Novak Djokovic Plays his Way Back into Greatest of all Time Debate

Djokovic

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

After a quiet couple of seasons, slam trophy wise, Novak Djokovic came back out the woodwork the second half of 2018 to add to his silverware and in doing so has played his way back into the Greatest of all time debate.

Novak Djokovic’s straight sets US Open 2018 final win over Juan Martin del Potro was the Serbian’s 14th Grand Slam title and his second this season, the other one won at Wimbledon.

Djokovic could not have won his recent US Open any more convincingly than he did, winning his semis and final both in straights, barely putting a foot wrong, and against fine grand slam pedigree, a former finalist, Kei Nishikori (’14), and a former champ in del Potro (’09).

That recent US Open  win was another feat in a sudden rush of achievements for the Serbian. 

Djokovic’s comeback from well documented setbacks the second half of this season has seen him, after his Cincy win, complete the ATP 1000 set of nine titles, the first man to do so, and level Pete Sampras in the all time slam haul list.

The eighth seed also had his fourth multiple slam winning season (Federer has had six, Nadal 4, Sampras 4.). Though, like many stats, how much that reveals, considering the likes of Laver could not compete in slams for five years in their prime, is contentious.

Those achievements, whatever they reveal, have seen Novak Djokovic not just return to the current crop of slam winners, but have also seen him play his way back into the All Time Great conversation.

That conversation, as involving and controversial as it is for some, is one not everyone has time for. After all, comparing different eras is a little orangey and appley when you factor in the different surfaces slams have been competed on (just two in the years Laver won his calendar year slams; the four very different surfaces Sampras played on; the more homogenized era we have now), development in racket and ball technologies (wooden vs graphite; varying bounces and speeds), fluctuating prestige of events over time, (Borg played one Australian Open, in 1974, the slam before he won his first Roland Garros), and the years particular players were able to compete at events such as slams (Laver missed slams from ’63-’67, but won what many coined the Pro Grand Slam in ’67) being just a few of the variables.

However, a couple of elements which are consistent over time in judging the all time greats are winning percentage and who wins the big events, and Novak Djokovic has excelled at both.

In 2018, Novak Djokovic is at 80% for the past 52 weeks, (third after Federer and Nadal), and is third all time, too, at 82.6, behind Borg (1st) and Nadal (2nd). (Federer is 4th). This stat, like all, is as revealing for what it does not say as what it does,  a stat a little skewed with Borg’s early retirement. However, whether or not Djokovic comes first in it or not is not what proves conclusive. What matters is just how high Djokovic is ranked in the list, and what this ranking reveals about his consistency.

Another important factor to consider when delving into the G.O.A.T debate variables is that while the tournaments considered to be prestigious have changed- can anyone imagine Thiem missing the Australian Open the way Borg did?- who wins whatever those events are is still indicative of who the best players of that time are. In today’s game,  the ATP 1000s and slams are the tournaments to win and Novak Djokovic proved at Wimbledon, Cincy and the US Open that he was the man to beat.

The G.O.A.T debate variables keep on coming, too. Increased career longevity has been one factor reshaping the G.O.A.T debate the last few years and is  one crucial factor in the Serbian playing his way back into that debate.

Djokovic has been one of the men to beat, at times the man to beat, at those tournaments to win since 2007 when he first won the Canadian Open and a few months later when he won the Australian Open.

That early Djokovic success began just at the end of Federer’s prime, in late 2007 and early 2008, in what seemed like another in a long line of one of tennis’ most compelling tales: All Time Greats being surpassed by the next in line. Djokovic’s rise also occurred at the same time Nadal transformed from a one surface great to an all court one, no longer just getting in Federer’s way in Paris, but in London and Melbourne, too. That gradual usurping and battle for supremacy has been a long and engaging narrative in tennis, from Lendl and McEnroe being dethroned by Sampras and Agassi, those two Americans then slayed by Federer.

This passing of the tennis racket, though, did not play out like ones of times past, with Federer not going down in his late 20s or early 30s before licking his wounds on the Golf course or commentating on TV like many a great champion before him, but, instead, taking on the role of both the Jesus and the Lazarus of tennis, the player most beloved by the tennis congregation and the player most beloved of pulling off headline making comebacks.

If the general consensus is that Federer is the greatest of all time then Nadal and Djokovic are, only logically, his biggest rivals for that title, and if slams, the current be all and end all for judging greatness, are anything to go by, that would mean Federer is the greatest, Nadal second, and Djokovic third, which reduces the debate to its simplest, and using slams as the ultimate indicator, most modern form.

Who is the greatest cannot just come down to slams though, and cannot be just shaped by the U.S media’s desire to frame Sampras as the greatest when he tied and then surpassed the slam count with Laver. Outside of the slam numbers game, Djokovic has a few stats and achievements which could be seen to compensate for the number’s differences in slams won (Federer, 2o; Nadal, 17; Djokovic, 14). He has head to head winning ratios over his greatest rivals Federer (24-22) and Nadal (27-25), is the only one of the three to have won all four slams in a row, and is the only won to have all the ATP 1000 titles.

Still, as impressive as all these numbers are, we cannot fixate on objective figures, ones which can so neatly put an end to a discussion, not when it comes to a debate of such subjectivity. Look beyond the numbers, instead, and there is plenty going on in the foreground and the background which opens up that debate for some real conversation, namely style and story.

Narrative wise, Djokovic can now compete with Federer and Nadal, having, like them, bounced back from a fall from the top, battling elbow injury and the subsequent shocking and confidence bruising losses suffered on the road back, and what a high road it was the Serb had to get back on.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all come back in inspiring fashion, but Djokovic’s fall- going from winning the Djokiovic slam in the Roland Garros final to losing in the third round of Wimbledon and going through 2017 not making it past the quarters of a slam- was more of a staggering drop from the top than Federer’s(the Swiss’s 2016 injury woes were four years past his last slam triumph) and Nadal’s (his 2014 fall did come off the back of a number 1 winning multiple slam winning year but it still pales, in the brightest colors, compared to Djokovic’s 2015-2016 run).

If the Djokovic comeback story was not compelling enough to give him an edge, then the Djokovic style is sure to pull any lover of baseline tennis or point construction in. The manner in which Djokovic won his most recent slams, winning both finals in straights and playing just the right match each time, breaking down his rival’s strengths and coming through the difficult moments of the match when they found their weapons again, was a return to the style Serbian executed to such great effect in his 2011 and 2015-16 runs. That Djokovic signature style, baseline prowess at its best on the big points, may not be greater than Federer and Nadal’s, but in its execution and effect, is certainly their equal.

So, what does Djokovic have to do to become the Greatest Ever?

First, he needs his rival’s own slam hauls to grind to a halt. Djokovic has already been argued by some scribes to be the greatest ever after his 2015 season and few expected Federer and Nadal to get back to winning slams and hitting the number one spot again pushing Djokovic back down into clear third place in the ruthless process. Now that Djokovic has caught back up a little, few would still bet against Fedal repeating that pulling away feat despite both men’s recent struggling form and injury issues. At the very least, and most optimistic, Nadal has a few Roland Garros titles in him, and, as for Federer, who would dare write off Federer, whatever happened versus Millman in New York?

Djokovic would also need the generations below him to continue struggling on the biggest stages. If Djokovic could carry his confidence over into the next season or two, his mental strength and game style would most likely mean he would be the favorite versus Thiem, Zverev, and Kyrgios, in slam matches, all of whom have failed to build on any significant advances in the major leagues, and all of whom are less likely to if Djokovic continues to make his experience count for him as he embarks on building up his slam count even further.

If Federer stopped his slam counting at 21 and Nadal did so at the same number, then Djokovic, now aged 31 would need 7 to tie them. He could get those titles, playing another five years, and would need ‘only’ two multi slam winning seasons to do it. Safe to say, the slower conditions of the US Open hard courts could be where Djokovic picks up another two slams, Wimbledon another two, Roland Garros another title, the Australian Open, another title.

It’s quite a stretch, there is no denying that, but, then again, who is better on the stretch than Djokovic? Even if he does not quite get there, slam tally wise, there would be plenty of arguments in Djokovic’s favor as to his Greatest Ever status, and in an argument which, unlike Grand slam finals, can never  be won, it’s all about how you play the game, and, in tennis history, what is not up for debate is that Novak Djokovic has done that as well as anyone.

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US Open Men’s Singles Final Preview Juan Martin del Potro Vs Novak Djokovic

Photo courtesy of wikipedia commons.

The US Open final is set and it’s a good one- Juan Martin del Potro (3) versus Novak Djokovic (6). So, the big question- Who Will Win?

What’s at stake: For Novak Djokovic, a 14th slam title, tying Pete Sampras, and a 3rd US Open title (previously won 2011, 2015).

For Juan Martin del Potro, a 2nd slam title, his 1st coming in 2009 at the US Open when he was just, in his own words,  ‘a kid’.

Favors: del Potro. The Argentine has nothing to lose here. An extra slam on his resume would be a worthy addition, and he would join the likes of Yvgeny Kafelnikov, Sergi Bruguera, Pat Rafter, Lleyton Hewitt, and Marat Safin as two time slam winners, but win or lose, this is his first slam final for nearly ten years and a step forward in his career.

del Potro is also a big match player. Djokovic is, too, and arguably the greater of the two considering their respective resumes. However, when del Potro plays a big match, he turns up to play, while the same cannot always be said for Djokovic who has been a little flat in some big matches.

However, Djokovic is unlikely to be anything less than fully pumped up this US Open final after writing himself back into the all time great narrative at Wimbledon, and 14 slams would not only tie him with the great Pete Sampras, but also leave cut his haul deficit to four behind Nadal and seven behind Federer.

That pressure to tie and close in on his all time Great rivals might tell on Djokovic if del Potro comes out swinging and finding his mark, and the Serbian is prone to letting pressure get to him in slam finals. (He’s won 13, but also lost 9 times and is 2-5 in New York, the event at which he has lost the most slam finals.)

Path to the final: Novak Djokovic has beaten Martin Fucsovics (4 sets), Tennys Sandgren (4 sets), and then defeated Richard Gasquet, Joao Sousa, John Millman, and Kei Nishikori, and all in straight sets.

Juan Martin del Potro did not drop a set on his way to the quarters, beating Donald Young, Denis Kudla, Fernando Verdasco, and Borna Coric, before beating John Isner in four sets and then defeating Rafa Nadal 7-6, 6-2, ret.

Favors: del Potro. He’s had arguably the tougher route to the final and the first set versus Nadal in which he dropped serve when serving for it at 5-4 and then managed to pull himself together and take the tiebreak was as tough as any period of play Djokovic has encountered bar the Serb’s struggle with Fucsovics in round 1.

Surface: The US Open courts have been slowed down this year, according to the tournament director.

Favors: Djokovic. The slower the hard court, the better.

Conditions: Both men have had to play in some of the, reportedly, toughest conditions of the Open era, though Naomi Osaka pointed out it was not too hot for her as she trained in Florida, and both men have had great success playing in hot humid conditions in years past.

On Sunday afternoon, 4 pm, the weather in New York is forecast as 19 degrees with showers, which would mean the final would be contested under the roof.

Favors: Djokovic. But not by much. del Potro is also a handy player indoors and has even more margin for error on his forehand side.

Head to head: Djokovic leads del Potro 14-4 and has never lost to him in a slam (leads 4-0, 2-0 at US Open). On outdoor hard courts, Djokovic leads 7-2. On indoor hard, Djokovic leads 3-1.

del Potro’s wins have come on outdoor hard in Rio (16) and Indian Wells (’13),  on grass at the 2012 Olympics, and on indoor hard in the 2011 Davis Cup SF (won 7-6, 3-0).

Favors: Djokovic.

The match up: Aggressive defensive baseliner (Djokovic) Vs Aggressive baseliner (del Potro).

del Potro has his serve and forehand which can help him get short balls from Djokovic and hit winners.

Meanwhile, Djokovic has the return to break the del Potro serve, the point construction and speed to move del Potro around, force errors of the forehand and thus unravel his strength, and break down the weaker backhand side.

In this match up, del Potro has to serve in the mid to high 70s, go for his shots, and be firing on the forehand if he is to have a chance of winning.

Favors: Djokovic.

Form: del Potro was cruising through the draw until Isner engaged him in a real contest and played effective and aggressive tennis under a lot of pressure in the tiebreak versus Nadal in the semis.

Most encouragingly for del Potro is that the Argentine has been hitting his double handed backhand a lot more aggressively than of late, making that side no longer a much exploitable one, a factor which is, alongside his return to good physical health, perhaps the key to his reappearance in a slam final.

Djokovic has been playing some very nice tennis, particularly versus Gasquet and Nishikori. The Serbian has been serving particularly well, too, and is playing with great rhythm.

Favors: Djokovic. He has won 11 matches in a row and was in his element versus Nishikori.

Fans: Tennis darlings don’t get much bigger than del Potro and there will not just be the Tandil army out to support him, but many of New York’s Argentinian residents and his legion of fans.

Djokovic will also get plenty of support from Serbian locals and his fans, however neutrals are more likely to be cheering for del Potro considering his well documented struggles with wrist injuries and his easy natural charm.

Favors: del Potro. The US Open is one of the noisiest venues on the pro tennis circuit and it will get a lot noisier when del Potro hits a winner or has break or set point. Djokovic has, however, seen it all before, such as versus Roger Federer in the 2015 final, and come out on the other side the champion.

Prediction: The current US Open conditions and surface are where Djokovic thrives and he is coming off a Wimbledon and a Cincy win. As much as sports entertainment would be better served by a del Potro win, the nitty gritty of tennis, the match ups and favorable conditions, means Djokovic most likely has this in five sets.

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US Open Preview Rafa Nadal Favorite to Defend Hard Court Slam for 1st Time

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia commons.

Rafa Nadal, the top seed, goes into the US Open as the favorite after the draw was made, and if he wins, it will be the first time he will have defended a hard court slam. The Tennis review looks at one of the rare weaknesses in the Nadal resume and his chances of righting it this US Open.

In a career in which Rafa Nadal has won 17 slams, 10 titles at the one slam, 33 ATP 1000s, and the Career Grand slam, there seems very little left for him to achieve.

But there is one milestone, a feat that has itself been the peaks of great careers, such as Pat Rafter who won back to back US Opens in 1997-98, which the Spaniard has still to do – defending a hard court slam.

That gap in Nadal’s resume is one of the few weaknesses his detractors in any Greatest Of All Time debates throw into the ring when that debate starts getting down to the particulars.

Nadal has won back to back titles at slams and to historic effect, winning Roland Garros from ’05-‘8 ,’10-’13 and ’17–’18, and that back to back slam slam winning ability has meant he has the record for most slams won at any single event, that feat in itself one of his prime claims to all time greatness.

But, Nadal has not gone back to back at two different slams, and that inability to do so makes him stand out when compared to his all time great rivals, and stand out for all the wrong reasons.

Federer has gone back to back at three slams, (US Open, Wimbledon, Australian Open), Sampras at two, (Wimbledon and US Open) and Djokovic at two (Australian Open and Wimbledon), Borg at two (Roland Garros, Wimbledon).

Going back to back at two different slams played on two different surfaces suggests a greater versatility than your competitors, and in the current climate of the professional game, in which Grand Slams are the be-all-and -end-all achievement wise, who has gone back to back, where and how often can really make the difference when it comes to deciding who is greater than whom.

Not only is defending a slam a current mark of greatness, hard courts matter because that is where half the slams and most ATP events are played, and when it comes to hard court slam tennis, Nadal is already a step behind his fellow legends.

Federer, Djokovic, and Sampras have the more impressive credentials with both number of titles won (Sampras has 7, Djokovic 8, Federer 11) , and back to back wins.

Federer won five US Opens back to back (2004-2008), and won the Australian Open back to back in ’06 and ’07, and ’17 and ’18.

Djokovic won the Australian Open three times in a row (’11-’13 )and then defended his 2015 title.

Sampras won the US Open ’95-96.

Even if Nadal does defend in New York, he will still lag behind those rivals hard court wise, but that one, and potentially imminent, back to back hard court slam achievement would boost his already all time great career resume even further.

This upcoming US Open title defense is arguably Nadal’s best ever shot at achieving that elusive hard court slam back to back win. Nadal was already one of the favorites for this US Open men’s title after winning in Toronto, beating two former US Open champs in Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic on the way to the title, but now that the draw has been made,  the top seed has reaped the benefits such a position gives him and is now the favorite to lift the trophy.

Nadal’s projected draw is:

1st round: David Ferrer. This is Ferrer’s last US Open, and should be a routine win for Nadal. Ferrer does have a US Open win over Nadal, back in 2007 so this opener to what would be a historic run for Nadal adds a nice touch to that narrative should it unfold in Nadal’s favor.

2nd: Vasek Pospisil/Lukas Lacko. Both of these players are at their best on hard courts, but neither are especially skilled at dealing with Nadal’s heavy top spin, and neither pose any weapons that can really hurt the top seed.

3rd: Karen Khachanov (27)  Khachanov’s hard hitting won’t worry Nadal who will keep the ball out of Khachanov’s strike zone, and once the Russian starts overhitting, Nadal will pile on the pressure and possibly send any Khachanov dips into total freefall.

4th: Kyle Edmund (16)/Jack Sock (18). Edmund is the scheduled seed, but Sock has a good chance of making it to the round of 16 in this section of the draw. Both Edmund and Sock have strong forehands, and could really cause concern for Nadal in cross-court Edmund/Sock forehand to Nadal backhand exchanges, but Nadal knows how to pick an opponent’s backhand side and execute his down the line forehand with impact, and he will be ready to do so on the big points.

QF: Kevin Anderson (8). Anderson beat a favorite at Wimbledon in the quarters this season, and his best bet of beating Nadal would be earlier in the tournament rather than later, however Nadal has too much all round game for Anderson over a five set contest.

SF: Juan Martin del Potro (3). By the time del Potro has made it this far, he may be too spent to really give Nadal much of a match for more than two sets.

Stan Wawrinka could end up sneaking through this section of the draw, though, and while he would not have a great shot at beating Nadal, he might be the player who could test Nadal’s fitness the greatest and leave the top seed’s chances of defending a hard court slam for the first time a little slimmer than they might otherwise have been.

F: Federer (2).  Federer does have the upper hand over Nadal on hard courts in recent years (5-0 since Basel ’15), and most notably last season when he went 4-0, but Federer’s ground game has been unimpressive this season and who better to exploit that than Rafa Nadal?

Djokovic (6). Wimbledon champion Djokovic may be winning slams and ATP 1000s again, and he’s probably the player Nadal would least want to play in as big a contest as the US Open final, but Nadal would still be my pick if these two make the final, the amount of spin he can generate consistently and with aggression giving him the edge.

Cilic (7). The perfect final for Nadal. If the inconsistent but in form Cilic makes the final, Nadal will be the heavy favorite.

Defending a hard court slam has been a milestone too far for Nadal so far in his career. In 2010 in Melbourne he had to retire injured in his Quarter-final. In New York 2011, in the final, he had to face Djokovic and his down the line backhand in top form. In 2014, he was beset by injuries and did not play. This year, though, Nadal seems to be on the verge of adding an extra boost to his resume as he defends his title coming in on the back of winning his first ATP 1000 on hard since Cincy ’13, taking a precautionary rest by skipping Cincinnati, and having as good a draw as he could have hoped for.

 

 

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Wimbledon 2018 Review The Whole Greater than the Sum of the Parts

Djokovic Wimbledon

Photo courtesy of http://trendsindia.net

Novak Djokovic’s Wimbledon 2018 final 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 victory over 8th seeded Kevin Anderson, as impressive as it was in its showcase of the victor’s persistence, passion and champion’s mentality, will not go down in the all time top 100 slam finals list, but the tournament, as a whole, will likely go down in history as one of the greatest slams of recent times. 

Casual fans, or one off viewers of the 2018 Wimbledon final, had they just watched that one match of the total 127 played in the men’s draw, may have switched off mid second set, if not earlier considering the ease with which Novak Djokovic was predicted to win and how early in the match those predictions seemed to have been prudently cast, Those viewers may have then decided never again to set eyes on a Wimbledon final.

For those viewers new, or relatively so, to tennis who watched the championship match until the bittersweet end, (the bitter the overall quality of the contest, the sweet Anderson’s rallying end and Djokovic’s comeback sealed),, they may have decided to not skip next year’s entirely, to perhaps, instead, just tune in at around 3:30pm, in time for the start of the third.

That is not how it works for the well slam versed tennis fans, though. There’s no giving up when the parts of a slam get a little shaky for us. Too often we have seen ‘dud’ finals and sat through them to the bitter end, but had the edge of our brief disappointment taken off by the lingering afterglow of the thrills that came before, our reward enjoying the victor both lift the trophy and live the dream of grand slam glory.

Plenty of thrills came before this year’s final, too. 11 hours 51 minutes of it, in the semis. John Isner and Kevin Anderson going all the way, 26-24 in the fifth, in 6 hours 36 mins; Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic going 5 hours 15 over two days. The last time men’s tennis had such competitive semis was the Australian Open 2017, though the Australian Open 2012 was perhaps the last time a slam’s semis were as comparably outstanding, when Nadal defeated Federer in four and Djokovic defeated Murray in five. This slam semis day may not have had the overall gravity of that Melbourne pair, depth wise, but it bested it for Will they-won’t they (hold serve, finally break, collapse, beat the all time slam length record) drama and How on earth do they do that? gasps, let alone surpassing that Ozzie duet for post match subject matter, both semis sparking debates ranging from the somewhat mundane now hotly contested in and outs of sporting event’s contracts with local authorities regarding closing time all the way to the more complex reform of long held conditions of the game (tiebreak in fifth sets at SW19 in 2019 anyone?).

The call to bring in fifth set tiebreaks was part knee jerk reaction, part sound reasoning, and the record breaking semis were, at least, partly to blame for the lack of intensity in the first two sets of the final. Such intensity was needed if the match was going to end the tournament on a high. Anderson needed to be pumped from the first ball, while Djokovic could afford to be calm, this being his 22nd slam final to Anderson’s 2nd, the Serbian having earned the right to wait to go up a gear or two until Anderson bought it to him, and/or until the 12th seeded Serbian got closer to the finishing line of sets and the match, whichever came first. Anderson, though,  could not bring any such intensity. The second time slam finalist , with two appearances on his resume for the past 12 months, was, after that grueling semi-final, dead on arrival, and Djokovic, who had not seen a slam final Sunday in over two years, took his cue to come back to life.

Djokovic had resurrected himself, somewha,t already in the semis versus Nadal, showing us he could beat one of his great rivals on the slam stage again and it was his biggest win since beating Murray in the 2016 Roland Garros final. That Nadal semi win was the win of Djokovic’s comeback from injury. Nadal was playing close to some of his best grass court tennis, but Djokovic stayed with him deep into the fifth, the indoor conditions too good a sign his time had once again come, and that, added to the 12th seed just needing the win that little bit more, that potion of luck and desire, in a game of small margins, made the difference.

There is back, however, and then there is back, and Djokovic could not be said to have returned to his old self until he was winning Slams again, so the Wimbledon final victory proved to be the final nail in the comeback, the achievement, after two years of sitting on the slam final sidelines, at times relegated to the back benches, losing the big ones he did play, but more often not even putting himself into a position to contest them.

Anderson, meanwhile, had just played the two matches of his 11 year career back to back and a third one, the Wimbledon championship match, while potentially poetically his, was, in the record book scheme of things, with Djokovic across the net, most likely one match too far.

For the South African, the most significant of those two career wins was versus Isner, the most remarkable versus Federer. That last eight match in which Anderson saved a match point and came back from two sets to love down to defeat the defending champion in a season the Swiss was partly ranked No.1 and which he had, after Indian Wells, structured with a view to winning an 8th title in SW19 was quite the shock even in as upset ridden a tournament as Wimbledon ’18. That match was an upset to remember for neutrals, and, a match, which, when paired with the five set Nadal win over del Potro, made the quarters one to remember. The tournament needed it, too, after a less than stellar round of 16 in which none of the matches went to five, and half were over in straights, a Monday more sedate than manic. The last sixteen, however, had been led into by the drama of Gulbis Vs Zverev and  Khachanov Vs Tiafoe in round 3, the shocking collapse of a seemingly strident Cilic to Guido Pella in round 2, Fritz’s remarkable composure for two sets versus Zverev in that same round, and the score of competitive contests in the first couple of rounds of the Championships.

That’s how slams roll, though. Ups and downs all the way, and you never really know what you are going to get- Nadal Vs Anderson in the US Open ’17 or Coria Vs Gaudio in the French Open ’04 final to name two ends of a wondrous and at times woeful spectrum. Seeing where a slam final lands or crashes on that spectrum is why those fans who suffered this year’s Wimbledon finale will sit through every slam final, to see if Anderson’s late rally in the third could be that Gaudio moment.

And who would have wanted to miss that?

Not those who had been following the 126 prior matches this Wimbledon, and who knew the narrative so far. Nor even those who anticipated the final was more coda than climax, but had their minds open to the idea that the match, once in motion, could change direction any ball before game, set, and match was called. After sitting through two semis as torturous for one proponent of one style as they were beautiful the other, and an indulgence for lovers of both, those fans had seen the protagonists develop over the fortnight, had anticipated where the arcs would curve, knew how gracefully Anderson had taken his semi-final victory, how much the journey meant to him, and they also knew how, after two tumultuous years, Djokovic really was Grand-Slam-Winning-Grass-eatingly back. Those fans knew that the record books would show that Djokovic won his 13th slam and Anderson went 0-2 in finals, but they also knew that was not the whole story. That whole story was told in the matches before, in the interviews, the reports and the forums. A story more than the sum of its parts. A story, whatever the score, well worth watching all the way to the end.

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Roland Garros 2018 The High and Lows

 

nadal roland garros

Photo courtesy of www.samaa.tv

Roland Garros 2018 served up a record 11th title for Rafa Nadal, a nice run from a much derided young gun, and an amusing and to the point outburst from Schwartzman. But while there were some entertaining highs, there were some lows, too- the predictability, the final, and the lack of hi-tech facilities. The Tennis Review takes you along the rollar coaster that was the French Open ’18.

Highs

Excellence pursued, pursuit excelled.

Nadal is no longer in pursuit of excellence. he has attained it. Everything else he achieves at Roland Garros from here on is a bonus, be it 12 titles, 13, 14, no one is going to close in on his record at a single slam whatever the number from 11 onward.

As it stands, he has already distanced himself from past mass slam accumulators in the Open era- Bjorn Borg won six Roland Garros titles (74-75, 78-81), Pete Sampras 6 at Wimbledon (93-95, 97-00), Roger Federer 7 at Wimbledon (04-07, 09, 12, 17).

One factor most likely to leave Nadal standing alone at the top is that the Spaniard got into slam trophy collecting early, winning his first title aged 18, a feat today’s 18 year olds are far away from achieving, the end of the first week at a slam the best they can hope for.

Nadal has another time factor in his favor, too. Back when players did win slams in their teens on a regular basis, their careers ended in their late 20s at best, and if they were playing into their 30s they were shadowy figures disappearing in first rounds. Nadal, now 32 and No.1 in the world and holder of two slam titles, is, however, a new breed of slam champion and has carried on winning into his prime and into his second prime, revitalizing his career with the latest technology, science, and playing conditions, to win into his early 30s, and there is little to suggest he won’t be biting into that Roland Garros trophy for seasons to come.

This Roland Garros may have the best time for Nadal’s opponents to halt the top seed in his record-making tracks. This season, Nadal looked more vulnerable than in previous championship form seasons. particularly in the Rome final. However, his Roland Garros draw was a good one for the defending champion featuring few players capable of exploiting his patchy form over the course of a five set match,  and after a rocky start versus Simone Bolelli, in which the Italian threatened to out hit the Spaniard, one of the only ways to beat him in Paris, the Spaniard survived, lack of light helping him by giving him a night to think matters over, and the next day Nadal defeated Bolelli and cruised through the draw, beating Guido Pella, Richard Gasquet, and Maximilian Marterer until the last eight when that cruise got a little choppy and Diego Schwartzman took a set and led by a break in the second.

The same rainy damp conditions which helped the Argentine hit the ball with a heavy hand also turned out to help Nadal when rain sent them off court until the next day when the defending champion came back and won the next three sets with ease, Nadal, arguably the game’s quickest problem solver over the course of a match more than capable of getting to the root of his issues versus Schwartzman with a night to sleep on it.

Nadal’s semi-final versus Juan Martin del Potro was straightforward, too, when, after saving six break points in the first set, the Spaniard went on to dominate the match and reach his 11th Roland Garros final.

High hopes for the final versus Dominic Thiem were dashed after a competitive first set, the Austrian struggling on his serve and going down a break early in the second and third sets and never able to steady himself and get into the match against the game’s best front runner. Even Nadal’s cramping hand could not come to Thiem’s rescue, the Austrian overwhelmed by then and unable and lacking the big match experience, the feel for the occasion so absorbed into Nadal, to keep Nadal on court and take advantage of the tennis scoring system.

Those Nadal hands were healed in quick time, ready to lift the trophy for the 11th time.

Zverev’s run to the quarters

Zverev had been pestered with the question of when he was going to start producing at slams ever since he won his 1st ATP 1000 title in Rome, and the more trophies he won, the more bothersome the questions became.

As the second seed in Roland Garros, after a strong clay lead-in, Zverev had even more pressure on him than usual to perform.

In his second, third, and fourth roud match it looked like he would have to swat those questions of when, when, when, away once again with his typical answer that he was only 21 and had time on his side. In each match Zverev fell behind, 2 sets to one versus Dusan Lajovic and Damir Dzumhur and 2 sets to love versus Karen Khachanov, and, in each contest, Zverev made the most of the extra time five sets gave him as he fought back, scrambling  into the quarters where he had little to give versus Dominic Thiem, going down in straights.

Likely to be seeded three and fourth at the remaining slams of the season, the next question is when is Zverev  going to reach the semis? His inconsistency means that when that might exactly be is a touch unpredictable, but when it happens it will probably be, as his answer to his critics was at Roland Garros,  loud, crazy, and divisive sports entertainment of the highest order.

Diego Schwartzman’s outburst

The trend, or hard to give up habit now, of fist-pumping winners, or your opponent’s errors, and letting out an accompanying shout of “Come on” is a controversial one.

We know which side of the fence Diego Schwartzman sits on in this debate after his outburst to the umpire on a change of ends in his last sixteen match versus Kevin Anderson.

Trailing two sets to love,. Schwartzman took his frustrations out verbally, perhaps being a little too candid for his opponent who was in earshot. But venting his fury served Schwartzman well- he won the match, saving match points,  and he went on to become the only player to win a set off Nadal.

The Lows

One man’s continued excellence is another man’s never-ending predictability.

As much a legend as Nadal is, and while it is a pleasure to witness his excellence on the surface, the lack of competition made the tournament a hard watch for neutrals.

The final- more of a final blow than a grand finale.

Much was expected of Dominic Thiem in the final and his failure to deliver did not go unmentioned out loud when Ken Rosewall said, when asked his thoughts on the match in the pre-ceremony chatter, that Thiem had “disappointed”.

Thiem blushed. Anyone watching did, too.

2018 and Roland Garros, in the city of lights, is still without them. Next year will be lit, though, and there will be rooves, too.

Let’s not end this review on a low note, though. Let’s remember instead the wonderful spectacle that was:

The best match of Roland Garros 2018:

Marco Cecchinato vs Novak Djokovic. Cecchinato won 6-3, 7-6 (4), 1-6, 7-6 (11)

An old champ on the road back, driven by his hunt for glories past, a player with a past seeking to make a good name playing inspiring tennis, the kind it takes to romance the Parisians, a tiebreak of the most dramatic order, in an at times lackluster tournament, this quarter-final rewarded those who stay tuned by taking us to the rare heights tennis can take us.

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Wimbledon 2018 Men’s Final Preview Kevin Anderson Vs Novak Djokovic

Wimbledon

Photo courtesy of wiki commons.

Novak Djokovic (12) and Kevin Anderson (8) have given everything they could possibly give to put themselves in a position to contest this year’s Wimbledon final, but both men will need to give, as daunting as that must seem, even more on Sunday if they want to win the title. The Tennis Review takes a look at the factors each man has going in his favor and predicts the winner. 

In Novak Djokovic’s favor

This is Djokovic, three time Wimbledon Champion.

Novak knows exactly what it feels like to win a Wimbledon trophy. He won the title in 2011, 2014, and 2015, and he beat Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, twice, to do it.

He has a nice head to head lead over Anderson.

Though Djokovic struggles more with big serving than he does with other strengths, he has a 5-1 head to head lead over Anderson.

Their closest match was at Wimbledon in 2015, a match suspended because of fading light, which took 2 days to complete and in which Djokovic trailed 0-2 in sets and came back to win.

Head to heads mean little in matches like Grand Slam finals however, and Anderson has much improved the past couple of seasons. Nevertheless, the head to head does suggest that Djokovic may have a little too much game for Anderson.

Djokovic is playing his best tennis since Summer 2016.

Djokovic is coming into the final off a win over world No.1 Rafa Nadal in the semis, his best win for some time.

Nadal is not the grass courter he once was- this year’s semi was his first trip there since 2011-but he was playing some great tennis, especially around the net, and Djokovic’s 10-8 fifth set victory over him means his mental toughness, his focus and belief, is where it needs to be going into his 22nd slam final.

Anderson is coming into the final on the back of playing the second longest match in Grand Slam history (6 hours 36 minutes)

Anderson did not have to do too much running, nowhere near as much as Djokovic did in his semi-final, the 11th longest of all time (5 hours 15 minutes), but the mental toughness he had to execute, serving second in the deciding set in both that semi-final and his 13-11 fifth setter  quarter-final versus Roger Federer must have left him pretty spent.

In Kevin Anderson’s favor

He has been to a slam final before.

Anderson reached the US Open ’17 final where he lost to Rafa Nadal.

His run to that final, through the bottom half of the draw ripped to shreds by 2nd seed Andy Murray’s last minute withdrawal, was less stellar than his run to this Wimbledon final (Aragone, Gulbis, Coric, Lorenzi, Querrey, Busta compared to Gombos-Seppi-Kohlschreiber-Monfils-Federer-Isner) and he matches up better to his final opponent Djokovic than he did to his US Open conqueror Nadal who defeated a nervous and flat Anderson in straights.

So, going into his 2nd slam final, Anderson should be feeling confident, inspired and more able to handle slam final nerves, and, as a result, give a performance worthy of his skills and hard work, which, when you have his serve and work ethic, should be quite something.

His serve .

Anderson’s serve has never been tested to this extent as it has this Wimbledon and you would have to give him an A star for his performance.

His serve has held up to about as much pressure as anyone could put it under and if he finds himself in a fifth set in the final and serving second he should be anything but fazed, and if he’s serving first, well no one is going to say he does not deserve a little luck.

Anderson will of course need his serve to negate the returning strengths of Djokovic who has a good habit of breaking back immediately after being broken, but Anderson’s serve is going to be harder to break than anyone else Djokovic has faced in the draw and he may find good habits die easy on the Wimbledon lawns.

His opponent has just come off his biggest win in nearly two years.

Djokovic used to play, and win, the kind of matches he played in his semi every other slam, but it’s been since 2016’s US Open since he made a slam final and until the Nadal win he had not won a five set slam match versus a big rival since beating Murray in the French Open final.

Djokovic says he had to overcome all sorts of doubts to defeat Nadal and that he would have liked a day to recover so there is a chance that kind of mental toil might lead to a little letdown in the final which could open a door for Anderson early on, but a door the 8th seed will need to shut pretty quickly.

Prediction: Djokovic will be contesting his 22nd slam final, Anderson his 2nd. Djokovic is 12-9 in finals and it is very much up in the air which slam final Djokovic we are going to get in the final. Still, Anderson is even more of an unknown quantity and if the 2017 US Open final version turns up, Djokovic should win in straights.

This final will be played on a new day though and that is what tennis matches come down to- how the players compete on the day.

Going on form coming into the final, both men are pretty even. Going on the match up, both men have a shot to negate their opponent’s strength. Going on how much either have left to give, both are pretty spent from their semis and will need to hope that the final itself, the atmosphere, the occasion, will give them that extra boost of adrenaline needed.

So, who has the edge? That has to go to Djokovic. Running on empty versus a tough opponent in a high pressure match is what he knows and with a 13th slam a match away against an opponent he has beaten before in a tough match at SW19 that knowledge should be what gives him the power to win the final and biggest point.

 

 

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Wimbledon Week 2 Preview Anyone else for del Potro for the title?

Wimbledon

Photo courtesy of flickr.com

After  a week of upsets which made a mockery of my predictions, here is my preview of  week 2 of the 2018 Men’s Singles Wimbledon Championships.

Week 1 had plenty of upsets- check out some of the seeds who were knocked out:

First quarter

16th seed and Halle Champ Borna Coric (lost to Dannii Medvedev in round 1)

Second quarter

3. Marin Cilic (lost to Guido Pella in round 2)

6th seed Grigor Dimitrov (lost to Stan Wawrinka in round 1)

Third quarter

7th seed Dominic Thiem (retired two sets to love down versus Marcos Baghdatis in round 1)

4th seed Sascha Zverve (lost to Ernests Gulbis in round 3)

15th seed Nick Krygios (lost to 24th seed Kei Nishikori in round 3).

The fourth quarter has been the least damaged with Rafa Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, and Novak Djokovic all still in the event.

Cilic was probably the only real title contender in that mix, but the absence of many of those other big names will have made the lives of some in the draw a little easier.

The last 16 now looks like this:

Federer Vs Mannarino

Monfils Vs Anderson

McDonald Vs Raonic

Isner Vs Tsitsipas

Khachanov Vs Djokovic

Nishikori Vs Gulbis

del Potro Vs Simon

Vesely Vs Nadal

Federer’s draw got a lot easier after the first week.

Coric and Cilic’s losses have made Federer’s path to the final certainly a lot easier. The Swiss has barely been breaking a sweat as it is and has made it to the second week without dropping a set, but he has had a nice draw, facing Dusan Lajovic, Lukas Lacko and Jan Lennard Struff all of whom he matches up well with.

Federer’s big weakness, his ground game, may be tested a little more by Adrian Mannarino, and if he meets Gael Monfils in the quarters, he will certainly be tested out in that regard, but he should come through as Federer is playing good tennis, Mannarino is inexperienced at this level and Monfils is not exactly famed for the kind of focus he would need to defeat Federer at SW19.

In the semis, Federer could face Milos Raonic, but that match up works well for him (Federer leads 11-3) and Raonic would need to be having an excellent day to defeat him or Federer having an off day, which is possible considering his age and that he has not really been challenged this tournament.

Isner, McDonald or Tsitsipas would also be unlikely to upset Federer, Isner perhaps able to take a set, so more than likely Roger Federer is going through to the 2018 Wimbledon final.

Who is Federer’s likely final opponent?

Rafa Nadal has been playing some patchy tennis but is into the second week and has a nice draw with Jiri Vesely in round 4, but the quarters is about as far as Nadal should be going this Wimbledon.

del Potro has been playing well and has yet to drop a set, beating Lopez and Paire in the last couple of rounds, and is likely to take Nadal out in the quarters. del Potro just has too much firepower and lives for the big matches. He also has a score to settle after Paris and will not want to miss this chance.

In the semis, del Potro could face Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori, or Ernests Gulbis, and would be favored to win against any of them on the basis of his recent big match form- del Potro is the Indian Wells Champ and is coming off a Roland Garros semis appearance and so he seems to have the winning feeling of late, and that confidence could make the difference against opponents who will push him, have not been consistent enough of late to push del Potro quite far enough.

Novak Djokovic seems the most capable of defeating del Potro and the three time champion is having an impressive return to second week Slam form, however del Potro is going to have the support of the Center court crowd and Djokovic is still not quite where he needs to be to beat del Potro in a slam semi, which is Rafa Nadal US Open and Roland Garros Champion standard.

Still, if Djokovic is going to get back to that level, a semi versus del Potro could be the match which elevates him, but for now, going on the first week and recent history, del Potro seems the player most likely to reach the final.

Who is going to win the final?

If Federer were to be facing anyone else in the draw in the final, I would say he would win, but if he faces del Potro, who has the serve, the second shot, and the back court game to win on a slower center court deep in week 2, as well as the mental strength and smart tactics to defeat Federer in important and close matches, then I have to pick del Potro as a very worthy and popular winner.

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Wimbledon 2018 Men’s Tennis Preview

Wimbledon

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Men’s tennis’ finest will be competing for the prestigious Wimbledon trophy over the next two weeks, but who are the favorites? The Tennis Review looks at the main contenders for the 2018 Gentlemen’s singles trophy.

The Favorites

Marin Cilic, runner up 2017

Putting Marin Cilic at the top of this list seems only the sensible thing to do after his recent Queens win in which he defeated Novak Djokovic after saving championship point.

Cilic trailed Djokovic 1-14 in their head to head going into that match and is as infamous for his mental issues as he is famous for his big serve and groundies. Beating Djokovic the way he did was an encouraging sign that Cilic is improving in his weakest department.

Cilic has been improving in general since winning the US Open ’14. The Croatian may not have replicated that slam win, but he has become more consistent and has won an ATP 1000, an ATP 500, reached two more slam finals, and climbed to No.3 in the world.

Prediction: Champion. Cilic plays his best tennis in slams and over five sets and is looking the most in form on Grass this season.

Roger Federer, Champion, 03-07, 09, 12, 17

Federer has once again built his season around Wimbledon, but in his most recent Grass court outing, losing to Borna Coric in the Halle final, his foundations looked anything but ready for a slam battle.

Federer could of course regroup in time for the Championships, but he won’t go into the tournament as the absolute favorite like he did last season and his recent loss will give his opponents some hope they can end his SW19 reign.

Prediction: Last 16. Federer has drawn his Halle conqueror Borna Coric in the last 16 and will need to be on his game if he is going to avoid being pinned to the baseline and forced into fatal error after fatal error.

Borna Coric, second round, ’15

Coric was 2-6 on Grass before he won Halle, beating Sascha Zverev and Roger Federer en route to the title. That Grass title run was a watershed moment for the 21 year old who has been improving steadily and seems to have garnered the necessary experience and confidence to win big matches.

Coric is the 16th seed after Roberto Bautista Agut’s withdrawal and the draw has landed him right in the way of a last 16 contest with Federer.

Prediction: Semi-final. The mentally toughest of the Next Gen and with the depth of shot and aggression to outgun the other baseliners in his section and keep his more aggressive opponents at the back of the court and reliant on their weakest shots, making them most uncomfortable in the process.

Novak Djokovic, Champion ’11, ’14-15

Djokovic seems to have steadied his season with his recent Queens final appearance, a title he was a match point away from winning.

Prediction: Quarters. Djokovic has had a great draw and will take advantage of it. He showed in Paris and Queens he means business in tennis again and expect to see him in the business end of his second most successful slam.

Grigor Dimitrov, Semi-finalist, ’14.

Dimitrov did not show up in Queens, losing tamely in straights to Djokovic in the last 16 , but Dimitrov’s game is tailor made for Grass and if he is going to notch up another significant run this season, it will be in SW19.

Prediction: Quarters.

Sascha Zverev, fourth round, ’17

Zverev has the serve and the groundies to go far at Wimbledon, however his lack of net game means he is unlikely to be winning the title this season.

Prediction: Fourth round.

Nick Kyrgios, quarter-finalist, 2014.

Anything could happen with Nick Kyrgios.

Prediction: Semis. Something big has to happen to him soon, and this Wimbledon, his draw and recent form (Semis Stuttgart and Queens, defeated by Federer and Cilic) suggest this could be the time he is going to catch fire and go on his best slam run yet.

Juan Martin del Potro, Semi-finalist, 2013

del Potro just gets better and better, winning his first ATP 1000 in Indian Wells and reaching the Roland Garros semis this season.

Prediction: Runner up. del Potro shows up for the big ones and is in the weaker bottom half. By far the biggest match player bar Nadal and blessed with the serve and attacking groundies to excel on grass, del Potro seems destined to make his first slam final since New York ’09.

Early tournament Predictions:

Quarter Finals:

Coric d. Querrey

Cilic d. Dimitrov

Kyrgios d. Djokovic

del Potro d. Pospisil

 

Semi Finals:

Cilic d. Coric

del Potro d. Kyrgios

 

Final:

Cilic d. del Potro

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Dominic Thiem Can He Win his First Grand Slam in the Roland Garros Final?

Roland Garros Thiem

Photo courtesy of ici.radio-canada.ca

Dominic Thiem has reached the Roland Garros final after defeating Marco Cecchinato in straight sets and is now into his first ever Grand Slam final. The Tennis Review asks if Thiem can he win his first Grand Slam on Sunday at Roland Garros.

Before the tournament, there were doubts as to Thiem’s French Open championship chances. Thiem had suffered a  one sided defeat in Monte Carlo (Nadal), been upset in Barcelona (Tsitsipas), been dismissed in the Madrid final (Zverev),  suffered an early loss in Rome (Fognini), and had endured a pretty grueling run to the title in Lyon.

Those doubts have been put to rest now that Thiem has exceeded his own seeding (7) and other’s expectation by reaching his first slam final and at the tournament he has been tipped to win since he first made a name for himself as one of the game’s best clay courters.

Thiem has worked hard to reach this stage of his career, but he has had a bit of a helping hand in the last two weeks. They say that you need a little luck to win your first slam, and Thiem has had his fair share this Roland Garros. In his second round match versus Stefanos Tsitsipas who beat him in Barcelona, Thiem was involved in quite a battle before poor light stopped play. Thiem was also a little lucky to face a Sascha Zverev coming into their quarter final match on the back of three consecutive five set matches and to get that match won in three very straightforward sets. Thiem was fortunate, too, in his semi, facing Marco Cecchinato, a first time slam semi-finalist. The Italian may have made Thiem work for his win in the first two sets, but lacked the experience to keep himself in the match once he had blown his chances in the second.

Thiem has taken his luck with the gratitude it deserves, playing superb tennis at times, the right mix of powerful baseline hitting, taking time away from his opponents, moving forward to finish points and showing us some fine touch, as well,  on his way to reaching his first Grand Slam final.

Most importantly, Thiem has managed to not just move on from a somewhat dispiriting run going into the tournament, but has also put any mid match mishaps behind him such as that fluffed volley on set point in the second set tiebreak versus Cecchinato. Thiem did not implode and get himself embroiled in a real dog fight out there, instead, he expressed his fury with himself for making such an error and then moved on, competing to the best of his abilities, and in the process winning the set, and then dominating the third like someone competing in his third consecutive Roland Garros semi-final versus a first timer out there on the big stage.

In his first slam final, Thiem faces ten time champ Rafa Nadal who defeated Juan Martin del Potro in straights, running away with the match after a tricky first set in which the Spaniard had to save six break points.

Facing Nadal for your first Roland Garros title is a fitting step in the sporting rite of passage Thiem has earned for himself, and, while the task is the most daunting one Thiem could face in the current Clay court competitive climate, in Thiem’s favor is the fact he is the only player to defeat Nadal in the past two clay court seasons (Rome ’17, Madrid ’18).

Granted, Nadal has the upper hand in their recent two year clay court rivalry period (leads 4-2   and 6-3 career) and the top seed did defeat Thiem in last season’s Roland Garros semi-finals for the loss of just 7 games.

That 2017 Roland Garros Nadal victory came versus a Thiem coming down after delivering his best ever Grand Slam performance, defeating Novak Djokovic in the last eight, the Austrian bageling in the third set the defending champion who had beaten him convincingly in the Rome semis a few weeks before.

That Rome loss, coming off the back of Thiem inflicting on Nadal his only clay court loss of the season, was another of Thiem’s let downs after a big win, an unfortunate hall mark of Thiem’s career, rearing its ugly head even as recently as Monte Carlo where he beat Djokovic only to lose to Nadal and winning a mere two games.

This Roland Garros, however, there is little risk of a similar fall from up high when he faces Nadal in the final.

This time, Thiem goes into the final on the back of winning matches in which he was the favorite- Zverev may have been the higher seed, but the slower Roland Garros conditions were more suited to Thiem than the German-and this upcoming final  is the first match at this year’s Roland Garros in which Thiem will be the underdog.

This match is the upset Thiem will be going after with fresh legs, a hungry mind, and, if he plays well, plenty of adrenaline to wash away any nerves.

Those Thiem legs are going to be a little wobbly to say the least. That this is Thiem’s first slam final is a blessing and a curse- on the one hand, Thiem has no scars from previous final defeats, but on the other hand he could suffer stage fright, and no doubt he will.

In the best case scenario, Thiem eats up those nerves with the appetite of a champion,  comes out swinging and if he does lose it is because he forces Nadal to raise his game to its very heights; in the worst case, Thiem chokes, the match races away from him and he has the grass season to lick his wounds.

Which one happens, and it might be the case Thiem swings from one end of the spectrum to the other at different stages of the match, all depends on Thiem and how he deals with those wobbles.

One way of coping for Thiem should be by the seventh seed reminding himself that while top seeded Nadal may be a 10 time champion, he, Thiem, is very much the heir apparent and has arguably had the more convincing run to the final.

Once you tear up the match on paper and throw it on the fire, Thiem really has nothing and no one to fear out there on Philippe Chatrier on Sunday. Thiem has worked towards this goal his whole tennis playing life, has finally arrived at a place in his tennis career where he is capable of handling the lows and the highs that come with being a Grand Slam contender and is in a position to contest the championship match, and while his opponent in that match is none other than Rafa Nadal, the Spaniard has been vulnerable this clay season, as he was when Thiem beat him in Madrid and Zverev led him by a break in the third in Rome, as he has been even this Roland Garros when he came up against Simone Bolelli and Diego Schwartzman who both had him rattled in their most aggressive streaks of play, the kind of streaks Thiem can turn into a consistent barrage.

 

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Roland Garros Men’s Preview Is Rafa Nadal a Definite for Undecima?

Roland Garros

Photo courtesy of wikicommons.

Roland Garros, the clay court slam, has been Rafa Nadal’s territory for ten of the last thirteen years. The Tennis Review looks at the Spaniard’s chances of holding on to the trophy and at the likelihood of his two main rivals, Sascha Zverev and Dominic Thiem, dethroning him.

Rafa Nadal (1)- Champion 2005-08, 2010-14, 2017

It’s been yet another dominant clay court season for defending champion Nadal with titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, and a last eight finish in Madrid.

Nadal’s Roland Garros draw of Simone Bolelli in the first round, Joao Sousa or Guido Pella in round 2, Richard Gasquet in round 3, Jack Sock in round 4 and Kevin Anderson, (watch out for Borna Coric or Diego Schwartzman in that section) in the last eight is about as good as it could have gotten for the ten time champion.

Nadal does not seem like he needs the luck of the draw to help his cause, but while he may look it at times, Nadal is not immortal, and on the verge of turning 32, he is going to be more prone to off days such as the one he suffered in the Madrid quarters, and he is going to struggle even more than he used to when conditions get unfavorable and his opponent gets wise exploiting that as happened in the Rome final.

While, to Nadal’s credit, he has produced the tennis needed to win, his few but telling less than convincing performances this Clay court lead in should encourage his rivals.

The question, however, is if Nadal, so close to even more history making with Undecima a very  winnable seven matches away, is going to give them that chance in the first place?

Nadal’s opponents can take a little more heart, courtesy of Mother Nature- the first week’s weather is forecast for cloud, showers, and thunderstorms, which means the energy saved on rain-dancing can be spent playing aggressive tennis and unsettling the Clay maestro in already uncomfortable low bouncing conditions. Rain delays may work in Nadal’s favor as they did in Rome, but if it’s a rainy night and morning followed by a damp and long enough period of play, the Undecima parade may not just get rained on, but it could be a washout.

Prediction: The world No.1, the defending champion,  the most in-form and experienced Clay court player- the Undecima looks , whatever the conditions, a definite for Nadal. Just as it’s one thing the forecast predicting rain, it’s another thing it actually raining, it’s also one thing having a chance to defeat Nadal in Paris and another thing to take that chance.

Alexander Zverev (2), 3rd round 2016.

All eyes may be on Nadal and his record going into Roland Garros, but Sascha Zverev has some impressive numbers, too. Zverev has just reached three clay court finals in three straight weeks, (Munich, Madrid, Rome) winning 13 of 14 matches and usurping Thiem as the Prince of Clay.

Zverev’s performance in the Rome final versus Nadal was a heartening showing and he can attempt to reach his first career slam quarter final with some confidence when he opens his campaign in Paris.

Zverev has had a nice draw, too. Ricardis Berankis in round 1, Damir Dzumhur in round 3, and Lucas Pouille in round 4.

Zverev, who had the misfortune to face Fernando Verdasco in last year’s French Open first round has the form to take advantage of that draw, and amend his less than stellar slam record. Zverev’s best slam finish was the Wimbledon fourth round last year. He has only entered 11 draws, however, and just turned 21 so while his lack of slam success may look like he has disappointed, all the signs point to his putting that behind him and breaking through sooner rather than later.

But that inexperience may still hurt him especially on the mental side. Zverev is still prone to temper tantrums and if he suffers another difficult draw like he has done in three of his last four slams (Verdasco in Paris round 1, Coric in US Open round 2, Chung in Australian Open round 3) and comes unstuck, his temper may stop him putting it all back together.

Can he dethrone Nadal?  His Rome final performance says he has the game to trouble Nadal. Dethroning him over five sets on Philippe Chatrier is an altogether different ball game, but if anyone is going to get to the final and give themselves a chance, Zverev, if his serve and backhand are on song,  is the man most likely.

Prediction: Zverev’s first slam final looks imminent.

Dominic Thiem (7)- Semi-finalist 2016, 2017.

Clay is Thiem’s best surface and after a lackluster injury hit last nine months, the Austrian showed us just why he was labeled the Prince of Clay last season in his win over Nadal in the Rome last eight.

Still, Thiem made one step forward, two steps back this Clay season. After defeating Nadal, in the Madrid quarters, Thiem never got a look in when playing the final versus Zverev, and in Rome he lost to Fabio Fognini in round 3.

If Thiem is still feeling his Madrid and Rome losses come the French Open, there is the chance he might end up over-hitting his way to another dispiriting loss, and at Roland Garros, the scene of his best triumphs, and Thiem  will need to know when to rein it in if he wants to reign in Paris.

Thiem did win the Lyon title this week, however beating Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Dusan Lajovic and Gilles Simon in consecutive three set matches, while ensuring Thiem is match fit going into Roland Garros, may tell on the Austrian if he does make it into the second week as his packed scheduled seemed to do the last two previous seasons.

Can he dethrone Nadal? If anyone can beat Nadal on Clay, it is Thiem.  But, he needs to be confident and mentally tough to do so, and in Rome he looked neither. If, however, Nadal is tired, having an off day, and it’s damp, Thiem is the last player he is going to want to face.

Prediction: Thiem managed to avoid Nadal’s quarter and landed in the opposite side of the draw, but he still has a tough path to the final- Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Thiem in Barcelona, could be his second round opponent, Kei Nishikori is his potential last 16 rival, and Sascha Zverev is lined up for the last eight. With the way things have been going for Thiem this year, an early upset seems on the cards.

Keep an eye on:

Novak Djokovic just made his first semi-final at an ATP 1000 since Rome last year.  Still far off his best, Djokovic has at least finally been showing some encouraging signs of the baseline prowess that made him such a force two seasons ago, which make a potential second round match with David Ferrer a very exciting early round prospect.

Borna Coric has had a less stellar clay court run than expected, but was not helped by tough draws and a neck injury in Rome.

Hard working, motivated, and mentally tough, Coric is going to give his rivals, and first up is Philipp Kohlschreiber (22), a tough time in Paris.

Marin Cilic is the 2005 Roland Garros Boy’s champion and just achieved his best result in a clay ATP 1000 reaching the semis in Rome. One of the few active slam champs in the draw, Cilic has an underrated defensive game and plays his best tennis in slams.

Kyle Edmund is having a breakout season and has had a nice European clay court swing. Armed with a weapon in his forehand and going somewhat under the radar, Edmund can do some damage in Paris.

Kei Nishikori‘s baseline tennis is a superior brand and works so well on Clay. The Monte Carlo finalist is match fit for Roland Garros, the question is how fit is his physical condition?

Stan Wawrinka is sorely missed as a factor in slams and while his recent form and injury comeback means he is difficult to name as a favorite, it does not feel right to omit one of only three active Roland Garros champions from the list.

In his last three Roland Garros appearances, Wawrinka is W-SF-RU, and in his upcoming first round match he will face the man who beat him before he went on that impressive run, in the 2014 first round, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, so we might not get to see too much of the best Swiss player in the draw, but what we do get to enjoy, we will savor.

 

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