Second-Line Players Save US Expedition To Australian Open - UBITENNIS
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Second-Line Players Save US Expedition To Australian Open

With American headliners falling in early rounds at the Australian Open, “journeyplayers” pick up the baton and step into the Melbourne lights

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The wise men in tennis say: “Keep working and results will come. You will have your time in the spotlight”. For a few of the American journeymen and journeywomen populating the tennis world, the time in the spotlight has arrived at this 2018 Australian Open, where US tennis has known one of its worst Majors in a long time. On opening day, the “stars and stripes” team went 3-12, with only Nicole Gibbs, Ryan Harrison and Mackenzie McDonald to survive the carnage. Day 2 went marginally better, but at 7-9 American players were still well below .500 and only three out of the six seeds advanced to the second round, with a few Top 70 players like Donaldson, Johnson and Bellis already on the way home before the tournament had even properly begun.

 

In the men’s draw, only Sam Querrey (#13) made it to the second round, while Jack Sock (#8) and John Isner (#16) both fell on their first match; amongst the ladies, 2017 Finalist Venus Williams (#5) went out to the up-and-returning Swiss Belinda Bencic in possibly the toughest first round she could face, while 2017 Australian Open (and US Open) semifinalist Coco Vandeweghe was routed in two sets by Hungarian Timea Babos and was fined $10,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct for an expletive-ridden outburst towards her opponent as well as a surreal tirade with the chair umpire regarding her rights to demand bananas readily available on court.

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It was therefore their time to shine time for the “peones”, those who normally sweat in the smaller tournament around the world, where you are lucky if there is a referee watching your matches and support facilities are a far cry from the spotless grandiosity of Grand Slam venues. Former NCAA champion MacKenzie McDonals, 22, ex-leader of the UCLA team and turned professional at the end of his junior year in 2016, came through qualifying, won his first-round match against Swedish hopeful Elias Ymer and engaged in a long battle with world n.3 Grigor Dimitrov, losing only 8-6 in the fifth after a 3 hours, 25 minutes battle. “Mackie” made a roaring debut on the ATP circuit in 2013, when as a skimpy 18-year-old high school graduate he received a wild card for the qualifying tournament at the Masters 1000 Western&Southern Open in Cincinnati where he defeated then-Top 100 Steve Johnson and Nicolas Mahut to make the main draw and lose 6-1 6-1 to Belgian David Goffin. After a successful college career with the Bruins team where he won the 2016 NCAA title in singles and doubles, McDonald turned pro in June 2016 and after the second round at the Australian Open he will climb in the ranking from the n.186 where he was the week before the tournament to around the 150-mark which will allow him to attempt some incursion into the ATP 250 qualification draws as opposed to the almost Challenger-only scheduling he has had to play so far.

Certainly less unknown but equally unseeded, Ryan Harrison has made a run to the third round in this year’s Australian Open with a 5-set win against Dudi Sela and upsetting seed n.31 Pablo Cuevas from Uruguay before falling to world n.6 Marin Cilic. A teenage sensation in the early years of this decade, Harrison established a few precocity records and took part to the 2012 Olympics in London with the US team before falling into a spiral that almost led him outside the Top 200. In 2016 he started his comeback with some good results during the North-American summer and, after proposing to long-time girlfriend Lauren McHale (sister to WTA player Christina McHale), in 2017 he set up his team with two part-time coaches, Italian ex-pro Davide Sanguinetti and USTA pro Peter Lucassen, winning his first ATP title in February in Memphis. In this 2018 he replaced Lucassen with former player Michael Russel and started the year with a final at the very well-attended ATP 250 Brisbane International and this third round at the Australian Open, projecting him within a few spots of his career-best ranking of 40.

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Quite new in his role of “LAMP” (Last American Male Player), Tennys Sandgren is the prototype of the Challenger animal populating the second-tier tournaments around the world and trying to make it to the big stages. His name has Swedish origin, his great-grandfather was from Sweden and he was named after him, and bears no relation to the sport he is playing. “It’s always a weird conversation – he says – I have come to terms with it, I have the mindset that every person I explain my name to is one less person I will have to explain it to in the future. But when I order a sandwich or a coffee I usually pick a normal name like ‘David’ or something like that, I really don’t want to get into the ‘your name is Tennys and you play tennis, how cool’ conversation more than I have to”. He just crept into the top-100 in October 2017 after his name (pun intended) came to the attention of the main tennis fan when he won the USTA Challenge to obtain a wildcard for the French Open (and the attached coveted first-round prize money) and then he repeated himself a few months later to get a wildcard for the US Open, too. In New York he was supposed to play Andy Murray on the first round, but the Scot pulled out and he played Marin Cilic instead on Arthur Ashe Stadium. “It was the biggest stage there is in tennis – he said after defeating Wawrinka on the second round – but this was definitely my biggest match and my biggest win”. After the 4-set win against Marterer that made him the “LAMP” for this Major, his thoughts went to his mother Lia, who coached him from the age of 5 until when he went to college. “She grew up in South Africa and didn’t play till she was in her early 30s. Picked it up, played little league tennis, got passionate about it. She’s a passionate person, when she kind of dives into something, it’s all in. My dad was a more serious player, but he wasn’t as invested in the tennis part. He enjoyed the game, he enjoyed playing. The way I played as a junior wasn’t necessarily out of enjoyment. I was a feisty, more negative version of what you see now. That was kind of a turnoff. My mom stuck it out with me, which I appreciate, she didn’t have to. She had to take a lot of nonsense from me, and she did, helping me grow and learn and improve”.
“I was homeschooled from the fourth grade onwards and I was coached by my mom. There’s a lot of time together. You could say that tensions would build up. We both are pretty stubborn, strong personality. We would butt heads. Ultimately, I wouldn’t change it. We have a great relationship. It worked out, for sure”.

On the women’s side, the medal for the American who has stepped into the limelight must surely go to Lauren Davis, the Cleveland girl who crept into the Top 30 last year but is now back down to n.76, who played an epic 3 hours, 44 minutes classic against world n.1 Simona Halep. Lauren had three consecutive match points when she was leading 11-10 in the final set, but she eventually lost 15-13. “Today I feel I have turned a corner because I showed myself what I’m capable of – said Davis after the match -Throughout my career I have always struggled with being so critical and being hard on myself. So I made a commitment to myself before this tournament that I’m going to be my own best friend and just my greatest supporter, and accept all that God has to give me. I think there is a ton of positives, looking at it, and I’m excited for what the future holds for sure.”

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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The Next Group Of Hopefuls To Replace The ‘Great Trio’ May Be Beaten Out By Youth

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Carlos Alcaraz - Roland Garros 2022 (photo Roberto Dell'Olivo)

What is it with this supposedly great crop of newer and younger players groomed to take the places of the “Great Trio” of  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the top of the men’s game?

 

Only Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have won Grand Slam titles, both at the U.S. Open. And that’s about it. Medvedev just fell to Marin Cilic in the French Open round of 16.

Who?

You remember the 33-year-old hard-hitting Croatian who won the 2014 U.S. Open. Cilic had hardly been heard from since the 2018 Australian Open where he was runner-up . . . until  Monday when he needed just 45 minutes to conquer Medvedev.

THIEM JUST ANOTHER PLAYER THESE DAYS

Thiem? He looked like the real deal in 2020 when he won the U.S. Open. The Austrian is now 28 years old and an injured right wrist in 2021 has pushed Thiem far down the ATP rankings.

Then, there was the next presumed superstar: Stefanos Tsitsipas. The aggressive potential superstar came up empty on Monday against a virtually unknown teenager. Holger Rune was fantastic in his four-set domination of Tsitsipas.

The just-turned 19-year-old Rune appears to have it all: speed, quickness, power and touch. A 40th ranking isn’t too bad for a teen-ager, especially when it will zoom higher as the result of his advancement to a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

ARE MEDVEDEV, THIEM AND TSITSIPAS REALLY THAT GREAT?

Maybe Medvedev, Thiem and Tsitsipas aren’t really as good as they once appeared to be. They are certainly not in the category of all-time greats. They have had their chances to become household words.

Maybe the members of this group weren’t meant to be the superstars to replace Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as fan favorites.

Maybe, it’s the next group of younger players, even teenagers. Yes, it appears that Carlos Alcaraz may outshine the likes of Thiem, Medvedev and Tsitsipas in the next few years.

MAKE WAY FOR CARLOS ALCARAZ?

It just happens the 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz may become one of the eventual replacements for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Carlos Alcaraz is one week younger than Rune.

Alexander Zverev might have been ahead of the others if he hadn’t blown so many chances for stardom the last few years. Still, he is the Olympic champion and probably has more potential than Thiem, Medvedev or Tsitsipas.

A HERD OF PLAYERS WAITING TO MAKE THEIR MARKS

There is a herd of virtually unknown players waiting to make their mark. For instance, take Casper Ruud, 20-year-old Jannik Skinner and Matteo Berrettini. They have the potential to beat anyone.

But Alcaraz and Rune look like the best of the new young guns of tennis.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter who wins the Nadal-Djokovic quarterfinal showdown in Paris. They are two of the greatest players ever. Nothing is going to change that, not in Paris or anywhere else. Their place in history is written in stone, alongside Federer.

WOMEN’S GAME UNPREDICTABLE

The women’s game is even more unpredictable than the men’s game. One reason is because the WTA no longer has superstars the likes of Venus and Serena Williams, and Ashleigh Barty.

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek looked ready to take over the women’s game with her long string of consecutive wins. But in the last two rounds of the French Open, Swiatek has looked like just another good player at times.

That may be due to the fact that the Polish sensation is going for her second French Open title while taking a 31-match winning streak into the quarterfinals. But it happened in the third round against 95th-ranked Danka Kovinic and then again Monday in round of 16 against 74th-ranked Qinwen Zheng.

Swiatek suddenly looked very average, but then bounced back to take both matches in the cool weather once she put on a white jacket in each match. She aroused her game early enough to avoid losing a set against Kovinic, but not against Zheng.

PEGULA MAY TEST SWIATEK

Swiatek now will face newlywed Jessie Pegula in the quarterfinals. Pegula is now playing the best tennis of her career and has rocketed to No. 11 in the world. Like Swiatek, Pegula is a fighter. She won’t go down easily and may be Swiatek’s toughest test remaining in Paris.

The 28-year-old Pegula called Charleston her home while she trained for a couple of years at the then Family Circle Cup complex, which is now the home of the Credit One Charleston Open stop on the WTA Tour. Pegula was married in last October at the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Pegula also is having doubles success in Paris. She teamed with Coco Gauff to reach the third round in doubles, hoping for a victory there to advance to the doubles quarterfinals as well.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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