Roland Garros Final Preview Rafa Nadal Versus Stan Wawrinka

Roland Garros 2017 Final

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The 2017 Roland Garros final features Rafa Nadal seeking a historic La Decima and Stan Wawrinka aiming to make it four for four in Grand Slam finals. The Tennis Review looks ahead to the best possible final the French Open could have asked for.

Facing a favorite in the final of a grand slam has never fazed Stan Wawrinka, but he has never quite had to come up against as heavy a favorite as Rafa Nadal going into the 2017 Roland Garros final.

Nadal was, in fact, the Swiss’ first ever grand slam final vanquished opponent, the Swiss executing his slam winning explosive aggression versus the Spaniard in the 2014 Australian Open final, a match Nadal went into as the top seed and favorite, but found himself undone by both the Swiss’ improved mental strength and strategic powers and his own ailing body.

At Roland Garros ’15, the Swiss defeated the heavily fancied Novak Djokovic in one of the all time great slam final performances to take his second slam title.

Even in the US Open ’16 final, the first slam final Wawrinka was arguably the favorite to win, Djokovic, the top seed and better fast hard court player, played well enough to win the first set. But an underwhelming injury-hit Djokovic run, helped along by withdrawals and favorable match ups, came to a brutal halt as Wawrinka took the match in four sets, and won his third slam trophy.

In this Roland Garros final, Wawrinka is as far away from being favorite as he is ever likely to be in a slam final. The Swiss is 3-15 versus the Spaniard in their career head to head, 1-4 on clay, and so the match up is already in Nadal’s favor. While head to heads can be turned on their heads in slam finals, as Wawrinka did himself in the 2014 Australian Open final versus Nadal, one thing which is not likely to change much, for someone leading the ATP race to London like Nadal is, barring injury, is form, and  Nadal has looked unstoppable in his six matches coming in to the final, much as he has the entire clay season, dropping no more than four games a set, putting in one ten out of ten performance, one after another, on his way to La Decima, culminating in the semi-final versus Dominic Thiem in which the fourth seed dropped just seven games, winning the final set to love, putting together first and second serve winning percentages of 71 and 76, hitting 23 winners to 22 errors, and forcing the second best clay courter of 2017 into error after error, the pressure unraveling the Austrian in the most ruthless fashion.

Stan Wawrinka has looked unbeatable at times, too, most notably from late in the fourth set to winning match point in his semi-final versus top seeded Andy Murray. While the Swiss had his very beatable moments, too, in that match, Murray testing his patience and resolve to the max, the 2015 champion came through that test, and that will help him in the final where he will really find out what ‘to the max’ means, the test he will receive by Nadal on a whole new level of rigorousness than the four hour and 34 minute one he faced versus the Scot.

Against Wawrinka, Nadal will also be examined for the first time this French Open with the scrutiny one would expect a champion to undergo at the highest level of the sport. Wawrinka brings his very best to slam finals, and while it may take him a set or two to find it, he always delivers his all-out aggressive game in slam championship matches, the kind of game necessary to keep Nadal at bay.

The Swiss will not want to take too long to find that game this Roland Garros final, and he will have to deliver serve at a much higher percentage than he did versus Murray in the first set (53), getting it into the mid 70s. If he does that, he can take Nadal to tiebreakers in which the Swiss’ risky shot-making could pay off. It’s a big could, though. Nadal’s defense on clay is the best in the game, and Wawrinka will have to control his aggression and wait for his moment or his risky shots could backfire.

Nadal’s aggression is also the best in the clay court business. While it may not hit the peaks Wawrinka’s does, it is far more consistent and controlled than Wawrinka’s, and while Wawrinka’s defense is good, it will not be able to withstand the assault of Nadal’s heavy spin on his one handed backhand. Wawrinka may be better at handling that spin than other one handed backhanders out there, but there is only so much any one, single or double handed, can take on that side, or any side, in Nadal’s backyard, as the victims in his 78 wins at Roland Garros since 2005 can testify.

Only two men have survived Nadal at Roland Garros, Robin Soderling and Djokovic (2009 and 2015) and both men were helped along by injury and a lack of confidence, two factors which will not come into play in this year’s final. If Wawrinka is going to inflict only Nadal’s third loss at Roland Garros and win a fourth slam, he is going to have to do it the  Soderling way, one more suited to his strengths, blowing him off the court, and if he does manage to produce his unbeatable best and do so, it will raise a healthy and confident Nadal’s game, too, producing the best possible scenario for the final, short of an inspiring upset by the Swiss, of Nadal winning the La Decima, the height of historical tennis achievements, at the height of his clay court capabilities

The Tennis Review

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Roland Garros Semi Final Preview Rafa Nadal Versus Dominic Thiem

Roland Garros Thiem Nadal

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Rafa Nadal (4) versus Dominic Thiem (6) in the Roland Garros semis might be a little too early in the 2017 Roland Garros tale for some, but the stage might just be the right one to deliver the match clay court tennis fans deserve.

Tennis fans do not always get what they deserve at the business end of slams- they follow the long clay lead in, for example, week in week out, only for their favorites to have peaked too soon and exit in the first round, failing to meet their seed in the draw and depriving us of top draw matches- but at this year’s Roland Garros tennis fans will get what is coming to them in the semi-finals when Rafa Nadal, the Monte Carlo, Madrid and Barcelona champion meets Dominic Thiem, the Barcelona and Madrid finalist, and the only player to beat Nadal in the European clay court swing.

For some, the Nadal-Thiem Roland Garros semi-final will be a match too soon, the main narrative of the 2017 clay court season story wrapped up too early, the final act, the championship match reduced to a denouement. For others, though, the semi final might be the perfect place to wrap up the Nadal-Thiem story this clay season, the final perhaps too nervy an occasion for Thiem, who is yet to explore that stage of his potential, leaving the semi-final, where the sixth seed, the 2016 semi-finalist, is more comfortable, a setting more likely, perhaps, to do their 2017 clay court rivalry justice.

In their six career meetings so far, Nadal and Thiem have only ever met on clay, (Nadal leads 4-2). Before their match in Barcelona this year, Nadal led the head to head 2-1, winning at Roland Garros ’14 and Monte Carlo ’16 and losing at Buenos Aires ’16. This season, Nadal pulled ahead in the head to head, winning the Barcelona final 6-4, 6-1, and the Madrid final 7-6 (8), 6-4, a far more closely contested affair, Thiem learning from the Barcelona loss and exploiting the faster conditions, but in Rome, Thiem cut the head to head deficit, everything coming together for the youngest member of the top ten, the Austrian defeating Nadal 6-4, 6-3 in a two hour contest.

Their upcoming Roland Garros will see an even further improved Thiem, the sixth seed reaching the last eight without dropping a set and scoring his first win over Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, in the quarter-finals, and not just any old win, but one with a  7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-0 scoreline, the Austrian breaking down Novak’s game and his spirit in about as calm, brutally effective and clinical a style as it gets in pro tennis, showcasing a killer instinct becoming of a highly touted future Roland Garros champion.

Nadal knows a thing or two about the killer instinct. The nine time champion, aiming for a historic La Decima, has cruised through the draw, one of his most dominant ever processions, dropping just 16 games in the first four rounds, and getting into the semis courtesy of his opponent Pablo Carreno-Busta retiring trailing 2-6, 0-2.

Thiem goes into the semis on the top of his game, on the back of a career best win, while Nadal may find his rhythm a little off due to how his quarter-final panned out, and Thiem, who will need every advantage he can get, will have to exploit that, starting where he left off, and not allowing Nadal to break away, the Spaniard proving to be a formidable front runner this event, and Thiem in danger of being swept away, the pressure overwhelming him, not just forcing him into error, but setting off the unforced errors that can plague the Austrian when he is feeling tight.

Thiem can at least, if that happens, take refuge in the five set format, and the motivation to do better in his second slam final than he did in his first in which he just won seven games. Thiem, one of the best students there is in the pro game, is sure to improve on that showing, his powerful serve and strokes of a class high enough to earn him a set, if not two.

To win the match might be out of Thiem’s reach, the task of playing his best tennis for three sets versus one of the greatest clay courters in some of his best ever clay form a tough ask for someone who has never delivered a similar performance in similar circumstances, but Thiem should not be underestimated due to his inexperience, the sixth seed proving he deserves his role as one of the central characters in the 2017 clay court tale, and if anyone is going to bring about a thrilling twist a chapter too early at Roland Garros, Thiem is as good as, if not better than, anyone to execute.

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Roland Garros Quarter Final Preview Novak Djokovic Vs Dominic Thiem

Roland Garros

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Roland Garros’ defending champion Novak Djokovic (2) takes on the fancied future champ Dominic Thiem (6) in the quarter-finals- who will win the sixth installment of what has been, so far, a Serbian dominated rivalry?

Every time Dominic Thiem has made a significant step in his career – reaching his first slam semi (Roland Garros ’16), qualifying for his first ATP world tour finals (WTF ’16), or beating Rafa Nadal in a clay ATP 1000 tournament (Rome ’17) – Novak Djokovic has been waiting in the next round to remind Thiem just how much he has to learn.

At this season’s French Open, Thiem’s career milestone is meeting his highest ever seeded position in a slam draw. The sixth seed could have been forgiven for not reaching the quarter-finals, after a career best run of results (Barcelona final, Madrid final, Rome semis) for having a letdown and suffering an upset at the hands of Simone Bolelli, Steve Johnson or Horacio Zeballos, but he has lived up to expectations, exceeded them, even, by reaching the last eight without dropping a set.

Progress has not been as serene for defending champ Djokovic who dropped two sets to Diego Schwartzman in the third round and struggled in the first set of his fourth round match versus Albert Ramos-Vinolas, but Djokovic has tended to struggle early on in slams and the second seed is looking as good as he has at a slam since he last won one 12 months ago in Paris, and as good as he has since winning Doha at the start of this season.

A couple of weeks ago, against Thiem in Rome, Djokovic finally looked like he might be finally hitting the form fitting of a world No.2, beating the Austrian 6-1, 6-0 in a performance in which he executed the consistently high quality blend of offense and defense which made him the player to beat from Wimbledon ’14 to Roland Garros ’16, the game which has the answer to everything and asks his opponent one too many uncomfortable questions, questions which did not just make Thiem feel awkward, but humbled him, reminded him he may be competing in ATP 1000 finals and beating clay court greats but he still had plenty to work on when it came to his tennis.

A tired and emotionally spent Thiem played into Djokovic’s hands in Rome that day, giving the Serbian a much welcomed mix of rhythm and errors, but the sixth seed will have the energy he needs in the Roland Garros quarters to execute the controlled aggression necessary to defeat a Djokovic who, while not at the heights he was when they met in Paris a year back, is, if his first four matches are anything to go by, at his best in best of five at slams, a format which gives him time to find his game and unravel his rival’s, rivals who may have it in them to take a set or two but who find the effort to achieve that feat leaves them spent at the business end of a five setter, in the fourth and fifth sets, the time when Djokovic taps into the deeper reservoirs of his tank and finds he still has plenty running, more than enough to run his rival over.

Thiem is strong enough to stay on his feet, however, if the match goes deep, and if he can stay with Djokovic and hit through him, show he has learned his lessons from their Miami ’16 fourth round encounter (Thiem, reaching back to back last 16s in ATP 1000s for the first time, failed to convert 14 of 15 break points) and take his chances, the sixth seed may be able to tap into Djokovic’s greater fragility over the last 12 months, the inconsistency which has seen him go from big wins to even bigger losses in the space of a round, get the second seed wondering just how much he wants to be out there fighting a five setter versus someone of the power and clay court skill of Thiem, and make Djokovic no longer the stumbling block tripped on after clearing one of his milestones, but instead, for the first time in six meetings, one of the steps he dashes across on his way to another class in what is becoming a very impressive learning curve, a potential last four match with Rafa Nadal.

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Roland Garros The Favorites The Second Tier Wawrinka Thiem Djokovic Zverev

Roland Garros

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Rafa Nadal certainly looks like he is ready to bite into the Roland Garros 2017 trophy, but should the Spaniard’s teeth not be sharp enough, there are a few of his rivals hungry for success in Paris. The Tennis Review previews the chances of Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Andy Murray and Alexander Zverev.

Stan Wawrinka

If any player has the power and spark to defeat Nadal, it is probably Wawrinka, but as the 3rd seed, he would not meet the fourth seeded Spaniard until the final, and the big question is will he even get that far.

It all really depends on what side of the bed Stan gets out of on, but if he does get out of the wrong side, Fabio Fognini (28) might be the one, in the third round, to exploit any grumpiness on the part of the Swiss, the recent proud father always eager to trouble the top players as he did so convincingly in Rome versus Murray recently.

If Wawrinka can get past Fognini, he has a nice draw with both 15th seed Gael Monfils and 24th seed Richard Gasquet, one of whom he could meet in the last 16, both on the comeback from injury, but while seed wise the draw has been kind, the problem for Wawrinka is he could be beaten by anyone if he is not playing well, and his recent run to the Geneva final is no indication he will put in a good showing in Paris, and so the likes of Teymuraz Gasbashvili or Victor Estrella Burgos could find themselves into a Grand Slam Quarter final if Wawrinka has too much sleep in his eyes in the round of 16.

Once Wawrinka gets to the quarters, where he could face Marin Cilic (7), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (12) or Nick Kyrgios (24), he becomes very dangerous, and with a struggling Murray his last four opponent, or perhaps Sascha Zverev, who would be in his first slam semi, an occasion fraught with nerves for most first-timers, Wawrinka will be pumped to put himself into contention for a fourth slam title, and once the Swiss is wide awake and pumped up at the business end of a slam, there is little anyone can do to sedate him.

Dominic Thiem

Thiem has stepped it up in 2017, reaching his first ATP 1000 final, and being the only player to defeat Rafa Nadal on clay, and the next step for him, a semi-finalist at Roland Garros ’16, is the final.

Thiem will need to be on his toes if he is going to get there. David Goffin, who knows how to move him side to side and prevent him setting up his shots, is scheduled for the fourth round and Novak Djokovic, who beat him for the loss of one game in Rome and leads him 5-0, is drawn to play him in the quarters.

But if big defeats are to be recovered from and head to head deficits to be cut down, Grand slams, are the places to do it, and after a little rest since Rome, and plenty of practice in which to apply the lessons learned over the last couple of months, Thiem has what it takes to reach another slam semi and take on, most likely, Nadal.

Beating the nine time champion might be a long shot considering the Spaniard’s form but Thiem has proven he has the shots to beat the fourth seed, now he has to show he has the mind to sustain that level of play over five sets and under immense pressure, the mind of the Grand slam champion, a status Thiem seems in line for, the question is how far down the line is he?

Novak Djokovic

A new coach in Andre Agassi and a new clothing label in Lacoste may all be part of Djokovic trying to put the past 11 and a half months behind him, but it may just be a little too late in a long clay season for the defending champ who has a decent enough draw but who has not been able to put together convincing win after convincing win on a consistent basis the past year and will need to do exactly that if he is to beat Monte Carlo finalist Albert Ramos-Vinolas in round four, Dominic Thiem or David Goffin in the last eight, and Rafa Nadal in the semis.

Andy Murray

Andy Murray will do well to defend his 2016 runner up points with a draw that could pit him against the very dangerous Martin Klizan in round two (if Klizan plays well and Murray is passive like he was in Madrid and Rome the Scot could have quite a while to prepare for Wimbledon), and Juan Martin del Potro in round three, (the Argentine may be short of match play and struggling on his backhand side, but has the big serve and forehand to demand the best of Murray’s return and defense).

If Murray is playing well and can exploit Klizan’s erratic game and del Potro’s backhand, he could face the recently resurgent Rome semi-finalist John Isner in the last sixteen, though by that time, Murray should be in decent clay court form to see him off.

Murray will need to be a little better than decent in the last eight with a potential clash versus Sascha Zverev, the giant’s giant-killer, and while Murray leads Zverev 1-0, they have not met since the Australian Open 2016, and the Scot will face a rather different player to the inexperienced and nervous teen he met back then.

Roland Garros 2017

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Alexander Zverev

20 year olds winning slams was hardly a headliner once upon a time in tennis- Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open ’08, Marat Safin won the US Open ’01, Lleyton Hewitt, US Open ’02, Rafa Nadal won his third Roland Garros aged 20, del Potro won the US Open ’09 aged 21- and while it is unlikely Zverev will win the title in today’s climate, tennis does have a habit of being turned on its head by raw talent and desire, and Zverev has been spilling out plenty of both this season, recently so in Rome where he defeated Novak Djokovic for the title.

It’s the kind of spirit and play which could see him upset Andy Murray in the last eight and Stan Wawrinka in the last four and become the 16th youngest player to contest a slam final in the open era, just behind Andre Agassi at Roland Garros 1990 (Agassi was 20 years 1 month and 12 days- Zverev would be 20 years 1 month and 22 days).

Agassi did not win his slam final debut, and against Nadal, Zverev would be unlikely to either, but if Zverev can channel the spirit of Kuerten, del Potro and Safin who all beat far more experienced former champs in their first finals, anything, as those young surprise slam winners showed, can happen, and when it does, be sure not to miss it.

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Roland Garros 2017 Rafa Nadal Looks Ready to Bite A 10th French Open Trophy

Rafa Nadal

Photo Courtesy of http://a1on.mk

Rafa Nadal has already achieved two La Decimas this season, but in Nadal’s world, there are La Decimas and then there are La Decimas, and for Nadal, the most important one is coming up at Roland Garros. The Tennis Review looks at the case for and against Nadal achieving what would be one of the, if not the, most impressive feats in men’s tennis history.

History 

For: If there was ever a player who could claim a Grand Slam to be his home or his backyard, then it is Rafa Nadal.

Nadal’s history at Roland Garros is already, whatever happens in his career, the most impressive of any player at a slam ever. In 11 appearances at Roland Garros, Nadal has only lost twice (2009, ’15, withdrew in ’16), and the Spaniard even won the title on his debut in 2005, beating world No.1 Roger Federer on the way (his first of five wins versus the Swiss at Roland Garros).

Against: History is exactly that. While previous history at an event, a leading head to head versus an opponent or a favorable match up may be an important factor when it comes to players succeeding in slams, Nadal knows only too well that matches are decided on the day and that players can work out new strategies and develop their games as he found out versus Roger Federer at the Australian Open this season.

Form

For: Up until the Rome quarters a couple of weeks ago, Nadal had won 17 matches in a row, and in 2017 the ATP Race to London leader has won three titles, reached three finals, and lost in the Sydney quarters and the Indian Wells last 16, compiling a 36-6 win-loss record. In that stretch, he has gone 6-5 versus the top ten, and 6-0 versus players ranked 11-20.

His loss to Thiem in Rome may turn out to be, in the long run, a key factor in his winning Roland Garros, giving his tired body and mind a few more days rest.

Against:  Nadal will turn 31 on June 3rd and he might be a victim of his own success if during Roland Garros he discovers he does not have the energy he had just a couple of years ago, and his form drops as a result.

Confidence

For: Nadal is a player who gets his confidence from winning matches, and he needs confidence to win those big matches, a vicious cycle which hurt him a lot from Wimbledon 2014 to the US Open last season, particularly in the Slams where he suffered one shock loss after another.

Finally, though, this season in Melbourne, Nadal broke that cycle and has been racking up the wins and growing in confidence ever since.

Against: Nadal has lost his biggest final of 2017, losing the Australian Open after being a break up in the fifth versus Roger Federer, and also lost finals in Miami and Acapulco.

Each time, though, he lost to a player executing great hard court tennis, playing better than him, while on clay, in his current condition, there are less chances of him meeting such a rival.

Mental toughness

For: Nadal is, historically, one of the mentally toughest players in tennis, and that toughness is at its peak at Roland Garros where he has come through tough five set matches such as versus Djokovic in ’13 or John Isner in the 2011 first round.

Those matches are, actually, the only two five setters Nadal has contested in his 74 Roland Garros matches (72-2), a stat which illustrates just how tough he is in Paris.

Against: Nadal has not won a slam since Roland Garros 2014, and three years is a long time in tennis, a sport in which winning the big ones, a feat that is achieved by only a small circle of players (there are only seven active slam champions on tour right now, and those seven different men have won every slam since Roland Garros 2005) is definitely a habit.

Competition 

For: Nadal’s main rival in 2017, Roger Federer, is not playing the French, Novak Djokovic has declined and Nadal recently turned around a seven match losing streak to him in Madrid, Andy Murray is struggling, and only one man managed to beat him this clay season, Dominic Thiem.

The French Open draw has also been a kind one for Nadal- Gilles Simon (31) in round three, Jack Sock (14) in round four, and Milos Raonic (5) in the quarters, and no dangerous floaters in his quarter.

The tournament will get tougher in the semis with a potential meeting with Novak Djokovic (2) who should be in decent form if he reaches that stage, David Goffin (10) or Dominic Thiem (6).

Against: Dominic Thiem played the right style of controlled aggression necessary to beat Nadal in Rome and stayed positive despite Nadal having chances and keeping the match going for two hours. If Nadal is going to lose to anyone at Roland Garros, it will be to someone playing much like Thiem did in Rome or the brand of all out attack Robin Soderling executed on Phillipe Chatrier in 2009, and only Thiem or Wawrinka seem capable of doing so on clay right now.

In the final, if Stan Wawrinka gets through, Nadal could be in trouble. Wawrinka knows how to beat a heavy favorite in a Roland Garros final, as he did to Novak Djokovic in 2015, his heavy hitting aggression overwhelming the Serbian, and that style of play could be effective versus Nadal if he is feeling the pressure or his long season starts to take its toll on his body and mind and his defensive game is not up to the standard needed to negate Wawrinka’s attack.

Conclusion:

Nadal has had a confidence building run this clay season, is match fit, has had some rest, and has a great draw- only his own body can really prevent him winning La Decima in Paris, or his mind, and both could break down with all the pressure that will come with winning La Decima.

If anyone has been made aware, however, over the last few seasons, what a privilege pressure in slam finals really is, it is Nadal, the Spaniard, bar this season’s Australian Open, sitting on the sidelines at the business end of slams since Wimbledon ’14, watching one slam trophy go by after another, (which he also did in Melbourne, but at least he was playing for the title) waiting for the time his hard work and talent would put him back in contention, and now he is back there, it is hard not to see the top of the 2017 Roland Garros trophy back in his arms, one of the handles back between his teeth.

Nadal Roland Garros

Photo courtesy of SportCafe24.com

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Welcome Alexander Zverev Men’s Tennis Has Been Waiting For You

Zverev Rome

Photo courtesy of koranbogor.com

Alexander Zverev‘s 6-4, 6-3 defeat of Novak Djokovic in the Rome final was the breakthrough from a young player tennis fans had been waiting for, and the ease and confidence with which he managed it signaled to the tennis world there is nothing Next about Sascha Zverev, this big time tennis champion is all about the now. 

Ten years is a long time in tennis, a couple of generations, and with one generation, Nishikori, Raonic, Dimitrov and co, already lost in the shadows of the Big Four and their drunken frolics in the tennis fountain of youth, and the other one, Thiem, Sock and Vesely, looking, at times, to fade, men’s tennis has been looking to the #NextGenATP to step up and out into the spotlight, a search cut short much quicker than expected with Zverev’s 6-4, 6-3 defeat of Novak Djokovic in Rome, in the German’s debut ATP 1000 final appearance, an 81 minute commanding performance worthy of 20 year old Greats from tennis history, the likes of Sampras, Hewitt, Safin, and Djokovic himself.

Djokovic’s game was not the only significant factor standing in the way of Sascha Zverev taking the next step in his career– Djokovic and the history he brought with him was standing there, the stubborn bully it is, too. Ten years ago, at the 2007 Rogers Cup, 20 year old Novak Djokovic won his first ATP 1000 trophy, beating Roger Federer in the final. Since then, the Serbian has gone on to win a record (tied with Rafa Nadal) 30 ATP 1000 titles, hauling one piece of silverware after another alongside Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray (who broke-through as a 21 year old in Cincy and has won 14) and Roger Federer (won his first of 26 at Hamburg 2002 aged 20).

For those with their already all too young hard-court knackered backs up against the walls, the Nishikoris, Tomics, and Kyrgios’ of the world, the history gets even more threatening. Since that 2007 Djokovic Rogers Cup win, other than the Big Four, only Nalbandian, Davydenko, Ljubicic, Tsonga, Soderling, Roddick, Wawrinka and Cilic,a and now Zverev, have won ATP 1000 titles and since 2011 and before this season’s Rome, only four of 58 ATP 1000 titles were won by players outside of the Big Four, a pillaging of the tour’s biggest prizes which has left the Dimitrov-Raonic-Goffin-Nishikori generation on the sidelines looking on at a tennis world which promised Gold yet delivered only silver.

A world very different to the one in which 20 year olds like Marat Safin, Llyeton Hewitt, and Pete Sampras, the big talents of their generations, had their hard work and skills rewarded with slams, Masters titles, No.1 rankings, their tennis elders fading in their late 20s, their decline in speed and strength naturally giving way in a survival of the fittest. In the new world of Dimitrov and co, the late 20s was when the top players of their time were having a second wind, their physical strength hardened and fine tuned to the rigors of an ever lengthening season, their experience making the difference on the big points as they competed in yet another slam or ATP 1000 final while their younger rivals struggled to make one.

The Tennis world can change, though, at the flick of a wrist, and has been sent spinning on its axis in 2017, a season in which Federer and Nadal have been doing the timewarp, and Zverev has joined them in the dance, invoking the memory of a 20-year old Marat Safin who won Barcelona and made the Hamburg final in 2000, the German’s backhand as good a doppelganger for the Russian’s as it gets. A dance which may leave Dimitrov and co wondering if they, heading into their late 20s, the age Djokovic and Murray were in their prime, are ever going to feel their first wind, one which would come when Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray had finally choked at the fountain, wondering if Zverev and co are going to blow them out the water, and make tennis a young man’s sport all over again.

Zverev, now he has proven he can win big, and, fortunately for him in today’s climate, before he was really expected to, is more likely, as a result, to win big again soon, and may prove to be another hurdle Dimitrov and co have to clear rather than having a clear sprint to the finish line of potential fulfilled.

Zverev will not be the only hurdle, either, his victory signaling to the likes of Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios, two other young players on the verge of breaking through, that when it comes to the Next-in-Line waiting for the tennis big title traffic lights to change from amber, they may as well, with nothing to lose and everything in their favor, play like the lights are already green.

Zverev saw green early on in Rome, breaking Djokovic in the opening game, and then pulling away like a seasoned driver in the ATP 1000 race, leaving Djokovic in the red Clay dust, the German holding serve all the way to the end of the first set, breaking Djokovic again at 1-1 in the second set and holding serve all the way to 5-3 when he broke Djokovic to seal the win. The 20 year old did not face a single break point the entire match, a feat only Federer had achieved playing Djokovic in an ATP 1000 final, the sixteenth seed putting in the kind of serving display Federer would be sure to admire, one needed when facing Djokovic’s return of serve potential.

Zverev’s ground game was smart, too, aggressive when the chance arose, but, most importantly, with Djokovic struggling with the wind and his temper, patient in the rallies, refusing to leave the Serbian any door ajar,  the kind of opening the Serb, only a year back, would have stuck his nimble foot in and then kicked down.

Not every ATP 1000 final will present itself with such an opportunity like Zverev came across in Rome, but the ease with which the now ranked No.10 German composed himself when ahead, the way he strode with the unlikely grace of a Giraffe born to slide through clay towards his first ‘big’ title tells us that if the ATP 1000 hoarders, Federer, Nadal (who Zverev has run close twice now and whose heavy defeat of him on his birthday in Barcelona was the toughest love Zverev could have asked for), Murray, and Djokovic, bring anything less than their best to the big matches, Zverev will be there, green light or not, discontent to be packed away neatly into any #NextGenATP Box to be opened in November, bursting out, instead, to say “Surprise, I am here”, to celebrate his talent and hard work right now, the gifts he brings most warmly welcomed.

Sascha Zverev

Photo courtesy of http://www.jv.dk

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Rome Final Preview Novak Djokovic Versus Alexander Zverev

Rome Djokovic Zverev

Photo courtesy of www.entornointeligente.com

Novak Djokovic (2), in his first ATP 1000 final of the season, plays Alexander Zverev (16), in the first one of his career, for the Rome title. The Tennis Review previews the action and asks how Zverev will cope with the occasion and which Djokovic will show up for his first ATP 1000 final since Toronto ’16.

2017 has been a tough one for Djokovic- a loss in the Australian Open second round, splitting from his team, suffering an elbow injury and withdrawing from Miami- but here he is, back in the Rome final, his eighth in total (won the title ’08, ’11, ’14, ’15), the ATP 1000 event where he has his third highest winning percentage (86, after Indian Wells and Miami).

Familiar territory it may be for Djokovic, but it will be an unexplored one for his opponent, the 20 year old Alexander Zverev, currently, after an impressive 12 months, ranked his highest of 17 and the youngest member of the top 20.

The big question in this, their first ever meeting, is how will Zverev cope with the pressure of the occasion and the pressure his opponent is going to put on him?

Facing Djokovic in your first big final, after the 30 times ATP 1000 champion has beaten Dominic Thiem, the season’s best clay courter after Nadal, for the loss of one game, is about as tough a scenario as an ATP 1000 beau could find himself in.

Zverev has, however, plenty to give him confidence going into the match- he recently won the Munich title, reached the Madrid quarters, and commanded the third set of his semi versus Isner- but if anyone can take that confidence away, it is going to be Djokovic, especially when it comes to the return of serve and getting Zverev’s big ground stokes back into play and turning points to his advantage. Zverev’s serve and backhand are his strengths, and if Djokovic breaks them down, and exposes his weaknesses at the net, too, the German may doubt himself, and just the sniff of that could revive Djokovic and send him sailing to a record 31st ATP 1000 title before Zverev capitulates to both Djokovic and his own at times fiery temper and is even aware he has capsized.

Djokovic overwhelming the younger generations in ATP 1000 finals was, in 2016, a regular occurrence, but he has not made the finals of the last five he has competed in, and the last one he did win was back in Toronto ’16 in which he defeated Kei Nishikori in straights, (before Toronto, Djokovic had competed in 13 finals of the last 14 ATP 1000 events he had competed in and won ten of them), so the Serbian’s appearance in the Rome final raises another question fans will be curious to see answered – can Djokovic get back to the player he used to be in ATP 1000 finals?

Since Toronto, Djokovic, other than in Doha where he beat Murray for the title, has been inconsistent, throwing in sub par performances on the back of solid ones. The second seed cannot afford to that versus Zverev who plays like he belongs at the top of the professional tennis world, will not be afraid of the world No.2, especially after seeing good friend Nick Kyrgios scoring two wins over him this season, and has the serve and baseline game to take his chances if Djokovic plays less like his old self, the one we know and appreciate from 2015, the one who showed up in the semis versus Thiem, and more like the one who has been haunting his old stomping grounds of late, the one who showed up, after sinking Nishikori 6-1. 6-1 in the semis, to drown in a sea of his own errors in the ATP WTF finals.

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Madrid Open Review How Did Four Tennis Stories Play Out?

Nadal Thiem

Photo courtesy of fanragsports.com

The Madrid Open gave tennis fans four stories to follow this season featuring Rafa Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray– here is how those stories played out.

Nadal the heavy favorite in the event he is least likely to win

If you are going to beat Rafa Nadal on Clay, Madrid is the place to do it, the Spaniard more vulnerable in the faster conditions, and the fourth seed’s draw was lined up with potential spoilers- Fabio Fognini in round 2, Nick Kyrgios in round 3, David Goffin in the quarters, Novak Djokovic in the semis, and Dominic Thiem, the most in-form player in the top half, in the final.

Draws do not often play out as scheduled, or predicted, but this one did, and Nadal rose to the challenge, arguably his biggest one, draw wise, this season. The Spaniard needed close to three hours to see off Fognini in three sets, and handled Kyrgios, Goffin, Djokovic, and Thiem all in straights on his way to his 15th consecutive win, his third title in a row, a record 5th Madrid title, his 52nd Clay court title overall, (another record), and equaling Djokovic for the record of most ATP 1000 titles with 30.

The most historic record of them all is still to come- La Decima Part three at Roland Garros- and Nadal’s charge through a difficult draw in Madrid makes him even more of the heavy favorite to achieve that milestone with only a red-lining Dominic Thiem executing pitch perfect controlled aggression or his own body compromised by a grueling clay campaign looking likely to get the better of him.

Thiem Time

Tournament by tournament in the 2017 Clay court season, Thiem has stepped up his game – last sixteen in Monte Carlo, final in Barcelona, final in Madrid- and while Madrid was not the breakthrough many hoped for, his final appearance is his best result at the top of men’s tennis and helped the youngest member of the ATP top ten climb back up his career high No.7 ranking.

Thiem beat Jared Donaldson in round two, Grigor Dimitrov in a third set breaker in round three, avenged his Miami defeat to Borna Coric in the last eight, and defeated one of the tour’s strongest clay courters Pablo Cuevas in the semis in straights before taking Rafa Nadal to a first set tiebreaker in the final which he narrowly lost 8-10 before losing a closely contested second set 4-6.

Performing well in big finals is a positive sign that Thiem has what it takes to take over once Nadal and his fellow ATP 1000 and Slam haulers hang up their rackets, and the more he takes his chances in these kinds of draws, beating the players he should beat and pushing those he might not be quite ready to yet defeat, the closer Thiem will get to finally breaking through. As for now, the door is ajar, and the fight the Austrian put up for 2 hours and 17 minutes in Madrid versus Nadal suggests that while it may not exactly be Thiem time, the countdown has certainly begun.

Journey to the Island Djokovic 

Djokovic fired his whole coaching team before the Madrid Open and in his first outing with just his guru Pepe Imaz and brother Marco supporting him courtside, the Serbian achieved his best finish in the four big events (Australian Open, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Madrid) he has contested this season, going all the way to the semis.

The second seed was helped a little into the last four by the withdrawal of Kei Nishikori from their last eight match, but that also hindered Djokovic a little when it came to progressing further- he needed match practice, and a victory over Nishikori, achievable considering the match up and Nishikori’s tendency to under-perform in those types of matches, might have spurred him on to taking Nadal to three, maybe even capitalizing on the nerves Nadal showed serving out for the match.

That late second set resistance in Madrid versus Nadal showed us that while externally Djokovic’s camp might have been culled, internally, the fighting spirit which got him to where he was back at Roland Garros ’16 in the first place is still burning, just waiting to be stirred back to life.

djokovic nadal

Photo courtesy of www.dailynayadiganta.com

Murray and his first ATP 1000 title of the season

Murray won one match in Madrid, a straight setter over wild card Marius Copil before Borna Coric took him down 6-3, 6-3 in the last 16. Murray expressed concern over the loss at arguably his best clay court event, a loss in which in his own words he did very little to change his losing strategy until it was far too late.

Murray’s honest appraisal of his performance is encouraging with Rome coming up, the place where he gave us the first sign he was ready to mount a serious challenge to Djokovic for the world No.1 ranking. A year on, while Murray’s place at the top of the rankings looks safe for the near future, Rafa Nadal is leading the race to London by some way and if the Spaniard keeps gaining points in Rome and Roland Garros and Murray keeps losing them, Murray may find himself in Djokovic’s shoes last Autumn, plummeting from the top while an old rival shoots past him.

If Murray can take stock and made effective changes to his current game, and start playing like the current world No.1 and not just sitting by as the year-round one, tennis will have a narrative it has yet to have from the Big Four- Nadal and Murray engaged in a battle for No.1, another twist in tennis’ blockbuster tale which, like its protagonists on their best days, never quits running.

 

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Rome ATP 1000 Preview Who Needs A Strong Roman Run and Who Needs a Holiday?

Rome

Photo courtesy of www.khmeread.com

The final clay ATP 1000 event of the season is here, the Rome Masters, and the last chance for many of the pros to get some last week match play and confidence before Roland Garros. However, at the end of a long clay stretch, some players may need more of a Roman holiday than more hours spent sliding in the red stuff. The Tennis Review looks at which players could do with going deep on the dirt and which ones might need to brush themselves down and take a little rest.

In Need of a Deep Run

Andy Murray

The defending champion came back to the tour earlier than his anticipated Madrid comeback from injury so while his results may have been less than befitting of the world No.1, he does, at least, have more match play under his belt than had been expected.

Nevertheless, the Scot lacks the kind of wins needed to boost his confidence at a time he is struggling to re-motivate himself after his exhausting efforts to become the last of the Big Four to become the Big One. Murray was knocked out of his Monte Carlo third round by Albert Ramos Vinolas, lost a tough three setter to Dominic Thiem in the Barcelona semis, and was beaten by Borna Coric in the Madrid round of 32.

That Coric loss was especially worrying for Murray who felt that at least against Thiem he had put up a contest whereas versus Coric he did not change his losing strategy until it was too late.

Murray is going to have to be on his toes from the very first ball in his Rome opener versus Fabio Fognini who has the game to rob you of your rhythm and has been the player to give Nadal the hardest time over his dominant clay season.

If Murray manages Fognini, he could meet the very match fit Munich champion Sascha Zverev in the last 16, and defeating those two back to back would definitely leave him feeling a lot better going into a potential last eight clash with either Milos Raonic or Tomas Berdych, both of whom he matches up well against, before a semi final against whoever emerges from the very open quarter led by that most inconsistent duo of Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic.

The further Murray goes in Rome, the more dangerous he gets, and with a potentially tired Nadal and Thiem losing before the final, tennis fans could be presented with a repeat of last year’s final, Murray versus Djokovic, but one seen from a very  different angle this time, not their best sides as shown off last year, but their less photogenic ones, the ones who suffered early defeats in Melbourne and have yet to play an ATP 1000 final all season, sides which, given the chance could be turned round once again, to show once more the big title winning profile becoming of the world’s very best players.

Novak Djokovic

This will be Djokovic’s second event out on his own, and he can take some comfort from his Madrid run in which he beat Nicolas Amalgro in three sets, Feliciano Lopez in two, and then played Nadal a close second set in his semi-final loss.

Djokovic could face the in form Aljaz Bedene in the second round, and has a tough potential last 16 match versus either Nick Kyrgios, who has beaten him twice this season, Gilles Simon, who came close to beating him in Monte Carlo, Roberto Bautista Agut, who gave him nightmares in Roland Garros last season, or Pablo Carreno Busta who has been going under the radar this season and is ranked seventh in the race to London.

Another early exit or a heavy loss to a rival, which could be on the cards if Nadal and Djokovic meet in the Rome semi as scheduled, will not be too disastrous for the second seed- Roland Garros is a different game altogether with its five set format and the Serbian’s status as defending champion. which is worth a few free points here and there, but the Roland Garros draw could deal Djokovic a tough hand and it would help the defending champ if he could get some confidence boosting wins in Rome before going back to the venue of where he ended a perfect 12 months and started what has turned out to be a sudden and shocking slump.

Kei Nishikori

Nishikori did appear in Madrid after having to pull out of Barcelona, but he withdrew before his match versus Djokovic in the quarters.

The Japanese, who has played just two matches since Miami, is drawn to play the Serbian again in the Rome last eight, and he will do well to get that far with a potential second round versus David Ferrer or Feliciano Lopez and a last 16 versus potentially Juan Martin del Potro, Grigor Dimitrov, Kyle Edmund or Joao Sousa.

Nishikori’s career has been, down to physical injuries and mental struggles, one of stops and starts, but, aged 27, he still has, in the age of tennis players still winning big in their 30s, plenty of time to get going again. A strong run in Rome, if his body and mind can handle it, which looks promising after the seventh seed said in his recent Rome presser his wrist is feeling better and he can hit with more power, would certainly make things easier for him for now, though. The Japanese has a much better clay court game than a grass one, and with his best stretch of the season, the US hard court one, not far off, some strong performances and tightly contested matches in Rome could set him up nicely for Roland Garros and then, fingers crossed, a healthy breakthrough US Summer Swing.

Juan Martin del Potro

del Potro will play only his second clay court tournament in 2017 in Rome, and the 2009 US Open champion was, once again in 2017, not cut much slack in the draw department, coming up against tenth seed Grigor Dimitrov, who took Dominic Thiem to a final set tiebreaker in Madrid,  in his opener.

Clay is arguably a better surface for del Potro than it is for Dimitrov, whose single handed backhand is vulnerable to attack from as big a forehand as del Potro’s. If the Argentine can pull off the upset, things will not get any easier with Kyle Edmund ,whose forehand is one of the better clay court weapons out there, a possible second round encounter, and then Kei Nishikori, David Ferrer, or Feliciano Lopez in the last sixteen. But for a man who has gone through both professional and personal struggles this year, the prospect of such a draw will not frighten him off, if anything it will spur him on to turn his 2017 around and get it off the ground.

In Need of a Holiday

Rafa Nadal

Nadal heads the ATP Singles Race this week with 4, 735 points, 690 points more than Federer, and 2,650 points more than third placed Dominic Thiem.

That lead comes on the back of three titles and three other finals, a run which has also seen him win his last 15 matches.

At the age of 31 and with arguably the most important slam of his career two weeks away, Nadal might need a bit of rest or risk becoming a victim of his own success on the Roland Garros Clay.

Dominic Thiem

Thiem has cut down on his schedule in 2017, and it has paid off. The Austrian, ranked 7 after his Madrid final appearance, has made an ATP 500 and an ATP 1000 final rather than cleaning up at 250s, getting some valuable big match experience in the process, defeating world No.1 Andy Murray and playing the greatest clay courter of all time in finals before his home crowd.

Thiem does not want to peak though before Roland Garros where he has semi final points to defend. If Thiem is feeling a little fatigued after his finals in Barcelona and Madrid, Pablo Cuevas might be the one to take advantage in a possible replay of their Madrid semi in the Rome last 32.

While that loss would not be what Thiem or his Fans would want, Thiem himself would at least be able to take advantage of some hard earned rest before trying to make the next step in what is proving to be a very promising career.

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Mutua Madrid Open 2017 Final Preview Rafa Nadal Versus Dominic Thiem

Nadal Thiem

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Tennis’ Clay King Rafa Nadal (4) goes up against its Prince, Dominic Thiem (8), in the Mutua Madrid 2017 final. The Tennis Review previews the action and predicts the winner.

The 2017 tennis season has seen two striking story-lines grab headlines- the revival of Fedal, and the next in line, the likes of Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, stepping up their careers.

Thiem, aged 23,  does not belong to the #NextGenATP, aged between 19 and 22, he belongs to the tennis class year above, the one he leads and made up of Jack Sock, Bernard Tomic and Lucas Pouille, a Generation overshadowed by the one above them, of Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov, and eclipsed by the Big Four, the quartet refusing to give up their seats at the front of the tennis Grand Slam school bus.

With Raonic, Nishikori and Dimitrov hitting the odd high but mostly struggling with the lows of injuries and slumps, with only David Goffin from their year looking like he might be healthy enough to fulfill his potential, Thiem and his class, and the Next Gen, have moved up a gear, with Thiem leading the way, the youngest member of the top ten, the first of his gen to contest a slam semi, and now the first to reach an ATP 1000 final.

Thiem

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Fittingly, in his biggest match yet, Thiem, the best 20-something  clay courter out there right now, will meet the best clay courter ever, Rafa Nadal.

The Spaniard has, like Roger Federer this season, put an injury ridden 2016 behind him, and turned back the tennis clock to the days when he ruled not just the clay, but the ATP tour, too, the Spaniard, contesting, in Madrid, his 6th final this season, and due to lead the Race to London whatever happens in Madrid.

Whatever happens will be a remarkable result. If Nadal wins, he would have won three clay events in a row, the 52nd of his career, his 30th ATP 1000 crown, and be, potentially, in the middle of putting together, aged 31 and twelve years after he started putting together such runs, one of the most successful clay runs ever.

If it really is Thiem Time, and the Austrian can pull of a famous win, then we can say Thiem really has arrived at the top of men’s tennis, an ATP 1000 champion, a feat Nishikori, Dimitrov, and Raonic have not managed, and the kind of achievement that could give him the confidence to step up his game one more time at Roland Garros in just over a fortnight.

Thiem certainly looks ready. The Austrian, coming in on the back of losing to Nadal in the Barcelona final, fought off match points to beat Grigor Dimitrov, avenged his Miami loss to Borna Coric, and defeated Pablo Cuevas in straight sets.

Thiem will need to be ready, too- Nadal is playing his best tennis of the season, coming through a shaky close to three hour opener versus Fognini to then go on and defeat Nick Kyrgios, David Goffin, and Novak Djokovic in straight sets.

While Nadal’s form versus Djokovic suggests he is feeling on top of his game and unlikely to be stopped in his tracks by an ATP 1000 final rookie, if Thiem is going to break through on his best surface, there is no clay court better to do it at than Madrid. Nadal has won the title ‘ just’ three times since its clay overhaul in 2009, the faster conditions leaving him vulnerable to players executing world class attacking tennis, and those who have beaten him in Madrid- Roger Federer, Fernando Verdasco, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray- are as good as it gets.

Thiem has the game to join them- the Austrian knows how to use his powerful forehand, one handed backhand and transition game to attack Nadal, as he displayed in his 2016 win over him in Buenos Aires, and take time away from him, to stop Nadal getting into a rhythm, to thwart him exploiting the less time Thiem will have to set up his shots, and to prevent the Spaniard attacking his backhand with heavy top spin.

Knowledge, though, is one thing, execution is another. Nadal and the crowd are going to put  a lot of pressure on the 23 year old, who can over-hit when the pressure is on, and Nadal’s experience is likely to be the decisive factor in an encounter which will be for Thiem his biggest match yet and his first day on the ATP 1000 finals job, for the Spaniard, another day at the Big Match office.

Prediction: Nadal to win a tough contest, one which will strengthen his bid for La Decima Part three at Roland Garros even further, and one which will teach Dominic Thiem some invaluable lessons on his way to taking over from Nadal as the Clay Court King further down the line.

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