Indian Wells Recap: The Unbearable Lightness of Being… Federer - UBITENNIS
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Indian Wells Recap: The Unbearable Lightness of Being… Federer

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Roger Federer (zimbio.com)

INDIAN WELLS – Is Roger Federer the most beloved player for real? What would the tennis world be like if Stan Wawrinka wasn’t joking in calling him an expletive? Murray and Djokovic decide to go on vacation, Kerber is back at number one without even realizing it and Vesnina prevails in an all-Russian final.

In one of the most memorable trophy presentations in recent years, an emotional Stan Wawrinka (Grade: B) looked at his countryman Roger Federer (Grade: A+) who was sitting courtside laughing and trying to cheer up his good old friend. The tone of Wawrinka’s post-match speech immediately became more light-hearted.  “I would like to congratulate Roger. He’s laughing. He’s an asshole, but it’s OK,” Wawrinka said, causing much hilarity among the 16,000 spectators that attended Sunday’s final at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

Roger Federer is famous for being one of the nicest athletes among his fellow tennis players and devoted fans, but wouldn’t it be comical if Stan Wawrinka was seriously calling him an expletive? Federer himself said he’d heard it “many, many times before” in a joking way, so let’s imagine a hypothetic tennis world in which Roger Federer was for real considered the [bleep] as we assess what happened during the last two weeks in Indian Wells.

We could start whining about how Roger’s success is only due to fortunate circumstances. We could argue that in his first few successful years on the tour he virtually won everything because his main competition was represented by Gonzalez, Roddick and Blake, while the only talented opponent – Marat Safin – was distracted by the off-court “commitments”. As soon as Rafa Nadal (Grade: D-) showed up, it was game over. We could also argue that today Roger is back in the winners’ circle simply because his main rivals are broken, exhausted or no longer interested. Both Andy Murray (Grade: F) and Novak Djokovic (Grade: F) might soon discover Roger’s hidden secret: Perhaps they will call in sick for six months and then come back as rested and cheerful as ever.

After more than 15 years, we could probably sound like a broken record: The [bleep] is now winning big titles again because Nadal has been playing short, Djokovic has a new obsession for a certain “guru” while enjoying the good life, and Murray has gone back to his older self after a year above his true level. And Wawrinka? At the end of the day, what kind of player is Wawrinka? A player that wins against everyone but then melts in front of His Majesty.

The [bleep] is also preventing a new generation of “phenomenal” players from making it big. This tournament should have belonged to Nick Kyrgios (Grade: B-), had the Australian not devoured all those potato chips at every changeover.  It could also have been Jack Sock’s breakthrough tournament (Grade: B), had the American forgotten how to imitate Andy Roddick when facing Roger Federer. A few distracted Italian fans might think that Fabio Fognini (Grade: C) is utterly upset with Pablo Cuevas (Grade: B-) for reaching the quarters, or with Carreno Busta (Grade: B) for making it all the way to the semi-finals. Sorry to disappoint you, but Fabio couldn’t care less.

Federer, Federer and again Federer! So boring! Everybody continues to exclusively talk about the [bleep], even though the tour is so filled with other exciting storylines, like those of Kei Nishikori (Grade: F) and Tomas Berdych (Grade: F) – two players that always rise to the occasion when the opportunity presents itself!? In conclusion, Roger the [bleep] overshadowed everybody this past fortnight, including the up-and-coming Nishioka (Grade: B), Juan Martin del Potro (Grade: D-) with his 500th attempt at resurrection, and Grigor Dimitrov (Grade: F) with his newly found form.

At this point we all wonder: When is the [bleep] finally retiring? That way we would have time to enjoy more women’s tennis, which is so bubbly and bursting with talent like ever before! On today’s WTA tour, a veteran such as Svetlana Kuznetsova (Grade: B) can still be a major factor, but we always should keep in mind that she is 6-7 years younger than we think she is. We surely can’t be surprised by the fact that Elena Vesnina (Grade: A) was the last woman standing in such a prestigious tournament, while Angelique Kerber (Grade: F) is once again the world number one. We don’t think she realizes it.

After all, Stan Wawrinka wasn’t completely out of line: Roger Federer is indeed the biggest [bleep] and will possibly never retire. Should this happen, it will be just another one of his [bleep] tricks.

Written by Antonio Garofalo

(Article translation provided by T&L Global – Translation & Language Solutions – www.t-lglobal.com)

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The International Olympic Committee And It’s Dismal Response To The Peng Shuai Case

As the tennis world intensifies its vocal campaign for information about Shuai following her disappearance, the Olympic Committee has refused to speak out against a country which will host one of their events and instead called for ‘silent diplomacy.’

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On Thursday one of the most decorated Grand Slam champions in the history of women’s tennis became the latest name to call for urgent information concerning Peng Shuai to be released.

 

In a statement Serena Williams said she is ‘devastated’ over the news about the Chinese player and called for an investigation into the allegations which she has made. On November 2nd a post was published on Shuai’s Weibo account in which she accused a former senior political figure in her country of sexual assault and said they had a and-and-off affair over a 10-year period. That post was deleted within 30 minutes of it being published, restrictions were placed on Shuai’s Weibo account and she has not been seen in public since.

In a country where authorities are known to punish those who dare to criticise the government, Shuai’s disappearance has sparked concern from the entire sport who has vowed not to back down. The WTA, ATP and ITF have all issued statements calling for a proper investigation to be launched into the allegations and numerous players have used the hashtag ‘WhereIsPengShuai’ on Twitter.

The only sign of communication which has come from Shuai within the past two weeks is a dubious letter that was uploaded on Twitter by CGTV, a Chinese news outlet which is controlled by the Publicity Department of China’s ruling Communist Party. In it, she allegedly sent an email saying she never wrote those allegations and she is not missing. However, many have questioned the legitimacy of the letter. Including Steve Simon who is the head of the WTA.

“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.” Simon commented.

Tennis is showing no signs of backing down when it comes to challenging the Chinese government and even Amnesty International has issued a statement expressing their concerns. It appears that the international community has a united front when it comes to Shuai but there is one significant anomaly.

The International Olympic Committee is perhaps one of the most influential boards in the world of sport. It is they who assign Olympics Games to various countries and is the governing body of more than 200 Olympic committees worldwide. Whilst Simon issued a statement expressing his doubts about if Shuai had written the letter, the I.O.C had a somewhat different response.

We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe,” an official declaration read on Thursday.

It appears that the I.O.C is reluctant to get involved in the situation despite the influence they have. Next year the winter Olympics will be held in China and it is the job of the committee to make sure the country operates in a fair and safe way related to the Games. One of their core values is ‘to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.’

In a separate statement issued to Inside The Games, the I.O.C suggested that the best way to deal with the Shuai case is to remain silent.

“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” they said.
“This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”

In reality, the I.O.C is reluctant to meddle in anything related to China and its government which doesn’t have an impact on the upcoming Olympic Games. The fact a former Olympian has gone missing after accusing a government official of sexual assault appears to be of no interest to them.

This is not the first time the I.O.C has refused to stand up against China. Just a couple weeks ago a senior member dismissed calls that the country should be challenged over its human rights record before the 2022 Games. IOC Vice President John Coates was recently asked about the allegations of genocide against Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in the country.

“We are not a world government. We have to respect the sovereignty of the countries who are hosting the games,” he replied.

Pressed further about his stance, Coates basically admitted that the focus of the I.O.C is only on making sure that no human rights violations are committed related to the Games.

“The I.O.C’s remit is to ensure that there is no human rights abuses in respect of the conduct of the Games within the National Olympic Committees or within the Olympic movement,” he said.
“We have no ability to go into a country and tell them what to do. All we can do is to award the Olympics to a country, under conditions set out in a host contract … and then ensure they are followed.”

The I.O.C does many good things for the sport in showcasing what is one of the greatest sporting events in the world. However, their calls for ‘silent diplomacy’ concerning Shuai and reluctance to question the legitimacy of her letter can only been seen as an unwillingness to criticise a country which will hold one of their events.

Fortunately for Shuai, Tennis is not afraid to make this challenge.

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Novak Djokovic Underlines His Supremacy in Paris

It was clear that the world No.1 had done his homework and learned from what happened in New York

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Credit: Roberto Dell'Olivo

Novak Djokovic came to France for the Rolex Paris Masters having been gone from the game for seven weeks. He had needed that time to recover from the rigors of a 2021 season that had stretched him to the edge of his physical, mental and emotional limits. He had been forced to endure one of the toughest setbacks of his career when he was beaten by Daniil Medvedev in the final of the U.S. Open, falling one match short of establishing himself as the first man to win the calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969.

 

That was surely a soul searching time for the Serbian because he knows full well that he missed out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. Djokovic would have been entirely worthy of that lofty honor, but Medvedev had taken the top seed apart 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in New York with a career defining performance, claiming his first major title in the process, exploiting a subpar Djokovic to the hilt.

But the 34-year-old icon clearly came to terms with what happened at the last Grand Slam tournament of 2021, figured out how to leave that devastating disappointment behind him, and then reached back with his all of his considerable resources and vowed to seal a record seventh year-end No. 1 ranking with the strongest possible showing in Paris. In the end, Djokovic might have even exceeded his own expectations by realizing his largest dream, winning his sixth Rolex Masters title and taking a record 37th Masters 1000 crown, eclipsing Medvedev in a stirring final 4-6, 6–3, 6-3.

Djokovic had already made certain he would conclude 2021 at the top of the rankings by overcoming Hubert Hurkacz in an exhilarating semifinal, and critics from all over the globe wondered if he could summon the energy or the inspiration to come back on court one day after such a towering achievement against a man who is fast emerging as his foremost rival. Djokovic had, after all, surpassed Pete Sampras for the most years finished at No. 1, although the estimable American secured his six in succession from 1993-98 while Djokovic has now done it seven times across the last eleven years.

Be that as it may, Djokovic was tested significantly from the beginning of his quest for another Paris triumph. After a first round bye, he collided with the capable Hungarian Marton Fucsovics, the same fellow the Serbian toppled in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Djokovic glided through the first set but dropped the second and had to fight hard in the third before prevailing 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. Due to meet Gael Monfils in the round of 16, Djokovic advanced with a default from the French player he has defeated seventeen times without a loss over the course of their careers.

That was not what he needed. The Serbian would have been much better off hitting a ton of balls and finding his groove rather than having a day off from the office; hard work was required. In the quarterfinals, he took on the surging American Taylor Fritz, a player who had knocked out Andrey Rublev and Cam Norrie earlier in the week after upsetting Matteo Berrettini and Sascha Zverev at Indian Wells. Fritz had followed up on that fine effort by reaching the final in St. Petersburg, Russia before losing a hard fought clash with Marin Cilic.

Photo by Roberto Dell’Olivo

So it was no wonder that the Californian was in such stellar form on his way to an appointment with Djokovic in Paris. But Djokovic halted Fritz comfortably 6-4, 6-3 despite losing his serve three times, breaking the American no fewer than five times to keep himself out of jeopardy. And so he had made it to the penultimate round for the showdown with Hurkacz. The Polish competitor had sealed his place in the eight player field at the ATP Championships for the first time by virtue of a hard fought triumph over James Duckworth in the previous round at Paris, and that meant Hurkacz was confronting Djokovic with absolutely nothing to lose.

Relaxed and confident with Djokovic almost palpably uptight, Hurkacz took the first set on one service break, attacking judiciously and fending off Djokovic from the backcourt with his long wingspan and impressive ball control. But then the 6’5” Hurkacz began misfiring frequently off the forehand and Djokovic found his range convincingly to win ten of the next eleven games. Djokovic took the second set by winning 25 of 36 points and then built a 4-1 final set lead.

But—perhaps preoccupied with the knowledge that the No. 1 ranking for the year was his for the taking—Djokovic played an abysmal game at 4-2 on his serve with two glaring errors off the ground and one double fault. Hurkacz broke back and made his way to 4-4. Although Djokovic reached match point with Hurkacz serving in the tenth game, the poise and perspicacity of the Polish star was evident once again as he came forward unhesitatingly and forced Djokovic to miss a backhand passing shot. Hurkacz held on for 5-5 with sheer persistence.

Fittingly it was all settled in a tie-break, with Hurkacz drawing first blood and opening up a mini-break lead at 3-2. But Djokovic then coaxed his adversary into a forehand mistake on the following point. The tie-break proceeded to 5-5 with both players standing two points away from victory. On the next two points, however, only one player blinked. First, Hurkacz tried to get in off a short low forehand from Djokovic, but his crosscourt approach found the net. Then, at match point down, Hurkacz came forward again, but punched a backhand volley down the line with sidespin inches wide. Djokovic escaped 3-6, 6-0, 7–6 (5), coming through largely with willpower against an opponent who was giving him no pace and serving prodigiously in the final set.

Medvedev had struggled to some degree in all of his matches prior to the penultimate round, but then he accounted for Zverev with surprising ease 6-2, 6-2. To be sure, this was his fourth win in a row over the 6’6” German but it was by far his most one-sided victory ever against Zverev. In the early stages, Zverev had a few chances, wasting two break points with the Russian serving at 1-2, squandering another opportunity two games later.  But this was his worst performance in a long while. Zverev had won 28 of his previous 30 matches starting with his gold medal run at the Olympics in Tokyo, and he had been convincing while taking the title in Vienna the week before Paris.

Perhaps the wear and tear of two debilitating weeks in a row caught up with the German at the worst possible time in an important duel with Medvedev. Medvedev was almost letter perfect off the ground and his serve was remarkably potent and precise, but the fact remains that Zverev was not the same demonstrably competitive performer we have witnessed so regularly since the summer. To be sure, the court in Paris is classified as “medium” speed but it was much slower than a year ago. Zverev was unable to win many free points on serve and his game plan was haphazard. He did not know whether to come in or stay back, to go for the lines or play the percentages, to try for outright winners or attempt to outlast Medvedev in long exchanges. Making matters worse, Medvedev made a mere eight unforced errors across sixteen games, galloping to a 6-2, 6-2 win.

Photo by Roberto Dell’Olivo

Having been so polished in that performance—not to mention his straight sets dissection of Djokovic at the U.S. Open—Medvedev was the slight favorite in the final according to many experts. He was the defending champion in Paris and some authorities believed Djokovic might have a letdown after his demanding skirmish with Hurkacz the day before, which had consequences transcending the match itself.

But Djokovic had his family assembled in court-side seats, with his children joining his wife Jelena to cheer him on unabashedly. The presence of his kids seemed to inspire Djokovic and to put him in the right frame of mind to play hard but, above all, enjoy himself out on the court despite the seriousness of the occasion and the significance of the eventual outcome.

It was a fascinating final in so many ways. At the outset, Djokovic made aggressive errors and Medvedev refused to miss. That combination lifted the Russian into a 2-0 lead. Medvedev collected eight of eleven points in creating that cushion for himself. Djokovic made six unforced errors in those two games, but the difference this time was his physical freshness and a vastly more positive outlook.

Djokovic—signaling a strategy he would employ to great gains throughout the fierce battle—went to the serve-and-volley twice in the third game and won both points. He held at love, then broke Medvedev in the fourth game with crackling forehands and a double fault from the Russian. Djokovic followed with another confident hold for 3-2. He had not only won three games in a row but had taken 12 of 14 points in that span.

Had Djokovic managed to break Medvedev in the sixth game to take a 4-2 lead, he might well have won the opening set. A sizzling forehand crosscourt return that Medvedev could not answer gave Djokovic a break point, but the Russian erased it emphatically with his favorite first serve out wide in the ad court, setting up a swing volley winner. No one in the world can create angles with that first serve better than Medvedev. He held on for 3-3 with an ace and a well placed first serve down the T.

Medvedev had wrestled the momentum away from Djokovic at a critical moment, preventing the Serbian from winning four games in a row and perhaps moving inexorably toward a first set triumph. Instead, Djokovic played tenuously in the seventh game. He pulled a forehand wide to conclude a bruising 20 stroke rally, double faulted for 0-30 and then sent a two-hander up the line that landed long for an unprovoked mistake. Although he made it back from 0-40 to 30-40, Djokovic was broken when Medvedev answered a backhand crosscourt drop shot with one of his own that was better. 4-3 for Medvedev. 

Nonetheless, Djokovic was not unduly dismayed. Striving to break back for 4-4, he had 15-30 on the Medvedev serve but was met with misfortune as a wobbly backhand down the line from the Russian landed on the sideline and caused an error from  the surprised Serbian. Medvedev eventually held on from deuce. Two games later, serving for the set at 5-4, Medvedev missed only one first serve and held at 15. He was up a set but Djokovic was not downcast, realizing the set could have gone his way.

Djokovic opened the second set unequivocally, holding at love with four first serves in a row, sending a forehand into the corner that was unanswerable, serving-and-volleying successfully, rifling a forehand into the clear and closing that game with a service winner down the T. He reached 0-30 in the following game and did not break, but it was strikingly apparent that the world No. 1 wanted to validate his label once more.

After another excellent service game featuring three winners and supreme execution, Djokovic went to work unswervingly. With Medvedev serving at 1-2, the 25-year-old Russian started with a double fault but after releasing three consecutive aces for 40-15 he seemed certain to hold. But Djokovic kept plugging away, got back to deuce, and then played his most masterful defensive point of the match, making one impossible save after another off the forehand until Medvedev finally erred. It was a rally that only Djokovic could have salvaged. That took him to break point. He then went backhand to backhand and became the beneficiary of an unforced error from a tentative adversary.

Photo by Roberto Dell’Olivo

It was 3-1 for Djokovic. He proceeded to hold for 4-1 at 15 with an ace down the T and then secured another solid hold for 5-2. Serving to stay in the set, Medvedev fell behind 0-30 but swept four points in a row. The Russian was making a substantial push to deny Djokovic at this crucial juncture and somehow turn the set back in his favor.

When Djokovic served for the second set at 5-3, it was the high water moment of the contest, and almost a match within a match. It brought both players out in the brightest light as they battled so ferociously for a game both men wanted wholeheartedly. It gave Djokovic and Medvedev a chance to sparkle simultaneously, to keep countering each other with their intuition, creativity and athletic brilliance, to provide the fans with a smorgasbord of spectacular shotmaking. It was a treat to watch and proved to be the pivotal moment of the afternoon. There were five deuces in that game. Medvedev had three break points. Djokovic needed three set points. And every bit of it was enthralling. Djokovic kept traveling to the net while Medvedev refused to waver. In the end, Djokovic, who had commenced that game with an ace, sealed it with another untouchable delivery down the T to make it one set all.

That was surely a crushing blow to Medvedev, who realized that Djokovic was gathering steam, gaining confidence and raising his game while making the match immensely physical. Under those circumstances, with Djokovic attacking and defending stupendously and using every inch of the court, Medvedev recognized precisely what he was up against. They went to 2-2 in the third on serve as Djokovic held in the fourth game with another outstanding serve-volley package, punching a backhand first volley magnificently crosscourt for a winner.

Now Medvedev began to feel the commanding presence of Djokovic once more. Leading 40-15 in the fifth game, he lost four points in a row to an unrelenting and willful Djokovic. On break point, Djokovic sent a backhand down the line to lure Medvedev into an error. Djokovic promptly held at love for 4-2 on a cluster of mistakes from a beleaguered adversary. Medvedev was broken again in the seventh game by a resolute Djokovic. The Russian’s spirit had been sorely broken. Although Djokovic did not serve out the match at 5-2– missing all five first serves and double faulting once—it did not matter. With Medvedev serving to stay in the final at 3-5, he reached 30-30 but then Djokovic blocked a backhand return deep down the middle as only he can and Medvedev missed off the forehand. Now, at match point, Djokovic and Medvedev kept shifting from offense to defense before the Serbian drove a penetrating backhand down the line to set up a pinpoint forehand down the line winner. 

After that scintillating 26 stroke exchange, Djokovic had prevailed 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 for his single most important victory of 2021 outside of the four majors. It was also his fourteenth win of the year from a set down, which is no mean feat. Djokovic’s match record is 48-6 on the season so he has battled back after the loss of the first set nearly 30% of the time. It marked his fifth title run of 2021; in ten years across his sterling career, Djokovic has collected at least that many titles. Most impressively, he won 79% of his first serve points compared to Medvedev’s 59%. And nothing mattered more than his timely attacking as Djokovic won 27 of 36 points when approaching the net. Seldom if ever has he come in more, especially in a three set match. He outthought Medvedev as well as outplaying the determined Russian, demonstrating irrefutably that he can overcome formidable opponents in a variety of ways. He is indeed a multi-faceted player and individual.

Strangely, it was Djokovic’s first Masters 1000 tournament triumph of 2021. He had put so much emphasis on the four majors this year that he only played two clay court ATP 1000’s and skipped all the rest. That is the only reason he did not secure the year-end No. 1 ranking sooner. But the fact remained that he had to treat his Medvedev Paris encounter as a must-win situation. He had lost four of his last six meetings with the Russian. 

They had split their two Grand Slam tournament finals this season, with Djokovic routing Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 at the Australian Open before losing to his keynote rival at the U.S. Open. A loss in Paris might have left the Serbian with lingering doubts about himself in that rivalry. They would have been locked at 5-5 in their career series with everything moving in Medvedev’s direction; instead, Djokovic has extended his lead over the tenacious Russian to 6-4. This was among his most crucial victories in recent years.

image via witter.com/RolexMasters

Djokovic felt the burden of pressure had been lifted from his shoulders after his semifinal win and the securing of No. 1 for the season. As he said after the final, “I felt a huge relief knowing that I had achieved the biggest goal of the week for me. When I did that yesterday, I just kind of felt more relaxed today. Even though there is always pressure playing against No. 2 of the world and probably my biggest rival in tennis at the moment in this season, I wanted to finish the tournament with a trophy. There is no doubt about it. But I didn’t want to lock myself in mentally and emotionally into this stressful mode where I’m unable to swing freely. So it’s not like I didn’t care. I just felt a little more relaxed and that things will come together. I just had to work myself into the match a bit more.”

Djokovic did just that, and found his finest tennis when it counted the most. One of the critical reasons he triumphed was the intelligence and unpredictability of his aggression. He won 27 of 36 points when he approached the net (taking 14 of 17 in the second set), primarily because he kept Medvedev guessing about his intentions. Medvedev had difficulty anticipating when Djokovic would serve-and-volley and when he would stay back on his delivery. Moreover, the Russian was dumbfounded with Djokovic’s accuracy on wide serves in both the deuce and ad courts. That pattern of going “wide and wide” set up Djokovic for clusters of open court first volley winners. And when he would sense that Medvedev might be ready for that tactic, Djokovic would serve, stay back, and take control from there.

Clearly, Djokovic had done his homework and learned from what happened in New York. His performance in the Paris contest was similarly high to what he produced in Melbourne. He broke Medvedev five times altogether, and no less than three times in the final set. Djokovic was a prisoner of his own substantial ambitions in New York, but not so in Paris. The essential Djokovic was back, playing the game much more on his own terms, delighted to be taking on another challenge so late in the season, performing at the end with both gusto and gumption.

Medvedev lauded his revered rival, saying, “I gave everything I had. I was playing one of the best players in history, and you could feel that he really, really wanted to win. It was a huge battle.”

Now they will move on to Turin for the Nitto ATP Finals. Medvedev is the defending champion. Djokovic will go full force after a sixth title. The feeling grows that we may well be watching them again in the final of that prestigious year-ending event, which would be fitting. Meanwhile, Djokovic should be very proud of capturing his 86th career singles titles on the ATP Tour in Paris. The French Open champion has won two titles in that city during the same year for the first time in his career, and no one could argue that he did not thoroughly deserve his latest high honor.

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Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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Alexander Zverev Triumphant Again while Tiafoe Steals the Show in Vienna

The American qualifier beat Tsitsipas, Schwartzman and Sinner with his trademark flair, but did he cross a line?

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Frances Tiafoe (USA) and Alexander Zverev (GER) - Vienna 2021- (© e-motion/Bildagentur Zolles KG/Christian Hofer)

Those of us who follow the world of tennis with unbridled passion year after year and decade after decade have frequently been spoiled. We watch the best players in the world as they chase the  most prestigious prizes on the planet at the four Grand Slam events. We see them shining brightly at all of the Masters 1000 tournaments which have achieved a lasting prominence across the years. We witness these sterling performers competing in Davis Cup and marvel at their exploits as they represent their countries in the most important international tennis team event.

 

Yet seldom have I found myself so immersed in an ATP 500 tournament as I was this past week. The Erste Bank Open in Vienna was a gripping spectacle from beginning to end. Alexander “Sascha” Zverev collected his fifth title of the 2021 season in style with some spectacular tennis down the stretch. The German reaffirmed that he has taken his game to a newfound level of excellence, and the feeling grows that he will surely secure at least one of the four Majors in the coming year. To be sure, Zverev has not only demonstrably improved his tennis across the board, but he has also come into his own as a competitor of a very high order.

In his sparkling 2021 campaign, Zverev has taken the gold medal at the Olympic Games, two Masters 1000 prizes in Madrid and Cincinnati, and now he has garnered a second ATP 500 crown. No one outside of Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev has accomplished more than Zverev this year. He stood under the spotlight in Vienna looking entirely comfortable in his own skin, performing majestically over the course of the week, winning the tournament with discipline, determination and unshakable self assurance. Having lost a quarterfinal he should have won in his previous appearance at Indian Wells a few weeks earlier against Taylor Fritz, Zverev recovered his winning ways commendably and now he has captured 25 of his last 27 matches since suffering a five set loss at Wimbledon against Felix Auger-Aliassime in the round of 16 at Wimbledon.

Indisputably, Zverev was the last man standing in Vienna and a worthy victor in the end. And yet, in many ways the tournament belonged to another player who did everything but win the event. We are talking, of course, about the charismatic and ebullient Frances Tiafoe of the United States.

Let’s start with the fact that, despite a sporadically brilliant year, the enigmatic American had to qualify for Vienna. Was the field that strong, or was this a reflection of Tiafoe’s instability over the course of the season? The answer to both questions is yes. A player of Tiafoe’s considerable capabilities should not have needed to quality, but the fact remains that the field was remarkably stout. And so he had to deal with the indignity of earning a spot in the main draw.

Frances Tiafoe (USA) – Vienna 2021 (© e-motion/Bildagentur Zolles KG/Christian Hofer)

Tiafoe did just that. Largely unnoticed, Tiafoe took his two matches in the qualifying, but not easily. In the first round, he toppled Alex Molcan 6-4 3-6 6-1. He was pushed again in the second round before battling back for a 6-7(5) 6-4 6-3 triumph over Lucas Miedler. Tiafoe has always been a player with a clear preference for testing himself against the game’s best known performers rather than facing those with lesser resumes and reputations.

But he dealt admirably with the situation, and toppled the Serbian Dusan Lajovic 6-4 6-4 in the first round of the main draw. That gave this versatile shotmaker the opportunity to get another crack at world No.3 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the round of 16. Tiafoe had upended the Greek stylist in an opening round contest at Wimbledon in the first round, prevailing in straight sets. On that occasion, while Tiafoe played inspired tennis and attacked at all the right times, Tsitsipas seemed a shell of his normal self and was perhaps suffering  a lingering hangover from his five set loss to Novak Djokovic in the French Open final.

This time around, the Greek competitor seemed back on song and ready to avenge his defeat at the hands of Tiafoe. Tsitsipas was serving as well as he had done in a long while and was totally in control of the encounter. He pocketed the first set comfortably and was on serve at 3-4 in the second set. He was the far superior player at that point. But in that pendulum swinging eighth game of the second set, Tsitsipas missed all ten first serves, double faulted three times, and made a succession of anxiety-induced errors.

Tiafoe broke and soon won the set, but Tsitsipas was quickly back in control, building a 3-0 final set lead. At 3-1 on his own delivery, he had a game point but did not convert it. Tiafoe made it back to 3-3, but Tsitsipas wasted another game point and lost his serve again in that seventh game on a double fault. Tiafoe raised his game decidedly, began serving with thunder, and he imposed himself forcefully. Tsitsipas could not counter the American’s pace. Taking six of the last seven games, Tiafoe knocked out the top seeded player 3-6 6-3 6-4. Tsitsipas remained mired in a debilitating slump.

Next on the agenda for Tiafoe was the industrious Diego Schwartzman, the “Little Big Man” of tennis. Schwartzman had won both of his previous head-to-head showdowns with Tiafoe, achieving each of these victories earlier this year. Extraordinary foot speed and supreme resilience from the backcourt had carried him through on those occasions. But Tiafoe was awfully confident after rallying to beat Tsitsipas, and he seemed well on his way to a comfortable victory when he outperformed Schwartzman in the first set and then moved out in front 5-1 in the second.

Thereafter, matters got complicated for the 23-year-old American. Very complicated. He served for the match at 5-1 in the second set and lost his serve at love. He wasted a match point at 5-2. Before he knew it, Schwartzman was serving for the set at 6-5 but Tiafoe found his range in the nick of time, broke back easily and made it to a tie-break. Down set point at 5-6 in that sequence, Tiafoe aced his adversary, who happens to be the third best returner in tennis behind Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Tiafoe took the next two points to overcome Schwartzman 6-4, 7-6(6). Had that match gone to three sets, Tiafoe would have been likely to lose. When he lost those five consecutive games in that bizarre second set, he was unraveling emotionally as well.

No matter. Now he was in the semifinals, up against the surging Jannik Sinner. Tiafoe was getting soundly beaten and almost trounced by the confident Italian ball striker. Sinner led 6-3, 3-0, with a 15-40 lead on Tiafoe’s serve in the fourth game. The American escaped. With Sinner at 4-1, Sinner had a break point but failed to convert it. And yet, he calmly advanced to 5-2. Sinner was masterful up until that stage, controlling the complexion of the match meticulously, keeping Tiafoe on the move and out of sorts. Tiafoe seemed to have almost given up.

Carlos Alcaraz (ESP) – Vienna 2021 (© e-motion/Bildagentur Zolles KG/Christian Hofer)

But almost is the operative word. Sinner is on the edge of some prodigious achievements. He is a professional through and through, a man who tends to his business sternly and systematically. He leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of victory. One day soon, he is going to be a great champion who will make winning the premier prizes something of a habit.

He is not there yet. Sometimes he seems to care almost too much about what he is doing, and then he can succumb to bouts of serious anxiety. After Tiafoe held serve in the eighth game, Sinner served for the match. He had just won the tournament in Antwerp the week before, claiming his fourth title of the season. Perhaps he was somewhat physically fatigued, but this match got away because he was entirely too apprehensive.

When he had the chance to end it all and land in another final, Sinner fell apart. Serving for the match at 5-3 in that fateful second set, Sinner led 15-0, standing three points away from an important victory that could have propelled him into seventh place ahead of Casper Ruud (whom he had just beaten in Vienna) in the Race to Turin. That was almost surely weighing on his mind. The 20-year-old made three consecutive unforced errors, two off the backhand, one off the forehand. He was broken at 15 as Tiafoe connected with a dazzling backhand pass down the line.

Tiafoe was not simply revitalized; he started playing madly inspired tennis, as if he had suddenly been given a new lease on life. He held at 30 for 5-5 and broke Sinner in the following game again with some improvising that defied belief, making a forehand half volley drop shot winner that kissed the sideline. It was as if he was playing a practice match that meant nothing, but to Sinner this turnaround was deeply serious and disconcerting. He double faulted that game away and never really recovered. An unconsciously magnificent Tiafoe marched to victory 3-6 7-5 6-2 over a despondent Sinner.

Not only was Sinner feeling the sting of an improbable defeat, but he was perturbed by some excessively demonstrative behavior from his opponent. Tiafoe is an enormously crowd pleasing performer and there is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is one of his finest qualities because fans always look forward to establishing eye contact with him and feeling as if he is there to entertain them. In that regard, Tiafoe is great for the game. He connects with his audiences the way few performers are inclined to do.

But in this instance Tiafoe went too far and stepped over a line with his conduct in my view. Repeatedly as he waged his stunning comeback, he “high-fived” the spectators,  hugged some fans after chasing a ball near the stands and simply went overboard with the antics. Normally Tiafoe knows when to stop with his theatrics, and he has a measured way of getting the audiences on his side and allowing them to bring out the best in him, but here he was disrespectful to his opponent.

In any case, regardless of his demonstrativeness and whether or not it was excessive, Tiafoe had taken over Vienna and turned it into something resembling his hometown. The fans treated him as if he was an Austrian. For the first time in his career, he had won 29 matches in a year, surpassing his 2018 record by one match. His three victories over top 20 ranked players was a first for the American. But he could not contain Zverev in the title round contest. The German took the racket completely out of his hand, and served him off the court.

Zverev was devastatingly potent on serve at the outset of the final. In his first two service games, Zverev did not lose a point. He served one ace in the opening game and four more in the third game. Tiafoe had no clue how to read where Zverev’s delivery was going. He did not get a single return back into play in those first two service games from the No.2 seed. When the German broke for a 3-1 lead, he seemed certain to secure that first set swiftly and unhesitatingly.

That was not the case. Although Zverev put all five first serves in play in the fifth game, his location was not as precise as usual and Tiafoe took full advantage. Moreover, Zverev gave away three points with abysmal mistakes off the ground. Tiafoe’s magic had reappeared. They were back on serve. To 5-5 they went, but now Zverev fully asserted his authority, holding at love with two aces and then breaking Tiafoe in a three deuce game as the American kept pressing off the ground. Set to Zverev, 7-5.

The second set was also hard fought as Tiafoe competed with quite professionalism and deep determination. He fended off one break point in the second game and three more in the sixth, but Zverev was merciless.  On his way to 4-4 he served three love games and won 16 of 18 service points. But, as if a script had been written, suddenly Tiafoe had an opening in the ninth game. Zverev led 40-15 but Tiafoe reached break point. Zverev, however, would not buckle, releasing a service winner, an ace and a scintillating backhand crosscourt to hold on for 5-4 before breaking at love to close out the contest 7-5, 6-4 on a run of seven consecutive points at the end. Zrerev served 19 aces and made 82% of his first serves, winning 80% of those points. Altogether he won 43 of 56 points on serve and was broken only once. He did not serve a single double fault. Moreover, his controlled aggression from the baseline was breathtaking.

Zverev had peaked propitiously at the end of the tournament. He had opened with a 6-2 7-5 victory over Filip Krajinovic after trailing 2-5 in the second set. Then he dropped a set before ousting Alex De Minaur 6-2 3-6 6-2. He then had another mid-match lapse before subduing Auger-Aliassime 6-4 3-6 6-3. But then Zverev lifted his game immensely for a semifinal duel with the astonishing 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, winning sweepingly 6-3 6-3 without losing his serve, pouring in 79% of his first serves and taking 84% of those points. Alcaraz is a kid who seems to always know precisely what he is doing on a tennis court. Not only is he a mighty striker of the ball, but he has a match playing maturity that is extraordinary.

But Zverev was so overpowering from the baseline and so unstoppable on serve that Alvarez was never allowed to operate with his customary comfort and precision. Zverev had only one vulnerable moment, when he served for the match at 5-3 in the second set, starting that game with his lone double fault of the confrontation and later faced his only break point. But he settled down and closed out the account deservedly.

Alcaraz, meanwhile, had nothing to be ashamed about. He prevailed in one of the tournament’s signature moments. His quarterfinal against Matteo Berrettini was another significant step in the evolution of a champion. Alcaraz is simply not going to be denied his home among the elite over the next couple of years. His triumph over the Italian No. 1 is abundant proof of that.

At the outset, Alcaraz was blasting away off the ground and keeping Berrettini totally at bay, and his returns were astounding. In the first set, Berrettini took only one game and won only 57% of his first serve points. He was dazed by the supersonic speed of the shots coming at him from a fearless adversary.

The Italian fought tenaciously, saving four break points in the second set, salvaging it in a well played tie-break. Once more, Berrettini was perched precariously in the third set, trailing 1-4 and seemingly confounded. But he broke back. And yet, in a final set tie-break his ground game collapsed and the kid would not miss. Alcaraz did not lose a point on serve, and he produced one of the biggest wins of his career, succeeding 6-1 6-7 (2) 7-6 (5).

All in all, it was a tournament to savor. Alcaraz played a prominent role by reaching the semifinals. Tiafoe perhaps has a permanently altered view of himself and his potential after a series of gritty performances in Austria.

But, ultimately and undeniably, the week was above all else a celebration of Sascha Zverev, who played tennis of the highest caliber, competed steadfastly and came away with another hard earned prize that will carry him with conviction into the last two big events of the season at Paris and Turin.

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Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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