WIMBLEDON: On a day where all the fourth round matches took place at The All England Club there was an inevitability in the men’s draw.
Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic all proved why they are the top three seeds. Producing a display that overwhelmed and frustrated their opponents. The trio along with Andy Murray have won the past 16 Wimbledon titles. A true testament to their dominance in the sport. On the other hand, it is also a somewhat mixed situation for the world of men’s tennis.
“I wasn’t feeling so good about my strokes, my serve, my forehand, backhand, everything. I wasn’t feeling so good, I didn’t expect to be tight, to be maybe not ready, but not like this.” Matteo Berrettini said following his loss to Federer.
“I was saying to myself that it was normal, for me, it was my first time on Centre Court against him.”
The brick wall put up by the Big Three at The All England Club can only be compared with the Great Wall of China. A gigantic structure that requires a huge effort to conquer it. Yet it is possible to scale it and people have done before. So there is one question that arises. Is the Big Three too good or are their challengers on the court not good enough?
World No.1 Novak Djokovic shed some light on the situation shortly after his straight-sets win over Ugo Humbert. The only member of the Next Generation to reach the last 16 of the tournament. Djokovic has been a giant in the world of grand slam tennis within the past 12 months. Winning three titles and reaching the semi-finals at Roland Garros.
“I think we are working as hard as anybody really to be there. I think the experience we have helps confidence, everything that we have achieved in our careers obviously we carry onto the court, then most of the players feel that, feel the pressure.” He said.
“For us, it’s another match on the center stage that we’ve experienced so many times. I think that’s one of the reasons why we, I guess, feel comfortable being there and managing to play our best consistently.”
Experience certainly pays it part. 14 out of the 16 players to reach the fourth round are over the age of 27 and eight of those are over the age of 30. However, when the older guys of the tour has had a shot on Manic Monday in the past against the Big Three they fell short. What is it that they are doing wrong?
“I think the best guys now are fully engaged, they know exactly what to expect from the court and the conditions. That helps us to play better.” Explains Federer.
“I think with experience, that’s good. We haven’t dropped much energy in any way. It’s not like we’re coming in with an empty tank into the second week.’
“All these little things help us to then really thrive in these conditions. I don’t know what else it is.”
Fortunately, Federer and Co are human. Even if it is hard to believe when they illustrate such breathtaking tennis at times. Serena Williams describes Federer’s play as that similar to an elegant Ballerina. The way he moves around the court effortlessly and dictates the points.
One people aiming to rain on the parade of the big guns is Sam Querrey. A 31-year-old American who reached the semi-finals of the major back in 2017. Against Tennys Sandgren on Monday, he produced 25 aces and won 83% of his first service points on route to victory. Setting up a clash with Nadal. Somebody who he beat in their last meeting back in 2017, but trails their overall head-to-head 1-5.
“In order to kind of break that streak, it’s most likely beating Rafa, Federer, Djokovic. The mountain gets very steep from here to break that trend, but I’m going to do the best I can.” Said Querrey.
“I like playing here (at Wimbledon). I’m comfortable here. This seems to be the slam where you’ve got odd results, if you want to call them, over the, you know, last 25 years.”
In an era that is dominated by a selected group of players, there are both admiration and frustration among both players and fans. Their achievements have been incredible, but when will a fresh face live up to the hype on a consistent basis? Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are all huge threats. Just not on a regular enough basis.
“I am not thinking about sending a message about the next generation, how they are coming or not. I know they’re good.” Nadal stated.
“I know there is going to be a day where they are going to be in front of us because they will play better than us or because we are leaving (the sport), we are not kids anymore. That’s all.”
“It is special what we achieved in the last 15 years. Something special, difficult to repeat I think, so many titles between three players. But sometimes these kinds of things happen.”
Men’s tennis is undoubtedly in the midst of a unique period with some of the greatest ever players taking to the court’s. However, is their dominance too much of a good thing?
Only time will tell when the trio retires and men’s tennis are left facing the prospect of trying to fill in their shoes. A task that is as exciting as it is terrifying for the next contingent of players.
Andy Murray Is Going In The Right Direction
Andy Murray came from a set down to pass another test against France’s Ugo Humbert to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, at the European Open on Saturday. The former world No.1 is through to his first singles final since Dubai 2017. Edging closer to his first singles title after coming back from a second successful surgery on his hip.
It seems that Andy Murray, who wasn’t sure whether he would be able to compete again at the beginning of the season this year, is finding his way back very well these days.
The Scot commenced his comeback slowly and carefully by playing doubles with Spain’s Feliciano Lopez at the Queen’s Club Championship in June. Where they both clinched the title in a very positive comeback for Andy, who seemed at the time very eager to play tennis again though he wasn’t completely ready for big stages as he always used to.
A couple months later in Zhuhai, he got his first singles win on tour since his comeback, which was followed by a loss to world No.26 Alex De Minaur in 3 sets. Taking on the US Open semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini in the opening round at China Open was a real challenge and a good test for the former world No.1 to evaluate how everything is going on. He passed in two sets in what was a good indication that everything is going in the right direction. Then he got past his countryman Cameron Norrie in three sets before falling to Thiem in two.
He lost after Beijing in Shanghai to Fabio Fognini in the second round during a very exciting match. Including some clashes between both of them with Murray losing his game when he was serving for the match in the decider set.
Even if he didn’t get any significant result there, playing such long matches against top players is an essential part in the build-up process for his game mentally and physically.
“It’s just difficult in tennis, because you don’t get the opportunity to just come in and play one set like you might in other sports and build up your fitness by playing a little bit longer each time. You need to get it through playing matches and maybe at that stage I just wasn’t quite ready physically for long matches. But now obviously my body’s getting a little bit more used to it and coping fairly well.” Said Murray about his improvement.
In Antwerp this week, the Scot seems to be getting better as he got four singles wins in a row, so far, for the first time since his comeback. In other words the number of matches won consecutively in one week increases as he plays more which is a good indication that his body is getting used to it more and more and recovers faster, yet he still needs some time to reach his highest level. Having played long, intense matches in the quarter and semi finals against Marius Copil and Ugo Humbert today, which could have some effect on his physical readiness against Wawrinka. Who reserved a spot in the final by beating Jannik Sinner (6-3, 6,2). Both players dropped two sets on their way towards the final with Murray playing an additional match.
Whether the Scot lifts his first single trophy since 2017 on Sunday or not, he is definitely getting in there with a very good rate. Considering he was thinking of retirement earlier this year than having a hip replacement surgery afterwards and now competing in such a level and one step away from a single title, that is a huge success. Moreover, he is getting more confident and mentally tougher which is shown clearly in the last two matches; surviving from a very tight situation and keeping cool in a very crucial moments.
Speaking about his aspects of the game, his defensive game has improved very fast. It’s been a fundamental part of his game throughout his career. He is trying to level up his offensive shots and turning from the defensive to the offensive when possible, especially on fast indoors courts, which would normally take more time as he’s gaining more confidence. Yet Murray needs to work hard on his serve, especially his second serve which costs him a lot of points sometimes very crucial ones.
Laver Cup: As Europe’s blue reign, myriad hues peek out in event’s latest iteration
The 2019 Laver Cup showed all over again why it was an opportunity for tennis to be diverse in its offering.
Twelve matches spread over a three-day weekend later, Laver Cup has modified the proverbial face and scope of men’s tennis. It is still viewed sceptically as a disruptor to routine, individual-focused tennis matches in certain pockets. Yet, the singularity it has brought into the midst of the prevalent concept of individuality is irrevocable.
In the third year of the event’s emergence, these aspects are repetitive. However, Laver Cup’s display re-lit the theme of a team before a player. It also elevated it to heights not seen in its previous two editions. This showed in the players’ camaraderie with each other. As it did in the numerous coaching tips that came from the bench from Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and even Nick Kyrgios towards their fellow squad members.
Broadly, it was laid out in how the Laver Cup changed the subject from who would win the most Slams to which part of the globe would be victorious. For once, the conversation did not focus on 20 Slams versus 19, as it had come to be after Nadal’s win at the US Open. It was riveted on how two sportsmen with 39 Slams between them could set aside their competitiveness towards a common goal for a still-mushrooming tourney.
— Laver Cup (@LaverCup) September 22, 2019
“Winning (as) teams is just amazing because you celebrate together. It’s a very special thing. Honestly, I really hope that this new and young generation keeps supporting this event because this event is special,” Nadal said after Team Europe’s three-peat on Sunday. “We need to make this event stronger and stronger because the atmosphere that we leave here is difficult to find in other places.”
The 33-year-old’s statements, aside from setting aside any cynicism about his involvement in the event this year, emphasised the growth Laver Cup has had in its three years. Nadal’s participation in Laver Cup’s inaugural year was seen as a novelty, a continuation of his and Federer’s triumphant return to the Tour after an injury-troubled 2016. Novak Djokovic’s inclusion in Europe’s 2018 squad was viewed as a reiteration that the event was a fad, where top-ranked players would make a one-off appearance, before stepping away.
In 2019, the 12-time French Open champion’s return contradicted this previously-held supposition. This shifting of perceptions is why Laver Cup has turned problematic to the Tour’s other mainstay events.
If Laver Cup were to be regarded as merely an exhibition, a tournament with no relevance to how the ATP tour progressed year-on-year with its usual clanking schedule, all of the players’ emotiveness and reactions would have been on par with the idea of livening it up for its sake.
On the other hand, when two former world no. 1s were heard sternly telling their touted successor not to be negative for the rest of his match, it was hard to convince that the whole atmosphere was made-up.
Though, it does bear noting that not being put-on and the ease with which it has been assimilated in tennis’ mainstay have been the catalysts for Laver Cup’s disparaging mooting in certain circles.
The past weekend it coincided with a couple of ATP tournaments, in St. Petersburg and Metz. Both events had several interesting match-ups of their own. Followers deeply vested in the sport knew the happenings across all tournaments held last week. But for casual viewers, it would have come down to picking one event over the rest.
The factoring in of this unnecessary chasm added to the enervation around tennis by making one take sides in a sport that is already at crossroads, without Laver Cup even being mentioned.
Yet, if it were about inclusivity, selectivity in audiences’ preferences is the other side of tennis’ coin. These choices cannot always remain aligned, even in accepting or discarding the tri-day tournament as a consequential pursuit. As Nadal opined, when asked to compare between his other title wins and his Laver Cup team win, “…every single thing is different and is important by itself.”
Novak Djokovic Doesn’t Need Love, Just Respect
He will never win a popularity battle with Federer, but does that really matter?
As a world No.1 with 16 grand slam titles, Novak Djokovic has proven himself to be one of the best players in the world. Yet, amid the outburst of boos following his retirement from the US Open last week, the debate surrounding his popularity in the sport was reignited once again.
Taking on the formidable Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round, a player known to play his best on the biggest stages of the tour, Djokovic called it quits during the early stages of the third set. Citing a shoulder problem as the reason. Something that had bothered him during the earlier rounds. On the Arthur Ashe stadium, the crowd was less than pleased with his decision to stop.
“I’m not being offended or mistreated by anybody. I don’t really pay too much attention on that.” Djokovic said of the crowd. “I like to respect others. I hope that others can respect me and my decision.’
“I’m sorry for the crowd. Obviously they came to see a full match, and just wasn’t to be. That’s all it is.’
“I mean, a lot of people didn’t know what’s happening, so you cannot blame them. It is what it is.”
The New York crowd are certainly unique when it comes to other grand slams. When you go to Wimbledon there is a guard at every gate to direct you to your seat. Talking during points is frowned upon and misbehaviour is certainly not tolerated. In Flushing Meadows, there is no such thing with people casually walking around the stadium during points. Highlighted by one journalist during the women’s semi-final who tweeted ‘Why are people just strolling around in the Arthur Ashe Stadium? Get to your f***ing seats.’
“Well, no, I really believe that he doesn’t deserve of course,’ Rafael Nadal commented about his rival. “I believe that he’s a super athlete. If he had to go is because he was not able to continue at all.
“For him is much more painful than for anyone on that Arthur Ashe Stadium.”
At a glance all of this could be put down to the sometimes rowdy New York contingent at Flushing Meadows. However, this isn’t the first time Djokovic has been in this situation.
Taking to the Wimbledon final back in July it was more than evident that he wasn’t the crowd favourite. It was rival Roger Federer, who won the event seven times. Chants of ‘Federer’ erupted around Centre Court. Prompting the Serbian to mentally transmute those calls into one of his own name.
It is clear that Djokovic is a powerhouse and an icon in the world of tennis given his achievements, but for some reason he isn’t able to generate as much popularity as his two rivals. Illustrated by their social media accounts.
*numbers as of 10/9/2019
Whilst the 32-year-old may not be the most popular man in the world of tennis, that isn’t to say that he doesn’t have a loyal fan base. On social media that are groups of die-hard ‘Nole’ fans ready to defend their man from any potential criticism he receive. From first hand knowledge, some of them are very feisty to say the least.
The debate surrounding the popularity of the Big Three is one that will likely continue beyond their retirement, but that doesn’t mean that the focus should be taken away from their outstanding achievements. For Djokovic, he is the first player to earn more than $100 million in prize money, the first to win four consecutive ATP Finals, the oldest-ever year-end No.1 and the only man to win every Masters 1000 title.
Many have said his reception in the world of sport triggers memories of Ivan Lendl. In 1987 he graced the front cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption ‘the champion that nobody cares about.’ A reserved Lendl struggled to struck a special connection with the crowd in North America compared to what some of his opponents managed to do. Fortunately, he was later recognized and appreciated more for his contribution to the sport.
As for Djokovic, he is somewhat on the same ground as Lendl, but not to such an extent. It would be quite inconceivable for a magazine to place him on their front cover using the same caption as what was used for Lendl. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly similarities.
It is likely that Djokovic will not be as popular as Federer, but that isn’t a problem. An all-time great is measured by their records in the sport and not how many are cheering them on. He shouldn’t be loved by everybody in the world, no player has the right to that entitlement. However, what he does deserve is a degree of respect. Something that is sometimes forgotten by the public attending the world’s biggest tennis events.
Maybe Djokovic’s true impact on the sport will not be recognized until he walks away for good. Whenever that will be.
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