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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At Curtains For 2019 French Open, It Was All About Women Proffering Intrepidity

Ashleigh Barty’s maiden Major title win over Marketa Vondrousova culminated an eventful fortnight from the women, who held themselves distinct vis-à-vis the men at Roland Garros.

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(photo by Gianni Ciaccia)

What will we remember about the 2019 French Open? The return of Roger Federer, or the restarting of his 15-year-old rivalry at the tournament with Rafael Nadal, or Nadal’s bid for an umpteenth title, or Dominic Thiem’s thwarting of Novak Djokovic’s second Roland Garros – and non-calendar Slam – title. Or, will we think of how botched up French Tennis Federation’s (FFT) organisational and scheduling skills were, in which the male players looked to have preferential footing over the women. The controversy involving Thiem’s and Serena Williams’ press conferences, notwithstanding?

 

We will remember all of these. Even so, thinking about how one press conference was shunted aside to accommodate the other, ostensibly that of a man, will be a reminder of how women snatched the narrative of the event for themselves, from start to finish.

When the women’s singles draw was released, the usual bunch of names remained in the spotlight. Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova, (then) defending champion Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, Elina Svitolina, and even Serena Williams dominated the discussion even as the other seeded and non-seeded players remained in contention. As is wont in tennis – especially in women’s tennis – predictions about potential upsets also took an important place of their own, though no one really expected a wild ride this time around.

At least, that was the consensus with expectations overflowing that one among these women would fulfil the coffers of consistency. However, as results flew about in a non-linear manner, rather than heighten frustrations about the women’s tour’s unpredictability, exuberance reigned high about the currently-prevailing depth in the women’s side of the game.

Case in point: Johanna Konta reaching the semi-final in Paris in spite of possessing a poor record previously in the tournament. Or, the manner in which youngsters such as Sofia Kenin, Amanda Anisimova, and Marketa Vondrousova rose collectively in a show-of-arms about them being the sport’s future, extending the subject from where Osaka had left it off at the Australian Open. Even 23-year-old Ashleigh Barty’s winning her first Major against the 19-year-old Vondrousova, for that matter, can be considered a continuation of the aspect of the younger lot shining.

The NextGen Dilemma

And one cannot help but think if the lack of hyping about Next Generation” players among the women has contributed to younger non-favourites finding it easy to establish themselves in the mainstay of the WTA tour.

It would be wrong to compare the men’s half of tennis with that of the women. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the likes of Alexander Zverev, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Borna Coric and Stefanos Tsitsipas gained somewhat premature prominence. In that, the roadmap about their probable path to glory was set even before they could find – and make – their place in the frenetic tour. To be honest, except for Zverev, and Tsitsipas this year, the others are still struggling to push themselves to where they are capable of belonging.

Not that all younger players in the women’s tour have found their groove. For many, it is still work-in-progress. Having said that though, it is unquestionable that the WTA’s pace is way ahead of that of the ATP in being able to bring its future to the forefront parallelly alongside its present.

That the organisers of the 2019 French Open were oblivious to this unique selling proposition (USP) of the women’s game as it went about prioritising the other gender, then, ought to be remembered the most about the Major. So that by the time the next Slam – and even other events – come about, apathy and indifference do not tar the women’s draw, reducing it to some kind of unavoidable-yet-unimportant sideshow.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas’ French Open loss to Stan Wawrinka brings perspectives with life lessons

It was the longest match of the tournament, at the end of which the Greek left the court a student instead of a victor.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas, Philippe Montigny/ FFT

After his five-set, five-hour-nine-minute loss to Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round of the 2019 French Open on Sunday, 2nd June, Stefanos Tsitsipas wrote a post on Instagram.

 

He said he had felt the “real definition of the word, competition,” and added the result made him appreciate the sport he had chosen as his career. Finally, concluding his post, Tsitsipas noted, “Today I learned something that no school, no classroom, no teacher would be able to teach. It’s called, living life!”

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Today I felt something that I can’t really explain. Today was the first time in my entire life, in my twenty years of existence that I felt that “aura”, the real definition of the word, competition. Not any kind of competition though, it felt different than any other time, any other battle, any other moment on the tennis court. There is something about today that I won’t be able to explain. It’s a feeling that makes me appreciate the sport that I chose to pursue in my life as a career. The bitter taste of that loss is something unexplainable. @stanwawrinka85 makes our sport real and pragmatic. It’s something that’s rare to find in the world that we are at. It’s something unique. There is loads of charm and charisma to it. We both struggled, we both went beyond our limits, we both experienced luck and our destiny was drawn on that Parisian court after five hours of physical and mental suffering. I really don’t know if what I feel right now is positive or negative. There is no bipolar effect to it. Today I learned something that no school, no classroom, no teacher would be able to teach. It’s called, living life!

A post shared by Stefanos Tsitsipas (@stefanostsitsipas98) on

Tsitsipas’ words, touching as they were powerful, helped him to establish a deeper connect with tennis audiences across the world. Even with those for whom his game did not hold that big an appeal.

They also presented another side to the player whose ascension to the higher levels of the sport has been a revelation in itself. Tsitsipas showed he was not content to shrug aside this loss as being par for the process of learning. Expectations drove the match, and that it would be played at the full quota of best-of-five was the least these. Along with the external (that of the audiences) build-up of expectations, once the match began, it became clear that each player vying for victory had made his own reckoning about the proceedings. And, going in with the belief that he would win, Tsitsipas perhaps did not factor in that Wawrinka, too, would have similar ideas regarding their on-court meeting.

In this regard, Tsitsipas’ comments about getting real-time knowledge of competition are understandable. Although he has won two titles this year and upset Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal this year – at the Australian Open fourth round and Madrid Open semi-final – this was the first time he was tested.

The match was physically gruelling, mentally frustrating and emotionally draining. In the end, it was the 20-year-old’s lack of expertise in the latter two areas that let him down even though his older-by-14-years rival looked physically spent after having to save numerous break points throughout the match, and especially in the fifth set.

“Living life”, is what Tsitsipas called the result in his Instagram post. Beyond the poignancy, then, there is also a connotation of caution to it. That if his past successes had helped him gain elevation in the rankings, lessons from losses like these would be the first step to seeing him cement his place as a potential champion in the years to come.

There are, of course, other aspects to be learnt, too. Like, how not to indulge in unfiltered gamesmanship. By tapping the racquet mid-rally, or for opting for a change of racquet just as his opponent is about to serve. The latter was an occurrence that happened twice in the course of his fourth round against Wawrinka, lowering the qualitative intensity of the clash.

Learning about sportsmanship is something Tsitsipas can do from Wawrinka – the man who has been on either side of a result but who has always left the court with his head held high. In yet another social media engagement, Tsitsipas borrowed Wawrinka’s tattoo, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” posted it as a tweet and said, it was inspired by the three-time Major champion.

Maybe, Wawrinka’s influence as an inspiration will extend to Tsitsipas’ on-court competitive comportment beyond his results as well.

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The Infernal Fabio Fognini

American author Michael Mewshaw shares his thoughts on the formidable Fabio Fognini.

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Some tennis champions are easy to love.  The grace, gentlemanly behavior and enduring excellence of Roger Federer make him a rarity—a player admired even by his vanquished opponents.  Half-bull, half-bullfighter, Rafa Nadal displays an on-court, testosterone-driven truculence that might be expected to limit affection for him.  But his myriad supporters revere him for his relentless effort and refusal to quit. Although both men are among my favorites, I confess a secret vice.  I’m a committed fan of Fabio Fognini, which is the same as admitting to sympathy for the devil.

 

Everything about Fognini appears calculated to prevent spectators from siding with him.  His Mephistophelean moustache and goatee suggest he has seen and done things other men cannot imagine.  As if to hammer home this impression, he used to endorse Oxygen brand clothing, and wore a scarf with a death’s head insignia.  In one of his evolving incarnations Andre Agassi resembled a pirate. Not to be outdone, Fognini resembled Satan.

And his walk!  What could possibly be more arrogantly provocative?  At 5’10”, one of the little guys on the tour, he struts around like Nureyev striking poses.  Between points he swans from deuce court to ad court and back again. At change-overs, he swanks around like a peacock, seldom deigning to glance at his opponent.  To the list of competitors who get into the other guy’s head, Fognini occupies a category all his own. His every disdainful gesture seems dead set on psyching out the fellow on the far side of the net.

All this may make Fognini sound like an opera-bouffe villain, the sort who inevitably gets his comeuppance in the last act.  But what redeems his posturing and preening is his transcendent talent. The Italian devil has got game as he has demonstrated over the years, taking down Nadal three times on clay, most recently in the semifinals at Monte Carlo, a Masters level event that he went on to win.  More than merely a crafty dirtballer, he has also beaten Rafa on a hard surface at the 2015 US Open, fighting back from two sets down. (In fairness, this victory left him playing second fiddle in Italy and in his own household to his wife Flavia Pennetta, who won the singles title at the 2015 US Open.)

Hall of Fame Italian tennis writer Gianni Clerici commented about Fognini’s marriage to Pennetta that Fabio needed a nurse, preferably one with a background in psychology.  The union appears to have helped steady him, as has the birth of their son Federico. While Fognini still shows a penchant for losing concentration and losing matches that he should win, the 2019 season has seen him rise to 12 in the rankings, with the prospect of his vaulting into the top ten for the first time in his career, depending on his performance at the French Open.

Advancing to the round of 32 in Paris Fognini on Saturday confronted the veteran Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut who beat him two months ago in Miami.  True, that was on a hard court, but RBA is also adept on red clay, and in demeanor, the Spaniard represents the Italian’s mirror opposite. Poker-faced, correct and in all respects straightforward, he’s the perfect foil for Fabio and early on in their match he appeared to have the answers to the Italian’s flashy baroque style.

RBA broke serve early in the first set, and would do the same in two subsequent sets.  But Fognini responded with typical fregismo, the Italian I-could-care-less attitude that makes him so maddening to players who delude themselves that they have him on the ropes.  Alternating the speed and spin of his groundstrokes, opening up the court with short angled shots, serving up timely aces and throwing in a fusillade of drop shots, he broke back and took the first set in a tiebreak and the second set 6-4.  For all his apparent nonchalance, he is

deceptively quick, and after long exchanges of half-speed strokes from the baseline, he’s capable of crushing winners down the line.

Yet Bautista Agut always remained within reach, chasing down balls, staying resolute on every point and managed to pull out the third set.  Fognini shrugged that off, however, and in the fourth set, it was he who got an early break and never let RBA back into the match.

In the next round, Fognini faces Sasha Zverev, the angelic looking German, the Next Gen ingénue who on paper figures to beat the Italian.  But the contest will take place on clay, a surface where it’s always tough to beat the devil.

Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, most recently The Lost Prince: A Search for Pat Conroy.

 

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