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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It Isn’t Just Football Who Are Mourning The Loss Of Diego Maradona

The world of football has lost one of its icons and tennis has lost a loyal fan.

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Diego Maradona (image via Sky Sports Tennis Twitter)

It was during the 2013 Dubai Tennis Championships when Diego Armando Maradona stated that tennis was his second favourite sport after his beloved football.

 

The Argentinian sporting icon was a passionate and enthusiastic follower for more than 30 years until his death on Wednesday due to a heart attack. Regularly he would be seen watching matches in crowds at various tournaments. One of the earliest anecdotes took place in 1984 when he turned up to watch the French Open final and cheered on John McEnroe, who was taking on Ivan Lendl. Swiss journalist Rene Stauffer was sitting next to him and remembers the iconic figure ‘cheering like crazy.

Of course it was his fellow countrymen and women who Maradona was most interested in supporting. One in particular was Juan Martin del Potro who won the 2009 US Open. He once joked ‘Next week I’ll be the one training del Potro myself. I will ask Franco Davin to step aside and Diego will train del Potro.‘ He appeared to have a great amount of respect for the former world No.3 who is one of thousands mourning his death.

I feel that you return to the place that belongs to you, HEAVEN. For me you will never die. Rest in peace,” Del Potro wrote on Twitter.

After retiring from professional football in 1997 Maradona encountered his own personal demons as he battled with health issues and drug addiction. Nevertheless, his passion for sport never suffered. Attending various Davis Cup ties, he was usually seen shouting and cheering for his countrymen. He even had his own VIP box sporting his country’s flag with the words ‘The Maradona family is here‘ during the 2017 final between Argentina and Croatia.

Despite his calibre, Maradona said that he was star struck to meet some of tennis’ top names. One of those was former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki who got talking to him during the Dubai Tennis Championships seven years ago. At the time Maradona was an ambassador for the Dubai Sports Council (DSC).

“I had the pleasure to meet Caroline Wozniacki. She is one of the top players and she is very beautiful and a very nice girl,” he said. “Despite her ranking and all her achievements, she came to say hello to me, although I’m the one who wanted to get up and go and greet her.”

As for the three giants of men’s tennis, Maradona cheered them on and spoke to them on numerous occasions. Wheather that was in person or via video message.

For Rafael Nadal this year marks the 10th anniversary of when the two spoke with each other at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. When the news broke of Maradona’s death he was one of the first to pay tribute.

“One of the greatest sportsmen in history, Diego Maradona, has left us. What he did in football will remain. My deepest and most heartfelt condolences to his family, the world of football, and to all of Argentina.” He wrote on social media.

It was in the same tournament as Nadal when Novak Djokovic once said ‘to have him as a supporter is an incredible honour and a pleasure.‘ A few months on from that, the two briefly spent time together in Abu Dubai as the Serbian conducted his off-season training.

One of Maradona’s final interactions with tennis before his death took place last year when Roger Federer played an exhibition match in Buenos Aires. In a video message broadcasted on the screens of the stadium he said to the Swiss ‘you were, you are and will be the greatest. There’s no other like you.‘ Words that brought tears to the eye of the 20-time Grand Slam champion. Originally the two had planned to meet in person but were unable to due to Maradona’s health.

It was just three weeks ago when world No.9 Diego Schwartzman spoke out about the influence the footballing great has had on his country. The two never met in person but like many others, he was an idol for the tennis star.

“He’s been a sports idol since I was a kid. I’ve seen it on YouTube, not only, I’ve seen it on TV too. I’ve never seen him for real. He’s one of my soccer idols and I love soccer.” Schwartzman said.
“Wherever we go, everyone knows Argentina thanks to Maradona! This is the reason why I have the first name, Diego.”

Argentina has declared three days of national mourning following Maradona’s death.

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The ATP Finals Exceeded Expectations But There Was No Changing Of The Guard

Daniil Medvedev has shown how a player outside of the Big Three can shine at one of the most significant tournaments in men’s tennis but it is wrong to read too much into this achievement.

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Daniil Medvedev with the Nitto ATP Finals trophy (image via https://twitter.com/DaniilMedwed)

On Sunday afternoon the 2020 tennis season ended with a pulsating showdown between two of the biggest names outside of the formidable Big Three.

 

Daniil Medvedev held his nerve to fight back and edge out Dominic Thiem in an enthralling roller-coaster encounter that lasted almost three hours. Besides claiming the biggest title of his career to date, the Russian has become only the fourth player in history to defeat the world’s top three players at the same tournament, following in the footsteps of Boris Becker, Novak Djokovic and David Nalbandian.

In the aftermath of Medvedev’s victory came the inevitable question – is this the start of a new era in men’s tennis? For over the last decade the Tour has been dominated by Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Between them they have won 57 Grand Slam titles and shared the No.1 position continuously since August 2017. In fact, since February 2nd 2004, Andy Murray is the only other player outside of the trio to have held the top position.

“Hopefully all of us young guys will keep pushing and will have some great rivalries,” Medvedev told reporters on Sunday.
“Hopefully we can be there for a long time, maybe pushing the other generations back because that’s how we can be close to the Top 3.”

Medvedev’s emphatic performance at the end-of-season event showed that he has what it takes to scale the top of the game but recent history suggests that too much shouldn’t be read into it. Remarkably no member of the Big Three has won the event since Djokovic in 2015. Instead there have been five different champions most recently with each of those years raising hopes that there could be a changing of the guard on the Tour.

However, those hopes have never fully materialised. Prior to Medvedev, the four most recent ATP Finals champions have failed to win multiple titles the following year. In the case of 2017 winner Grigor Dimitrov, he hasn’t won a trophy of any sort since.

ATP Finals championTitles won over the next 12 monthsBest Grand Slam run over next 12 monthsYear-end ranking 12 months later
Andy Murray (2016)1French Open SF16 (down 15)
Grigor Dimitrov (2017)0Australian Open QF19 (down 16)
Alexander Zverev (2018)1French Open QF 7 (down 4)
Stefanos Tsitsipas (2019)1French Open SF 6 (no change)


It can be argued that the numbers above fail to tell the full story. For example Andy Murray’s injury woes started to hinder him the year after he won the tournament and Tsitsipas’ season has been marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it does illustrate that staying at the very top of the game on a consistent basis without beng a member of the Big Three is a tough ask, raising questions about if the landscape of men’s tennis will ever change before Djokovic and co retire?

“There is going to be a time when they are not around anymore, then it’s going to be so important to keep all the tennis fans and to keep them with this great sport,” world No.3 Thiem explains.
“I think that’s our challenge, that we perform well and play great in big tournaments to become huge stars ourselves.
“It’s super important for tennis in general because they (the Big Three) gave so much to the sport. That’s our challenge to keep all those people with tennis and to maybe continue their story.”

Thiem boasts the honour of having at least five wins over every member of the trio, something  that has only ever been achieved by Murray. In London he defeated both Nadal and Djokovic which was something Medvedev also managed to achieve during the same week.

Veteran journalist Steve Flink perhaps is one of the most knowledgeable figures when it comes to the evolution of men’s tennis in the Open Era. His work in the sport dates back to 1972 when he was a statistician covering the US Open for CBS and working alongside the iconic Bud Collins. In a video chat with UbiTennis, Flink notes the recent shortcomings by ATP Finals champions but is hopeful that 2021 could be different.

“I don’t think we should put too much stock on this. On the other hand, Medvedev has ended the year strong and Thiem has now finally won a major at the US Open. You have to believe that these two guys will be threatening (for titles) next year with Thiem challenging for his second major and Medvedev to maybe win his first. So maybe there will be some more equity in men’s tennis,” he said.

Only time will tell about what may happen next year and if Medvedev’s ATP Finals triumph will have any impact at all. The only certainty is that more people are starting to talk about the other guys and that is a victory in itself for the future of the sport.

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COMMENT: Rafa At His Best Was Way Too Much For Novak To Handle

The long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper, James Beck, gives his take on the French Open men’s final.

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Rafael Nadal (image via https://twitter.com/rolandgarros)

This French Open was all about Rafa Nadal.

 

Even the new women’s French Open champion, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek, is one of his fans.

Matching Roger Federer’s record 20 Grand Slam singles titles was pretty special in a year filled with the deadly coronavirus. The fact that possibly the sweetest victory of his long career came against longtime rival Novak Djokovic made it even more special.

Djokovic still stands three Grand Slam singles titles shy of the record number of 20. Only now, Novak  has to chase both Nadal and Federer for the all-time record.

NOVAK DIDN’T LOOK HIMSELF

Of course, Djokovic didn’t look himself in his 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 loss to Nadal on Sunday on the red clay of  Roland Garros, especially in the first set and maybe the second one, too.

Nadal obviously had something to do with that. Rafa played one of his best Grand Slam matches ever. He humbled Djokovic in much the same way he has totally dominated Federer in a couple of Grand Slam finals.

Nadal would not surrender even a point without a fight as he wore down the Serbian Wonder. Nadal actually out-moved and out-hit Djokovic. Nadal always seemed to be one move ahead of Djokovic, even during Novak’s usually dominant drop-shot attack.

DJOKOVIC’S DROP-SHOT ATTACK APPEARED TO SET RAFA ON FIRE

Djokovic came out drop-shotting as he attempted to frustrate the Spanish left-hander one more time with his deft drop shots. But Djokovic’s early strategy backfired as the strategy appeared to put even more fire into Nadal’s veins.

Nadal was ready for the drop shots this time, moving in quickly to repeatedly pass Djokovic down the backhand line or executing perfect slice backhands almost directly cross-court that Djokovic had no chance to return.

Obviously Nadal has been seriously practicing on his drop-shot returns. He also seemed to concentrate on hitting baseline shots with more air than usual, making them drop down closer to the baseline. He also used a heavily sliced backhand on balls near the surface line that hugged the net and stayed low, causing Djokovic to get low and  to hit up on balls just off the clay surface.

But at any time, at the slightest opening, Nadal turned his forehands and backhands into weapons of power.

NADAL’S TOUGHEST FINAL BECAME ONE OF HIS EASIEST

Yes, this was supposed to be Nadal’s toughest French Open to win, due to the cooler weather this time of the year in Paris and slower court conditions. And there also was the added pressure of going for Grand Slam title No. 20.

But the heavy court conditions seemed to be in Rafa’s favor, not Novak’s. And Nadal handled the pressure situation as if it was a walk in the park..

Nadal repeatedly pounded outright winners off both wings as Djokovic could only watch.

THE CLOSED ROOF MIGHT HAVE EVEN HELPED RAFA

Rain was in the forecast, so the new Philippe Chatrier Stadium roof was closed this time for its first men’s final. That solved the problem of heavy shadows that seemed to frustrate Sofia Kenin a day earlier in her one-sided women’s final loss to Swiatek.

Everything was perfectly aligned for Rafa on this day.

Even usual Djokovic fan John McEnroe was chatting from Los Angeles on the TV telecast that “Rafa is in the zone.” In the second set, McEnroe referred to the match as not even being competitive at the time.

Johnny Mac was simply telling it like it was. Nadal simply was the far superior player on this day.

James Beck has been the long-time tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.

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