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Changing Of The Swiss Guards

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Stan Wawrinka (zimbio.com)

By Cheryl Jones

The mere mention of Switzerland brings to mind numerous high priced or high altitude items. Chocolate, cheese, watches and money might be high on that list, but in the world of tennis, a couple of guys who began their careers as wee ones in the place that brought the world Swiss Guards in the late fifteenth century, tops the list.

 

Nearly twenty years ago, Roger Federer began to impress the world with his tennis prowess. (Actually, I remember watching him practice before he was “the” Roger Federer. He was fairly new to the scene when I excitedly told fellow journalists that I had seen greatness in the making. They laughed. No one from that alpine country had been a big star. But, a few took a look-see and there was a “maybe” reaction that flashed across their face.) Anyone who follows tennis knows that all of that changed when he took the crown at Wimbledon just a few years later in 2003. That was the starting point of a career that will be remembered as long as there’s tennis. He spent 302 weeks (nearly six years), ranked Number One. He’s won seventeen Grand Slams and more tournaments than almost anyone.

However, there is another tennis guy from Switzerland. He is ranked Number Three in the world. His name was Stanislas Wawrinka. (That “was” is because he had the ATP change his name to Stan and that’s the name to which he will respond.)

Today at Roland Garros, Wawrinka moved to the second round when he defeated Jozef Kovalik of Slovakia, 6-2, 7-6, 6-3. It was a fairly fast three setter that lasted just a tick under two hours. The previous Saturday, Wawrinka took the trophy at Geneva just as he had last year. After today’s match, Wawrinka spoke with the media and reflected a bit on his play.

When asked about that second set where Kovalik had three set balls, he said, “I tried to play more aggressively; put more pressure on him. As long as the set isn’t over there is still room to win it. You know, especially when your opponent is down one set.” He went further, “All in all, I think this was a solid match. I’m very happy about how I managed it. I had good feelings playing.”

Even though it may seem as if he’s moving into the powering down side of tennis, he seems to have found that groove in his career where he can glide from tournament to tournament and finish very well. He’s thirty-two, and appears better than ever, and that’s a truth that can be verified by looking back at his career. He has taken home close to thirty million US dollars. That’s a tidy sum for anyone. He might have remained in Roger Federer’s shadow, but didn’t.

He won here in Paris in 2015 when he defeated Novak Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. That was just a year after he lost in the first round. He won the junior title in 2003, and with his win in 2015, he became the first to accomplish that feat since Mats Wilander achieved the same in 1988. In 2016, he won the US Open when he was 31 years, 167 days old. That unexpected win made him the oldest winner there since Ken Rosewall in 1970.

His win at the Australian Open in 2014 made him the first man to defeat the number one and two seeds on the way to a grand slam title since Sergi Bruguera did it in Roland Garros in 1993.

This time out, he is looking to be the third man in the Open Era to win three or more Grand Slam titles after turning thirty. (Australians Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall chalked up a few of those coveted titles when they were in the senior citizenry of professional sports.)

Five sets can be a very long time to be on the court – just ask John Isner who played for 11 hours and five minutes at Wimbledon in 2010. With a 24 to 19 record in five setters, Wawrinka must feel as if he has a bit of an advantage when playing anyone with a lower ranking. Kovalik’s 152 ranking shouldn’t have been a problem for Wawrinka, but the second set today should have whispered to him – Beware!

Next up, he will face Alexandr Dolgopolov who has been ranked as high as 13 in the world, but now is ranked 89 due to some injuries that kept him away from the courts. Wawrinka has all the moves that should propel him through to the next round. He has one of the strongest one-handed backhands around. He has a wonderfully fast serve that has been clocked at 144 miles per hour. He has taken his previously weak forehand and turned it into an asset. He’s one of the few players who do not consistently bang balls from the baseline and is very skilled at serve and volleying, which to many may seem like a lost art.

His coach of three years, Magnus Norman, (who in the past was a great player himself), has helped him deal with that other part of a game that is often left by the wayside – the mental side. The ups and downs that seemed to be who Stan was in the past has leveled out and he has shown great skill defeating the likes of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and of course, Rafael Nadal, when each was at the top of their game.

In the past, Dolgopolov has been a thorn in his side, having won two of the three matches they have contested. Wawrinka recalled that, “He moves a lot. He has a very fast arm and he moves very quickly. He has a lot of variety in his game. He slices a lot, so he really doesn’t have a steady pace. I guess what’s challenging with him is you never know what to expect. So, when you play him you really have to be focused.” At thirty-two, Wawrinka may now be able to will himself to stay on task. He summed it up when he added, “It’s really important to give him a strong ball every single time, to make it mentally more challenging for him. Otherwise he will take the lead.”

Lately, focus seems to be the name of Wawrinka’s game. He has a plan and sometimes that’s all one needs. Understanding the task at hand is often a winner, no matter what the challenge. Stan has a lot of work ahead of him, but he has a very solid foundation to draw on. Switzerland has given the world of tennis a couple of really good men who have nothing to do with chocolate, watches or snow. Money, however, may be a byproduct of their successes, though.

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Madrid Open Daily Preview: Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka Meet in a Second Consecutive Final

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Aryna Sabalenka has steamrolled her way to Saturday’s final (twitter.com/MutuaMadridOpen)

Just 13 days ago in Stuttgart, Barty and Sabalenka competed in the championship match, with Barty coming back from a set down to win the title, claiming 12 of the last 15 games.  On Saturday, Sabalenka looks to avenge that loss, and even their head-to-head at 4-4.  The women’s doubles championship will also be decided, between two of the top three seeds.

 

On the men’s side, the singles and doubles semifinals will be played.  Sascha Zverev hit a subpar Rafael Nadal right off the court on Friday, and just 24 hours later will try to take out the next-best clay courter of the last few years, Dominic Thiem.  Saturday will be a busy day for Zverev, as he’s also a semifinalist in doubles.  In the other singles semifinal, Matteo Berrettini and Casper Ruud will do battle, with the winner achieving their first Masters 1000 final. 

Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the two most prominent matches of the day, and note the other intriguing matchups on the schedule.  Saturday’s play will begin at 1:30pm local time.

Dominic Thiem (3) vs. Sascha Zverev (5) – Not Before 4:00pm on Manolo Santana Stadium

This will be their first encounter since their dramatic, yet rather ugly US Open final, where Thiem came back from two sets down to eventually prevail in a fifth set tiebreak.  Overall Dominic leads their head-to-head 8-2, and 4-1 on clay.  The Austrian has claimed their last four meetings, with Zverev’s last victory coming in the final of this event three years ago.  

Both men struggled with some nagging injuries prior to this event, but both have looked sharp to this stage.  Thiem overcame a one-set deficit on Friday against John Isner, while Zverev is yet to drop a set.  Defeating Nadal on clay is always a big achievement, especially when it’s your first time doing so.  It will be interesting to see if Sascha can maintain his high level from a day prior.  Zverev struck 28 winners on Friday, compared to only six by Nadal.

In last year’s US Open final, the winner of each set was the player who won a higher percentage of first serve points.  If you’re Sascha Zverev, there has to be some baggage from blowing a two-set lead in his first career Major final.  In a rivalry that has strongly favored Thiem, I like the reigning US Open champion to reach his third final in Madrid.

Ash Barty (1) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (5) – Not Before 6:30pm on Manolo Santana Stadium

They’ve already met twice this year, in Miami and Stuttgart, with Barty taking both matches in a third set by a score of 6-3.  In their Stuttgart final, converting break points was a key difference.  Barty broke five times, while Sabalenka only claimed two out of 10 break points.  That exemplifies the composure of the world No.1, who has won 16 out of her last 18 deciding sets. 

Sabalenka hasn’t faced a deciding set this fortnight, as she’s been dominating all competition.  No opponent has claimed more than three games in a set.  Aryna has spent about three less hours on court than Barty, though that shouldn’t be a significant factor on Saturday.  Both players had a day of rest on Friday, and comfortably won their Thursday semifinals in straight sets.

Barty has amassed several impressive streaks: 9 straight match wins, 16 straight on red clay, and 10 straight victories over top 10 opposition.  She’s also prevailed in 10 of her last 12 finals.  Similarly, Sabalenka has won seven of her last nine finals.  Yet as impressive as the Belarusian has been, winning 32 of her last 38 matches, she’s only 1-3 during that span against the top 10.  If these two go the distance again, it’s harder for Sabalenka to maintain her level than Barty.  And Ash possesses many more backup plans in her arsenal.  In what should be another tight contest, I give the slight edge to Barty to earn her fourth title of the year.

Other Notable Matches on Saturday:

Matteo Berrettini (8) vs. Casper Ruud – Berrettini is on a seven-match win streak, dating back to his title run two weeks ago in Belgrade.  Ruud is into his third consecutive Masters 1000 semifinal on clay, and all 14 of his wins at this level have come on this surface.  Casper has been serving spectacularly, as he’s yet to be broken at this event, facing only one break point thus far.  They’ve split two previous meetings, with the clay court clash going to Ruud in straight sets, two years ago at Roland Garros.

Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova (2) vs. Gabriela Dabrowski and Demi Schuurs (3) – Krejcikova and Siniakova won the Gippsland Trophy earlier this season, and reached the final of the Australian Open.  This is the first tournament for Dabrowski and Schuurs as a team.

Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic (2) vs. Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen – Mektic and Pavic have now won 31 of 34 matches since teaming up for 2021.  Their Belgian opponents won the Singapore Open earlier this year, then went on a five-match losing streak before reaching the final of Munich last week.

Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos (3) vs. Tim Puetz and Sascha Zverev – Granollers and Zeballos are looking to reach their second final of the season.  This is Puetz and Zverev’s second event this season as a team.  In Miami, the Germans defeated Granollers and Zeballos in straight sets.

Saturday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Alexander Zverev Powers Past Erratic Nadal To Set Thiem Showdown

Alexander Zverev secured his best win of his career on a clay court by beating Rafael Nadal in Madrid.

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Alexander Zverev (@ATPTour_ES - Twitter)

Alexander Zverev powered past an erratic Rafael Nadal 6-4 6-3 to reach the semi-finals in Madrid.

 

After a slow start Zverev produced some stunning tennis to knock out the five-time champion Nadal, who had an error-prone day at the office.

The German will now play Dominic Thiem in the last four in a rematch from the 2018 final.

It was the 20-time grand slam champion who started off the fastest as he looked to target the Zverev forehand early with uncomfortable spins and heights.

Eventually Nadal would get his rewards for an accurate tactical game-plan as a Zverev double fault handed him the break.

However that advantage was to be short-lived as the first point of the seventh game would change the momentum of the match with Nadal putting in simple unforced errors especially on the forehand side.

The German took advantage as he used his backhand to dictate points from the baseline. Furthermore, Zverev used his superior net play to his advantage by shortening the points and creating a faster tempo.

An unusual first set from Nadal’s perspective was complete as the fifth seed reeled off four games in a row to seal the opening set 6-4.

At the start of the second set, the Spaniard tried to up his level and intensity as he used some drop-shots at unexpected moments and attempted to bring the crowd into the match.

Despite this Nadal’s return game was lacking its usual ferocity as he couldn’t capitalise on Zverev’s second serves.

There was a lack of confidence in the Spaniard when implementing effective patterns of play as Zverev had a lot of success dictating play and winning the baseline and net rallies.

Another break in the fifth game ensured that Zverev’s dominance was being rewarded.

Although a double break advantage was denied, Nadal couldn’t deny victory for Zverev as the German sealed his first clay court victory over the ‘King of Clay.’

After the match Zverev admitted it was one of the biggest wins of his career, “Definitely one of the biggest wins of my career so far, especially on clay against Rafa. It is the toughest thing to do in our sport,” Zverev said in an on-court interview.

“Beating him in his house, in Spain, is incredible but the tournament is not over yet.”

Lots to ponder for Nadal as an error-prone performance sees him looking to improve in Rome next week.

As for the German, he sets up a 2018 final rematch with Dominic Thiem in the last four as he secured his best victory on this surface of his career.

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Dominic Them reaches semifinal in Madrid after three-set battle with Isner

Dominic Thiem is into the Madrid semi-finals after an impressive three set win over John Isner.

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Dominic Thiem (@atptour - Twitter)

The Austrian booked his spot in the semifinals after coming back to beat the American in three sets.

 

Dominic Thiem needed one hour and 55 minutes to beat the world number 39 John Isner in three sets 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 hitting 20 winners in the win while his opponent hit 26 unforced errors.

“We all know that he is one of the best servers in history and this altitude in Madrid makes it even tougher to return his serve but I was a little bit surprised by his return games, I think he attacked both my first and second serves and it took me a while to get used to it and I think the match changed when I saved those three breakpoints in the second set”.

It was the American who got off to the faster start holding his opening service game and then going on the offensive earning a breakpoint the following game and taking an early 2-0 lead.

The Greensboro, North Carolina native had a chance to go up a double break but the world number four saved both breakpoints he faced and managed to hold his first service game of the match.

That break was enough for the American to serve out the first set and he was one set away from the semifinals.

The second set stayed on serve until 2-2 when the Dallas, Texas resident had four breakpoints but failed to convert and the match was starting to turn with the American looking gassed.

In the next game the Austrian had three breakpoint and converted for his first break of the match as he served out the second set to send it to a deciding third set.

Isner was put under pressure early in the third set facing a breakpoint in the first game of the set but managed to save it and hold serve and it stayed on serve until 4-4.

That’s when the world number four earned two chances to break and on the second time of asking he would break and served out the match to book a date with either Alexander Zverev or Rafael Nadal.

After his match in an on court interview he gave this thoughts on a potential matchup with either Nadal or Zverev.

“It’s going to be a good one, I’ve played two big matches here against Rafa ( Nadal) and one big match against Sascha ( Zverev), and against either one of them it’s going to be an incredible challenge and it’s going to be exciting tomorrow”.

With the loss today by Isner when the new rankings come out on Monday it will be the first time in the open era and since the rankings came out that an American will not feature in the top 30 players in the world.

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