Men’s 2019 Clay Season Preview 5 Questions

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Is Rafa Nadal going to win Roland Garros No.12?

Nadal has been back practicing on Clay while everyone else was getting all hot and sweaty in Miami.

Clay is kinder to Nadal’s much troubled knees and its where his aggressive baseline game is most effective. He’s got an abbreviated serve to help with his ankles and he’s got a more efficient game to help with the ageing process and all those factors coupled with his natural affinity for the red dirt mean he’s got to be the favorite for every clay event he enters until his first worrying performance says otherwise.

Nadal did not play his best clay tennis last year and still managed to win Roland Garros. He will need to be a lot better this year with Djokovic, his greatest Clay Court rival, back to his Grand Slam best. That’s the kind of challenge players like Nadal live for and a dynamic that makes this Clay season a little spicier than it has been in recent years.

Is Novak Djokovic going to win the Djoker slam 2.0?

Tennis is clearly all about the slams right now for Djokovic. It’s also about politics and motivation and staying healthy, but somehow it’s at the slams where Djokovic gets focused, hungry and fights through whatever’s bothering him physically.

Should Djokovic win the French, he’ll have held all four slams at once twice in his career (Wimbledon ’15-Roland Garros ’16 the first time). Only Rod Laver has done that before in men’s tennis, doing it twice in calendar years in ’62 and ’69.

Djokovic has a high chance of achieving that Djokerslam again. He’s won the last three slams, he’s virtually unbeatable over five sets, and he’ll have his entire schedule built around peaking for the first week in June.

How is Roger Federer going to fare in his Clay comeback?

The 2009 Roland Garros champion hasn’t played on Clay since Rome ’16 when he lost in the round of 16 to Dominic Thiem in straights.

This year, Federer’s scheduled to play Madrid and one would expect to see him at Roland Garros. It’s no farewell tour either- the aim is to not go into the Grass season cold like he did last year.

Federer winning Madrid would not be entirely out of the question. He’s won it twice in its current Clay guise, in 2009 and 2012, he’s just won Miami in a positive and healthy mindset and physical condition, his serve and style are perfect for lower bouncing faster Clay and he’s going to get an amazing welcome back reception.

Is Thierev going to become a big thing this Clay season?

Dominic Thiem, 25 and Sascha Zverev, 21, are certainly of age to be winning grand slams and if these two are ever going to compete with each other for a Major title, it’ll most likely be on Court Philippe Chatrier than on Center Court, Rod Laver or Arthur Ashe.

Thierev have come a long way since they first met on Clay in their ’16 Munich semis. Thiem is a Grand slam finalist and an ATP 1000 champ and Zverev is a three time ATP 1000 champ, a WTF winner, and a Grand slam quarter-finalist (Roland Garros ’18).

Clay is the surface both men broke out on and where they’ve played five of their seven matches (Thiem leads the h2h 5-2, 4-1 on Clay). Zverev has won arguably their biggest match, in the Madrid final ’18, the German’s serve and ground strokes setting him apart from his good friend and rival that day.

These two seem destined to contest a Roland Garros final sooner or later. Ranked 3 and 5 respectively, with Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer the other names in the top five right now, when the changing of the guard does take place, these two should be leading that long awaited takeover.

A glimpse of two of what lies ahead Thierev wise this Clay season will be most welcome. While their last two matches have been a little disappointing, they can produce the goods as they did in Nice ’16 and Rotterdam ’17.

Are there any Clay loving pros we should be keeping an eye on?

The Clay season has become predictable the last 14 years to put it mildly, but sooner or later, once Nadal and Djokovic hang up their rackets, a whole new set of potential champs and storylines will come to the fore.

For now, pay attention to Felix Auger-Aliassime, who has had a great run since Rio, Gael Monfils who seems back on track and has played some of his best tennis at Roland Garros, Diego Schwarzman who will be bring his fierce competitive nature every match, David Goffin who is the lurker no one will want to see in last 32, and Pablo Carreno Busta, the Spaniard who got his heart broken in Melbourne in that fifth set tiebreak vs Nishikori and who will be looking to piece it back together again on the European red dirt.

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Roger Federer and his 101 Trophies #RF101

Rogers Cup
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History does and does not repeat itself depending on your history and how you play on the day. For Roger Federer at the age of 37, it’s harder to predict how those days are going to unfold, but when he has his day, the history you get is the kind of glittering, legendary, all conquering kind.

When Roger Federer was involved in a tussle in his opening round Miami Open match versus Radu Albot, it looked like his 2018 history of odd drop shot choices in tight spots in losing IW finals and opening round defeats to underdogs in Miami was possibly going to repeat itself.

But, Federer, who said in his Miami Open final ’19 presser he was feeling more positive this Miami Open than he was last season after his Indian Wells final loss to Juan Martin del Potro, dug deep into that positive mindset and won through that opener versus Albot, and went on to repeat a different and far more glittering and familiar history altogether, winning the title in Miami as he did in ’05, ’06’ and ’17.

I was more positive this
year after losing Indian Wells over last year, because
last year I was, I don’t want to say frustrated, but I think
I was down on myself. I think it cost me a little bit on
confidence because I was so down. I was so, so close.
I was a shot away from winning.
So maybe this year I didn’t feel that way. I was just
able to say, Okay. Team played well. Moving on, let’s
go to Miami and have a good tournament. And I did

  • Roger Federer, Miami Open ’19 presser.

When Federer won the Miami Open for the first time, he was in his pomp. Not in the first flourish, but more in the heart of it. Fans might have expected him to win Miami for the first time earlier than he did, in 2004, but Rafa Nadal had other ideas, giving Federer an indication of what a thorn in his side he would be by giving him the first cut, defeating the Swiss 6-3, 6-3.

When Federer did finally win Miami, he had won 26 titles in a little over four years- he’s won 26 titles in the last seven years- and it was his 13th title in under a year- he’s won 13 titles in the last 2 and a half years. He had won titles such as Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open, the WTF, Indian Wells, Canada and Hamburg. Still to come was Roland Garros, Cincinnati, Shanghai and Paris-Bercy.

In that first Miami winning final (his first Miami final was in ’02, losing to Andre Agassi), Federer avenged his shock Key Biscayne ’04 defeat to Nadal, coming back from two sets down to beat the player who would become his career nemesis in a match Federer would, in his post match 2019 Miami Open final presser, describe as ‘beautiful’.

This 2019 final was less so when it came to match play and competition, but there was still plenty of beauty to be found. There was the serving and the returning and the forehand and the backhand and the volleys and the shot making and the movement and the sight of a 37 year old tennis champion who has won 100 titles playing his heart out for no. 101.

Federer achieved his latest historic feat in a new Miami Open venue, at the Hard Rock stadium, which also plays home to the Miami Dolphins.

Conditions were said to be slightly faster than Miami has been known for, the main court, where Federer played all his matches as legends do, playing like a medium paced hard court rather than medium slow.

Like Federer has with his more aggressive game and focus on the serve over the last few years, Miami has had to make changes to its game to compete with the other tournaments, namely its biggest rival, Indian Wells.

This new look to the Miami Open may not be popular with those who like their tennis history well maintained, but the tournament had few options in light of its changing status in the tour schedule.

Miami is a tournament which has been in a state of flux the past decade or so. Back in the day, when Federer was first competing and in finals and winning it, Miami was in the final days of its reputation as the fifth slam. In the last ten years, Indian Wells with its shiny new venue, stellar entry list and successful Tennis Paradise branding has surpassed its East Coast rival status wise and Miami’s placing in the calendar, just after IW, a pit stop before the Clay season more than the Masters Grand Prix, has made it, while still a prestigious tournament in the grand scheme of things, no longer the fifth slam, or even the seventh or eighth, with Cincy, Shanghai, and Madrid all arguably more prized.

If the Miami Open is actively trying to get back to its former Golden days, this Federer win was some way to start. The new Miami Open home and court conditions suited the Swiss, who said post match he came to Miami to check the new venue out more than anything else, and tournament director James Blake, who Federer beat on his ’06 run, could not have hoped for a better champion popularity wise to get this new era underway.

Federer mirrored his 2006 run in its form set wise, the Swiss dropping a set in the opener and then running to the trophy podium in straight sets performances, though things were a little different back in ’06, Federer playing an extra set in the best of five ’06 final which he won in three tiebreaks versus his current coach Ivan Ljubicic no less, an architect of the game that has kept Federer still not just relevant but trend setting.

On this run, Federer defeated Radu Albot, then Filip Krajinovic, Daniil Medvedev, Kevin Anderson, Denis Shapovalov and John Isner.

Versus defending champion Isner, three tiebreak sets would not have been absurd considering Isner had made the final winning every set bar one on a breaker, but the American was injury inflicted – a stress fracture in his foot-and the best he could do was 1-6, 4-6 to a man he praised in the final as being just too good, and not just that day but throughout his career.

Federer holding a trophy on final’s day was history repeating itself for the 101st time. 28 times at ATP 1000 level, 20 times at slam level, 6 ATP Finals, (‘big titles’ making up 53.5% of his haul), 22 ATP 500 (9 of them Halle, which could arguably have been an ATP 1000 if the ATP calendar, which has a Grass slam but no Grass ATP 1000, made more, or any, sense) and 25 of them ATP 250s.

At 37, he’s still got a good chance of overtaking Jimmy Connor’s record of 109 titles. It would not be unfathomable for Federer to win 9 more titles before retiring, which would likely not be until 2021 or beyond.

Federer has attributed his longevity to many factors- the money that makes it more attractive to stay on tour a little while longer than the previous generations did; the governing bodies which have slowed down the courts meaning one style executed well can work week in week out; his own commitment and passion for the game, and, most vitally of all, the health that allows him to compete in lengthy phases such as the Indian Wells- Miami stretch.

But this is a good phase, a
good stretch for me right now. I really feel super
healthy. That’s why I have been able to play every day
for the last four weeks. That’s something that maybe
hasn’t always been the case for the last few years. So
you appreciate these moments.

  • Roger Federer, Miami Open final ’19 presser.

Not only is Federer keeping his game together with a little help from his health, but his opponents are offering a helping hand, too, struggling to stop their games and bodies falling apart or staying together for more than a couple of tournaments in a row- Djokovic is very on-off in ATP 1000s, Nadal has been injured and should be a factor only on Clay, and the Next Gen and the recent grads are still not ready to step up on a consistent basis.

If Federer keeps turning up, serving well, playing his aggressive game and staying positive and healthy, the history books are open for him to write whatever numbers he wishes in them.

Roll on #RF102.

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Miami Open Preview Five Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Dominic Thiem perform the sunshine double?

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

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

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

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

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

Thiem grabbing the Sunshine Double, like Rios did that year, would have seemed even more far fetched a couple of weeks ago, but the image of him holding the trophy in Indian Wells had that surprise factor sport lives by and was not entirely improbable thanks to hindsight. Novak Djokovic is struggling in ATP 1000s, Nadal is absent, Federer is Federer but 37 years old and focused most likely on Wimbledon. The rest of the field is either too inconsistent or suffering mentally or physically.

The courts will play in Thiem’s favor, too- even slower than in Indian Wells. So, it would appear that the setting is there for someone in form, feeling healthy, and loving their tennis, all of which Thiem seems to be, to make a run and grab the Sunshine Double in the Floridian sun.

Will the tournament be marred by injuries?

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

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

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

Are we going to get any breakout performances?

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

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

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

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

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

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Dominic Thiem Defeats Roger Federer to Win the BNP Paribas Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Federer to Face Thiem in Indian Wells Final

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fedal Part 39 at BNP Paribas Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Indian Wells Preview Five Scenarios

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

A vet wins his first ATP 1000 title

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

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

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

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

An up and comer wins his 1st ATP 1000

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

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

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

Rafa Nadal bounces back from his Australian Open final loss.

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

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

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

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

Roger Federer gets closer to Connor’s record

Federer was impressive in Dubai winning title 100.

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

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

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

Novak Djokovic Prime part 3 races on

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

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

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Australian Open Final Novak Djokovic Defeats Rafa Nadal

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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