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

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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.

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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.

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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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Looking Back at Madrid and Forward to Rome

Alexander Zverev stated his case in the Spanish capital – will Djokovic and Nadal re-assert their claycourt supremacy in Italy?

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We have been witnessing a fascinating clay court campaign in a multitude of ways over the last several weeks. The first major development was when Stefanos Tsitsipas secured his initial Masters 1000 crown in Monte Carlo by toppling Andrey Rublev in the final after Rublev had stunned eleven time victor Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. Novak Djokovic suffered an even more astounding upset loss there to Great Britain’s Dan Evans in the round of 16.

 

Then Nadal was victorious in Barcelona, capturing that highly regarded ATP 500 title for the twelfth time, rescuing himself from match point down in the final against an inspired and somewhat unlucky Tsitsipas, prevailing in three hours and thirty eight minutes of suspenseful and riveting tennis. That same week in Belgrade, Djokovic was beaten in the semifinals of an ATP 250 event in his homeland, narrowly falling short against the surging Aslan Karatsev. The following day, the top ranked Italian Matteo Berrettini ousted Karatsev in a final set tie-break to claim that title.

And soon the stage was set for the second clay court Masters 1000 tournament of the season this past week in Madrid. Once more, there were a good many surprises over the course of the week. For starters, 2019 champion Djokovic chose not to play. Tsitsipas was knocked out in the round of 16 by a perspicacious Casper Ruud. Overflowing with confidence coming into the tournament, Tsitsipas never found a way to contain Ruud from the backcourt. He seemed constantly ill at ease coping with the Norwegian’s heavy and penetrating topspin forehand. Ruud kept Tsitsipas at bay with his high bounding shots off that side.

That match turned late in a first set settled in a tie-break. That crucial sequence was locked at 3-3 when Tsitsipas punched a backhand volley long to give Ruud the mini-break. Ruud took control off the forehand to stretch his lead to 6-3, and then came through to take the tie-break 7-4 when Tsitsipas missed a forehand inside-in wide.

The second set went to 3-3, but Tsitsipas was broken at 15 when he double faulted and pressed off the forehand, netting his down the line shot off that side. Ruud was too good with the lead, holding at 30 for 5-3. Two games later, Ruud served for the match, meeting that challenge with temerity, holding at the cost of only one point. Victory was salvaged deservedly by Ruud 7-6 (4), 6-4, who connected with nearly 80% of his first serves and largely set the tempo in this meeting. He was so good that Tsitsipas was frequently discombobulated, pressing and beating himself down the stretch.

The Norwegian eventually lost in the semifinals 6-4, 6-4 to a top of the line Berrettini after ousting Alexander Bublik 7-5 6-1 in the quarterfinals.  He is beginning to make a habit out of showing up for the latter stages of Masters 1000 tournaments. He lost to Djokovic last year in the semifinals of Rome and a few weeks ago advanced to the same round in Monte Carlo. Ruud has the game to keep advancing deep into these draws at elite events.

Meanwhile, Daniil Medvedev returned to the ATP Tour after being sidelined by Covid-19. He won a match but was then taken apart by the seasoned Christian Garin of Chile, a seasoned clay court player who was not intimidated in the least by taking on the world No. 2. He came through 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-1 for perhaps the biggest win of his career. Medvedev looked out of sorts and ill at ease through most of this encounter. The 25-year-old Russian was candid both before and after losing about his inner confusion concerning how to make his game work effectively on the dirt. The 2019 U.S. Open finalist and 2021 Australian Open runner-up has never won a match at Roland Garros in four appearances. He will have his work cut out for him to recover his finest tennis this week in Rome.

Clearly the most pivotal moment of the week in Madrid was the quarterfinal departure of Nadal at the hands of Zverev. The Spaniard looked composed and secure on his way to the appointment with Zverev. He was outmaneuvering his tall adversary in the early stages of this contest, building a 4-2 lead, putting himself two holds away from taking the first set. He reached 30-30 in the seventh game but Zverev stung him severely with a pair of excellent passing shots to get the break back.

2021 05 06 MADRID – MUTUA MADRID OPEN DE TENIS 2021. FOTO: Mateo Villalba

Down break point in the following game, Zverev gamely held on to reach 4-4. Nadal had a game point for 5-4 but he could not cash in on it. At deuce, he double faulted, and then he netted a backhand passing shot. Zverev was rolling now. Serving for the first set, he started with a double fault but swept four points in a row from there with a flourish, lacing a backhand winner crosscourt, coming to the net to pressure Nadal on the next two points, and then acing the Spaniard down the T.

Zverev had captured four consecutive games and he never looked back as a desultory Nadal could not recover his form. Zverev played beautifully and dictated his share of the points. His serve was magnificent as Nadal only broke him once. For his part, Nadal was far too negative once he dropped the opening set. He fell behind 4-2 in the second set and held on there from 15-40, but Zverev maintained the upper hand to win 6-4, 6-4, stopping Nadal for the third time in a row.

Nadal, Tsitsipas and Medvedev were not the only major casualties in the tricky high altitude conditions on the Madrid clay. Dominic Thiem— absent in Monte Carlo and Barcelona and moving through something of a mid-career identity crisis—managed to fend off the sport’s most fearsome server in John Isner. Isner had cut down both Roberto Bautista Agut and Rublev in final set tie-breaks and he nearly halted Thiem. But when the industrious Austrian erased four break points against him at 2-2 in the second set, he altered the course of the match and Isner’s soaring confidence was soon diminished. Thiem rallied admirably for a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph and a place in the semifinals.

That was not a bad start to his 2021 clay court campaign. But he looked rusty and uncomfortable against Zverev in the semifinals, and the 6-3, 6-4 scoreline is somewhat misleading. It was not as close as that. Zverev was far more self assured and consistent amidst the swirling winds and he had another very good serving day. He never allowed Thiem to settle into any kind of rhythm from the backcourt. The win for Zverev was all the more gratifying considering that it was their first clash since meeting in the U.S. Open final. Zverev led two sets to love in that match and later served for the match in the fifth set, but he faltered in the crunch and endured a nightmarish setback.

Not so in Madrid. On the clay he was often masterful, driving his two-handed backhand deep down the line for winners, opening up the court with his forehand, and approaching the net at all the right times to keep Thiem unsettled. He demonstrated in this match— as he had against Nadal—that he is as formidable on clay as he is on any other surface. Zverev was a worthy winner of the Madrid Masters 1000 tournament in 2018 after winning Rome the previous year. He also won the Canada hard court Masters 1000 tournament at Montreal in 2017. Those string of triumphs are abundant proof that he can win big tournaments as well as perform with comparable excellence on all kinds of courts.

For Zverev, the final this time around was a chance to reaffirm his greatness while Berrettini was searching for a breakthrough and a validation of all the progress he has made since he climbed into the world’s top ten in 2019 and reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open. He had never reached a Masters 1000 final before, but this was a chance to get on the board and prove that he belongs among the sport’s elite.

Berrettini acquitted himself well in a hard fought opening set. He gained the first break of the match for 4-3 but Zverev retaliated immediately to make it 4-4. They settled that set in one of the most bizarre tie-breaks of the entire tennis season. Benefitting from a stream of unforced errors from Zverev, Berrettini built a commanding 5-0 lead, with two service points to follow. But the Italian tightened up, losing the next four points, giving away three with unjustifiable mistakes.

Yet Berrettini unleashed a forehand inside in winner for a 6-4 lead, with two set points at his disposal. Once more with the lead, Berrettini faltered and Zverev moved in front on a run of three consecutive points, serving an ace for a 7-6 lead and a set point. But Berrettini produced a pair of fine first serves and took control off his explosive forehand to regain the lead at 8-7. Although Zverev made it back to 8-8, he foolishly gambled by going for a huge second serve ace down the T, double faulting that point away. Now Berrettini secured the set on his fourth set point with a service winner to the backhand.

The charismatic Italian had survived a considerable ordeal to salvage a set that almost got away, but Zverev refused to be preoccupied by an agonizingly narrow failure. Across the last two sets he was the decidedly better player. At 4-4 in the second set, Berrettini was burned by allowing Zverev to read his drop shot with ease. The German scampered forward and chipped a backhand winner out of reach for 15-40. Shaken, Berrettini double faulted and Zverev had the critical break for 5-4. Zverev served it out in the tenth game to make it one set all.

2021 05 07 MADRID – MUTUA MADRID OPEN DE TENIS 2021. by Media Hub Mutua Madrid Open FOTO: Mateo Villalba

The Italian had one more opportunity early in the third set when he had a break point for 3-1 after Zverev went for another second serve ace down the T and double faulted. But Zverev saved the break point with a massive combination of a big serve that set up a forehand winner behind Berrettini. He held on for 2-2 and never looked back, breaking in the fifth and ninth games to record a 6-7 (8)), 6-4, 6-3 victory for his fourth Masters 1000 singles title. The only active players who have won more are Djokovic (36), Nadal (35), Roger Federer (28) and Andy Murray (14).

Most importantly at the moment, this was Zverev’s third Masters 1000 crown on clay. That puts him in very good stead for Roland Garros. Zverev now must be considered a top five candidate to take the world’s premier clay court title. Nadal remains the clear favorite, followed by Djokovic, Thiem and Tsitsipas. But Zverev is now right up there on the clay with the Serbian, Austrian and Greek stylists. Winning this title could not be more timely or uplifting for the tall German performer, with or without a strong showing in Rome this week.

Zverev coming through so convincingly in a tournament of such prestige only augers well for him in Paris. But what about Rome? Who is best positioned to be victorious this week on the Italian red clay?

Those are not easy questions to answer. One would think that Nadal will be very eager to make amends. He has won only one of his three clay court tournaments this year en route to Roland Garros, losing a pair of quarterfinals. Even his lone triumph in Barcelona was a narrow escape as the Spaniard saved a match point in the final set before holding back Tsitsipas in a rousing title round showdown.

This week in Rome, Nadal’s draw is not easy by any means. Seeded second behind Djokovic, he may have to face the hard working and wildly ambitious Jannik Sinner after a first round bye. He could meet Zverev for the second week in a row in the quarters. Zverev would have nothing to lose after eclipsing Rafa in Madrid, and the Spaniard could be both eager and uneasy if he does indeed face Zverev again.

If Nadal survives a potential confrontation against Zverev, he will be very likely to reach the final. No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev is on his half of the draw. I don’t believe Medvedev will make it to the penultimate round, but perhaps Diego Schwartzman will break out of a recent slump of sorts and try to reprise his winning form against Nadal last year at the same tournament.

There is no doubt Nadal could use a boost going into Roland Garros. He has yet to strike peak form these last bunch of weeks on his favorite surface, but claiming a tenth title in Rome would do much to improve his state of mind and carry him into Roland Garros feeling more like himself.

And yet, as much as Nadal wants to raise the level of his game this week in Italy, Novak Djokovic is even more in need of a morale boosting tournament. Djokovic, of course, commenced 2021 in style with his ninth Australian Open title run and an 18th Grand Slam title victory. But in his two clay court appearances this spring, he has not found a winning formula.

In Monte Carlo, playing Dan Evans for the first time, Djokovic was way off his game in a straight set defeat. He then suffered the disappointing loss to Karatsev in Serbia. Those subpar results are precisely why Djokovic must be determined to win his sixth Italian Open this week—or at least reach the final. That will be no facile feat. He could meet Evans again in his opening match if the British competitor beats Taylor Fritz in the first round.

The seedings project that Djokovic will meet the No. 5 seed Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals (if Tsitsipas can defeat Berrettini), and that one could be a blockbuster. Also on his half of the draw for a potential semifinal encounter are Thiem and Rublev, who should clash in the quarterfinals. My feeling is that Rome is even more important for Djokovic than it is for Nadal; a great week in Italy could propel the estimable Serbian into Paris and make him believe in his chances to win Roland Garros for the second time, but an early round loss would be a serious setback.

So there you have it. I have a hunch that we are in for some more surprises this week. Rublev might explode and take his first Masters 1000 title. Zverev will be ascendant after his heroics in Madrid. He will be loose, confident and happy to be sparkling in the springtime. Perhaps it is asking too much of him to win back to back Masters 1000s in successive weeks, but perhaps not. I would also not be stunned to see Tsitsipas step back up after his loss in Madrid and put it all together again.

To be sure, Nadal must be the favorite this week. He can be exceedingly dangerous when he is disconcerted with his game, and that could well drive him to dizzying heights in Rome. I feel the same way about Djokovic. He has too much pride and professionalism to accept anything less than a stellar showing this week as either the champion or the runner-up.

But what makes it all so intriguing at the moment is the unpredictability of the last three Masters 1000 tournaments. Hubert Hurkacz struck down Sinner in the Miami final; neither player had ever been in a Masters 1000 final before. Tsitsipas took his first of these elite prizes in Monte Carlo by toppling Rublev in the final. And then Zverev triumphed deservedly in Madrid, coming from behind to oust Berrettini, who was appearing in his first final at one of these elite events.

So take nothing for granted. Look for Nadal to be almost defiant. Expect Djokovic to be as motivated as he has been in a long time. Be anticipating as well that one of the emerging superstars of men’s tennis will be in the thick of the proceedings and unafraid to confront the icons of the game at the second most important clay court tournament in all of tennis.

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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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Tennis and physics: Are clay and hard courts slow or fast? It all depends on one factor

Surfaces are different, but topspin makes them all the same. A (long) analysis of the physics of the tennis ball leads to an interesting discovery.

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Surfaces are not all the same. Every now and then someone surmises that this is not the case anymore, but there are data to show that differences that once seemed more evident still exist today.

Grasscourts have become slower than a couple of decades ago, this is confirmed, but the distance between clay and hard doesn’t appear to have altered. After all, while hyper-champions like Djokovic and Nadal have found a way to excel even on the surface that offers them fewer natural advantages, many others continue to struggle on courts that do not suit them. It turns out that hardcourt tennis is not identical to claycourt tennis, because the physics of shots are just different. If that weren’t the case, the performance of all players would be uniform, matches would be more or less the same, and the aces data – the best metric to indirectly compare the speed of the courts – would remain in the same range on all surfaces. Instead, Nadal’s career data state that the Spaniard hits an average of 2 aces per game on clay and 3.5 on hard courts (+75%); Federer 5.9 and 7.9 respectively (+34%); Djokovic 3.7 and 5.6 (+51%).

 

It follows that on clay, the elective surface of this part of the season, tennis changes. But how exactly? What is the best way to move on claycourts, and what is the yield of the shots as compared to other turfs? What are the difficulties that players face compared to hardcourts, and what are the advantages? It’s a long and complex issue, but before going deep into tactical considerations – where a bit of subjectivity takes over – we will explore the problem from a physical and theoretical premise in order to build a solid starting point for our digression. We will draw our conclusions in a second article, which will be published in the coming weeks.  

Special thanks for this article must be paid to Matthew Willis, who curates a very interesting tennis blog on Substack. He got us to discover the publications of Rod Cross, a former Physics Professor at the University of Sydney who has dedicated a large part of his career to the subject of physics applied to sports. If the topic appeals to you, some of his work can be found here, here and here. In the next sections we will try to summarise the main discoveries of his research, broken down into simple concepts. If you are not interested in physics and prefer to go directly to the conclusions, you might want to go straight to the second section.

FIRST SECTION: THE THEORY OF SURFACE BOUNCE PHYSICS

To put it very simply, the bounce of a tennis ball can be viewed as a physical system in which a spherical body has a speed that can be divided into two components: horizontal inbound velocity (vx1, it stems from hitting the ball with the racquet, measured in m/s) and the vertical inbound velocity (vy1, it stems from the stroke and ‘fights’ with gravity, measured in m/s). After the impact with the surface at a certain angle of incidence (θ1), the two outbound velocities are obviously reduced (vx2 and vy2); this means that the ball loses some of its thrust and speed and loses a little more or a little less depending on the surface on which it bounces.

Graphical representation of ball bounce (credit to Rod Cross)

Let’s start from the beginning. In 1984, Howard Brody developed the first model to study the physics of the tennis ball, imagining it as a rigid object which after the impact with the surface does not deform. This model, which turned out to be inaccurate and incomplete, assumes that the horizontal outbound velocity of the ball after the rebound is always 64.5% of that before the rebound, regardless of the surface and of the angle of impact, as long as it is greater than 16 degrees. 

In reality, the ball deforms after the impact. This is why the physics of the bounce are much more complex (the worst calculus final you ever had in your life,” according to the late, great David Foster Wallace) and consequently not all surfaces are the same. For a few fractions of a second, in fact, the ball – which possesses with a certain rotation – stops rotating and begins to slide on the court, covering a micro-distance (D as showed in the above figure) which corresponds to the displacement of the axis of force N, i.e. the one that fights with friction (F) to push the ball upwards. After this transitional phase, the ball resumes the rotation motion and takes off towards the phase following the rebound. The duration of this phase, and therefore the resistance that the surface offers to the ball, depends on the friction of the surface itself and the type of shot (we will get to that shortly). On the clay it lasts a little longer, so the distance D is greater and the surface “steals” more inertia from the slowed ball that comes out; on hardcourts it lasts less, so the distance D is smaller, and the ball resumes its upward motion more quickly, resulting faster after the rebound. Thus, the 64.5% rule fails. 

The premise is completed by specifying that two physical characteristics are attributable to the surface:

  • The coefficient of friction (μ), which measures the friction of the surface by subtracting the horizontal outbound velocity (vx2 after the bounce) from horizontal inbound velocity (vx1). Basically, it tells us how much speed the ball loses in the horizontal plane. The higher this coefficient is, the more the surface generates friction (as happens on clay) and consequently slows down the stroke.
  • The coefficient of restitution (e), which instead measures how much the surface “helps” the ball to bounce and is the ratio between vertical outbound velocity (vy2) and the vertical inbound velocity (vy1). The higher this coefficient is, the more generous the surface is with the bounce (like on clay).

If it is easier to understand why the increase in the friction coefficient slows down shots (and therefore the game), it may be necessary to specify why a court that ‘returns’ more is considered slower: a higher bounce gives the player more time to execute the stroke and to find the ideal sweet spot for impact, whereas low bounces force the receiver to react in a shorter time span.

Lorenzo Musetti (Acapulco 2021 / photo AMT): example of impact below the level of the hips 

These two physical characteristics have been incorporated into a formula developed by the ITF to calculate the Court Pace Rating (CPR), an indicator of the speed of the courts. The formula is the following:

This rating, which basically tells us how much speed the ball has before bouncing and how much speed it has afterwards, is calculated in a laboratory under fixed conditions. Basically, a shot is hit at about 67,1 mph on a sample of the surface, without topspin and at a fixed angle of 16 degrees. However, this is a partial figure, because it does not take into account what happens when the ball hits the surface at a greater angle, namely when the stroke is executed with topspin – as previously implied, when the ball comes in with a lot of rotation, things are different. The above metrics is also not totally representative because it doesn’t take into account other factors that influence the speed of the court, such as weather conditions and all the layers composing the court beneath the upper surface.

CPR should not be confused with CPI (Court Pace Index), which is based on the same physical premises but is not calculated under laboratory conditions – it is simply inferred from the speed measures offered by Hawkeye data (used at Slam, Masters 1000 and ATP Finals levels). In some ways, it is a more truthful measurement, as it is based on matches data from played tournaments and on a larger sample of shots.

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Roger Federer Suffers Another Hard Loss After Reaching Match Point

The 20-time Grand Slam champion displayed encouraging signs when he returned to action in Doha before he fell victim to the “match point syndrome” once again.

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image via Qatar Tennis

Having been gone from the game for nearly 13 months after enduring two knee surgeries in 2020, Roger Federer went back to work last week in Doha as devoted tennis fans—and even the sports world at large—followed his every move. Federer, of course, is one of the most renowned athletes in the world, a singularly graceful practitioner of his craft, and an ineffably pure and artistic shotmaker who was sorely missed by his many ardent admirers.

 

That is why the return of the 39-year-old Swiss Maestro was eagerly anticipated by so many devoted observers across the globe. They were thirsting to see him perform again, hoping he could rekindle some of his old magic, and fascinated to find out what he could bring back to the table of competition. They wanted this version of Roger Federer to be sublime. They hoped he could inspire them once more with his sheer creativity and a soaring imagination that has long made Federer a transcendent figure in his trade.

Federer did not entirely let them down, nor did he necessarily live up to the perhaps unrealistic expectations of some fervent fans. In his opening match in the round of 16, Federer took on Great Britain’s Dan Evans, with whom he had been practicing frequently. Evans had never taken a set off Federer, but surely believed this was a golden opportunity to upset a rusty adversary who had spent 405 days away from match play.

Evans created a nice opening when he advanced to break point at 4-4 in the first set, but Federer met that moment with calm assurance. A deep inside-in forehand from Federer pulled Evans out of position, setting up the Swiss for his trademark inside-out forehand winner. Federer held on in that crucial game. On they went to a tie-break, and the 20-time major champion trailed 2-4 in that sequence and later served at 5-6 and set point down.

Federer sent a deadly accurate first serve down the middle in the ad court. Evans did not get good depth on the return. Federer stepped in and unleashed a forehand inside-out winner. Having dodged out of danger, Federer took that tie-break 10-8 on his third set point.

He was playing reasonably well, but not making much of an impression on the Evans serve. The British player claimed the second set 6-3 on one break of serve. In the final set, Federer was twice down break point at 3-3 but he released an ace and then a spectacular forehand drop shot winner.

Federer held on for 4-3 and did so again to lead 5-4. In the tenth game, Federer had a match point, but Evans caught the Swiss off guard. He came in behind a deep first serve to the backhand and put away a forehand volley unhesitatingly. That serve-and-volley combination was letter perfect. Evans stayed alive in holding for 5-5, but Federer went right back to work, holding at 30 with a dazzling backhand down the line winner, closing out the contest by breaking at 15 with another backhand down the line into the clear. 

image via Qatar Tennis

Federer’s 7-6 (8), 3-6, 7-5 triumph was hard earned. He then came back the next day to take on an entirely different type of player in Nikoloz Basilashvili. Evans had prolonged the rallies as much as possible in his duel with Federer. Basilashvili is a very big hitter who was walloping the ball with controlled aggression in this quarterfinal. Federer played a solid first set which he took comfortably before Basilashvili blitzed through the second set with a couple of service breaks, totally outhitting Federer from the baseline. On they went to a third set. At 3-3, Federer fended off three break points, erasing the first with a vicious sliced backhand drawing an error, wiping away the second with an unanswerable forehand, and casting aside the third with an excellent first serve to the backhand.

To 4-3 went Federer with a clutch hold. But Basilashvili was resolute. Serving to stay in the match in the tenth game, the Georgian was down match point, but he rescued himself admirably, approaching forcefully off a short return from Federer and keeping his shot low. Federer had no chance to make the backhand passing shot. Basilashvili held on for 5-5 and then closed out the account with some sparkling ball striking off the backhand, going down the line off that side frequently to leave Federer compromised. The world No. 42 took the last two games from 5-5, winning eight of the last eleven points, prevailing 3-6, 6-1, 7-5.

And so Federer lost narrowly in a quarterfinal contest that could have gone either way. He could be somewhat satisfied with his level of play across two close matches after a long hiatus. His smoothly efficient serve was close to normal. He had 25 aces combined in those two Doha clashes and did not serve a single double fault. All told he was quite good off the forehand. The central issue was his backhand. Federer made an alarming number of miss-hits off that side. He also bungled a swing volley or two, smiling sardonically at himself after those mistakes, knowing he could not expect perfection.

But perhaps most irksome to Federer fans was the fact that his loss to Basilashvili marked the 24th time in his illustrious career that Federer has lost a match after having at least one match point. The first time it happened for the Swiss was back in 2000. Confronting Tim Henman in the semifinals of Vienna, Federer won the first set 6-2 and had two match points with the British player serving at 5-6, 15-40 in the second set. Henman rallied to win 2-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3. Federer was only 19. No one took much notice at the time that he had not closed out that account when he was twice only a point away from prevailing.

And yet, as the years passed, these kinds of losses became surprisingly numerous for a player of his rare stature, even though on the other hand he has demonstrated over and over again that he knows what it takes to put the finishing touches on fine performances. What reasonable critic could claim that Federer was afraid to lose or incapable of closing out the most consequential of matches?

He now stands tied with Rafael Nadal for the most men’s major titles at 20, and owns 103 career singles titles, which is second only to Jimmy Connors (109) in the Open Era among the men. Furthermore, he has been a magnificent big match player, coming though in 103 of 157 overall finals for a winning percentage of .656 and taking 20 of 31 Grand Slam finals (.645).

Those numbers are excellent. But that rate of success makes these setbacks after holding match points all the more surprising. Consider this: Novak Djokovic has been beaten only three times in his entire career after advancing to match point, and yet he has struck back boldly from double match point down three times to beat Federer. Rafael Nadal has lost only eight contests when he has reached match point. The Spaniard toppled Federer in the 2006 Rome final after saving two match points in the fifth set. That was a critical win for the left-hander. Granted, both Nadal and Djokovic are much younger than Federer, but neither the Spaniard nor the Serbian has been nearly as vulnerable under these circumstances as the Swiss. Federer has played 1,515 matches across his sterling career, Nadal 1,213 and Djokovic 1,135.

image via Qatar Tennis

Since Federer suffered that first loss to Henman after twice being at match point in 2000, there have not been many  seasons when the Swiss has not experienced defeats of the same type. He managed to avoid meeting that fate in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012 and in his abbreviated 2020 campaign. But he has lost at least one match in 16 different years after being ahead match point. In 2010, Federer lost no fewer than four battles when he had match points, which is extraordinary.

Perhaps more importantly, Federer has fallen into the unexploited match points syndrome six times across his sterling career at the majors—twice at the Australian Open (against Tommy Haas in 2002 and Marat Safin in 2005); twice at Wimbledon (versus Kevin Anderson in a 2018 quarterfinal and Novak Djokovic in the epic 2019 final), and twice at the U.S. Open (facing Djokovic in 2010 and 2011).

Most of those disappointments had large historical ramifications. Consider the 2005 Safin loss in the semifinals of Melbourne. Federer was ahead two sets to one, and reached match point at 6-5 in the fourth set tie-break. He served-and-volleyed on his second delivery. Federer lunged to make a decent backhand first volley down the line. Safin’s passing shot was low, and Federer responded with a short backhand finesse volley. Safin scampered forward swiftly and lofted a perfect lob down the middle over Federer’s head. Federer chased it down but, rather than answer with a lob of his own, he went for a “tweener” and missed it badly. Federer has always had a knack for when to play the percentages and when to be audacious, but his split-second judgement in this instance was misguided.

Be that as it may, a buoyant Safin won the next two points to seal the fourth set and then took the hard fought fifth, toppling Federer 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 9-7 in four hours and 28 minutes. Federer won 201 points in that match to Safin’s 194, but still lost. He had beaten Safin in the final of the Australian Open the year before, and had a 6-1 career winning record over the Russian going into this confrontation. Federer would finish 10-2 over Safin. 

But that critical semifinal in Melbourne got away from the Swiss. He would have played Lleyton Hewitt in the final. Federer had beaten Hewitt six consecutive times in 2004, including a round of 16 win at the Australian Open and a crushing 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0 victory in the U.S. Open final. So his defeat against Safin was immensely consequential. Federer would have been highly unlikely to lose against Hewitt in the final. That Australian Open would have surely belonged to him.

But while that misfortune against Safin was significant, think of the three stunning reversals of fortune between Djokovic and Federer at the premier events. At the 2010 U.S. Open, Djokovic was serving at 4-5, 15-40 against Federer in the semifinals, but he courageously produced a forehand swing volley winner off a hanging Federer sliced backhand. On the second match point, Djokovic laced a forehand inside-in winner. Djokovic held on for 5-5 and then completed a stunning 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5 victory.

On to 2011. Federer and Djokovic clashed in the penultimate round of the U.S. Open for the fourth year in a row after Federer had overcome the Serbian in the 2007 final. Djokovic rallied from two sets to love down to force a fifth set. But the Swiss was revitalized, serving for the match at 5-3, 40-15. For the second straight year, Federer had fashioned a double match point lead in the U.S. Open semifinals against Djokovic.

But history repeated itself. Federer swung a slice serve wide in the deuce court. Djokovic went for broke, lacing a screaming forehand return winner crosscourt. It was the “shot heard around the world.” At 40-30, Federer hit a fine body serve but Djokovic fought it off, and his backhand return coaxed Federer into a forehand error.

Djokovic swept four games in a row to finish off an astonishing 4-6 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 victory. For the second consecutive year, he had rallied from double match point down to upend Roger Federer in New York. In both of those years, Rafael Nadal made it to the final. Had Federer moved past Djokovic on either occasion, Nadal at that time would have been the favorite to beat him for the crown, but who knows for certain what might have happened?

Let’s move on to 2019 at Wimbledon. Djokovic and Federer were colliding in their third Centre Court final, with the Serbian having ousted the Swiss in 2014 and 2015. It was the signature match of their astounding career head to head series, which Djokovic now leads 27-23. Djokovic trailed 5-3 in the first set tie-break but collected four points in a row to salvage it. Federer blazed through the second set before Djokovic battled back from set point down late in the third set to win another tie-break.

Federer stormed back again to send the battle into a fifth set. Djokovic led 4-2 but Federer rallied to 4-4. The Swiss broke Djokovic again in the 15th game and served for the match at 8-7, reaching 40-15 with consecutive aces.

For the third time in his career at a major, Roger Federer would lose to Novak Djokovic improbably after arriving at double match point. On the first match point, he steered a shaky forehand wide. Then Djokovic saved the second with a clutch forehand crosscourt passing shot winner. He soon broke back for 8-8, leaving the overwhelmingly pro-Federer Centre Court audience in quiet despair.

In the end, this classic encounter was settled in the first ever fifth set tie-break at Wimbledon in men’s singles, with Djokovic cooly outplaying his formidable rival to complete a 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3) victory. Federer has never beaten both Nadal and Federer in the same Grand Slam tournament, and would have collected a 21st major title by realizing that extraordinary feat for the first time. Instead, Djokovic took his 16th “Big Four” crown. It was surely the most gratifying victory of Djokovic’s career and the most devastatingly potent defeat ever for Federer.

So there you have it. The “match point syndrome” has haunted Federer more times than he would care to remember. But it must be said that he has made more than his share of gallant comebacks. On 22 occasions in his career, he has rallied from at least one match point down to win, which is no mean feat. That list of triumphs includes four wins at the majors— two at the U.S. Open, one at Wimbledon and one at the Australian Open.

None of those four comebacks at the majors led to Federer capturing the titles. Nonetheless, some of his other match point recoveries did indeed result in Federer becoming the champion, most recently his 2017 Miami quarterfinal rescue mission against Tomas Berdych, when he saved two match points and went on to oust Nadal in the final. At five other tournaments when he saved match points along the way, Federer also took the title, including round robin triumphs at the ATP Finals against Andre Agassi in 2003 and Andy Roddick three years later as Federer moved on to win those prestigious tournaments.

Leaving the match point setbacks and recoveries aside, where does Federer go from here? It is not easy to project. I thought he would compete in Dubai this week since he only played two matches in Doha, but Federer felt he had to resume his training. No one can gauge the current state of Roger Federer and his game better than Federer himself. But he surely needs many more matches if he is going to make a serious bid for a ninth Wimbledon title in July.

He had already decided to skip Miami, and so, between now and the start of the grass court season in June, he can only compete in clay court events. There will be some tough scheduling decisions ahead. I don’t think he really believes he can win a second French Open title this year, so will he go to Paris? Perhaps he will; in 2019 he chose to return to Roland Garros for the first time in four years, reaching the semifinals before nearly winning Wimbledon.

The view here is that Wimbledon will be his last best chance to secure a 21st major crown. He will be 40 in August. He has not won the U.S. Open since he took his fifth consecutive title there in 2008. That is why he will surely throw all of his emotional energy into winning Wimbledon this year. Even if Federer rounds into top form, it will still be awfully tough yet not impossible for him to rule again at the All England Club. But the fact remains that he is never going to sell himself short. All of us must remember that he is a champion through and through with a seemingly limitless supply of ambition and a propensity to put his greatest wins and most bruising defeats behind him, simply pressing on professionally to pursue his immediate goals.   


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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