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French future or a drought just around the corner?

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Pouille is progressing, but there is a lack of numbers behind him.

French tennis has waited a long time for a male grand slam champion. Yannick Noah was their last champion back in 1983 at the French Open.

 

Many have tried. Sebastien Grosjean made four semi finals, Richard Gasquet three, and Jo Wilfried Tsonga a final and multiple semis. Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon have also broken the top ten, but that elusive title remains out of reach. Grosjean is now retired, but the other four still consistently ensure that at least one Frenchman appears involved in outside contender talk at most Slams.

But this is group is ageing. All four are either twenty-nine or thirty, well past the average age when a Grand Slam winner picks up his maiden title. With Tsonga and Monfils hampered in particular by poor injury records, it is unlikely that this group will remain around for more than the next two to three years.

So what else is there for the French?

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a whole lot. There are just three French players under the age of twenty-eight in the men’s top 100. Adrian Mannarino and Benoit Paire both have excitable games and undeniable talent. But they are inconsistent. Both are prone to meander in form, and neither have the talent to go deep into the Grand Slams. Paire’s recent revival and consecutive wins over Kei Nishikori have been soured by earlier defeats to Rogerio Dutra Silva, Tim Puetz, and Marco Chuidinelli. He is at a career high ranking of twenty-one, yet elected to play a Challenger last week.

The final player is Lucas Pouille. A talent for sure, and is holding a place well inside the top 100 at sixty-eight this week. Considering he started the year ranked at one hundred and thirty-three, his rise this year puts him in contention perhaps for the Newcomer of the Year Award. At twenty-one there is hope he can solidify and improve upon his ranking, and with wins against Dominic Thiem, Juan Monaco and Fabio Fognini, there is promise. But there are holes in his game. Defeats this year have come to Yan Bai, Lukasz Kubot, Sekou Bangoura, and Evgeny Donskoy. These are all since his ranking elevation. He has a good game, but does not excite like another generation of young players such as Australia’s Bernard Tomic, or Nick Kyrgios. With Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric, Hyeon Chung, and a whole host of Americans waiting in the wings, Pouille will be in what looks a fiercely competitive generation.

Is there at least depth for the future? If anything, the French can have been able to provide strong numbers, regularly taking double digit numbers as representatives for main draws of Grand Slam events. But even the depth is ageing. Nicolas Mahut and Paul-Henri Mathieu are now veterans, and will be doing well if they maintain their rankings over the coming year. Pierre-Hugues Herbert is twenty-four, but has never maintained top 100 status for very long. Julien Benneteau has been hit by injury, and is in the same situation as Mathieu and Mahut. Edouard Roger-Vasselin has fallen massively from the top, and now enjoys most of his success on the doubles circuit. Quentin Halys is the only French teenager ranked inside the Top 200, at one hundred and ninety. He is trying to make progress through the Challenger circuit, but does not have a major win under his belt.

Beyond Halys there are youngsters of a sort. Maxime Hamou and Calvin Hemery are names with youth on their side. Both have appeared often in Challenger draws, with very limited progress. Laurent Lokoli was predicted as a big hope but has lost his way. Gianni Mina, saddled with the tag of “Baby Monfils”, peaked at eighteen.

The present remains stable, even exciting at times for French tennis. But every nation seems to go through a generation gap (the United States might just be coming out of one) and France looks like it might be about to endure one. It seems that the best chance the French have is for one of their current stars to defy the odds and break that elusive thirty-two year win less streak. If one of them does not manage it, the wait could be a whole lot longer.

 

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COMMENT: Rafa At His Best Was Way Too Much For Novak To Handle

The long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper, James Beck, gives his take on the French Open men’s final.

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Rafael Nadal (image via https://twitter.com/rolandgarros)

This French Open was all about Rafa Nadal.

 

Even the new women’s French Open champion, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek, is one of his fans.

Matching Roger Federer’s record 20 Grand Slam singles titles was pretty special in a year filled with the deadly coronavirus. The fact that possibly the sweetest victory of his long career came against longtime rival Novak Djokovic made it even more special.

Djokovic still stands three Grand Slam singles titles shy of the record number of 20. Only now, Novak  has to chase both Nadal and Federer for the all-time record.

NOVAK DIDN’T LOOK HIMSELF

Of course, Djokovic didn’t look himself in his 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 loss to Nadal on Sunday on the red clay of  Roland Garros, especially in the first set and maybe the second one, too.

Nadal obviously had something to do with that. Rafa played one of his best Grand Slam matches ever. He humbled Djokovic in much the same way he has totally dominated Federer in a couple of Grand Slam finals.

Nadal would not surrender even a point without a fight as he wore down the Serbian Wonder. Nadal actually out-moved and out-hit Djokovic. Nadal always seemed to be one move ahead of Djokovic, even during Novak’s usually dominant drop-shot attack.

DJOKOVIC’S DROP-SHOT ATTACK APPEARED TO SET RAFA ON FIRE

Djokovic came out drop-shotting as he attempted to frustrate the Spanish left-hander one more time with his deft drop shots. But Djokovic’s early strategy backfired as the strategy appeared to put even more fire into Nadal’s veins.

Nadal was ready for the drop shots this time, moving in quickly to repeatedly pass Djokovic down the backhand line or executing perfect slice backhands almost directly cross-court that Djokovic had no chance to return.

Obviously Nadal has been seriously practicing on his drop-shot returns. He also seemed to concentrate on hitting baseline shots with more air than usual, making them drop down closer to the baseline. He also used a heavily sliced backhand on balls near the surface line that hugged the net and stayed low, causing Djokovic to get low and  to hit up on balls just off the clay surface.

But at any time, at the slightest opening, Nadal turned his forehands and backhands into weapons of power.

NADAL’S TOUGHEST FINAL BECAME ONE OF HIS EASIEST

Yes, this was supposed to be Nadal’s toughest French Open to win, due to the cooler weather this time of the year in Paris and slower court conditions. And there also was the added pressure of going for Grand Slam title No. 20.

But the heavy court conditions seemed to be in Rafa’s favor, not Novak’s. And Nadal handled the pressure situation as if it was a walk in the park..

Nadal repeatedly pounded outright winners off both wings as Djokovic could only watch.

THE CLOSED ROOF MIGHT HAVE EVEN HELPED RAFA

Rain was in the forecast, so the new Philippe Chatrier Stadium roof was closed this time for its first men’s final. That solved the problem of heavy shadows that seemed to frustrate Sofia Kenin a day earlier in her one-sided women’s final loss to Swiatek.

Everything was perfectly aligned for Rafa on this day.

Even usual Djokovic fan John McEnroe was chatting from Los Angeles on the TV telecast that “Rafa is in the zone.” In the second set, McEnroe referred to the match as not even being competitive at the time.

Johnny Mac was simply telling it like it was. Nadal simply was the far superior player on this day.

James Beck has been the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.

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Rafael Nadal Excels Once Again At His Beloved French Open

The king of clay dominated his match against world No.1 Djokovic to continue what will perhaps be the most dominant run at a Grand Slam tournament in history.

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Rafael Nadal (image via https://twitter.com/rolandgarros)

Records are meant to be broken, and almost all existing ones will indeed be broken over the next century.

All but one, though, because no one will ever win the French Open 13 times or amass 100 victories with just a pair of defeats over a 15-year span like Rafa Nadal has done. The Spaniard thoroughly and utterly dominated Djokovic, even from a tactical perspective, a feat that could be hardly predicted. As a matter of fact, the Eurosport crew, made of full-on or borderline Hall-of-Famers like McEnroe, Wilander, Courier and Henman, foresaw that the Serbian, who has a more complete and varied repertoire of shots, would have finally dethroned Nadal in Paris, aided by the perks of a heavy court to counter his opponent’s vaunted-and-yet-blunted topspin groundstrokes. Moreover, the final was played under the roof of the Philip Chatrier stadium, another element that was thought to work in the world number one’s favour, since he usually annihilates the competition when playing indoors. 

 

Well, they were all wrong, we were all wrong, especially vis-à-vis the proportions of the scoreline. Djokovic had never been beaten so harshly in a Major final; what’s more is that Nadal could have actually trundled his way to an even bigger triumph, since he was leading 3-2 with a break in the third set before losing his serve for the sole time – he also had a break point at 4-4 to serve the match out a few minutes earlier than he ended up doing, when Djokovic double faulted at 5-5 to concede for good. Up 6-5 40-0, the King of Clay aced out the tournament in style with a typical southpaw slice serve, leaving Djokovic agape once more before falling to his knees – he would later give way to tears during the Spanish national anthem.

What are the reasons behind such a blowout, aside from journalistic clichés such as “Rafa was at his best, and it just wasn’t Novak’s day”?

  1. Djokovic’s serve was appalling. He seldom put a first serve in play. The first two times he got broken, he was 2 out of 8 and 1 out of 6, respectively. He fought valiantly for 33 minutes, but after falling 4-0 behind he managed to lose his serve again after springing to a 40-0 lead…
  2. He got a little too enamoured of the drop shot (he hit 35 against Tsitsipas, about 30 against Nadal), failing to realise that the quick nature of those points doesn’t give him enough rhythm and control with his groundstrokes. If a player like him, who thrives in long and asphyxiating exchanges based on moving the opponent, loses the habit to go over nine shots, he will end up suffering against Nadal, a player who pretty much never misses – just three unforced errors in the opening two sets.
  3. While the Spaniard’s signature shot is his forehand, during the final he wreaked havoc with the slice backhand as well. The shot landed low and short, forcing Djokovic to take a few steps forward in no-man’s land (the area between the service line and the baseline), offering him an uncomfortable look on which it was very difficult to inject pace. 

The outcome was that Rafa won his favourite tournament without dropping a set for the fourth time after already doing so in 2008, 2010, and 2017. Jannik Sinner was the only one who got to at least try serve out a set against him – if the Italian was able to do that at 19, who knows how good he’ll become in the next few years, since his performance didn’t happen by chance.

Roger Federer, who was in Milan during the weekend when his frenemy equaled his record tally of 20 Majors (Djokovic is at 17), immediately took to social media to comment on Nadal’s win: “I have always had the utmost respect for my friend Rafa as a person and as a champion. As my greatest rival over many years, I believe we have pushed each other to become better players […]. I hope 20 is just another step on the continuing journey for both of us. Well done, Rafa. You deserve it.”

Nadal replied during his press conference: I think, as everybody know, we have a very, very good relationship. We respect each other a lot. At the same time in some way I think he’s happy when I’m winning and I’m happy when he’s doing the things well. I never hide that for me, I always say the same, that I would love to finish my career being the player with more Grand Slams. But in the other hand I say, okay, I have to do it my way. I did my way during all my career. In terms of these records, of course that I care. I am a big fan of the history of sport in general. I respect a lot that. For me means a lot to share this number with Roger, no? But let’s see what’s going on when we finish our careers.”

In 1930, Italian cyclist Alfredo Binda was offered a huge sum to withdraw from the Giro d’Italia after winning it for five years in a row. Will it happen to Rafa Nadal in Paris too? It looks like the only way to stop him.

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Editorial

The Man-Machine? Djokovic wants Hawk-Eye to replace line judges for good

Sixteen unseeded players will feature in the singles draw at the French Open – however, the Big Three (Djokovic, Nadal and… Thiem) have been gliding past the competition. The Serbian (just 15 games lost, and no sets) would do away with linesmen and lineswomen in the name of technological progress. I agree with Muguruza though – Hawk-eye on clay is necessary, but not for every single call.

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Ten out of sixteen players in the women’s draw are not seeded, a huge number for a tournament with 32 seeds: Collins, Ferro, Zhang, Siegemund, Badosa, Swiatek, Trevisan, Garcia, Podoroska, and Krejcikova. This means that at least two matchups, Siegemund-Badosa and Podoroska Krejcikova, will beget a surprise guest in the list of Final Eight invitees. It’s not something that happens at every Major – one Cinderella story, perhaps, but not two.

 

In the men’s draw, the dark horses amount to six: Sinner, Sonego, Altmaier, Korda, and Gaston. However, there is no match slated between two of them, so they could theoretically all bow out between today and tomorrow – it is a statistically more conventional amount, and, at any rate, it was widely anticipated that this would be a peculiar Slam. The favourites in the men’s draw, however, are still competing, with Djokovic losing no sets and 15 games, Nadal zero and 19, Thiem nil and 28, probably due to a much tougher draw (Cilic, Sock and Ruud are all better than Ymer, Berankis, Galan, Gerasimov, McDonald and Travaglia).

THE REASONS BEHIND SO MANY UPSETS

According to Garbine Muguruza, who had just lost to Collins and was therefore quite sensitive on this theme (especially because she has actually won a “normal” French Open in the past), the singular conditions of the fortnight are levelling the competition, allowing for more shakeups. It is indeed a good point, although it doesn’t seem to apply to those who are literally off the charts like the aforementioned three krakens of the men’s draw, although it should be highlighted that four more players haven’t lost a single set so far – Schwartzman, Dimitrov, Altmaier, and Sinner. 

WHO LOST THE FEWEST SETS AND GAMES (MEN’S EDITION)

As already mentioned, Djokovic has dropped a meagre 15 games in three matches, followed by Nadal with 19, Dimitrov and Schwartzman with 22 (the Bulgarian has played one fewer set due to Carballes Baena retiring), Thiem with 28, Sinner with 31, and Altmaier with 38. Carreno (34 games) and Fucsovics (31) have dropped one set. Tsitsipas (32), Korda (40), Zverev (46), Khachanov (also 46) and Sonego (51) have conceded a couple. Rublev lost three sets (48), and Gaston four (49).

Today’s matchups are, in the bottom half of the draw:

  • Sonego vs Schwartzman 
  • Gaston vs Thiem 
  • Zverev vs Sinner 
  • Korda vs Nadal.

And here’s tomorrow’s fourth rounds:

  • Djokovic-Khachanov 
  • Carreno Busta-Altmaier 
  • Fucsovics-Rublev 
  • Dimitrov-Tsitsipas.

My predictions for the quarter finals are:

  • Schwartzman vs Thiem (I hope to be wrong for chauvinistic reasons)
  • Zverev vs Nadal (Ibid.)
  • Djokovic-Carreno (what a rematch, after what happened last time)
  • Rublev-Dimitrov.

The 16 survivors spring from 12 countries (Italy, Spain, Russia and Germany have two representatives, Serbia, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, the US and Argentina have one each) – 14 of them are Europeans, two are from the Americas.  

WHO LOST THE FEWEST SETS AND GAMES (WOMEN’S EDITION)

Four ladies are still perfect in terms of sets lost, and will square off in the fourth round: Halep (12 games lost) and Swiatek (13) will meet today, while Kvitova (22) and Zhang (30) will do it tomorrow. Svitolina (21) and Podoroska (19) have dropped one set. Everyone else is at two sets lost: Garcia (37), Krejcikova (35), Jabeur (35), Ferro (33), Badosa (30) Collins (29), Trevisan (28), Siegemund (28) Bertens (27), and Kenin (26). 

Today’s matches are will involve the top half of the draw:

  • Halep-Swiatek 
  • Trevisan-Bertens 
  • Svitolina-Garcia 
  • Podoroska-Krejcikova 

As for the bottom half, the bouts are:

  • Jabeur-Collins 
  • Ferro-Kenin 
  • Kvitova-Zhang 
  • Siegemund-Badosa.

The Europeans will be 11 (France and Czechia have two players each, while Italy, Germany, Spain, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and the Netherlands have one). The rest of the world is represented by the US with two, and by Argentina, China and Tunisia with one. No country has four players left, with four European nations sporting three – Italy, France, Spain and Germany. 

HAWK-EYE VS HUMANITY

A common theme of Week 1 has been the players collectively calling for the use of Hawk-Eye on clay. Several have been hurt by wrong calls, like Mladenovic, Shapovalov, Trevisan, Sonego, Fritz, and more. Djokovic has been the most outspoken: he wants to get rid of human linesmen and lineswomen – “That way, I won’t risk striking anybody else,” he humorously and self-deprecatingly said before adding, “I understand that this is a supplementary cost for the organisers, but the progress in modern technology should allow to do it.” To be fair, a mistake at a crucial moment can cost millions to the victim. 

Garbine Muguruza is in favour of the use of Hawk-Eye, but not of the riddance of linespeople. “I’m traditional, I like having human beings around me and not just machines – tennis courts would have no atmosphere left.” For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with her, especially because of the tens of thousands of umpires, linesmen and lineswomen who volunteer all around the world in junior events, Futures and Challengers (and would continue to do so, not every tournament can afford to pay for electronic judges), hoping perhaps to one day reach the big leagues. Nole’s idea would deprive the game of so many impassioned enlistees and valuable professionals who wouldn’t even get into the game, since their dream career wouldn’t exist anymore. This also means the definitive loss of many jobs in each country, and that the quality of professionals would go down.  

My impression is that the Co-President of the PTPA hasn’t really thought through the practical consequences of the choice he’s advocating for. I will tell him that the first chance I get. At the same time, I would like to remind the French Open officials that they do have the money to implement the Hawk-Eye technology on each court, although perhaps that’s a conversation for a time when more than a thousand daily fans will be allowed through the turnstiles. Not all events, even on hardcourts, have the same fortune, for instance those who don’t even refund the people who had already bought the tickets for an event that was played behind closed doors…  

Article originally published on Ubitennis.com and translated by Tommaso Villa.

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