Amid the huddle of early-round exits and some scattered withdrawals, a couple of players made the most of opportunities they received at the 2019 US Open. Dominik Koepfer and Hyeon Chung came through the qualifying rounds to win their initial couple of rounds with conviction and make their way forward even as rest of the playing field blew open around them.
Being qualifiers is the denominator common to them this week. Yet, in a way, the 23-year-old Chung is trudging a familiar route as compared with the 25-year-old Koepfer who is a relative newer face to watch at the Slams.
In 2018, Chung had made it to his first semi-final at a Major – at the Australian Open – taking down then six-time champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth round. The 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals’ titlist reached a career-high of 19 in the world after his Australian Open jaunt in 2018. Koepfer, on the other hand, is yet to break into the top-100 – with a career-high of no. 113 attained in the second-week of August. His best result at the Majors – before his fourth-round appearance at the US Open – was reaching the second round at Wimbledon this year.
None of these differences in the respective roads they have travelled on the Tour mattered as they tried to make it to the main draw. Chung’s injuries that kept him away from the circuit (for almost five months this year) meant he had to start from scratch, at the Challenger level. Koepfer’s being a mainstay on the Challenger circuit – for now – meant he, too, would start from the same position.
In doing so, the sport has made levellers out of them. Their past results do not matter. It is how they do against the opponent of the day that matters. Three qualifying rounds followed by the sterner main-draw test that also comes by way of lengthier matches. In this regard, Chung has already faced two such difficult matches in his first two rounds this week against Ernesto Escobedo and Fernando Verdasco in which he had to play five-setters to extricate himself.
The draw’s narrowing has also meant the task ahead of them has gotten harder. This is also where their paths diverge once again. If Tulane University alumnus in Koepfer is the equivalent of a dark horse, Chung’s previous experience makes him a dangerous floater.
If the two end up being truthful to this tag of theirs, the chaos component at this year’s US Open will be the accentuation separating itself from the monotonous.
COMMENT: Was Carlos Alcaraz Flying Above His Real Game?
Over the weekend Carlos Alcaraz reached yet another milestone in his young career. However, the win needs to be put into some perspective too.
Young Carlos Alcaraz was brutal in his conquest of Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev on three consecutive days.
But it wasn’t all Alcaraz on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Madrid. He had help.
Nadal wasn’t ready to play yet, certainly not against someone as talented as Alcaraz appears to be. Nadal lacked training and confidence in his comeback from a rib injury suffered just a few weeks ago at the Indian Wells tournament.
RAFA WASN’T THE REAL RAFA
Nadal wasn’t the true Rafa. He missed simple shots and couldn’t find the handle on many other unforced errors.
And Djokovic? He kept making the same mistakes over and over. It was side-to-side, or nothing for the Serbian Wonder. Of course that style of play has been good enough to win 20 Grand Slam titles for Novak.
But Alcaraz is a cross-court magician, backhand or forehand. Alcaraz just looked like he was a faster mover than Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev. Alcaraz is a rugged mover, much like a football player. He isn’t in the class of smooth and fluid movers such as Nadal and Djokovic.
Alcaraz has an unpredictable backhand otherwise, like from the middle of the court where his over-hit backhands find the middle of the net quite often. That is, if his opponent makes him hit more backhands from the middle of the court.
ZVEREV TOTALLY UNFOCUSED
Then there was Zverev, trying to win his third Madrid Open. He was terrible. He was worst than Nadal and Djokovic put together. Zverev seemed to be sleep-walking or wishing he had skipped Madrid. He was that unfocused.
Alcaraz made the trio of top five players look like satellite circuit players. The 19-year-old Spaniard was viciously good. Obviously, his victims weren’t prepared for much of anything Alcaraz released on them.
Alcaraz may really be as good as he looked. But he can’t get much better than that.
Yes, he is too good to be true.
But Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev can play better.
PARIS, LONDON AND NEW YORK FANS DIFFERENT
The ATP Tour season isn’t over yet. There are still three Grand Slam singles trophies to be won.
And Spain is history for another year of hosting big ATP men’s tennis tournaments.
The fans in Paris, London and New York won’t be quiet as appreciative of the Spanish teen-ager’s every point.
But unless Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev change their game plans, it could be a long year for the trio and a joy ride the rest of the year for the kid.
ALCARAZ PLAYS TOTAL-ATTACK TENNIS
Alcaraz reminds me of Pete Sampras in a way. Like Sampras, Alcaraz plays total-attack tennis. Big forehands. Big serves. He just goes for the winner, regardless of the circumstances.
Throw the Alcaraz drop shot into the equation, and anything might happen. The drop shot may have been the real difference maker, especially against Nadal and Djokovic. They never figured it out or when it was coming.
The Alcaraz drop shot was that good.
Zverev never got into the match enough for the Alcaraz drop shots to make much difference.
This debate really might come down to the age differential between Alcaraz, and Nadal and Djokovic.
It’s almost unimaginable to think that a 19-year-old could maintain the level of play and health for about two decades in the likeness of Nadal and Djokovic. Or even Roger Federer. No one knows what the future holds, or when another drop-shot artist might take over the game.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as a tennis columnist in Charleston, S.C.. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
A Renaissance of American Tennis
Like a steadily rising tide, fresh generations are taking the reins of US tennis
by Kingsley Elliot Kaye
The all-American final in Houston caps the positive trend of American Tennis in the last months. The pinnacle was Taylor Fritz’s triumph at Indian Wells, but a fresh generation of young American players has been making the headlines day after day with their results and performances. Is it too hasty to speak about a resurgence?
The US has always shaped the history of Lawn Tennis. From its outset, with champions like Bill Tilden, Donald Budge, Jack Kramer, to the open era: players like Connors, McEnroe, Sampras and Agassi still stand out as icons of our sport.
American players have often left a technical legacy, bringing innovation to the game. Just to mention a few: Big Bill Tilden was the first to employ perfectly executed dropshots and to lay special focus on tactics and even psychology. In the 50s Jack Kramer brought in power, a key asset of the game.
Connors with his aggressive anticipation can be considered as the forerunner of a gameplay which later was implemented by Agassi and has become a feature of contemporary tennis. Jim Courier proved how powerful and incessant groundstroke drilling can lead to the very top. McEnroe stands out as an unprecedented genius.
A Tennis movement is not just defined by its most glittering stars. Its consistency and durability rely on a plurality of players who constitute the bearing frame. They may not be regulars in the top 10, or even top 20, but will enjoy a career on the tour reaping consistent results and occasional breakthroughs to the highest.
Swedish tennis, for instance, inspired by Borg, in a few years was able to deploy a manifold cluster of young and eager players, not only following in the footsteps of their father, with his revolutionary double-handed topspin backhand and a rock-solid mental, but also venturing out in the serve and volley area. Names like Stefan Edberg and Anders Jarryd ring a bell for many.
German champions Boris Becker and Michael Stich were joined by a vivacious bunch, whose ranking ranged between top 20 and top 50: Steeb. Jelen, Kuhnen. In their wake came the Kiefer and Haas and Schuettler generation.
Instead, a world No. 1 from Brazil, Guga Kuerten, who enlightened the passage to the new millennium with his charismatic and joyful personality, remained a lone runner.
In the seventies American tennis averaged 30 players in the top 100, which often meant 3 in the top ten and 8 in the top twenty. The decade which followed witnessed a staggering peak of 45 in 1982, with 10 players in the top 20, and 25 in the top 50. Ivan Lendl is included in the count, but this does not cast a shadow on such figures.
The nineties were marked by the Courier/Chang/Agassi/Sampras generation, but showed some signs of decline beneath the golden surface, with a decreasing number of players in the top 100.
Andy Roddick was a valiant flag bearer of Stars and Stripes tennis in the first decade of the New Millennium, with his US Open victory in 2002, three Wimbledon finals and one US Open final, 5 ATP Master Series and 13 weeks at the top spot of the ranking. Yet US tennis definitively started dropping behind its history. The last ATP Ranking in 2005 featured Roddick (No.3), Agassi (No. 7) and Ginepri (No. 15) in the top 20, and only five other players in the top 100.
After Roddick retired in 2012, now and then American players succeeded in coming up with spotlight performances. Long John Isner for instance with his Miami triumph in 2018 and, in the same year, his unforgettable Wimbledon semi-final in which after 6 hours and 36 minutes, he eventually surrendered to South African Kevin Anderson 26-24 in an epic fifth set.
Jason Sock won the 2017 Paris Bercy Open, which allowed him to reach his best ranking, No. 8.
Sam Querry reached a Wimbledon semi-final in 2017 shattering British hopes for glory when he stunned Murray in quarterfinals, a notch above his 2016 run when he had knocked out Djokovic in the round of 16.
However exciting these results could be, they still had a somewhat sporadic flavour. Rankings are a truthteller, if not on sheer talent, on consistency: those years only Isner and Sock broke into the top ten and there was a low point in 2013, with no American in the top 20, worsened in 2021, when at times no US player was ranked in the top 30.
In spite of a still disappointing 2021 US Open, during the months which followed there was something in the air, something rising. Isner, Opelka and Fritz back in the top 30. Tiafoe, Korda, Paul in the 50; Brooksby, McDonald, Giron, Nakashima closely chasing. In fact, the last 2022 ATP ranking featured 12 American flags in the top 100.
And then this array of results in 2022, with Tiafoe’s final in Vienna in October 2021 as a prelude. Fritz triumphed at Indian Wells Open, Opelka in Dallas and Houston. Brooksby was runner up in Dallas and best Tsitsipas in Indian Wells. Cressy too made the final of the Melbourne Summer Set as Isner did in Houston yesterday. Speaking about performances, Korda was one point away from defeating Nadal in the second round at Indian Wells.
Often a tennis movement embodies a style. When we think of the Swedes, our memories rush back to beautifully geometrically conceived groundstrokes. Or the Spanish, traditionally born on clay courts, formidable baseline players determined to scurry and retrieve any ball, gradually evolving and adapting to the times.
American tennis, indeed, has always been characterised by variety, which is not surprising, considering the amplitude of the nation and its heterogeneity. And now it is just the case.
This new wave of US tennis is currently captained by Taylor Fritz, a solid all-round player, whose self-confidence surely will be boosted by his win in Indian Wells. Big serve (with some volley) is represented by Reilly Opelka. Sebastian Korda is an emblem of variety (his father’s genes may have had their say!), just as Jenson Brooksby, who is a strategy master too. Frances Tiafoe represents an all-offensive tennis. Tommy Paul, McKenzie McDonald and Brandon Nakashima are endowed with strong groundstrokes, excellent footwork and propension to attack. Maxime Cressy has revived pure serve and volley. Experienced players Isner, Giron and Kudla contribute to the team’s overall strength and consistency.
Some still may say that this cluster of American players may not appear as overpowering as in the past. It may be conceded. But times are different as well.
From 2005 to 2022 the cake of Majors was divided for the most part among Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, with Murray and Wawrinka getting their fair share (3 each) and outsiders Del Potro and Cilic, and more recently Thiem and Medvedev getting one bite.
Over the next few years the tennis scenario could be quite different and resemble the 1995-2003 period, with 17 different winners in the Majors. If competition gets as tight once more, with several top players standing a chance of winning a Major, these fresh US players will be in the number.
The clay season is about to get underway. The last American triumph at Roland Garros dates back to 1992, and Chang reached the final in 1995 proving that his win in 1989 was no stroke of luck. Despite meagre harvests in the recent years a few breakthroughs do stand out: Isner’s quarter-final in Madrid 2021, Opelka semi-final Rome 2021. At Roland Garros in 2020 Korda lost to his idol Rafa Nadal in the 4th round and Isner reached the same stage in 2018.
This time the feeling is that a new cycle has started, and this Renaissance is capable of breaking many boundaries.
Carlos Alcaraz Surging Into The Forefront Of Tennis
Tennis Hall of Famer Steve Flink reflects on the extraordinary rise of the 18-year-old Spaniard.
Seventeen years ago, the exhilarating Rafael Nadal surged into the final of the Miami Masters 1000 tournament, and the Spaniard nearly took home the title. He moved ahead of Roger Federer by two sets to love and 4-1 in the third set before the Swiss managed to engineer a magnificent comeback to prevail in five sets and seal the crown. Nadal was still 18 then but, despite his anguishing setback against Federer, it was apparent that the dynamic southpaw was headed inexorably toward the forefront of the sport. Nadal won no fewer than eleven tournaments across that sterling season including his first major at Roland Garros. He finished the year at No. 2 in the world. This inexhaustible competitor has never looked back, claiming a record 21 majors altogether, reaffirming his greatness time and again when it has counted the most.
The feeling grows that another 18-year-old Spaniard with a strikingly similar penchant for producing his best when the stakes are highest has demonstrably shown that he, too, belongs among the elite. Carlos Alcaraz established himself as the youngest ever to win the Miami Open when he defeated the Norwegian Casper Ruud 7-5, 6-4 in the final. Alcaraz, the No. 14 seed, is the third youngest ever to collect a Masters 1000 crown. Michael Chang was the youngest when he came through to win Toronto in 1990 at 18, and Nadal was the second youngest when he took the Monte Carlo title at 18 in 2005. It is no accident that Alcaraz has stamped his authority at such a young age, and only a matter of time before he captures one of the four major events. The feeling grows that Alcaraz will succeed at a Grand Slam tournament later this season, perhaps in late summer in New York at the U.S. Open.
No one in the world of men’s tennis has played at this level of the game since Nadal in 2005. To be sure, Nadal exploded in the months after Miami that season and permanently altered the tennis landscape. The way I look at it, Alcaraz is poised to alter his profession similarly across the rest of 2022 and through the remainder of his career. Can he win eleven tournaments this year the way Nadal did in 2005? I doubt that. But he has secured two titles already this season, and undoubtedly will claim at least four or five more the rest of the way. In my view, he will inevitably end 2022 among the top five in the world. In a best case scenario, he might even make a bid for the year-end No 1 spot.
Nadal in 2005 was already a supreme match player, almost always able to raise his level and display his best tennis in the tight corners of the biggest contests, seldom performing like anything less than a wily veteran despite his inexperience. Alcaraz’s exuberance, optimism and intensity is highly reminiscent of Nadal, but his game is decidedly more advanced and diversified than Rafa’s was at the same age.
As the late Ted Tinling—a Hall of Famer and erudite tennis observer—once said, “Comparisons are odious.” Tinling had a point because all tennis champions develop differently and confront challenges that are unique to their own circumstances. Nadal was even more mature at 18 and his shot selection was perhaps more sophisticated and precise, but Alcaraz is surely a more complete player as a teenager. He has essentially the entire package already with his explosive ground game off both wings, his remarkable variety on serve, and his exquisite touch and timely use of the drop shot. His court coverage is almost unparalleled and enables him to steadfastly defend. He forces opponents to press because they are ever conscious of his alacrity around the court. And his willingness to come forward not only off mid-court balls, but also to serve-and-volley selectively, is remarkable. He employs that latter tactic most impressively in the ad court with the kick serve wide to the backhand opening up the court for routine first volleys, or sometimes provoking errant returns.
Against the No. 6 seed Ruud, Alcaraz replicated a pattern he had put into practice all week long in Miami, battling back fiercely, figuring out the right recipe to get the job done, refusing to panic when he was behind. Ruud owns one of the game’s heaviest and finest forehands, and his first serve is underrated. The 23-year-old Norwegian came out of the blocks purposefully and confidently in the final, taking 12 of 18 points in building a 3-0 lead, reaching 4-1 after saving a break point in the fifth game. Alcaraz had been apprehensive in the early stages, dropping his serve in the second game with four unforced errors off the forehand.
But there are few players as perspicacious as Alcaraz in today’s world of tennis, and he made the necessary adjustments, imposing himself much more off the forehand. With Ruud serving at 4-2, the Norwegian missed five of six first serves and Alcaraz refused to allow his adversary to get away with it. He broke back and then surged to 4-4. After Ruud took the ninth game, Alcaraz was stellar under pressure. Serving at 4-5, 30-30, two points from conceding the set, he came forward and coaxed a backhand pass narrowly long from Ruud, and then released an ace at 124 MPH down the T.
Back to 5-5 was an unwavering Alacaraz. He broke once more for 6-5, and soared to 40-15 in the twelfth game before losing three points in a row. Ruud was at break point, but Alcaraz again met a propitious moment forthrightly. He went to the serve-and-volley tactic and Ruud missed the return. After a forehand volley winner gave him a third set point, Alcaraz played serve-volley again, this time putting away an overhead off a hanging backhand return. Set to Alcaraz, 7-5.
He then opened up a commanding 3-0 second set lead with two service breaks in hand. Ruud closed the gap to 3-2 but Alcaraz was unrelenting. He held three more times at the cost of only two points to close out the account 7-5, 6-4. Serving for the match Alcaraz, was letter perfect, holding at love, finishing it off impeccably and unhesitatingly.
The way he recouped in the final was indicative of the entire week for the beguiling Spaniard. His first two matches were relatively straightforward. Alcaraz opened with a 6-3, 6-2 win over the Hungarian Marton Fucsovics. Next he accounted for the 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic 6-4, 6-4.
But then the hard work commenced for the teenager. One of the most absorbing matches of 2021 was Alcaraz’s five set triumph over Stefanos Tsitsipas at the U.S. Open. That was when he announced his authenticity as a top flight player.
They had not met since, but in Miami Tsitsipas was timing the ball sweetly and serving skillfully on his way to a 5-2 first set lead in the round of 16. But Alcaraz swept seven games in a row and 30 of 38 points in that stretch, eventually recording a 7-5, 6-3 victory. Alcaraz had the Greek stylist thoroughly befuddled with his shotmaking wizardry.
Facing the strikingly improved Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic in the quarterfinals, Alcaraz was pushed to the hilt by the world No. 48. Kecmanovic was, as they say in the trade, “rock solid.” He was going toe to toe with the Spaniard from the backcourt and there was little to choose between them. In the third set of this spirited clash, Alcaraz found himself in a precarious position at 4-5, 15-30. His response was extraordinary. Alcaraz drove a flat backhand down the line for a winner, made an astounding forehand half-volley drop shot winner, and then came in behind his serve to implement a drop volley winner.
Alcaraz’s brave stand there brought him back to 5-5 in the final set, but he was on the brink of defeat again in the tie-break, trailing 5-3. Yet the Spaniard produced another stunning forehand half-volley winner, a penetrating backhand down the line which coaxed an error from Kecmanovic, a service winner to the forehand and a spectacular backhand pass up the line. Those four consecutive points lifted Alcaraz to a hard fought 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5) win. Five times he had been within two points of defeat, but Alcaraz was the better man when it counted.
Now facing the defending champion Hubert Hurkacz in the penultimate round, Alcaraz was in a bind again. He trailed 5-3 in the first set tie-break against the 6’5” Polish player, but took four points in a row to turn that critical set around. He won another tie-break in the second set more easily, fashioning a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (2) triumph in a match with no service breaks to take his place in the final. And then, of course, he struck back boldly from that 1-4 deficit in the final, winning nine of the next ten games on his way to a career defining victory.
The men’s game is clearly being reshaped by the captivating Alcaraz, now stationed at No. 11 in the ATP Rankings. Timing is everything in life. Keep in mind that Daniil Medvedev lost to Hurkacz in the quarterfinals of Miami and then announced he is having a hernia operation which will keep him out of the game for a month or two. After rising briefly to No. 1 in the world, he has been sidetracked. Moreover, losing the Australian Open final to Nadal after leading by two sets to love and 3-2, 0-40 in the third was a devastatingly potent blow to the Russian which surely set him back psychologically.
Sascha Zverev was magnificent across the second half of 2021 and won the Nitto ATP Finals at the end of the season. But he has struggled mightily this season and was ill when he lost to Ruud in a three set quarterfinal at Miami. He is not heading into the clay court season with much self conviction.
Nadal, of course, was blazing through 2022, winning his first three tournaments of the season and reaching the final at Indian Wells. A fractured rib slowed him down and interfered with his clay court preparation. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic has played only one tournament this year. He plans on competing in Monte Carlo and Serbia prior to the French Open but the world No. 1 is in dire need of match play.
And so the stage is set for Alcaraz to make his presence known prodigiously in the weeks and months ahead. He fought Nadal down to the wire before losing on a brutally windy day in the semifinals at Indian Wells, but did not look unduly intimidated by his illustrious countryman.
It must be said that Alcaraz will now look at himself in a new light, knowing he is a target. Many players will be intimidated by his sureness overall and his uncanny play under pressure in particular. They will be beaten in many ways before they even step on the court with Alcaraz. But others will look at his exalted status and see an opportunity, competing against him as if they have nothing to lose. It will be crucial for the Spaniard to maintain his admirable reverence for all of the players he confronts, not just the bigger names with the larger reputations.
Somehow, I believe he will handle his changing competitive environment with clarity and maturity. He reminds me temperamentally of Nadal. Alcaraz will not allow himself to get carried away with success. He will relish the chance to keep moving forward, to navigate his way successfully through new territory, to prove to himself that he has the talent and the temperament to become one of the great players of his era and perhaps one of the best of all time.
The hope here is that we will witness some stirring battles between Alcaraz and Nadal as well as some spectacular skirmishes between Alcaraz and Djokovic. The Serbian has never played against the Spaniard. Over the next few years, those matches could be the kind that families discuss animatedly over dinner tables, that fans relish, that all of us celebrate. But in the long run, Alcaraz will be testing his mettle against players we hardly know about at the moment. With his versatile game and dazzling talent, his immense drive and determination, and his unmistakable belief in himself, Carlos Alcaraz will be inspiring audiences all over the world for the next 15 years.
Forgive me for speculating, but when all is said and done, I believe Alcaraz will secure at least 12 to 15 majors across his career, and perhaps a few more. This extraordinary individual is only just beginning to explore his full potential.
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