From Serena's Meltdown To Kyrgios' Pep Talk - 10 US Open Break Points - UBITENNIS
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From Serena’s Meltdown To Kyrgios’ Pep Talk – 10 US Open Break Points

These are the topics worth further discussion following the 2018 tournament.

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The past two weeks of the US Open will forever be remembered, but not all of it will be for a good reason. Arguments over shirt changes, umpire rulings and tournament rules at times overshadowed the brilliant performance by some players. Now the tournament has concluded with Novak Djokovic winning the men’s trophy, there remains a series of issues that needs to be addressed. 

 

1) In a surreal women’s final, Serena Williams and Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos both handled the situation remarkably poorly

Nowadays, it’s commonplace for people to choose one side in a debate, vehemently defend it, and refuse to look for common ground. But in most situations, many shades of grey exist, which is certainly true in the debacle that was the women’s singles championship match. Let’s begin with the code violation for illegal coaching, which was completely valid. Patrick Mouratoglou admitted he was coaching to ESPN’s Pam Shriver after the match. His excuse was that “everybody does it” and nobody gets called for it. But as Jon Wertheim pointed out on Tennis Channel in the US, the “everybody does it” excuse is never a good one. Patrick cited Toni Nadal not being called for his constant illegal coaching of Rafa over the years, but actually Nadal has received code violations for illegal coaching in the past. As Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times pointed out, even Carlos Ramos himself has made this call against Nadal before.

Serena completely overreacted to this, launching into multiple diatribes throughout the rest of the second set about how she’s not a cheater. But this violation was called on her coach, not on her. And while it doesn’t matter if she saw the hand signals from Mouratoglou for the sake of the violation, I don’t buy the argument that she didn’t see it. How would she know to excuse the hand signals as a thumbs up if she didn’t see him? Serena’s had to overcome more sexism and racism during her career than I could ever begin to grasp, so her offensive-minded defense is understandable. But in the context of the match, all it did was escalate the situation, which served to distract herself and take away from Naomi Osaka’s victory.

The third code violation is where the match really spiraled into utter chaos, which the chair umpire cannot allow to occur. Yes, Serena was verbally abusive towards Ramos. Calling him a liar and a thief does qualify as verbal abuse accordingly to the rulebook. And I’m all for chair umpires taking less abuse from players, and asserting more authority. But this was not the time to make that point. This was a situation that called for more discretion from Carlos Ramos. Awarding a game to Osaka in such an important match, with history on the line, was unnecessary. He should have given her further warnings or involved the tournament officials to help diffuse the situation before resorting to a game penalty. After this third code violation was called, I kept waiting to see a replay of Serena saying something worse to Ramos, but such audio never surfaced.

Was sexism at play? That’s a fair claim, as there’s certainly still plenty of double standards in tennis. And as Patrick McEnroe of ESPN highlighted, a male player likely would have been treated differently in this situation. But Serena fully lost her composure, as we’ve seen many times before on the same court. She was more concerned with voicing how unfairly she felt she was being treated than winning a tennis match. Those complaints should have been curtailed and continued after the match. Serena repeatedly demanded an apology from Ramos for damaging her character. I suggest both Ramos and Serena owe Osaka an apology for ruining what should have been her moment.

2) Full credit to Serena for saving the trophy presentation

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When the fans began to boo at the mere announcement of the trophy presentation, I cringed for what was ahead. Thankfully, Serena stepped up and told the crowd to stop booing, and that Naomi is a deserving champion. The crowd followed Serena’s lead, and cheered the awarding of the trophy to Osaka. That could not have been an easy speech for Serena to give, but her gracious words here were spot on.

3) Naomi Osaka is an incredibly deserving and likeable champion

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What a delight Naomi has been this year, especially with her endearing honesty during her post-match words at Indian Wells and during this fortnight. It’s a shame we’ll never know if she would have finished off Serena in the final without all the hoopla. However, she was thoroughly in control of the biggest match of her career before the mayhem erupted, and against the greatest women’s singles player of all-time. Luckily, she likely has many more Major titles in her future where she’ll be able to thoroughly enjoy her triumphs.

4) This unfortunate situation should not be used to change the coaching rules

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On-court and mid-match coaching have been creeping their way into tennis in recent years. Following Saturday’s incident, some are now calling for the coaching ban to be done away with. Billie Jean King tweeted, “Coaching on every point should be allowed in tennis.” In a press release, WTA CEO Steve Simon also called for coaching to be allowed during a match at all tournaments. I vehemently disagree: please don’t let this happen. The lack of coaching during a match is what makes tennis unique. You’re out there without teammates and without a coach, and need to figure things out on your own. It’s revealing of character, and adds to the drama of the sport. Instead of eliminating the coaching rule, let’s more heavily and equally enforce it. Yes, it happens often without being called, and some umpires call it out more than others. But it’s also impossible for chair umpires to keep their eyes on both players’ coaching boxes at all times with everything else they have to watch on the court. Let’s have an official watch both players’ boxes to monitor illegal coaching. I’m sure electronic line calling is just a few years away, so this could be a good use of line judges who will be otherwise out of a job. And overall, this entire situation should lead to a review of how we can make the rules in tennis less ambiguous and simpler for all to understand.

5) Mohamed Lahyani crossed the line in encouraging Nick Kyrgios to compete

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In another case of good umpires making bad decisions, Lahyani stepped down from his chair to motivate Nick Kyrgios during his second round match against Pierre-Hugues Herbert. Kyrgios was down a set and a break to the Frenchman, and was again displaying a lack of effort on-court. But it is not the chair umpire’s place to impel a player to try their best. Following this inappropriate pep talk, the match completely turned around, with Kyrgios winning in four sets. By all accounts, Lahyana is an extremely well-liked and respected umpire. I myself enjoy seeing him in the chair, as I enjoy his signature score and line calls. But this simply cannot happen. And no matter how much goodwill a chair umpire has earned, an infraction like this is deserving of punishment in some form.

6) Alize Cornet should be allowed to change her shirt on-court

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Geez, it was a rough tournament for the chair umpires. Alize Cornet returned to the court from a heat break only to realize she had put her shirt on backwards. Instead of asking to return to the bathroom to turn it around, she quickly took it off on-court and put it on the right way. Chair Umpire Christian Rask cited Cornet for a code violation, as the USTA rulebook states this is not allowed. The double standard here was quickly highlighted by many, as male players take their shirt off on the court all the time. And in the year 2018, we really can’t be offended by seeing a woman in a sports bra, can we? Fortunately common sense prevailed here, and this rule will be expunged.

7) Rafael Nadal will not win another hard court Major

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Some will consider this opinion too bold, but hear me out. Over the past 12 months, Nadal has retired or withdrawn from nine of the 12 hard court tournaments he’s entered. And with his knees acting up again at this tournament, I doubt we’ll see him play much during the rest of 2018, with all remaining tournaments played on hard courts. I realize he won the US Open just one year ago, but he really wasn’t tested in that event, and only had one match early in the tournament that lasted more than three hours. And yes, he won the Rogers Cup earlier this summer, but that’s a best-of-three set event. Nadal’s knee pain on hard courts has become a troubling pattern, to the point where I expect he’ll soon pull a reverse-Federer in managing his schedule. If this pattern continues, he may focus the majority of his efforts on the clay court season, and perhaps the short grass court season, where his knees take less punishment.

8) For goodness sake, use the roofs for more than just protection from the rain

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As someone who attended the Open this year, I can attest to how brutal the heat and humidity were on many days. Even sitting still while watching a match in the evening was terribly uncomfortable, especially in Arthur Ashe Stadium where there was almost no air circulation. And beyond the discomfort of the fans, the quality of tennis on the hottest days suffered significantly. The US Open has two courts with roofs now, and those roofs should be closed on severely hot days. As Jon Wertheim pointed out on Tennis Channel, these rising temperatures are the new normal, and not a one-time fluke. For the sake of the players, for the sake of the officials, and for the sake of the fans, let’s make the sensible decision here before someone’s health is seriously jeopardized.

9) The serve clock is not speeding up play. Actually, it’s slowing play down

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As I feared, the 25-second serve clock that’s been utilized during the US Open Series has not fully served its purpose. I applaud the effort to be transparent in calling time violations, but the result of the visible on-court clock has been many players watching the clock count down and not serving until it almost expires. In the past, these players wouldn’t be aware of how much time they had left, and wouldn’t have the luxury of waiting the full 25 seconds to hit their serve. The worst offenders of this during this tournament were Rafael Nadal and Marin Cilic, who consistently kept their eyes on the winding-down clock. Now I’m not suggesting the removal of the serve clock, but rather some adjustments to this new innovation. The clock should be started with 20 seconds rather than 25 in an effort to further expedite matters. And while chair umpires have exercised good discretion in most cases as to when to start and pause the serve clock, there’s still too much discretion to be exercised here. Let’s make more specific rules as to when the clock should begin, and when the clock should be paused, to align enforcement amongst umpires.

10) The bathroom breaks have gotten entirely out of control

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I lost count of how many times during this fortnight the player who lost a set initiated a bathroom break in between sets. This amounts to a self-imposed timeout, and is being used as gamesmanship to disrupt the flow of a match that’s not going their way. And apparently there’s no enforced limit as to the length of these bathroom timeouts, as they can easily last up to 10 minutes. Both men and women are utilizing this tactic, and it needs to stop. Let’s make use of the new serve clock, and use it for bathroom breaks. Give players three minutes to leave the court and return ready to play. If they go over the time limit, start with a warning, and then deduct a point for every 30 seconds thereafter. I assure you the prolonged bathroom breaks will quickly become a thing of the past.

Editorial

EXCLUSIVE: How The ATP Plans To Make The Tour More Welcoming For LGBT Players

The governing body of men’s tennis has received praise for taking a proactive approach to the topic with the help of a leading LGBTQ+ organisation and a top research university.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

During the first week of the US Open, there was an abundance of rainbow-theme flags and wristbands worn by both players and fans to mark the tournament’s first-ever Open Pride Day.

 

The event was part of the USTA’s Diversity and Inclusion strategic platform which aims to make tennis more inclusive. Unlike the women’s game, there are no openly LGBTQ+ players on the men’s Tour and there have been few historically, even though various players have spoken of their support for anybody on the Tour who decides to come out. Including Stefanos Tsitsipas and newly crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who were questioned about the topic following their second round matches. Meanwhile, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime revealed that there is an ongoing survey related to LGBTQ+ issues being conducted by the ATP.

“Recently I’ve started doing a survey inside the ATP about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “It’s important these days to be aware of that and to be open-minded and the ATP needs to do that, in today’s time it’s needed.

“The reason we don’t have openly gay players on the ATP Tour, I’m not sure of the reason, but I feel me, as a player, it would be very open, very welcome. Statistically, there should be some, but for now there’s not.”

In response to Auger-Aliassime’s comment, UbiTennis looked into the work currently being done by the ATP alongside two other parties. Their decision to venture into LGBTQ+ representation on the Tour is part of their recent commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of their players and staff. Last year, in May, they formed partnerships with Headspace and Sporting Chance.  

The survey currently being conducted by the ATP started after the governing body of men’s tennis reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Denison was the lead author of the Out on the Fields study, the first international study on homophobia in sport and the largest conducted to date.

“I have been personally impressed with the initiative of the ATP and their desire to find ways to mitigate the broad impact of homophobic behaviour (in particular), not only on gay people, but on all players.” He told UbiTennis during an email exchange.

“We know of no other sporting governing body in the world that has been proactive on LGBTQ+ issues, and has taken a strong focus on engaging with both the LGBTQ+ community and scientists to find solutions.”

Denison says the norm has been for sports bodies to address this issue after they have been either pressured to do so or if the LGBTQ+ community got the ball rolling themselves. Incredibly, research conducted as part of the Out On The Fields initiative documented 30 separate studies which found sports organisations ignored discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport.

Monash University has supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they are using to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome. The methodology is similar to a study Denison conducted in 2020 that focused specifically on the team sports rugby union and ice hockey.  

“We suspect that tennis isn’t inherently more homophobic than other sports, or traditionally male settings. Instead, there is a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards gay people (e.g. the recent pro-gay comments by top players) and their behaviour, specifically their use of homophobic banter and jokes,” said Denison.

“This behaviour, which is largely habitual, creates a hostile climate for young gay/bi people who drop out or hide their sexuality. This means gay/bi players are invisible in youth tennis and leads to the downstream problem of no professionals. The banter/jokes continue because people think it is harmless.”

The hope is that players will also agree to be interviewed by the researchers for them to get a better understanding. All of the results will then be used by Pride Sports and Monash University to recommend evidence-based solutions. It is unclear as to how long the study will take or when the findings will be ready. 

Former top 100 player Brian Vahaly is one of the few players to have been both openly gay and played at the highest level of the men’s game. However, he didn’t fully come to terms with his sexuality until after retiring from the sport at age 27. Speaking to UbiTennis earlier this year, Vahaly shed light on the potential barriers for gay players.

There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBTQ+ issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.”

The ATP has spoken with Vahaly about their initiative and he has become ‘quite involved.’ Through their discussions, he got acquainted with Denison for the first time. As a professional, Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. After retiring from the Tour, he has served on the USTA’s board of directors since 2013. 

“I am happy to hear that the ATP is finally taking action to address this issue.  I’m impressed they are taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to make a meaningful difference here,” he told UbiTennis. 

The ATP aims to make the men’s Tour more welcoming to potential LGTBQ+ athletes playing either now or in the future. For those who question if such an initiative is important in 2021, you only have to look at the younger demographic.

Sportsnet quoted CDC data from 2019 which showed that 26% of American LGBTQ+ teenagers aged 16 or 17 has contemplated suicide, five times more than those who identify as straight (5%). Among those teenagers who heard homophobic terms, 33% self-harmed and an additional 40% considered doing so.

More than 2000 players around the world currently have an ATP ranking.

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Editorial

Statistical Profiles: Alexander Zverev

What is keeping the Tokyo 2020 gold medalist from winning a Grand Slam title?

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At twenty-four, Alexander “Sascha” Zverev is clearly among the best five players in the world, having achieved in 2017 his best ranking of world N.3 and having recently won the gold medal at the Olympics in Tokyo. This would be enough, perhaps, to highlight the talent of the young German of Russian origins, but there is much more to it: he can attack from the baseline with great ease both from the forehand and the backhand sides, and combines these skills with one of the most powerful serves on tour. After his first appearance in an ATP tournament (he won his first match in Hamburg in 2014 as a wild card), many foresaw a bright future for him.

 

Instead, in spite of 17 career titles, Zverev has not yet been able to win a Major, the Litmus test for every great champion. Even in the last edition of Wimbledon, Zverev succumbed to underdog Félix Auger-Aliassime in a five-setter.

Let’s look for an explanation within the data, particularly those that refer to the 79 singles matches he has played so far in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York, in order to try to better understand the causes of this discordant note in what is already a great career nonetheless.

RESUMÉ

Before focusing on Grand Slam matches, it is worth mentioning that the German number one has already won five Masters 1000 titles: the first on clay in Rome in 2017, defeating Djokovic in the final in straight sets; the same year, he won the tournament in Montrèal (on hardcourts), this time beating Federer. Then he won in Madrid twice, in 2018 and 2021 on clay, beating Thiem in 2018 and Berrettini in 2021, before recently winning in Cincinnati against Rublev. Not to be forgotten are the most precious jewels of Zverev’s collection, namely the triumph of the ATP Finals 2018 – once again defeating Djokovic after having eliminated Federer in the semis – plus the aforementioned Olympic gold medal, beating Djokovic once more before dispatching Khachanov in the final.

It was precisely the win at the O2 Arena three years ago that seemed to have definitively propelled Sascha to the pinnacle of world tennis, not only because of the wins per se, but also for the extraordinary quality of play he expressed in all areas of the court. Instead, something seemed to stop working.

In 2019, Zverev reached “only” three finals: in Geneva, in Acapulco, and at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai. However, only in Switzerland he could get to the title (in a third-set tiebreaker against Nicolás Jarry), while he was soundly defeated by Kyrgios in Acapulco and by Medvedev – in steamroller mode – in Shanghai.

In 2020, a season marked by the pandemic, Zverev seemed close to a big break. He first reached the semifinals at the Australian Open (his first at a Major) and then reached the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first (and currently, only) time at the US Open. In both circumstances, he faced his good friend (and rival) Dominic Thiem. The fast surface should have, on paper, given an edge to Zverev, who in fact won the opening two sets in Flushing Meadows with a score of 6-2 6-4. At that point, once again, the tune changed: Thiem found new energies, while Zverev struggled. After tying the score, it was the Austrian who won the decisive tiebreaker, denying Zverev the trophy.

The 2021 season seems to fit into the same pattern: Zverev has already won four finals including two at Masters 1000 events, he is fourth in the Race and won gold in Tokyo, and yet he couldn’t go past the quarter finals in Australia, the semifinals in Paris (defeated by Tsitsipas in five sets), and the aforementioned 4th round at Wimbledon. So, a great regularity at high levels but with no real peak (compared to the level of play that he is able to express). Let’s now take a closer look at the data to try to better understand this dynamic.

OVERVIEW

Before delving into the analysis in search of winning and losing patterns, an overview will be presented, framing Zverev’s style of play with a series of statistics, the average values of which are shown in Figure 1, separately by surface.

FIGURE 1 – Average match statistics for Alexander Zverev at Grand Slam tournaments (click to enlarge)

It can be observed how both the average number of aces (in particular on fast courts) and that of double faults is quite high, proving that the serve is, in a way, both a blessing and a curse for the German player. He gets many points from it but, at the same time, it is that very stroke which sometimes puts him in danger, especially in clutch moments. 

Comparing different surfaces, a good balance can be observed: of course the number of winners is bigger on hard and grass, due to the specificities of these surfaces, and the difference in the number of net points is also easy to understand (albeit quite marked): almost absent on clay, definitely more frequent on hard, and even more on grass. A second set of statistics, shown in Figure 2, can help us get an even more precise idea:

FIGURE 2 – Second set of statistics for Alexander Zverev at Grand Slam tournaments (click to enlarge)

We note, in particular, a significant decrease in the percentage of points won with the second serve, compared to the percentage of points won with the first serve. On all surfaces, Zverev wins more than 70% of points with the first serve, while only on grass he exceeds 60% with the second, falling under 50% on clay.

It is only natural to attribute this difference to psychological factors too, given that in his first 1000 final, on the Rome clay in 2017, in a best-of-three tournament against the best returner on tour (and probably the greatest returner of all-time, Novak Djokovic), Zverev managed to win 69.2% of points on his second serve. The underdog role he played that day perhaps allowed him to play with less pressure and to showcase his qualities.

To be noted is a good effectiveness for Zverev at the net, particularly on hardcourts, where he wins over 70% of such points. Let’s now try to deepen the analysis, looking for patterns related to a Zverev win or defeat in a best-of-five match.

MOST SIGNIFICANT PATTERNS, THE KEY ELEMENTS OF ZVEREV’S GAME

So far, we have focused on Zverev’s game one aspect at a time. In this section, with the help of technology, we will consider more aspects simultaneously in order to develop a multivariate analysis. In particular, we will try to find out which of the various match statistics (which represent our input variables) are decisive, and how so, with respect to victory or defeat (which represent our output variables).

For greater clarity, we will ensure that the classification algorithm used will automatically return – based on the available variables – a model consisting of a set of rules which represent the statistically most significant patterns that lead the German to winning or to losing. Below, we illustrate the three most significant rules calculated as follows:

1 – “If Zverev wins at least 4.7% more points than his opponent with his first serve and hits fewer than 15 double faults, then he wins the match.” This pattern is quite general but extremely precise: it occurs in more than half of the matches won by Zverev in Grand Slam tournaments (to be precise, in 56%, corresponding to 38 matches) and in none of his 22 losses.

2 – “If Zverev hits at least 3.2 more winners than his opponent per set, then he wins the match.” This pattern is extremely precise: it occurred in 18 cases and Zverev won every time.

3 – “If Zverev does not win at least 2.1% more points than his opponent with his first serve, if he hits fewer than 43 winners, and if he amasses more than 27 unforced errors, then he loses the match.” This pattern is even more specific but, once more, there are no exceptions: it occurred six times and Zverev lost in all circumstances.

The more a stat appears as a relevant condition within these patterns, the more we can define it as a key element of Zverev’s game. We will therefore be able, on the basis of the data, to draw up a feature ranking of the various aspects of his game, distinguishing those that, to a greater extent, alone or in combination with others, prove to be decisive.

FIGURE 3 – Feature ranking of Zverev’s Grand Slam matches. The length of the bar represents the relevance of the feature, the direction represents the direction of the correlation (direct correlation bars extend to the right, reverse correlation bars to the left)

As can be seen in Figure 3, the most important element for Zverev turns out to be the difference in performance compared to the opponent in terms of the points won with his first serve. Of course, as this difference increases, the probability of victory also increases, and that is why the corresponding bar of the graph (the top one) points to the right, indicating a direct correlation. On the contrary, the second bar indicates an inverse correlation with respect to the average number of shots per rally: in other words, the shorter the rallies, the likelier Zverev is to win the match. Examining the other three bars which constitute the feature ranking, we can identify, as other items of interest, the difference with the opponent in terms of the number of winners (direct correlation) and unforced errors (inverse correlation) and, albeit more weakly, in terms of the number of net points played by the opponent (inverse correlation).

Trying to interpret these results, we are led to deduce that, from a more general perspective, the key element for Zverev may be his level of initiative. In other words, if the German looks to win many quick points, shortening the rally and not offering to his opponent the opportunity to get to the net too often, as the data also tells us, he has a very good chance of winning the match. Of course, unforced errors also have a weight: this attitude must not become too wasteful in terms of points gifted to the opponent.

Trying to summarize further and to move from data analysis to tactical choices, one could perhaps venture a piece of advice to Zverev, actually often reiterated by many experts: he should try to play as close as possible to the baseline. In fact, it is from that position that he manages to be aggressive without forcing too much and without letting himself be trapped in a thick web of long rallies. Who knows whether Sascha, mindful of his loss against Auger-Aliassime at Wimbledon, will decide to give this tactic a try, perhaps as early as the upcoming US Open.

Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Alessandro Valentini; edited by Tommaso Villa

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Editorial

It’s Possible That Roger Federer May Never Again Be The Player He Once Was

Further surgery is set to sideline the Swiss Maestro from the Tour for ‘many months’ as he faces a very uncertain future.

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Roger Federer (SUI) waves to the crowd as he leaves the court after being defeated by Hubert Hurkacz (POL) in the quarter-final of the Gentlemen's Singles on Centre Court at The Championships 2021. Held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. Day 9 Wednesday 07/07/2021. Credit: AELTC/Ben Solomon

As the weeks passed since Wimbledon, the news about Roger Federer became increasingly worrisome to his wide legion of admirers all over the globe. He had reached the quarterfinals at the All England’s Club, and that was no mean feat. About one month shy of his 40th birthday, Federer established himself as the oldest man to reach the last eight at Wimbledon in the Open Era, and the oldest at any major since 43-year-old Ken Rosewall at the Australian Open in December of 1977.

 

But I digress. Despite his remarkable showing at Wimbledon, the fact remained that the Swiss Maestro performed abysmally toward the end of his straight set skirmish against Hubert Hurkacz, dropping the third and last set 6-0. Federer would say not long after that disconcerting day that he had aggravated his knee during the grass court season, but some insiders are suggesting that the injury occurred during his defeat against Hurkacz. 

Whether that was the case or not, Federer’s comeback after enduring two knee surgeries across 2020 had been halted. Soon he would pull out of Toronto and Cincinnati on the ATP Tour, and it was apparent that he would either come to the U.S. Open badly prepared, or not go to New York at all.

Now we know that Federer will not be among the 128 players in the men’s draw at the Open because he will be soon undergoing  yet another knee surgery in the hopes that he might improbably return to the ATP Tour next year. As he addressed his multitude  of followers on social media a few days ago, Federer sounded realistic about his aspirations. He simply wanted to let his fans know what was going on in Federer World and give them the benefit of seeing him on camera and hearing how he felt about his current predicament.

Federer did not let his admirers down. He spoke to the public graciously on social media without looking through rose-tinted lenses. He said, “I’ve been doing a lot of checks with the doctors, as well, on my knee, getting all the information as I hurt myself during the grass court season and Wimbledon. Unfortunately, they told me for the medium to long term, to feel better I will need surgery, so I decided to do it. I will be on crutches for many weeks and then also out of the game for many months.”

He spoke about his desire to be physically healthy, and then added, “I want to give myself a glimmer of hope, also, to return to the tour in some shape or form. I am realistic, don’t get me wrong. I know how difficult it is at this age right now to do another surgery and try it [making a comeback].”

https://twitter.com/TennisChannel/status/1426995174501019648

Those were poignant words from a champion who knows what he is confronting, realizes that returning to big time tennis and living up to his lofty standards will be arduous, and understands the immense size of the challenge ahead. Listening to the Swiss conveying his thoughts, I had the distinct feeling that Federer is bracing himself for the likelihood that he will never again be even remotely what he once was.

Beyond that, Federer was simply dealing with a harsh reality he could not have imagined when he left Wimbledon after a reasonably good run. To be sure, he knew that he was ailing, but he hoped having another surgery would not be part of the equation. And yet, here he is now, facing the future with cautious optimism, trying to figure out a path to lead him back toward where he wants to be, hoping he can reinvent himself convincingly, and determined to recover from another surgery and perform at least selectively on his own majestic terms.

Keep in mind that Federer has been through this routine too many times over the years. In 2016, he was playing with his children a day after losing in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic, and he felt something strange in his knee. That led to a February 3 surgery for a torn meniscus. He returned in the spring but had to close that season down after a semifinal defeat at the hands of Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.

Federer took an awkward fall during that loss to the Canadian and had to do rehabilitation on the knee. He did not play again in 2016 but remarkably returned in Melbourne for the 2017 Australian Open and improbably pulled off no fewer than three five set victories in his spectacularly triumphant run, toppling Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal in those memorable contests. His rescue mission from 1-3 down in the fifth against Nadal when he captured five games in a row for his fifth Australian Open crown was a career defining moment.

The resurgent Federer secured an eighth Wimbledon title later that year and then defended his Australian Open title with a five set triumph over Marin Cilic at the start of 2018. He very nearly achieved a career groundbreaking honor at Wimbledon in 2019 when he reached his twelfth final on the Centre Court by ousting Nadal in a sterling semifinal performance. In the final, he served for the match at 8-7 in the fifth set, reaching 40-15 and double match point on his serve against Novak Djokovic in the sixteenth game, only to lose that stirring encounter with the Serbian. Federer had never stopped Nadal and Djokovic in the same Grand Slam tournament, and so his historic bid fell narrowly and agonizingly short.

Be that as it may, his body was holding up surprisingly well in that stretch from 2017-2019. But then he suffered a setback at the start of 2020 after losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open, and was out for the remainder of that season. In that period he had two more knee surgeries. Federer was not ready to play at the Australian Open this year. He made his comeback in Doha this year on the hard courts, losing to Nikoloz Basilashvili in the quarter finals. His knee was still burdensome so Federer waited until Geneva on the clay to appear again, dropping his first match there in the round of 16 to Pablo Andujar.

Then Federer managed to record three match triumphs at Roland Garros on his way to the round of 16, but, concerned that he could hurt himself again, he defaulted against Matteo Berrettini in the round of 16. On to Halle he went, but Federer won only one match there before bowing out against Felix Auger-Aliassime. He did manage to move on to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon which was no mean feat under the circumstances, but his knee was acting up again. And so now he is where he is after all of the stopping and starting. Even for someone of Federer’s stature and stability, these are daunting times. For more than a year-and-a-half, he has been thrown into a world of uncertainty.

Roger Federer (SUI) Credit: AELTC/Jed Leicester

And so he will take it step by step in the months ahead, recognizing that things might not turn out quite the way he wants. But Federer surely knows that, even if he had stayed healthy, collecting more major titles was going to be awfully tough at his age. If he has the good fortune to emerge from his upcoming knee surgery with a clean bill of health for most of 2022, Federer may need to accept a standard that he would have scoffed at in days gone by. After every match victory at Wimbledon this year, Federer seemed to savor the moment more thoroughly than ever before, perhaps feeling internally that this was as much as he could ask of himself.

The feeling grows that Federer will not play on much longer. It is entirely possible that one way or another he won’t play much in 2022. Even in a best case scenario, it is hard to imagine him playing beyond next year. If that is the case, he should have few regrets.

He might be somewhat dismayed that Djokovic and probably Nadal will surpass him at the majors in the next year and beyond. All three superstars have secured 20 career majors, but this three-way tie could well be broken by Djokovic at the U.S. Open. Yet there are so many achievements Federer can celebrate— and console himself with— if his career is indeed almost over now.

He has won 103 tournaments across the years, and that is second only to Jimmy Connors (109) in the Open Era among the men. He holds the record for most Wimbledon singles titles taken by a man with eight. He has had winning streaks of five titles in a row at both Wimbledon (2003- 2007) and the U.S. Open (2004-2008), a feat unmatched by anyone in the history of the game. 

There is more. Federer’s consistency across his prime at the majors was unparalleled. He set an astonishing record by reaching 23 consecutive semifinals at the Grand Slam events (2004-2010) and he also advanced to at least the quarterfinals of 36 straight majors (2004-2013). His consistency from his early twenties through his thirties was astounding. His longevity is beyond reproach; Federer established himself as the oldest man ever to reside at No. 1 in the ATP Rankings at the age of 36 in 2018.

On the flip side of the coin, Federer will almost certainly finish behind both Nadal and Djokovic in his career head to head meetings against his two foremost rivals. Nadal currently leads Federer 24-16 in their rivalry, including triumphs in six of their nine finals at the Grand Slam tournaments. Federer also trails Djokovic in their career series—the Serbian is ahead 27-23. Moreover, Djokovic has the edge over Federer 4-1 in final round duels at the majors.

Be that as it may, Federer should feel awfully proud of what he has done, and not the least bit regretful if he is unable to ever compete again on the premier stages—or anywhere else for that matter. Roger Federer has been a singularly popular player for the bulk of his career, cheered on vociferously by audiences everywhere he goes, buoyed by his vast appeal as the sport’s most elegant stylist, inspired above all else by knowing that his artistry has never been taken for granted by learned tennis observers.

If Federer is able to play on for another year, he should consider himself one fortunate fellow. If not, he must meet that moment of departure with equanimity, and remind himself that playing such a transcendent role in the game’s evolution as the most revered tennis figure of modern times is perhaps Federer’s largest contribution to a game that he loves unabashedly.

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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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