2017 Men’s Tennis- The Year the Comebacks Beat the Breakthroughs in the Battle of the Band Aids

Fedal

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In 2017, men’s tennis saw the early signs of a shift at the top with Dominic Thiem, Sascha Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov all asserting themselves in the top 10, but the younger players were not able to outshine the return to the top of Fedal, a resurgence, which, along with the promise shown by the legions of #NextGenners, and #LostGenners, was just the healing tonic the sport needed. 

When Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray in three sets in the Doha final at the beginning of the season, men’s tennis fans took what they could get. This three setter, one of Djokoray’s (not as catchy as Fedal is it?) better contests, was a decent enough way to start the year, better than many anticipated, with Djokovic looking like he might have recovered from his end of season slump, a development of some promise, suggesting that if 2017 was going to be a predictable season of Djokeray finals, fans might at least be spared too many matches like the 2016 ATP Finals championship match.

Just three weeks later, tennis fans were no longer having to search high and low for something to get excited about in 2017– on one of the biggest stages of them all, Melbourne Park, in the Australian Open semis, with Murray and Djokovic upset before the last eight, tennis served up four of the world’s most popular players, three single handed backhands no less, and a variety of styles- Roger Federer battling Stan Wawrinka and Rafa Nadal taking on Grigor Dimitrov, both matches going the distance.

Roger Federer’s win in the final, one in which he got some measure of revenge for his 2009 Australian Open final loss to Nadal, was the antidote to much of men’s tennis in 2016- tennis at its most sporting, entertaining and thrilling, a story every fan could follow, the kind of tennis to get the sporting world talking.

Fedal

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Federer carried that momentum over into the North American Spring swing, winning in Miami and Indian Wells, defeating Nadal twice more and putting together four wins in a row (Beijing ’15- Miami ’17) over the Spaniard for the first time in his career, a twist in their rivalry no one saw coming and which added even more spice, if any were needed, to the Greatest Ever debate. Federer’s first quarter of the season sprint saw him edge ahead in that one as he went 18-14 versus Nadal in slam’s won, and if you thought Djokovic had history on his side in 2016 when he held all four Majors at once, Federer’s early 2017 achievements- a record 18th slam at the age of 35, 18 slams after his 17th one at Wimbledon ’12, and the Sunshine Double (Indian Wells and Miami) 11 years after the last time he achieved that feat-  might make you think again.

Not to be outdone, Nadal was on the verge of a historic comeback of his own, too. The Australian Open final was the Spaniard’s first slam final since Roland Garros 2014, and, in April, he completed tennis’ first La Decima, winning the tenth title in Monte Carlo before dominating the clay season until Dominic Thiem defeated him in Rome.

Thiem tested Nadal more than any other player in the 2017 clay season and was one of a group of younger players breaking through in 2017, along with Dimitrov and Zverev, but it was Sascha Zverev who made the loudest noise as he took the Rome title, defeating Novak Djokovic in the final. With Thiem, Zverev and Dimitrov stepping up their games in 2017, and the return of Fedal, tennis in 2017 was in a state few had predicted, and one which in terms of its surprise, and shock, value, was one of the best starts to a season in a while.

But if fans were hoping that the #NextGenATP or the other generations who had not managed to reach the very top of the game might finally do so in the absence of Djokovic and Murray, they were to be let down. The youngsters just could not break through on the big stage- Thiem losing in three to Nadal at Roland Garros after an inspiring win over Djokovic- and it was Nadal who won La Decima at Roland Garros, and then, a few weeks later, with Dimitrov, Zverev and Kyrgios all failing to make it past the round of 16, Federer won Wimbledon, a record 19th slam, Fedal dominating their best surfaces a decade on from the last time they both did so in the same season in 2007.

All hope for not lost, however, for a breakthrough from Zverev and company at the season’s final slam, the US Open. In the Summer, Zverev’s Montreal win, defeating an injured Federer in the final, and Dimitrov’s Cincy win appeared to set the stage for a breakthrough at the US Open, but it was Nadal, recently returning to No.1, who won his third US Open title.

Nadal took the title beating just one player ranked in the top 30, del Potro in the semis, and defeating first time slam finalist Kevin Anderson in the final, the South African emerging from the wreckage of a bottom half which did not even see its highest seed Andy Murray compete and which was missing Zverev, Dimitrov, and Kyrgios, the stand out players of the US Open lead in events, by the end of the second round.

del Potro’s performance in the event, beating Federer in four sets in the last eight, and taking the first set from Nadal in the semis, a performance which shook Nadal and made him play his best tennis of the tournament, was one of the year’s highlights and the Argentine’s comeback of sorts- his first trip to the semis of a slam since Wimbledon ’13- saving the tournament from being dismissed as another breeze to a slam title for one of the Big Four. If Federer was going to lose to anyone, then del Potro was the man to lose to, the Argentine rivaling the Swiss not just in forehand prowess but also with popularity among fans, and if Nadal was going to win the title without beating a top five player, then defeating the Argentine, a former US Open champ who beat the Spaniard himself on his championship run, added some much needed credibility to a grand slam run, Nadal’s 16th, which though overwhelming in its focus and intensity was underwhelming in its drama and competition.

In the post US Open final stretch of the season, Nadal and Federer were still going strong, competing for the end of year No.1 ranking, as Thiem and Zverev faded away.  Federer scored his fifth win in a row over Nadal, a career first, in the Shanghai final, and Nadal sealed the world No.1 ranking, winning in Beijing, reaching the Shanghai final, and then winning a couple of rounds in Paris before withdrawing from his quarter-final against Filip Krajinovic, the Serbian going on to the final which he lost in three sets to Jack Sock, an unpredictable end to the year’s final Masters, an event which suffers the loss of the top players coming at the end of a long season, but which also prospers, delivering something different than the other ATP 1000s, champions like Jack Sock, David Ferrer, and Robin Soderling.

Federer and Nadal only had so much to give though, and by the ATP Finals, they were spent, Nadal withdrawing after his opening match loss to David Goffin, and Federer going out in three sets to the Belgian in the semis. Only Dimitrov had the stamina to play great tennis at the start and end of the season, winning the title and showing great depth to his game as he won some matches by hitting winners and others by being smart and keeping the ball in play. Dimitrov’s ability to win at the start and end of the season was partly down to his lesser match play from the end of February to the middle of August- of the Bulgarian’s 49 wins in the season, just 13 of them came (26.5%)  in that nearly six month period- and partly down to his greater fitness levels than those of his rivals, a strength that made all the difference in a season which is as over stretched and tired by the end as its competitors.

Marat Safin said at the end of the year that if Federer and Nadal are still winning in 2017, tennis is in trouble, and the 37 year old former No.1 and multiple slam champ, who was retired by the age of 29, knows only too well the game’s once natural order of young stars breaking through and established players giving way to age, injury, and the survival of the fittest.

The Fedal resurgence can be largely explained by advances in sports science, technology, and prize money, but those advances are as ready and available to the current youngsters who are richer even quicker than their predecessors, who can afford the very best in the game money can buy, and who, by now, at their ages, (Dimitrov (26) , Thiem (24), and Zverev (20( (Safin won a slam at Zverev’s age)) should be capable of winning slams and reaching No.1. rather than merely threatening to so so and then vanishing once the pressure is really on. The younger player’s inability to step up and really break through means that if Federer and Nadal were to succumb to the injuries that plagued them at the end of 2017, and Murray and Djokovic were unable to come back, which is looking a likely scenario as we approach 2018, men’s tennis would find itself without a healthy, young, slam decorated star, one with the power to attract new fans, to inspire younger already existing ones, and to give the old faithful, the fans who tune in to every final whoever is playing, for sheer love of the game, someone to be proud of when family, friends and colleagues ask them about the game’s most recent slam champion.

That star would soon sparkle, of course, by default and design, with Dimitrov, Thiem and Zverev, ranked 3-5, in the end of year rankings, as likely as anyone to win slams in the absence of the Big Four, and tennis would, in this age of PR and marketing sophistication and manipulation, spin another narrative of “Big Fours” or a fresh one of “New Stars”.  Right now, with the resurgence of two of the Big Four, Fedal, and the odd glimmers of those stars, flickers of a possible future we saw in Brisbane, Rome. Roland Garros, Montreal, Cincy and London, tennis has been, temporarily anyway, reprieved of its troubles, the wounds covered up with a band-aid where major surgery is required. With Fedal’s injuries at the end of the season and the lack of consistency of the likes of Dimitrov, Thiem and Zverev, that band-aid may be about to be ripped off sooner than expected, but what a colorful and distracting band-aid it has been for men’s tennis 2017, one which in a sport plagued by burn-out, injuries, and lacklustre rivalries could not have been better designed, more distracting, and plastered on at a better time.

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How Did Grigor Dimitrov Become the First of the Lost Generation to Find His Way?

Dimitrov

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Grigor Dimitrov’s ATP Finals win was the biggest victory yet for a member of men’s tennis’ lost generation, made up of the Bulgarian, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, and David Goffin, all currently aged 26-27, all heralded from 2012-2014 as the ATP’s young guns, and all seeming to have lost their way in their bid to fulfill their potential. Dimitrov, however, with his ATP 1000 Cincy win and his ATP Finals trophy, has, in styles both pretty and gritty, finally found his way in the cruel world of men’s tennis, but just how has the new world No.3 managed to do achieve something the equally impressive talents of Raonic, Nishikori and Goffin have not?

In the period after 2014, when Dimitrov and co were lauded as the Young Guns, it seemed Dimitrov was the most lost of them all, seemingly succumbing to the curse of Baby Fed. While Nishikori reached a slam final at the US Open ’14 and competed for two ATP 1000 titles in 2016 (Miami, Toronto) and Milos Raonic reached world No.3 at the end of 2016, Dimitrov fell down the rankings from a career high of 8 in August ’14, falling as far as 40 (18th July 2016) within two years at an age he should have been gearing towards his peak.

That low was rock bottom enough for Dimitrov who, teaming up with Daniel Vallverdu, who had worked with Andy Murray and coached Tomas Berdych, then went on to reach the Cincy semis and the US Open last 16 to climb back into the top 20, and finish 2016 at No.17.

That rise really gathered momentum at the start of 2017. His peers may have had the higher rankings- Raonic ranked No.3, Nishikori No.5, and Goffin No.11- but it was Dimitrov who produced the highest quality of play as he won Brisbane, beating Nishikori in the final and Raonic in the semis, and then reached the Australian Open semis, defeating Goffin in straights in the quarters before playing, arguably, the match of the year versus Rafa Nadal, and climbing to world No.13.

In his next event, Dimitrov defeated Goffin in the Sofia final and then reached the last eight in Rotterdam, losing to Goffin in three sets.

But while Dimitrov’s great start to 2017 may have got fan’s hopes up that he had finally discovered just how good a player he was, knew where he belonged and was finally ready to become a top five player, his losses to Jack Sock in the Indian Wells second round, in which he held four match points, and to Guido Pella in his Miami opener, and his 4-5 record in the clay season (though he did play a very competitive fourth round match versus Thiem in Madrid) cast doubts over just how ready he really was. Slow hard courts and clay may not be the surfaces on which Dimitrov can really show off his talents, but failing to get past the round of 16 in seven consecutive events suggested Dimitrov had not really found himself at all and that he was still the most inconsistent of his generation.

Those concerns deepened when Dimitrov also disappointed in the Grass season, the 2014 Wimbledon semi-finalist and Queens champion getting off to a bad start in Stuttgart losing to Jerzy Janowicz in his opener and going 6-3 for the entire grass court season, There was a degree of silver lining, however, in the often cloudy British skies with the Bulgarian losing to an in form Feliciano Lopez in the Queens semis, motivated by his own tough loss to Dimitrov in the 2014 Queens final, and to an imperious Roger Federer in the Wimbledon last 16 and not being defeated by players he should have beaten.

After more early losses in Washington and Montreal, Dimitrov’s game finally clicked  again, in Cincy, where he won the title, defeating Nick Kyrgios, a member of the #NextGenATP generation, one which looked to eclipse his own, in the final. Dimitrov did not have to beat anyone ranked higher than 19 (John Isner) to win the trophy, so he was a little luckier than Nishikori and Raonic who faced Djokovic and Nadal in their ATP 1000 finals, but he was also in new, and in some respects even scarier, territory for any of the lost generation able to get that deep in an ATP 1000 event- the favorite in every match en route to, and including the championship match itself, an ATP 1000 final.

Ranked 11, Dimitrov was the highest ranked player in each of his matches, and playing the likes of del Potro and Isner, two players with plenty of experience and armed with match winning shots on US hard courts, and with plenty of crowd support, Dimitrov could have folded under the pressure. Instead, Dimitrov held strong, and won the title without dropping a set, thriving in the Cincy conditions which, like Brisbane and Melbourne,, was a faster hard court played in the heat, and which played to Dimitrov’s strengths- his serve, his speed around the court, his aggression, and his reflexes and flair.

Another strength Dimitrov could draw on was the training he did with Rafa Nadal in the Summer in Mallorca, the Bulgarian noting Nadal’s positive body language when winning or losing, an area Dimitrov once struggled in, suffering a particularly bad tempered defeat in the 2016 Istanbul final where in a match he led by a set and 5-2, he lost 0-6 in the third after defaulting the last game after a third penalty for racket abuse.

But while Dimitrov was composing himself a lot better than he had, he still could not control his fluctuations in form. True to form for Dimitrov’s career, his peak was followed by a sudden dip as, in the favorable conditions of New York, the Bulgarian lost in straights to the 19 year old Andrey Rublev in the second round.

Surface, however, is where the similarities end between Cincy and New York, and it seemed the biggest of tennis stages was still too frightening for the 2008 US Open Boy’s champion. Dimitrov, however, was not the only players of his generation to fail to find their form in the biggest 2017 events. In fact, he was one of the only ones who even made it to New York with Raonic and Nishikori both absent with injury. Meanwhile Goffin also fell to Rublev, in the last sixteen.

In a season of stops and starts, Dimitrov, encouragingly, picked up his game again, and at a much quicker pace than he had after Wimbledon ’14 or Sofia ’17, putting together several strings of wins in the end of season swing, going 14-4, losing twice to Nadal, once to Isner, and once to Sock, and going undefeated on his winning run at the ATP Finals.

At the ATP finals, just as in Cincy, Dimitrov did not have to beat any of the Big Four or his two biggest generational rivals. The Bulgarian, instead, had to beat Thiem, Goffin (twice), Busta, and Sock. That lack of established top level competition, however, is not Dimitrov’s fault. The very fact Dimitrov was there, qualifying for and playing the event, was, however, down to him, and while Raonic and Nishikori have, for the time being, been sidelined with injury, Dimitrov was still out there on court, one of the healthiest and fittest professionals playing tennis right now, an achievement that is also down to his coach, Danny Vallverdu, who, after his charge’s ATP Finals win, spoke highly of Dimitrov’s hard work and dedication to reaching his potential.

Dimitrov is not just physically one of the fittest men on the tour, either, but mentally, too. Despite some high quality performances versus Busta and Goffin in the round robin stage, Dimitrov did not have everything his way in London, having to defeat Thiem in three sets in his opener, and Sock, against whom he had a losing head to head against, and Goffin in three sets in the semis and the final. The Bulgarian came through in all those close contests, proving to be the more focused player in big matches, and in the final, when under pressure from Goffin, Dimitrov did not panic and showed us he had a B plan to fall back on if he cannot execute plan A, a B plan that held up to the pressure put on him by his rival, a hallmark of the mentally toughest players.

The Bulgarian had been criticized when working with Roger Rasheed for sometimes being too defensive, but with Goffin taking aggressive risks in the final, no doubt to avoid another demolition like the one he suffered at Dimitrov’s hands in the round robin stage, those Dimitrov defensive skills, perhaps implemented with clashes like this in mind, came to the fore as the Bulgarian focused on getting the ball back in play and making Goffin take the match to him, a strategy that paid off as Goffin’s attack let him down at crucial points and Dimitrov won the match not with the pretty tennis we had hoped to see, but with the kind of gritty tennis needed.

Dimitrov’s ability to execute a plan B successfully is one aspect which separates Dimitrov from Raonic and Nishikori. Raonic has worked hard to add depth to his game, but is still very much reliant on his serve and while Nishikori may have one of the sport’s most effective modern baseline A games, when he is in trouble, his B game seems to be hit the ball even harder and he over-hits himself into an even quicker defeat. Goffin, meanwhile, has a plan B, the more attacking tennis he showed in the ATP Finals championship match, but he is not practiced enough at executing it to really make it count, as his fluffed volley match point down demonstrated.

Superior fitness, a stronger mind, dedication to his sport, a lot of support, and a hell of a  lot of talent, Dimitrov finally put all the pieces together this season and became the first of the lost generation to find himself. There is still far to go for Dimitrov to become the player he seems destined to be, to find the form and strength needed to win a slam title and earn the No.1 ranking, and, considering his fluctuations in form, no one should get their hopes up that he will get there anytime as soon as next season. Still, even if his career ended today- a world No.3, ATP Finals champ, ATP 1000 champ, and two time slam semi-finalist- it’s a career many players would take. A career, we hope, Dimitrov is not going to settle for, that he will, instead, keep searching for more.

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ATP World Tour Finals Preview- Horror Show or Showstopper?

ATP Finals

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The ATP World Tour Finals (WTF) will bring the curtain down on the 2017 ATP  season, and the question is just what are we going to see on one of tennis’ biggest stages this year- a horror show or showstopping finale? The Tennis Review previews the tournament’s two round robin groups and gives you its predictions.

Sampras Group: Rafa Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin.

Carlos Moya says Rafa Nadal is fit and ready to go and the year end No.1’s quest to win his first ever WTF title is the headlining story for the Sampras group. The fact Nadal’s name is not etched on the WTF trophy where it belongs alongside other greats such as Borg, Lendl, Sampras, Federer, Djokovic and McEnroe is, considering he has achieved everything else there is to achieve in tennis, one of the sport’s oddities.

At some point, one would imagine Nadal’s mental strength and cross-surface adaptability would be strong enough to triumph against the odds the tournament pits against him- the indoor hard surface and its low bounce, and the Head ATP balls, balls which do not react well to spin and ones with which Nadal has made no secret of his displeasure with.

Nadal may not be a former WTF champ, but he is anything but a slouch at the season finale- in his seven appearances there, he has made the semis three times, and the final twice, a record which suggests the top seed, considering the season he has had, is more than capable, if he has recovered from his knee issues, to reach the semis and give himself another shot at the title, and the trophy’s elusive nature could be just what Nadal needs to push himself through the physical pain that comes with a No.1 ranking season and past any insecurities the conditions might trigger in him to finally be the first to cross the WTF finish line.

Nadal Dimitrov

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Group Winner: Dimitrov. If the Bulgarian is going to get another win over Nadal (Nadal leads the head to head 10-1) then these conditions might be the best ones in which for him to do so, and this stage of the season might be the right time. If Dimitrov is not quite ready to make that step, he should at least take Nadal the distance for the fourth time this season and pip Nadal to the top spot on sets won.

Runner-up: Nadal. Even if his knees are still bothering him- it is rumored he asked for his Sunday start to be postponed till Monday- the Spaniard is no stranger, like most tennis pros, to playing through stress and injury, and he should have too much game, even playing below his best, for Thiem or Goffin. Goffin likes indoor conditions but has had a less than remarkable indoor run recently.  Thiem, meanwhile, will not be expected to progress to the semis, the fourth seed has been struggling of late, going 2-5 since the US Open.

Becker Group: Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic, Jack Sock.

Federer cannot reach No.1 by winning the title, but, if he wins a seventh ATP WTF trophy and first since 2011,he could end up being seen as the real No.1 in many a fan and pundit’s eye. Federer, the only player in the draw to have won the title, should come into the event with enough motivation and form to get the better of a tired Zverev, the predictably inconsistent Cilic, and top ten newbie Sock.

The runner up spot in this group is as much a crapshoot as your scrappiest tiebreak. All three remaining players have big questions marks hanging over them- Zverev seems like he has had enough of tennis in a season which has seen him climb to world No.3, Cilic has had a fairly decent indoor hard season (5-2), but trails all three of his round robin rivals in their head to heads (2-12), and Sock is an unknown quantity at an event of this prestige facing such strong opposition.

Group winner– A healthy and fit Federer has won nearly every event he has been favored in this season (Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Halle, Wimbledon, Shanghai) and there is nothing to suggest that trend is going to end at one of his best tournaments.

Second place– Sock is as good as a wildcard here. Of everyone in the draw, Sock has the least to lose, he has the killer combo of momentum and confidence, and, unlike his higher ranked young rivals in the draw, he is anything but jaded after breaking into the top ten, qualifying for his first WTF and winning his first ATP 1000 title in Paris-Bercy just less than a week ago. The head to heads are in his favor, too- the world No.9 is 1-1 versus Zverev, winning their only indoor hard court match at Stockholm ’16, and, versus Cilic, he is 2-0, beating the former US Open champ in straight sets in the Flushing Meadows 3rd round in 2016

The semisFederer vs Nadal. Federer is 4-0 this season vs Nadal, each time winning in favorable conditions, and it is hard to see him not going 5-0.

Dimitrov vs Sock. The event’s last qualifier, Sock, is one of the last players Dimitrov will want to see across the net in a big match like the ATP WTFs- Sock leads him 3-1 in their head to head, which means the match would be a good workout for Dimitrov before potentially facing Federer in the final. Dimitrov should still win the contest despite the head the head deficit- three of the four matches have gone three sets, the one Dimitrov lost in straight sets was on his weakest surface, clay, Dimitrov has won the only one played on indoor hard (Stockholm ’14), and the Bulgarian has been on a steep learning curve this season and has the necessary experience now to handle the pressure and win a big match in which he will be the favorite.

The Final- Federer would be the favorite- he leads Dimitrov 6-0 and has won four of those matches in straight sets. The match may not be that straightforward, though- Dimitrov has made significant progress this season and may be due his watershed moment. One thing is pretty certain, though, whatever the outcome, the story will be a popular one- a Federer victory aged 36 or Dimitrov breaking through to win his biggest title yet- and the tennis should be very pretty, too.

So, what will we get at this year’s ATP WTF- horror show or showstopper?

The ATP WTF comes at the end of a grueling season, and while the tournament may be big on prestige it can be low on quality with the outcomes often too predictable and with most of the matches one-sided, lackluster non-contests. This year, while there may be some horror show moments, with the resurgence of Federer and Nadal, the rise of Thiem, Zverev and Dimitrov, the swift comeback of Goffin, the unknown quality of Cilic, and the last dash splash of Sock, there should be enough show stopping moments to make this ATP world tour finals one tennis fans might be able to, now and then, climb out from behind their sofas, take a seat, and enjoy the show.

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Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and the Race for the Real Number One

Federer Nadal

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Rafa Nadal’s Beijing win and run to the Shanghai final looks, on paper, like it might have helped seal him the year end No.1 ranking- the Spaniard has 10,465 points to second ranked Roger Federer’s 8,505- but, those numbers might not add up, to some, to equal who was the best player in 2017, the real No.1.  Not if Roger Federer has anything to do with it, anyway.

Should, in the next few weeks, the Swiss put together a couple more title runs like the one he made in Shanghai, a run which saw Federer avenge his US Open loss to del Potro and increase his 2017 head to head lead over Rafa Nadal to 4-0, (and cut the deficit to 15-23), then, as was the tradition before rankings began on August 23 1973 when journalists, pundits and player’s associations ranked the pros, and, as has been the case many seasons since, including last year when the WTF championship match decided the year end No.1, Murray winning the numbers contest, but Djokovic’s two slams versus the Scot’s one elevating him to, for many, player of the year, this season will also provide fans with another Who Was the Best Player of the Season debate to keep us busy in the off season

The Computer No.1 versus the Real No.1 debate is always contentious, but what will likely make this one so hard to pick a side in is that Federer and Nadal have split the four slams, and if that contest is decided on a tiebreak, Federer has the slight edge with his Australian Open run  arguably the toughest road to one of the slam trophies this season, the Swiss, after six months away from the pro tour, beating Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka, and Rafa Nadal, those last three matches all going the distance, and the final one a match in which he came down from 0-3 in the final set versus a player who had a 9-2 slam record over him.

Slams are not the only department in which both men share the same numbers. Both men have four other titles, but Federer has the edge here, too, his title haul the more impressive, comprising of three ATP 1000s ((Indian Wells, Miami, Shanghai) and one ATP 500 (Halle) while Nadal has two ATP 1000s (Monte Carlo, Madrid). and two ATP 500s (Barcelona, Beijing)

If Nadal ends the year ranked No.1, there will be no debate, in some fan’s eyes, eyes which stick to the computer ranking to tell them who was the season’s best player. They will argue that season-long consistency  trumps smartly scheduled flashes of brilliance, and Nadal has certainly been the more consistent, reaching ten finals to Federer’s seven, and has played more events (16 to Federer’s ten) ratcheting up a win loss record of 65-10 to Federer’s 44-4, the Spaniard’s only dip in form occurring between winning the French Open at the beginning of June to winning the US Open in early September (in that eleven week period, Nadal went 6-3; Federer went 11-1).

That Nadal dip and Federer rise, in the European and U.S Summer, was down to scheduling, and both men have had very different approaches to that integral factor of a best player of the year’s season. Nadal, after a surprisingly fruitful start to the season, really went prize picking in the Clay run, while Federer, who won the first big three titles of the season, skipped the entire clay season. That decision paid off for Federer in handsome style, the Swiss showcasing his panache for Grass in dominating style, getting his hands on the Wimbledon trophy for the first time since 2012, and also strengthening another grasp, his recent hold of Nadal in the Fedal head to head, one which has now seen him win five consecutive times against the Spaniard for the first time in the head to head, a hold which may have been a prime asset in the very decisive Shanghai final outcome.

While Scheduling and knowing when to rest has mostly paid off for Federer- witness his Australian Open run after six months of the tour to rest his knee and his Wimbledon run after missing the Clay season- Federer is not all scheduling genius. The Swiss’ decision to play Montreal rather than rest another week and play his much loved Cincinnati played a villainous part in an early US Open loss, and if  he had gone for the Cincy option instead, a healthy Federer would likely have won the title and gone deeper in New York, and the 2017 Best player of the season debate would have been settled once and for all.

As if- In the Federer Nadal Rivalry Tale there is no once and for all. This debate runs deeper than who was the better player in 2017, deeper than both men’s draws through the four slams this year, running all the way back to a balmy evening in Miami in Spring 2004, spanning 13 years and 38 matches, and potentially flowing all the way to the Tokyo Olympics and beyond. This one is about Fedal. The Federer- Nadal rivalry has been the story of the ATP tour for the last 13 years and when both men have produced the kind of tennis elevating them above the rest of the tour over the course of an entire season. as they did from 2005-2008 and have done in 2017, a tennis different in styles, but alike in passion, a tennis of diversity and parallels which makes Fedal not just the headline in men’s tennis, but one of the headlines in world Sport.

Those headlines will have to wait at least a couple of weeks though with scheduling and rest once again rearing its oh so sensible head now that the status of computer No.1 and the real No.1 is coming down to the wire and both men are trying to make sure they do not lose their footing on the tightrope walk to grabbing one accolade if not both.

Nadal’s withdrawal from Basel means we will not get to see that sporting highlight in the Swiss’ home city where Federer’s Nadal head to head deficit cutting began, the Swiss defeating Nadal in three sets in the 2015 final. But, if fans are fortunate, the Fedal rivalry could be played out twice more in 2017, in Paris-Bercy and the WTF. If that is the case, then Federer will have the chance of a tennis legend’s ever increasing lifetime to not only cut down the head to head deficit even further, and weaken an often used argument in the G.O.A.T debate, that a G.O.A.T could not have a lopsided head to head record against another G.O.A.T rival, but to also stake his claim to that status even further on the back of a multi slam, multi Masters, WTF winning season a decade on from the last time he achieved that feat.

Fans should not count on Federer getting too far in Paris, though, and making it four ATP 1000s for the year. The tournament has not been especially successful for either player- Federer winning once (2011), his sole appearance in the final in ten visits, and Nadal reaching the final in 2007, the Spaniard having only competed there five times, the end of the season often the stage at which his season is done and dusted, the clay from the Spring caked too generously to his feet and legs. This year, though, Nadal’s health, as it did in 2010 and 2013, stood up to the grueling grind demanded of a Roland Garros-US Open season double, and if the Asian Swing has not finished him off, then a decade on, he could have another shot at the trophy.

Meanwhile, at the WTF, Federer has the clear upper-hand in the Fedal story, leading 4-1 at that event, the lower bounce and indoor conditions suiting him better. The importance that potential WTF match plays in the  real No.1 debate is not lost on Federer, scheduling once again proving decisive in his decision making at the age of 36, the Swiss saying he is still undecided whether or not he will compete in Basel and Bercy or save himself for his priority, the WTF.

Federer’s scheduling decisions may end up being largely influenced by Nadal’s own scheduling choices- if the Spaniard pulls out of Basel and Paris, and Federer wins both, the rankings deficit would be just 460 points, and if Federer then beat Nadal in the WTF championship match to clinch No.1, or if Nadal won the WTF for the very first time, filling in the final hole in his career resume, and beat Federer in the process, then the debate would no longer be just about who the real No.1 is, but would also be about where this season ranks as either player’s, and Fedal’s, very best.

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What Is Men’s Tennis Going to Serve up in the Last Stretch of the Season?

Federer Nadal

Photo courtesy of dnaindia.com

With Nadal on the march for the Year-end No.1 ranking, Federer looking to end his year in style, del Potro showing signs of life again, Zverev and Dimitrov establishing themselves in the top ten, and new names like Gojowyczk and Dzumhur etched on trophies, the end of the year could serve up some quality tennis for fans. The Tennis Review has five questions on what the end of season is going to serve up for us.

Will Nadal finish No.1?

2017 is shaping up to be a No.1 ending year for Nadal. The Spaniard has 9,465 points, 1960 more than 2nd ranked Roger Federer, who has said he will not be chasing the No.1 ranking, 2,675 more than 3rd ranked Andy Murray who is injured, and 5155 points above fourth placed Alexander Zverev, so it looks like as long as Nadal puts in some strong performances here and there over the next few months a fourth year end No.1 finish is his for the taking.

In the years Nadal has finished year-end No.1 (2008, 2010, 2013), he has had a solid Indoor season in two of them, winning Tokyo and reaching the ATP WTF finals in 2010 and making the finals of Beijing, the semis of Shanghai and Paris, and the final of the WTF in 2013.

Nadal looks like he might not just repeat that kind of success this season, but exceed it. Federer will be his main obstacle – the Swiss might not be hunting No.1, but a high level of play could bring it his way regardless- and Nadal might still be vulnerable to a big hitter or feeling the effects of his very productive season, but it is highly possible the 16 time slam champ won’t have to be brilliant to finish as No.1- he has already put in the hard work this year, now he just has to be good enough, which is what No.1 is, for the most time, all about.

Federer Nadal

Photo courtesy of twitter.com

Will Federer end his year as he started it?

Roger Federer will certainly go into the end of season stretch on a high after his Laver Cup experience, a lift he needed after his injury hit US Summer.

Federer has traditionally played some of his best tennis in the end of season stretch and, if he is healthy, will be expected to win titles in Basel and Shanghai, two of the faster surfaces on the tour, and reach the later stages of Paris (where his participation depends on how well he does at Basel and Shanghai) and the WTF.

A run like that still might not be enough for Federer to leap frog Nadal for year end No.1, but winning a couple of big events would put the wind back in his season’s sails and send him flowing in smoothly into the new season and the Australian Open.

Will del Potro break back into the top 20?

Del Potro breathed some life into a a comeback that was starting to stagnate when he came back from two sets to love down versus Thiem and then showed just why he is considered one of the game’s greatest big match players when he upset Roger Federer on a run to the US Open semis.

That breathe could get even more fiery now that events like Basel, Vienna Shanghai and Stockholm are coming up. del Potro has won Basel twice (’12, ’13), Vienna once (’12), and been a runner-up (’11), and been a finalist in Shanghai (’13). That end of season pedigree means a healthy del Potro could fly further up the rankings (currently ranked 24) and get a top 16 seed for next season’s Australian Open. In the next couple of months, del Potro’s main points to defend are Stockholm (250) and Basel (50), and with 625 points between him and world No.16 Sam Querrey, some strong runs in the next couple of months could be a welcome jump for del Potro and a sigh of relief for the world’s top 16 as they line up to compete in the first slam of 2017.

Where next for Zverev and Dimitrov?

Zverev and Dimitrov have been the breakthrough players of 2017 and both built on that success going into the US Open, winning ATP 1000 titles in Montreal and Cincinnati, but both also failed to consolidate at the season’s final slam, the two top tenners bowing out in the second round.

The final stretch of the season should inspire both of them with Zverev and Dimitrov having enjoyed success at this stage in years past, Dimitrov winning his first career title in Stockhom (’13) and Zverev in St. Petersburg (’16).

The two should have plenty of motivation, too, with the chance to qualify for the ATP WTF and improve on their already career high rankings. The question is how much do Zverev and Dimitrov have to give after a long season and where will their heads and bodies be- on the court fighting to win points and trophies or on the beach getting some well deserved rest before the upcoming trip Down Under?

Will we see more surprise title winners like Peter Gojowczyk or Damir Dzumhur?

With the end of season stretch hit by injuries and absences, the ATP 250 and 500 events are events where some new names could end up etched on trophies. Already during this end of season stretch, in Metz, Peter Gojowczyk won his first title and climbed to a career high No.66 in the rankings, and Damir Dzumhur won his first title and hit a career high of 40 after winning in St. Petersburg.

Both men had been around the tour a while (Gojowczyk turned pro in 2006, Dzumhur in 2011) and were primed to take their chance when it came their way, and there are plenty of other experienced and skilled players who will be entering the final events of the season hungry to upset the more established higher ranked pros or make the most of collapsed draws on their way to etching their names on to their first tour trophies and giving tennis fans some new names to talk about as this season draws to a close and the new one comes into view.

 

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Five Questions with British Wheelchair Grand Slam Champion Alfie Hewett

Hewett

Photo courtesy of thetennisfoundation.org.uk

Wheelchair tennis pro Alfie Hewett has had a stellar season, winning a Singles slam at Roland Garros and winning back to back doubles slam with Gordon Reid at Wimbledon and the US Open. The Tennis Review caught up with Norfolk born Alfie and asked him five questions on how he got into the game, his favorite shot, and what it was like playing at Wimbledon and the US Open.

How did you get into tennis?

My mum was the big reason I got into Tennis. She took me to Stoke Mandeville where I trialed lots of disability sports. Tennis was one of three that I found really fun, so when I came back to Norwich I started to take up disability tennis lessons locally and found my journey just spiraled up from there.

 Who inspired you growing up?

Growing up I always looked up to Shingo Kunieda, I thought he was unstoppable and just simply amazing for the sport. His speed around the court and the way he became invincible really inspired me to work hard.

What is your favorite shot?

My favorite shot to play is probably the backhand down the line when I am on the stretch as I like to really go for it hard. It is one of those shots where it is all or nothing and so when they do come off its quite a feeling.

 What was your favorite thing about competing at Wimbledon?

My favorite thing about competing at Wimbledon was playing on court 3 in the doubles final. The crowd was behind us all the way and the atmosphere was electric to play in at times. To then win in the dramatic way we did (third set tiebreak) made it that much more tense but also special when once won.

How does the US Open compare with Wimbledon?

The US Open has a different feel to Wimbledon. It’s one of the biggest tennis events on the tour so it took some adjusting, finding where everything was and getting to know the place. Because of it being bigger, I found it more free to go around, both in the stadium and the grounds, which is something I like. All slams have their own value and I really enjoyed the vibe and atmosphere that the people brought to this slam.

 

 

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ATP Tour Time to Bring the End of Season to Life Again

ATP Tour

Photo courtesy of revistatenis.uol.com.br

Fans of David Nalbandian will know the featured photo above and fondly so- the Argentine proudly holding his 2005 ATP WTF trophy which he won ranked 12, as a replacement for Andy Roddick, beating Roger Federer in a five set final. Five set finals, inspiring upsets, surprise winners, the factors present in Nalbandian’s ’05 WTF trophy run added drama, variety and entertainment to the end of the tennis season. The Tennis Review argues it is time to bring the ATP end of season back to life once again.

Shorten the season and increase the quality

The Tennis season is one of sport’s longest, beginning, for some, a few days before the start of the next calendar year, and going all the way, for some, to Paris Bercy, and for several into late November with the WTF and the Davis Cup final.

For some players, the season never really ends with exhibitions such as the IPTL, and lower ranked players still fighting for points and prize-money on the challenger and futures circuits into late November and late December, which, with tennis such an expensive sport to take up as a career, is an opportunity to earn money all year round, one lower ranked pros cannot afford to lose.

Those players have to survive that far into the season first, though. Once the US Open is done, many players are burned out and injured, with the top ranked pros often withdrawing from tournaments from New York onwards, or, as has happened this season, some not even making it to the year’s final slam, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori taking the rest of the year off in the season’s final quarter and Andy Murray withdrawing just after the draw was done, their absence allowing other players to pick up prize money and ranking points but meaning many tournaments lack the big names who draw in the crowds.

Fans burn out, too. Many fans switch off once the US Open is done with the tour staying with hard courts, outdoor and indoor, many of which are medium slow as already seen in the North American Summer swing and the Spring swing.

Speed up courts and add some variety

If you are going to keep the tour going after the year’s final slam, considering fans have already seen plenty of hard court tennis already in the season,  why not give them something different?

One controversial tennis issue is surface homogenization so why not help settle this debate and have the final fifth of the year played on fast indoor courts like it used to be up until the early 2000s? Back in the 90s there were criticisms that fast indoor courts made tennis all about the serve, but things may have gone, in the eyes of some, too much to the other extreme with defensive tennis prevailing over offensive indoors.

If courts were sped-up, there would be plenty of fans, of fast court tennis and variety in general, who would stick with the tour all the way to a faster, and for those fans, a sweeter end, and for those fans who did like more extended rallies, there would still be some to satisfy them in the earlier rounds when baseline players were still in the event.

Speeding up the courts would also help players who were more aggressive and struggled outside of the Grass season (five weeks long in a fifty week season) and the odd event in Rotterdam, Cincinnati, and Shanghai. More tournaments suiting their style would allow aggressive players to climb the rankings, perhaps even get seeded for Wimbledon and the US Open. It would also encourage young players who enjoyed a more aggressive tennis style to adopt that game, and such versatility would only be good for the tour.

Watch highlights of the classic Sampras-Becker 1996 Stuttgart final below:

Make the WTF 32 person knock out event to engage more fan bases

For many fans, especially those of players outside of the top 8, there is little incentive to watch the season finale. There is the slight excitement of the chance your favorite player ranked from 9-16 could compete in the ATP WTF, as Nalbandian’s fans experienced in 2005, but even then most players and fan bases are excluded.

The ATP have tried to solve this problem for fans of the #NextGen who, apart from Sascha Zverev this season, are not ranked high enough to qualify for the finals by introducing the #NextGen finals but the gimmicks which will be used at that event mean it won’t be played in the conditions fans are used to and is in danger of being more exhibition experiment than a credible contest.

The ATP WTF is also a disappointment at times with the qualifying players struggling with injuries and exhaustion, and many a one sided match up playing out. Even the year end No.1 is often settled way before the season ending, last year being the first time the final decided the year end tour leader.

That lack of competition means the ATP WTF seems like a glorified money making exhibition rather than what it could be, and should be – an exciting finale to the year end. A 32 man event, or 48 with some first round byes, played indoors, on a fast court would mean the end of the year would both satisfy a multitude of fan-bases and allow more aggressive players to come forward.

It might also allow us to see another side of the tour’s established players, encouraging them to attack more and be more vulnerable, making them, in their vulnerability, more interesting.

Have a Fifth Set in the ATP WTF Final

With the two ATP WTF finalists likely to be in strong form, especially if the season were shortened, they could summon the energy to make a contest of the last final of the year, and not just any championship match, but a five set one, the format played in slams and Davis Cup,  a match which, if they win, would see them crowned the WTF champ.

We would never have witnessed Nalbandian’s greatest moment, either, had we not had best of five set ATP finals- the Argentine came back from two sets down to win in five.

See the highlights of Nalbandian’s win over Federer at the 2005 WTF final below.

Turn the WTF into a fifth slam

Even better than a 48 player season finale would be a fifth slam.

Tennis has broken with tradition to move with the times often enough, such as changing from wooden to graphite rackets, changing technology of strings, kit and footwear, and changing the surfaces at slams and later the speeds. But one tradition tennis does not want to embrace is the idea of a fifth slam.

Slams are, in the eyes of some, the be all and end all of tennis, and the build up to slams is one of the most exciting and intriguing periods of the tennis season. A fifth slam, an idea advocated by tennis great John Newcombe, on fast courts, indoors, in a place like China, India, or Brazil, would add a whole new dimension to the sport, delivering a change in style to fans, widening the pool of slam champs (do we need the same winners year in year out that we now seem to have?) and adding an injection of unpredictability to the sport, a boost all sports need, and without which you get what we have now – an anticlimax of a season end when we could have a page turner instead.

 

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Rafa Nadal US Open Trophy Win In the Tennis World All Grand Slams Are Equal

Nadal US Open 2017

Photo courtesy of http://hausa.leadership.ng

Rafa Nadal was one of the favorites going into this season’s US Open, but his journey to his 16th slam was expected to be a tough fought one versus an old rival and some players threatening to become new ones. Instead the Spaniard was presented with a very different path to navigate, a path less rocky and picturesque but as impressive as any road any champion has traveled on for the simple fact the top seed was the last man standing at the end of a road some never even managed to get a foot on. 

In modern tennis, all slams are equal- each slam earns the winner 2000 ATP points- and each one adds to the champion’s tally, and the higher the number, the greater the player’s ranking in the list of men’s tennis legends. But when it comes to those Greatest Ever debates, the numbers written on paper are often not enough to convince the doubters and debaters. Pundits and fans delve into the drawers of draws, replays, interviews, and media because while on paper all slams may seem equal, in the sphere of tennis debate, some are more equal than others.

Rafa Nadal’s recent US Open victory has undergone that scrutiny as to whether or not the numbers really add up when it comes to the Spaniard’s greatness. The  world No.1’s 16th slam, his third US Open (2010, 2013, 2017), has put him four Majors ahead of Novak Djokovic and two ahead of Pete Sampras in the all time Major list though he is still, just as he was this time last season, trailing career rival Roger Federer by three (19-16).

That number 16 means, if you consider slams to be the defining, and deciding, factor when it comes to greatness, Rafa Nadal is the second greatest player of all time, and some will even use that number 16 in addition to his head to head lead over Roger Federer (23-14) to argue Nadal may actually be the G.O.A.T despite his recent allergy to Grass.

Nadal’s slam numbers certainly work out for him when it comes to assessing him as one of the greatest of all time, but the other numbers that came up in his run to the 2017 US Open trophy are not as impressive most notably the rankings of his rivals – 85, 121, 59, 64, 53, 28, and 32. But players are more than just numbers and those rivals were Dusan Lajovic, Taro Daniel, Leonardo Mayer, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Andrey Rublev, Juan Martin del Potro, and Kevin Anderson. Two of those players were lucky losers who won titles in the clay stretch post Wimbledon, (Rublev (Umag), Mayer in Hamburg), one of them has a career win over Nadal (Dolgopolov, Indian Wells 2013), Lajovic and Daniel had qualified directly for the draw and were as quality opening round opponents as most top seeds have faced at slams, one had beaten favorite Roger Federer in the previous round and was a former US Open champion with a 5-8 record versus Nadal (del Potro) and Kevin Anderson is a former top tenner with a win over Andy Murray at the Open in 2015 and who so nearly beat Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon ’15.

Those player’s rankings, though, unlike his own or his number of slams won, are numbers Nadal cannot control. This year, the draw also spiraled out of control numbers wise before the US Open began, the draw less equal to slams past to begin with as Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori, two former champs and a former finalist withdrew before the event, and then, after the draw was done, Andy Murray, the second seed, lopsided the draw with his last minute withdrawal, a draw pitting the two favorites Federer and Nadal in the same half, a draw which collapsed round by round as Sascha Zverev was upset by Borna Coric and Marin Cilic fell to Diego Schwartzman.

Heads rolled in the top half, too. Kyrgios did not survive the opening round, Rublev knocked out Grigor Dimitrov, and David Goffin, and a struggling Roger Federer finally came up against a player with the experience and big match feel to take him down, Juan Martin del Potro, the event’s sleeping giant who likes nothing more than to be woken up by the roars of other giants in the biggest arenas and then silence them before a fervent crowd.

But while everyone else was losing their heads, Nadal was keeping his, and firmly on, too, as he kept the numbers in his favors, winning the required three sets in his matches, and upping his game in the quarters, dismissing Rublev for the loss of five games, dropping the same number in the final three sets of his match versus del Potro, a match in which Nadal played his best tennis since Roland Garros, and then defeating Kevin Anderson in straights in the final, a performance in which Nadal did not face a break point, dropped just 15 points on serve in 14 service games and won 16/16 points at the net.

Nadal’s performance at the business event of the tournament would have stood up well to whoever he played – his fitness would have outlasted Federer’s, the Swiss compromised by a sore back, and Nadal’s experience, will to win, and smarts would have have been too much for Zverev or Dimitrov whose early exits suggested they were not as ready to break through in a slam as many fans thought they were.

Just as Nadal’s timing on the ball was better than anyone in the draw so was his timing when it came to the season. The top seed’s Roland Garros run meant he had the confidence to win another slam on a surface which suited him over five sets, (the title was his first hard court title since Doha ’14), and his limited success on Grass and in the US Open series (6-3) meant he still had the strength and energy to take a slam, depleted draw wise by the rigors and stresses of a tour nine months in, a draw shredded round by round once the tournament began, the survivors in the final rounds the strongest at that time, but none as strong as a top seed with 15 slams on his record.

That record reads 16 now, the second strongest tally in history, and while his numbers may be called into question by some, the numbers tell us Nadal, the top seed, has entered 49 slams and been the best player in the draw 16 times, numbers which for a tennis player, do not, unless your name is Roger Federer, get better than that.

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US Open Preview The Favorites Testing Times for the First Picks on Paper

US Open

Photo courtesy of taringa.net

The US Open favorites are an unknown quantity this year with injuries, inexperience and unpredictability all raising questions concerning the potential champion’s fitness to come through and win the title. 

Roger Federer, seeded 3, champion 2004-08.

Roger Federer has not won the US Open since 2008 and has not competed in the championship match since 2009, his last significant success in New York now half his career ago.

However, with the current stage of his career mirroring the best moments of the first part, 2017 could be the year he gets his name engraved on the US Open trophy for the sixth time.

The last time Federer won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in the same season was 2007, just over a decade ago. In a fairytale revival tennis fans have been only too eager to watch play out, a third slam this season should not, unless the sore back suffered in Montreal is anything more than that, shock anyone, but would instead, be another of the very pleasant surprises Federer’s 2017 has sprung.

How the draw treated him:

If Federer’s back is bothering him, Frances Tiafoe could be a tricky opponent in the first round. Tiafoe is highly touted, very talented and a little experienced at pushing Federer, too, taking the Swiss to a tiebreak in the first set of their Miami match earlier this season.

The draw looks pretty straightforward from then on until the last sixteen where 14th seed and Cincy finalist Nick Kyrgios is scheduled, a tough prospect for the Swiss with the Australian already notching up a win vs Federer in Madrid ’15 and pushing Federer all the way in their Miami thriller back in the Spring, and with every one of their six sets contested going to a tiebreak.

Once into the quarters, Federer is drawn to meet sixth seed Dominic Thiem, but could find himself up against Juan Martin del Potro, seeded 24 and dealt a kind draw, the kind he deserves after his back luck draw-wise this season.

The semis is where another slice of history in the multi tiered chronicle 2017 has become could take place- the first Fedal US Open contest.

The US Open is the missing link in the Federer vs Nadal rivalry, and if Federer and Nadal, the slam champs of the season, the first and second in the race to London, get that far then they could be playing some of their best tennis which means learning what that missing link might have revealed will be a sight to see, and, if that match is a classic, could also mean that if Federer goes on to win the title, it may, arguably, end up being his greatest title win in New York yet.

Sascha Zverev, seeded four, second round 2016.

The last 20 year old to break through and win the US Open was Juan Martin del Potro in 2009, and if anyone is going to repeat that kind of youthful success this year, then it is going to be Sascha Zverev.

In a draw missing its defending champ (Wawrinka), two former champs ((Djokovic, Murray), and a former finalist (Nishikori), there is space at the top in men’s tennis and, awarded the fourth seed in the draw, Zverev has three big factors in his favor to help him not just fill the void in the short term but make it his in the long-term- the serve, the backhand, and, above all, the desire.

How the draw treated him:

Zverev faces qualifier Darian King in round 1, and will have a tough time in round 2 versus Borna Coric or Jiri Vesely. Kevin Anderson, who Zverev beat in the Citi Open final, is seeded for round three.

Zverev has had a bit of luck being drawn in the opposite half as Federer and Nadal and got even more fortunate with Andy Murray’s last minute withdrawal from the tournament, a development which means Zverev will find himself the favorite to win his quarter-final, 17th seed Sam Querrey his likely opponent.

In the semis, if the 20 year can hold his nerve versus Marin Cilic, who he leads 3-1, or eighth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a first slam final is Zverev’s for the taking, and, the way his season is unfolding, once he gets there, the momentum on his side, the milestone every young player dreams of stepping across will be within skipping distance- a walk up to the podium on Slam final’s day, the trophy handed to him, upon it, his name engraved.

Grigor Dimitrov, seeded 7 , fourth round 2016, 2014.

Right now, Dimitrov is the last man standing of the ATP’s 2014 Young Guns (Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic have both pulled out injured) and the 26 year old pulled even further away from them winning the Cincy Open, the first ATP 1000 trophy won by any of that trio.

The tennis world has been waiting a while to anoint Dimitrov as a Grand slam champion, and in Cincy he proved he had what it takes to come through an injury hit draw and matches in which he was the favorite. Dimitrov will face different pressures this Open, potentially facing three top ten opponents including Nadal, Federer and Sascha Zverev to win the title, but he has never gone into such a possible scenario with such a strong season behind him or as much confidence.

How the draw treated him:

Dimitrov plays qualifier Vaclav Safranek in round 1, and could face an intriguing clash with #NextGenATP player Andrey Rublev in round two or Aljaz Bedene, two players who have climbed from outside the top 100 to inside the top 50 this season. 27th seed Pablo Cuevas is scheduled for round 3, and either Gael Monfils (18) or David Goffin (9) could be waiting in the last sixteen.

That fourth round will be a real test as to how Dimitrov is able to handle the pressure of being one of the favorites for a slam for the first time. Monfils leads Dimitrov 4-1, including two wins at the US Open (2011, 2014), but this would be their first meeting since Dimitrov has hit some of his career best form. Dimitrov has a better match up in Goffin, leading him 3-1, but that one defeat happened in their last match, a three set win for the Belgian in Rotterdam this season, a time Dimitrov seemed to suffer a let down after his early season success.

Should Dimitrov make it to his scheduled last eight spot, which would be the furthest he would have gone in the US Open, a rematch of the Australian Open semi with Rafa Nadal could take place, a match which, if the tournament has not delivered an all time classic, could be the one to do so.

Nick Kyrgios, seeded 14, third round 2016, 2014.

Kyrgios continues to arouse the curiosity if the tennis world, and his recent trip to the Cincy final, his first ATP 1000 final, will have only served to arouse curiosity even further.

Was that breakthrough a real step forward, or are Kyrgios and his fans about to take another step back this US Open? No one knows, but we can be certain it will be entertaining finding out.

How the draw treated him:

Kyrgios faces fellow Australian John Millman in round one, either Malek Jaziri or Thiago Monteiro in round two, Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round and none other than Roger Federer in the fourth, a showdown likely to be played under the lights on Arthur Ashe over the Labor day holiday, and one the big match loving Kyygios will work hard not to miss.

Rafa Nadal, top seed, Champion 2010, 2013

Rafa Nadal is certainly back- the Australian Open finalist, the Roland Garros champion, the world No.1- but for one of the greatest of all time players, there is back and then there is back and the question going into this US Open is just how back is he?

In his best years, seasons in which he has finished the year end No.1, Nadal has won multiple slams (2008, 2010, 2013) and with the race to year end No.1 with Roger Federer very close, (just 500 points separate them in the ATP rankings going into this US Open), victory this US Open still might not seal the deal, but would give Nadal plenty of confidence to have a strong enough showing in the final swing of the season- one in which he has performed better in in recent years than he did earlier on his career– to end the year No.1 for the fourth time.

Nadal has not been as sharp in this season’s NYC lead in as he has in previous US Open winning years- last 16, Montreal; Quarters, Cincy– but he was under a lot of pressure in Montreal to grab the No.1 ranking, and Nick Krygios is a tough match up for him on fast hard courts. This Open, if Nadal does end up facing an inspired young gun with nothing to lose or a skilled hard courter playing smart tennis, he will be in trouble, but so will his opponents who, if they thought defeating Nadal in best of three at an ATP 1000 was tough, will find that beating him in best of five at a slam is a reward that only comes in the most punishing manner.

How the draw treated him:

A struggling Nadal will not relish a possible meeting with Fabio Fognini, his 2015 conqueror, in the fourth round, but that could be the match in which his hard court champion’s form finally clicks under the pressure.

The top seed will need that click to happen if he is going to get past Grigor Dimitrov in the last eight- the Bulgarian will be in the mood to avenge that Australian Open semi-final defeat- and then negotiate a possible semi with Roger Federer who has beaten him on hard court three times this season (Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami).

Marin Cilic, seeded 5, champion 2014.

Cilic’s Wimbledon final appearance was a bittersweet one, the achievement one he was clearly proud of, his biggest feat since winning the 2014 US Open title, but a feat he did not showcase his full abilities in, a foot blister and the occasion overwhelming him.

With the psychological scars and the physical ones still  too raw to have healed- Cilic has not played since Wimbledon– little can be expected of the former champ, an unknown quantity at the best of times, but, as one of the few active slam champs in the draw, the Croatian has to be given a shot because when Cilic is on, his shots are of as high a quality as anyone else in the draw.

How the draw treated him:

After Andy Murray’s withdrawal, Cilic has taken his place in the draw, and will probably be relieved to face world No.104 Tennys Sandgren and not Gilles Simon who he was originally drawn to play. Cilic will not underestimate Sandgren, though- the American will have the crowd’s support on a show court and is match fit having played 12 matches since Wimbledon.

Florian Mayer, if the 2016 Halle champ beats Roberto Dutra Silva, could be awkward in the second round, Thanassi Kokkinakis will be one to watch in the third, and Lucas Pouille (16) or David Ferrer (21) will help us learn just how much Cilic has bounced back.

Cilic’s last eight match is scheduled to be versus 8th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who he played and beat at the same stage in 2015, and if he can  repeat that win, he could face Sascha Zverev, a player who he has struggled with in the past, but if Cilic beat Zverev over five sets and exploit the German’s inexperience on that slam semi-final stage, Cilic will show us he has not only recovered from his SW19 loss, but that he may have even grown.

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US Open Five Faces to Watch Khachanov Rublev Kokkinakis Chung Sugita

US Open

Photo courtesy of twitter.com

The US Open draw is dealt, and while most of the attention will be on the top seeds, there are a few lower ranked players tennis fans will be keeping an eye on. The Tennis Review gives you five players to watch at this season’s final slam.

Karen Khachanov, seeded 25

US Open history: 2015, lost qualifying second round to Ivan Dodig; 2016, qualified to main draw and lost to Kei Nishikori in round 2.

Why he’s one to watch:

Khachanov has shades of another Russian, one who excelled at the US Open, Marat Safin, with his powerful serve and ground game. The 21 year old has climbed up to No. 29 in the world rankings from this time last year when, ranked 95, he had to qualify to enter the US Open draw.

A title win in Chengdu (hard courts), and reaching the Barcelona quarters, the Roland Garros last sixteen and the Halle semis have all contributed to Khachanov’s current career high ranking. That all surface ability bodes well for the Russian’s future as a future top five player, and also for his success at the US Open where the hard courts are fairly neutral and reward both great aggression and defense.

Khachanov falls in the aggressive category, and that mindset plus the fearlessness of youth mean none of the top 16 seeds are going to want to see him in their round of 32.

What draw was he dealt:

25th seeded Khachanov has drawn Marin Cilic (5), a bittersweet draw with Cilic being the 2014 US Open champion and reigning Wimbledon runner up, but also sidelined since SW19 with injury.

Andrey Rublev, ranked 54

US Open history: Qualified in 2015 and lost to Kevin Anderson in round 1, lost in 2016 qualifying 1st round to Miljan Zekic.

Why he’s one to watch:

19 year old Andrey Rublev has climbed from 186 in the rankings ( 22.08.2016) to his current ranking of 54 (career high of 49 after winning Umag), an ascent achieved on the back of winning a first career title, as a lucky loser, on Clay (Umag), reaching the Halle last eight (lost to Khachanov), reaching the semis of the Irving, Texas, Challenger, the final of the Rennes Challenger, and qualifying for the main draw at all three of this season’s slams, going as far as the Wimbledon second round.

The big-serving, big-hitting Rublev has not had the most successful lead in to this year’s US Open, playing just one match in the Cincy qualifiers and losing to Ernests Gulbis, but he did make the Winston-Salem second round (beat Darcis, lost Chung) and he has been working off court with countryman Marat Safin, no less, and that experience combined with winning Umag as a lucky loser should give him plenty of confidence to make his mark in his first ever direct main draw appearance in a slam.

What draw was he dealt:

In his first round, Rublev has drawn world No.48 Aljaz Bedene who has been remarkably consistent this year climbing up into the top 50 from a ranking of 101 at the start of the season.

If Rublev survives Bedene, who has not lost in the opening round of an event since Miami, he could face the in-form No.7 seed Cincy champ Grigor Dimitrov who, with more pressure on him than he has faced for a few years, could be ripe for an upset.

Hyeon Chung, ranked 49

US Open history: 2014, lost second round qualifying to Jimmy Wang, 2015 lost to Stan Wawrinka round 2, 2016, DNP.

Why he’s one to watch:

South Korea’s Hyeon Chung currently holds a career high ranking of 49 and has been working hard this US Open Series, playing in four events, and the Citi Open, a swing which saw him reach the Winston-Salem quarters, and earning wins over David Goffin, Feliciano Lopez, and fellow #NextGenATP player Rublev.

As well as being healthy and hard working, Chung has another factor in his favor, a taste for the big matches, making his way to the last 32 of this year’s Roland Garros where he took Kei Nishikori to five sets.

This season, Chung has also beaten Gael Monfils and Martin Klizan back to back to reach the Munich semis, and qualified for the Barcelona main draw, beating Alexander Zverev and Philipp Kohlschreiber before losing to Rafa Nadal.

That impressive list of scalps is a varied one style-wise. Chung’s game – aggressive consistent baseline tennis, high on margin for error, point construction and calculated risks – matches up well to most styles, meaning if he catches a top seed even slightly below par, the 21 year old is in with a chance to cause some damage to the draw.

What draw was he dealt:

Chung has drawn the veteran clay courter Horacio Zeballos in his opener and could face tenth seed and recent Cincy semi-finalist John Isner in the second round.

Thannasi Kokkinakis, ranked 223

US Open history: 2014, lost qualifying second round to Yoshihito Nishioka, 2015 lost 1st round to Richard Gasquet, 2016 DNP.

Why he’s one to watch:

Kokkinakis has plenty of motivation to go on a good run this US Open- this is his last time to take advantage of his protected ranking-and he also has the inspiration to go deep- after 19 months out of the game recovering from injury, he recently made his first ATP final in Las Cabos, beating Tomas Berdych on the way.

Currently ranked 223, the Australian was ranked as high as 69 (2015.06.08), and for good reason. The 21 year old has the height (196cm) to make his serve a weapon on any surface and the consistency to grind from the baseline and the power and aggression to take advantage of any short balls to come his way.

That style has served Kokkinakis well on hard courts with the Australian reaching the Las Cabos final, the 2015 Indian Wells last sixteen, and upsetting Ernests Gulbis in the 2015 Australian Open first round.

What draw was he dealt:

Kokkinakis has drawn another player coming back from injury, the former top tenner Janko Tipsarevic, in round 1, the 29th seed Diego Schwartzmann who is more at home on clay courts in round 2, and second seed and good friend Andy Murray in round three.

That is a good draw for the Australian and with his laid back and fun-loving personality ensuring him of crowd favorite status, if he can push his more experienced rivals close, he can rely on plenty of crowd support to help him over the line.

Yuichi Sugita, ranked 43

US Open history: Sugita has never appeared in the US Open main draw. Qualifying 1st round ’09, ’11-13; 2nd round ’15, ’16; 3rd round ’10, ’14.

Why he’s one to watch:

Peaking at an age pros used to consider retiring is as much a feature of the tour as teen phenoms once were, and Sugita, aged 28,after spending the first decade of his pro career ranked outside the top 100, finally broke through on 2016.02.09, winning the indoor hard Kyoto Challenger, and the Japanese is just recently hitting his stride, reaching a career high ranking of 43, winning the title in Antalya and the Surbiton challenger on Grass, and reaching both the Cincy and Barcelona quarters (as a qualifier).

Sugita’s favorite shot is the return, a shot which has become as important, if not more so, than the serve in the last few years, and with that in mind, plus his preference for faster surfaces, the Japanese, with Kei Nishikori sidelined with injury, may give his home country something to cheer about this US Open when, for the first time, the 28 year old competes in the main draw.

What draw was he dealt:

Sugita has drawn French wild card Geoffrey Blancaneux in round 1, and could face 26th seed Richard Gasquet in the second round, and if he scores the upset, top seed Rafa Nadal in the third.

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