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Old-Timers’ ‘Big Three” Face Unpredictable Future

This past weekend, both Nadal and Djokovic were pushed to the limit – will they be the men to beat for much longer? Long-time tennis columnist James Beck gives his take.

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Dominic Thiem broke into the party at last year’s U.S. Open.
But Rafa Nadal came right back with his answer in the moved-back French Open and Novak Djokovic opened this year by winning the Australian Open.
And, suddenly, everything looked okay for the old-timers on the men’s tennis pro tour.
But is it?

 

IS EVERYTHING OK FOR OLD-TIMERS?

Sure, Nadal came through again on Sunday to do his part for the old-timers by out-lasting young Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Barcelona final, taking his 12th title there on a court named in his honor. 

It isn’t that Nadal looks tired or anything, except maybe in allowing Tsitsipas to come back from two sets down in the Australian Open and then looking un-Nadalish in a loss to Russian budding superstar Audrey Rublev in the Monte Carlo tournament.

Just this past week, Russian tour rookie Aslan Karatsev pushed Djokovic all over his home court in Belgrade in the Serbia Open.

And, of course, no one probably remembers when Roger Federer was last seen in a showcase situation.

TIME TO START WORRYING?

So, maybe it is time to worry about the old-timers, 39-year-old Federer, 34-year-old Nadal and 33-year-old Djokovic.

If Nadal and Djokovic can hold off the new crowd through the French Open and Wimbledon, that might be about the best that fans of the old-timers can hope for.

The U.S. Open probably is a toss-up between the three Russians (that’s including maybe already superstar Daniil Medvedev), Tsitsipas, young German Alexander Zverev and Thiem.

These young  guys (Medvedev, Thiem, Tsitsipas, Zverev and Rublev, Nos. 3-7, respectively) occupy  the last five places in the top seven positions in the latest world rankings, with old-timers Djokovic and Nadal serving as guides at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively.

Of course, you can’t overlook Matteo Berrettini and 19-year-old Jannik Sinner, a pair of Italians that appear capable of joining the “Russian Trio” in dominance of the tour, with help from Thiem, Zverev and Tsitsipas.

RAFA FANS CAN’T RELAX

In the case of Nadal, fans never knew when to relax, sort of like the Los Angeles Dodgers who have gone from “Wonder Men” to “Wonder What’s Next Men” during the past 10 days of major league baseball in the United States.

The Dodgers were up 7-1 late in a game and end up losing in extra innings to the San Diego Padres? Of course, Nadal failed to close out Tsitsipas while holding a 5-4 lead and two match points in the second set in the Barcelona final. After that, fans were never quite sure of how  famous-finisher Nadal might end up against the fiery, hard-hitting, highly athletic 22-year-old Greek.

TSITSIPAS MAY BE BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Although Rublev manhandled Nadal in the Monte Carlo quarter-finals, it now appears that Tsitsipas might be Nadal’s biggest challenge to overcome in winning a 14th French Open title. Yes, even ahead of Djokovic, who appeared to run out of gas against the steady, big-hitting Karatsev.

A year from now, we may be talking about Karatsev in the same breath as Thiem, Medvedev, Rublev and Tsitsipas.

As for the “Big Three” old-timers whose combined age of 106 is nine years more than that of the quartet of the possible future “Best Four” of Thiem, Medvedev, Rublev and Tsitsipas.

Yes, the upcoming French Open is critically important to the immediate future of Nadal, and maybe Djokovic. Go three steps further to Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and next year’s Australian Open, and the top of men’s tennis might have an entirely different look from the current one.


James Beck’s columns are available on the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspaper’s web-site at postandcourier.com. He can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.

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Playing Clay Events After Wimbledon Was A Mistake, Says Diego Schwartzman

The former French Open semi-finalist is seeking to win his first title since March 2021 at the Tel Aviv Open this week.

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Diego Schwartzman (Roberto Dell'Olivo)

Diego Schwartzman will likely reevaluate his schedule for next year after admitting that part of his plans for this summer backfired. 

 

The world No.17 enters into the final quarter of the season with 31 wins against 22 losses on the Tour but is yet to win a title. Although he did reach back-to-back finals back in February in Argentina and Brazil. He has won two out of eight matches against top 10 opposition, defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas at the ATP Cup and Felix Auger-Aliassime in Barcelona. 

Reflecting on his performance, Schwartzman admits that his decision to return to European clay after playing at Wimbledon was a mistake. He lost his second match in Gstaad to Pablo Carreno Busta and then his first in Hamburg to Emil Ruusuvori. 

“It’s difficult to play at the same level every tournament, I’ve made a bad decision playing clay tournaments after Wimbledon, I didn’t have time to rest,” he said during his pre-tournament press conference at the Tel Aviv Open. “I paid the price and had some bad losses. But I started to feel much better in USA hard court season, lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas who reached the final in Cincinnati and to Frances Tiafoe at the US Open. Now I am feeling very good, I really love playing indoor tournaments.”

The 30-year-old has headed straight to Tel Aviv from the Laver Cup where Roger Federer played the last match of his career. Despite Schwartzman’s Team World winning the title for the first time, his only contribution to the tie saw him lose 6-1, 6-2, to Tsitsipas. 

Retirement was very much the topic of conversation during the Laver Cup with others such as Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic questioned by reporters about their plans in the sport. As for Schwartzman, he stayed coy about how much longer he would continue playing after saying in the past he might stop at the age of 33. 

“33 — is a good age to retire, isn’t it? South Americans are in different situations compared to European players. We travel too much, and sometimes we are not coming back home for 2-3 months, while Europeans can fly home every week. It’s tough,” he said. 
“As for Roger — he’s a special player, I think he is just the greatest in our sport.”

The Argentine is seeded third this week in Israel and will begin his campaign against Arthur Rinderknech who defeated qualifier Marius Copil in his opening match. 

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Laver Cup Daily Preview: Team Europe Goes for a Fifth Straight Laver Cup

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The lineup for Day 3 (twitter.com/lavercup)

Heading into Day 3, the 2022 Laver Cup is feeling extremely familiar.  Team Europe has an 8-4 advantage, and only needs two wins on Sunday to secure their fifth consecutive Laver Cup.  Team World needs to win three matches to pull off the upset and obtain their first. 

 

Sunday’s play gets underway in London at 12:00pm local time.  And each match on Sunday is worth three points.


Matteo Berrettini and Andy Murray (Team Europe) vs. Felix Auger-Aliassime and Jack Sock (Team World) – 12:00pm

Berrettini was victorious in both singles and doubles on Saturday, defeating Auger-Aliassime in singles, and teaming with Djokovic to overcome Sock and de Minaur in doubles.  So Matteo gained victories over both of his Sunday opponents on Saturday.  Murray lost to de Minaur in singles on Friday.  Andy and Jack are the most accomplished doubles players in this match, as Sock is pretty much Team World’s doubles specialist.  If he and Felix cannot pull of the victory on Sunday, it could be a pretty short day.


Novak Djokovic (Team Europe) vs. Felix Auger-Aliassime (Team World)

Like Berrettini, Djokovic won in singles and doubles on Saturday, comfortably dispatching of Tiafoe in singles.  While it was his first match in over two months, Novak showed no rust whatsoever.  Auger-Aliassime’s loss to Berrettini on Saturday will not help his confidence against the 21-time Major champion.

Novak and Felix have only played once before, and that occurred four months ago in Rome on clay.  It was a pretty tight affair, but Djokovic prevailed 7-5, 7-6(1).  And there’s not much evidence to support a different outcome on Sunday.  Novak is surely eager to re-assert his authority after missing so much of this season due to his vaccination status.


Stefanos Tsitsipas (Team Europe) vs. Frances Tiafoe (Team World) – If Necessary

Tsitsipas easily beat Diego Schwartzman on Friday, dropping just three games.  He is 3-2 against Tiafoe, and 3-1 on hard courts.  However, Frances claimed their most recent encounter, last fall in Vienna, which was also on an indoor hard court.


Casper Ruud (Team Europe) vs. Taylor Fritz (Team World) – If Necessary

Ruud defeated Sock on Friday, while Fritz defeated Norrie on Saturday.  If this match takes place, it will be their first career meeting.


The full Laver Cup schedule is here.

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Laver Cup Daily Preview: Novak Djokovic to Play Singles and Doubles on Saturday

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The lineup for Day 2 (twitter.com/lavercup)

In the wake of Roger Federer’s incredibly emotional retirement on Day 1, the focus of this event shifts to the rest of the competitors on Day 2.  And for the first time in the five-year history of the Laver Cup, Team World goes into Day 2 without a deficit.  With both Federer and Rafael Nadal replaced by alternates for Day 2 and Day 3, is this Team World’s opportunity to capture their first Laver Cup? 

 

Each day, this preview will look at all four scheduled matches, while taking an extended look at the most notable match of the day.  Saturday’s day session gets underway in London at 1:00pm local time, and the night session at 7:00pm.  And each match on Saturday is worth two points.


Matteo Berrettini (Team Europe) vs. Felix Auger-Aliassime (Team World) – 1:00pm

These two good friends have played four times, with Berrettini winning on three of those occasions.  Matteo’s wins came three years ago in the final of Stuttgart on grass, in the quarterfinals of last year’s Wimbledon, and a year ago in this event.  Auger-Aliassime’s only win occurred last summer in Cincinnati.  Matteo is coming off a quarterfinal run in New York, as well as three victories last week in Davis Cup.  Felix was upset in the second round of the US Open by Jack Draper, and went 2-1 in Davis Cup.


Cameron Norrie (Team Europe) vs. Taylor Fritz (Team World) – Second in the Day Session

Norrie was also an alternate in last year’s Laver Cup, but did not play.  Fritz was a part of Team World in 2019, when he went 1-1 in singles, defeating Dominic Thiem during Sunday’s play in a must-win match to keep his team alive.  Cam is now 45-22 on the year, while Fritz is 36-17.  Both men achieved their best-ever Major performances two months ago at Wimbledon.  They played each other just last week in Davis Cup, with Norrie prevailing after three tight sets.  Overall they have split 10 previous meetings.


Novak Djokovic (Team Europe) vs. Frances Tiafoe (Team World) – 7:00pm

Is Tiafoe ready to upset another member of “The Big Three” on Saturday?  He earned the biggest win of his career by taking out Rafael Nadal at the US Open, and defeated Nadal and Federer in doubles on Day 1 alongside Jack Sock.  Meanwhile, this will be the first match for Djokovic in over two months, since he won the Wimbledon final over Nick Kyrgios.  The unvaccinated Novak was unable to travel to North America for the hard court summer season.

Djokovic has only played seven tournaments this year, amassing a record of 23-5.  Tiafoe is 26-19, and is coming off his exciting semifinal run in New York.  Their only previous matchup was at the 2021 Australian Open, when Novak defeated Frances in four sets.  Frances is certainly the much more match-tough player on this day.  But despite his recent inactivity, Djokovic should still be considered the favorite.


Matteo Berrettini and Novak Djokovic (Team Europe) vs. Alex de Minaur and Jack Sock (Team World) – Second in the Night Session

Novak will have only a few minutes of rest ahead of this doubles match, so the length of his match with Tiafoe could impact the result here.  This will be Novak’s first time playing doubles since last year’s Davis Cup finals.  Berrettini played three doubles matches this past January at the ATP Cup, going 1-2.  De Minaur overcame Andy Murray in singles on Friday in what was a grueling contest, while Sock was defeated in singles and victorious in doubles.


The full Laver Cup schedule is here.

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