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Four US Open Underdogs, Four Worthy Quarter-Finalists

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Sam Querrey (zimbio.com)

It is a line-up that nobody expected, but a quartet of players in the men’s draw at the US Open are determined to prove that there is more to the tournament than Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

 

In a draw hit with a series of high profile withdrawals and shock exits, four men will be bidding for a chance to reach their maiden US Open semifinal on Tuesday. Each one having their own story worthy of headline news.

In 2015 Kevin Anderson was on his way up in the world. At Flushing Meadows he became the first South African man to reach the last eight since 1992. The run elevated him to a ranking best of tenth in the world before disaster occurred. Last year ankle, shoulder and knee problems stalled his offensive on the tour. The problems continued into this year when he withdrew from the Australian Open. The woes are now behind him as the South African begins to accept that aches and pain is an inevitability.

“I feel like I’m playing really good tennis. My body’s healthy. It was a pretty tough loss at the beginning of this year with a few injuries.” 28th-seeded Anderson said earlier in the week.
“Obviously (there are) a few aches and pains, but every tennis player has that. I’m glad to accept that. It’s the injuries where you’re unable to practice and play the kind of way that you want to.”

Playing in the section of a draw without the usual suspects, the 31-year-old admits that he is in unfamiliar territory. Two of this year’s quarter-finals matches will be contested by players seeded outside the top 10. Out of those players, Anderson is the only one who had previously reached the last eight in New York.

“Obviously it’s been a very different tournament. Our sport’s been dominated by such a select group of people for so long, it feels a little bit different.” He admitted.
“I think most sports are like this, where you do have multiple people contending. You’ve had some of the greatest players of all time playing in our time.”

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Standing in the way of the South African will be the last American standing, Sam Querrey. Once tipped to be a star of the future, he has made steady progress on the tour. Winning a total of ten ATP titles, including two this season. It wasn’t until the summer when the 29-year-old secured his grand slam breakthrough. A triumph over Andy Murray moved him into the last four of Wimbledon, becoming the first American man to do so since 2009.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a late-bloomer. I’ve been decent for 10 years.” Said Querrey. “I’m hoping I can kind of continue having more years like this into my 30s.”

Querrey’s journey in tennis hasn’t always been so smooth. In 2009 he fell through a glass table and almost seriously damaged a nerve in his arm. An outcome that could have been career ending. Still, he managed to stay on the positive side. Later that year he went to a Halloween party as a ‘shark attack victim.’

Tasked with trying to delight the home crowd in New York, Querrey has vowed to stay in the moment. 11 years have past since a home player has reached the final of the tournament.

“I never once thought about that this whole tournament or that match out there tonight. I don’t feel any extra pressure.”

Schwartzman’s inspiration

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Diego Schwartzman had previously never reached the second week of a major tournament. That all changed in New York when he stunned Lucas Pouille in the fourth round. Within the past two months he has scored his first top 10 wins over Dominic Thiem (Montreal) and Marin Cilic (US Open).

Schwartzman’s unlikely journey into the last eight is one that inspires others on the tour. At 5’7” he is the shortest quarter-finalist since Jaime Yzaga in 1994. A fact that the world No.33 is proud of.

“It’s not just for the big guys here,” Schwartzman said. “The big guys have a little bit of advantage to play tennis because they can serve better, they can do a lot of things better. If you are small, you just need to be focused in many things.
“It’s not easy, but I am here.”

The Argentine will take on rival and friend Pablo Carreno Busta. A player who has the ability to compete at the highest level on a hard-court. Since 2016, the Spaniard has won two ATP titles on the surface as well as reaching the final at this year’s Indian Wells Masters.

“We are similar. We try to be solid in the baseline, play every point, be focus on every point, try to run a lot on the court.” Schwartzman commented about his Spanish rival.
“I think it’s going to be a tough match for both. We need to be in our 100% to can play our best tennis.”

In the absence of the big names, the underdogs still have the ability to thrill and delight the crowd on the Arthur Ashe stadium. The draw outcome may not be what people would have expected, but interest surrounding the quartet is gathering.

“I think it is anecdotic (exciting). All the players in this part of the draw are very, very good players.” Carreno Busta Summarised.

The usual suspects are out of action, but their replacements are by no means a poor substitute.

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Kim Clijsters Still Capable Of Top-Level Wins, Says Former world No.1 Murray

Murray gives his verdict on Clijsters’ current form and if she can return to the top of the game.

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Image via WTA Insider on Twitter

Andy Murray believes it is only a matter of time before Belgium’s Kim Clijsters is able to return to her winning ways on the Tour.

 

The 38-year-old is currently in the process of her latest comeback which has been hampered by both injury and the COVID-19 pandemic. Since returning to the Tour at the 2020 Dubai Tennis Championships, Clijsters has only played in five tournaments and is yet to win a match. Her most recent defeat was at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells where she was ousted 6-3, 5-7, 6-3, by Hsieh Su-Wei.

It was in Indian Wells where Clijsters held a hitting session with Murray who says he was impressed by her level of play. Speaking to reporters in Antwerp where he is playing in the European Open this week, the three-time Grand Slam champion believes she is heading in the right direction.

“She still hits the ball fantastic. I think the decision-making and things like that will come with more matches,” atptour.com quoted Murray as saying. “I think physically she can get stronger. I think that was probably one of her biggest strengths when she was at the top of the game and as successful as she was.
“With more time, more matches, more time on the practice court, physically she’ll keep getting better. It’s not easy after such a long time out of the game, but I’m sure she can still win matches at the highest level, judging on how she’s handled herself so well.”

Following her most recent match, Clijsters said she is progressing well on the Tour given her lack of match play in recent times. She has only played two matches this year. The other took place in Chicago where she lost to Keterina Siniakova in three sets.

“I think for me the most important thing is that, what I talked with my coach and my trainer about, my fitness coach, was physically being able to get through these matches without big concerns. That was the main goal,” Clisjters said following her loss to Su-Wei.
“I came close, but still have a good feeling about, you know I’ve made progression and I think that’s the most important thing.”

Clijsters has won 41 WTA titles during her career with the last of those occurring a decade ago at the 2011 Australian Open. She has held the world No.1 spot for 20 weeks and has earned more than $24.5M in prize money.

It is unclear as to what tournament Clijsters will be playing next.

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Cameron Norrie’s Surprise Win at Indian Wells Could Land Him a Well-Deserved ATP Finals Berth

As Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev disappointed, the Brit (along with Basilashvili, Dimitrov and Fritz) were ready to seize the day

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Cameron Norrie ad Indian Wells 2021 (Credits: @BNPPARIBASOPEN on Twitter)

We have grown accustomed across the last bunch of decades to the most important tournaments in tennis being controlled by an elite cast of competitors. That has been the case not only at the Grand Slam events but also at the Masters 1000 showcase championships. While there has been a large degree of predictability associated with these prestigious gatherings of great players, that has been comforting for followers of the sport who have embraced familiarity.

 

And yet, every once in a while there is no harm when a big tournament produces startling results and a semifinal lineup that no one could have foreseen. That is precisely what happened this past week in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California. For the first time at a Masters 1000, not a single player ranked among the top 25 in the world made it to the penultimate round. The semifinalists were none other than Great Britain’s Cam Norrie (No. 26), Grigor Dimitrov (No. 28), Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili (No. 36), and Taylor Fritz of the United States (No. 38). Their seedings were somewhat better because some top players did not compete at Indian Wells. Norrie was seeded No. 21, Basilashvili No. 29, Dimitrov No. 23 and Fritz No. 31.

These rankings and seedings were almost unimaginable, but all of these players deserved to be in the forefront. The left-handed Norrie took apart Dimitrov 6-2, 6-4 in the opening semifinal with surgical precision and uncanny ball control, and then Basilashvili followed with an overpowering 7-6(5) 6-3 performance in eclipsing Fritz. Here were four distinctive players displaying their collective talent proudly on the hard courts in California. Outside of Roger Federer, Dimitrov may well be the most elegant player of the past twenty years with his well crafted running forehand plus his spectacular and versatile one-handed backhand. Norrie is cagey, resourceful, disciplined and versatile. His forehand carries a significant amount of topspin and can bound up high while his two-handed backhand is fundamentally flat. His serve is strategically located and reliably precise. He is a tennis player’s tennis player.

Fritz combines considerable power with remarkable feel. He serves potently and places it awfully well. He is a constantly improving craftsman with a wide arsenal of shots. And Basilashvili is the biggest hitter in tennis, pounding the ball relentlessly off both sides, unleashing forehand winners from anywhere on the court almost at will, never backing off from his goal of blasting opponents off the court.

So all four semifinalists were worthy of getting that far. Moreover, it was fitting that Norrie and Basilashvili would square off in the final. Norrie has celebrated a stellar 2021 campaign. This was his sixth final of the season and he had already amassed 46 match wins coming into the final. Norrie has made immense strides as a match player all year long, and he was poised to put himself in this position. He is a masterful percentage player cut from a similar cloth to Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. Norrie measures his shots impeccably, giving himself an incessantly healthy margin for error, refusing to miss by being reckless or narrow minded.

Basilashvili is made of different stock. He had lost in the first round in five of six Masters 1000 events this season because he misses so much with his risky shots. When he gets on a roll, Basilashvili is an exceedingly dangerous player who can make the most difficult shots look easy. But he can also beat himself and is often his own worst enemy with his obstinacy. Basilashvili lost his last nine matches of 2020. Norrie is at the opposite end of the spectrum with his consistency and methodology, understanding his limitations, always obeying the laws of percentage tennis.

The contrasting styles of the two finalists made it an intriguing confrontation. But, in the end, Norrie withstood a barrage of big hitting from Basilashvili, refused to get rattled by the explosive shotmaking of his adversary, and ultimately prevailed 3-6 6-4 6-1 to claim the most important title of his career. It was a fascinating final in many ways as Norrie opened up an early lead before Basilashvili found his range, but then the British competitor reasserted himself over the last set-and-a-half with cunning play down the stretch as the wind force increased and Basilashvili faltered flagrantly.

Nikoloz Basilashvili – Indian Wells 2021 (foto Twitter @BNPPARIBASOPEN)

Norrie moved ahead 3-1 in the opening set but then the Georgian held easily and broke back for 3-3 on a double fault from the British No. 1. Basilashvili promptly held for 4-3 at love. He had won three consecutive games, and clearly the complexion of the set was changing significantly. Norrie realized he was in jeopardy but was unable to halt Basilashvili’s momentum. The British competitor was broken again in the eighth game as Basilashvili released two outright winners. On break point an angled forehand crosscourt from the Russian coaxed an error from his left-handed adversary. Serving for the set at 5-3, Basilashvili was totally composed and confident. He held at love with an ace for 40-0 and then a dazzling forehand down the line winner.

Not only had Basilashvili taken the set on a run of five consecutive games, but he had also swept 20 of 25 points in that spectacular span. When Basilashvili broke for a 2-1 second set lead, he seemed entirely capable of driving his way to victory behind an avalanche of blazing winners. But Norrie refused to lose optimism. Basilashvili suddenly lost both his range and his rhythm off the ground, particularly on his signature forehand side. Four unforced errors off that flank cost him the fourth game and allowed Norrie back on serve.

But Basilashvili was persistent, working his way through a couple of arduous service games on his way to 4-4. Nevertheless,  Norrie was unswayed by his opponent’s fighting spirit. The British player held at love for 5-4 in that pivotal second set with a drop shot winner and then broke at love to seal the set with his finest tennis of the afternoon. On the first point of the tenth game, Norrie lobbed over Basilashvili into the corner and took the net away from his opponent. Although Basilashvili chased that ball down, turned and unleashed a potent backhand crosscourt pass that came over low, Norrie was ready, making a difficult forehand drop volley winner that had the California crowd gasping. On the next point, Norrie released a scintillating backhand passing shot winner down the line. Consecutive forehand mistakes from a shaken Basilashvili allowed Norrie to break at love to salvage the set 6-4 on a run of eight points in a row.

The left-hander was in command now, taking the first two games of the third set confidently. He then trailed 0-40 in the third game. But Norrie responded to this precarious moment commendably, collecting five points in a row to hold on for 3-0, demoralizing Basilashvili in the process. Basilashvili self destructed at this critical juncture of the match, giving all five points away with a cluster of errors. But Norrie was also outstanding on defense in that stretch.

The match was essentially over. Although Basilashvili fended off a break point in the fourth game of that third set, Norrie sedulously protected his lead thereafter, capturing 12 of 16 points and three consecutive games to close out the account with a flourish. From 4-4 in the second set, Norrie had won eight of the last nine games and his first Masters 1000 crown. Norrie started the year at No. 71 in the world but now stands deservedly at No. 16 following his astonishing triumph at Indian Wells. It was a job awfully well done, and he was a worthy winner in the end.

But I must add that the three top seeds at Indian Wells all failed to perform up to their expectations. Let’s start with Medvedev, the top seed in the absence of Djokovic. He confronted Dimitrov in the round of 16 and was leading 6-4, 4-1. Medvedev was up two service breaks in that second set. He seemed certain to prevail but performed abysmally thereafter. At 4-1, he opened the sixth game with a double fault and then double faulted again at 15-40. Dimitrov held easily in the seventh game and then Medvedev was broken in the eight game after missing five out of six first serves.

Now Dimitrov held at love and then Medvedev started the tenth game of the second set with another double fault. He lost his serve for the third time in a row and thus conceded the set 6-4 after dropping five consecutive games and 20 of 26 points. Medvedev missed 15 of 17 first serves at the end of that pendulum swinging set.

Dimitrov raced to 3-0 in the third, later advanced to 5-1, and eventually came through 4-6 6-4 6-3 as Medvedev imploded. To be sure, Dimitrov was magnificent in many ways, particularly with his running forehand. But Medvedev was his own worst enemy and his attitude was reminiscent of the man we witnessed in years gone by who was often mercurial. He was infuriated with himself and his situation, competing irregularly, smashing his racquet, advertising his vulnerability.

Grigor Dimitrov – Indian Wells 2021 (foto Twitter @BNPPARIBASOPEN)

Meanwhile, No.2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas wanted to reignite his game after losing early at the US Open, but the Greek stylist struggled inordinately in every match he played before Basilashvili ousted him 6-4 2-6 6-4 in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Tsitsipas was trying to manufacture some emotions that simply were not there. He was out of sorts and off his game. At 3-3 in the final set, down break point, fighting hard but playing poorly, Tsitsipas double faulted and never really recovered. It may take him quite some time to recover his best form after a debilitating year.

And what of Sascha Zverev? Here was a man who had won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in August and then secured the Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the US Open but seemed to be ready to take the title at Indian Wells after reaching the quarterfinals. But Zverev wasted a 5-2 final set lead against Fritz.

Zverev had a match point in the eighth game on Fritz’s serve that the American saved stupendously. Zverev had sent a deep crosscourt forehand into the corner that seemed unanswerable but Fritz took it early on the half volley and flicked it down the line to rush Zverev into an error. In the following game, serving for the match at 5-3, Zverev double faulted at 30-15 but still advanced to 40-30 with a second match point at his disposal. Once more, he double faulted. In the end, after Zverev served another damaging double fault on the first point of the final set tie-break, Fritz succeeded 4-6 6-3 7-6(3).

Zverev had no reason to be embarrassed about losing to a first-rate Fritz, but nonetheless the German should have been dismayed by those crucial double faults. He said afterwards that he felt he was the clear tournament favorite after Tsitsipas had lost earlier that day, but why didn’t he play with more conviction when it counted against Fritz? Was Zverev getting ahead of himself by thinking about winning the tournament when he was still trying to succeed in his quarterfinal? I have a feeling that was the case. He is too seasoned a campaigner to allow that to happen at this stage of his career. I thought Zverev was more professional than that.

Undoubtedly the unexpected setbacks suffered by Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev opened a window for Norrie to see his way through to a career defining triumph, but that takes nothing away from his success. Cam Norrie is now at No.10 in the Race to Turin for the ATP Finals, and Rafael Nadal is out for the year. So the British lefty could well qualify for that élite season ending event which is reserved for only the top eight players in the world. After his uplifting victory at Indian Wells, only a fool would doubt that Norrie will very likely be in the field at Turin, which is no mean feat.

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Indian Wells Daily Preview: Championship Sunday

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Paula Badosa earlier this week at Indian Wells (twitter.com/BNPPARIBASOPEN)

Sunday’s men’s and women’s singles championship matches feature a two-time champion and three first-time finalists at this level.  Victoria Azarenka won this event in 2012 and 2016, two of 10 WTA 1000 titles to her credit.  Paula Badosa, Cam Norrie, and Nikolaz Basilashvili are all vying for the biggest title of their careers, during what has become their best seasons to date.

 

Paula Badosa (21) vs. Victoria Azarenka (27)  – 1:00pm on Stadium 1

For Azarenka, this result is a bit of a surprise, despite all she’s achieved in the sport.  Her record of 28-8 is more than solid, but she’s dealt with multiple injuries throughout 2021, forcing her to withdraw during five different events.  This is her first final since nearly a full year ago in Ostrava. 

For Badosa, this result has been expected for some time.  She’s been most impressive this season, accumulating 40 match wins, and a record of 10-3 against the top 20.  Paula herself will debut inside the top 20 on Monday, and would be just a few points shy of the top 10 with a win on Sunday.

Azarenka will attempt to win her first final since April of 2016.  While she was the champion of last year’s Western & Southern Open, she received a walkover in the championship match from Naomi Osaka.  Vika is 0-3 in her last three finals, all on hard courts.  This is only the second WTA final for Badosa, who claimed the title in Belgrade this past May on clay.  Based on the way the Spaniard has been clubbing her groundstrokes, and her comfort level on these slow-playing courts, I’m going with Badosa to win the second title of her young career.

Cameron Norrie (21) vs. Nikoloz Basilashvili (29)  – Not Before 4:00pm on Stadium 1

Norrie has been one of the most surprising and remarkable stories of 2021.  Prior to this season, he had never been ranked inside the top 40.  But like Badosa, he will debut in the top 20 on Monday, thanks to a record of 46-20 on the year. 

Basilashvili has made news for other reasons, as he was arrested last year on domestic abuse allegations from his former wife.  On the tennis court, he’s been quite streaky this season.  Between January and March, he went on a five-match losing streak before winning the title in Doha, which includes victories over Roger Federer and Roberto Bautista Agut.  He was also the champion in Munich, and came through qualifying to reach the semis in Halle.

Basilashvili’s last loss before his successful run in Doha was at the hands of Norrie, who prevailed 6-0, 6-3 in Rotterdam.  Cam has dominated his last two matches this week in similar fashion, defeating Diego Schwartzman and Grigor Dimitrov while dropping only eight games across four sets.  The Brit has now won his last six semifinals, but his record in finals in striking different.  He’s only 1-4 this year in championship matches, and lost to Casper Ruud two weeks in San Diego 6-0, 6-2.  Meanwhile, Nikoloz has taken his last five finals, dating back to July of 2018.  With the biggest title of their careers on the line, Basilashvili is the favorite to utilize his powerful groundstrokes to secure victory.

Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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