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.
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.
Djokovic Isn’t Satisfied With The 20-20-20 Look
The world number one will be the overwhelming favourite at the US Open, but Berrettini is here to stay
Now that Novak Djokovic has 20-20-20 vision, he says he’s not through.
He’s aiming to be the sole leader of the gang now that he has deadlocked Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 Grand Slam singles titles each.
But future Grand Slam titles might not come easy for any of the 20-20-20 gang, even youngest member Djokovic. Italian muscleman Matteo showed on Sunday in his Wimbledon championship match loss to Djokovic that he has arrived as a legitimate Grand Slam tournament contender.
NOVAK BIDDING TO MATCH LAVER
Of course, Djokovic now has won three Grand Slams this year and has his eyes focused on winning all four Grand Slams in one year, matching something the great Rod Laver accomplished twice about half-a-century ago.
The U.S. Open awaits the challenge. Novak will be a huge favorite, although it would be great to see Rafa and Roger in New York again.
Who knows? These two legends hopefully are already out getting their games ready for the hard courts of Flushing Meadows.
MATTEO AGGRESSIVE, YET PASSIVE
Berrettini had his chances against Djokovic. But he was either too eager or too passive with his shots much of the afternoon. Unlike the 20-20-20 Gang, Matteo really doesn’t have great touch. But power? He has more than he needs.
Between the two traits, Berrettini didn’t take full advantage of his many opportunities. Had he cashed in on the majority of them, Wimbledon might have had a different champion, and Djokovic would still be looking up at Nadal and Federer.
But Novak was always there, ready to pounce on the smallest window of opportunity. He often turned opportunities for Berrettini into his own.
BERRETTINI: THE BIG MUSCULAR GUY
The preliminaries to the match were very English-like, much like the aftermath of the grueling 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 victory by Djokovic. Both players were somber as they made their way onto the court, each carrying green and white Head tennis bags and hand bags
Wearing his usual cap turned backward, the 25-year-old Berrettini looked like a movie star or a tight end with his 6-5, 209-pound figure, overshadowing the 6-2, 172-pound Djokovic, whose thin-man look enables the 34-year-old Serbian to be as nimble as an acrobat.
The first game lasted what seemed like a set as Djokovic survived two double faults and a break point to take a 1-0 lead. Novak broke in the fourth game and led 5-2 before Berrettini pulled his game together to survive the eight-deuce eighth game, then broke Novak and held service for 5-5.
TIEBREAKER BELONGS TO MATTEO
Berrettini surprisingly outplayed Djokovic in the tiebreaker and closed the door with an ace. But the Italian came down to earth and was broken early in each of the last three sets to allow Djokovic to take the title.
Grand Slam titles didn’t always come so often for Djokovic. After notching his first Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open, he watched Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer win 10 of the 11 Grand Slams before Novak got in the winner’s circle again in 2011.
EVERYTHING GOING NOVAK’S WAY
But now as Nadal and Federer appear to be struggling with their age, Djokovic has won eight of the last 14 Grand Slams. Overall, he has won 20 of the last 54 Grand Slams.
While all of that has been happening, Djokovic has won five of the last seven Wimbledons, and six in all.
Everything appears to be going Novak’s way, but the young guns of the tour obviously are getting anxious to win Grand Slams. And Novak can’t look like Superman forever.
See James Beck’s Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier columns at postandcourier.com (search on James Beck column). James Beck can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com
Why Are So Many Tennis Players Skipping The Olympics?
It isn’t just the COVID-19 pandemic which are putting players playing off going.
On Monday Canada’s Dennis Shapovalov joined the growing number of tennis stars who have decided not to play in this year’s Olympics Games.
In a statement issued on social media, the world No.12 said his decision was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and doing what he believes was best for the safety of his team. Japan, which is where the Games are being held, has been dealing with a surge in cases in recent weeks with a low number of the population to be fully vaccinated. Whilst the country has banned international spectators from attending amid fears of the virus being spread, organisers say up to 10,000 domestic fans will be allowed to attend the Olympic venues.
“After careful consideration I wanted to let you know that I will not be participating in the Olympics this year. Representing Canada means the world to me, but due to the current situation my team and I have decided this is the best decision for everyone’s safety,” Shapovalov wrote on twitter.
Shapovalov’s concerns related to the pandemic aren’t the only thing which is deterring tennis players from attending the Olympics. Over the past week, two top 10 players from the men’s Tour also confirmed that they will not be participating. Rafael Nadal is missing the event in order to take a break from the sport following what was a demanding clay court swing. Meanwhile, Dominic Thiem says he doesn’t want to travel to Tokyo and instead wants to focus on his title defence at the US Open.
This year’s tennis calendar doesn’t favour the Olympics. The Wimbledon Championships concludes two weeks before it begins and the US Open starts five weeks after. Two of the biggest events in the sport which offer the highest amount of prize money and ranking points per round. At the same time as the Olympics two ATP 250 events are taking place in Austria and America.
“So much has to depend on where a player is in their career. Have they won an Olympic medal before? How important is it to them? Do they want to travel to Asia in the middle of the summer? For every player I think it is very individual how seriously they take the Olympics,” former Olympic champion Lindsey Davenport told The Tennis Channel in 2020.
Tennis was officially reintroduced into the Games back in 1988 after being showcased as a demonstration sport four years prior. It is different to Tour events with no official prize money on offer. However, some countries such as Russia have previously issued financial rewards for athletes who win medals.
Another sticking point is there being no ranking points available for players participating. Back in 2019 the International Tennis Federation told UbiTennis they were ‘open’ to allowing points being awarded but no progress has been made. Perhaps due to the complex governance of the sport with the Olympic event being run by the ITF. Meaning they will have to form an agreement with both the ATP and WTA for such an incentive to happen.
“Currently, the WTA and ATP do not award points for the Olympic Qualification Pathway. We (the ITF) are always open to discussion on the matter.” The ITF said.
Another issue concerns the location. Players face having to travel from Europe to Asia and then North America within a month. A journey made substantially more difficult than usual due to restrictions related to the pandemic.
Chile’s Christian Garin says his decision not to go to Tokyo is because he feels athletes will not be able to get the full experience due to the current restrictions in place.
“Due to the instability of this year and added to the fact that the established conditions will not allow me to live the real experience of what the Olympic Games mean, that is why I have made this decision,” he wrote on Instagram.
When it comes to other Olympic absentees, a contingent of Spanish players will not be attending due to what newspaper Marca describes as ‘calendar issues and a logistically difficult trip to Tokyo.’ Those skipping the event are Roberto Bautista Agut, Albert Ramos, Feliciano López, Jaume Munar and Carlos Alcaraz. Norway’s Caper Ruud, Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic and Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov will also not be playing.
Despite the surge in withdrawals which will most likely increase in the coming weeks, other top names have committed to playing. Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka, Daniil Medvedev, Victoria Azarenka, Aryna Sabalenka and Andy Murray have all confirmed they will play.
“It’s going to be my first Olympic Games. We have a great team so we can do some doubles, mixed doubles, everything,” Medvedev said about playing.
“Going to be amazing experience. Of course, with COVID maybe it’s not going to be the same like every year.”
The Olympic tennis event will be held at the Ariake Coliseum and get underway on July 24th.
The Other Side of Press Conferences
American author and journalist Mike Mewshaw gives his take on the controversy that surfaced at this year’s French Open
After Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, the debate about press conferences keeps cropping up. Pressers have been analyzed from more angles than Rafa’s forehand or Serena’s backhand. Players, both active and retired, have weighed in with their opinions, along with coaches and sports therapists. The consensus is that tennis reporters are insensitive, disrespectful, sexist, racist, and eager to provoke controversy.
The constant threat of illness, the absence of fans, the isolation, and loss of income has certainly added to impatience with reporters. Venus Williams tartly suggested she maintained her composure during interviews by realizing she could beat any hack in the room; none of them could hold a candle to her.
But this sort of disrespect runs in both directions. While players view reporters as pesky publicity machines, at best, or gossip-hounds at worst, some journalists regard players as spoiled high school dropouts who couldn’t write a grammatically correct paragraph if their endorsement contracts depended on it. With all due deference to Naomi Osaka, I would urge her and her colleagues on the ATP and WTA tours to view things from a different perspective. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the press just as it has on them. Plenty of tennis reporters have lost their jobs. Almost all of them earn less income. They face the same risks of infection and submit to enough Covid tests to leave them as red-nosed as Rudolph.
Under the circumstances, reporters who travel the tour, along with those covering matches remotely from their basements, have done a creditable job. Sure, they sometimes sound testy, just as the players do. Of course their questions can be repetitious, just as the players answers can be.
Over the past four decades, I’ve covered more press conferences than I now have white hairs on my head. I’ve heard racist comments, sexist remarks and massively insulting accusations. But more often than not, the putdowns were aimed at reporters or at other players. In the old days, these seldom made it into newspapers, and the really offensive quotes and admissions of rule breaking were deleted from press conference transcripts. In that politically incorrect era, Arthur Ashe, for instance, came in for a raft of prejudice. Ilie Nastase openly referred to him as negroni.
Although it’s now largely forgotten, Billie Jean King’s sexuality was accepted by the press long before many on the women’s tour spoke up in her defense. While male journalists can be appallingly insensitive—Italian Hall of Fame journalist Gianni Clerici used to print Steffi Graf’s menstrual cycle in La Repubblica—it would be difficult to find anything less “woke” than Martina Hingis’ description of Amélie Mauresmo as a “half-man” who “travels with her girlfriend.” Or Lindsay Davenport’s comment after Mauresmo beat her, “I thought I was playing a guy.”
Predictably, both women walked back these quotes, accusing the press of taking their words out of context. That’s an ancient canard on the circuit—shoot off your mouth, then claim you were misquoted. I remember Buster Mottram, then the British Number One, complaining about rowdy fans in Rome, accusing Italians of being animals. At his next press conference he carefully parsed the remark. Suddenly the voice of reason, he observed that human beings were all, anthropologically speaking, animals.
If Buster had won a few majors, his quotes might have been immortalized, like Andre Agassi’s wisecrack at the French Open, “I’m happy as a faggot in a submarine.” That line made the list of Esquire Magazine’s annual Dubious Achievement Awards.
John McEnroe’s infamously objectionable conference quotes could only be contained on a wall as vast as the Vietnam War Memorial. Even if one had the space and energy to chisel them in stone, many would have to be bowdlerized. One that barely passes the censor’s blue pencil is his barbarous backhand at a female reporter who had the impertinence to question him. “Lady, you need to get laid.”
In some cases actions speak louder and more loathsome than words. After a match in Milan, a local female journalist asked Jimmy Connors, “Why do you always touch yourself in a particular place?” Jimmy shoved a hand down his shorts and gave his genitals a good shake. “It feels good. You should try it.”
To repeat, I empathize with Naomi Osaka’s aversion to press conferences. More than she might imagine I agree that they can be frustrating, stress producing, depressing, and borderline transgressive. I accept the sage advice of deep-think editorials and socially conscious scribes that reporters need to raise the level of their game. But so do players who could profit from sensitivity training, anger management, and basic etiquette lessons. With mutual respect for all those who share a rough road toward an uncertain future, the tour could become a better place for everybody.
Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, among them AD IN AD OUT, a collection of his tennis articles, now available as an e-book.
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