Miami Open Preview Five Questions

Miami Open
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The Miami Open will take place in the new hard rock stadium this season with shiny new blue hard courts and improved facilities. The tournament comes on the heels of the BNP Paribas Open but it’s more an extension of the party than a hangover and the move from the Californian desert to the Floridian beachside has left a few intriguing questions to be answered.

Is Novak Djokovic going to get back to ATP 1000 Championship winning form?

In Novak Djokovic’s previous heydays he not only won slams, but he won ATP 1000s left, right and center, too.

This time around, in what we could argue is his third prime (AO 2011- Miami 2012, the first; Wimbledon 2014-Roland Garros 2016 the second), he’s been a little flat on the ATP 1000 front of late.

Things started off well after Djokovic won Wimbledon and got his career back on track, winning in Cincinnati and Shanghai, but there was that Paris-Bercy final loss to Karen Khachanov, the London WTF loss to Sascha Zverev (not technically an ATP 1000 but closer to one than it is to a slam), and the recent last 16 Indian Wells loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber.

In all of those losses, fans watched on as the world No.1 looked listless and stuck for answers, a shadow of the player who during his career has won big title after big title looking pumped and asking all the right questions.

Part of the problem for Djkokovic is he often plays his early matches a little on the reactive side rather than imposing his offensive baseline style from the get go and tearing through the draw.

Waiting out the early stages of a match to see how his opponent is playing has worked for him more often than not as he is so skilled at exposing his rival’s weaknesses as well as breaking down their strengths. However, when he comes up against a player in form and whose weapons are finely tuned, he comes up short, often out of rhythm and unable to find his mark when he does decide its time to start playing to win.

In slams, Djokovic has longer to work his way into matches and the tournament, and the way slam draws play out and how the seedings are done, he’s not likely to meet anyone who can really pose a threat until the later stages by which stage he’s in the groove.

But in ATP 1000s, 2 sets can go by very quickly, and Djokovic is getting caught out.

In Miami, the top seed and 6 time former champ needs to come out with intent and make a statement before a 5 week break from the tour and embarking on completing the Djokoslam for the second time.

The Serb does not need to worry about peaking too soon with that break ahead of him, but he does need to worry about one of his Roland Garros threats getting too confident going into the European Clay stretch of the season, and that little bit of fear might be just what he needs for him to remind us how good he can be at ATP 1000s.

How will Roger Federer respond to the Indian Wells final loss?

Federer said he felt relaxed after his Indian Wells loss, that he felt his body and game were still there.

It’s not hard to see why that would take away some of the pain of defeat for Federer who saw the second half of his season fall apart in 2018 as his ground game deserted him.

For the Swiss, it’s most likely all about Wimbledon now. #RF21 is still a possibility as long as he’s healthy and playing well. For him, Miami is a good place to get match practice before his limited Clay season and his Wimbledon campaign gets underway. That lack of pressure and that abundance of freedom means Federer could end up losing in round 2 like he did last year or winning the title, and whatever happens, be it one of those scenarios or something in between, he’s got the experience to mould it so it fits into the bigger picture of his ambitions.

Can Dominic Thiem perform the sunshine double?

The sunshine double is a feat not often accomplished by players the first time they win in Indian Wells. Federer had to wait for another year, 2005, and Djokovic first won Indian Wells in ’08 before finally winning the double in ’11.

Pete Sampras did it his first time, winning both titles in ’94, but he was a no.1 by then and a slam champ.

Agassi accomplished it in 2001, on the back of winning the Australian Open, 11 years after this first trip a slam final (Roland Garros ’90).

Thiem is different to all those players status wise- they were all well established while although he’s been a top ten player a few years, he has only just really broken out by winning his biggest ever title.

Still, the sunshine double has been completed by one surprise act and that was Marcelo Rios in ’98. Rios had won in Monte Carlo the year before, signalling his potential much like Thiem’s clay court endeavors the last couple of seasons.

Thiem breaking out and going on a run for No.1 like Rios did that year seems a little far fetched, but the image of him holding the trophy in Indian Wells had that surprise factor sport lives by and was not entirely improbable thanks to hindsight.

Novak Djokovic is struggling in ATP 1000s, Nadal is absent, Federer is Federer but 36 years old and focused most likely on Wimbledon. The rest of the field is either too inconsistent or suffering mentally or physically.
The courts certainly will play in Thiem’s favor, too- even slower than in Indian Wells. So, it would appear that the setting is there for someone in form, feeling healthy, and loving their tennis, all of which Thiem seems to be, to emerge and join in on the big time.

Will the tournament be marred by injuries?

The withdrawals of Monfils and Nadal in Indian Wells did cast a shadow over proceedings. Monfils in particular was in inspirational form and though the media tried not to hype Fedal part 39, pre-match excitement on that front tends to take care of itself.

It’s already common knowledge the tour is too long, that hard courts impact the body more than other surfaces, and that they play too slow thus exacerbating that impact. That knowledge does not mean power in this situation, however. Instead, with another match on the schedule and another tournament on the next week’s horizon, the casualties can mount up and while spectators might find themselves gawping at the crash, a distracting and satiating view is sure to catch the eye.

Until, of course, it doesn’t. One of the dangers of having two ATP 1000s more or less back to back is that if one does end up being marred by withdrawals late in the event and the next event a similar situation occurs, the tennis community may not be left praising the tennis that took place on the court, but be left, instead, lamenting the tennis that never happened.

Are we going to get any breakout performances?

Thiem showed the Next-in-Line how to break out on the big stage with his win in Indian Wells.

For those who may have plans to step up come Miami, this is what a breakout might constitute:

Borna Coric winning the title- he already has an ATP 1000 final to his name, competing in last season’s Shanghai final. He’s got form on medium slow hard courts (Indian Wells SF ’18) and his early BNP Paribas Open exit has left him plenty of time to acclimatize to the Miami humidity and get some much needed preparation time after his busy Davis Cup winning end to 2018, illness hit off season, and globetrotting start to 2019 (he’s been to Australia- France-Dubai and now the US in the past 2 months).

Daniil Medvedev making the quarters. His best performance in an ATP 1000 has been a last 16 showing in Canada in 2018. A quarters is surely within reach soon, though the tall Russian might make an even greater stride into the semis or beyond considering how well he has been performing on hard courts. He might like conditions a little faster, though.

Stefanos Tsitsipas winning his first ATP 1000. Stefanos is already very accomplished- slam semi, ATP 1000 final- so a title would be the next step. He went out early in Miami, too, so he’ll be motivated and keen to get his momentum back on track.

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Dominic Thiem Defeats Roger Federer to Win the BNP Paribas Open

Photo courtesy of the usposts.com

Dominic Thiem has had a lot of expectation put on him over the years and while he has delivered now and then- beating Novak Djokovic in the 2016 Roland Garros quarters and Rafa Nadal in Madrid last season- when it has come to the biggest moments, he has not lived up to those expectations he did not exactly ask for, but which he gets thanks to being 25, possessing a potentially Grand Slam winning game and having beaten Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Last season, when he reached the Roland Garros final, he was expected to pose a real challenge to Rafa Nadal only to go down in straights. In the Madrid final last season, he was expected to have a good go at winning his first ATP 1000 title on his best surface only to lose to Sascha Zverev 4-6, 4-6.

What Dominic Thiem was not expected to do was win his first ATP 1000 title in Indian Wells and beat Roger Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to do so.

Hindsight is everything and looking back the signs Thiem’s big breakthrough might come on blue hard courts was at the US Open last season when he took Rafa Nadal to five gripping sets only losing in a final set tiebreaker.

Thiem has never been touted as a hardcourter but he has a much improved serve and hits the ball with great spin and power from both wings, a recipe for success on any surface.

Especially one like Indian Wells where the ball grips onto the court before bouncing high and stays in the air long enough to really let rip on it.

Those conditions have played into Federer’s hands over the recent years. Since 2014, he’s gone F-F-DNP-W-F-F. The extra time works for his fall in foot speed and his style of play means he keeps the ball lower than most which can be tricky for his opponents. Plus, he’s Roger Federer, master of not just his own game, but the elements, too, brushing off the wind like his racket does over the cover of the ball.

But as Federer’s record suggests, those high bouncing slow conditions can work against him when push comes to shove- each of the four finals in the past six years he has lost have come in three sets and to players with the skills needed to excel in the desert- Novak Djokovic and his offensive defense and range, Juan Martin del Potro and that forehand, and now Dominic Thiem with his powerful spin-laden strokes.

The player Federer did beat in the final he won in ’17 was Stan Wawrinka, a player with whom, due to their one handed backhands and powerful strokes, Thiem is often compared to. And, like in that win vs his Swiss compatriot during that fine ’17 flurry of form, Federer proved to have the edge versus Thiem in serving and hard court prowess, taking the set 6-3.

Thiem did not panic or drop his head like one might expect of someone building something of a reputation for not turning up in big matches. Instead, he kept fighting, staving off break point early in the third game of the second set, and he worked his way into the match, outhitting a Federer playing within himself and free from the error-ridden baseline performances that have plagued him this last 12 months, and as the match went on finding the form that has led to such high expectations of him all along.

At times, Thiem’s brutal hitting had you gasping for air like someone unused to high altitude finding themselves taking in the view from the top of the mountain. From the heart of the third set, it was some view, too, with the blood covered Thiem, who had fallen and grazed his elbow, fighting from a set down to have a say in a match which he started off in the role of supporting act and finished in the lead role, on a stage few expected, but which he has learned his lines on and delivered in booming and captivating style.

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Federer to Face Thiem in Indian Wells Final

Thiem Federer
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Once upon a time in tennis, 25 year old Dominic Thiem would have won a slam, Roland Garros, by his current age and been in the top 2 if not having had a stint at the pinnacle of his sport.

Still, even in this age of 36 year old No.1s, no active slam champs under 30, and the same players winning slams as ten years back, when the seventh seeded Austrian was playing in the juniors, Thiem has not done that badly- a slam runner up plate, 2 ATP 1000 finals, and 7 titles to his name.

This most recent achievement, reaching the BNP Paribas Open final, comes as something of a surprise. Hard courts are not Thiem’s favorite hunting ground, but he’s fresh this year, having only won just 3 matches all season coming in to the tournament- he’s usually in the mid teens by now- and he’s had a nice draw with Jordan Thompson, Gilles Simon, Ivo Karlovic, Gael Monfils (W/O) and Milos Raonic. Some big names, and certainly not chopped liver, but none in their prime and one of them unable to even make the court.

Raonic was the toughest of the lot and the former three time semi-finalist so nearly made it a nail biter of a third set, but the Canadian’s still a touch rusty match play wise and a real blooper on break point at 5-4 down when the Canadian had the open court but sent the backhand pickup long meant Thiem scraped through 7-6, 6-7, 6-4 to reach his first ATP 1000 final.

At least Thiem’s semi-final opponent turned up and gave him a match before the final. Federer’s opponent Rafa Nadal had to withdraw with that pesky knee injury that has plagued him his entire career it seems and most savagely so the last couple of seasons putting an end to many a run at a hard court tournament.

Federer was the favorite to take that match and would have gotten a real boost from another Nadal victory- he’s won the last five and cut the deficit to 15-23. The day off might help him- he’s 36 and played a lot of tennis recently so his body won’t likely complain- or it could hurt him- being 36 means he’s prone to some off days and it might have been nice to have that rhythm the Nadal match would have given him.

Federer is the favorite in this match. The head to head is 2-2, but Federer leads on hard 2-0, both convincing wins, and is the far superior hard court player. That fact should see him wrap his sixth Indian Wells title up in straights, but not without a fight from a player who in another tennis lifetime might have been the hunted but in this one is going to enjoy being the hunter and what better a prairie than the tennis gardens of Indian Wells and what greater a target than Roger Federer.

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Fedal Part 39 at BNP Paribas Open

Fedal
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Federer and Nadal will play for the 39th time in the BNP Paribas Open men’s semis on Saturday.

Federer has the edge in this head to head, winning their last five matches, going back to Basel ’15. Since then, Federer beat Nadal four times in 2017- at the Australian Open, in Indian Wells, in Miami and in Shanghai.

Those wins have cut down Federer’s deficit in the Fedal rivalry, which now stands at 23-15 in Nadal’s favor.

It’s likely that this upcoming match will cut Federer’s shortfall even further to 16-23.

Nadal looked troubled by his knee in a shaky but engaging match versus Karen Khachanov, the Russian’s inexperience rendering him unable to fully capitalize on his opponent’s hampered physical state. Still, where Nadal was not lacking was in mental strength, holding up under the pressure Khachanov did put him under and taking the match 7-6, 7-6.

Federer’s journey to the last four was a little less troubling, the Swiss overcoming Herbert Hurcacz 6-4, 6-4.

Fedal Part 39 will be hyped, this is after all the rivalry to beat all tennis rivalries, but it will unlikely deliver the goods that we’ve been treated to in some of their past matches, the ’17 Australian Open final the most recent example. Federer has proven to be too good for Nadal on hard courts since that match and even though Nadal has revamped his game on hard, when he’s come up against highly skilled hard courters (Djokovic in Melbourne; Kyrgios in Acapulco), he come’s up, like his ground strokes in his wilderness years, a little short.

Nevertheless, the tension and sense of occasion when these two meet and watching the head to head numbers pan out later on in their careers, numbers which will be tossed about post Fedal like tennis balls in the Indian Wells wind, make this episode in the rivalry the 39th one to watch.

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Pete Sampras Watches on in Indian Wells as Novak Djokovic Plays on Another Planet

Sampras Djokovic Indian Wells
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Sampras sat in the VIP area wearing jeans, a T-shirt and zip up hoodie looking as relaxed as if he were going out for the night to the cinema or a late night pit stop to his favorite diner for shakes. No glitz or glamour for Pete; just that down to earth vibe which endeared him to his fans back in his playing days. Just as he let his racket do the talking when he was winning in Indian Wells, he let his legend do the talking as he took his rightful place in the Indian Wells VIP seats.

Pete Sampras sat court-side on the first Saturday of Indian Wells 2019 watching on as Novak Djokovic got his bid for a record 6th trophy in the Californian Desert underway, beating American and former Roland Garros junior champ Bjorn Fratangelo in the second round 7-6, 6-2.

Pete won the Indian Wells title twice, in 94 and 95, beating Petr Korda and Andre Agassi respectively, needing five sets versus the Czech and three versus his fellow American.

Before his maiden win in the desert, Sampras had failed to get beyond the fourth round in five attempts.

After his second and final win in ’95, Sampras went QF-r3-r4-r3-QF-F-SF.

In his 15 year career, Sampras won a total of 11 ATP 1000s, then known as the Super Nine series. Sampras won Indian Wells twice, Miami three times, Rome once, Cincinnati three times, and Paris-Bercy twice.

On Saturday, he looked on as Djokovic was bidding to win his 33rd ATP 1000 in his 15th year as a pro. By Djokovic’s current stage in his career, Sampras was out of the top ten, though he would have a final swansong winning his 14th and final slam, in New York, before retiring.

Sampras and Djokovic both have similarities in their career curve. Both won slams young- Sampras won the US Open in ’90 as a 19 year old; Djokovic won Melbourne as a 20 year old in ’08. Both then took a few years to grow into their games- Sampras winning his second slam at Wimbledon ’93, ten slams later; Djokovic triumphing in Melbourne for slam No.2 in 2011, twelve slams later.

That second slam was the spring board for both men to launch into their prime. Between Wimbledon ’93 and Wimbledon ’97, a span of 17 slams, Sampras won 9 slams; between the Australian Open ’11 and Roland Garros ’16, a span of 22 slams, Djokovic won 11.

While there are loose similarities in their careers, where their careers have dramatically diverged is in longevity. In the last eight months, Djokovic has been having his second prime, a luxury that Sampras was not afforded in his era of variety in surface speeds and a quicker turnover in the generations coming up and usurping their idols- Sampras was losing to Hewitt and Safin in slam finals; Djokovic’s youthful challengers, the likes of Zverev and Kyrgios are not even making semis.

So, while Sampras must have looked on and felt a kinship with the legend on court before him, who recently moved a slam ahead of him at the Australian Open with 15 slams, he must have felt he was also watching a very different breed of champ, one not just engineered by his own hard work and sacrifices, but molded by the brand hungry governing bodies around him, by the sameness in surfaces that even Roger Federer himself has stated has added to his era’s title haul, and an income which can buy whatever the latest developments in science and technology can offer. Indian Wells is already a very different world for most of us, for Sampras watching Djokovic it must have felt like another planet.

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Indian Wells Preview Five Scenarios

Nadal Indian Wells
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Which of the five scenarios below would you like to see play out in Indian Wells?

A vet wins his first ATP 1000 title

Last year Juan Martin del Potro won his first ATP 1000 title beating Roger Federer in a thrilling match. That was del Potro’s first ATP 1000 win, nine years after he won the US Open.

Seeing vets win big in the latter stages of their career brings out the sentimentality in tennis fans and a victory for Kei Nishikori, in particular, would be a real boost, especially considering the Japanese’ potential (that USO ’14 final seems so far away now) and his comeback from injury.

Nishikori tends to do better in Miami than in IW. He’s 10-9 in the desert, but he has reached the quarters in his last two appearances (’16, ’17).

Nishikori’s draw: The 6th seed has been drawn Lucas Pouille in round 3, Cilic in round 4, Federer in the QF, Nadal in the semis, and Djokovic in the final. It would be some run if he makes it.

An up and comer wins his 1st ATP 1000

Karen Khachanov won the last ATP 1000 of ’18 in Paris and it is always inspiring to have a youngster break through on the big stage especially in this current period of tennis dominated by the vets.

Daniil Medvedev could be the next big hope to win an ATP 1000. Hard courts are his best surface and he’s not afraid of anyone.

Medvedev’s draw: Medvedev has drawn Goffin, Nadal, Isner, Federer and Djokovic.

Rafa Nadal bounces back from his Australian Open final loss.

Nadal has won in IW three times (’07, ’09, ’13).

Nadal’s experience means he can be philosophical about that bruising defeat to Novak Djokovic in this year’s Australian Open final.

But, he won’t want that memory to be the one he goes into the Clay season with and a win in Indian Wells would give his confidence a much needed boost with the figure of Djokovic looming over his Roland Garros hopes.

Nadal’s draw: Nadal has drawn Schwartzman, Medvedev, Isner, Federer and Djokovic.

Roger Federer gets closer to Connor’s record

Federer was impressive in Dubai winning title 100.

Connor’s record of 109 cannot feel too far away. Federer could win titles in places like Stuttgart, Halle and Basel if his big titles days are done.

No one would write off Federer winning another big title, though, and it could happen in Indian Wells considering his run in Dubai and the boost he must be feeling after #RF100.

Federer’s draw: He’s drawn Fucsovics, Fognini, Nishikori, Nadal and Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic Prime part 3 races on

Djokovic has a great record in Indian Wells with 5 titles (’08, ’11, ’14-’16). He’s won it in all his prime periods of play. It’s still early in the season so it will not be a tired Djokovic turning up to this big event at the mercy of an in-form rival. This will be Djokovic 3.0.

Djokovic’s draw: He has drawn Nick Kyrgios, Cecchinato, Thiem, Zverev and Nadal. They’ve all beaten Djokovic in the last couple of years, so on paper it’s a tough draw, but on the Indian Wells hard courts and at this stage of his career, it should be a walk in the nicely manicured gardens of Indian Wells.

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Australian Open Final Novak Djokovic Defeats Rafa Nadal

Djokovic
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Australian Open Men’s Final- Novak Djokovic d. Rafa Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3.

There were a couple of narratives waiting to be told this Australian Open, but Novak Djokovic’s title win means they will have to keep on waiting, and that wait could be a while.

One narrative, the changing of the guard, was dismissed in the semis by Nadal’s defeat of Stefanos Tsitsipas. The re-emergence of Rafa Nadal with his abbreviated serve and first strike approach, was another of the stories tipped to be the headline of the tournament.

The narrative that actually played out, however, was one told many times before- Novak Djokovic winning the Australian Open.

The top seed’s 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 defeat of Rafa Nadal won him his 7th slam down under, his 15th in all (taking him above Pete Sampras), and his third in a row.

The prologue to the tournament opened with Djokovic as the main character with the bookmakers, pundits, and tennis world expecting a Djokovic win.

The top seed did not come in on the best form, losing his last two finals of 2018 to Karen Khachanov (Paris) and Sascha Zverev (WTF) and suffering a defeat to Roberto Bautista Agut in the Doha semis, but he did come in as the member of the Big Three with the most Grand slam momentum, and with the Big Three winning the previous eight slams, it did not look like that would change anytime soon.

Nevertheless, it was not long before the story of Djokovic potentially winning the title faded from the headlines as the top seed did not start the tournament well, beating qualifier Mitchell Krueger as expected in round 1, but then putting in a sub par performance in round two versus Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and round three versus Denis Shapovalov.

All eyes and headlines turned to the generations below Djokovic when Stefanos Tsitspias came along and defeated Roger Federer in the fourth round, the match of the tournament.

The Next Gen and the Next in Line army, it was rumored by many, had arrived to perform a coup– Frances Tiafoe was into the quarters, too, and some of the more recent and lost generations were making noise, as well- Lucas Pouille, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic.

Rafa Nadal was doing his fair share of quelling the rebellion, defeating Alex di Minaur, Frances Tiafoe, and Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets, and the spotlight turned to the Spaniard, lighting him up as a favorite to take the title, as he stood in on the return, dictated with his serve, and controlled points with his forehand down the line.

Meanwhile Djokovic was still in the background, winning his matches in chaotic fashion- the struggle versus Daniil Medvedev, Kei Nishikori’s retirement, Lucas Pouille’s nerves. His habit of saving his best to last questioned, the likelihood of delivering the kind of focused, high level tennis to defeat such an in-form rival as Nadal in the final thought by some to be slim.

Chaos gave way to cohesion in the final, however. Djokovic came out playing with an easy and focused manner, as if he had played every match that way.

The Serb broke the Spaniard early in the first set to set the tone and his own serve was untouchable. The top seed lost just six points on his serve in the first set and had a 71 first serve percentage and 100% conversion rate.

In set 2, Djokovic’s first serve percentage stayed at 71% but his conversion rate dropped to 75, but the serve was still too good, the Serbian not offering Nadal a single break point, and breaking Nadal twice.

Nadal got a glimpse of just one break point, in the third set. The Spaniard was getting more into Djokivic’s service games now, the top seed’s first serve percentage dropping to 68, but his winning percentage was still high at 76% and the second serve was at 83 (84% the entire match).

When Djokovic was not dominating on serve and breaking down the Nadal serve, (he won 42% of receiving points), he was breaking down the second seed’s revamped hard court game.

Nadal’s ground strokes that looked so formidable in the first six rounds now looked ordinary as the second seed was pushed back behind the baseline with depth and consistency and pulled out wide with angles, far away from the baseline where he, Nadal, had been looking so at home, and right where Djokovic wanted him, off balance and on the run.

The Nadal revamped hard court game was now reduced to looking like a naive plan B by a Djokovic who, while Nadal was recovering from injury post US Open, was the most consistent player on the tour, on his day the very best, returning to number 1 in the world rankings and who, in the first Grand slam final of the 2019 season, when it mattered most, was easing into that consistency and greatness in synchronicity, hitting winners (he hit 34 in all), forcing errors and putting pressure on Nadal to conjure up unforced errors, 28 of them.

It’s no myth Novak Djokovic plays his best tennis in finals. He gets there doing what he has to in less than mythical fashion, appearing almost human, careful not to peak, changing into one of his many guises as the different opponents come his way, and then when it matters, he dons his very best outfit- the Grand Slam winning final one: solid, high percentage serving, the best returning in the game, deep and varied ground-strokes, decisive switches between offense and defense, a low unforced error count (he hit nine the entire match), perfect point construction with the right moves up the court and to the net, and the odd element of surprise, a beautiful half volley drop shot in the heart of the third set a reminder of his exceptional talent often shrouded in the efficiency and common sense of his game.

The jewel on the costume, though, is what turns mythical tales of Djokovic in Slam finals since 2014 into cold hard reality for his opponents- the mental toughness and belief, so strong on this day in particular it played a huge part in inflicting on Nadal his first straight sets defeat in his 25 Grand Slam finals.

Djokovic’s championship material narrative may have been placed in the myths and legends category by some parts of the tennis media this Australian Open, but the legend himself always believed his claims to the trophy would end up where it belonged, in the history section.

The Serbian holding the trophy aloft is the final and definitive image of the event and the fading, lingering memory we will take away is his hard court brilliance, delivered when nothing less than brilliance would do, and if we start thinking his final’s day peak play is a myth in future, he’ll be all too ready to turn up on finals day and orate it to us himself.

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Australian Open Men’s Final Preview Novak Djokovic Vs Rafa Nadal

Roland Garros
Photo courtesy of b92.net

Where to begin with these two meeting, for the 53rd time?

Djokovic leads 27-25, but perhaps the most significant number is the 18-7 Djokovic leads in the hard court head to head. But while that stat suggests in this match up Djokovic tends to have the upper hand on hard courts, it’s wise to leave the head to head to the side when considering who will emerge the winner in this their second Australian Open final, the first that classic five setter in 2012.

This unpredictability comes partly because Djokovic’s form has been hard to pin down and partly due to Nadal’s re-emergence as a healthy hard court slam contender.

That Nadal 2.0 restructured hard court game was a necessity after he had to retire during his US Open semi-final ’18 match with a knee injury and skip the rest off the season.

To prolong Nadal’s career and increase his chances of what’s left of it being as successful as possible, Nadal arrived in Melbourne brandishing a tinkered with serve and game.

The abbreviated and very effective serve, designed to protect the ankle he had surgery on in November last year, and the aggressive mindset which features Nadal stepping into the court and finishing points quickly has seen Nadal romp through the draw facing 17 break points and not dropping a set. He’s beaten James Duckworth, Matthew Ebden, Alex di Minaur, Tomas Berdych, Frances Tiafoe and Stefanos Tsitsipas to get there.

That rolecall is not filled with former slam champs and No.1s, but it’s a decent enough list and though none of them really tested him, they were never really allowed to either.

How Novak Djokovic plays this efficient and ruthless Nadal steamrolling his way through the draw like it was played on his beloved clay is one of the two big questions going into this match.

The other one is how Nadal’s new game stands up to its first real test.

Djokovic has not impressed as Nadal has in his run to the final. He’s beaten Mitchell Kreuger, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Denis Shapovalov, Daniil Medvedev, Kei Nishikori (ret, injured) and Lucas Pouille, but other than in his last match, it has been hard to assess his true form, and even versus Pouille, the Frenchman’s nerves and sub par performance still leave us none the wiser as to whether or not Djokovic can hit top gear.

Still, Djokovic can raise his game at accelerated levels and if he’s going to do it, it’ll be in the final, and he’ll need to in order to cope with Nadal on Sunday.

Djokovic won’t be phased by the Nadal serve- he reads the serve better than anyone and he might even enjoy the speedier delivery. However, he also won’t get as many top spin laden second serves as he used to enjoy from Nadal. Still, the Djokovic return is the best in the game and while he may not have an easy time of it with Nadal’s revamped serve, if you raise your serve, Djokovic will raise his return.

Regarding facing Nadal from the baseline, Djokovic will not get away with any short balls in this match so he’ll be on his baseline game early on, hitting deep and with angles, working himself into a rhythm to keep Nadal back and on the run- which is precisely what Nadal’s revamped game is designed to prevent, but that revamp may not be enough versus the player most likely to get you running and keep you running in the game.

In the forehand to backhand cross-court rallies, Djokovic will also be looking to be aggressive and hit winners, but if he’s on the defense, he can be aggressive, too, his movement and reach meaning he has the strength and depth of shot to extend the rallies and lure Nadal into over hitting, and while Nadal is hitting that forehand down the line well, Djokovic will ask the questions of just how well and when.

Which brings us to the second question- how Nadal is going to stand up to the test.

Expect Nadal to be precise and take risks and get his attacking game in form early on.

If he can’t execute his new game, then expect Nadal to go down swinging as well- he knows only too well how his hard court matches end with a Djokovic in form and he won’t want to revert back to those old patterns.

On the serve, the pressure will be on, but this is Nadal. Pressure is his friend. That serve already eases any worries he might have about aggravating his ankle so that’s one thing less to worry about.

If the serve is working well, Nadal can get plenty of points knocking off short returns for winners. That’ll conserve his energy for when things do get extended from the back of the court.

Returning Djokovic’s serve, one thing Nadal will have to go for it on any second returns or if he’s feeling cautious work the point to his forehand and unleash.

In tiebreaks, Nadal’s re-invigorated game will really come into play and he will have the advantage if he’s brave. But Djokovic will step up, too, which is why this match is so highly-anticipated.

Choosing a winner here is next to impossible. It’s made even more so by the faster conditions and the balls, which will slow down and fluff up more in the night time humidity, conditions respectively, factors which favor both players in their own ways- Nadal because it’s all about the speed for him right now and Djokovic because the longer the balls are kept in play, the fluffier they get and the harder it will be for Nadal to hit winners.

What really decides this match is who holds up best mentally on the big points and this rivalry- led 27-25 by Djokovic, 18-7 on hard courts- tends to swing back and forth whenever one or the other makes a big improvement in their game and brings that work into effect when it matters, an improvement usually inspired by the desire to defeat the other one.

We’ve already seen that inspiration this tournament with Djokovic playing his best match yet, defeating Lucas Pouille for the loss of four games, and then revealing his goal was to lose less games than the six Nadal dropped to Tsitsipas.

Yet it’s Nadal who has made the biggest improvements and adjustments to his game in the long-term, and to great effect, which is why I am picking him to win in four sets. (Five, and it’s Djokovic’s).

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Novak Djokovic Vs Lucas Pouille Australian Open Semi-final Preview

Djokovic
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Novak Djokovic (1) Vs Lucas Pouille (28) Australian Open Semi-final Preview.

Pouille and Djokovic, who practice together, have never played each other on the tour, and it’s quite the stage for their competitive introduction.

Djokovic has been to the Australian Open semis 6 times and has never lost at that stage.

Meanwhile, this is 24 year old Pouille’s first ever slam semi. This is Djokovic’s 34th, and he’s won 23 of the 33 he has played.

That kind of experience really only makes a difference when there is a chance in the match up of the underdog winning. A bad match up is a bad match up whatever the stage, but when things could go either way, experience can be a tiebreaker.

There are not that many bad match ups for Djokovic. The only players he does not match up well with are those executing their style at the top of their game- ballstrikers like Wawrinka, all courters like Federer, aggressive baseliners like Nadal, big servers like Isner.

If you had to box the very unique Lucas Pouille, you’d put him in the all court one. There are not many of those around, and it’s interesting that the other surprise semi-finalist this Open is also an all-courter, Stefanos Tsitispas.

Lucas can do everything very well, but he doesn’t excel at any one aspect of his game. On his day, he’s good enough to beat a struggling Nadal at the US Open in a fifth set tiebreaker and reach the quarters in ’16, following up his Wimbledon quarter-final a couple of months before, and he’s good enough to spend 2 weeks in the top ten (at No.10) in late March ’18.

But while Pouille can be very good when on, he can also be very poor, hitting unforced errors after unforced error and lacking focus.

That lack of focus is gone now that Amelie Mauresmo is in his camp. One of the women’s game’s great all court players who conquered her demons to world No.1 and slam winning degree, if anyone can teach you about focus and perspective in a match, it’s Mauresmo.

Pouille, in his post Raonic win interview, talked of not focusing on winning but improving and practicing new things in a match, of staying in the moment. Mauresmo has his ear, and he’s listening.

Djokovic has not exactly been singing this tournament, and we don’t quite know where he is on the scale of six time former champion and the the player who crashed out in the fourth and second round the last two seasons respectively.

So, not only is Pouille playing in new territory stage wise, he also doesn’t quite know who is going to be across the net.

Djokovic will take advantage of both unknowns. He will keep Pouille in the dark from the start, letting Pouille set the tone. If it’s a nervous one, Djokovic will make those nerves even worse. If it’s a hot and quick start, Djokovic will stay with him and then go up a gear on the big points.

That’s when Pouille will need to focus. That’s when he’ll not have to care if he wins or loses but on improving.

And improve he will, for what better training to make you a better competitor and player than facing Novak Djokovic and his many guises on Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open?

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Australian Open Semi-final Men’s Preview Rafa Nadal Vs Stefanos Tsitsipas

Tsitsipas
Photo courtesy of wikipedia commons

Australian Open Men’s Semi final preview Rafa Nadal (2) Vs Stefanos Tsitsipas (14).

Rafa Nadal has returned from his post 2018 US Open injury lay-off with a fine-tuned hard court friendly game and his usual determination and focus, a lethal mix, as his five opponents so far have found out.

The Spaniard, who had to retire mid match in the Australian Open QF and the US Open SF in 2018, has reached another grand slam semi-final, his 30th, and he’s done it without dropping a set.

Not that he’s injury free- that taping on his stomach is unlikely a fashion statement, though he won’t talk about it, saying in his post interview it was just something that happened in the tournament- but all players play with some form of injury concern and how they manage and cope with that often matters more than anything else.

Nadal’s serve is one example of managing an injury. The shortened motion prevents aggravating the ankle he had surgery on. It’s working well for him, too. He’s faced 15 break points in all and been broken just twice, in his first rounder.

He’s also worked on his first shot so he can finish points quicker and preserve his ageing body.

Granted, he’s not faced any one with a return that could be listed in their strengths, and he won’t in his next match either versus Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Tsitsipas has, as it is, more than enough strengths to go round- an intelligent serve, a tremendous forehand and single handed backhand, rare and sharp net skills, to name a few- but none of them can really hurt Nadal enough to keep him out of the match. Nadal is about as complete a player as it gets, and will be coming at Tsitsipas with a great return, depth and speed of shot to keep an opponent back, ground-strokes to better anyone out there and speed and accuracy of passing shot to make any would be volleyer think twice.

Tsitsipas alredy knows just how good Nadal is- they have met twice, last year, with Nadal winning easily in Barcelona and then coming out on top in a more testing encounter in the Toronto final.

Tsistsipas said, after beating Bautista Agut to reach the semi-final, that after that Toronto match:

“I remember coming back to the locker room and promising to myself I’m going to do much better against him next time. It felt like I understood a bit better what he was doing on the court after that match, and especially on hard court.”

And that tactical awareness and experience will no doubt help him out in what will be a consolation of a contest for those hoping to have seen another installment of Fedal, and what will be a fascinating match nonetheless for neutrals.

Tsitsipas is the youngest player in a slam semi since Djokovic in New York ’07. Djokovic went on to reach the final, and if Tsitsipas is going to replicate that achievement and give tennis the youthful injection it’s ageing body is crying out for, he’s going to have to play some inspired grand slam champion like material tennis, because Nadal is the man to beat in slams this past 15 years and anything less than great comes up second best.

This match is not a foregone conclusion, though. We know Tsitsipas can back up big wins, that he can produce a very high standard of tennis to beat the game’s best players one after another, that he can play better on the big points than his opponent whoever they are. He did it in Toronto and he’s done it here by following up the Federer win beating Bautista Agut, and that makes him a rare young player, the trend more often being to have a big win and then flame out.

But, what we don’t know, and what this match can reveal, or begin to, is whether he is one of those uber talented players who win their first slam semi-final early on in their careers and finish runner up like a Moya or Tsonga, or if he is one of those who win their first semi and final and become no.1 and win more slams like a Safin or a Kuerten.

Then there’s that even rarer breed, a Federer, Sampras or Nadal, who win their first semi final and then final and go on to become all time greats.

That’s a journey we’re excited to go on with Tsitsipas- seeing where exactly he is going to land on the spectrum of champs, and if he can clear the next hurdle, Nadal. Just as we’ve enjoyed going along with Nadal for his ride, all the way to the far side of legend. A ride that’s still going, and which, if Nadal keeps it up, may end up being the furthest journey of all.

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