US Open, The Future Belongs To The Russians, But The Present To The Mothers - UBITENNIS
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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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Laver Back In the Conversation For Greatest Player?

Daniil Medvedev thwarted Djokovic’s Calendar Year Grand Slam ambitions and is ready to take over as the best in the game.

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Who’s the greatest player ever?

 

How about Rod Laver, the owner of two Calendar Grand Slams?

Or what about Rafa Nadal, the owner of 21 major singles titles (including Olympic Gold)?

Or what about 20-20-20-Laver?

HOW DOES 20-20-20-LAVER SOUND?

Since Novak Djokovic failed in his bid to win a Calendar Grand Slam on Sunday, I nominate the last of the three possibilities. 20-20-20-Laver sounds like a winner.

For Djokovic just to enter the conversation was a major achievement, and that was spurred by the Serbian’s bid for a Calendar Grand Slam.

Daniil Medvedev ended that conversation on Sunday, at least for now, with his straight-set 4-4-4 dismantling of Djokovic in the U.S. Open final.

DISAPPOINTING YEAR FOR NOVAK

As 2021 turned out, it was a really disappointing year for Djokovic, even though he won the year’s first three Grand Slam events. Most players would be out celebrating if they won three Grand Slams in one year.

The loss to Alexander Zverev in the Tokyo Olympics ended Novak’s Golden Grand Slam. And then Medvedev took care of the Calendar Grand Slam talk and the possibility of Djokovic breaking a 20-20-20 deadlock with Nadal and Roger Federer.

So, what’s next? I doubt that Novak is planning to skip the Australian Open in January. Even that one won’t be easy for Djokovic as a result of what has happened in late summer.

NO PICNIC DOWN UNDER FOR NOVAK

Djokovic has practically owned the Australian Open with nine titles in Melbourne, and eight of the last 11. But Medvedev and Zverev will be major obstacles for Djokovic in Melbourne, along with Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The Australian Open isn’t likely to be a picnic for Novak, even if Federer and Nadal skip the trip. If so, Federer and Nadal will be leaving the Australian Open in capable hands.

Things should start heating up by the quarterfinals Down Under.

By the way, Djokovic is 34 years old. That’s about the age Nadal started having trouble winning Grand Slams.

A DOMINANT VICTORY FOR THE RUSSIAN

Medvedev beat Djokovic at just about everything he tried on Sunday. Djokovic was never in the game on serving competition or powerful forehands.

Those areas belonged to the 25-year-old Russian.

And movement? On this day, Medvedev had a picnic. The 6-6 first-time Grand Slam winner was everywhere with his amazing quickness. Djokovic couldn’t put a dent in his baseline defense.

Medvedev even out-did Djokovic in the Serbian’s usually solid drop shot department, pinning  even more disappointment on Novak.

Novak even caused a ball girl to change directions during the match as he swung his racket near the surface in  frustration after losing a point. Later, he punished his racket by smashing it into the court and destroying it.

MEDVEDEV’S SERVE MADE THE DIFFERENCE

The key to the relatively easy win for Medvedev was his serve. He was a perfect 15-for-15 on first-serve points in the opening set.

Medvedev obviously had little trouble with his serve until he was ready to end the match. With Medvedev owning a match point at 5-2 in the third set, the crowd tried to help Djokovic. Only then when the crowd got into the act of trying to break Medvedev’s attention did he double-fault twice in a row before netting a forehand to give Djokovic the game.

But in the final game of the match, Medvedev was ready for the crowd attack, although he double-faulted another match point away before ending the match with a big serve out wide for a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory. Djokovic managed only to hit the bottom of the net with his backhand return.

And suddenly, the tall Russian looks like the best player in the game.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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Raducanu Proved She’s The Better Player

The British sensation shocked the tennis world – can she keep it up in the coming years?

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They played in the largest tennis stadium in the world.

 

They were teenagers. They achieved a dream early in their careers.

It just as easily could have been a junior championship a year earlier in their careers.

Only a few people would have been watching then. Such an event might not even have drawn newspaper coverage.

REAL LIFE NOW SETS IN

This meeting was much bigger and more important. The two participants would be $2.7 million richer between them before the day ended. They would become famous the world over, at least for now.

But this was Saturday, 9/11/21.

Real life now sets in. There probably are at least 100 other players in the world who are just as outstanding as Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez. Yet, most of them will never be involved in a Grand Slam singles final.

NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN

What Raducanu and Fernandez accomplished will never be forgotten, always listed in tennis annals.

England will always be proud of its new Grand Slam champion. At long last, Virginia Wade has company.

And Canada will never forget its feisty Grand Slam runner-up.

They stood the test while other more touted and talented players buckled at the knees. High-ranked players crumbled at the thought of losing to a mere teenager.

Next time, that advantage probably won’t exist.

BRITISH 18-YEAR-OLD WAS THE STRONGER PLAYER

Raducanu and Fernandez played the final like the teenagers they are.

Raducanu came close to making it a one-sided result when she held match point twice with a 5-2 lead in the second set. But Fernandez did not give up on her left-handed game that Raducanu had conquered before in the junior ranks.

After losing both points and the game to make the match closer, Raducanu fought off a pair of break points in the next game before making good on her third match point for a 6-4, 6-3 victory.

The British 18-year-old generally outplayed the 19-year-old Fernandez most of the 111-minute final. Raducanu had more firepower on her serve and ground strokes.

RADUCANU A PERFECT 10

Raducanu played like a tour veteran, even if it was only her fourth tour-level event. It was her 10th straight win without dropping a set, counting her three wins in qualifying just to get into the main draw. No women’s qualifier before even had advanced to a Grand Slam final.

She has the game to win consistently on the tour, but probably not strong enough to challenge the Top 10 players and Grand Slam titlists right away. She’s now no longer under the radar. Everyone wants to beat a Grand Slam champion.

This may have been just a one-shot opening that Raducanu took full advantage of to win a Grand Slam title.  Just in case the road ahead gets bumpy, she might want to be thrifty with the $1.8 million payday.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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Novak Djokovic Was Pushed To An Amazing Performance

Zverev fell just short of beating the world N.1, and now Medvedev is the last obstacle still standing on his path to a Calendar Year Grand Slam

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Novak Djokovic was simply amazing Friday night.

 

True, he made a few mistakes against Alexander Zverev, but not when they counted most.

Zverev also was superb, but his mistakes came when they counted really big.

For those reasons, Djokovic is getting ready to play for the unthinkable. No one had thought much about a Calendar Grand Slam until back in June when Djokovic shocked the tennis world with a victory over Rafa Nadal at the French Open.

By the time Wimbledon came around without Roger Federer and Nadal in the field, the odds were high that Djokovic actually could achieve a Calendar Grand Slam. And then he won Wimbledon and in the process turned the race for most Grand Slam titles into a 20-20-20 battle.

ZVEREV CAME CLOSE TO SPOILING THINGS

When Federer and Nadal pulled out of the U.S. Open, all of Djokovic’s goals except a Golden Grand Slam when he lost to Zverev at the Olympics were in play.

Nearly two weeks later, Djokovic is one victory away from breaking out of the 20-20-20 deadlock as well as completing a rare Calendar Grand Slam.

Zverev pressed Djokovic into playing his very best to escape with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory in the U.S. Open semifinals. Only a cold start to the fifth set chilled Zverev’s hopes of spoiling Novak’s dreams.

Even after losing the first five games of the fifth set, Zverev still came close to making things interesting by winning the next two games and going to 30-30 in the eighth game.

MEDVEDEV HAS THE GAME TO WIN

Zverev’s improving game, and his big strokes and serves probably were enough to make Novak hope he won’t have to face Zverev’s hard balls again in January at the Australian Open.

That leaves only Daniil Medvedev between Djokovic and immortality.

Medvedev will have to be at his best to beat Novak. The slender 6-6 Russian can’t afford even a brief meltdown if he is to take Djokovic to the wire.

Medvedev appeared to be in awe of Djokovic when the two met in  this year’s Australian Open final.  Djokovic won that one easily in straight sets.

DANIIL IS DUE TO MAKE HIS MARK; IT’S HIS TIME

Medvedev’s game is a piece of work. He is completely unpredictable.

His whip forehand is one of the best shots in tennis. He backs it up with incredible movement.

It all depends on whether Medvedev can stick with Novak until the end. If Medvedev is still there, Novak likely will feel the heavy legs from his 214-minute bout with Zverev.

Not even Djokovic can out-move Medvedev. And the Russian’s uniquely quick serve has plenty of pop. He is due to win a Grand Slam.

But Medvedev will have to pull off a miracle against one of the smartest and slyest players tennis has ever seen if he is to win this U.S. Open.


James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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