At Curtains For 2019 French Open, It Was All About Women Proffering Intrepidity - UBITENNIS
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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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On-Court Coaching: A Terrible Idea Or The Next Logical Step In Men’s Tennis?

Whilst the WTA Tour has relished the on-court coaching rule for the past 11 years, opinion among the men’s tennis elite reflect a completely different scenario.

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Nick Kyrgios of Australia is pictured in action during day four of ATP Fever-Tree Championships tennis tournament at Queen's Club in west London on June 19, 2019. (photo by Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON: Five games into his opening match Fernando Verdasco looked lost on the court at The Queen’s Club. Down a double break and only able to take two points off his opponents serve, he glared towards the camp in the crowd. They could not say anything without getting Verdasco a penalty. Something his female counterparts don’t fear.

 

On-court coaching has been allowed on the WTA Tour since 2008. A process where the coaches of players are allowed to interact with them during changeovers to issue advice and so forth. The bosses of the WTA at the time said it was done to add entertainment value and give insight to fans watching. 11 years on from that decision, other tournaments have started their own experiments.

The US Open, which was the first major to introduce equal prize money back in 1973, has outlined their plans. Involving allowing coaches to shout to players from the sidelines in between points. A move that was undoubtedly triggered by last year’s women’s final where Serena Williams was penalized for receiving coaching. Something her guru Patrick Martogolou, who is a supporter of on-court coaching, initially admitted to before she later denied took place. It was assumed that organizers wanted to implement this change in 2019, but it appears that this will not happen now.

Should these changes occur, it will move men’s tennis closer to the prospect of on-court coaching. Something that raises one crucial question – do the players want it on the ATP Tour?

“I personally don’t feel that there is a need for it. Obviously, the WTA does it, but I feel there is no need because I’m used to not having it on the court.” Kyle Edmund said at the Fever-Tree Championships on Sunday.

Critics of the technique argue that it takes away the player’s ability to think for themselves. Making them mentally weaker. In the Open Era, there has never been a grand slam main draw where the competitors could seek help from anybody else during matches. However, what about a compromise similar to the one proposed by the US Open?

“With the debate concerning having coaching off the court in terms of speaking, as other sports do, I’d say I’m more interested in that aspect.” Edmund indicates.

Nick Kyrgios could potentially be the kind of person who would benefit from a change in the rules. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, he admits that he struggles mentally during the big tournaments. So potentially having somebody to speak to him during matches could help.

However, the Australian doesn’t have a mentor and is a fierce critic of on-court coaching. Arguing that it could create an uneven playing ground if it was implemented in men’s tennis.

“I don’t agree with it at all. I think on-court coaching shouldn’t be a part of the sport.” He stated.
“I don’t think — like, it’s supposed to be one on one. You’re supposed to figure out things yourself when you’re out there on the court.”
“For guys who don’t have a coach, like myself or guys who can’t afford a coach, it’s not really a level playing field when you have a guy that’s literally talking to their players on the court. It makes no sense.”

Kyrgios’ view is one that has been backed by one of the biggest names in men’s tennis – Roger Federer. In the German city of Halle, the Swiss Maestro was questioned about on-court coaching.

“I don‘t support on-court coaching, I think that I have the best team in the world, and so I don‘t think it‘s fair that I could profit from that and another guy, who has maybe no coach can‘t benefit at all.” Federer explained.

2019 prize money rankings (as of 17/6/2019)
1. Rafael Nadal $6.28M
20. Jan Lennard-Struff $910, 090
50. Filip Krajinovic $521, 146
100. Marcelo Melo $306, 269
200. Elias Ymer $83, 342

A logical step forward?

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Daniil Medvedev was straight to the point when asked his own opinion of the subject. Saying such a change will have zero benefits for him. Although he believes changing the rules is only logical. During numerous matches coaches in the crowd has been caught making gestures towards their players. Something that is hard to police for the umpires.

“I am for it. Not because it will benefit me because I don’t think it will. Even if I asked my coach to come onto the court one time per match.” Medvedev told Ubitennis.
“But when we see a lot of sports it is allowed. During matches, they can say anything and when you are working with your coach almost 365 days a year and he can’t say anything, it’s a bit strange.’
“It won’t change a lot (for me), but I think it should be legalized.”

There is also the role of technology in the debate. Application software company SAP works alongside the WTA. Under the rules, they are able to provide coaches with real-time data so they can feedback to players during matches. Something some argue enhances the quality of matches.

“The WTA introduced the on-court coaching rule in 2008. That gave SAP the opportunity to bring real-time data to players and coaches as they need it,” SAP’s Global Sponsorships Technology Lead Jenni Lewis told intel.co.uk.
“And they need it as the match is happening, so the coach can go out during on-court coaching and share that information.”

Tennis is a sport that has developed a reputation of priding itself on its history and rightfully so. However, the downside is trying to maintain a balance between traditionalists and those driving for change. Illustrated by past debates concerning the use of tiebreakers in the final set of grand slam matches, the unique rules set out at the next Gen Finals and the fallout over the Davis Cup revamp.

Given these sticking points, would the ATP really want to bother with on-court coaching?

Only time will tell.

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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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