Best-Of-Five-Sets' Format Serves Up An Ace At 2019 French Open - UBITENNIS
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Best-Of-Five-Sets’ Format Serves Up An Ace At 2019 French Open

But while fewer though in number, five-set matches – and the ones to follow – will invoke vividness and nostalgia once the dust settles – literally, so – on the event. And even beyond that, with history backing this.

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Alexander Zverev
Alexander Zverev (image via Roland Garros Twitter)

At the end of the first round, a dozen matches have gone into the fifth set at the 2019 French Open. It is safe to say that as the days go by, a few more will be added to this total. Within itself, this number is less-than-a-fifth of the total matches played so far.

 

But while fewer though in number, these matches – and the ones to follow – will invoke vividness and nostalgia once the dust settles – literally, so – on the event. And even beyond that, with history backing this.

In honesty, some of the most memorable tennis matches have been those that went the distance. Be it in the Majors, the Davis Cup and even in the predecessors of the current ATP Masters 1000, five-setters command pride of place of their own. There are a couple of reasons for this.

For one, it is because of the way these results have come to be. Either as wins against all odds that tested the persistence of players in determining who would outlast the other. Or as successes in which a player with the most patience was able to outplay his opponent shrugging past the vicissitudes of momentum in the match.

Another reason for five-set matches articulately lingering in minds is on account of what they symbolise. Talent and technical aptitude are something every player has in himself and gets to show on the court, match-after-match. However, mental fortitude is not something that can be trained. And although there are exercises to calm oneself mentally, mental calmness is as fickle as deserting presence of mind once pressure sets in. For a player to battle and come through not just against an external rival but also against an opponent within himself is the actual test set by five-setters.

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All these sound like preaching. So, here is a way to make it simple. Across the vast array of tennis matches won and lost, how many best-of-three matches can we evocatively recollect? Yes, there are a few that have stood out for their qualitative superiority but even those results have seemed abrupt instead of a satisfying culmination.

In the prevalent era, satisfactory match results have taken on a different meaning. Time is now considered directly proportional to the quality of a match and the scoreline. In some cases, it is true. Just as it is untrue of most other matches. To put into better context, here is an example from the ongoing French Open.

On Tuesday, Alexander Zverev played – and won – a five-setter against John Millman in four hours and eight minutes. On the same day, Taylor Fritz took an hour and 22 minutes to dispatch off a semi-interested Bernard Tomic in straight sets. Which of these two matches would one have wanted to watch? It will not be that difficult to answer. And, in this answer lies the true entertainment value of the best-of-five sets regardless of whether a tournament favourite or the world no. 100 plays them.

 

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COMMENT: Rafa At His Best Was Way Too Much For Novak To Handle

The long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper, James Beck, gives his take on the French Open men’s final.

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Rafael Nadal (image via https://twitter.com/rolandgarros)

This French Open was all about Rafa Nadal.

 

Even the new women’s French Open champion, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek, is one of his fans.

Matching Roger Federer’s record 20 Grand Slam singles titles was pretty special in a year filled with the deadly coronavirus. The fact that possibly the sweetest victory of his long career came against longtime rival Novak Djokovic made it even more special.

Djokovic still stands three Grand Slam singles titles shy of the record number of 20. Only now, Novak  has to chase both Nadal and Federer for the all-time record.

NOVAK DIDN’T LOOK HIMSELF

Of course, Djokovic didn’t look himself in his 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 loss to Nadal on Sunday on the red clay of  Roland Garros, especially in the first set and maybe the second one, too.

Nadal obviously had something to do with that. Rafa played one of his best Grand Slam matches ever. He humbled Djokovic in much the same way he has totally dominated Federer in a couple of Grand Slam finals.

Nadal would not surrender even a point without a fight as he wore down the Serbian Wonder. Nadal actually out-moved and out-hit Djokovic. Nadal always seemed to be one move ahead of Djokovic, even during Novak’s usually dominant drop-shot attack.

DJOKOVIC’S DROP-SHOT ATTACK APPEARED TO SET RAFA ON FIRE

Djokovic came out drop-shotting as he attempted to frustrate the Spanish left-hander one more time with his deft drop shots. But Djokovic’s early strategy backfired as the strategy appeared to put even more fire into Nadal’s veins.

Nadal was ready for the drop shots this time, moving in quickly to repeatedly pass Djokovic down the backhand line or executing perfect slice backhands almost directly cross-court that Djokovic had no chance to return.

Obviously Nadal has been seriously practicing on his drop-shot returns. He also seemed to concentrate on hitting baseline shots with more air than usual, making them drop down closer to the baseline. He also used a heavily sliced backhand on balls near the surface line that hugged the net and stayed low, causing Djokovic to get low and  to hit up on balls just off the clay surface.

But at any time, at the slightest opening, Nadal turned his forehands and backhands into weapons of power.

NADAL’S TOUGHEST FINAL BECAME ONE OF HIS EASIEST

Yes, this was supposed to be Nadal’s toughest French Open to win, due to the cooler weather this time of the year in Paris and slower court conditions. And there also was the added pressure of going for Grand Slam title No. 20.

But the heavy court conditions seemed to be in Rafa’s favor, not Novak’s. And Nadal handled the pressure situation as if it was a walk in the park..

Nadal repeatedly pounded outright winners off both wings as Djokovic could only watch.

THE CLOSED ROOF MIGHT HAVE EVEN HELPED RAFA

Rain was in the forecast, so the new Philippe Chatrier Stadium roof was closed this time for its first men’s final. That solved the problem of heavy shadows that seemed to frustrate Sofia Kenin a day earlier in her one-sided women’s final loss to Swiatek.

Everything was perfectly aligned for Rafa on this day.

Even usual Djokovic fan John McEnroe was chatting from Los Angeles on the TV telecast that “Rafa is in the zone.” In the second set, McEnroe referred to the match as not even being competitive at the time.

Johnny Mac was simply telling it like it was. Nadal simply was the far superior player on this day.

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

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US Open, The Future Belongs To The Russians, But The Present To The Mothers

Rublev bottled the first set’s tie-breaker, but Medvedev, who was once regarded as someone who wouldn’t make it in tennis by the head of French coaches, is now a legitimate threat, and a scary one. The same goes for Vika, who will play Serena after leaving just one game to Mertens.

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Daniil Medvedev - US Open 2020 (via Twitter, @usopen)

It’s not necessarily the world’s best kept secret, but as time passes I realise more and more how florid the present of Russian tennis is and how it’s probably all downhill from here.

 

Daniil Medvedev will soon become a Slam champion, even if he does not win the 2020 US Open. The composure and effortlessness he oozes, serving lightning bolts while putting around 70% of his first serves in play (more often than not getting the free point); swirling a forehand whose backswing always looks far too wide (it reminds me a little of Steffi Graf’s) but is utterly unreadable due to that wrist whipping that hides his trajectories to perfection; placing the two-hander with metronomical precision both crosscourt and down the line – I could go on and on, but the point is, he is scary good.   

Much has been written about Rublev, before and after his match against Berrettini. He is one of the most improved players on the ATP Tour, and is predicted to soon break into the Top 10 (I won’t be saying to this prophecy, even though I’m curious to see how he’ll fare at the French Open and more generally on clay). Unfortunately, neither he nor Medvedev will be in Rome – the latter’s withdrawal is already official, his is in the air.

Despite giving birth to champions like Kafelnikov and Safin in the past, Russia reached an unprecedented milestone on March 2, having three of her sons in the Top 15 at the same time, as Rublev joined Medvedev and Khachanov after back-to-back titles in Doha and Adelaide.

Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Sochi’s fresh prince, doesn’t appear to have a jealous bone in his body, quite the opposite: “I can tell you, kids at junior events in Russia don’t want to play like me or Marat, they want to play like Medvedev, Rublev, or Khachanov – it just makes sense. This is amazing for our country.”

A French youth coach, Cedric Raynaud, was interviewed by a colleague, Vincent Cognet, to talk about the junior careers of the two: “You could tell that Rublev would go places. He was very precocious. He could have played Futures events at 15. It took him three tournaments to become a Top 10 in the juniors. He was probably just over three stones [Editor’s Note: just to clarify, he’s exaggerating] but could hit rockets from all over the court. Medvedev was a late bloomer. He couldn’t handle the rally because he couldn’t hit hard on the run… He broke racquets, insulted his team. He verbally abused his father, who in his own turn was always very calm. He appeared to have so many technical limitations. For instance, he had no idea how to hit a volley. I would have never thought he would one day play a Slam final! And today, he’s one of the best players in the world… Both he and Rublev have the will and the skill to keep working on their game. They’re just enormous athletes.”

When the talent is there, hard work pays off… it might sound trite, but that’s the way it is.

Meanwhile, my stat guys tell me that this is the first time ever that two Russian players reach the second week in New York for two years in a row…

With this sort of background, it was clear that Medvedev vs Rublev was the match I anticipated the most, and the same goes for John McEnroe, who was watching from the stands, just like Sascha Zverev and 

Dominic Thiem (although these two don’t really have much else to do inside the bubble).

I described it as a Grasshopper-and-Ant dichotomy, and it didn’t disappoint – actually, it was a pretty great match, with great quality on both sides. The problem is that the Grasshopper, Rublev, threw away the opening set: he was 5-1 up in the tie-breaker, then 6-3, only for the Ant, Medvedev, to get five consecutive points to steal it. Andrey got into self-abuse mode pretty quickly for his inability to put a first serve in play (one of them could have become a decisive ace) in a time of dire need – he threw his racquet on the ground (but didn’t smash it, since he dropped it flat) and then hit his duffel bag several times.

Andrey Rublev – US Open 2020 (photo by Darren Carroll/USTA)

At some point during the second set, he yelled bullishly (real scary) but no curse words seemed to be involved. Keothavong, the umpire, called a verbal abuse violation anyway. Perhaps such a warning can be called even in the event of inarticulate screams, which can actually be unacceptable when loud or prolonged enough, although I would tend to be rather flexible in certain situations. Rublev complained at the changeover, but to no avail.

The younger Russian could not get over the loss of the first set, at least not as quickly as needed – it’s one of the reasons why he lost the second as well. In the third, Medvedev seemed a little uncomfortable for the first time in two weeks, but only towards the end.

Last night’s Russian derby might have been the 100th between the two, even as professionals, but the ATP only recorded two matches in official tournaments, both straight-set Medvedev wins. They are close friends and grew up playing against each other since they were about 10. However, they have always been very different.

Medvedev said: “We must have been 11 or 12 when we played each other in a match between our clubs. We must have been the worst-behaved players in the world. We shouted and cried all the time, we smashed our racquets… we even threw them in the stands! We hated losing. Andrey hit very hard even then, although not as hard as he does now… while all I could do was lobbing and junkballing. They were crazy matches.”

Medvedev also recalled a night out at Times Square when they were teenagers involving the two of them and Jelena Ostapenko. Rublev remembered that they ended up in Central Park because many places at Times Square were already closed (it must have been pretty late), and also that it wasn’t a very good idea, because some other kids started following them and hiding behind the trees: “We ran back to our hotel!”

During the match, Medvedev was able to capitalise on Rublev’s folly at the end of the opening set – he hit a double fault that propelled his fellow countryman, who couldn’t have asked for more, back into the match – and ended up winning once more in straight sets, as he has done every time in New York so far (the only man to do it). However, he had a few physical issues (soreness in the shoulder followed by leg cramps) towards the and of the match.

Somehow, Medvedev managed to hide the latter and got some help from the physio, who treated his shoulder but also assisted him a little with the cramps, a type of ailment that cannot be treated during an MTO but rather be eased during a regular changeover for a maximum amount of two times. This is what big-match experience looks like, the kind that Jannik Sinner lacked against the third Russian, Karen Khachanov, in their first round encounter – lucky for him, the Italian seems to have shaken it off pretty rapidly and got off to a great start in Kitzbuhel, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted given how shocked he appeared in New York due to the injury.

Before the Russian derby, Serena Williams showed some stamina progress, chasing down some balls that would have eluded her a week ago. She seems to start slow every time, but she’s still getting the wins. For the third match in a row, she survived a decider, a truly remarkable feat as it would be reasonable to expect a 39-year-old who is a little heavier than she used to be (I wouldn’t say overweight because there were times when she was in much worse shape) to run out of fuel. What happened instead is that she won those sets for 6-2, 6-3, and again 6-2, respectively ousting Stephens, Sakkari, and Pironkova.

Her problems now are the growing tension of the approaching final, a final in which she would go for her 24th Slam title, but also the amazing form of the other mom still in play, Vika Azarenka. The Belarusian imparted a bona fide lesson to Elise Mertens, as the 6-1 6-0 score abundantly shows – if Serena watched the match, she must have felt the pressure mounting even more. In addition, this is the only time in the fortnight with no two-day rest between matches, and if Serena (and the rest of the country) were banking on a headstart of a few hours on Vika – I suspect that the scheduling wasn’t an accident, but rather dictated by a wish to give a little more rest to Serena, regardless of the opponent – well, the ease and celerity with which Azarenka won her match completely nullified that (hypothetical) competitive advantage.

Vika Azarenka – US Open 2020 (via Twitter, @usopen)

Tennis is almost always unpredictable, and the women’s game even more than the men’s, but the Azarenka we saw yesterday shouldn’t lose against post-lockdown Serena. But… there is always a but, and that is the 18-4 head-to-head score in favour of the American, an element that always carries some weight. It is also true, however, that they have only met once in the last four years and a half (Serena won 7-5 6-4 in Indian Wells 18 months ago). Should their matches from 12 years ago factor in? Probably not.

The motherly rendezvous is unmissable content, even though it will take place after the first women’s semifinal (Brady vs Osaka), which is slated for midnight – that means that the second match probably won’t start before 2am. Will you make it? Will I make it?  

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Novak Djokovic Is Out, And The Field At The US Open Has Never Been More… Open

Medvedev is my pick. Berrettini might be the toughest opponent for the Russian, but only if he squeezes past Rublev first. What needs to happen so that history doesn’t put an asterisk next to the winner’s name?

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There was really just one man who could legitimately be called the favourite to win the 2020 US Open’s title, at least until last night, when Novak Djokovic was ousted by none other than himself, after hitting a pinpoint forehand that will be remembered as the unluckiest of his career. The default was inevitable – any other decision would have frankly been unacceptable. Novak tried to talk himself out of it, as humanly understandable, but finally accepted the ruling. 

 

There might be some debate over the adequacy of the rule in all situations, as some instances of reckless behaviour are not as deserving of a punishment as hard as an immediate ban – the Italian Maria Vittoria Viviani, for example, was ridiculously banned at the 2017 Australian Open for hitting a harmless ball in the ground that ended up lightly striking a ballboy. However, it would have been just plain wrong not to apply the rule in this context, as the lineswoman was hit in the throat and fell to the ground in shock, while also struggling to breathe. An awful precedent would have been set, proving that some players are above the law.  

It must be said, additionally, that Djokovic is something of a repeat offender. It can happen, over 1,107 matches as a professional player, to lose one’s temper by smashing a racquet or by hitting a ball a little too aggressively, but this isn’t the first time that Nole crosses the line. He almost got disqualified at the 2016 French Open, when he threw his racquet on the ground and would have hit a linesman if the guy hadn’t shown Jedi-like reactions by ducking in time:

Furthermore, at the 2016 ATP Finals at the O2 Arena, a similar outburst had provoked a question from a pretty in-your-face colleague, and the Serbian had almost lost control:

Sure, it would have been just fine if last night’s trajectory had been even slightly more to the right or the left, or even if the lineswoman had seen it coming and managed to dodge it. He would have gotten a warning for ball abuse (a punishment he could have received a few minutes earlier for a similar gesture, arguably even angrier), maybe a post-match fine, but he could have kept on playing that set in which he had squandered three consecutive set points at 5-4. He was very unlucky, even though Federer and Nadal fans will say that he deserved it. But history isn’t made of what ifs.

I wasn’t surprised when Novak didn’t show up for his press conference. What was he supposed to say just a few minutes after what happened? It might have been the 2016 Finals all over again, although I have to say that, so far, my British colleagues from the tabloidS haven’t been particularly venomous during our Zoom Q&A’s. 

However, Nole apologized on Instagram as soon as he got back to the pricey house he had rented in Long Island, as he should have. During a regular press conference, he would have been bombarded with too many questions he wouldn’t have had much of an answer to. 

Our readers reacted in many ways, often ironically, quoting Nick Kyrgios’s inevitable tweet in response to the fiasco and digging for precedents, almost always resulting in the player getting disqualified, except for last week’s episode involving once-Brit Aljaz Bedene during the Western & Southern Open. The Slovenian hit a cameraman, one of the few people in the house, with a ball that had lost power after hitting the backwall first, but hadn’t been defaulted, given the aforementioned mitigating circumstances. Perhaps someone might argue that he should have been disqualified as well. 

But enough with Djokovic, although it must be highlighted that he also fell quite badly on his shoulder last night, something that might jeopardise his presence in Rome even more than in Paris. What we have now is a US Open whose field is a lot more open now. 

For starters, at the end of the 470th Major (starting with the 1877 Championships) we will finally get a new winner, the 150th in history. In addition, it will also be the first Slam title going to a player born in the 1990s, unless Auger-Aliassime wins it, and in that case we would step even further into a new era, since the Canadian was born on August 8, 2000. 

Djokovic, 33, was the oldest player still in the tournament, followed by the co-president of his new players’ union, the PTPA, i.e. Vasek Pospisil, who turned 30 in June, and by his vanquisher, Pablo Carreno Busta, born in 1991. Everybody else is much younger, with even a pair of Next Gen studs. 

Now that the world N.1 is out, many will be gunning for the trophy. Those who have preeminence rights are the ones right behind him – 2nd seed Dominic Thiem, 3rd seed Daniil Medvedev, 5th seed Sascha Zverev, and 6th seed Matteo Berrettini. The top half of the draw is wide open, since the spot that would have belonged to Djokovic is now Carreno’s, someone who would hardly be considered a potential winner of the event, even though he was playing a solid match last night, being on the verge of winning the opening set.  

Resumé-wise, the obvious contender for a spot in Sunday’s final is Alexander Zverev. After a few years of wayward (and underwhelming) performances in the Slams, the German is the only player in the top half who has proven able to win big, banking three Masters 1000 titles and the 2018 ATP Finals. 

The fourth round of the bottom half of the draw still needs to be played, and is scheduled for today, featuring serious contenders such as Medvedev and Thiem plus an anticipated showdown between Berrettini and Rublev. In an upcoming video preview with friend and colleague Steve Flink, we convened that last year’s finalist, Daniil Medvedev, is the leading candidate to claim that title he lost in 2019, just barely, to Rafa Nadal.

The Russian is in front of Thiem in the pecking order. The Dominator will probably have his hands full with Auger-Aliassime, while I believe that Medvedev will dismiss Tiafoe pretty easily. After the match-up with the American, he would probably risk losing a little more against a great serving performance by Berrettini than against his fellow countryman Rublev, whom he has known since the age of 11 and whom he’s beaten twice as a pro without dropping a set nor relinquishing control of the match, although duels between friends can be tricky. 

Berrettini, as mentioned, can be more dangerous for him, but the Italian needs to beat Rublev first, and that’s easier said than done. The younger Russian poses a much greater threat to him than any of the opponents he’s faced so far, as someone who returns better and who can dictate with both groundstrokes. Rublev is stronger on the forehand side, but it’s on the other diagonal trajectory that he will try to suffocate the Roman, whose inside-out TNT-fueled forehand will need to be particularly on form to fetch him the same plethora of quick points it did against inferior opponents like Soeda, Humbert, and Ruud.

Leaning into my nationalist bias, I have reason to believe that Rublev will give Berrettini a run for his money, even though the Italian has beaten him three out of five times (three out of four as professionals, since the first win of the Russian happened at Boys’ Wimbledon), in Gstaad, in Vienna, and here at Flushing Meadows a year ago. Berrettini has grown a lot as a player, but the same can be said about his ginger foe. 

If Medvedev beats the winner of the Berrettini-Rublev match, I believe he is a surefire finalist, because I don’t see anybody capable of beating him in the semis out of the Labor Day quartet of Pospisil, De Minaur, Auger-Aliassime, and Thiem. 

One final question, and an important one: given the nature of Nole’s elimination (and the concomitant absence, the first of the century, of Federer and Nadal), will the winner of the 2020 US Open get an asterisk next to his title? This theory had only been ventilated for the women’s tournament up until now, since six Top Tenners were missing and Serena Williams didn’t look at her best, and perhaps still doesn’t. 

I’ve said this to Steve Flink as well, but my thought on the matter is: the asterisk will be permanent if and only if the winner should remain a one-Slam wonder, i.e. if he won’t be able to rack up a few more titles in the next few years. If he will win some, then there won’t be any historical justification for keeping the asterisk in place. In the end, how many people do still remember the year when John McEnroe got disqualified, and not just where it happened?  

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