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.
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.
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.”
COMMENT: Is A Happy Carlos Alcaraz Too Good To Be True?
Carlos Alcaraz has put fun back into professional tennis.
Even the stoic Novak Djokovic has been taken by the fun times. Instead of frowning when Alcaraz comes up with one of his amazing winners, Novak releases a broad smile that turns his bearded face into a fan-winning appeal.
Who would have thought that Novak would become such a fan favorite in his old age as he attracts even Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal fans, and maybe some Alcaraz lovers. That last one may be difficult to believe, considering the almost cult-like following of Alcaraz.
OPPONENTS EVEN JOIN CARLOS’ FUN
It’s the boyish smile that Carlos uses to so easily lure tennis fans into his fan base. Opponents even join the fun when Alcaraz puts on another amazing stunt on the court, or sometimes while sliding to hit a winner off what looked like a sure winner by his opponents.
Even British star Daniel Evans couldn’t ignore the exuberance of Alcaraz in their third-round match at the U.S. Open. Alcaraz comes up with another one of his amazing shots to win a point, and Evans breaks into an ear-to-ear smile. Everyone is happy.
Yes, Carlos Alcaraz is almost too good to be true.
ALCARAZ FILLS THE GAP LEFT BY FEDERER AND NADAL
Yes, the amazing 20-year-old Spaniard gives tennis the bump it needs in the new generation of players after the Federer, Nadal and Djokovic heydays. Of course, Djokovic is still trying to add to his record-setting number of Grand Slam titles.
Djokovic is still very dangerous. It could be a spectacular final if Novak and Alcaraz could work their way into another Grand Slam final as they did at Wimbledon.
Of course, even after taking much of the fire out of Alexander Zverev in straight sets in the quarterfinals, Alcaraz isn’t home free yet. Not with former champion Daniil Medvedev standing in his path in Friday’s semifinals before a possible showdown with Djokovic.
WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN’S SIDE OF THINGS?
It’s anyone’s guess which semifinalist will walk off with the women’s crown on Saturday.
The only Grand Slam champion left, Australian Open champ and new world’s No. 1 Aryna Sabalenka, is in the bottom half of the draw, and must take on red-hot Madison Keys in Thursday’s semifinals.
Wimbledon titlist Marketa Vondrousova didn’t provide much of a test for 2017 U.S. Open finalist Keys in a 6-4, 6-1 loss in the quarterfinals. As good as Keys has been lately, Sabalenka will be difficult to handle.
That leaves young Coco Gauff or French runner-up Karolina Muchova as the other possible finalist. Sabalenka appears to be too strong and aggressive, not to mention talented, for the other three semifinalists.
Where’s French champion Iga Swiatek or high-ranked Jessica Pegula? Of course, both were wiped out in the round of 16, Pegula by Keys and Swiatek by unpredictable Jelena Ostapenko.
That leaves the gate wide open for Sabalenka’s fourth straight Grand Slam semifinal.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Lesson Failed: Never Take A Legend For Granted
Carlos Alcaraz should have learned at least one important lesson from his marathon loss to Novak Djokovic in the Cincinnati final.
Never take anything for granted against a legend such as Djokovic.
Alcaraz paid a big price for ignoring that lesson in Sunday afternoon’s scorching heat on a blistering hard court.
NOVAK APPEARED TO BE HEADED FOR DEFEAT
Djokovic appeared to be a beaten man when Alcaraz served with a 4-3 lead in the second set. He was virtually wiped out, or so it appeared.
But the match really was just beginning. Alcaraz won the first point of that eighth game of the set, and everything appeared to be in order for the young Spaniard.
Boy, did things change quickly as Alcaraz carelessly committed four consecutive unforced errors. Suddenly, it was a new game with Novak looking alive and well. Four games later, they were in a tiebreaker and Alcaraz held his only match point of the day.
Djokovic was on fire then and on his way to a 5-7, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4) victory.
LOSS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD
Of course, this one really didn’t mean that much to either Djokovic or Alcaraz. They are after bigger goals.
The big one comes up in New York in almost three weeks, if both players can make it to the final of the U.S. Open.
Alcaraz can only get better. After all, he’s only 20 years old. He made a remarkable improvement over his performance in losing to Tommy Paul a week earlier in Toronto.
You wouldn’t think Djokovic can get much better than the game he played in the Cincinnati final. Yes, it should be steaming hot in Arthur Ashe Stadium, too.
FIVE SETS A TELLING STORY
This time it will be five sets, and there is no telling who will survive the heat best, if Alcaraz gets another shot at Djokovic. For both players to make it through two weeks in New York to the Sunday final would be a major achievement for Djokovic and defending champion Alcaraz.
Either way, it probably is just a matter of time before Djokovic gives up the chase for more Grand Slam titles. It is worth it in the end of other majors for Djokovic only if he can prevail through the final shot.
But anything short of other major titles wouldn’t be worth what Djokovic went through Sunday in Cincinnati for 229 minutes. Of course, Alcaraz went through similar circumstances at the French Open.
But he’s 16 years younger than Djokovic.
All of the great ones eventually have to surrender to time.
COCO IS A STAR IN THE MAKING
Coco Gauff likely will become one of the great ones before she finishes. A Grand Slam title in New York would set her on her way to greatness.
The 19-year-old, much like Alcaraz, is loaded with weapons. First, she is a great athlete.
That was obvious to me as early as May 2019 when I spotted Gauff resting on a bench at courtside after a long workout at LTP Tennis in Charleston. She already had qualified for the $100K ITF tournament there.
I interviewed Coco for just a few minutes before she was called back to the court. A month later she was in the round of 16 at the French Open.
JUST A MATTER OF TIME FOR GAUFF
Just 15 years old, it was just a matter of time before Gauff would become a superstar.
She isn’t quite there yet, but after winning titles in Washington as well as her first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, Gauff is getting close. She still has two more chances to win a Grand Slam title as a teenager, and the next step could be New York. She already has the experience of a runner-up finish at last year’s French Open.
Gauff really didn’t have much trouble upending Karolina Muchova, 6-3, 6-4, at Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open on Sunday.
But again, the draw for the U.S. Open will be filled with players capable of winning a Grand Slam title, even including the likes of Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova, ranked just ninth in the world. As a left-hander, she already has the edge over most of the players in the field.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award. 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
WIMBLEDON: An immense Alcaraz, but the changing of the guard is yet to come…
Alcaraz’s merits compared with Djokovic’s demerits. Just a bad day among many so-so days for the Serbian, nonetheless No. 2 of the ATP ranking? Or is it the start of an inexorable decline? Farewell to the Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors?
NOTE: This article was written in Italian and has been Translated by Carla Montaruli
Carlitos Alcaraz triumphed, cheers for Carlitos Alcaraz. The feat he accomplished at only 20 years of age and in his fourth tournament on grass is remarkable, remarkable indeed. He is the third youngest champion ever after 17-year-old Becker and 20-year-old Borg, as well as the third Spaniard after Santana and Nadal to win the trophy. Being able to beat a player in the fifth set after 4 hours and 43 minutes who is the king of marathons, a seven-time champion and had won 45 straight matches over the last 10 years on Centre Court, can only be considered a great exploit.
Credit where credit is due. Alcaraz played beautiful tennis, complete in all aspects, bold forehands and backhands, powerful and hit on the rise, drop-shots, acrobatic and diving volleys, hanging smashes, aces and winning serves. All this with great mental solidity displayed throughout the entire match: after losing the first set badly, enduring the tension of a second set tiebreak which had not started well for him, then dominating the third set and finally closing the encounter as a consummate veteran in the fifth with a last service game played brilliantly after tenaciously defending very well the break he had secured in the third game of the final set.
A 20-year-old young man could not be asked for more. A well-deserved applause and congratulations also for defending that first place in the world rankings that he will hold for the twenty-ninth week, hoping to keep it as long as possible.
Staying at the top for 389 weeks like the extraordinary champion he beat on Sunday would mean dominating the world stage for over seven years. Over seven years! And…as I write this I wonder if we have paid enough attention to such a feat in all that time!
Yes, because you write 310 weeks, Federer’s weeks as world No.1, then you write 389, that is Djokovic’s weeks spent in the same spot: there and then they seem like just numbers…but only when you divide them by 52, the weeks in a year, do you realize the immensity of these extended dominances within a sport whose growing competitiveness and many booming young guns are emphasized almost every day.
Crazy in the case of both Federer and Djokovic with the ATP scepter in their hands, because each of them – as the fourth part of the Fab Four – had to confront at least with the other three. All four have been world number one. Still, for 699 weeks, almost 13 years and a half, Roger and Nole were number one, Nadal was king for 209 weeks and Murray for 41. Add them up and that’s another five years—eighteen years of reign for four kings. Written so many times off the top of my head…but upon reflection this is impressive stuff. It never remotely happened before.
So here it is… the idea that Carlitos Alcaraz could one day – but we are talking about seven years! – reach Djokovic’s 389-week reign today may seem unreal, absolutely far-fetched.
But…are there perhaps three more champions on the horizon who can recreate a quartet of phenomena like the Fab Four? I don’t see them at all. Will Alcaraz be alone in the driver’s seat for the next few years?
In seven years, 10 or 18 – 18 years was the reign of the Fab Four — phenoms could sprout up almost like mushrooms! Speculating on what will happen in such a long and far away period is a mindless divertissement and I don’t know why it dawned on me…. Except perhaps Holger Rune today – though greatly downgraded by the last duel here at Wimbledon – there doesn’t seem to be a rival of Alcaraz’s caliber right now. Our compatriots may see our Sinner two steps below Alcaraz and one step below Rune, but neither do they see other “prospects” ahead of him. Djokovic called Sinner one of the leaders of the new generation. His fifth place in the Race, along with eighth in ATP ranking certify such status.
But then for a year or two, or maybe even three, if Rune and Sinner don’t make giant strides, or if a new rising star doesn’t emerge, Carlitos Alcaraz could easily add a hundred or more weeks to the 29 he has already earned as No. 1.
Or am I venturing into a wild prediction?
Just not to present you with a single scenario I want to say, however, that the most obvious commonplace one could come up with today, after this final that Djokovic shall not cease to regret for at least four reasons – three missed backhands in the tiebreak and a clumsy drive volley which squandered a hard-earned break point for a 2-0 lead in the decider – is that we have witnessed the changing of the guard.
It will make so many headlines, sure. I may have uttered it too, in one of the many videos I did for Ubi Instagram, for Ubitennis, and the IntesaSanPaolo website. But in my opinion, it’s not true yet.
Djokovic is not ready to retire. He is not going to quit, even if the dream of achieving a Grand Slam has vanished, maybe forever. Farewell to Grand Slam, but will he win more Majors? I think so. He is still world No. 2, isn’t he?
I had written throughout the tournament – you may check – that I didn’t think I had seen the best Djokovic. He had not been at his best against Hurkacz or even Rublev. And, as much as many readers disagreed, neither had he dominated Sinner as he had last year in the last three sets when he had been truly unplayable. Demerit to him and credit to Sinner, as often happens simultaneously.
I wrote that Hurkacz had thrown the first set out of the window and when leading 5-4 in the tiebreak of the second with two serves at disposal to put it away he had not been faultless but had shown a lack of personality. I also wrote that Rublev had been unlucky in the fourth set on the occasion of some break points he had failed to convert.
We did not see the best Djokovic, in my opinion, even in the final against Alcaraz. Otherwise, he would have been two sets up.
Oh yes, come on: the three backhand errors he made in the first tiebreak he lost after 15 won were not errors from Djokovic, the champion who has always played the crucial pointsbetter than anyone else, certainly better than Federer and Murray, perhaps equal to Nadal.. In particular, match points aside – what about that, dear Roger? – those tiebreaks that are said to be worth double.
Those three backhands, a drop shot at 3-2 when he was a minibreak ahead, the one at 6-5 and setpoint after he had deftly returned Carlitos’ serve, the one at 6-6 were errors worthy of a Hurkacz, a Norrie or a Shapovalov, not a Djokovic!
I recall – just quoting from memory because I haven’t time to engage in dutiful and thorough research – that Nole’s record in best-of-five matches after winning the first set is monstrous. Imagine after winning the first two sets.
Here, a Nole in ordinary form, even against that very inspired Alcaraz, would have started the third set with a two-set lead.
I know that with ifs and buts, you don’t go anywhere. But I’m pretty sure – and I think Nole is too – that if the two sets lead never came into being, it was more because of Nole’s demerit than Carlitos’ merit.
But is this a random demerit, due to a bad day and a series of bad days as it appeared to me throughout the tournament, or is it a sign of the slow inexorable decline of the Serbian who is beginning to come to terms with his age? That drive volley with which he dissipated the all-important break point and the chance to rise 2-0 in the fifth set was another topical moment. Yet, it was not Novak to succeed in a decisive breakthrough, but Carlos three minutes later.
The fury with which, at the changeover, Nole smashed his racket on the net post is revealing. Nole had missed the train to victory and, experienced as he is, he understood it.
I would say that this casual contingent demerit or signal of inexorable decline is the discriminating point of our debate.
Bravo, bravo to Alcaraz for taking advantage of it with precocious maturity, but did Djokovic stumble over a mediocre day by chance, because it can happen to everyone, even to younger tennis players, or because even he – an extraordinary phenomenon – is on that rickety path where age starts taking its toll?
If the most plausible answer we believe in is the first one – and that is the one I believe in – we cannot yet speak of a changing of the guard.
Djokovic can safely return to the throne of tennis, perhaps win the US Open and/or the next ATP Finals in Turin as well as an 11th Australian Open. Push the undoubtedly great Alcaraz back to second place.
If, on the other hand, the right answer is the second, this Wimbledon definitely enshrines the changing of the guard. But, even in this scenario, only the changing of the guard at the top and the handover between Djokovic and Alcaraz. Not a generational changing of the guard though, at least for now and the very near future, because even a subdued and slightly tarnished Djokovic is stronger than Rune, Sinner, and Tsitsipas on almost any surface. At worst he would be the second-best tennis player in the world. The others, Sinner included, would do anything to stand where he stands.
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