With a tennis championships like the Noventi Open, there are always points of interest that give a better feel for what is taking place than the actual matches being played. Today, quarterfinal Friday, the fans witnessed riveting action. But leading up to it, there were a number of overlooked “happenings”, during the week, that are worth a mention. As a group, they include player insights, along with on-court and off-court goings-on that showcase why the ATP 500 tournament, played in Halle, Germany, is truly inimitable.
After being on tour for a while, players grow tired of responding to the same questions again and again. In press conferences, some seem to go into a trance and become R2-D2 (actually Artoo-Detoo seems better) facsimiles. Their responses become “bricks”, which are so robotic, that it makes it impossible to build a story foundation.
Roger Federer, as with many other segments imbedded in his career, is an exception. He can be thoughtfully expressive when asked for the hundredth time about a particular subject. He is regularly insightful, sometimes to the point where journalists are allowed to “touch his soul” when he answers a thought provoking question. Simply put (lifetime contract aside) he is the tournament’s “Spokesman.”
Beginning in late May, Federer played Roland Garros for the first time in four years. Rafael Nadal dispatched him in straight sets in the semifinals. Moving to grass, he had to recalibrate his game.
Stating the obvious, “It’s a huge change”. He then added, “Playing on grass can be very frustrating. You are looking for rhythm, but you can’t control everything because the ball bounces low and there are also bad bounces. You don’t have a real chance to get into rallies and build points like you can on clay. One good return or one good shot can really make a difference on this surface.”
He continued, “I look for ways to finish points quickly by going to the net. The (backhand) slice is always a good shot on grass because it skids and bounces low, so your opponent has to really get down to the ball and try to lift his shot to get it over the net.”
Because of the surface, it is easier to take a “mental” break on clay than it is on grass, Federer pointed out, “If you are a little bit lazy on grass, you pay the price. On clay, playing from the baseline, you can get into a good rhythm because you have time, time that you don’t normally have on grass.”
His analysis of the future of the “grass game” was telling. “I don’t see extreme progress at the moment,” he said. “For me, real progress would be when players start playing serve and volley. That would mean doing a lot more training, and not just during the grass season. I really don’t think that will happen.”
He added, “In the end, it’s the results that count. That’s what a lot of players see. They don’t have serve and volley in their DNA.”
Participants stay at the SportsPark Hotel which is on the tournament grounds. From some of the rooms, it is as easy as looking out the window to watch the action. “Here you can see matches on Court 1,” the nine-time champion pointed out. “I find it really cool to watch from the room. It’s perfect for a tennis fan (and for a player) which I am. It’s really nice when our friends are here. They can’t grasp that there is such a hotel with rooms with such a view.”
Jan-Lennard Struff, the 6’5” German from Warstein, has had a breakthrough year. He began 2019 ranked No. 54 and entered the Noventi Open at No. 35. He turned professional ten years ago and struggled until reaching the Top 100 in 2016.
He had played Halle six times before winning his first match, stopping Laslo Djere of Serbia, 6-4, 6-4 in the first round. Unfortunately, his seventh appearance good fortune was ended by Russian Karen Khachanov in his next outing, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4.
Following the loss, he said, “I have had a very good season. I have never played this well before. I am very happy with Stuttgart where I reached the semifinals. But, more important, I broke the curse here. I had never won a round before. Though I lost today, I can build on the win.”
In its twenty-six year history, a global village of players have taken part at Halle. They have used the spectacular setting and rain-protection conditions as a lead-up to Wimbledon. When Matteo Berrettini faced Andreas Seppi in the second round, I wondered how many Italians had taken part in the tournament. As it turns out, only twelve have participated. Even more interesting, Seppi is the leader of the All-Italian clashes. In 2006, he defeated Davide Sanguinetti, 7-6, 7-5 in the first round. Thirteen years later, Berrettini was his straight-set victim, and yesterday the triumphs were reversed when Berrettini escaped with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 win.
In the match between Ukrainian qualifier Sergiy Stakhovsky and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, there was a “I’ve never seen it before” occurrence. With Herbert serving at 40-0 and Stakhovsky leading 5-1, the Frenchman hit what appeared to be an ace, but the serve was called a fault. Herbert approached the chair umpire and asked for an overrule, but the official informed him that he didn’t have any more challenges. Unable to “officially” contest the call he asked Stakhovsky what he thought. His opponent said the ball was good, but to give Herbert the point, Stakhovsky had to challenge the call. He did and the video replay proved the “fault call” was incorrect Herbert had, indeed, hit an ace to win the game.
Stakhovsky challenged himself; lost the point; gave Herbert the game; but won the first set, serving it out, 6-2. In the end, being honest didn’t lead to a victory. Herbert claimed the second round match, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4.
In another second round match, one that was a perfect exhibition of French flair, countrymen Benoit Paire and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played “football”. While serving Paire, ranked No. 28, let the racquet slip from his hand, but continued to play the point with his foot, kicking the ball over the net. Not to be outdone, Tsonga trapped the ball on his chest then kicked it over the net. The exchanges continued until Paire’s pseudo bicycle kick failed, bringing an end to the “kickball rally.” It is fair to say, based on the near standing ovation that the players received it was likely the best point played in Tsonga’s 6-4, 7-5 win.
As good as play was in the quarterfinals, there is an even better story to close this feature. It is about Franziska Froehlich, the daughter of Martin Froehlich, the esteemed Bielefeld newspaper reporter. Yesterday, following Alexander Zverev’s match, Franziska waited behind the barrier outside the players locker room. She was waiting for “Sascha.”
Unfortunately, Zverev had already returned to the SportsPark Hotel. Learning this she was very disappointed. But Daniel Dormann came to her rescue. He explained, “I am an uncle and have a combination of seven nephews and nieces. I know what a sad look is, and I saw it in her eyes.”
As it happens, Dormann is a close friend of the Zverev family. In fact, he is the founder of “Team Zverev”, a support group. Truth be told, he is not a paid PR specialist. He has known the family for fifteen years and initially set-up a webpage for Mischa. When Sascha saw it, he was around seven at the time, he asked if he could have one too.
Dormann, the creator of “Zverev Brothers Fan Page” on Facebook (and the “teamzverevofficial” Instagram account) told Franziska that he may be able to find a ticket so that she could attend Zverev’s match today against David Goffin of Belgium. He checked with Irina Zvereva, the boys’ mother who deals with such requests, and just before midnight last night, he received a thumbs up emoji.
This morning, Martin Froehlich learned that Dormann had been “successful” and would meet them at the tournament’s front gate to give Franziska the ticket.
Though disappointed that he lost, she had a memorable day at the Noventi Open. One that will always be unmatched for her and all those who attended Quarterfinal Friday.
Fabio Fognini beats Guido Pella in straight sets to reach the fourth round in Melbourne
Fabio Fognini beat Guido Pella 7-6 (7-0) 6-2 6-3 to reach the fourth round at the Australian Open in Melbourne. The Italian star converted five of his six break points to close out the match after 2 hours and nine minutes.
Fognini saved two break points in the first set with a forehand and a backhand and held his serve. The Italian star did not convert a break point in a long seventh game. Both players went on serve to set up a tie-break. Fognini did not drop a single point to cruise through to a 7-0 win.
In the second set Fognini earned a crucial break in the sixth game to take a 4-2 lead. He held his serve on the second deuce after saving a break point. The 2019 Monte-Carlo champion sealed the second set with another break with a forehand return winner.
Fognini earned a break lead in the fourth game of the decisive set. Pella broke straight back in the fifth game. Both traded breaks again in the sixth and seventh games. Fognini broke for the third time and converted his second match point with a serve up the T.
He is also the 12th player to come back from two sets down at all four Grand Slam tournaments.
With his five-set victories over Reilly Opelka and Jordan Thompson in the first two matches Fognini made history on Wednesday when the “Come-back king” became the first player to win back-to-back Australian Open matches in final set tie-breaks.
“I am so happy to be in the fourth round again in Australia. Now it’s time to recover. I played a really solid game against a really tough opponent. I am happy with the performance”, said Fognini.
Fognini set up a fourth round match against 2018 Australian Open quarter finalist Tennys Sandgren, who beat Sam Querrey 6-4 6-4 6-4 after 1 hour and 52 minutes. Sandgren fended off nine break points and converted just 2 of his 14 break point chances. Two years ago Sandgen beat Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem en route to reaching his first quarter final at a Grand Slam event.
Marin Cilic prevails over Roberto Bautista Agut in five-set thriller in Melbourne
Marin Cilic overcame Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut 6-7 (3-7) 6-4 6-0 5-7 6-3 after 4 hours and 10 minutes to score his first top 10 win since the 2018 US Open, when he beat David Goffin.
Cilic fought back from losing the first set at the tie-break, but he bounced back in the second set by breaking serve in the ninth game, when Bautista Agut made a forehand error. Cilic held on his serve to win the second set 6-4 to draw level to 1-1.
Cilic cruised through to a bagel win in the third set. The Croatian player got an early break in the fourth set to open up a 3-1 lead. Bautista Agut broke back in the sixth game to draw level to 3-3. Cilic did not convert a break point chance at 5-5. Bautista Agut earned the break at 6-5 to force the match to the fifth set.
Cilic broke serve in the opening game of the fifth set with a forehand winner, but he did not convert a break point at 4-2. He broke for the seventh time in the match in Bautista Agut’s next service game to clinch a thrilling win, as Bautista Agut fired a backhand into the net.
Cilic took a re-match against the Spanish player, who won their previous head-to-head clash at the 2019 Australian Open in five sets.
“I had an incredible patch. It was a surreal level. Every ball I was hitting was going in. It was coming off my raquet incredibly well. I knew Roberto would always fight and he pushed me all the way in the fourth set”, said Cilic.
Karen Khachanov edges Mikael Ymer in marathon match in Melbourne
Karen Khachanov battled past Mikael Ymer 6-2 2-6 6-4 3-6 7-6 (10-8) in a marathon match after 4 hours and 14 minutes.
Ymer broke serve twice in the second and fourth games of the fourth set to open up a 4-1 lead. Khachanov broke back in the seventh game, but Ymer broke for the third time to take the fourth set 6-3.
Khachanov broke serve in the sixth game to take a 4-2, but he was broken back in the next game.
Khachanov was not able to serve out the match at 5-3 in the fifth set before trailing 6-8 in the decisive match tie-break. Khachanov came back by winning four consecutive points to clinch a thrilling win.
Australia’s Alexei Popyrin beat Spain’s Jaume Munar 6-2 7-6 (7-5) 6-2 after 2 hours and 4 minutes setting up a third round match against Danil Medvedev. Popyrin broke twice in each of the first and third sets and saved all four break point chances.
Taylor Fritz came back from two sets down to beat Kevin Anderson 4-6 6-7 (5-7) 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 6-2. Anderson was leading by two sets and 4-2 in the third set, but Fritz broke back before winning the third set at the tie-break. Fritz cruised through the fourth and fifth sets. Fritz will face Dominic Thiem in the third round.
“That was huge for me. He played a really tough five setter just the other day and then obviously coming back. Going back to back five setters is going to be tougher for him than usual. I felt fresh, so I just told myself that I have to keep running”,said Fritz.
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