COMMENT: Novak Djokovic's Perfection Stole Nadal's Magic - UBITENNIS
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COMMENT: Novak Djokovic’s Perfection Stole Nadal’s Magic

Tennis columnist James Beck reflects on Djokovic’s latest win and what the future lies for him on the European clay.

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Novak Djokovic wasn’t ruthless. He was perfect.

 

There were few grind-it-out points.

When Rafa Nadal called on his magic, it wasn’t there.

Djokovic stole it.

As John McEnroe said, “He is having a bad day so far.” And nothing changed for Nadal.

It wasn’t Rafa’s day on Sunday in the Australian Open final. Djokovic gave the Spanish left-hander one of his worst beatings, a simple 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory for a record seventh Australian Open title.

A SIMPLE, BUT PERFECT DAY FOR NOVAK

It was simple for Djokovic. He played nearly perfect tennis and Rafa was hardly a shadow of the player who had been so superb in this tournament without dropping a set in his first six matches.

Yes, this one came easy for Djokovic. He didn’t drop a point on his serve until he served for the first set.

Novak simply didn’t give Nadal a chance to get into the match, partly because Nadal couldn’t find the court on big points.

Nadal started without his usual passion and tenacity. He apparently was just trying to get into the match slowly, rather than all at once. He obviously thought he would be able to make a run at some point in the match. He didn’t. Djokovic wouldn’t let him.

A PRICE TO PAY FOR LACK OF EARLY PASSION

Rafa paid a price for not pushing himself to a fast start.

Djokovic came out on fire and never let up, never giving Nadal a chance to become the Rafa that the crowd had seen for two weeks.

Twenty-one straight Grand Slam tournament wins and three consecutive Grand Slam titles put  Djokovic in a class all of his own right now. He wasn’t spectacular against Nadal. But he did almost nothing wrong. He dominated the rallies with his quickness and consistency, and his serve was almost perfect.

It was a clinic that Nadal had no answer for. He probably will stay awake at night, asking himself, “Why didn’t I come out ready to play?”

NO ANSWER FOR DJOKOVIC’S STYLE OF PLAY

Rafa went to Melbourne ready to play, ready to claim a victory that would make him only the third player to complete a double career Grand Slam.

Perhaps it was that sense of immortality that got to Nadal, as well as the fact Djokovic was on the other side of the court.

Novak may be the only player in the game who has Rafa’s number.

All of that was enough to take Rafa’s usual passion away.

WHAT HAPPENS IN PARIS?

Nadal simply has no answer for Novak’s court coverage and ability to turn Rafa’s best shots into winners of his own. But is that just on hard courts? Maybe.

What will happen in Paris in a few months? Surely, it will be more of a grind, and Djokovic isn’t likely to be as perfect as he was Down Under.

Nevertheless, there has to be worry in the Nadal camp, just as there is concern in Roger Federer’s camp after a surprising quarterfinal exit. Just remember, Federer is 37 years old, five years older than Nadal.

The big question is what happened to Nadal’s tenacity and movement, and inability to put the ball into play on big points.

But there’s a long way between January and September. And Nadal doesn’t seem to feel the pressure in other majors that he feels in Australia. Maybe because he already has his two titles in every other major.

The world could look completely different by the time the U.S. Open ends.

James Beck is the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. See his Post and Courier columns at

http://www.postandcourier.com/search/?l=25&sd=desc&s=start_time&f=html&t=article%2Cvideo%2Cyoutube%2Ccollection&app=editorial&q=james+beck&nsa=eedition

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Roger Federer Suffers Another Hard Loss After Reaching Match Point

The 20-time Grand Slam champion displayed encouraging signs when he returned to action in Doha before he fell victim to the “match point syndrome” once again.

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image via Qatar Tennis

Having been gone from the game for nearly 13 months after enduring two knee surgeries in 2020, Roger Federer went back to work last week in Doha as devoted tennis fans—and even the sports world at large—followed his every move. Federer, of course, is one of the most renowned athletes in the world, a singularly graceful practitioner of his craft, and an ineffably pure and artistic shotmaker who was sorely missed by his many ardent admirers.

 

That is why the return of the 39-year-old Swiss Maestro was eagerly anticipated by so many devoted observers across the globe. They were thirsting to see him perform again, hoping he could rekindle some of his old magic, and fascinated to find out what he could bring back to the table of competition. They wanted this version of Roger Federer to be sublime. They hoped he could inspire them once more with his sheer creativity and a soaring imagination that has long made Federer a transcendent figure in his trade.

Federer did not entirely let them down, nor did he necessarily live up to the perhaps unrealistic expectations of some fervent fans. In his opening match in the round of 16, Federer took on Great Britain’s Dan Evans, with whom he had been practicing frequently. Evans had never taken a set off Federer, but surely believed this was a golden opportunity to upset a rusty adversary who had spent 405 days away from match play.

Evans created a nice opening when he advanced to break point at 4-4 in the first set, but Federer met that moment with calm assurance. A deep inside-in forehand from Federer pulled Evans out of position, setting up the Swiss for his trademark inside-out forehand winner. Federer held on in that crucial game. On they went to a tie-break, and the 20-time major champion trailed 2-4 in that sequence and later served at 5-6 and set point down.

Federer sent a deadly accurate first serve down the middle in the ad court. Evans did not get good depth on the return. Federer stepped in and unleashed a forehand inside-out winner. Having dodged out of danger, Federer took that tie-break 10-8 on his third set point.

He was playing reasonably well, but not making much of an impression on the Evans serve. The British player claimed the second set 6-3 on one break of serve. In the final set, Federer was twice down break point at 3-3 but he released an ace and then a spectacular forehand drop shot winner.

Federer held on for 4-3 and did so again to lead 5-4. In the tenth game, Federer had a match point, but Evans caught the Swiss off guard. He came in behind a deep first serve to the backhand and put away a forehand volley unhesitatingly. That serve-and-volley combination was letter perfect. Evans stayed alive in holding for 5-5, but Federer went right back to work, holding at 30 with a dazzling backhand down the line winner, closing out the contest by breaking at 15 with another backhand down the line into the clear. 

image via Qatar Tennis

Federer’s 7-6 (8), 3-6, 7-5 triumph was hard earned. He then came back the next day to take on an entirely different type of player in Nikoloz Basilashvili. Evans had prolonged the rallies as much as possible in his duel with Federer. Basilashvili is a very big hitter who was walloping the ball with controlled aggression in this quarterfinal. Federer played a solid first set which he took comfortably before Basilashvili blitzed through the second set with a couple of service breaks, totally outhitting Federer from the baseline. On they went to a third set. At 3-3, Federer fended off three break points, erasing the first with a vicious sliced backhand drawing an error, wiping away the second with an unanswerable forehand, and casting aside the third with an excellent first serve to the backhand.

To 4-3 went Federer with a clutch hold. But Basilashvili was resolute. Serving to stay in the match in the tenth game, the Georgian was down match point, but he rescued himself admirably, approaching forcefully off a short return from Federer and keeping his shot low. Federer had no chance to make the backhand passing shot. Basilashvili held on for 5-5 and then closed out the account with some sparkling ball striking off the backhand, going down the line off that side frequently to leave Federer compromised. The world No. 42 took the last two games from 5-5, winning eight of the last eleven points, prevailing 3-6, 6-1, 7-5.

And so Federer lost narrowly in a quarterfinal contest that could have gone either way. He could be somewhat satisfied with his level of play across two close matches after a long hiatus. His smoothly efficient serve was close to normal. He had 25 aces combined in those two Doha clashes and did not serve a single double fault. All told he was quite good off the forehand. The central issue was his backhand. Federer made an alarming number of miss-hits off that side. He also bungled a swing volley or two, smiling sardonically at himself after those mistakes, knowing he could not expect perfection.

But perhaps most irksome to Federer fans was the fact that his loss to Basilashvili marked the 24th time in his illustrious career that Federer has lost a match after having at least one match point. The first time it happened for the Swiss was back in 2000. Confronting Tim Henman in the semifinals of Vienna, Federer won the first set 6-2 and had two match points with the British player serving at 5-6, 15-40 in the second set. Henman rallied to win 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3. Federer was only 19. No one took much notice at the time that he had not closed out that account when he was twice only a point away from prevailing.

And yet, as the years passed, these kinds of losses became surprisingly numerous for a player of his rare stature, even though on the other hand he has demonstrated over and over again that he knows what it takes to put the finishing touches on fine performances. What reasonable critic could claim that Federer was afraid to lose or incapable of closing out the most consequential of matches?

He now stands tied with Rafael Nadal for the most men’s major titles at 20, and owns 103 career singles titles, which is second only to Jimmy Connors (109) in the Open Era among the men. Furthermore, he has been a magnificent big match player, coming though in 103 of 157 overall finals for a winning percentage of .656 and taking 20 of 31 Grand Slam finals (.645).

Those numbers are excellent. But that rate of success makes these setbacks after holding match points all the more surprising. Consider this: Novak Djokovic has been beaten only three times in his entire career after advancing to match point, and yet he has struck back boldly from double match point down three times to beat Federer. Rafael Nadal has lost only eight contests when he has reached match point. The Spaniard toppled Federer in the 2006 Rome final after saving two match points in the fifth set. That was a critical win for the left-hander. Granted, both Nadal and Djokovic are much younger than Federer, but neither the Spaniard nor the Serbian has been nearly as vulnerable under these circumstances as the Swiss. Federer has played 1,515 matches across his sterling career, Nadal 1,213 and Djokovic 1,135.

image via Qatar Tennis

Since Federer suffered that first loss to Henman after twice being at match point in 2000, there have not been many  seasons when the Swiss has not experienced defeats of the same type. He managed to avoid meeting that fate in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012 and in his abbreviated 2020 campaign. But he has lost at least one match in 16 different years after being ahead match point. In 2010, Federer lost no fewer than four battles when he had match points, which is extraordinary.

Perhaps more importantly, Federer has fallen into the unexploited match points syndrome six times across his sterling career at the majors—twice at the Australian Open (against Tommy Haas in 2002 and Marat Safin in 2005); twice at Wimbledon (versus Kevin Anderson in a 2018 quarterfinal and Novak Djokovic in the epic 2019 final), and twice at the U.S. Open (facing Djokovic in 2010 and 2011).

Most of those disappointments had large historical ramifications. Consider the 2005 Safin loss in the semifinals of Melbourne. Federer was ahead two sets to one, and reached match point at 6-5 in the fourth set tie-break. He served-and-volleyed on his second delivery. Federer lunged to make a decent backhand first volley down the line. Safin’s passing shot was low, and Federer responded with a short backhand finesse volley. Safin scampered forward swiftly and lofted a perfect lob down the middle over Federer’s head. Federer chased it down but, rather than answer with a lob of his own, he went for a “tweener” and missed it badly. Federer has always had a knack for when to play the percentages and when to be audacious, but his split-second judgement in this instance was misguided.

Be that as it may, a buoyant Safin won the next two points to seal the fourth set and then took the hard fought fifth, toppling Federer 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 9-7 in four hours and 28 minutes. Federer won 201 points in that match to Safin’s 194, but still lost. He had beaten Safin in the final of the Australian Open the year before, and had a 6-1 career winning record over the Russian going into this confrontation. Federer would finish 10-2 over Safin. 

But that critical semifinal in Melbourne got away from the Swiss. He would have played Lleyton Hewitt in the final. Federer had beaten Hewitt six consecutive times in 2004, including a round of 16 win at the Australian Open and a crushing 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0 victory in the U.S. Open final. So his defeat against Safin was immensely consequential. Federer would have been highly unlikely to lose against Hewitt in the final. That Australian Open would have surely belonged to him.

But while that misfortune against Safin was significant, think of the three stunning reversals of fortune between Djokovic and Federer at the premier events. At the 2010 U.S. Open, Djokovic was serving at 4-5, 15-40 against Federer in the semifinals, but he courageously produced a forehand swing volley winner off a hanging Federer sliced backhand. On the second match point, Djokovic laced a forehand inside-in winner. Djokovic held on for 5-5 and then completed a stunning 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 victory.

On to 2011. Federer and Djokovic clashed in the penultimate round of the U.S. Open for the fourth year in a row after Federer had overcome the Serbian in the 2007 final. Djokovic rallied from two sets to love down to force a fifth set. But the Swiss was revitalized, serving for the match at 5-3, 40-15. For the second straight year, Federer had fashioned a double match point lead in the U.S. Open semifinals against Djokovic.

But history repeated itself. Federer swung a slice serve wide in the deuce court. Djokovic went for broke, lacing a screaming forehand return winner crosscourt. It was the “shot heard around the world.” At 40-30, Federer hit a fine body serve but Djokovic fought it off, and his backhand return coaxed Federer into a forehand error.

Djokovic swept four games in a row to finish off an astonishing 4-6 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 victory. For the second consecutive year, he had rallied from double match point down to upend Roger Federer in New York. In both of those years, Rafael Nadal made it to the final. Had Federer moved past Djokovic on either occasion, Nadal at that time would have been the favorite to beat him for the crown, but who knows for certain what might have happened?

Let’s move on to 2019 at Wimbledon. Djokovic and Federer were colliding in their third Centre Court final, with the Serbian having ousted the Swiss in 2014 and 2015. It was the signature match of their astounding career head to head series, which Djokovic now leads 27-23. Djokovic trailed 5-3 in the first set tie-break but collected four points in a row to salvage it. Federer blazed through the second set before Djokovic battled back from set point down late in the third set to win another tie-break.

Federer stormed back again to send the battle into a fifth set. Djokovic led 4-2 but Federer rallied to 4-4. The Swiss broke Djokovic again in the 15th game and served for the match at 8-7, reaching 40-15 with consecutive aces.

For the third time in his career at a major, Roger Federer would lose to Novak Djokovic improbably after arriving at double match point. On the first match point, he steered a shaky forehand wide. Then Djokovic saved the second with a clutch forehand crosscourt passing shot winner. He soon broke back for 8-8, leaving the overwhelmingly pro-Federer Centre Court audience in quiet despair.

In the end, this classic encounter was settled in the first ever fifth set tie-break at Wimbledon in men’s singles, with Djokovic cooly outplaying his formidable rival to complete a 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) victory. Federer has never beaten both Nadal and Federer in the same Grand Slam tournament, and would have collected a 21st major title by realizing that extraordinary feat for the first time. Instead, Djokovic took his 16th “Big Four” crown. It was surely the most gratifying victory of Djokovic’s career and the most devastatingly potent defeat ever for Federer.

So there you have it. The “match point syndrome” has haunted Federer more times than he would care to remember. But it must be said that he has made more than his share of gallant comebacks. On 22 occasions in his career, he has rallied from at least one match point down to win, which is no mean feat. That list of triumphs includes four wins at the majors— two at the U.S. Open, one at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open.

None of those four comebacks at the majors led to Federer capturing the titles. Nonetheless, some of his other match point recoveries did indeed result in Federer becoming the champion, most recently his 2017 Miami quarterfinal rescue mission against Tomas Berdych, when he saved two match points and went on to oust Nadal in the final. At five other tournaments when he saved match points along the way, Federer also took the title, including round robin triumphs at the ATP Finals against Andre Agassi in 2003 and Andy Roddick three years later as Federer moved on to win those prestigious tournaments.

Leaving the match point setbacks and recoveries aside, where does Federer go from here? It is not easy to project. I thought he would compete in Dubai this week since he only played two matches in Doha, but Federer felt he had to resume his training. No one can gauge the current state of Roger Federer and his game better than Federer himself. But he surely needs many more matches if he is going to make a serious bid for a ninth Wimbledon title in July.

He had already decided to skip Miami, and so, between now and the start of the grass court season in June, he can only compete in clay court events. There will be some tough scheduling decisions ahead. I don’t think he really believes he can win a second French Open title this year, so will he go to Paris? Perhaps he will; in 2019 he chose to return to Roland Garros for the first time in four years, reaching the semifinals before nearly winning Wimbledon.

The view here is that Wimbledon will be his last best chance to secure a 21st major crown. He will be 40 in August. He has not won the U.S. Open since he took his fifth consecutive title there in 2008. That is why he will surely throw all of his emotional energy into winning Wimbledon this year. Even if Federer rounds into top form, it will still be awfully tough yet not impossible for him to rule again at the All England Club. But the fact remains that he is never going to sell himself short. All of us must remember that he is a champion through and through with a seemingly limitless supply of ambition and a propensity to put his greatest wins and most bruising defeats behind him, simply pressing on professionally to pursue his immediate goals.   


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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Are The Updated FedEx ATP Rankings A Gift To Roger Federer?

Pospisil, Djokovic, Isner and other US tennis players are among those who do not believe in the good faith of the association. Young up-and-comers like Musetti and Alcaraz will have to wait a little longer for a breakthrough.

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In this long and painful period, the ATP is coming up with more new rules relating to the rankings, which, needless to say, have produced controversies and confusion among players who feel penalized by these changes. 

 

MUSETTI AND ALCARAZ: THE FUTURE CAN WAIT

Before going into the details of whether this reform is fair or not, we could honestly say the Next Gen will have to wait even longer to take over. Even promising guys, like the Italian Musetti (N.116) and the Spaniard Alcaraz (N.131), seem destined to toil more than expected to join to the tennis élite. Until a week ago, the outlook was more positive. The world of tennis is divided in two groups: who think that this is a just and equitable reform and who find it completely unfair. It is likely that among those who support these modifications are to be found players such as Lopez, Kyrgios, Fognini and also His Majesty Roger Federer as well as Rafa Nadal – the Spaniard has always been a proponent of a bi-annual ranking.

VICIOUS RUMOURS SPREADING (ABOUT FEDERER AND NADAL)

Some people suggest that “it isn’t by accident that Roger Federer’s ranking will be safe until he’ll turn 41! The same goes for Nadal.” I am not one of them, but the rumours were so prevalent that I felt compelled to report them. Roger, who will make his comeback in Doha this afternoon, could eschew playing or even lose all the matches until August 2022 and still remain in the Top 100. In short, many people thought that the latest “idea” of the ATP is bespoke for Federer. Furthermore, the ATP is not the only association wishing to have Federer around for as long as possible.

As everybody knows, the ATP is made of professional tennis players and tournament directors. Each group represents 50% of the association. Guess which side the directors are on. All of them, the tournament directors, dream about having Roger Federer in their line-ups, even when Roger will be 45 years old. I think some of them would be ready to sell their 250 ATP licenses and host an event of the Senior ATP Tour just to have him! 

A SUMMARY OF THE MOST RECENT ATP CHANGE

The ATP ranking system had been modified for the first time a few months ago. The ATP chose a “best of” approach to how a player’s ranking is calculated. In relation to a tournament played twice between March 2019 (from Indian Wells onwards) and March 2021, only a player’s best result is taken into account. Points obtained in tournaments that didn’t take place in 2020 (such as Wimbledon), or in those that could be cancelled in 2021, were retained. With the recent change made by the ATP, on the other hand, the players will now be able to keep 50% of the points they obtained in tournaments that didn’t take place in 2020, and also in those that did take place but in different timeslots than usual, such as the French Open or Rome.

THE 12 PLAYERS FAVOURED BY THE RANKING UPDATE (AND MAYBE OTHERS, SUCH AS NADAL)

Feliciano Lopez, Kyrgios, Fognini, Lajovic, Isner, Querrey, and Simon are those who more than others will benefit the most from this update of ATP Ranking System, and the same goes, to a lesser extent, for Federer, Paire, Monfils, Goffin, and Nishikori. Rafa Nadal could also benefit from these changes in the unlikely event that he loses in the first round (or did not play) at Roland Garros in 2021 – he would still retain 1,000 of the 2,000 points he won in 2020. Many of the other players found this update a little suspicious. Both Federer and Nadal are among the strongest PTPA opponents, and their support for the ATP policies is important, not just in the public eye. By the way, the Spaniard will also take a minor hit due to the new rules, since on March 15 he will be overtaken by Medvedev as the world N.2 due to the expiration of half of the 360 points he notched in Indian Wells in 2019.

Rafael Nadal (image via twitter.com)

TSITSIPAS OVERTAKES FEDERER IN THE RANKING

Thanks to a semi-final run in Rotterdam, and despite his defeat against Rublev in the semifinals, Tsitsipas has overtaken Federer, but the Swiss is still ranked 6th in the world. In the last year he played, the Swiss reached a final and two Grand Slam semi-finals (2,640 points); in addition, he won a Masters 1000 in Miami (he also reached the Indian Wells final, for which he will lose only 300 points) and three ATP 500 events (2,800 points).

FEDERER GOT QUITE THE GIFT! WAS IT PURELY COINCIDENTAL?

We will see how Federer is doing in Doha and (perhaps) in Dubai, but one thing is certain: the latest changes do him a great favour. I’m not saying that he doesn’t deserve it, but let’s be honest, he couldn’t have picked a better time to stop and have surgery twice. While unfortunately reeling from nagging knee issues, he can still profit from the extraordinary results he achieved in 2019.

Considering Miami (where he will not play this year), Madrid, Halle and Wimbledon, Roger can retain 1,440 points without playing. Furthermore, the 1,020 of the Australian Open and Indian Wells (720 effective plus 300 frozen) are in the bank, and they will stay with him well into 2022. This means that, even without playing any match, he would have 2,460 points, a Top 20 score. A small caveat to be kept in mind: the Race to Turin will only consider the points earned in 2021.

Now, it should be recalled that the changes made during this exceptional period were introduced because the ATP decided to support players that didn’t feel comfortable to travel during the pandemic. But how justifiable is this attitude?

AN EQUILIBRIUM THAT DOESN’T EXIST 

Finding the right balance is not always easy, but even the regularity of a competition should be safeguarded, particularly in relation to its ranking systems and for players, especially young people, who make sacrifices for years to achieve their goals and are not helped by the tennis establishment. I am referring to the few points awarded in the ATP Challenger Tour compared to the points that top players easily get even if they obtain results only in a few tournaments per year.

I confess that, despite the wrong manner (and timing) chosen by Novak Djokovic to support them, I generally understand the grievances that players ranked outside of the Top 20 have! We are referring to the majority of tennis players, constantly relegated to a backdrop role and suffering discrimination from tournament directors, who, compared to these players, enjoy a much bigger role within the ATP.

VASEK POSPISIL: “THE ATP IS A COMPLETE DISASTER!” 

Former board member of the ATP Players Council Vasek Pospisil was asked by his colleague to comment on the men’s association’s latest decision: “The ATP is a complete disaster! The only way to deal with these problems is to have a players-only association. We are trying to create it. The ATP Tour will never work in the best interests of the players. The role of tournaments promoters is relevant. Our executives are influenced by powers-that-be such as IMG (owner of the Miami tournament and of the TV rights of several tournaments) and the other Masters 1000 events. The Tour is in the hands of those who control and manipulate it. We must look after each other, and the PTPA will be the beginning of a new story. It is difficult to imagine the path towards a positive solution without the PTPA.”

Vasek Pospisil (image via twitter.com)

THE ATP IS TRYING TO STIFLE DISCONTENT BY OFFERING MONEY TO THE PLAYERS

The ATP board fully realized that the association has received a lot of criticism. Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi and CEO Massimo Calvelli, with the help of President of ATP Player Council Kevin Anderson (who replaced his predecessor Djokovic) are trying to earn the players’ trust by offering additional financial contributions to assist them in covering for the losses they have suffered in the past year. The players will receive a payment of $5,040 in order to cover travel costs and other expenses. The criteria are the following: eligible players will be those ranked 31-500 in the year-end Singles ATP Rankings or 1-200 in the year-end Doubles Rankings who earned less than 150,000 in prize money throughout 2020. Tennis players with a protected ranking who meet the abovementioned criteria and have competed since March 2019 will also be eligible to receive the financial contributions. This is the message sent to the players: “We are pleased to inform you that as part of efforts to support players affected by COVID-19, the ATP has made additional contributions to further assist players with the expenses and travel cost in 2021through the ATP Year-End Player Relief “

More good news came for players who were ready to play the Indian Wells tournament a year ago. The tournament was canceled at the last minute when players had already faced travel and accommodation expenses. Now all of them will receive $10,985: “We would like to inform you that a compensation of $ 10,985 for the 2020 edition of Indian Wells will soon be paid to eligible players, once the ATP has received the funds.”

Previously, a $6 million relief funds had been created by the ITF and the four Grand Slam. The ATP and the WTA split the amount equally to distribute it to the players depending on their ranking and on whether they had featured in the four Grand Slams. Initially, it was set up only for Top 10 players, whereas now the hope is that the funds will be distributed to those who are struggling. At this time, however, no official statement regarding the distribution system has been disclosed.

TOP AMERICAN PLAYERS ARE READY TO PROTEST AND BOYCOTT THE CIRCUIT

Wealthier American players are some of the most bitter detractors of the current ATP establishment. Isner and Querrey, in solidarity with Pospisil and Djokovic, stated that the ATP’s “financial aid” is more akin to a small handout when compared to the thriving budget of the association, which hasn’t been heavily affected by COVID. What incenses them the most is that some tournaments, like Miami, have reduced the prize money by 60%. In fact, a good number of tennis players would even be in favour of a boycott to fight for a higher prize money. The argument is that “If we never stand up to this situation, we will always be subjected to the will of the tournament promoters” – however, several others are already claiming that they cannot afford to stop playing (particularly those from South America).

CAN THE TENNIS ESTABLISHMENT AFFORD TO BE THIS SHORT-SIGHTED?

In short, it is a period of turmoil. Players argue and criticise the association. The tennis establishment has always safeguarded the top players because, as always, it is money that makes everything go round. However, even taking into account the completely unpredictable circumstances caused by the pandemic, it is also necessary to have a plan to support second- and third-tier tournaments (Challengers and Futures) as well as lower-ranked players. Players who are over 30 are still fighting for their positions in the ATP ranking and have no intention of giving them up to younger guns, but the tennis establishment must not discourage those young people from striving for their goals.

We know well that in European football tens of thousands of players earn more than €100,000 per year, while tennis players ranked outside the Top 120 struggle to make ends meet. Someone with a forward-thinking vision should find a solution that ensures economic sustainability to at least 200-250 players. In particular, we should bear in mind that, nowadays, with the exception of top Next Gen prodigies, players face a decade of financial losses until they turn 22 or 23. Does anyone who oversees the promotion of tennis find this situation convenient or fair?

Translated by Giuseppe Di Paola

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Alex Olmedo Was More Than Charming…

Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez, the man who came from so little and made so much from being able to play extraordinary tennis, has left many with cherished memories, as Mark Winters’ story brings out…

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Alex Olmedo - Photo USC Athletics

He was born in Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. It is 678 kilometers from the country’s largest city and its capital, Lima. His hometown is known for its spicy cuisine and the volcanic white stone that is used in the construction of the eye-catching buildings and houses that line the streets. He was the son of the man who took care of the clay tennis courts at the Club Internacional Arequipa. He taught himself to play and spent time working as a ball boy at the club. As a teenager, he made his way to the US and went on to become one of the game’s greats.

 

Though the story of Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez, who passed away on December 9th due to brain cancer at the age of 84 at his home in Encino, California, reads like a fairytale, it is actually a good deal more dramatic than “Once upon a time”…

He first came to the country that would eventually become his home in 1951 to  play in the US National Championship at Forest Hills, New York. In a prelude to threads that would be woven throughout his life, Olmedo lost 6-0, 6-4, 6-1 to Jacque Grigry, who was from Alhambra, California and was a three-time All-American at USC.  Being the best player in Peru, at the beginning of 1954, the seventeen-year-old became an adventurer. In effect he played a role in the yet-to-be-made John Hughes movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”. Thanks to money raised in Arequipa, Olmedo, who didn’t speak English at the time, journeyed from Peru to Havana by ship, then to Miami by plane, and came to California on a bus. 

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Alex Olmedo Photo Modesto Junior College

He ended up at Modesto Junior College, in the town of the same name, in Central California. He took English and other classes and played on the school’s tennis team which was one of the best in the state at the time. The 1954 squad included Olmedo, who lost to Pancho Contreras in the State Junior College Singles final, and Joaquin Reyes, who lost to Contreras in the state singles title round the year before. The trio, who were members of the third Modesto Junior College Hall of Fame induction class, moved on to USC. (In the mid-1950s, Modesto’s tennis program was a conduit to USC tennis and their acclaimed coach, George Toley. Players would  finish their two-years at Modesto, then move south to become Trojan competitors.)  

Their “good” on the JC level became even better in NCAA competition. Contreras and Reyes won the NCAA Doubles in 1955. The next year, Olmedo doubled, taking the singles title and then the doubles with Contreras. In 1958, he doubled again earning the singles champion and teamed with Ed Atkinson for the doubles trophy. 

At five feet, ten inches tall, Olmedo wasn’t physically imposing. But, he had a formidable serve produced from a free-flowing motion that featured ballerina-like tip-toe balance as he tossed the ball up. That was merely a prelude to an exacting forehand and deft volleying. He was extremely quick and athletic. He had flair, along with a feel that combined to make him a solid competitor. Yet, the thing that made him a standout was his approach. In a 1959 story in Sports Illustrated, he revealed that from playing, not the advice of coaches, he learned how to play…

Perry T. Jones, the fabled leader of tennis in Southern California from 1930 until his death in 1970, was unrivaled when it came to controlling the game locally, nationally and for that matter, internationally. Aware that Olmedo had lived in the country for more than three years, along with the fact that Peru did not have a Davis Cup team, at the time, Jones recruited the twenty-two year-old  to play for the US. And it just so happened that Jones was the US Davis Cup captain in 1958 and would be again in ’59.

Olmedo, who had made an impression in NCAA play, added to his accomplishments playing Davis Cup for Jones, as a non-US citizen, in the US’s 3-2 victory over Australia.  The 1958 Challenge Round was played on the luxurious grass at the Milton Courts in Brisbane, December 29th through the 31st. The “Chief”, as he had been nicknamed because of his cultural background, was responsible for each one of the winner’s points. He defeated Mal Anderson and Ashley Cooper both in four sets and teamed with Ham Richardson to outlast Anderson and Neale Fraser in an epic five set doubles contest. (Barry MacKay, who lost both his singles matches, was the other US team member; and Jones was the non-playing captain.)

In the semifinals, the US defeated Italy 5-0 on the grass at Royal King’s Park Tennis Club, in Perth, December 19th through the 21st.  In the last match of the tie, Olmedo downed Orlando Sirola, the six foot-seven inch competitor who began playing the game at the age of 22 (in 1950), 20-18, 6-1, 6-4. The thirty-eight games played in the first set established the record for most games in a singles set. (As the holder of the title, Australia was not required to compete in the preliminary rounds of the Davis Cup.)

Olmedo’s trophy collecting continued at even more brisk pace in 1959. At the Australian National Championship at Memorial Drive in Adelaide, January 16th through the 26th, he defeated Fraser, 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in the final. On the lawns at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in London, Olmedo methodically vanquished Rod Laver, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in the Wimbledon title round. It was strangely fitting that the match was played on Saturday, July 4th, a holiday celebrated in his adopted country. Looking to join – Jack Crawford of Australia (1933); Fred Perry of Great Britain (1934); Tony Trabert of the US (1955); Lew Hoad of Australia (1956) – as one of the few players to win three of the four majors in a signal season, Fraser gained revenge for his loss in Australia, confounding Olmedo in the US National Championship Singles final, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4.

(The incomparable, J. Donald Budge set the standard winning all four of the  Grand Slam singles titles in 1938.) 

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Description automatically generatedFormer stars of the men’s Los Angeles tournament – Ted Schroeder, Alex Olmedo, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Arthur Ashe and Jack Kramer Photo Mark Winters

Jack Kramer, Joseph Bixler, men’s Los Angeles Tournament Honoree Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez, Honorable Robert Kelleher, Alex Olmedo, Pancho Segura and Bobby Riggs. Cynthia Lum Photo

In 1960, Olmedo joined the professional ranks. He enjoyed moderate success on the Jack Kramer Tour winning the 1960 US Pro title, reaching the semifinals at the Wembley Pro events in 1960 and ’63, as well as being a quarterfinalist at the French Pro tournaments in 1962 and ’64. His competitive pro career came to an end in 1965 when he retired.

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Alex Olmedo at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1969 with Edda Speisser, a childhood friend from Peru who used to date his younger brother, Jaime.

Shortly after his playing career came to an end, he began another as a teaching professional. Being personable and never too busy to chat made him an institution at the Beverly Hill Hotel. As the Director of Tennis at the legendary spa, he held court for close to forty years.  During that time, he taught (and cajoled in a friendly manner) the likes of Katharine Hepburn and the irrepressible Charlton Heston, who played the game as if he were still Ben-Hur (the role that took him to movie stardom in 1959).

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2011 Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame inductee, Kathy May with 2000 SCTA Hall of Famer, Alex Olmedo Photo Cheryl Jones

During the early 1970s before he became US Davis Cup captain, International Tennis Hall of Famer, Tony Trabert worked with Kathy May regularly at her father’s house in Beverly Hills. It was a mere three blocks from Olmedo’s teaching court at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was fortunate to be able to take part in Trabert’s workouts with May, who is Taylor Fritz’s mother. On a number of occasions, prior to the afternoon’s at David May’s or after they had taken place,  I would drop-in on Olmedo. He treated me like a long-lost friend, often telling me “we had to find time to have a hit …”, or inviting me to come back and have lunch with him. Even more meaningful, whenever I needed quotes for a story I was putting together, he found a way to always be available for a chat. He would not only answer my questions, he would regularly add insights that varied from meaningful, to amusing, to scandalous. He had a magic personality.

Olmedo’s on court success was recognized in 1983 when he became an inaugural member of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Men’s Hall of Fame. The USC Athletics Hall of Fame enshrined him in 1997. He was inducted into the Southern California Tennis Association Hall of Fame in 2000. The ultimate accolade came in 1987 when Olmedo became a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. (And as mentioned above, he was in Modesto Junior College third Hall of Fame class.)

“The Chief” passed away at his Encino, California home. He is survived by Alejandro Jr., his son, along with Amy and Angela, his daughters, as well as four grandchildren.

The man who came from so little and made so much from being able to play extraordinarily well will be remember for much more. The foremost was for giving so many the opportunity to develop a friendship with Alejandro “Alex” Olmedo Rodríguez.

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