnerable body gives up on him in the semis.

Christian’s pick: Nadal. He has been so consistent this season- he’s leading the ATP Race to London- and with Montreal under his belt and the draw he’s been dealt, this quarter is his for the dissecting.

Karthik’s pick: Nadal, like his Big 3 colleagues, won’t be complaining with what the draw gods have dealt him. A seemingly straightforward route, as we’ve seen with Djokovic and Federer, with a potentially tricky quarterfinal against Khachanov. With the likes of Isner and Cilic yet to find their range, and the third quarter pretty much a free-for-all, the World No. 2 will look to ease his way in to business end of the fortnight.

Three-to-see first-round matches:

(6) Alexander Zverev v. Radu Albot

Vasek Pospisil v. (9) Karen Khachanov

Martin Klizan v. (22) Marin Cilic

Semi-final 1:

Christian’s pick:  Medvedev d. Nishikori.

These two have had some good contests and this one could be the best yet. Medvedev has the slight edge due to the confidence he’s picked up this Summer and the fact he still doesn’t have the Japanese’s big match scars.

Karthik’s pick: Djokovic d. Federer

Yes, the Swiss came within a hair’s breadth at SW19 but instead succumbed to the Serb for a fifth consecutive time. Their faceoff in Paris last year was close too.

Djokovic is a rock mentally and while conditions here will favour him more, the longer the match goes, the more the odds are stacked against Federer.

Semi-final 2:

Christian’s pick:  Nadal d. Thiem.

Thiem has come a long way this year, but Nadal is not going to let a US Open final versus a Djokovic or Federer coming in off a tough last few rounds run away from him. Especially not versus a man who has his number now and then on Clay, but who’s yet to beat him in three out of five at a Major.

Karthik’s pick: Nadal d. Bautista Agut

A doff of the hat to ‘RBA’ for the season he has had. And should this match materialise, expect him to give it his all like he did against Djokovic in London. But dislodging his famous countryman in a grand slam semi-final is among the tallest of orders. For the record, Nadal is a ridiculous 26–6 in the final four at majors and didn’t lose even one semi-final between French Open 2010 and French Open 2018. Trivia: can you recall whom he has lost to, and when?

Final:

Christian’s pick: Nadal d. Medevedev.

Asking Medvedev to beat the Big 3 back to back, and the final match to be in his first slam final is one ask too many.

Nadal has too much game where it can hurt Medvedev, notably from the back of the court- Medvedev won’t be going backhand to backhand cross court with Nadal, on the Russian’s best side in the safest pattern; he’ll be going to the Nadal forehand, a place where so many, Medvedev himself in Montreal a couple of weeks back, get burned.

Karthik’s pick: Djokovic d. Nadal

Yes, they haven’t met here since 2013. Yes, Nadal has beaten Djokovic twice in finals here (as opposed to one defeat). Yes, percentage-wise, Nadal has the better record in finals here (3–1 v. 3–5). Yes, Nadal seemed absolutely dialled in earlier this month. And yes, Nadal could benefit from being in the non-Big 3 half.

But there is a reason why he has not taken a set off Djokovic, leave alone beating him, on hard courts since that victory in 2013.

And their most recent face-off on hard court was at the Australian Open. In the final. And what an almighty thumping that was.

While the conditions here might give Rafa a better look-in, it will take a brave man to bet against Novak. And I am ok with not taking that punt. 

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Daniil Medvedev Caps off Great US Swing with Cincy trophy Win

Photo courtesy of wikipedia commons
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia commons

Daniil Medvedev won the Cincy title beating David Goffin 7-6, 6-4 in the final. The title is the Russian’s first ATP 1000 trophy, capped off a three week streak reaching finals in Washington, Montreal and Mason, Ohio, and sees him rise to No.5 in the world.

The Russian 9th seed got off to as good a start as he could hope for, leading 4-1 in the first set, but the Belgian 16th seed Goffin fought back to take it to a tiebreaker.

Medvedev, who after a tiring run in Monte Carlo, let a 5-1 first set lead in the semis to Dusan Lajovic slip, could have been forgiven, playing his 16th match in 3 weeks, for falling prey to fatigue and a strong opponent again, but Medvedev won the tiebreak with conviction.

Medvedev then broke Goffin early in the second set and held all the way to the end.

In the final game, he was finally troubled by Goffin on his serve, but he did not give in, coming back from 15-40 down to hit a second service winner and hit 3 aces in a row to win his fifth career title, second of the season, and 1st ATP 1000 title.

Medvedev joined Sascha Zverev (Rome ’17), Grigor Dimitrov (Cincy ’17), Jack Sock (Paris-Bercy ’17), Juan Martin del Potro (IW ’18), John Isner (Miami ’18), Karen Khachanov (Paris-Bercy ’18) Dominic Thiem (IW ’19) and Fabio Fognini (Monte Carlo ’19) as first time ATP titlists in the last 3 years.

Over that period of 21 ATP 1000 tournaments, there have been 12 different winners.

Before Zverev broke through in Rome two and a half years ago, the ATP 1000s were a closed shop winner wise for a good six years. From Indian Wells ’11 to Rome ’17, over the course of 58 ATP 1000 events, there were a grand total of 8 winners- Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Ferrer, Tsonga, Wawrinka and Cilic.

Djokovic looked set to add a 34th ATP 1000 title to his collection in Cincy last week, with Andrey Rublev knocking Roger Federer out in round 3, until, Medvedev, trailing 3-6, 2-3, decided to start serving big on his second delivery and going for his ground strokes a little more, making the most of the extra pace the Cincy courts offer.

The Russian has other assets faster hard courts favor- he’s a deceptively good mover for a man 198cm tall, and not only covers the court well but also maximizes the space open to him with his ball placement, moving his opponents around the court and opening it up for, usually, a back hand winner or a good enough back hand to force an error.

He’s had plenty of practice honing that game of late, reaching the Citi Open and Montreal finals, and that form and confidence was too much for Djokovic in the semis who had not played since that historic Wimbledon victory over a month ago before.

In the Cincy final, Medvedev managed to put behind him the disappointment of losing to Nick Kyrgios in two tiebreakers in the Citi Open final and going down in straights to Nadal, losing the second set to love, in the Montreal final.

Having done the hard work of upsetting Djokovic, Medvedev, who was 1-1 with his Cincy final opponent Goffin, beating him in straights in Melbourne this year, but losing 7-9 in the fifth at Wimbledon, kept his mind on the task in hand, beating one of the game’s most consistent, quickest and talented players, and his emotions, which have been know to get the better of him, in check.

While Medvedev became a new man in Cincy, Djokovic is not the beast he once was in ATP 1000s.A host of young players have matured enough to be able to take him out since he got back to his Slam winning ways at Wimbledon ’18- Tsitsipas in Canada ’18, Khachanov in Paris-Bercy, (Zverev in the WTF finals- not an ATP 1000, but a big non Grand slam event), and now Medvedev, twice, in Monte Carlo and now Cincy.

Medvedev’s big and ever improving serve is a tough one for Djokovic who likes to return on the baseline and has always struggled with big servers. Medvedev is also able to out do Djokovic at his best game with his great range on the backhand side, his consistency, and even, as he demonstrated in their final game in Cincy, on the return. Of all those features, it is the backhand, which as Zverev has done to Djokovic a couple of noteworthy times, has outdone the Serb and been the decisive shot.

Medvedev’s Cincy win is a welcome one to those fans itching to see new faces on tournament podiums come Sunday.

The final could have been better contested, but Goffin did all he could against an opponent who was 2018’s winningest hard courter and looks set to be so again in 2019.

The empty seats, some on offer for less than $20 yet still the stadium looked at best three quarters full, may suggest that casual fans are not going to travel out to Mason, Ohio unless one of the Big 3 is playing. But that comparative lack of interest in the final is, perhaps, as much down to the location of the tournament, the at times hard to deal with humidity, and the overall high price of tickets and the costs of attending these tournaments when purchased in advance.

Next up for the Russian is a tournament which won’t have any problems attracting fans, but which will pose more issues for Medvedev when it comes to holding the trophy- the US Open.

While winning an ATP 1000 was once a strong indicator of a young player winning a slam in the not too distant future, that is no longer the way, as Sascha Zverev is a case in point.

Players of Medvedev and Zverev’s generation have had, other than the Davis Cup, no exposure to five set matches outside of slams. While the ATP 1000 finals once gave them, outside of the Majors, a taste of a five setter with all its twists and turns, they now venture onto surfaces in Melbourne, Paris, London, and New York, no longer differentiated or fast enough to give their younger legs and less fearless heads an edge, ill equipped to deal with the pressures and demands of five sets at a slam.

Still, an ATP 1000 in the bag, Medvedev will have a little more experience and a lot more confidence, which could, if the tennis Gods are kind, make all the difference in New York. If those Gods are feeling a little cruel, as they have been to the young ones of late at the Majors, Medvedev will always have Cincy ’19, and, for now, aged just 23, plenty of hard court slams ahead of him.

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Kei Nishikori Versus Richard Gasquet Montreal R2

Gasquet Nishikori

Photo courtesy of sitesearch.asahi.com

Richard Gasquet and Kei Nishikori will play for the 11th time when they meet in the Montreal 2nd round on Wednesday. Gasquet leads the head to head 7-3.

The Richard Gasquet and Kei Nishikori rivalry goes all the way back to Tokyo 2008 on outdoor hard when Richard Gasquet defeated Nishikori for the loss of just three games.

Gasquet won the first six matches of the rivalry up to Paris-Bercy ’15, losing just one set, incidentally in Canada in ’13.

Nishikori then won two matches within a few weeks of each other, both in straights, on the Clay of Rome and Madrid, in 2016.

That added some spice to things when they met in Roland Garros last sixteen a few weeks later, but Gasquet resumed his domination, winning in four.

The last time they met was in Tokyo ’18 in the semis with Nishikori winning in straights.

Gasquet’s prevalence in this match up is much to do with his variety. Nishikori likes rhythm, which Gasquet does not give him.

The Frenchman also hits to the middle of the court when he plays aggressive baseliners like Nishikori, denying them pace and angle to elevate their groundstrokes.

Gasquet’s also able to defend well and put the Japanese under pressure which more often than not can result in Nishikori over hitting.

Gasquet has shown some nice form this week in Montreal defeating Benoit Paire in straights in the first round.

Could the 66th ranked Frenchman upset the 6th seeded Nishikori?

Nishikori is in one of his consistent best phases, he’s 27-11 this year, and his best surface is hard courts.

If he serves well and can find his range from the baseline early on, keeping Gasquet on the run and opening the court, and play with controlled aggression inside the baseline, he can win. But he will have to make things happen out there as Gasquet is not a baseliner who is going to play into his hands.

There have been no indications that Nishikori’s form has dropped off since reaching back to back quarter finals at the French Open and Wimbledon. But this is his first match back since SW19 and Gasquet is a tricky opponent for him so there’s always the chance  Gasquet will get some chances and take them. If Nishikori is a little off and Gasquet is inspired, then this a good match up for the French man to get his season going.

In all likelihood, though, Gasquet still needs more match practice before he starts beating top tenners again (in his 9 wins this year, only one of them has been versus a player ranked in the top 50) and Nishikori wins this match in straights, and very entertaining ones, too.

Irrespective of the predictability of this match, there will be plenty of fans tuning in who have followed both these player’s careers for the last decade and, in Gasquet’s case, 15 years.

Both men are shot-makers with some real flair to their games, both execute their respective backhands, one handed for the French, double for the Japanese, at elite levels, and both are former Canadian Open finalists (though both in Toronto); factors which gives this second rounder a little edge when it comes to choosing which match up to watch in this Montreal second round.

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Now the Chalk Dust has Settled

Roland Garros 2017
Photo courtesy of cet2581.com

Now that the Chalk dust has settled on Wimbledon 2019, I’ve started eating again. Washing, too. Today, I finally put out the rubbish.

Nearly a fortnight has passed since the 2019 Men’s Wimbledon final which saw Novak Djokovic defeat Roger Federer in five sets, the final one the first match in the men’s competition to go all the way to the recently implemented 12-12 tiebreaker.

When Federer served for the match at 8-7 and had 40-30, I started recording it on my phone for a friend in the US who could not see the match. When Djokovic’s passing shot on match point 2 got the game back to deuce, I stopped recording. The moment had passed and it did not look like it would come back, either. I have witnessed Federer lose from match points up before, and to Djokovic, too, and that impending doomish inevitability made itself know to me once more. Losing from championship point in a slam final, though, that was another story.

On the first match point, at 40-15, before picking up my phone, I was standing up, ready to jump and enjoy the Federer win I had predicted. It was a biased prediction, admittedly. After all, I am a tennis blogger and a little bit of bias is part of our make-up.

But there and then, with Federer holding championship point, my faith in him, built not just on his being Federer but on his improvement since that Australian Open loss to Tsitsipas, winning in Miami, his credible Clay court run and his Halle win, seemed grounded in actual fact.

I still could not really believe it was happening, that Federer, at this stage of his career and with all his history at Wimbledon, was about to win title No.9, and defeat Novak Djokovic, world No.1, and who had beaten him in the ’14 and ’15 finals.

That Federer did not close out the match was a huge blow to me and I lay back on the couch. I watched the rest of the match as neutral as I could be, like the impartial tennis journalist I aspire to be.

Djokovic and his ability to stay in the match and give himself a chance at title No.5 playing one of the greatest grass courts of all time, whatever the speed of the court, grabbed me now. Whatever you may feel about the world No,1, his game is about as good as a tennis game has ever been, and when you let it reel you in, its own fine qualities start to charm.

As the games in the fifth set progressed to the inevitable tiebreak, the third decider of the match, Djokovic winning the other two like a man who had really been in charge all along in a match he had spent four fifths looking second best, the world No.1’s simmering determination and line perfect answer to Federer’s excellent questions was nothing less than impressive as he won the match 7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 4-6, 13-12.

Djokovic may not be tennis’s darling and his game is not the elegant yet crushing brilliance of Federer’s, but he’s a champion and his tennis wins Majors. If Federer was going to lose, if he was going to let two championships points slip away from his 37 year old service arm, it was going to be against Djokovic, no one else. Watching your favorites finish second best is painful when you know what it is like to see them be number one and the champion, but the sting of it is taken out when they finish second to the likes of Djokovic.

The house is tidy now and I’m functioning. Tennis, like Djokovic does his opponents, can really crush you. The sport can really raise the spirits, too, and with the US Open in full view, starting in a month’s time, there’s no time for moping. Time to get the biases buzzing again; slam No. 21 really could be round the corner, and if it is not, watching Federer still contesting for it to the bittersweet end against the sport’s very best is still better than not watching him being a contender at all.

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And Then There was Ugo

Ugo Humbert is into the Wimbledon last 16
Photo courtesy of kolimgat.pw

Men’s tennis’ search for the stars to replace the current Polaris’ of the game saw pundits and fans gaze and speculate at many familiar names on the Wimbledon 2019 draw sheet– Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Denis Shapovolov, Taylor Fritz, Miomir Kecmanovic, Frances Tiafoe and Felix-Auger Aliassime, to name the most high profile.

By the end of week 1, all were gone, as were Christian Garin, Andrey Rublev, Reilly Opelka, Casper Ruud, Alex di Minaur, Corentin Moutet, and Hubert Hurcakz.

One youngster is still in sight, though- Ugo Humbert, the recently turned 21 year old left hander from France (born June 26th), ranked 66 in the world and the 9th youngest player in the top 100.

Humbert has succeeded where his fellow ‘Next Gen’ failed for a number of reasons- draws, luck, fitness, form, pressure and style.

Primarily his success is because he has the attacking game, touch and net skills to succeed on the low bouncing grass courts. 

Perhaps, also, because he has not been studied under quite the same strength lens of a tennis world craving a meteor from the sky, every move and twinkle noted and analysed, as some of his peers have.

The man Humbert beat in the third round, Felix AA, so well known aged 18 he has his own moniker, admitted the pressure got to him after his 4-6, 5-7, 3-6 loss to Humbert on court 1.

No wonder- Felix’s name came up in matches he was not even playing and his interviews played between them. He was the third match on court 1 in the round of 32 playing in only his second slam and having never won a slam match before this Wimbledon.

The hype, while Felix AA’s earned it, the Canadian is the youngest player in the top 100, has made 3 finals and the Miami semis this season and was the tournament’s 19th seed, might end up being something he’d rather return.

Something FAA would also like to have well returned was Humbert’s serve. The Frenchman had a first serve percentage of 79 and a second delivery of 61 and faced just four break points the entire match with FAA breaking once. Humbert, meanwhile, broke FAA five times and held ten break points.

If FAA had been feeling pressure before the match, Humbert capitalized on it, applying plenty of his own.

That highly anticipated even taken for granted Felix AA fourth rounder versus Novak Djokovic is not happening now, the media denied its potential changing of the guard or young gun schooled by legend headlines.

Instead the focus will be on Humbert reaching his first Grand slam fourth rounder.

On his way there, he had to come from two sets to love down to beat Gael Monfils, one of his country’s most famous and loved players, who retired 0-3 down in the fifth with an ankle injury.

In the second round, Humbert beat experienced Marcel Granollers, playing his 12th Wimbledon. Granollers has never been past the second round at Wimbledon; Humbert is into the fourth round and on his SW19 debut and in his only his fourth main draw of a Major.

Not just any Major of course. But Wimbledon, with its practically extinct yet 21st century grass courts on which the ball bounces lowly rather slowly, though with the same old odd, unpredictable and frustrating angles.

That Zverev and Co did not not make it into the round of sixteen is not as surprising as the ball sometimes bounces in SW19.

The tennis played there is quite different to the one they often excel at the rest of the year- generally medium slow high bouncing Hard and Clay, surfaces on which the ball grips on the court and then rises right up into the optimum top spin crunching zone.

Humbert, likes to hit flat and go for his shots, a recipe which has been known to work well on Grass, and which has helped him become the youngest man in the fourth round.

At 21, the French man is nearly 9 years younger than the average age of this year’s men’s single last sixteeners at Wimbledon.

He’s not the only player in his early twenties, though, joined as he is by 23 year old Matteo Berrettini who defeated Diego Schwartzman in five gripping sets. But, there’s no one else under 26, and the third youngest player left in the draw is 27 year old Tennys Sandgren.

Humbert won’t be out of the spotlight for much longer though with a match against the world No.1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic on Court 1 on Wimbledon’s manic Monday.

While he won’t have experienced quite the attention he’ll get facing title favorite Djokovic on Monday, Humbert is no stranger to buzz after his deep run at the ATP 250 Marseille tournament, in which he beat Borna Coric on his way to the semis. There was also his run to the US Open second round last year, not deep main draw wise, but he came out of qualifying to reach the second round, a four match streak, before losing to Stan Wawrinka in four sets. Enough to get you talked about by fans and featured in the tennis press, but not quite enough to get you talked up as the next big thing with the likes of Zverev, Tsitispas and FAA around.

For now, the 21 one year old can enjoy being the youngest player in the Wimbledon fourth round, the sole representative of his peers, in a sport which has no active slam champ under 30 and at a tournament of which the surface is only played on for six weeks of a 46 week season.

Humbert’s arrival in the second week of Wimbledon may not herald him as the next big thing with the upcoming US hard court swing a more welcoming stomping ground for his fellow ATP Next Genners and recent grads and one in which they will once again hit the headlines and for the right reasons.

Not anointing Humbert is OK, though. More than OK in fact. Heralding the other youngsters is not doing them much good that often- only Tsitsipas has reached a slam semi-final- and it probably won’t do great things for Humbert, either. Hype makes money, not players.

The search for the next young star will still go on, and it’s one we should probably call off. Like Humbert did at Wimbledon, the next youngsters ready to contend for slams will make themselves known to us no matter how much we focus our lens and how much time we spend predicting their paths.

The stars will shoot nonetheless, so let’s just pull up a seat, put up our feet and enjoy a good gape as their games shoot off before us, whoever they are.

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