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

Australian Open Considering Switching Women’s Final To Sunday In Future

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The Australian Open could become the first Grand Slam to break away from the tradition of women playing their singles final first. 

According to a report from the Australian Associated Press, tournament chief Craig Tiley is open to making such a move which wouldn’t require any approval from either the WTA or ATP. However, they would likely need to consult with players first and no changes are set to be made in 2025. 

The reasoning for making such a change is due to the women’s final usually being shorter than the men’s best with it being a best-of-three set match. Compared to the men who play the best-of-five. Their thinking is that due to the length of men’s matches increasing in recent years, staging it on a Saturday would enable more people to watch the entire match compred to a Sunday when many are consious about staying up late due to the working week starting on Monday. 

This year’s Australian Open saw Jannik Sinner bounce back from two sets down to beat Daniil Medvedev in a epic encounter that lasted three hours and 46 minuites. Meanwhile, Aryna Sabalenka required an hour and 17 mnuites to beat China’s Qinwen Zheng and capture the title. 

Should such a switch take place, it is estimated that the Sunday finale would end at around 10:30pm local time instead of after midnight, which would make it more appealing to fans. Furthermore, it could throw the women’s final more into the spotlight. 

However, there will be obstacles that need to be addressed. The most significant for the Australian Open will be trying to ensure that their 48-hour recovery period between best-of-five-set men’s matches will still be followed. 

This year was the first time in history that the Melbourne major took place over 15 days with play starting on a Sunday. Organisers claimed that the move was done in order to prevent the number of late-night finishes. However, it has little effect on any matches that took place after the first round. 

It is throught that now the event is held over 15 days, it gives more room for organisers to schedule the men’s final for a Saturday. The proposal was discussed during this year’s Australian Open’s official debrief. 

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Grand Slam

It Wasn’t The Same Old Story On Sunday Down Under

Jannik Sinner won his first Grand Slam title on Sunday.

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(@janniksin - Twitter)

It’s been the same old story at the Australian Open for a long time in the men’s game.

One of the greats almost always would take the top prize Down Under. Either Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer or even Stan Wawrinka always prevailed since 2006 at Melbourne.

And then came Jannik Sinner in 2024.

None of the other superstars were still around for Sunday’s final.

A DIFFERENT AUSTRALIAN OPEN

Yes, this time it was a different Australian Open.

But actually Sinner may have written his own story when he upended Djokovic in the semifinals. Without that experience, the slender Italian may not have been able to handle the pressure that Daniil Medvedev sent his way in the final.

Sinner was ready for the finish line after shocking Djokovic in the semifinals. It just took time to get there.

Sinner played within himself most of the last three sets of the final. A first-time Grand Slam finalist, Sinner played as if he belonged there in those three sets.

But, oh, those first two sets when Medvedev dominated play with his backhand from the middle of the court. Backhands usually are reserved for the backhand side of the court, but not with the tall Russian on the court.

SINNER DIDN’T PLAY HIS GAME AT FIRST

In a similar manner as women’s champion Aryna Sabalenka, Sinner followed up a big semifinal win with his own Australian Open title. Only, Sinner had to fight for five sets to accomplish his dream Down Under with a 3-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Medvedev.

Sinner appeared to play far differently from his victory over Djokovic when he controlled the court with his aggressive play and power.

This time, Sinner started things conservatively with few aggressive winners, repeatedly leaving the corners wide open for Medvedev’s crafty, but hard hit strokes. Medvedev made Sinner  pay a price with a style of play that was just the opposite.

Medvedev played close to the baseline and aggressively hopped on balls with his backhand in whip-lash fashion. He hardly had to move as he conserved energy.

THE STRATEGY ALMOST WORKED TO PERFECTION

Medvedev’s strategy worked like a charm until Sinner served the ninth game of the third set as Medvedev once needed only six points for a possible Grand Slam title. Sinner managed to overcome a deuce score to win that game.

Medvedev fell behind 30-0 serving the 10th game of the set and then Sinner got his first set point. Sinner made it stand up and it was a new game after that.

Sinner didn’t appear to be ready for Medvedev’s game the first two sets, but the Italian then came alive. He became prepared for Medvedev, even after losing the first two sets.

Of course, Sabalenka got her boost from a surprising, but solid win over talented Coco Graff in the women’s semifinals. Sabalenka then was never really challenged by Qinwen Zheng in the final.

Sinner’s final was much different.  He was somewhat lucky to escape with  a win.

Medvedev almost wrapped up the title in the ninth game, but it didn’t happen. As a result, Sinner may have started his own success story in Grand Slam finals.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.

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Focus

Australian Open Daily Preview: Daniil Medvedev Plays Jannik Sinner for the Men’s Singles Championship

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Daniil Medvedev during Friday’s semifinals (twitter.com/AustralianOpen)

The men’s singles and women’s doubles championship matches are on Sunday in Melbourne.

Across the last 10 hard court Majors, Daniil Medvedev has now advanced to six championship matches, half of which have come in Melbourne.  In those finals, Medvedev is a meek 1-4.  However, this is the first time Medvedev is looking across the net at a man not named Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, the two winningest male singles players of all-time at Grand Slam events.

And Medvedev can thank Jannik Sinner for that, who for the third time in their last four meetings, defeated Djokovic in Friday’s semifinals to reach his first Major final.  Since adding Darren Cahill to his team 18 months ago, one of tennis’s best coaches of all-time, Sinner’s game has continually and significantly improved, most evident in his three victories over Djokovic since November.  On Sunday, the most dominant male player of this fortnight looks to break more new ground in his young career.

Earlier on Sunday, in the women’s doubles championship match, it’s Lyudmyla Kichenok and Jelena Ostapenko (11) vs. Su-Wei Hsieh and Elise Mertens (2).  This is a first Major final for Kichenok, and a first in doubles for Ostapenko.  Su-Wei has won seven Majors in doubles, including her first mixed title earlier this week, and is 7-1 at this stage of Majors.  Mertens has won three Majors in women’s doubles, including Wimbledon in 2021 alongside Su-Wei.


Jannik Sinner (4) vs. Daniil Medvedev (3) – Not Before 7:30pm on Rod Laver Arena

Through six rounds, Sinner has dropped just one of 19 sets, which came against Djokovic in the semis.  But even that match was a rather comfortable win for the Italian, who lost only six games in the three sets he claimed.  Jannik has not just been the best ATP player this fortnight: he’s been the best ATP player since the last Major, with a record of 26-2.  The 22-year-old is 10-4 in ATP finals, with this of course being by far the biggest of his career to date.

Medvedev endured a much more complicated path to this final, completing 25 out of a possible 30 sets, which included three five-setters.  Two of those came in the last two rounds, against Hubert Hurkacz and Sascha Zverev.  Daniil has spent six more hours on court than Jannik, and has played for over 11 hours during the second week alone.  He is 20-16 in ATP Finals, with all 20 titles coming at different events.  But Medvedev can be rather streaky in finals: after losing five in a row, he won seven of eight, yet has now lost his last three.

And those last two losses came at the hands of Sinner, who beat him in both Beijing and Vienna.  Jannik also defeated Daniil in the semifinals of the ATP Finals in November, though all three of those recent matches were tight.  Prior to that, Medvedev had dominated their head-to-head 6-0, which includes two finals earlier in 2023.  All ten of their meetings have taken place on hard courts, and this is their first at a Major.

Based on their recent history, as well as their individual form this fortnight, I favor Sinner to win his first Major on Sunday.  While he’ll surely be nervous in the biggest match of his life, and could experience an emotional letdown coming off ending Novak’s undefeated record of 20-0 in Australian Open semis and finals, Jannik will be the much fresher player on this day.  Plus, he will feel confident after those three recent wins over Daniil, who has a lot of scar tissue to overcome in Major finals.  And after facing Medvedev so much within the past year, Sinner is well-versed on how to take advantage of Daniil’s deep return position.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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