10 Break Points From The Australian Open - UBITENNIS
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10 Break Points From The Australian Open

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This year’s Australian Open has come to an end with Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki winning the singles titles. It has been a tournament that has attracted a record crown to Melbourne Park, but some of the issues raised by players are worth talking about further in 2018.

 

1) The scheduling of matches

The scheduling office at the Australian Open did not show a lot of love for women’s tennis. Out of the nine instances where the night session on Rod Laver Arena included a men’s and women’s match, the women went on last seven of those nine nights. When the women follow a best-of-five men’s match, the women often don’t take the court until at least 10 or 11pm. There’s not much energy for those matches in front of a mostly empty arena at that late of an hour. While the tournament tried to balance that by often scheduling the women first in the Margaret Court Area night sessions, any time where the women go on second can leave them without much of an atmosphere. Years ago it was customary for the women to always go on first. While it’s been a nice experiment to mix that up in the pursuit of equality, we should go back to the way it was as long as the men continue to play best of five. It’s also unfair that three of the four women’s quarterfinals are played during the day, as are both their semifinals. Scheduling the women on weekdays with sparser crowds, while the men get the prime time spotlight at night, is not fair. This was even more of a shame in a year where the women’s tournament was much more captivating than the men’s. I understand TV partners can have a lot of influence over such decisions, but it’s time for all parties involved to re-think the tournament’s scheduling.

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2) The ATP calendar

Following his retirement from the tournament, Rafael Nadal had the following to say: "Somebody who is running the tour should think a little bit about what's going on. Too many people are getting injured. If we keep playing on this very, very hard surfaces what's going to happen in the future with our lives?" These comments come in the wake of other top male players such as Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Milos Rainic continuing to struggle with injuries over the past six months. There's many changes the tour can consider to limit the damage to players' bodies, including decreasing the amount of hard court tournaments, as well as going to a best-of-three set format in at least the earlier rounds of the majors. Regardless of what the change is, it's clear the governing bodies need to consider the health of the players as a higher priority.

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3) The hot weather

Speaking of the health of the players, this heat rule in Australia is ridiculous. Not only is the "wet bulb" standard confusing, but the standard required to close the roofs and halt play on outer courts is way too high. It's not fun to watch players suffer from the effects of the heat, which result in lower quality matches. It was highly uncomfortable to watch Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils play during one of the hottest days of the year, which is just one of many examples where a match suffered due to the heat. In addition, it's uncomfortable and unsafe for the fans. The modern game of baseline rallies is too grueling for such conditions. The Australian Open has three roofs – let’s make better use of them.

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4) The grunting of players

The level of grunting/shrieking/screaming coming out of Aryna Sabalenka during her first round match against Ashleigh Barry was excruciating to listen to. It was an automatic use of the mute button, or even worse for the sport, a channel changer. It was so absurd that fans in the crowd began imitating it, to the point where the chair umpire had to ask they stop. The WTA has been saying for years that it would work to prevent this annoying form of gamesmanship at a younger age. But this 19-year-old is proof significant progress has not been made, and it's a shame: it drives fans away from tennis.

5) Changes to the draw

There was much talk during the tournament of how starting with next year’s Australian Open, majors will go back to only having 16 seeded players in the singles draws. Simon Cambers did an analysis here that’s well worth reading, regarding how the number of early round upsets decreased in the men’s singles draws after seedings were extended from 16 to 32 players. It’s appealing in that 16 seeds will result in more interesting matches during the first week of the majors, as players ranked 17-32 will no longer be protected from playing a seeded player before the third round. For example, at the Australian Open, 17th-seeded Nick Kyrgios could have drawn top seeded Rafael Nadal in the opening round. However, will we end up with worse matchups in the second week? If so, I’d argue this is not a positive change. I wonder if the major title counts of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic would be the same under the 16 seed format, and if their records will be harder to chase now.

6) The new clock

One innovation that was a welcome addition to the sport is the introduction of a countdown clock for the pre-match warm-ups. A clock on the scoreboard counts down one minute for players to walk onto court and report to the umpire at the net, followed by a five-minute warm-up. They’re then allowed just one minute to be ready to play the first point. It's a common sense change to speed up the time from when players walk onto court and when the first point is played. If players go over the allotted time, they receive a fine. Most fans likely didn't even notice this new rule, which makes me like it even more. Subtle changes like this for the sake of expediency and transparency are always welcome.

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7) Zverev’s punishment

Mischa Zverev was fined $45,000 for what was deemed an unprofessional first round performance. A new rule allows players to still receive half their first round prize money if they withdraw prior to their match, and allows a healthy player to not only take their place in the draw, but also the other half of the first round prize money. This is a result of the large number of male retirements that happened in the first round of majors in recent years, as players not ready to compete at their best were not inclined to withdraw before the match as they would lose all their prize money. Yes, this punishment seems rather harsh in Zverev’s case, as Mischa is a player with a good reputation. He cited a viral illness as his reason for retiring during the second set, and perhaps he arrived to the court hoping to tough out the illness and give his all. But the clear message sent to players going forward is a good one: you’ll be better off financially if you withdraw rather than retire mid-match.

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8) Talks of a union

Tennis is a sport filled with conflicts of interest, some more harmful than others. But it was still surprising to hear of Novak Djokovic’s unannounced closed-door meeting with the ATP Player Council. As the Daily Mail first reported, Djokovic asked for non-players to leave the room, and then spoke for close to an hour about the need for a players’ union. The ATP is a governing body that represents both players and tournaments, and there is speculation amongst players that they are not getting their fair share of increased revenues from the tournaments. There was even speculation regarding a potential boycott of next year’s Australian Open, but Djokovic played down that talk when speaking to the media. This may be the biggest tennis story to follow as 2018 progresses.

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9) Halep’s heroics

If tennis gods exist, they really owe Simona Halep a break. Following a tortuous 2017 Grand Slam season, her 2018 Australian Open was just downright cruel. After saving match points in multiple matches that went passed 6-6 in the third set, she was just two games away from winning her first major title before losing the last three games of the women’s final to Caroline Wozniacki. Halep complained of feeling faint at times during the final, and was later taken to a hospital for treatment of dehydration symptoms. Considering the long matches she played in the hot temperatures, it’s no wonder. It was so refreshing to see a first-time WTA number one so valiantly fight for their first Grand Slam title following their ascent to the top of the rankings: too many recent new number ones have immediately faded after achieving that honor. Karma owes Halep a few good draws at upcoming majors.

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10) Federer’s legacy

As tennis fans, we are really lucky to be able to see this record-breaking men’s era, featuring such likeable players that are not afraid to share their emotions with us. Watching Roger Federer’s twentieth major victory was special enough. But his emotional post-match speech, followed by extended applause as tears ran down his face, was just a great moment in sports. The 36-year-old still loves the game so much, and we should embrace every last tournament where a uniquely talented champion with such character is present. Federer, as well as the other veteran champions like him, will not be easily replaced when they retire.

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1st December 2021: The Day Women’s Tennis Held China Accountable For Their Actions

With millions at stake, the WTA stands firmly behind their players.

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WTA CEO Steve Simon

Even with the threats coming from the WTA few were convinced that the governing body of women’s tennis would conduct one of the most significant moves in its history.

 

In a statement published on Wednesday, WTA CEO Steve Simon announced that all tournaments in China and neighbouring Hong Kong will be suspended with immediate effect. The remarkable decision is a show of solidarity with Peng Shuai who many fear is being censored by Chinese officials for accusing a former vice-premier of sexual assult. Something the country denies with state-backed media publishing videos and photos of the player. Even a recent video call between Shuai and the International Olympic Committee failed to ease the concerns of the WTA.

“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way. While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation. The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation.” Simon said in a press release.

The bold move has been hailed by many across social media ranging from tennis players to celebrities. Billie Jean King, who is the WTA’s founder, said the organisation remains ‘on the right side of history in supporting our players.’ Meanwhile, former world No.1 Andy Roddick tweeted ‘there are a lot of organisations who can afford to do something a lot more than the WTA Can.’ It is this point by Roddick that speaks volumes to the significance of their announcement.

Over the past 15 years China has injected millions into developing tennis within the country. It began during 1988 when tennis was brought back into the Olympics before Li Na’s mainstream breakthrough triggered a huge surge in interest. Various cities such as Wuhan, Li Na’s birthplace, started to invest millions in facilities in order to stage major events. As the years went by China wasn’t just a fixture in the calendar, it was instrumental for the entire WTA.

In 2019 China hosted nine WTA events which had a combined prize money pool of $30.4M. To put that into perspective the figure works out to be roughly 17% of the entire prize money offerings on the WTA Tour that year. It was also during 2019 when the WTA Finals started in Shenzhen as part of a lucrative 10-year deal which was valued at $1bn at the time of the announcement by The Sports Business Journal. However, the country has been unable to host another edition due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it was instead held in Mexico this year.

Perhaps from a cynical perspective, the pandemic showed to the WTA that they can still hold a highly successful Tour without relying on a single country during one period of their calendar. Would this influence their decision to withdraw from China in support of Shuai? Probably but they are unlikely to admit it. Not that the WTA doesn’t deserve widespread praise for their decisive action which put other governing bodies to shame.

There is also the question as to how will China respond? Will a country that has spent so much trying to promote tennis be prepared to make some deal with the WTA in order to get them to change their minds? In an ideal world, yes, but this isn’t an ideal world.

“I don’t think they (the WTA) have been paying much attention to what has been happening in Basketball and football in threatening the Chinese with Economic sanctions. It’s not going to work and part of the proof of the pudding was they were not able to get in touch with her (Shuai) and that’s her sport,” IOC council member Dick Pound told CNN earlier this week.

Pound has been a spokesperson for his organisation in defending their handling of Shuai and has told multiple news outlets that she is safe based on what the IOC interpreted from the video call. Ironically, he hasn’t seen the video himself and the IOC made no mention of the sexual assault allegations in their press release.

However, Pound’s remarks on China’s stubbornness is supported by past incidents. One of which involved Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who made a comment in public supporting the democracy movement in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong. China’s CCTV stopped broadcasting NBA Games and the sporting body later apologised but it was 15 months before another Houston game was shown on TV.

Money and politics aside, there remains serious concerns about Shuai’s welfare. Whilst she had made headlines around the world, China’s state-owned media have not published a single article. Photos and videos of the tennis player have only been published on Twitter which is blocked in her home country. BBC analyst Kerry Allen has confirmed that Shuai’s Weibo account is still under restrictions. Users are banned from quoting, sharing or commenting on her historic posts.

It would have been so easy for the WTA to sidestep the Shuai case and label it as a domestic matter in order to maintain their relationship with the Asian country. Instead, they have backed their player despite the likely consequence of a financial loss should China not back down. Something that is both brave and inspiring.

Will the men’s ATP or the ITF follow suit and suspend business with China? Only time will tell on that front. The most important thing is trying to establish the true welfare of Shuai. Something the WTA is determined to do no matter what the cost may be.

December 1st, 2021 has been a historic day for tennis.

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The Reshaping of an Era

While Djokovic will still compete for the biggest titles, Medvedev and Zverev proved at the ATP Finals that they are coming for the title of World No.1

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Alexander Zverev at the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals (Twitter - @atptour)

For as long as I can remember, those of us who inhabit the world of tennis as journalists and surveyors of the scene have referred to the hierarchy of men’s tennis as “The Big Three”. The oldest member of that iconic trio is, of course, 40-year-old Roger Federer. He was joined by 35-year-old Rafael Nadal and 34-year-old Novak Djokovic. These luminous figures have carried the game forward regally and collectively for the better part of two decades, claiming a record 20 men’s major titles apiece, scaling the heights of the sport time and time again, leaving all of their peers dumbfounded and deflated by virtue of their enduring excellence— not to mention their unbending pride and professionalism. It has been an era unlike any other in the history of tennis as these superstars have enthralled fans in every corner of the globe with their talent, tenaciousness and temerity.

 

But as the curtain closes on 2021 and the Nitto ATP Finals have just concluded in Turin, it is becoming increasingly likely that the sport is currently moving into a fascinating new era. In many ways, it appears as if the men’s game is being reshaped. Federer may not return to competitive play until the summer of 2022. By then he will be closing in on his 41st birthday, and the feeling grows that he will not be around much longer in the upper echelons as a player. He might even decide to retire by the end of this coming season. Nadal is hoping he can resume his winning ways swiftly when he returns to Melbourne for the Australian Open, and surely wants to round into his finest clay court form across the spring before heading to Paris for a serious bid at a 14th French Open crown.

And yet, only time will tell if Nadal’s foot woes— which plagued him in 2021 and cut his season short—will linger in 2022. The depth of his determination knows no bounds, but the fact remains that his task of reclaiming a place at or near the top of the game will be daunting. Perhaps Nadal will reinvent himself once more and redefine his greatness in the process, but there are no guarantees. The first six months of 2022 will be critical for the redoubtable Spaniard and he will have the chance to make himself a central figure again, but if his foot remains problematic Nadal might be heading toward the closing stages of his illustrious career. Despite an abbreviated 2021 campaign of only seven tournaments and 29 matches (24-5), the dynamic Spaniard finished his record 17th consecutive year among the top ten in the world at No. 6.

Djokovic, of course, is coming off one of his most exhilarating campaigns. In 2021, he moved within one match of winning the Grand Slam, sweeping three majors in a row to tie Federer and Nadal at 20 in total, finishing his seventh season at No. 1 in the world to break Pete Sampras’s record of residing at the top for six years (1993-98). Djokovic claimed two other titles during his spectacular 2021 campaign including a recent triumph at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Paris. Although the Serbian was beaten in a pulsating semifinal at the ATP Finals by Sascha Zverev— and thus was unable to take a sixth title at the season-ending tournament—the fact remains that he celebrated one of the three greatest years (alongside 2011 and 2015) of his astonishing career, and he still stands deservedly alone at the top of is craft.

I believe that there may well be a new “Big Three” in the game over the next couple of years with Djokovic clearly very much in the mix, but joined by the two men who collided in the final of the  Nitto ATP Finals at Turin. Zverev won that prestigious title for the second time by upending defending champion and US Open victor Daniil Medvedev in the title round contest. In my view, Djokovic will find himself in frequent combat over the next couple of years against both the German and the Russian on the premier stages in the sport.

To be sure, Medvedev has not yet demonstrated an affinity to play the same brand of lofty tennis he has exhibited on hardcourts when he shifts to clay and grass courts. He reached his first quarterfinal at Roland Garros this year after four first round defeats on the Paris clay in the preceding years, and has yet to advance that far on the lawns of Wimbledon. At the All England Club, he has never made it to the quarterfinals, although he was one set away this year from going that far before losing to Hubert Hurkacz.

The fact remains that Medvedev did win a pre-Wimbledon ATP Tour event this year in Mallorca, Spain on grass, and he was a semifinalist at the ATP Masters 1000 clay court tournament in Monte Carlo two years ago. That is a modest accomplishment, but still an indication of what he can do on his least favorite surface. I have no doubt that Medvedev will make major inroads on the other surfaces in the next few years, even if his preference will still be competing on hard courts.

As for Zverev, he has displayed his versatility and virtuosity for quite some time. As long ago as 2017, this gifted individual won Masters 1000 crowns on both clay and hard courts in Rome and Canada. He took a second Masters 1000 clay court crown in 2018 at Madrid. And this year he was victorious in two more Masters 1000 events, succeeding on clay again in Madrid and on hardcourts in Cincinnati. Like Medvedev, Zverev has struggled inordinately on grass at Wimbledon and has yet to make it past the fourth round. But the feeling grows that he will adapt in due course to the lower bounces and turn himself into a formidable grass court player.

It is simply no accident that Medvedev and Zverev have established themselves as the second and third best players in the world. That is a status they have irrefutably earned. No one won more titles on the ATP Tour this year than Zverev, who finished his best season yet with six. Moreover, he collected the gold medal at the Olympic Games, although no ATP points were available at that prestigious event. Zverev closed the 2021 season by capturing four of his last seven tournaments in a hardcourt blaze.

Daniil Medvedev at the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals (Credit: @atptour on Twitter)

Medvedev was only marginally better than Zverev in 2021, securing his first Major by upsetting Djokovic in New York, losing to Djokovic at the Australian Open and Paris Masters 1000 finals, and winning the Canada Masters 1000 title in Toronto. He won four titles in addition to reaching two major finals and coming though for the first time on one of the premier stages.

Beyond what they did on their own, both Zverev and Medvedev pushed Djokovic to the hilt in riveting rivalries. Zverev and Djokovic clashed on five occasions in 2021 with the Serbian prevailing 3-2 in the series, although Zverev won two of their last three clashes. Medvedev was 1-2 against Djokovic. Djokovic now holds a 6-4 career lead against Medvedev and he is 7-4 versus Zverev.

But what makes it all so compelling is that Medvedev and Zverev both improved significantly over the course of the 2021 season and their standards are so high that they will keep forcing the ever open-minded and singularly flexible Djokovic to raise his game. I believe Djokovic is up to that considerable task and will at least hold his own with his two toughest younger rivals in 2022 and 2023, but Zverev is only 24 and Medvedev 25. They are just approaching their primes. Djokovic is stretching his prime as long and as far as he possibly can.

I can envision some classic confrontations among this accomplished trio in the coming years. Djokovic will be preoccupied with moving permanently past Federer and Nadal into sole possession for the most majors ever taken by a man, but achieving that mission will be determined to an extent by how he fares against Medvedev and Zverev. They will be his chief adversaries.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between Zverev and Medvedev will be fascinating to follow as well. The Russian warrior had toppled the German competitor five times in a row leading up to the final in Turin, including a narrow triumph during the round robin portion of the ATP Finals.

Let’s look at that contest first. Medvedev broke Zverev once in the course of winning the first set but neither man garnered a break the rest of the way. Zverev took the second set in a tie-break. On they went to settle it all in a third set tie-break, and Zverev moved out in front 4-2. On the crucial seventh point, he sent his normally trustworthy two-handed backhand down the line and into the net without being provoked. Medvedev climbed back to 4-4 and then Zverev squandered another opportunity. He lobbed over the Russian’s backhand side, forcing Medvedev to play a relatively weak high backhand volley crosscourt. Zverev was set up for a backhand down the line that would have given him the point, but drove it long. Although Zverev saved a pair of match points from 4–6 down, he was eventually ousted 6-3 6-7(3) 7-6(6). In that clash, there was only the thinnest margin separating the two players. They would meet again, of course, with the stakes much higher in the final, but more on that skirmish later.

Despite the disappointment of a narrow failure against Medvedev, Zverev prevailed in his two other Red Group round robin assignments in Turin against an injured Matteo Berrettini (7-6(7) 1-0 ret.) and a wobbly Hubert Hurkacz 6-2 6-4, and that earned the 24-year-old a semifinal duel with Djokovic. The world No. 1 had played top of the line tennis in all three of his Green Group round robin matches, taking apart Casper Ruud, Andrey Rublev and Cam Norrie without losing a set.

Djokovic and Zverev had pushed each other to their physical and emotional limits in all four of their previous meetings across 2021. The Serbian had triumphed 7-5 in the final set at the ATP Cup before eclipsing Zverev again in a come-from-behind four set Australian Open quarterfinal. Zverev had turned the tables on Djokovic in the semifinals of the Olympic Games at Tokyo, rallying from a set and a break down to win 1-6 6-3 6-1 before garnering the gold medal easily over Karen Khachanov.

The rivalry was renewed in New York at the US Open when Djokovic surpassed Zverev 6-2 in the fifth set of a stirring semifinal showdown. Proving that the past is indeed prologue, these two magnificent players produced another blockbuster in Turin. The level of play was nothing short of stupendous, especially over the first two sets. At the end of the first set, both men created space for crucial opportunities. It was pivotal in determining the outcome of the match because no one in the Open Era has a better record after winning the first set than the game’s finest front runner Djokovic.

Zverev was serving at 4-5 in that opening set when Djokovic went to work with quiet ferocity. He reached set point with a crackling backhand down the line that was unanswerable. Zverev met that moment commendably, unleashing a 136 MPH first serve out wide in the ad court. Djokovic’s blocked backhand return landed long. On the following point at deuce, Zverev went for broke with a dangerous 138 MPH second serve down the T, and Djokovic was unable to get it back into play. Zverev held on gamely for 5-5.

In the eleventh game, Djokovic found himself perched precariously at 15-40. He decided to serve-and-volley to the forehand and Zverev’s crosscourt return was wide. And then, at 30-40, Djokovic played a point that was so extraordinary he could only smile incredulously at what he had just done when it was over. Once more, he served-and-volleyed. Zverev’s backhand return was letter perfect, hit hard and low crosscourt. Djokovic stayed low, picked up the backhand half volley immaculately, and sent that shot sizzling down the line with improbable pace and excellent depth. On the run, Zverev had no play at all.

Djokovic took the next two points to hold on for 6-5 and then reached 0–30 in the following game. But Zverev swept four points in a row to reach a tie-break, producing a clutch backhand volley winner, putting away an overhead, releasing a superb service winner, and lacing a backhand winner down the line with cool precision.

Novak Djokovic at the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals (Credit: @atptour on Twitter)

Zverev outplayed Djokovic in the tie-break 7-4, benefitting from a double fault at 2-2 by Djokovic— the first all tournament long from the Serbian. Djokovic retaliated with a service break at 4-4 in the second set, and soon sealed the set. But, to the chagrin of himself and his legion of supporters, Djokovic played one poor game at 1-2 in the third set that cost him the whole match. He was broken in that game entirely on his own mistakes, making three unforced errors off the forehand and one off the backhand. Zverev was ahead 3-1. He was apprehensive at 4-2, taking too much off his first serve and cautiously steering his groundstrokes. But Zverev fended off one break point on another forehand unforced error from Djokovic, and came through to win 7-6(4) 4-6 6-3. Across the three sets, Zverev double faulted only once.

Despite the supreme physicality of that match, Zverev seemed fresh and unruffled in the final despite his losing streak against Medvedev. Truthfully, Medvedev had not played that well heading into the final. He opened with a 6-7(5) 6-3 6-4 victory over Hurkacz, came within two points of defeat against Zverev and then saved two match points against alternate Jannik Sinner, who took Berrettini’s place and crushed Hurkacz in straight sets.

Understandably, Medvedev was concerned about preserving energy for his semifinal encounter when he faced Sinner in the round robin. But he took the first set comfortably before losing a tie-break in the second set. In the middle of the third set, down a break at 2-4, Medvedev was no longer interested in fighting through long and debilitating rallies. He started shortening points and hitting almost every second serve like a first delivery. Eventually, Medvedev somehow pulled out that match with his undervalued survival instincts, saving two match points in the third set tie-break, winning 6-1 6-7(5) 7-6(8).

The world No. 2 did perform more persuasively in a 6-4 6-2 semifinal dismissal of Casper Ruud, pulling off his only straight set win of the week. But in my view it was not enough to give him the unwavering confidence required to defeat Zverev in the final. In some ways, the situation reminded me of what happened a few weeks earlier at the Paris Masters 1000 event. Medvedev had made his way to the final with big point efficiency but he was not necessarily at the top of his game. He played a very good final against Djokovic, but the Serbian was clearly the better man on that important occasion. He succeeded in three sets.

This time around against Zverev, Medvedev knew full well that he had been fortunate to escape against the German in the round robin. Medvedev was also well aware that it is no simple task to beat the same player twice in a week at a tournament reserved for only the elite. In fact, prior to this title round appointment, the player who had lost in the round robin all through tournament history was triumphant when taking on the same player again in the final 10 out of 18 instances.

Zverev himself had achieved that feat once before, defeating Djokovic in a straight set final after losing to the Serbian in the round robin three years ago. Pete Sampras holds the record with three reversals of fortune in his five times as the champion at the ATP Finals. In 1994, 1996, and 1999 Sampras turned the tables on a prominent opponent to lift the trophy. He did it against Boris Becker in 1994 and 1996, and repeated that remarkable feat in 1999 against Andre Agassi.

Medvedev was fundamentally outplayed and out-served by Zverev on this occasion. Zverev was at his zenith and gave one of the greatest performances of his career. In ten service games against one of the sport’s premier practitioners on the return of serve, Zverev never even faced a break point. He won 33 of 40 points on his first serve (83%) and eight of fourteen on second serve (57%). Altogether Zverev connected with 74% of his first serves. In the round robin against Medvedev, Zverev made 79% of his first serves but his location and pinpoint precision were far superior in the final. As was the case against Djokovic in the penultimate round, Zverev served only one double fault in the final round match versus Medvedev.

So often in the past, Zverev’s confusion over how hard to hit his second serve has been a terrible hindrance, but this year in Turin he found considerably more clarity of mind and took no unnecessary risks. In the entire tournament, he produced only five double faults in his five matches. His averaged 75% on first serves for the tournament and held serve in 56 of 58 games for a 97% success rate. To be sure, the hardcourts in Turin were playing exceptionally fast and were a server’s domain. Djokovic was broken only three times in his four matches and Medvedev lost his serve only four times in five contests. But Zverev’s serve was the best of anyone in the field, and his ground game was impenetrable. He hardly missed against Djokovic and was awfully good from the backcourt against Medvedev in the final as well.

Zverev established early leads in both sets of this confrontation between two towering men who both stand at 6’6”, and the German never relinquished his authority throughout an impeccably played final on his side of the net. Incidentally, this was the first time the final was contested by two players without one of them being over 25 since David Nalbandian, 23, beat Roger Federer, 24, in 2005. Zverev is now 24 and Medvedev 25. That is a significant as a barometer for the future. Their best is yet to come. Moreover, in the FedEx Year-End ATP Rankings of 2021 just released, eight of the top ten are in their twenties; only Nadal, 35, and Djokovic, 34, are in their thirties. Eight of the top ten are 25 years of age or younger; the last time this happened was in 1995. That is not inconsequential. 

In any case, Zverev made his move in the third game of the match. After Medvedev rallied from 0-40 to 30-40, the German profited from a fortunate winner off the net cord to secure a quick service break lead. He won 20 of 25 points on serve in that dominant set, and advertised his superiority on the day by taking a 23 stroke exchange with a scintillating forehand winner down the line that gave him a 5-3 lead. In every aspect of the game—from his serve, to his baseline prowess, to his agility at the net—Zverev was the decidedly better player.

In the second set, the script was much the same. Helped by a Medvedev double fault that created a 15-30 opening, Zverev broke at 30 in the first game and never looked back. He was taken to deuce in one service name before holding for 4-2, but otherwise was untroubled. Zverev served for the match at 5-4 and from 0-15 he never lost another point, closing out the contest with a second serve ace out wide in the deuce court. The scoreline was 6-4, 6-4 for Zverev but the gap between the two combatants was considerably larger than that.

Now we can imagine a future sparkling with possibilities among the captivating trio of Djokovic, Medvedev and Zverev. This is not to say that others will not be others in the conversation. Stefanos Tsitsipas had a spectacular first half of 2021, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, opening up a two sets to love lead in the French Open final before losing to Djokovic, and winning his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo. By the end of the year he was ailing with an arm/elbow injury. Felix Auger-Aliassime made inroads this year and will improve enormously in 2022. Dominic Thiem will be back in the coming year looking for a second major title. Nadal just might surprise us all with a sweeping physical recovery.

But— the way I see it—the levers of control will largely belong to the three distinctive individuals from Serbia, Russia and Germany. They figure to be the pace setters over the next couple of years. It seems entirely possible that we are heading into a spellbinding stretch featuring a fellow in his mid-thirties who just might be the greatest tennis player of all time, and a couple of keynote performers in their mid-twenties trying to knock the Serbian off his pedestal. I am looking forward to watching it all unfold.

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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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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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