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Jack Sock — from Bill Gates To Big Forehands

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Jack Sock (zimbio.com)

By Art Spander

 

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — So Jack Sock, who was discussing dinner with Bill Gates and, oh yes, Roger Federer — those tennis people live life — was asked when an American player, such as Sock, actually might win a Grand Slam tournament, the way Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi used to do.

“So you want to talk tennis now?” Sock said rhetorically — and somewhat disappointedly. He was having such a grand time discussing forecasts of the future provided by Gates, the Microsoft guy, and teasing when someone asked about the forecasts: “I can’t give that away.”

The real issue at the moment — now and forever — is the future of men’s tennis in America. The U.S. ladies, certainly, are in fine shape, literally as well as metaphorically.

Sloane Stephens won the 2017 U.S. Open, and if an American can win only one of the four majors, that’s the one. Thursday night, Serena Williams, who’s won them all, again and again, returns to WTA competition here at the BNP Paribas tournament at Indian Wells Tennis Garden

But no American male has won a Slam tournament since 2003, 15 years if you’re counting. That was Andy Roddick, who is from Nebraska. As is Sock. You never suspected the heart of U.S. men’s tennis was in the heartland of America, did you? Cornfields and forehands.

Down here, it’s cactus and streets named for celebrities, starting with Bob Hope Drive and Frank Sinatra Drive. Gerald Ford has his roadway. Tennis? Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, who’s won the French Open and Wimbledon, walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards earlier this month 130 miles up the road in Hollywood. According to one story she “turned heads in a black asymmetrical gown and had many asking, ‘Who is Garbiñe Muguruza?’”

Until the end of last year, the question from the casual sports fan might have been: who is Jack Sock? Then he won three titles, qualified for the ATP Championships (for which he was unprepared) and coming in at No. 9 was the first U.S. man to end the year in the top ten since Roddick in 2010, seven years earlier, a lifetime in tennis.

You would think Sock would be excited. He was, with an asterisk. He had his late summer and fall all organized, and then, wham, he had fly to London to be one of the eight singles contestants in the Nitto ATP Finals, which is sort of like the sport’s March Madness in November.

The next thing he knew, he was in the Australian Open this January. If not for long, losing in the first round. Around the world, and plop.

“That day I flew home from Melbourne,” said Sock, who lives in Kansas City, “and I was in the gym. For four weeks, I was trying to get my mind straight again.”

Success, or the result of success, had socked the 25-year-old Sock.

“I had no expectation of being in London,” he said. “I had to redo my schedule. I had no idea of what was going on. I had some commitments, traveling a lot in the off-season, things that in hindsight I wouldn’t have scheduled. But you live and learn.

“I took time off after Australia. Home in my own bed for more than two days. I feel a lot more confident now.”

To be invited to take part in the Federer-Gates exhibition and dinner, the money from the sellout crowd at SAP Arena in San Jose, $2.5 million, going to Federer’s African educational fund, verifies Sock’s new status.

He’s the so-called heir apparent in U.S. tennis, a designation he accepts with a cringe.

“It’s enjoyable when you don’t talk about it,” he said. “I understand every time you talk about this. There’s such a rich history of American tennis, the fans here are used to somebody winning a Slam or at least competing for a Slam. Obviously there hasn’t been anyone at that level quite yet

“We’re doing our best. But there are a couple of guys, one named Federer, another named (Rafael) Nadal and another named (Novak) Djokovic. So it’s not the easiest thing to weasel your way in there in and win.”

Which is why a Grand Slam means so much.

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Novak Djokovic Doesn’t Need Love, Just Respect

He will never win a popularity battle with Federer, but does that really matter?

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As a world No.1 with 16 grand slam titles, Novak Djokovic has proven himself to be one of the best players in the world. Yet, amid the outburst of boos following his retirement from the US Open last week, the debate surrounding his popularity in the sport was reignited once again.

 

Taking on the formidable Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round, a player known to play his best on the biggest stages of the tour, Djokovic called it quits during the early stages of the third set. Citing a shoulder problem as the reason. Something that had bothered him during the earlier rounds. On the Arthur Ashe stadium, the crowd was less than pleased with his decision to stop.

“I’m not being offended or mistreated by anybody. I don’t really pay too much attention on that.” Djokovic said of the crowd. “I like to respect others. I hope that others can respect me and my decision.’
“I’m sorry for the crowd. Obviously they came to see a full match, and just wasn’t to be. That’s all it is.’
“I mean, a lot of people didn’t know what’s happening, so you cannot blame them. It is what it is.”

The New York crowd are certainly unique when it comes to other grand slams. When you go to Wimbledon there is a guard at every gate to direct you to your seat. Talking during points is frowned upon and misbehaviour is certainly not tolerated. In Flushing Meadows, there is no such thing with people casually walking around the stadium during points. Highlighted by one journalist during the women’s semi-final who tweeted ‘Why are people just strolling around in the Arthur Ashe Stadium? Get to your f***ing seats.’

“Well, no, I really believe that he doesn’t deserve of course,’ Rafael Nadal commented about his rival. “I believe that he’s a super athlete. If he had to go is because he was not able to continue at all.
“For him is much more painful than for anyone on that Arthur Ashe Stadium.”

At a glance all of this could be put down to the sometimes rowdy New York contingent at Flushing Meadows. However, this isn’t the first time Djokovic has been in this situation.

Taking to the Wimbledon final back in July it was more than evident that he wasn’t the crowd favourite. It was rival Roger Federer, who won the event seven times. Chants of ‘Federer’ erupted around Centre Court. Prompting the Serbian to mentally transmute those calls into one of his own name.

It is clear that Djokovic is a powerhouse and an icon in the world of tennis given his achievements, but for some reason he isn’t able to generate as much popularity as his two rivals. Illustrated by their social media accounts.

PLAYER

*TWITTER FOLLOWERS

*FACEBOOK LIKES

Rafael Nadal

15.7M

14.4M

Roger Federer

12.6M

14.878M

Novak Djokovic

8.7M

7.063M

*numbers as of 10/9/2019

Whilst the 32-year-old may not be the most popular man in the world of tennis, that isn’t to say that he doesn’t have a loyal fan base. On social media that are groups of die-hard ‘Nole’ fans ready to defend their man from any potential criticism he receive. From first hand knowledge, some of them are very feisty to say the least.

The debate surrounding the popularity of the Big Three is one that will likely continue beyond their retirement, but that doesn’t mean that the focus should be taken away from their outstanding achievements. For Djokovic, he is the first player to earn more than $100 million in prize money, the first to win four consecutive ATP Finals, the oldest-ever year-end No.1 and the only man to win every Masters 1000 title.

Many have said his reception in the world of sport triggers memories of Ivan Lendl. In 1987 he graced the front cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption ‘the champion that nobody cares about.’ A reserved Lendl struggled to struck a special connection with the crowd in North America compared to what some of his opponents managed to do. Fortunately, he was later recognized and appreciated more for his contribution to the sport.

As for Djokovic, he is somewhat on the same ground as Lendl, but not to such an extent. It would be quite inconceivable for a magazine to place him on their front cover using the same caption as what was used for Lendl. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly similarities.

It is likely that Djokovic will not be as popular as Federer, but that isn’t a problem. An all-time great is measured by their records in the sport and not how many are cheering them on. He shouldn’t be loved by everybody in the world, no player has the right to that entitlement. However, what he does deserve is a degree of respect. Something that is sometimes forgotten by the public attending the world’s biggest tennis events.

Maybe Djokovic’s true impact on the sport will not be recognized until he walks away for good. Whenever that will be.

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Nadal, Djokovic And Federer Excelled On Manic Monday And That Isn’t A Good Thing

Why the dominance of the trio at Wimbledon should be admired, but not celebrated.

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WIMBLEDON: On a day where all the fourth round matches took place at The All England Club there was an inevitability in the men’s draw.

 

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic all proved why they are the top three seeds. Producing a display that overwhelmed and frustrated their opponents. The trio along with Andy Murray have won the past 16 Wimbledon titles. A true testament to their dominance in the sport. On the other hand, it is also a somewhat mixed situation for the world of men’s tennis.

“I wasn’t feeling so good about my strokes, my serve, my forehand, backhand, everything. I wasn’t feeling so good, I didn’t expect to be tight, to be maybe not ready, but not like this.” Matteo Berrettini said following his loss to Federer.
“I was saying to myself that it was normal, for me, it was my first time on Centre Court against him.”

The brick wall put up by the Big Three at The All England Club can only be compared with the Great Wall of China. A gigantic structure that requires a huge effort to conquer it. Yet it is possible to scale it and people have done before. So there is one question that arises. Is the Big Three too good or are their challengers on the court not good enough?

World No.1 Novak Djokovic shed some light on the situation shortly after his straight-sets win over Ugo Humbert. The only member of the Next Generation to reach the last 16 of the tournament. Djokovic has been a giant in the world of grand slam tennis within the past 12 months. Winning three titles and reaching the semi-finals at Roland Garros.

“I think we are working as hard as anybody really to be there. I think the experience we have helps confidence, everything that we have achieved in our careers obviously we carry onto the court, then most of the players feel that, feel the pressure.” He said.
“For us, it’s another match on the center stage that we’ve experienced so many times. I think that’s one of the reasons why we, I guess, feel comfortable being there and managing to play our best consistently.”

Experience certainly pays it part. 14 out of the 16 players to reach the fourth round are over the age of 27 and eight of those are over the age of 30. However, when the older guys of the tour has had a shot on Manic Monday in the past against the Big Three they fell short. What is it that they are doing wrong?

“I think the best guys now are fully engaged, they know exactly what to expect from the court and the conditions. That helps us to play better.” Explains Federer.
“I think with experience, that’s good. We haven’t dropped much energy in any way. It’s not like we’re coming in with an empty tank into the second week.’
“All these little things help us to then really thrive in these conditions. I don’t know what else it is.”

Fortunately, Federer and Co are human. Even if it is hard to believe when they illustrate such breathtaking tennis at times. Serena Williams describes Federer’s play as that similar to an elegant Ballerina. The way he moves around the court effortlessly and dictates the points.

One people aiming to rain on the parade of the big guns is Sam Querrey. A 31-year-old American who reached the semi-finals of the major back in 2017. Against Tennys Sandgren on Monday, he produced 25 aces and won 83% of his first service points on route to victory. Setting up a clash with Nadal. Somebody who he beat in their last meeting back in 2017, but trails their overall head-to-head 1-5.

“In order to kind of break that streak, it’s most likely beating Rafa, Federer, Djokovic. The mountain gets very steep from here to break that trend, but I’m going to do the best I can.” Said Querrey.
“I like playing here (at Wimbledon). I’m comfortable here. This seems to be the slam where you’ve got odd results, if you want to call them, over the, you know, last 25 years.”

In an era that is dominated by a selected group of players, there are both admiration and frustration among both players and fans. Their achievements have been incredible, but when will a fresh face live up to the hype on a consistent basis? Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are all huge threats. Just not on a regular enough basis.

“I am not thinking about sending a message about the next generation, how they are coming or not. I know they’re good.” Nadal stated.
“I know there is going to be a day where they are going to be in front of us because they will play better than us or because we are leaving (the sport), we are not kids anymore. That’s all.”
“It is special what we achieved in the last 15 years. Something special, difficult to repeat I think, so many titles between three players. But sometimes these kinds of things happen.”

Men’s tennis is undoubtedly in the midst of a unique period with some of the greatest ever players taking to the court’s. However, is their dominance too much of a good thing?

Only time will tell when the trio retires and men’s tennis are left facing the prospect of trying to fill in their shoes. A task that is as exciting as it is terrifying for the next contingent of players.

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Wimbledon: Where The Young Guns Of Men’s Tennis Failed To Deliver

The grass promised to be a surface where shocks could occur. Instead, the future stars of the sport endured a nightmare.

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photo by Roberto Dell'Olivo

WIMBLEDON: There was a sense of optimism that this year’s Wimbledon Championships would see the younger protagonists of the men’s tour finally have their breakthrough. In reality, it was a tournament filled with disappointment for almost all of them.

 

Heading into the second week of the grass-court major only two players left are under the age of 25. Ugo Humbert at the age of 23 and Matteo Barratini at 21. It is a sharp contrast to the women’s draw, which has been shaken by the rise of 15-year-old Cori Gauff. Two-time French open finalist Dominic Thiem, multiple Masters champion Alexander Zverev and Australian Open semi-finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas all fell at the first hurdle.

“I lost my first rounds ’99, 2000, had a run in 2001, then lost first round again 2002. I don’t know if it was because of lack of experience.” Federer reflected about the misfortunes of his younger rivals.
“The panic can set in quickly on this surface. I don’t know if that’s got something to do, and if age calms the nerves there. I’m not sure. I think also it’s maybe a moment in time.”

John McEnroe had previously tipped Tsitsipas to have a deep run at The All England Club. Commenting about the Next Generation earlier this week, the former world No.1 told BBC TV he ‘was still waiting for them to come.’ To a certain extent, he is correct. Although they have previously shined on the ATP Tour winning titles. So what makes grand slams so much harder?

“We know how hard it is to beat Novak, how hard it is to beat Rafa here. Me, as well.” Federer explained. “I have a great record here. We obviously also have better draws because we’re seeded, and we’re away from the bigger seeds earlier.’
“Our path to the fourth round is definitely not as hard as maybe some of the younger guys on the tour, as well.”

Grand slams are played in a best-of-five format. Some would argue that the longer matches can take it tolls on the rising stars of the game. However, the likes of Boris Becker and Rafael Nadal has achieved major success before their 20th birthday. Furthermore, the development is sport science in recent years have been a massive boost for helping players develop.

So maybe the real problem for Zverev and Co is themselves. 18-year-old Felix Auger Allissme, who is the youngest player to break into the top 25 since Lleyton Hewitt back in 1999, fared better at Wimbledon. Reaching the third round before going out to Umbert.

“Pressure got to me, and… it got to a point where it was a bit embarrassing,” The Canadian said following his loss. “It was just tough. I just wasn’t finding ways. I think he just did what he had to do. It was solid.”

For Tsitsipas, he had another explanation for the series of below-par performances. Saying that all of the Next Gen contingent lack consistency on the tour. There are currently six played in the top 50 under the age of 21. Three have those have managed to reach multiple semi-finals of the ATP Tour so far this season – Tsitsipas (6), Auger-Aliassime (5) and Taylor Fritz (3).

“We’ve seen players my age, many years ago. I would like to name Rafa, Roger, seemed very mature and professional what they were doing. They had consistency from a young age. They always did well tournament by tournament without major drops or inconsistency.” The Greek explained.
“Something that we as the Next Gen players lack, including me as well, is this inconsistency week by week. It’s a week-by-week problem basically, that we cannot adjust to that.”

The younger stars of the sport will eventually win at grand slam level. The only thing to wonder if will that happen before the Big Four retire from the sport? Novak Djokovic was just 20 when he won his first title at the 2008 Australian Open. For him, he can relate to the misfortunes of his opponents.

“I remember how it was for me when I won my first slam in 2008. For a few years, I was No.3, No.4 in the world, which was great, but I wasn’t able to make that next step in the Slams and win Slams. I know how that feels.” Said Djokovic.
‘There is time. I understand that people want them to see a new winner of a Grand Slam. They don’t want to see three of us dominating the Slam titles. Eventually, it’s going to come, in about 25 years, then we’ll all be happy [smiling].’ he later joked.

Seven days into Wimbledon, Berrettini and Umbert are left flying the flag for the future generation of the men’s tennis. Both of those will play a member of the Big Four on Monday. Berrettini plays Federer and Umbert faces Federer. It remains to be seen if they can silence critics with a shock win.

Wimbledon fourth round players by age

Roger Federer SWI – 37
Fernando Verdasco ESP – 35
Rafael Nadal ESP – 33
Novak Djokovic SRB – 32
Roberto Bautista Agut ESP – 31
Mikhail Kukushkin KAZ – 31
Sam Querrey USA – 31
Joao Sousa POR – 30
Benoite Paire FRA – 30
Guido Pella ARG – 29
Kei Nishikori JPA – 29
Milos Raonic CAN – 28
David Goffin BEL – 28
Tennys Sandgren USA – 27
Matteo Berrettini ITA – 23
Ugo Humbert FRA – 21

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