By Cheryl Jones
In 1991 there was a lot going on for a young boy whose family skied very well. He could certainly ski well; it was part of his genetic makeup. But, at four, he decided that he liked tennis. And to his family’s surprise he was good. Not just, “Oh, how cute – a four year old playing tennis”, good, but extraordinary. When he was six, Jelena Gencic, a Yugoslav tennis player spotted him and told his parents that he was the greatest talent she had seen since Monica Seles. Gencic worked with him until he was twelve. She then suggested that he move to the Pilic Tennis Academy in Germany where he spent the next several years working on his game.
A diligent fellow at heart, he wasted no time. He became a professional when he was sixteen. Looking back at his ATP rankings shows what seems to be a meteoric rise in the rankings. July 7, 2003 he was at 767. By August of 2007 he was number three in the world. Since then his rankings have consistently been at the top of the heap. He was number one for four years during 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015. His play remains amazingly consistent, despite hitting a few speed bumps along the way.
A few years ago, after a myriad of health problems that seemed like allergies, he consulted specialists that figured out it was gluten intolerance. He discontinued the wheat and whatever else that contains gluten from his on the go menu. A dramatic change occurred. No more allergic reactions. Even with a few stumbles recently that saw him change coaches, today he is Number 2, and like Avis, he always tries harder.
The first Monday of 2017 Roland Garros saw him defeat Marcel Granollers of Spain in a lengthy, two hour and 27 minute straight-sets match. It wasn’t really close on paper, but Granollers made the most of his time in the spotlight on Court Philippe Chatrier early in the afternoon. The 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 score belied the competitive efforts of the Spaniard who kept Djokovic on his now thirty year-old nimble toes.
Card players know that there is a “tell” when someone either has a good or a bad hand. Djokovic has always had what I think is a “tell”. He has a habit of bouncing the ball before he serves and the number and frequency of the bounces change with his impression of how he’s doing in a match. Normally there is a six or seven bounce prelude to his serve. His nervous serve has six or seven bounces, then a halt and six or seven more. The bounces usually add up to thirteen. Today’s match included just a few of the thirteen-bounce variety, but they were there.
After the match, he explained how it felt to step on the court after his win last year that gave him a coveted prize that went beyond the Coupe de Mousquitaires he garnered when he became the 2016 winner at Roland Garros. He said, “Well, different (from before) because obviously coming to this tournament for the first time as defending champion gave me, probably more than anything else, relief, you know because the anticipation and the pressure and expectations that I had also for myself, but all the other people around me in the last three, four, five years before 2016 Roland Garros trophy was really big.”
It was more than “extra” big because it completed his very own career Grand Slam. He already had taken home the prizes from the other slams – six from the Australian Open; three from Wimbledon and two from the US Open.
A win this year would put him in a very exclusive “club”. If he can manage to make it through the draw with Rafael Nadal, somehow out of the picture, he might be able to eke out a win and become the third man in history to win all of the slams – twice. He would join Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, who are the only men to have won each of the grand slams twice. That said, there’s another biggie that would go down in the history books. He would be able to do it in the Open Era. Even though Laver won some of his titles in that era, Emerson and he were in competition before the change.
There is a lot to be said for goals that increase one’s chances of leaving an indelible mark in the history books. He’s done a yeoman’s job of making everything fit together to give him an opportunity to achieve the objectives that he must have begun to strive for when he was twelve and living away from Belgrade and his family.
He recently announced that he had brought André Agassi on as his coach. After today’s performance, it seems like that plan is working very well. It’s another one of those only time will tell instances.
After his win today, he didn’t seek the spotlight for himself alone. He stepped to the center of the court and asked the ball kids to join him in an impromptu dip and wave to the crowd. He’s a diplomat in shorts, carrying a tennis racquet. Tennis needs him. He is a wonderful ambassador to the world in general; but for tennis, he is a gem from Belgrade that sparkles more than a diamond, and with that, reflects all that’s good in the game.
Frances Tiafoe: America’s Next Big Hope
The 21-year-old is enjoying his best ever run in a grand slam at the Australian Open, but how much of a talent in he?
Prior to the Australian Open Frances Tiafoe had only won five matches in 11 appearances at a grand slam tournament. Now a dream run at Melbourne Park has made him the youngest American man to reach a major quarter-final since 2003.
Recently celebrating his 21st birthday, Tiafoe has produced wins over both Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov to reach the last eight in Melbourne. Illustrating the talent he has on the court. After each triumph, his celebrations are inspired by NBA superstar Lebron James where he would mimic the ‘too strong’ bicep slap. Something that could feature regularly in his matches for years to come.
“You like that? It was pretty cool,” Tiafoe commented about his celebration earlier this week.
“It is kind of instinct thing,” he added. “I hope the crowd liked it.”
Tiafoe’s route into tennis is far from ordinary. His parents fled to America in order to escape the civil war in Sierra Leone. They only managed to enter the country by coming through the Green Card Lottery. A system where the US government allocated a total of 55,000 visas worldwide to countries with low immigration rates to America. Tiafoe learned to play tennis at a club in Maryland, where his father worked as a maintenance man before becoming a on-site custodian. During his childhood, he would stay with his father, who was given accommodation on site.
“I obviously wasn’t a normal tennis story. The beginning of my career, I was playing for them, trying to do everything for my family. Obviously now I put them in a great place. Now I’m trying to do it for me.” He said following his fourth round win in Melbourne.
“I’m not saying you can’t make it if you grew up from a wealthy situation. I mean, a ton of people have. But obviously that gave me an incentive, a reason to give, a reason to work every day, understand why you do it.” He added.
Those familiar with the career of the American will not be too surprised by his Australian Open breakthrough. As a junior Tiafoe showed promise by winning the prestigious Orange Bowl at the age of 15. Becoming the tournaments youngest ever champion. Two years later, he became the youngest American man to feature in the French Open main draw since 1989. In 2018 he reached his first two ATP finals, winning his maiden title in Delray Beach.
Blessed with a big aggressive game and fast serve, Tiafoe’s rise hasn’t gone unnoticed by his rivals on the tour. So far in his career, he has scored three wins over top 10 players. Including Juan Martin del Potro, who was his idol whilst growing up.
“He’s great as a team player. He’s going to be amazing. He can only get better from now on for him.” Dimitrov said of the 21-year-old. “It’s just a long way to go. I know how is it to break ground on those first tournaments, especially a slam and all that”
“He really needs to just stay calm and make sure he follows the right path. That’s pretty much the only advice I can give him on that end. Obviously he’s done something well so far. He’s progressing, playing better. Those things are already adding up.”
Whilst on the right path, future success on the tour is by no means guaranteed. There has been a lot of talk in Melbourne concerning the changing of the guard following the successes of Tiafoe and fellow next gen star Stefanos Tsitsipas. Although consistency on the tour remains a challenge for Tiafoe, who last won four consecutive matches in a tournament back in May.
“Perth was terrible, Sydney was bad.” Tiafoe reflected about his start to 2019.
Despite his lacklustre run of results in recent time, some of the biggest names in the sport are starting to take note. Something that is exciting American tennis fans and their hunt for a male grand slam champion. The last player from the country to win a major title was Andre Agassi at the 2003 US Open.
“He has everything. He’s quick. He serves well. Very quick forehand. He’s a very dynamic player, aggressive one. Of course, he’s dangerous.” 14-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal said of Tiafoe.
Nothing is ever certain in life, but there are signs that Tiafoe might be starting to live up to the hype that has been said about him through his young career. His performance against Nadal in the Australian Open quarter-final may seen pivotal, but in reality it is how he fairs on the tour for the rest of the year.
Tiafoe is certainly a star in the making, but only time will tell if he can reach the top of the men’s game.
Accusations, Arguments and Threats: Australian Tennis Under Pressure At Home Grand Slam
It is meant to be the best time of the year for Australian tennis players and officials, but not everybody is celebrating.
Usually the talk in the home country of a grand slam is centred around how the national players are performing. However, at the Australian Open it is frustration, anger and a continuous war of words.
It all started earlier this week when Bernard Tomic launched a somewhat unexpected attack on Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt. Following his first round loss, Tomic accused the former world No.1 of having a negative impact on his national association and went as far as saying that ‘no one likes him.’ A somewhat unsurprising dialogue when you look at their complex history.
“I thought he (Hewitt) was retired,” he said at Melbourne Park following his defeat.
“I’m going to say it honestly, no one likes him anymore. He’s playing Davis Cup. I thought he was retired. He’s playing all these matches and stuff like this.
“He used to hate Tennis Australia,” Tomic added, referring to Australia’s tennis body. “It’s weird. And now he loves them. What’s happened here?”
To make the situation even more tense, the News corporation of Australia revealed that Tomic even threatened his compatriot two years ago following a deterioration in their friendship. He told the agency ‘Two years ago, I said ‘If he ever tries to talk to me, I’ll knock him out.’
The timing of the feud is somewhat unfortunate, but the matter in itself is unsurprising. Tomic, who is a former top 20 player, is known for his blunt and outspoken comments. Previously criticising the new type of balls used at the Australian Open.
Whilst the 26-year-old is a critic of Hewitt, others have jumped to his defence. Nick Kyrgios, who is no stranger to controversy himself, said there was ‘not really’ a rift between him and the Davis Cup captain. Contradicting earlier claims made by his compatriot.
“I don’t know what to say. I don’t have a big deal with anything. I’ve always wanted to play Davis Cup. I love Davis Cup … I’m available. That’s all I got to say,” he said.
“I think (the focus on these issues) is ridiculous, to be honest. With all the issues that are going on in the world, we’re focusing on someone’s comments about Davis Cup. It’s pretty sad.”
Hewitt is playing in the men’s doubles this week, despite announcing his retirement from the sport three years ago. In recent times he has made a habit of staging mini comebacks to the tour to play in doubles tournaments. Something Tomic has claimed is done for financial gain and takes away the opportunity of a young player receiving a wildcard. Participants in the doubles draw will earn at least $10,500 for playing in the first round.
“We made the semi-finals (in Sydney) and came within a whisker of making the final so I don’t see what the problem is,” said doubles partner Jordan Thompson.
“Sort it out behind closed doors.”
Wally Mansur is the performance boss of Tennis Australia. Asked about his opinion on the issue, the 55-year-old believes a meeting between all of the involved parties is the best solution. Expressing concern that the incident is damaging their public image.
“What I want to get away from is the public tennis game, it being played out in the press,” Masur said.
“I’d rather those guys got in a room and they sort it out privately … and I think there’s a chance.
“The tournament is in full swing. I wouldn’t say it’s on both of their agendas at the moment but it would be something I am keen to explore.”
Whilst Mansur is keen to play down the fiasco, there are still concerns. Echoed by Thanasi Kokkinakis, who replied ‘I’m not answering that’ when asked if he supported Hewitt’s captaincy. Meanwhile, Matthew Ebden has also voiced his concerns.
“There’s clearly some issues that need to be addressed with the players and Tennis Australia, with Davis Cup and the players and the group as a whole.” Said Ebden.
Perhaps the only comforting thing in this situation is the performance of the Woman. Both Ashleigh Barty and Sam Stosur have been quick to point out that the problem is linked solely to the men’s side.
“They’ve got their issues. We don’t have anything to do with what the men do,” Stosur told reporters.
“It would be a shame if it put a dampener on things as a whole.
“The women’s side is in a really good spot. We all really genuinely support each other and like to see each other do well.
“We haven’t had a problem for a very long time so we must be doing something alright.”
As things currently stand, Hewitt will remain Davis Cup captain for the foreseeable future.
At The ATP Finals Alexander Zverev Was A Revelation Both On And Off The Court
The world No.5 didn’t just win the biggest title of his career, he has shown how much he has personally developed on the tour too.
‘Oh Jesus’ was the immediate response by Alexander Zverev when he discovered that Novak Djokovic said that he could one day excel the Serbian’s title tally.
The 21-year-old illustrated why many are listing him as the future of star of the sport with his triumph at the ATP Finals. Taking on a weary Djokovic, who appeared to be suffering from the effects of a busy second half of the season, Zverev showed no mercy as he battled towards the title. Hitting a series of serves that exceeded the 140 mph mark and hitting forehands that would even draw praised from Juan Martin del Potro. A player who is regarded as having one of the best forehands on the tour.
“It’s quite astonishing, winning this title, beating two such players back-to-back, Roger and Novak, in semifinals and finals. Means so much. I’m incredibly happy and incredibly proud of this moment right now.” Said Zverev.
It is a rare occasion that a player has defeated Federer and Nadal in the last two stages of a tournament. As a matter of fact, he is only the fourth to do so. Following in the footsteps of David Nalbandian, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray.
Besides the accomplishment, this week has felt like there has been a big shift in Zverev’s career. In his press conferences, he was more informative and open. In the past, the German has been labeled by some as arrogant. A subjective statement with others arguing that the likes of Federer and co were no different at Zverev’s age.
It first came to light on Saturday in the midst of the brutal treatment he received from the crowd. The reason was due to a misunderstanding concerning why he stopped during a point in the second set tiebreaker. Less than an hour after, he was asked about the incident three times in his press conference. Then a reporter arrived late and asked him once again.
“I answered this question like three times already. I can answer it again for you if you want.” He said with a smile.
In the past, Zverev would have snapped. Over the years I have witnessed this during his time competing at the Madrid Open. Although that attitude has seemed to have gone. A relief for many, that is for sure.
It is hard to understand what it is like to be young and burden with expectation unless you have been through it personally. Sometimes there is a fine line between being arrogant and being good at something.
Zverev seems to be settling better into life on the tour and with it his tennis is improving. Although there is no hiding that he has a whole load of pressure to deal with in the future.
“Of course, he won a huge tournament, but he always had the quality to win a slam. There’s no doubt he will be one of the favorites every slam.” Djokovic said about the German with confidence.
“There’s a lot of similarities in terms of the trajectory of professional tennis, in our careers. Hopefully, he can surpass me. I sincerely wish him that.” He added.
Djokovic’s praised for Zverev is one that he has welcomed. Although the new ATP Finals champion has pledged to keep his feet firmly on the ground. Another sign of a maturing player.
“Oh, Jesus. Oh, my God.” Zverev responded to the comments. “I’ve won one of those (ATP Finals trophies). He (Djokovic) won five. He’s has won, I don’t know what, 148 titles more than me. Let’s not go there for now.”
“I hope I can do great. I mean, but just chill out a little bit.”
There is obviously room for improvement. During stages of the season-ending event, the Next Gen star had his vulnerabilities exposed on the court by others. Nevertheless, he is working on those with the help of eight-time grand slam champion Ivan Lendl, as well as his father.
“Everything I do on the court is thanks to my dad because he’s been there for the past 21 years. That’s how it is. I mean, he built my foundation. He built the person that I am.” He said.
“Obviously there’s a lot of credit to Ivan. I always say that. But my dad deserves the most credit out of everyone.“
To say that Zverev in on a trajectory to match or even excel Djokovic’s title tally is something that isn’t necessary. Nobody knows what the future holds. The only certainty is that with a maturing Zverev, comes an even better and bigger game from him.
The future is bright. We will just have to wait and see how bright it will be.
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