Guillermo Vilas: The Number One That Never Was - UBITENNIS
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Guillermo Vilas: The Number One That Never Was

UbiTennis has collected the words that journalists and reviewers around the world have written on the new Netflix documentary, “Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score”, which depicts a 12-year-long campaign to have the ATP recognise the Argentine champion as a former world number one.

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This article was originally published by “Lo Slalom”, an Italian newsletter 

On rewriting history or just making it clearer, by Monica Platas, Mundo Deportivo

Now 68, during his tennis career the Argentinian won four Grand Slam tournaments. In particular, in 1977 he won the Roland Garros, the US Open and 14 more tournaments, for a career total of 62. He had a record 53-match winning streak on clay courts, a feat surpassed only by Nadal. Vilas climbed to the second spot in the world ranking on April 30, 1975, keeping it for 83 weeks, but he never reached the top.

Netflix has just released a documentary titled “Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score”. It describes the statistical investigation of Argentine journalist Eduardo Puppo, who demonstrates how and why the ATP never recognised that Vilas should have been No. 1 in the ranking at least once during the best years of his career.

Vilas was famous for several things:  his Southpaw shotmaking, amazing topspin, long hair, and bizarre behaviour. The newly founded Grand Prix circuit made use of very rudimentary technology in order to compute the players’ ranking, a system that painstakingly lacked rigor in its calculations. Because of this, the ATP does not recognise Vilas as a former number one to this day, but Eduardo Puppo has spent twelve years campaigning for the Argentine to be given what’s due. He produced a detailed report of 25,000 pages, recalculating the rankings in the period between August 1973 and the end of 1978. He finally demonstrated that Vilas did actually climb to the top of the rankings, outperforming Borg and Connors during some periods.

The Netflix documentary film shows the reporter’s frustrated illusion and emotional exhaustion facing this daunting task, but Puppo’s disappointment for the ATP’s repeated refusal to update the records is also central to the narrative. In an e-mail, the reporter is told: “Please don’t rewrite history.” This personal, professional and emotional journey on Puppo’s part is an effective narrative way to see again the biography of Guillermo Vilas in parallel with the Puppo’s work. In the documentary, we can listen to some fragments of the tape recordings that Vilas himself recorded while traveling around the world (these fragments were actually useless due to the low quality of the sound). The documentary film poses an interesting dilemma: since the aim of Puppo’s work is to recognize the merits of an athlete’s career, is this just an attempt to rewrite the history or is it a bona fide act of justice? The documentary includes statements by Federer, Becker, Nadal, Sabatini, Wilander and Borg honouring Guillermo by acknowledging his prominence in the sport. Neither Guillermo Vilas nor his journalist friend got the recognition they were looking for, but even if it’s not the same, the documentary will forever remain as a tribute. It does not help to rewrite the history of tennis, but it helps to explain it better. 

A healed fracture by Furio Zara, Blog Overtime Festival

A man, an obsession, an injustice. A story of sports and life. This documentary is a little gem that helps to define clearly and with love the profile of a champion mocked by ill fate.

What a fabulous tennis player. Vilas is manly, intractable, but only for a just cause. Ambition’s fire burned inside him. He was the son of a lawyer, raised in the comfort of the Argentine middle class. A pure lefty, he wore a band in his hair like his frenemy Borg; an introverted man by nature, women loved him nevertheless. A poet on and off the court, he dedicated a composition to Caroline, Princess of Hanover.  One of the best players on the dirt, he considered Wimbledon a court of “grass for cows.” Never to be tamed, he was capable of sensational strokes, a revolutionary who changed the history of tennis and was a role model for those who came after him. He is the father of the “Gran Willy”, also known as the tweener. His back to the net, he hit the ball in mid-air between his legs. He said: “The idea came to my mind while observing an ad with the Argentine tennis player Juan Carlos Harriott. He hit a ball under the legs of a horse, obviously not with the racket but with a polo mallet. It seemed fantastic and I mimicked it in my game.”

The documentary was helmed by Mexican director Matias Guilbert. It shows the fondness for Vilas of authentic tennis legends such as Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Rod Laver and Gabriela Sabatini. Federer honours him by saying, “he had a great influence on the tennis players who came after him.” Nowadays, Vilas is a 68-year-old man, an aging “bandolero” from the Pampas. He is suffering due to a neurodegenerative disease – there are only few moments of mental clarity in his daily life. As the title suggests, the aim of the documentary was not just to create a tribute to an unforgettable champion, but also to finally make things right.  

The gift of imperishable memory for a man who is losing his own by Marco Ciriello, Facebook

It is a hard sell to demonstrate that mistakes were made in the computing of the tennis rankings and that Guillermo Vilas was the best player in the world at some point in the mid-1970s. Journalist Eduardo Puppo has done it, analysing matches and figures, and spent years seeking the evidence to pay tribute to this champion and to get him the accomplishment he deserves. While Puppo was looking for data, points and therefore gestures, victories, cities, fields, tournaments, racquets, Vilas lost his memory. The Netflix documentary film, “Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score”, describes this endeavour, with the tapes recorded by Vilas reminiscing on his life, and the charts by Puppo aa a sort of backdrop to his playing career. It is a great act of love: for tennis, truth, and justice. People that do not know who Vilas is will fall in love with him. They will appreciate him not only for his lefty shots or for the strength of his game at the net. They will think highly of him also for Hendrix, for his vision of the world and his way of life, for having shown that an Argentine and a Swede (Borg) can complement each other: “Your forehand sucks like my backhand, so we helped each other.” Those who already know and love him will find more reasons to hold him in such high regard.

How Vilas’s undefeated streak came to an end, by Gianni Clerici 

An Austrian genius, Werner Fisher, invented a curious way of stringing racquets, and a Yankee philologist nicknamed them “Spaghetti Racquets”. The rotation of the ball was so impressive that an outraged Vilas withdrew from the final of the Aix-en-Provence tournament against Nastase, who played the previous match with the “Spaghetti”. This kind of racket was belatedly declared illegal, Vilas’s long streak already broken at this point.

Vilas’s tears, by Mariano Ryan, Clarín 

Is it necessary that Guillermo Vilas be recognized for what he was on a tennis court, i.e. a number one, a position he already occupies in Argentinian sports lore? And is it really essential, in order to understand his prominence, that someone should review his files and grant him the status of world-best for a few weeks, when for a whole year he clearly paced all his opponents? Is the ATP compelled to listen to the truth uncovered by Puppo in the documentary in order to provide justice? It is very likely that everything will remain as it has been until now and that the campaign will never produce the results it set out to accomplish. Nevertheless, his titles and triumphs cannot be cancelled. The image of Vilas will never change in people’s memory. A champion on and off the court. A stubborn man who wanted to be the best at what he did, and he was the best, for sure.  His tears at the end of the documentary will last.

The reason behind Guillermo’s tears, from La Naciòn 

This touching moment has its own story to tell. It happened at the end of 2016, just before the best Argentine tennis player in history moved to Monte Carlo. Vilas and Puppo were having a conversation about a book in progress. During their meeting, the camera was accidentally left on, and in that moment Vilas’s emotional distress fully showed. He couldn’t bear what he considered an injustice that had lasted for many years. Puppo holds him in the scene, hugs him and even mentions something about a tattoo on Guillermo’s left arm honouring Alejandro, the little brother he barely knew. When they became aware of the existence of that accidental registration, Puppo, Vilas and an attorney, Adrián Sautu de la Riestra, agreed that it should be included in the documentary film, despite the personal nature of the moment.

Earthly justice comes first, by Carlos Navarro, Punto de Break

The ending of the documentary is a sudden gut-punch. It’s akin to a stratospheric fifth set, an exciting title won in stoppage time. These final moments are the perfect conclusion to a journey that starts with the first steps of a young Argentine on the pro tour who ends up carving a spot for himself on the Mount Olympus of tennis. I don’t know if this beautiful Netflix documentary film will change anything. Neither the number one assigned by Tennis World magazine nor years of research can probably do that. What I do know is that it has become a proof to how humble people can do extraordinary things, of how an Argentine journalist and a Romanian mathematician could change the history of an entire sport. Vilas will end up being what he should have been because his life is in its final stages and earthly justice must come before higher ones.

The fragile Titans, by Andrés Burgo, La Nación

Fame, idolatry and eternity. But what about that number one spot? What is it to be the best? Few times I have seen a Titan look as fragile as Guillermo Vilas does in Netflix’s thrilling documentary. When I say fragile, I’m not talking about his health (that’s a private matter), but rather because, despite almost half a century passing by, the old gladiator still wants that the ATP to rectify its rankings. He is a champion, and we believe we are the ones who need champions, although maybe it’s the other way around. We believe that a champion is invincible. The ATP is more hateful than FIFA. Thinking about Maradona, a colleague reminds me of how interviews with Diego always ended in the 90s. “What do you miss in your life?” the reporter asked. “Being more beloved by the people,” Diego replied.

Borg never learned how to pronounce his first name, by Christopher Clarey (New York Times), via Twitter

The ATP did not release rankings regularly in the years when Vilas would have been the world N.1. The old system was based on players’ average results and thus penalized workhorses like Vilas. What I know for sure is he had the best season of any man in 1977. You would need a heart of stone not to feel Vilas’s pain in this film. It was not his quest in many ways. It started without him being aware of it, but being recognized as No. 1 clearly matters deeply to him. This film is also a chance to see remarkable footage of the young Vilas: flowing hair, soulful disposition and legs of steel. The strokes look languid in comparison to what Nadal & Co. do today. The game has evolved and, in my opinion, improved. But Vilas and Borg were great athletes who could have been stars today. Fun fact from the documentary: he and Borg were close friends despite the fact that the latter apparently never learned how to pronounce Guillermo’s first name.

A negative review

“My life is a discovery. I always look for meaning in every circumstance. The first time I saw fire, I burned myself and it was magnificent. It was warm and appealing, and I thought, ‘What if I touch it? Maybe the heat will get inside me. This is how I discovered the world and how I got here.’” In this way, Guillermo Vilas introduces himself in the documentary film directed by Matías Gueilburt. It’s a film about the Argentine athlete who was one of the great protagonists of world tennis in the 70s and 80s. He began hitting obsessively the ball against a wall in the garage of his house when he was six years old. The only restriction set by his mother was that he could break only one lightbulb a day. He was a stubborn son who chose an ostensibly “unprofitable career” against his parents’ wishes, a would-be lawyer in a country where idols were boxers like Carlos Monzón, Formula 1 drivers like Carlos Reutemann, and footballers like Mario Kempes. The work flows in a very scholastic way in comparison with other two that could be defined more experimental and fascinating, like “John McEnroe. In the realm of perfection”, directed by Julien Faraut and “Subject to Review”, directed by Theo Anthony. The documentary sifts through stock footage, unpublished audio (46 different samples!) recorded by Vilas himself since 1973, as well as interviews with champions who weigh in on his value as a player and on the innovations he brought to the game.

The story suddenly switches gears (and not for the better) when the world rankings come into play. The title and the opening minutes of the documentary evoke the image of a lonely man going through his growth and consecration while pigeonholing the different turning points that change his destiny from an open to a one-way path. A path with a final destination – triumph. Then, the narrative changes. From the obsessions of the man from Buenos Aires, we move to the obsession of a journalist, Eduardo Puppo, who tries to carry on Vilas’s battle. He wants to demonstrate that in some periods (especially 1975 and 1977, the year when Vilas won over 50 matches in a row) Vilas was at the top of the world rankings, despite the ATP claiming otherwise. The wish to re-write history is the reason why the quality of the documentary dips. The darkness and the demons that stir both in the champion and in his unexpected supporter vanish from the narration, losing the audience and blowing out the fire that constituted its initial appeal. (by Mazzino Montinari, Il Manifesto)

Translated by Giuseppe Di Paola; edited by Tommaso Villa

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Steve Flink: The 2024 Italian Open Was Filled with Surprises

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Credit Francesca Micheli/Ubitennis

In sweeping majestically to his sixth career Masters 1000 title along with a second crown at the Italian Open in Rome, Germany’s Sascha Zverev put on one of the most self assured performances of his career to cast aside the Chilean Nicolas Jarry 6-4, 7-5 in the final. By virtue of securing his 22nd career ATP Tour title and his first of 2024, Zverev has moved from No. 5 up to No. 4 in the world. That could be crucial to his cause when he moves on to Roland Garros as the French Open favorite in the eyes of some experts.

Zverev is long overdue to win a major title for the first time in his storied career. Not only has he won those six tournaments at the elite 1000 level, but twice— in 2018 and 2021—he has triumphed at the prestigious, year end ATP Finals reserved solely for the top eight players in the world. This triumph on the red clay of Rome is a serious step forward for the 27-year-old who has demonstrably been as prodigious on clay as he is on hard courts.

Seldom if ever have I seen a more supreme display of serving in a final round skirmish on clay than what Zverev displayed against Jarry on this occasion. He never faced a break point and was not even pushed to deuce. Altogether, Zverev took 44 of his 49 service points across the two sets in his eleven service games. He won 20 of 21 points on his deadly delivery in the first set and 24 of 28 in the second. He poured in 80% of his first serves and managed half a dozen aces and countless service winners. His power, precision and directional deception was extraordinary.

Although the scoreline in this confrontation looks somewhat close, that was not the case at all. Jarry was thoroughly outplayed by Zverev from the backcourt, and despite some stellar serving of his own sporadically, he could not maintain a sufficiently high level. He did manage to win 78% of his first serve points, but Jarry was down at 35% on second serve points won. In the final analysis, this was a final round appointment that was ultimately a showcase for the greatness of Zverev more than anything else. Jarry was too often akin to a spectator at his own match as Zverev clinically took him apart.

Zverev and Jarry arrived in the final contrastingly. The German’s journey to the title round was relatively straightforward. After a first round bye, he handled world No. 70 Aleksandar Vukic. Zverev dismissed the Australian 6-0, 6-4. The No. 3 seed next accounted for Italy’s Luciano Darderi 7-6 (3), 6-2. In the round of 16, Zverev comfortably disposed of Portugal’s Nuno Borges, ousting the world No. 53 by scores of 6-2, 7-5. Perhaps Zverev’s finest match prior to the final was a 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal dissection of Taylor Fritz, a much improved player on clay this season. Zverev did not face a break point in taking apart the 26-year-old 6-4, 6-3 with almost regal authority from the backcourt.

Only in the penultimate round was Zverev stretched to his limits. Confronting the gifted Alejandro Tabilo of Chile, he was outplayed decidedly in the first set against the left-hander. The second set of their semifinal was on serve all the way, and the outcome was settled in a tie-break. With Tabilo apprehensive because he was on the verge of reaching the most important final of his career, Zverev was locked in. After commencing that sequence with a double fault, Zverev fell behind 0-2 but hardly put a foot out of line thereafter.

He did not miss a first serve after the double fault and his ground game was unerring. Zverev took that tie-break deservedly 7-4, and never looked back, winning 16 of 19 service points, breaking an imploding Tabilo twice, and coming through 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2. Zverev displayed considerable poise under pressure late in the second set to move past a man who had produced a startling third round upset of top seeded Novak Djokovic.

As for Jarry, the dynamic Chilean had a first round bye as well, and then advanced 6-2, 7-6 (6) over the Italian Matteo Arnaldi. Taking on another Italian in the third round, Jarry survived an arduous duel with Stefano Napolitano 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. He then cast aside the Frenchman Alexandre Muller 7-5, 6-3.

Around the corner, trouble loomed. Jarry had to fight ferociously to defeat No. 6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who had by then established himself in the eyes of most astute observers as the tournament favorite. Tsitsipas has been revitalized since securing a third crown in Monte Carlo several in April. And in his round of 16 encounter, the Greek competitor had looked nothing less than stupendous in routing the Australian Alex de Minaur 6-1, 6-2.

Unsurprisingly, Tsitsipas seemed in command against Jarry in their stirring quarterfinal. He won the first set and had two big openings in the second. Jarry served at 3-3, 0-40. Tsitsipas missed a lob off the backhand by inches on the first break point before Jarry unleashed an ace followed by a service winner. The Chilean climbed out of that corner and got the hold. Then, at 5-5, Tsitsipas reached double break point at 15-40 but once more he was unable to convert. He got a bad bounce on the first break point that caused him to miss a forehand from mid-court. On the second, Jarry’s forehand down the line was simply too good.

Now serving at 5-6, Tsitsipas had not yet been broken across two sets. One more hold would have taken him into a tie-break and given him a good chance to close the account. But Tsitsipas won only one point in that twelfth game and a determined Jarry sealed the set 7-5.

Nonetheless, Tsitsipas moved out in front 2-1 in the third set, breaking serve in the third game. Jarry broke right back. Later, Tsitsipas served to stay in then match at 4-5 in that final set. He fought off three match points but a bold and unrelenting Jarry came through on the fourth to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-4. That set the stage for a semifinal between Jarry and a surging Tommy Paul, fresh from back to back upset wins over Daniil Medvedev and Hubert Hurkacz.

Jarry and Paul put on a sparkling show. Jarry took the opening set in 42 minutes, gaining the crucial service break for 5-3 and serving it out at 15 with an ace out wide. When Jarry built a 4-2 second set lead, he seemed well on his way to a straight sets triumph. But Paul had broken the big serving Hurkacz no fewer than seven times in the quarters. He is a first rate returner. The American broke back for 4-4 against Jarry and prevailed deservedly in a second set tie-break 7-3 after establishing a 4-0 lead.

Briefly, the momentum was with Paul. But not for long. Jarry saved a break point with an overhead winner at 2-2 in the final set, broke Paul in the next game, and swiftly moved on to 5-2. At 5-3, he served for the match and reached 40-0. But he missed a difficult forehand pass on the first match point and Paul then released a backhand down the line winner and a crosscourt backhand that clipped the baseline and provoked a mistake from Jarry. 

The Chilean cracked an ace to garner a fourth match point, only to net a backhand down the line volley that he well could have made. A resolute Paul then advanced to break point but Jarry connected with a potent first serve to set up a forehand winner. The American forged a second break point opportunity but Jarry erased that one with a scorching inside in forehand that was unanswerable. Another ace brought Jarry to match point for the fifth time, and this one went his way as Paul rolled a forehand long. Jarry was victorious 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3.

Meanwhile, while all of the attention was ultimately focussed on the two finalists, it was on the first weekend of the tournament that the two dominant Italian Open champions of the past twenty years were both ushered out of the tournament unceremoniously. First, Rafael Nadal, the ten-time champion in Rome, was beaten 6-1, 6-3 in the third round by Hurkacz as he competed in his third clay court tournament since coming back in April at Barcelona.

He had lost his second round match in Barcelona to De Minaur. In his next outing at Madrid, Nadal avenged that loss to the Australian and managed to win three matches altogether before he was blasted off the court by the big serving and explosive groundstrokes of Jiri Lehecka. In Rome, the Spaniard won one match before his contest with Hurkacz. The first two games of that showdown lasted 27 minutes. Nadal had five break points in the opening game and Hurkacz had two in the second game. Neither man broke and so it was 1-1.

A hard fought and long encounter seemed almost inevitable, but the Polish 27-year-old swept five games in a row to take that first set, saving two more break points in the seventh game. He was mixing up his ground game beautifully, hitting high trajectory shots to keep Nadal at bay and off balance, then ripping flat shots to rush the Spaniard into errors. In the second set, Hurkacz broke early and completely outclassed Nadal. He also served him off the court, winning 16 of 17 points on his devastatingly effective delivery. With one more break at the end, Hurkacz surged to a 6-1, 6-3 triumph.

A day later, Djokovic, the six-time Italian Open victor, met Tabilo in his third round contest. Djokovic had played well in his second round meeting against the Frenchman against Corentin Moutet to win 6-3, 6-1. But afterwards, Djokovic was hit in the head by a water bottle while signing autographs. He had the next day off but when he returned to play Tabilo, the Serbian was almost unrecognizable. Beaten 6-2, 6-3, Djokovic never even reached deuce on the Chilean’s serve. On top of that, Djokovic, broken four times in the match, double faulted on break point thrice including at set point down in the first set and when he was behind match point in the second. Tabilo was terrific off the ground and on serve, but Djokovic was listless, lacking in purpose and seemingly disoriented. Some astute observers including Jim Courier thought Djokovic might have suffered a concussion from the freakish water bottle incident, but he did tests back in Serbia which indicated that was not the case.

Now Djokovic has decided to give himself a chance— if all goes according to plan— to potentially play a string of much needed matches at the ATP 250 tournament in Geneva this week. All year long, he has played only 17 matches, winning 12 of those duels. But nine of those contests were at the beginning of the season in Australia. Since then, he has played only eight matches. On the clay, he went to the semifinals in Monte Carlo where he benefitted from four matches, but he skipped Madrid and hoped to find his form again in Rome.

Realizing that losing in the third round there left him not only lacking in match play but not up to par in terms of confidence as well, Djokovic will try to make amends in Geneva. A good showing in that clay court tournament— either winning the tournament or at least making the final—would send the Serbian into Roland Garros feeling much better about his chances to win the world’s premier clay court championship for the third time in four years and the fourth time overall in his career.

How do the other favorites stack up? It is awfully difficult to assess either Carlos Alcaraz or Jannik Sinner. Alcaraz missed Monte Carlo and Barcelona and probably rushed his return in Madrid, losing in the high altitude to Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. Then he was forced to miss Rome. He is clearly underprepared. As for Sinner, he played well in Monte Carlo before losing a semifinal to Tsitsipas. He advanced to the quarterfinals of Madrid but defaulted against Felix Auger-Aliassime with a hip injury.

Will Alcaraz and Sinner be back at full force in Paris? I have my doubts, but the fact remains that Sinner has been the best player in the world this year, capturing his first major in Melbourne at the Australian Open, adding titles in Rotterdam and Miami, and winning 28 of 30 matches over the course of the season. Alcaraz broke out of a long slump to defend his title at Indian Wells, but missing almost all of the clay court circuit en route to Rome has surely disrupted his rhythm.

I would make Zverev the slight favorite to win his first Grand Slam tournament at Roland Garros. If Djokovic can turn things around this week and rekindle his game, there is no reason he can’t succeed at Roland Garros again. I make him the second favorite. Out of respect for Alcaraz’s innate talent and unmistakable clay court comfort, I see him as the third most likely to succeed with Sinner close behind him. But that is assuming they are fit to play and fully ready to go.

Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud must be taken seriously as candidates for the title in Paris. Tsitsipas upended Medvedev and Zverev in 2021 to reach the Roland Garros final, and then found himself up two sets to love up against Djokovic before losing that hard fought battle in five sets. Ruud has been to the last two French Open finals, bowing against Nadal in 2022 and Djokovic a year ago. They started this clay court season magnificently, with Tsitsipas defeating Ruud in the Monte Carlo final and Ruud reversing that result in the final of Barcelona. Both men figure to be in the thick of things this time around at Roland Garros.

Where does Nadal fit into this picture? He will surely be more inspired at his home away from home than he was in his three other clay court tournaments leading up to Roland Garros, but it will take a monumental effort for the 14-time French Open victor to rule again this time around. With a decent draw, he could get to the round of 16 or perhaps the quarterfinals, but even that will be a hard task for him after all he has endured physically the last couple of years. Nadal turns 38 on June 3. If he somehow prevails once more in Paris, it would be the single most astonishing achievement of his sterling career.

The battle for clay court supremacy at Roland Garros will be fierce. The leading contenders will be highly motivated to find success. The defending champion will be in full pursuit of a 25th Grand Slam title. Inevitably, some gifted players will be ready to emerge, and others will be determined to reemerge. I am very much looking forward to watching it all unfold and discovering who will be the last man standing at the clay court capital of the world.

NOTE: All photos via Francesca Micheli/Ubitennis

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Steve Flink: Andrey Rublev Deserves His Madrid Masters Triumph

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Image via https://twitter.com/MutuaMadridOpen/

At the end of an injury plagued tournament on the red clay in Madrid, the fans witnessed a final round tussle that was entirely worthy of the occasion. Andrey Rublev and Felix Auger-Aliassime fought down to the wire in a high caliber contest. Rublev was searching for a second career Masters 1000 title as he sought to snap out of a slump, while Auger-Aliassime was making his first appearance in a title round meeting at this level. Both men wanted this tournament very badly, and the outcome of their duel was in doubt until the very end.

Ultimately, though, Rublev thoroughly deserved his triumph. It had been an arduous week for the 26-year-old, filled with sleepless nights, fraught with potential danger as he made his way through the draw with deep determination and a measure of pessimism. Rublev had been a pale imitation of himself in recent weeks, losing four matches in a row en route to Madrid and performing in recent weeks without his usual high intensity and emotional energy.

But an unwavering Rublev rediscovered the art of winning on the Spanish clay, and turned his season around resoundingly. At the outset of his final round appointment against Auger-Aliassime, Rublev was strangely subdued and noncommittal. The Canadian was swinging freely and controlling the climate of the match with his lethal forehand and devastatingly potent and accurate serve. Auger-Aliassime had been in a long slump of his own over the past year, and his presence in the final was not simply a turnaround in his form but additionally a result of some good fortune.

Consider his path to the final. He commenced his remarkable run with a come from behind victory over Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka, a left-hander ranked No. 78 in the world. Auger-Aliassime won that encounter 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. Facing the Frenchman Adrian Mannarino in the second round, Auger-Aliassime advanced over a second straight southpaw adversary, prevailing 6-0, 6-4 against the 35-year-old stationed at No. 20 in the world.

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Those two wins were hard earned and well played. But the first instance of good luck for F.A.A was in his third round match against the rapidly rising young Czech Jakub Mensik, an 18-year-old 6’4” powerhouse ranked No. 74 in the world. Mensik had to retire in that confrontation with Auger-Aliassime ahead 6-1, 1-0. Now having reached the round of 16, Auger-Aliassime took on Casper Ruud, a man who has been to three finals at the majors in the past two years. Moreover, Ruud just took the title in Barcelona over Stefanos Tsitsipas after being runner-up to the Greek stylist in Monte Carlo.

Auger-Aliassime met that Ruud moment boldly. He took apart the 2022-2023 French Open finalist 6-4, 7-5, winning 78% of his first serve points and losing his serve only once to earn a quarterfinal assignment against top seeded Jannik Sinner. But the Italian was struggling inordinately with a hip injury and realized he was in no condition to compete at that level. He defaulted, sending Auger-Aliassime into the semifinals.

In the penultimate round, Auger-Aliassime was locked at 3-3 in the first set against Jiri Lehecka when the 22-year-old Czech, who had toppled Rafael Nadal brilliantly in the round of 16, had to retire with a bad back. Lehecka had won the opening set of his quarterfinal against Daniil Medvedev, but Medvedev was ailing and had to quit.

And so the Canadian arrived unconventionally in the final to take on Rublev under the oddest of circumstances, but hoping he could make the most of a big opportunity. He was outstanding in the early stages of the battle, while Rublev seemed to be feeling ill and was way out of sorts. Rublev double faulted on the first two points of the match and soon lost his serve at love. Auger-Aliassime held at 15 with an ace for 2-0 and even had a break point for 3-0 before Rublev held on tenuously.

Auger-Aliassime surged to 3-1 and then broke again. His game was flowing on all fronts as he kept Rublev at bay with explosive forehands, unstoppable first serves and a surprisingly stable backhand. The Canadian was close to sealing the set easily when he built a 4-1, 40-0 lead but inexplicably took his foot off the accelerator and Rublev broke in that sixth game.

Rublev now had a foothold in the final. At 3-5, he saved a set point, held on, and made Auger-Aliassime serve it out in the tenth game. The Canadian needed a service winner down the T to erase a break point against him and kept his composure to close out the set 6-4.

But the outlooks and dispositions of both players had changed sweepingly. Rublev was finding his range off his overpowering forehand which is right up there among the best in the sport. He also was serving magnificently. In his six service games over the course of the second set, Rublev won 25 of 32 points. He never faced a break point. With Auger-Aliassime serving at 5-6, Rublev  pounced. He broke at 30 to close out the set with a typically impressive forehand return off a first serve landing deep down the middle and coaxing an error from his opponent.

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All through the third set, Auger-Aliassime was fighting issues with his hamstrings in both legs, but his discipline and fighting spirit kept him in the match. Rublev, meanwhile, was holding even more comfortably than he had in the second set and stupendously finding the corners with his serve. He took 24 of 27 points in his service games with awesome power and precision, backing it up beautifully.

Auger-Aliassime, meanwhile, found himself confronting one precarious moment after another all across a harrowing third set, yet somehow he kept extricating himself by virtue of some clutch serving and daring play from the backcourt. Serving at 0-1, he fended off two break points with a dazzling forehand down the line winner and an ace. On he went to 1-1. In the fourth game he trailed 15-40 but poured in four first serves in a row including an ace and a service winner on the break points. Back to 2-2 was Auger-Aliassime.

The pattern continued. On his way to 3-3, Auger-Aliassime rallied from 0-30 to win four points in a row. In the eighth game, he was behind break point but unleashed a tremendous crosscourt backhand to force Rublev into a mistake. 4-4. Serving to stay in the match in the tenth game, Auger-Aliassime found himself down 15-30 but he swept three points in a row with a forehand winner and a pair of service winners. Improbably, Auger-Aliassime made it to 5-5.

But he had run out of heroics.

Serving for the second time to stay in the match at 5-6, he led 30-15 but double faulted. Rublev outplayed him from the baseline to reach 30-40 and match point. But, once more, Auger-Aliassime double faulted and Rublev deservedly claimed victory 4-6, 7-5, 7-5.

Nadal’s last Madrid tournament

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It was a fitting finish to a tournament that had been disrupted so frequently by injuries to leading players. The stirring final made up for so many of those earlier disappointments. But there were some electrifying moments along the way.

Let’s start with Nadal. Having lost to Alex de Minaur in Barcelona after winning one match there, he came to Madrid sorely in need of matches. The soon to be 38-year-old succeeded largely on that front. Opening his campaign against an understandably apprehensive 16-year-old American lefty named Darwin Blanch, Nadal was hardly tested as his opponent impetuously looked to end points too quickly. Nadal rolled to a 6-1, 6-0 win in just over 64 minutes of untaxing play. Then he avenged his defeat against de Minaur, coming through 7-6 (6), 6-3. Nadal was up 6-2 in the tie-break but he double faulted before the Australian came forward to put away a drop volley. Then Nadal missed a pair of backhands down the line and the tie-break was locked at 6-6.

Immediately he made amends with a scorching angled backhand crosscourt winner. He swiftly won the next point to seal the set and never looked back. Now the draw had opened up for the iconic Spaniard, and, despite an uneven performance, he achieved a 6-1, 5-7, 6-3 victory over Pedro Cachin in three hours and four minutes. But then his run was halted by an inspired and unrelenting Lehecka, who blasted Nadal off the court, averaging over 135 MPH on his first serve in an audacious display and ripping his returns with blinding speed and stunning accuracy.

The Spaniard had an opening with Lehecka serving at 3-4 in the first set. Nadal moved to break point—the only one he would have in the entire match. But Lehecka saved it unhesitatingly, belting a flat forehand down the line for a clean winner. Two games later, Lehecka was back under duress. In that tenth game, he surged to 40-0 but Nadal, adjusting his return of serve positioning, got back to deuce.

Lehecka displayed class and character at that juncture. He served-and-volleyed, but Nadal made a decent, dipping return. Lehecka moved in for a startling forehand drop volley winner and soon held on for 5-5. He then took the next two games without the loss of a point to seal the set 7-5. In the zone now, Lehecka took a 2-0 second set lead, having won five straight games by then.

Nadal survived a six deuce game to hold in the third game, fighting off three break points. But Lehecka held the rest of the way to close out the 7-5, 6-4 account.

Another standout performance was Rublev’s 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 triumph over Alcaraz. The Spaniard was wearing a massive arm bandage to protect his ailing right forearm but still was impressive in taking the first set. And yet, Rublev was out of this world from then on. He moved in front 4-1 in the second set and had 0-40 on Alcaraz’s serve in the sixth game. Alcaraz held and then reached 15-40 in the following game, but Rublev resolutely served his way out of that predicament. He was unstoppable thereafter with his heavy hitting and superior serving. In his next match with Taylor Fritz in the penultimate round, Rublev was almost letter perfect, cutting down the American ruthlessly 6-4, 6-3.

Now the players head to Rome for the Italian Open. Alcaraz and Sinner have pulled out of the tournament to heal from their wounds. As I write, Medvedev is still in the field, but will he be able to defend his title on the Italian clay? I have my doubts. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic will be in full pursuit of a seventh title in Rome. He surely would like to secure his first ATP Tour title of 2024 and the 99th of his career in advance of Roland Garros. Tsitsipas and Ruud will be striving to add another crown to their credits after playing so well in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Rublev will be revitalized after his Madrid triumph. Nadal ought to be cautiously optimistic after making progress in Madrid.

Despite a slow start to 2024, a highly motivated Djokovic will be the man to beat in Rome. The conditions suit him there. He is due to start performing at peak efficiency again. He should play with a greater sense of urgency in Italy. In my view, he will find a way to get the trophy into his possession on that fabled stage at Foro Italico.

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Editorial

Steve Flink: Stefanos Tsitsipas Silences His Critics

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image via https://twitter.com/atptour/

In my view, Stefanos Tsitsipas is right up there among the most appealing players to watch in professional tennis. His game is as complete as anyone in the sport. His first serve may well be a singularly underrated weapon. His forehand must be regarded as one of the five best in men’s tennis. His transition game is outstanding. Over the years, his volley has improved markedly. His court coverage is extraordinary. And while the skeptics will always be critical of his one-handed backhand as a wing of vulnerability that does not stack up well against the game’s great two-handed backhands belonging to the likes of Novak Djokovic, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz, the fact remains that the Tsitsipas topspin backhand is a majestic stroke and it is particularly effective on clay.

Count me in as someone who fell into the trap of selling Tsitsipas short over the past year. After reaching his second Grand Slam final at the Australian Open at the start of 2023, he won only one tournament all year and his best showing at a major was a quarterfinal appearance at Roland Garros. This year, the Greek stylist was desultory of his lofty standards, winning only 11 of 17 matches across the season on his way to Monte Carlo. Even his staunchest supporters were becoming increasingly alarmed about the state of his game and the apparent darkness of his outlook.

But what a difference a single week can make in allowing a top player to start believing again and reinvent himself after a long and debilitating slump. Tsitsipas collected his third singles title at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters on the red clay that suits him so well, defeating Casper Ruud 6-1, 6-4 in the final, rising from No. 12 in the world back into his old top ten residence at No. 7. That is where he belongs, and the feeling grows that the 25-year-old will now prove his critics wrong by soon taking the next step up the ladder and returning to the top five.

The showdown with Ruud did not live up entirely to expectations. While Tsitsipas has been in two Grand Slam tournament finals including the French Open title round meeting against Djokovic in 2021 which he lost in five sets, Ruud had been to three major finals including the last two at Roland Garros along with the U.S. Open of 2022. Ruud lost to Alcaraz in that U.S. Open duel and was beaten by Rafael Nadal and Djokovic in Paris. 

It must be mentioned that while Tsitsipas has been victorious at the ATP Finals (in 2019) and now has triumphed thrice at Masters 1000 events, all ten of Ruud’s ATP Tour tournament victories have been at 250 level events. But he did reach the final round at the ATP Finals in Turin at the end of 2022. Meanwhile, Ruud made it up to No. 2 in the world after the U.S. Open in 2022 and Tsitsipas has climbed as high as No. 3 in addition to finishing two years in a row (2021 and 2022) at No. 4.

In two of their three previous career clashes, Ruud had defeated Tsitsipas. On paper, their final round skirmish in Monte Carlo seemed certain to be very close. But on court it was a different story. Perhaps inspired by his history on the fabled stage in Monte Carlo, Tsitsipas was in exemplary form from the outset yet Ruud was apprehensive. The Norwegian has an outstanding forehand in his own right, but Tsitsipas was beating him badly to the punch off that side.

After Ruud held in the opening game, Tsitsipas swept six games in a row to seal the opening set swiftly and emphatically. He mixed in the serve-and-volley skillfully and selectively to exploit Ruud’s deep return positioning. He took control off his forehand and got to the net on his own terms. And his one-handed backhand was decidedly better than the Ruud two-hander. Ruud has improved over the last year off that side but he could not stay with Tsitsipas on this occasion, nor could he prevent Tsitsipas from stepping around and taking complete control with his inside-out and inside-in forehands.

In that opening set, Tsitsipas started his six game run with a love hold, broke Ruud at 30 in the third game and then fended off three break points against him to reach 3-1. Tsitsipas managed another break for 4-1, moved to 5-1 on his fourth game point and then sealed the set 6-1 on a double fault from a beleaguered Ruud.

The second set was tighter but Tsitsipas refused to relinquish his authority. Ruud had a break point in the opening game that Tsitsipas erased with a service winner out wide to the backhand. He held on but soon found himself tested again, saving another break point on his way to 2-1 as Ruud bungled a second serve return off the forehand. Serving at break point in the sixth game, Ruud rescued himself with an audacious serve-volley, making a stupendous pickup on the backhand finesse half volley that landed short in the court and coaxed a mistake from Tsitsipas.

Ruud made it safely to 3-3 and then went full force after a service break in the seventh game that might have altered the complexion of the match. Tsitsipas led 40-0 in that crucial seventh game but Ruud rallied to reach break point three times. Tsitsipas raised his game on all of them. He saved the first one by pulling Ruud off the court to set up a forehand winner, wiped away the second with a backhand volley winner, and serve-volleyed his way out of the third. After six deuces, Tsitsipas moved to 4-3 with a clean winner off the forehand.

Both players knew that was essentially the match. Although Ruud gamely held at love for 4-4, Tsitsipas was unstoppable, taking eight of the last ten points to complete his 6-1, 6-4 victory and reignite his career. He saved all eight break points he faced and won 68% of his second serve points. Conversely, Ruud was able to erase only four of the eight break points he confronted, and he took just 37% of his second serve points.

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The semifinal contests were far more intriguing on both halves of the draw. Tsitsipas opened against Jannik Sinner. The No. 2 seed from Italy had won 25 of 26 matches this season and three of the four tournaments he had played, including his first major at the Australian Open and the recent Miami Open Masters 1000 event. Sinner was slightly off his game in the early stages as Tsitsipas outplayed him from the backcourt. One break in the third game of the first set was all Tsitsipas needed. Sinner double faulted at 30-40 to lose his serve and Tsitsipas held all the way through to win it 6-4. Sinner surged to 3-0 in the second set and then withstood a severe challenge from Tsitsipas with the score 5-3 in the Italian’s favor. Tsitsipas had no fewer than five break points but Sinner was fiercely determined. After nearly 13 minutes, he held on to take the set 6-3.

Sinner swiftly established a 3-1 lead in the third and final set. He reached break point in the fifth game but Tsitsipas aced him. Soon Sinner was at break point for the second time in that game. Tsitsipas served a double fault which landed almost three inches long. But, astoundingly, there was no call—and no overrule from the umpire. Sinner lost that point on an errant forehand passing shot and Tsitsipas held on to stay within one break of his adversary. 

In the following game, Sinner started stretching out his leg between points. He seemed to be saying later it was cramping that was causing his consternation. Sinner held for 4-2 but looked somewhat lame in the following game when Tsitsipas easily held at love. At the changeover, the trainers rubbed Sinner’s leg, and then he fought with quiet intensity to hold in the eighth game. Despite having difficulty moving to his right for the forehand on the stretch, Sinner had a game point but, after four deuces, he was broken and the set was locked at 4-4.

Tsitsipas knew he had the ailing Sinner where he wanted him now. He closed out this stirring account by taking eight of the last ten points, prevailing 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 on a run of four straight games. Tsitsipas beat Sinner with some spectacular tennis, but he was a fortunate fellow that the double fault in the fifth game of that final set was not called. From two breaks down, Tsitsipas would surely have lost that battle.

Meanwhile, Ruud took on the 2013 and 2015 Monte Carlo victor Djokovic in the second semifinal. Having skipped Miami after losing early at Indian Wells to the Italian Luca Nardi, Djokovic sorely needed to restore some of his confidence and get some much needed match play on the clay after playing only 11 matches all year long. This was only his third tournament of 2024.

The 36-year-old made a good run to the penultimate round despite being well below the top of his game for most of the tournament. He did start well against the Russian Roman Safiullin  in his opening match. Djokovic took apart his 26-year-old adversary 6-1, 6-2 with a nearly impeccable display of consistency from the baseline and precision on serve. So dominant was Djokovic that he even had break points in all three games that Safiullin won.

Next on his agenda was a rematch with the Italian Lorenzo Musetti, the world No. 24. A year ago in Monte Carlo, Musetti toppled Djokovic. This time around, Djokovic turned the tables on the 22-year-old after trailing 1-3 and nearly going two breaks down in the first set. Moreover, Musetti served at 4-3, 40-0 but Djokovic broke him there and never looked back. He took that encounter 7-5, 6-3 to move into the quarterfinals.

Waiting for him in that round was the Alex de Minaur. The Australian had upended Djokovic in the United Cup team competition at the start of the season on hard courts. On the Monte Carlo clay, Djokovic retaliated in a bizarre contest. The first set came down to one break at the end for Djokovic but there were six consecutive service breaks at one stage in the second set before de Minaur held for 4-4. Djokovic took control from there with a no nonsense attitude, winning two games in a row and eight of nine points with unblemished play to finish off a 7-5, 6-4 win.

Taking on Ruud in the semifinals, Djokovic commenced the contest in the same listless and subdued state he had played his opening sets against Musetti and de Minaur. His energy level seemed well short of normal. Ruud took full advantage and bolted to a 4-1, two break lead in the first set predominantly on the strength of his stellar forehand. Djokovic played better in the latter stages of the set and got one of the breaks back, but that was not enough to salvage it.

In the second set, Djokovic found his range and played perhaps his finest set of the tournament despite missing 16 of 21 first serves. That statistic did not matter, however, because Ruud was doing no harm with second serve returns and Djokovic was so masterful from the baseline. Djokovic dropped only five points in four service games. Ruud, meanwhile, was much less solid off the backhand and his serve deserted him. The 25-year-old served three double faults at 1-4 in the second set and soon Djokovic wrapped it up 6-1.

But Ruud admirably reasserted himself, surging to 4-1 in the third. Djokovic had a 30-0 lead when he served at 0-1 but a double fault there was costly and a Ruud backhand down the line winner at 30-30 led to the break. Djokovic came roaring back to win three games in a row in a sparkling sequence highlighted by a vintage backhand down the line winner that gave him a 0-40 lead in the seventh game.

Forthrightly, Ruud weathered the storm. He held comfortably for 5-4 and then in the tenth game built a 0-40, triple match point lead. Djokovic promptly served an ace down the T and played a perfect serve-and-volley point to make it 30-40. But, after missing his first serve, he bounced the ball 19 times before releasing the second delivery. He double faulted wildly long and Ruud advanced 6-4, 1-6, 6-4. Djokovic won 84 points in the match, which was eleven more than Ruud. But the Norwegian deserved his victory. He was better down the stretch when it mattered the most.

Djokovic played his semifinal knowing that Tsitsipas had toppled Sinner. The Serbian has defeated Tsitsipas ten consecutive times since 2019 to take an 11-2 lead in their rivalry. It surely must have crossed his mind that if he could beat Ruud he would have a very good chance to win the tournament over a player he has ousted so many times in big matches. Perhaps that was in the back of his mind as he contested his match with the Norwegian.

Nonetheless, Djokovic made some significant  progress by playing four matches and recovering a measure of self conviction in Monte Carlo. I fully expect him to take his game to a higher level in Madrid and Rome, particularly the latter. He will be ready to peak at Roland Garros and make the strongest possible bid for a third title in four years and a fourth crown overall at the clay court shrine.

As for Stefanos Tsitsipas, he gave himself an immeasurable boost by winning the title in Monte Carlo. His clay court results year in and year out are always good and sometimes great. He has silenced his critics sweepingly by capturing the first of the Masters 1000 crowns on his favorite surface. Tsitsipas has reminded himself of how remarkable he can be when his mind is uncluttered, his heart is in the right place and his priorities clear. Moreover, Tsitsipas has reaffirmed for us that he can play this game with a verve and spontaneity few in his profession can match.

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