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Richard Evans Leaves No Stone Unturned In His Book “The History Of Tennis”

With impeccable research, Evans covers it all, from Tilden to Federer, Lenglen to Serena Williams in his latest book.

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Bill Tilden

Esteemed British tennis historian Richard Evans has been the author of no fewer than 22 books across his remarkable lifetime. He is one of the deans of tennis journalism, as well as an unimpeachable authority on the evolution of tennis and all of the great players who have most vividly captured the imagination of the public. Evans has been an outstanding journalist over the course of more than six decades, writing for newspapers and magazines in both Great Britain and the United States, authoring his books. Moreover, he even served a couple of stints inside the corridors of political power working for the ATP at different junctures in the 1970’s and 1990’s.

 

In many ways, through so many eras in an abundance of capacities, Evans has been synonymous with tennis, living it and breathing it from his youth into his eighties, witnessing all of the sea changes, writing about the game with both exuberance and sagacity. Evans has traveled as widely as anyone in his profession and, with urbanity and sophistication, has played a role in boosting the popularity of the game with his astute reporting and unbridled enthusiasm for where he believes tennis fits into the fabric of society.

Considering his stature as a reporter, it is fitting that Evans has released a new book entitled “The History of Tennis”. This must be considered his most important work yet. To be sure, there have been other authors who have written voluminously on essentially the same topic and contributed mightily to the literature of tennis. The lyrical Italian Gianni Clerici put out a highly regarded and perhaps definitive book on tennis history in the 1970’s. Bud Collins wrote his first encyclopedia more than forty years ago and later put out several versions of “The Bud Collins History of Tennis”. The last edition came out after Collins passed away in 2016. Others have thrown their hats into the ring of tennis history with similar pieces of scholarly work.

Evans does a fine job in his book of combining statistical analysis of the game with a lofty overview of the most prominent champions and personalities, along with isolating landmark developments in the shaping of the sport including the quest for Open Tennis in 1968, the crucial 1970 formation of the “Original Nine” in women’s tennis, the men’s ATP boycott of Wimbledon in 1973, and a number of other things.

It is in clarifying some of the overarching issues in tennis that Evans is at his best. Having covered some U.S. Presidential campaigns and conventions in the 1960’s and seventies, he has always had an agile mind, a sharp eye and quite a good ear for politics in both the world at large and the universe of tennis.

This journey through the heart of tennis history is thoroughly encompassing. Evans wisely elects to devote a limited amount of space to the evolution of tennis in its embryonic stages. Nevertheless, his grasp of what matters is unassailable. Evans crystallizes the origins of the game, tracing the sport from the 16th Century all the way up to 1874 and the official birth of the game invented by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield.

Wingfield may have had different motives in his quest for recognition, but, as Evans writes, “There is no question that Wingfield was in this for profit—the family having fallen upon hard times—and he was anxious to get the patent for his invention, which he finally received in February 1874, despite some people coming forward to claim they had been playing something similar for years.”

Evans moves on in his manuscript to the formation of the game in England and the United States, as Wimbledon commenced competition in 1877 with a 22 player men’s field, followed by the U.S. Championships four years later. He also masterfully describes the start of the Davis Cup in 1900 and how the prestigious international team competition got off the ground, enhanced the tennis landscape and widened the lanes of interest worldwide.

But it took some time. Describing the first Davis Cup tie between the British Isles and the United States at the Longwood Cricket Club in Massachusetts which commenced on August 7, 1900, Evans writes, “All things considered, it was not an auspicious start. Conflicts in South Africa, where the Boer War was at its height, and Cuba, where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had been fully engaged, depleted both teams. The two top Americans, William Larned and Robert Wrenn, had both been in Cuba while Britain’s Dr. W. V. Eves was involved with the Boer War. And although the British brothers Reggie and Laurie Doherty were not in the army, both found an excuse to decline the [Davis Cup] invitation.”

Dwight Davis and the trophy cup that bears his name, 1924

The story of an incomparable sport keeps unfolding spectacularly through the eyes of Evans in this overarching view of tennis history. The way he structured the book made it easy for the reader to follow and not difficult to comprehend. After he comprehensively examines the game’s infancy and ensuing decades, Evans devotes chapters to the period following World War 1 and the 1920’s; The Thirties; The Forties and Fifties; the Sixties; the Seventies; The Eighties; The Nineties; and the 21st Century.

Determined to put the women on the same platform as the men, he devotes a chapter to the birth of the women’s tour and the WTA. This kind of compartmentalizing is a highly successful formula for sweeping seamlessly through the decades and making it all enjoyable to digest. He leaves no stone unturned. Doubles is featured. The Olympics is covered. Snappy sidebars enhance the book. It’s all there.

Through it all, Evans knows his priorities well. Writing on the post-World War 1 period that was so critical in the evolution of tennis in establishing enduring superstars who transformed the world of sports, Evans points out, “The decade following the First World War was dominated by seven extraordinary champions, five of whom were French. Bill Tilden, who was known for his towering personality as much as his brilliant game, was the American exception among the men, and Helen Wills, a beauty as well as a great tennis player, was among the women. Two of the seven players became the game’s first truly global stars: Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen, who swept all before her with a balletic style of tennis that proved invincible. The elegant, poker-faced Wills was the only player worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Lenglen.”

Evans brings in the “Four Musketeers” (Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques “Toto” Brugnon) as the “remaining quartet” in that scintillating cast of seven players he has singled out in capturing that critical era, perceptively putting them all in perspective. Shifting to the 1930’s and the importance of Don Budge (the first player ever to secure a Grand Slam in 1938), Fred Perry (the best British player of all time), Wills ( the winner of 19 majors in singles), Helen Jacobs (a four-time victor at the U.S. Championships) and the sometimes mysterious Alice Marble ( a five time major singles champion),  Evans is thoroughly immersed in the telling of the story.

As he writes about Marble in the late 1930’s, “By then, Marble’s lift had taken many a twist. She was always welcome at William Randolph Hearst’s California mansion, where she became good friends with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Soon she was taking lovers of both sexes. Drama was never far from her life. As they would say in Hollywood, Alice Marble was quite a gal.”

On we go. In his chapter on the forties and fifties, Evans brings to the forefront the likes of Jack Kramer and Lew Hoad. The author has long been in the camp of erudite observers who revere Hoad unabashedly. Evans recounts Hoad nearly winning the Grand Slam in 1956 before bowing against his buddy Ken Rosewall in the final of Forest Hills. Evans writes of the Hoad-Rosewall US Championships final, “Hoad seemed well on his way to the Grand Slam when he won the first set 6-4. Had Lew not relaxed or let his concentration slip a little, his name would have been forever etched in the pantheon of the game as one of the three greatest players of all time.”

Ken Rosewall

Evans does not clarify who would have joined Hoad in that elite territory if Hoad had indeed secured the Grand Slam, but one suspects Rod Laver and Roger Federer might be his choices. Be that as it may, as Evans recalls the 1960’s he weighs in on a narrowly failed attempt at the ITF General Meeting to usher in Open Tennis at the start of that decade rather than in 1968 when it officially came about at last.

The vote at that meeting failed because three delegates did not vote to ensure the necessary two-thirds majority. Evans writes, “The three culprits may have paid better attention had they realized that, in holding back this move toward progress for eight long years, they deprived Pancho Gonzalez and Ken Rosewall of their best chances of ever winning Wimbledon, which neither did. One can only surmise how many more Grand Slam titles Lew Hoad and Rod Laver would have won, but one thing is clear: the game’s record books are distorted as a result of carelessness and stupidity.”

Examining the 1970’s, Evans points to the rise of superstars Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, and astutely analyzes the centerpiece match of the decade between the defending champion Connors and Arthur Ashe on the fabled Centre Court of Wimbledon in the 1975 final. Ashe toppled his heavily favored countryman 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6–4 in a career defining moment.

Evans writes of that Ashe tactical masterpiece, “It was a triumph that spread happiness and satisfaction throughout the sporting world, because it had been a triumph in which intellect and character had called the shots. Ashe had become the first black man to win Wimbledon. No one could have worn the crown with greater dignity.”

Through a large chunk of that important chapter, Evans informs the reader thoroughly and discernibly about the ATP Wimbledon boycott of 1973, when more than 80 of the leading players including John Newcombe, Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe and Rosewall removed their names from the original draw and withdrew from the world’s most prestigious tournament in a unified stand on behalf of Nikki Pilic, who was controversially barred from competing in the tournament. Evans gets to the heart of the boycott in one clarifying sentence among his many lucid paragraphs: “The immediate result of the boycott was to highlight a fact that reactionaries in the amateur establishment did not want to countenance—namely, that the players had to have a say in the running of the game.”

The women needed to carve out their own niche in that same era as the “Original Nine” signed professional contracts with World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman in 1970 which led to their own tour, and later with the establishment of the WTA in 1973. Billie Jean King, of course, was a central figure in both cases, settling herself apart as a towering player and a formidable leader, becoming the first WTA President. Evans lauds King for her contributions but fittingly reserves high praise for Heldman, writing, “It was no exaggeration to call Gladys Heldman a mover and a shaker, and she was about to shake the women’s game to its core.”

Evans later zeroes in on Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and their incomparable 80 match rivalry which lasted from 1973-88. He writes, “In style and personality, they were polar opposites, but throughout most of their time as deadly rivals they established a friendship that would last a lifetime.”

Naturally, Evans soon moves on to the spellbinding 1980 Wimbledon final between Borg and John McEnroe as the centerpiece of his 1980’s coverage, which also includes the industrious Ivan Lendl, the brilliant Boris Becker and the fascinating Mats Wilander. The Borg-McEnroe battle featured their unsurpassed 18-16 fourth set tie-break won by McEnroe, who saved five match points in that sequence after wiping away two match points when Borg served for the match at 5-4 in that set— only to lose 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6 to the imperturbable Swede.

Evans gets to the essence of the confrontation, writing, “The duel had become a classic contest between a player whose instincts were to stay back and pass against the all-out aggression of a natural serve-and-volleyer. Speed of eye and foot were of the essence and both men were so fast it was impossible to determine who was reacting quicker to the thrust and counter-thrust.”

In his “Women in the Eighties” chapter, Evans writes more on the enduring Navratilova-Evert presence but also brings in the tenacious Tracy Austin, the free-flowing Hana Mandlikova and, of course, Steffi Graf, who won the “Golden Slam” in 1988 by taking all four majors along with a gold medal at the Olympic Games.

Chris Evert

Even more compelling is his chapter on women in the 1990’s. Here Evans writes poignantly on the Graf-Monica Seles rivalry and the tragic stabbing of Seles in the spring of 1993 that permanently altered the mindset of the dynamic left-hander with the two-fisted shots off both sides.

Commenting on the aftermath of the stabbing and Seles’s inevitable and understandable decline as a champion, Evans writes, “Graf reclaimed her dominance over the women’s game without ever having the chance to show that she could have challenged Seles for the No. 1 spot—if, indeed, she could have. Given her talent and champion’s determination to fight through adversity, Graf might have worked out a method of dealing with the Serbian whirlwind, but the question mark will remain forever.”

That was some thoughtful analysis. I believe that Graf had already made some inroads in the rivalry in the year leading up to the tragedy, losing an epic 1992 French Open final to Seles 10-8 in the final set at Roland Garros, crushing Monica in the Wimbledon final at the cost of only three games, and falling marginally short in a hard fought, three set Australian Open final in 1993. In my view, the two extraordinary champions were heading for a new phase of their rivalry which would have been magnificent. In my view, Graf would have held her own.

Across the 377 pages of “The History of Tennis” I found myself largely in accord with the judgments of Evans. One glaring exception concerned his assessment of the two greatest Americans of the nineties and beyond— Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

Evans deservedly lauds Agassi for becoming only the fifth man in tennis history to win all four major championships (the list, of course, has grown to eight with the arrival of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic). He credits Agassi rightfully for his versatility in taking his major titles on two different hard court surfaces— in Melbourne and New York— as well as the clay of Roland Garros and the lawns of Wimbledon.

As Evans concludes, “By the time they [Sampras and Agassi] retired, it was what separated Agassi from Sampras, who had a 20-14 winning record over him but never even reached a Roland Garros final. Agassi had the ability to win everywhere, on anything.  Sampras tended to dominate when they met in Slams and had the bigger, more spectacular game. Who was better? The argument will rage for as long as the game is discussed.”

On this one I have a serious quibble. Sampras won 14 major titles, six more than Agassi. He also upended Agassi in four of their five head to head meetings in major finals, including three on the hard courts at the U.S. Open which suited both players so well. Moreover, Sampras concluded no fewer than six years at No. 1 in the world while Agassi realized that feat only once.

In my view, as a fellow historian, there is no debate whatsoever; Sampras was clearly the better player and his superiority in their most consequential skirmishes sets him far apart from his countryman. The lingering debate is not about Agassi versus Sampras, but Agassi measured against McEnroe and Connors. Agassi and Connors both won eight majors while McEnroe garnered seven. Agassi’s surface adaptability is more pertinent when compared to his two left-handed fellow champions, although Connors did win majors on clay, grass and hard courts. Sampras demonstrably surpassed Agassi over and over again when it mattered the most.

Roger Federer

Be that as it may, Evans leaves no stone unturned in his historical overview of the sport. He makes the case that there is really a “Big Four” rather than a “Big Three” in the men’s hierarchy, putting Andy Murray in that exclusive club along with Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic despite their much wider range of accomplishments. Murray has garnered three major titles across his distinguished career (along with two Olympic gold medals) while Federer and Nadal have 20 Grand Slam titles each with Djokovic only two behind.

Evans defends his decision with clarity. “There will be question marks raised against Murray’s inclusion, which statistically seem obvious, “he writes. “My reason for doing so is based on many factors, the first being that it is difficult to exclude from the equation a man who appeared in eleven Grand Slam finals and 21 Masters 1000 finals during that period. Not only was Murray always in the mix, rarely losing to anyone other than his three rivals, but injury forced him to miss 13 Grand Slams as opposed to six for Nadal, four for Federer and one for Djokovic.”

Evans is making a compelling case for Murray to be linked with the three icons. I have my doubts because the gap is so wide between Murray and the towering trio above him, although Murray did also manage to finish 2016 at No. 1 in the world. That was no mean feat as he moved past Djokovic down the stretch. Some would be in accord with the Evans assessment of Murray, many would probably disagree, but Evans is well reasoned in his argument.

He also does a first rate job of writing on both the men and women in the 21st Century, praising Maria Sharapova effusively for her professionalism and temerity on a tennis court, writing, “Maria Sharapova  epitomized much of what was happening in the women’s game, not least with an ambition and work ethic only a few had been able to surpass in the previous decades.”

Every bit as perceptive in his chapter on the Williams sisters. Evans refers to what seemed like outlandish claims from their father, Richard, who predicted when they were respectively ten and nine years old that both would win Wimbledon. Evans writes, “Yet Venus and Serena achieved exactly what Daddy had said they would. And they did it in a way that strained credulity still further. Mr. and Mrs. Williams defied every norm and, according to current wisdom of the time, did everything wrong. For a start, they took them out of all junior competition.” This is a book which belongs prominently in every sports fan’s tennis library. In addition to the elegant and learned prose of Evans, the photography is splendid. In “The History of Tennis”, Richard Evans draws on his lifelong treasure chest of tennis experiences and remembrances to capture the essence of the sport with a mastery few in his field could match.


Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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What Stefanos Tsitsipas’ Monte Carlo Win Tells Us About The Upcoming Clay Season

The Greek produced some brilliant tennis in Monte Carlo and also had some luck on his side. The question is how will Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and others respond over the coming weeks ahead of the French Open?

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The 2021 clay court campaign was officially launched last week at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, and surprisingly the greatest clay court player in the history of the game did not win this prestigious tournament. Rafael Nadal was upended 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 by the Russian powerhouse Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. To be sure, the Spaniard was far from his zenith, playing abysmally at times, serving no fewer than five double faults in a nightmarish opening set, fighting himself as well as an inspired opponent who was potent, unrelenting and patient.

 

Nadal’s departure virtually ensured a final round clash between Rublev and the Greek stylist Stefanos Tsitsipas, and that is exactly what transpired. Tsitsipas glided through the week without ever being stretched to his physical limits, conceding only 28 games in five matches, performing with both verve and consistency. This highly charged individual kept his emotions under control and clearly enjoyed his tennis over the course of the week, putting on one remarkable shotmaking display after another.

He was not only good and perhaps great, but also lucky. Removed from the Greek’s potential semifinal path was none other than Novak Djokovic, who had not yet lost in 2021. Djokovic was not the favorite in Monte Carlo because only Nadal could wear that label on the red clay, but the Serbian was looking at the very least for a good run. Like Nadal, he was playing his first tournament since the Australian Open, and the long layoff was not beneficial.

Djokovic did play a solid and disciplined match in his initial appearance after a first round bye, colliding with the enormously promising Jannik Sinner in the second round. Sinner had come off his first final round showing at a Masters 1000 event in Miami, and Djokovic clearly took his contest with the 19-year-old Italian upstart very seriously. He clipped Sinner 6-4, 6-2 with a first rate performance. His defense was especially impressive. The soon-to-be 34-year-old frustrated Sinner time and again with his anticipation, wing span, uncanny ball control and a cluster of backhand drop shots that were all highly effective. He treated that match like a big semifinal or final.

Yet Djokovic was in an entirely different frame of mind when he took the court to face Dan Evans in the round of 16. He had never played Evans before. Perhaps his unfamiliarity with the British player’s game was detrimental to Djokovic on this occasion, but the fact remains that his duel with Sinner was also a first time meeting. Djokovic seemed devoid of his usual intensity and purpose against Evans. He was not bearing down on the big points. Evans was beating him to the tactical punch. Moreover, Djokovic was defeating himself with far too many unprovoked mistakes. Before he knew it, Djokovic was down two service breaks in the opening set, trailing 3-0, looking listless and somewhat dazed.

He managed to bounce back to 4–4, only to drop two games in a row to lose the set. In the second set, Djokovic led 3-0 but was still not really finding the range off the ground and failing to locate his serve with the precision he needed. A wily Evans rallied to reach 4-4 but Djokovic had a set point with the British player serving in the tenth game. That point symbolized his uneven performance that day; Djokovic was set up for a routine backhand and drove his two-hander inexplicably into the net. Evans stopped Djokovic 6-4, 7-5.

The British competitor then accounted for David Goffin in the quarterfinals, but Tsitsipas picked him apart ruthlessly 6-2, 6-1 in the semifinals. Rublev had a much tougher road to the final. He narrowly moved past the ever tenacious workhorse Roberto Bautista Agut in a three set, round of 16 encounter that set the stage for his battle with Nadal. Rublev exploited Nadal’s serving woes in the first set and took it easily before moving in front 3-1 and 4-2 in the second. He had break points in both the fifth and seventh games, but could not convert as a bold Nadal would not buckle under pressure.

On a run of four games in a row, Nadal took the match into a third set, but Rublev stood his ground commendably and came away with a 6-2 4-6, 6-2 triumph, breaking Nadal three times in the opening set and three more times in the third.  Then Rublev halted Casper Ruud in straight sets for a place in the final. 

On paper, the Tsitsipas-Rublev title round contest seemed certain to be a hard fought and close battle. They had split six prior head to head appointments. But Rublev was seemingly spent after a hard week’s work while Tsitsipas was fresh, confident and in utter control from the baseline with his much greater variety of shots. Tsitsipas deservedly ousted a somber and below par Rublev 6-3, 6-3.

So how are we to interpret what happened in Monte Carlo in terms of what to expect from this juncture forward on the clay as the players look to peak at Roland Garros? Let’s start with Tsitsipas. There is no doubt that he had a terrific week and this important triumph was in many ways long overdue. Back in 2018, he was the runner-up to Nadal at the Masters 1000 tournament in Canada, upending Djokovic for the first time along the way. That was only his seventh Masters 1000 tournament appearance and he sparkled all week on the hard courts. In Madrid the following year, Tsitsipas stunned Nadal on the clay in the semifinals before losing the final to Djokovic. At the end of that memorable 2019 season, Tsitsipas captured the biggest title of his career at the ATP Finals in London.

Last year, as the pandemic disrupted the world, Tsitsipas only had the opportunity to play three Masters 1000 events and his best showing was a semifinal appearance in Cincinnati. We must remember that he has been a consistent danger to everyone at the Grand Slam tournaments as well, reaching his first major semifinal at the Australian Open in 2019, ousting Federer in Melbourne before losing to Nadal. Last year at Roland Garros, Tsitsipas was a force again, cutting down Rublev, reaching the semifinals and taking Djokovic to five sets. And just a few months ago in Melbourne, Tsitsipas made it to his second Australian and third Grand Slam tournament semifinal, bowing out there against Daniil Medvedev.

And so, ever since 2018, Tsitsipas has shown over and over again that he is a player built for big occasions and eager to put himself on the line against the best players in the world. This win in Monte Carlo is no guarantee that he will be around for the latter stages of Roland Garros 2021, but the view here is that he is a superb all surface practitioner who can play top of the line tennis anywhere he wants. No matter how he performs between now and the start of Roland Garros at the end of May, by virtue of his Monte Carlo breakthrough victory at a Masters 1000 event Tsitsipas has positioned himself as a very serious contender in Paris. He will have the belief that his chances are as good as anyone’s outside of Nadal and perhaps Djokovic.

https://twitter.com/steftsitsipas/status/1383817000275779584

How should the other leading candidates be assessed as Monte Carlo fades into the background and the other clay court tournaments unfold? I don’t believe Nadal will be down in the dumps after his loss to Rublev. He knows it was one of those days when he came upon an opponent bludgeoning the ball ferociously on an evening when the air was cool and the wind was burdensome. Nadal can handle swirling winds as well as anyone in tennis, but the colder air hindered him considerably and took the “hop” out of his signature forehand. He could not make Rublev play enough shots from up above his shoulders.

This week, Nadal is the top seed back home in Barcelona. I fully expect him to be the victor at one of his favorite tournaments for the twelfth time. Rublev and Tsitsipas are both entered in the Spanish tournament as well, and could meet in the penultimate round. Nadal’s draw leads me to believe he can’t lose in Barcelona prior to the final. Moreover, having just come off a loss in Monte Carlo, Nadal would be awfully eager to either avenge his loss to Rublev in Monte Carlo or strike back at Tsitsipas, who surprised the Spaniard in a five set quarterfinal at the Australian Open. Nadal was up two sets to love in that skirmish and lost from that position for only the third time in his illustrious career. Roger Federer rallied from two sets down to overcome Nadal in a scintillating 2005 Miami final, and a madly inspired Fabio Fognini did the same thing to Nadal under the lights at the 2015 U.S. Open.

Djokovic is also back in action this week at the ATP 250 event in Belgrade. Performing in front of his home fans should inspire Djokovic to make amends for Monte Carlo and perhaps come away with his 83d career title on the ATP Tour. There will be some formidable players in Belgrade joining Djokovic, including Australian Open semifinalist Aslan Karatsev, the surging American Sebastian Korda and the Italian No. 1 Matteo Berrettini.   The field is reasonably strong, but Djokovic surely has a significant opportunity to take the title and ignite his clay court campaign.

Originally, Dominic Thiem was supposed to be in Belgrade but he pulled out. The Austrian will wait for the Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome to perform on the clay after a disconcerting start to 2021. Having claimed his first major at the U.S. Open last September before suffering a hard fought loss to Medvedev in the final of the ATP Finals a few months later, Thiem seemed certain to be pushing hard to supplant Djokovic and Nadal at the top in the ATP Rankings.

But he commenced 2021 dismally. After a 6-4, 6-4, 6-0 round of 16 defeat at the hands of Grigor Dimitrov at the Australian Open when he was apparently dealing with an injury, Thiem won only one match combined in Doha and Dubai. He has not played since. His match record for the season is 5-4. And so how he fares in Madrid and Rome en route to Roland Garros could be critical to his fortunes for the rest of the year. Of his 17 career ATP singles crowns, ten have been on clay. Moreover, the big hitting and industrious Austrian has been in two French Open finals. But now he seems to be struggling immensely with his confidence. He is clearly at an emotional crossroads.

I must reaffirm my feeling that Nadal will be the victor in Barcelona and Djokovic will be the champion in Belgrade. The leading players will then have a week off before heading to Barcelona and Rome. Those will be fascinating clay court festivals. I believe Tsitsipas will make a strong bid to win one of those titles, as will Rublev. In that crucial two week stretch, Sascha Zverev will prove once more how capable he is on the clay. The German won his first Masters 1000 title on clay in Rome four years ago. He will be in the thick of things again this year in both Madrid and Rome. 

Thiem will make his presence known significantly in at least one of those tournaments. But what are we to make of Medvedev? All ten of his career titles have been secured on hard courts; he has yet to win a clay court tournament. Moreover, he had to pull out of Monte Carlo with COVID-19. Perhaps the world No. 2 will be back next month to compete favorably on the clay, but it is doubtful that he will be at peak efficiency.

Nadal has always had issues with the altitude in Madrid. It is surely his least favorite of all the important clay court events. He has won Monte Carlo and Barcelona eleven times each, and Rome nine times. Across his sterling career, he has taken 60 of his 86 career titles on the clay (producing an astounding 447-41 match record), including an unimaginable thirteen French Opens. But he has won Madrid only four times on clay (adding one more title in that town indoors on hard courts). So I am picking someone else to be victorious in Madrid this time around. It may come down to Djokovic, Zverev and Thiem as the three main contenders. Sinner will be in the mix as well.

Rome? Although Djokovic took his fifth title there last year, I am looking for Nadal to claim his tenth title this year. Meanwhile, Roger Federer is returning to the clay in Geneva for the ATP 250 event the week after Rome, followed by his 19th appearance at Roland Garros. The 2009 French Open champion is surely not going to secure a second title this year. But Federer loves playing at Roland Garros. He can reach the second week with the right kind of draw, but will likely lose either in the round of 16 or quarterfinals, with an outside chance to make the semifinals.

That is as far as I will go with my Roland Garros projections. I want to see how the top players fare in Madrid and Rome before making any serious predictions for Paris. In the mean time, I can’t wait to watch what transpires over the next month as the leading competitors go into head to head combat on a surface which brings out the best and most artistic tennis from many in the upper regions of the sport. This is when it all comes alive in the world of tennis.

___________________________________________________________________________

Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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Editorial

No Questions For Hurkacz: Who Is To blame? Fans Blast Reporters, But Is It Really Them?

Hubert Hurkacz goes to the interview room but nobody is connected. A social media storm ensues, but not many people know how things really work

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Among the funny videos published by Tennis TV last Tuesday on their social media accounts, there is some footage from Hubert Hurkacz’s press conference after his successful debut in Monte Carlo against Italian qualifier Thomas Fabbiano.

 
https://twitter.com/TennisTV/status/1381985240479113226?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1381985240479113226%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ubitennis.com%2Fblog%2F2021%2F04%2F14%2Fnessuna-domanda-per-hurkacz-di-chi-e-la-colpa%2F

No journalist was connected with the press conference (let’s remind everyone that even the few journalists present onsite in Montecarlo are required to use video conferencing to talk to players, due to the ATP’s COVID-19 protocol), nobody asked questions to the Miami Open champion, who was able to fulfill his press obligations in less than a minute recording a vocal message in his native language for the Polish press.

The ATP did not appreciate having to submit the player to a press conference where no questions were asked, especially because it happened twice on the same day: Dusan Lajovic, too, was taken to the interview room after his defeat against Daniel Evans, but no questions were asked.

And it almost happened the same also to Fabio Fognini: at the start of his press conference, only Ubaldo Scanagatta and Alessandro Stella from Ubitennis were connected online. As some of you may know, Fognini does not talk to Ubitennis and has been doing so for several years, but in order to avoid another debacle, the ATP moderator invited Ubaldo to ask a question and Fognini felt compelled to respond.

Of course, social media users were quick to blame the accredited media addressing all sort of insults towards those journalists present in Montecarlo (although very few were actually present at the Country Club, but not many people knew that) who they believed were guilty of snubbing Hurkacz’ press conference, probably because they were not very familiar with press conference procedures.

Before I move on to explain what has happened, just a few words from me: I have not decided to write this piece as a justification for journalists, neither to complain about the problems we face while doing our job. Nobody is forcing me to do what I do, I’m here by choice and I am happy to do what I do, but I would like to explain that sometimes things are not as black-or-white as they may appear at first.

Every media accredited to a tournament is entitled to request an interview with a player on a day when this player is scheduled to compete: the request has to be submitted in writing to the ATP Communication Manager in charge, normally by email, as early as possible during the day. It has to be specified when we want to talk to the player (normally, after their match, or their last match if they play more than one), if we are requesting a one-on-one interview or a press conference for multiple media to attend, and if we want to talk to the player regardless of the result of the match or only if they win.

Evidently, someone had requested to talk to Hurkacz, but then decided not to take part in the press conference. This should not happen, but let’s see how events may have unfolded.

Usually, at the end of the match, an ATP Communication Manager approaches the player, explains to him (or her, in case of WTA tournaments) the requests that have been received and agrees on a time for the media commitments. In case journalists are present on-site, a public announcement is made in the media room about the agreed time for the interview or press conference; since now most reporters are working remotely from home, there is a WhatsApp chat where all the interview times are noted, and a reminder is sent right before the player walks into the interview room.

In this case, no announcement for the time of the interview had been made, and the only message sent on the chat was the one advising that Hurkacz had already arrived in the interview room.

Since last year, all of us who cover tournaments year-round have had to get accustomed to a new way of working, as did many other workers all over the world. While we are present onsite at a tournament, we live and breathe the event, we spend hours and hours in the media room and we are totally absorbed by the tournament. Now that we are watching matches on TV and we work remotely from home, the full immersion effect has gone, and we all need to balance the coverage of tournaments with the tasks of our everyday life. For example, at tournaments journalists can usually avail of a cafeteria to have their meals; at home, I don’t have a cafeteria, if I want to eat, I need to cook my meals myself, and sometimes also go to the supermarket to get groceries. This requires time, and in tournaments where matches start at 11 a.m. and go on until way past midnight (like the Miami Open, for example), this means we sometimes have to find some time to get away from the PC and attend the more mundane tasks of everyday life.

Not receiving any kind of forewarning of when a press conference may take place is incredibly inconvenient, because it does not allow us to plan our work and schedule the breaks to take care of everything else, from doing laundry to walking the dog. Especially because or job is not just attending press conferences, it’s also writing or talking about them, and, from time to time, if possible, watch some tennis matches.

Most certainly whoever had requested the player and then realized they would not be able to attend the press conference, should have contacted one of the ATP Communication Managers to let them know. Maybe there was an emergency and they could not send a message in time, but it’s really good practice to do that. When covering tournaments onsite, we would need to be present “in the flesh” for the interviews we had requested, and if it so happened that we were stuck on a court attending another match, we would normally go out of our way to notify the Communication Managers of our delay. In today’s environment, there may be other mishaps occurring: a sudden call from the boss, a last-minute deadline popping up: this is our job after all.

Some of you may say: but why don’t you take shifts as it happens in many jobs that require extended duty hours? Yes and no. First of all, it’s not that easy to plan shifts not knowing when matches start or end (and interview times are tied to when matches end), with possibly some rain delay thrown into the mix as well. But there are also external problems: not every person in our (virtual) newsroom has access to virtual interviews or to the WhatsApp chat. Tournaments can decide whom to admit at their discretion, and as far as the Rolex Montecarlo Open is concerned, our deputy editor Alessandro Stella, the only representative for Ubitennis in addition to our CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta , was refused accreditation for this year’s tournament because priority had to be given to French or Monaco media.

Ubaldo, who has probably spent as much time at the Monte Carlo Country Club as the custodian, received his confirmation letter just the week before the tournament, and it was only his insistence on being able to delegate some of his staff to attend press conferences that allowed Alessandro Stella to gain access to the virtual interview room. At the beginning of the season, the ITWA (International Tennis Writers Association) requested that generic credentials be given to specific news outlets instead of specific people, in order to allow more flexibility in covering the event, but the request was rejected and referred to the individual tournaments’ discretion.

Therefore, Ubitennis was refused access for lack of space (virtual space, that is), despite the site can boast over 40 million page views a year, it’s comfortably the most important tennis website in Italy (or possibly Europe) and on a “normal” year approximately 35% of spectators for the tournament would come from Italy, to the extent that a launch press conference for the tournament dedicated to Italian media is held each October in Milan. What I am trying to say is that if access is being so constrained, you can’t really complain too much if there aren’t enough people to ask questions at all press conferences, especially during a very busy Tuesday when, due to the rain cancellations on Monday, there were many matches taking place at the same time.

That goes to say that there have certainly been responsibilities on both sides for the mishap at Hurkacz’ (and I’m guessing also Lajovic’s) interview, but maybe there was no need to give so much visibility to a fairly innocuous incident. We are all working in a new environment, we are all adjusting and we can all make mistakes. What is important is that we evaluate those mistakes with the right attitude.

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Editorial

Naomi Osaka And The (Other) Surfaces

Just 23, Osaka already boasts four Slam titles – all of them, however, have come on hardcourt’s. How far can she go on clay and grass?

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With her win at the 2021 Australian Open, Naomi Osaka has won the fourth Grand Slam title of her career and separated herself, Slam-wise, from all active tennis players but the Williams sisters and Kim Clijsters (if we consider Kim as an active player). Actually, only four players have won more Majors than Naomi in the 21st century: Serena, Venus, Justine Henin, and Maria Sharapova.

 

It should be considered that Osaka is only 23 years old (she was born in October 1997), and therefore it is not unthinkable that she could increase the tally. In terms of the age of the fourth title, once again only the Williams sisters have a clear advantage over her – Henin is only slightly ahead, while Sharapova’s performance lags far behind. In fact, if I have not miscalculated, this is the age when the aforementioned players reached the fourth Grand Slam win: Serena won the fourth title at 20 years and 11 months, Venus at 21 years and 4 months, Henin at exactly 23 years. Then we have Osaka (23 years and 5 months). Sharapova notched her fourth Grand Slam title aged 25 years and 1 month, while Clijsters at 27 years and 8 months.

In short, Osaka is building an exceptional career for herself, albeit with some limitations to consider. The first is that, in spite of her success at the Majors, she has won “just” three more WTA titles: Indian Wells 2018, Beijing 2019 (both of them Premier Mandatory events), and Tokyo 2019 (a Premier tournament). For this reason, up to now, she’s led the world rankings for just a few weeks, 25 in total. In essence, Osaka has been had rather short peaks – using a cliché, it could be said that she chooses quality over quantity.

The most relevant nugget of information, however, is the distribution of the surfaces on which she’s won: every single one of her wins have occurred on hardcourts. Even taking into consideration the tournaments in which she’s reached the final without winning (Tokyo 2016, Tokyo 2018, Cincinnati/New York 2020), the surface is always the same.

This fact is even more striking when we widen our focus a little and take into consideration the percentage of victories on the major circuit (WTA tournaments, Slams, Billie Jean King Cup). Before Miami, Osaka had won 173 matches and lost 88, as follows:

  • 69.4% on hard (136 won/60 lost)
  • 59.5% on red and green clay (25 won/17 lost)
  • 52.2% on grass (12 won/11 lost)

Basically, from whichever point you look at it, the situation appears clear and unambiguous: Naomi’s performance changes, and a lot, depending on the surface. Why? Since this trend has emerged for a number of years, the explanation I gave myself has to do with her training as a young girl. In fact, Osaka did not undertake the classic path of a junior player, travelling the world with a schedule that, at least for the Grand Slams, follows that of the professionals. Instead, Naomi grew up without playing junior tournaments, transitioning directly into the ITF circuit and mostly on American soil. This means that, compared to her opponents, she never played that much on grass and clay.

A few weeks ago, she confirmed it herself in the press conference that was held after her victory at the Australian Open. She was asked: “You have won four Grand Slams on hardcourts. Which will be the first outside [these surfaces], clay or grass?” Naomi initially replied with a joke: “I hope on clay, because it comes first!”

But then she delved more extensively into her training regime and said that in 2019 she began to feel better on clay, while she still believes she has very little experience on grass. The numbers seem to confirm this, even if she did play a couple of ITFs on grass in Japan when she was very young; in 2015, she reached the final in the 50k event in Surbiton, losing to Diatchenko in a tournament that featured Hsieh, Kontaveit, Cetkovska, Minella, Paszek and Buzarnescu.

Anyway, we are talking about very few matches. It is inevitable, therefore, to ask whether Osaka will be able to overcome the difficulties she has had on clay and grass in order to transform herself into a more complete player, perhaps so complete as to be able to win the European Grand Slams. Before addressing the issue, I think it is useful to consider some players with similar situations and look at how things went for them.

On page 2, how other top players fared on their least favourite surfaces

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