EXCLUSIVE French Open Preview: Djokovic Must Improve His Second Serve, Barty Among Three Contenders For Women's Title - UBITENNIS
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EXCLUSIVE French Open Preview: Djokovic Must Improve His Second Serve, Barty Among Three Contenders For Women’s Title

Can Rafael Nadal be stopped at Roland Garros? What areas of Novak Djokovic’s game have let him down in the past? What makes Ash Barty different from others? UbiTennis turns to an expert in tennis analytics for answers.

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Pallina al Roland Garros 2021 (foto Twitter @rolandgarros)

Over the coming two weeks, the world’s best tennis players will lock horns in Paris as they bid to win the most prestigious clay court event of the calendar.

The 125th French Open is once again taking place in late spring after last year’s edition was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic – this edition has been delayed too, but only by a week. Leading up to the Grand Slam, organisers revealed a statue of 13-time champion Rafael Nadal to mark his dominance. The question is: can he continue his winning momentum against the formidable Novak Djokovic and the next generation of players poised to replace him when he retires?

 

As for the women, Iga Swiatek seeks to become the first player since Justin Henin more than a decade ago to defend her title. In the usually unpredictable women’s draw, she faces stiff opposition from the likes of Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka. Then there is the question of how Serena Williams will fair.

Ahead of the tournament, UbiTennis spoke to tennis coach and analyst Mike James about what tennis fans should expect at the French Open. James is the founder of Sportiii Analytics and is in charge of providing technical data to Swiatek’s team. His company has also recently secured a deal to work with the Kazakhstan Tennis Federation.

UBITENNIS: Rafael Nadal is statistically the most dominant player at the French Open. If players want to stop him, what areas of his game do you think they should be attacking when playing him?

JAMES: To Beat Rafa on clay is the most challenging thing to do in sport, let alone tennis. He has a 98% win record at the French Open (100-2). When I’ve scouted him in the past on other surfaces, it’s always been about attacking and going fast into his forehand. Then exposing the space (on the court). Not going into the backhand too early (in rallies) because the backhand is devastating.

But ultimately it’s on his terms on clay. The only time really when somebody came onto the clay court and took it to him was Robin Söderling. The deal with Robin was very simple. He had power to produce over four-and-a-half hours and repeat a high level of forehand and backhands that allowed him to go over the line that day.

Rafa doesn’t have any holes in his game and this is the challenge for every player. They have to hope he is 10 or 20 percent off and to be having their career-best day.

UBITENNIS: Novak Djokovic has incredibly only won the French Open once. Have you ever noticed any traits in his game which explains why he hasn’t been so fortunate compared to other Slams, besides the fact he has played Nadal?

JAMES: Novak has had an amazing career on the clay but he has only won the French Open once. He has losses to Cecchinato, Theim…… From a numbers point of view you can really see it’s the second serve and the second serve returns that he’s not the highest level at.

If you look at the second serve return ratings in 2019, he was actually ranked 23rd in the world on clay. On second serves, he was ranked just outside the top 10. So actually for all his quality at the back of the court, his second serve and second serve numbers are not quite at the highest level compared to Rafa, Thiem, Tsitsipas and these guys. This is an area of the game that I will look at in terms of improvements. (If he has) it is really going to help him against Thiem and Rafa this year.

UBITENNIS: Outside of the Big Three, who should be considered the biggest contender(s) for the men’s title and why?

JAMES: I think outside the Big Three, the number one at the moment for sure is Tsitsipas.  He’s won titles lately, had match points against Rafa in Barcelona and really looks like a quality operator on the clay. He has all the toolkit to produce his best tennis on clay. It suits his game. He’s also creative which I think suits him because he has a bit more time.

Outside of this, maybe Casper Ruud is a dark horse pushing into the second week.

UBITENNIS: On the women’s side Ash Barty has been quite impressive on the clay and she is a former champion. There is a lot of depth in the women’s game, but would you rank her as the top name to watch out for?

JAMES: Ash Barty has had a good season at the moment. She hasn’t been home and it’s an incredible run for her. I think that, if she is fully fit, she is definitely one of the favourites. I think Iga (Swiatek) is in that mix as well, and Aryna Sabalenka. They would be my top three to have a shot at the title. Of course in the women’s game there could always be a dark horse but I feel they are established on the clay and are the main contenders.

UBITENNIS: Another Barty question – what areas of her game stand out compared to her peers and why?

JAMES: I think Barty’s game is ultimately like Swiatek, Andreescu and Osaka. These top players can do everything, which never used to be the case on the women’s tour. From a strategic point of view, looking at Barty, this year her T-serve is probably the best in the world at the moment. Her ability to slice and change the rhythm is fantastic. On returns, as well, she is making many. She really does have the quality and mentality. She is so calm and so focused, you don’t see her getting too pumped or too down. This is a huge benefit going into the French Open.

UBITENNIS: There is also Serena Williams and her quest for No.24. She’s obviously one of the most powerful on the WTA Tour, but what areas of her game does she need to ensure is at its best and why?

JAMES: Ultimately, she has not played enough tennis over the last 18 months, which is first and foremost. I think age is unfortunately catching up with her a little bit. Her movement on clay is not as good as it is on a hardcourt, and the girls get a little bit more time against her. Even when she is producing a lot of power on the clay. I think it’s going to be very, very tough for her to even get through the first week, unfortunately. She’s been an amazing player and ambassador for the women’s game, but I think it’s time for the Next Generation. 

UBITENNIS: Who would you view as the biggest underdogs in the tournament?

JAMES: Biggest underdogs that actually have a chance to do something, on the men’s side, are Casper Ruud or Jannik Sinner. On the female side, it is a lottery. There are some very interesting players at the moment that are doing well. I think Coco Gauff has shown that she can compete on the clay. Winning the title in Parma has been a great boost for her, and she also had a great match against Swiatek in Rome.

UBITENNIS: Finally, night sessions are being held for the first time. How problematic could this be for players considering there may be quite a considerable change in conditions compared to daytime? Is there an easy solution to this or not, based on your experience?

JAMES: Night sessions are going to be very interesting. They are going to make conditions heavy. I think for somebody like Iga (Swiatek) this is going to be a great situation for the ball to be heavy. For some players who are not very powerful, I think it’s going to be a challenge for them when the ball gets damp and heavy. The scheduling for the player if they finish late poses other issues too: their recovery, cool down and sleeping patterns are also going to be affected. So this will be a real challenge for players this season and a unique situation for the French Open.

Grand Slam

US Open To Allow Full Capacity Crowds A Year After Being Held Behind Closed Doors

The announcement is the latest step in a gradual return to normality in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The US Open will become the first Grand Slam to take place without any restrictions on the number of spectators attending since the COVID-19 crises turned into a worldwide pandemic.

 

The Associated Press has confirmed that the USTA, who are in charge of the tournament, will allow 100% fan capacity throughout the entire two weeks. Something that hasn’t happened at a major event in tennis since the 2020 Australian Open. The announcement is a dramatic contrast to last year when Flushing Meadows was held behind closed doors amid a surge of cases in the region.

Earlier this week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state had reached their target of issuing 70% of the population at least one COVID-19 vaccination. He has now lifted ‘state-mandated’ restrictions across both commercial and social settings with immediate effect. However, masks will still need to be worn at large venues for the time being. According to the latest COVID-19 figures, New York reported 450 new cases last week which was the lowest-level since the pandemic began.

The development is a major boost for the USTA who suffered big financial losses last season. According to information provided in September, US Open revenue fell by an estimated 50% and the USTA expected their net operating profit to decline by roughly 80%. To put this into perspective the 2018 event generated $300M in revenue.

In 2019 a total of 737,872 fans attended the US Open over a two-week period and a further 115,355 attended during the fan week. Making it the first time the tournament has welcomed more than 850,000 people to the event.

Tickets for the 2021 tournament are set to go on sale next month with all court tickets and ground passes being available. No information on the pricing of those tickets have been released yet.

There has been a steady rise of fans allowed to attend major tournaments in the sport. At the French Open 5000 spectators were allowed to attend daily to begin with before the number increased to 13,000 later in the tournament. Meanwhile, Wimbledon will start at 50% capacity and rise to 100% for the finals.

The US Open takes place from Aug. 30 to Sept. 12 in Flushing Meadows, New York.

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Wimbledon Award Wild Cards To Former Champions Andy Murray, Venus Williams

Here is a list of which players have received passes into this year’s tournament.

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Three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray will make his 13th appearance in the main draw at Wimbledon after being awarded a wild card on Wednesday by The All England Club.

 

Murray, who won the men’s title in 2013 and 2016, is currently on the comeback from a groin injury which forced him to miss three months of the Tour this season. The latest setback for the Brit who has also undergone two hip surgeries in recent years in order to prolong his career. Murray is currently participating at the Cinch Championships in Queen’s where he beat Benoit Paire in his first round match on Tuesday.

“Look, I love playing tennis,” an emotional Murray said following his win over Paire.
“Obviously, competing is why you put in all the hard work.
“The last few years, I’ve not go to do that as much as I would have liked so, yeah [it’s] just great that I’m out here and able to compete again.”

Another player to receive one of the initial wild cards is Spanish rising star Carlos Alcaraz who is currently ranked 78th in the world. The 18-year-old recently reached the third round of the French Open as a qualifier and won a Challenger title on clay. Last month he broke into the ATP top 100 for the first time to become the youngest player to do so since Borna Coric in 2014.

As for the women, Venus Williams has been given entry into the main draw. At the age of 40, Williams is one of the oldest players on the WTA Tour and she has only won three out of 18 matches played since the start of 2020. She is a five-time champion at Wimbledon with her most recent triumph taking place back in 2018. It will be her 23rd main draw appearance at Wimbledon.

Regarding the British players, Jay Clarke, Liam Broady, Katie Boulter and Harriet Dart have all been awarded wild cards. So has youngster Jack Draper, who stunned Jannik Sinner at Queen’s earlier this week.

Full list of wild cards

GENTLEMEN’S SINGLES

  1. Carlos ALCARAZ (ESP)
  2. Liam BROADY (GBR)
  3. Jay CLARKE (GBR)
  4. Jack DRAPER (GBR)
  5. Andy MURRAY (GBR)
  6. To be announced
  7. To be announced
  8. To be announced

LADIES’ SINGLES

  1. Katie BOULTER (GBR)
  2. Jodie BURRAGE (GBR)
  3. Harriet DART (GBR)
  4. Francesca JONES (GBR)
  5. Samantha MURRAY SHARAN (GBR)
  6. Venus WILLIAMS (USA)
  7. Not used – Next direct acceptance
  8. Not used – Next direct acceptance

GENTLEMEN’S DOUBLES

  1. Liam BROADY (GBR) and Ryan PENISTON (GBR)
  2. Jay CLARKE (GBR) and Marius COPIL (ROU)
  3. Lloyd GLASSPOOL (GBR) and Harri HELIOVAARA (FIN)
  4. Alastair GRAY (GBR) and Aidan MCHUGH (GBR)
  5. Stuart PARKER (GBR) and James WARD (GBR)
  6. To be announced
  7. To be announced

LADIES’ DOUBLES

  1. Naiktha BAINS (GBR) and Samantha MURRAY SHARAN (GBR)
  2. Harriet DART (GBR) and Heather WATSON (GBR)
  3. Sarah Beth GREY (GBR) and Emily WEBLEY-SMITH (GBR)
  4. Tara MOORE (GBR) and Eden SILVA (GBR)
  5. To be announced
  6. To be announced
  7. To be announced

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Grand Slam

Wimbledon Finals To Be Played In Front Of Full Capacity Crowd In UK first Since Lockdown

The grass-court Grand Slam has been granted a special exemption from the government which will allow them to welcome thousands to the tournament over a two-week period.

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The Wimbledon Championships received a major boost after being listed as a pilot event by the British Government which allows them to welcome more spectators than the current restrictions.

 

Under the agreement, The All England Club will start the tournament welcoming 50% of it’s ground capacity to the venue which is more than double what was estimated a few weeks ago. The limit will gradually increase as the tournament progresses until finals weekend when both the women’s and men’s title matches will be played in front of 15,000 fans. Making it the first outdoor sporting event in the country that will take place in front of a full capacity crowd since the country went into it’s first lockdown last year.

The announcement coincides with the British government announcing a four-week extension to their plans of ending all restrictions currently in place due to the pandemic. The delay has been triggered due to concerns related to the Indian variant and its transmission rate. However, Wimbledon has been added to the Events Research Program which is a series of pilot events being used to monitor the spead of COVID-19 at sporting and entertainment events.

“We are continuing to work closely with the Government to finalise the details including the requirements for Covid-status certification for spectators,” the All England Club said in a statement.
“We are pleased to have worked closely with the government, public health bodies, and our local authority in Merton, to confirm that, as part of this next phase of pilot events, the Championships 2021 will begin on Monday 28 June with 50% capacity across the grounds, building to full capacity crowds of 15,000 on Centre Court for the finals weekend.
“This will enable us to fulfil our aspiration of staging the best Wimbledon possible within the current circumstances, with the health and safety of all those who make Wimbledon happen – our guests, competitors, members, staff, media, officials, local residents, and partners – remaining our highest priority.”

Last year Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time in the Open Era and was the only major not to take place. However, the grass-court major had the luxury of having pandemic insurance which substantially helped cover their costs. The tournament does not have such a policy this year however.

The Wimbledon Championships will start on June 28th. Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep are the defending champions.

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