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.
Nick Kyrgios Backs Australian Open Ban On Unvaccinated Players But Opposes Mandatory Vaccinations
The world No.90 landed himself in some hot water after making some comments on the No Boundaries podcast.
Tennis star Nick Kyrgios says recent comments made by him on a podcast were taken out of context after he was accused of calling for next year’s Australian Open to be cancelled.
The former top 20 player spoke about the upcoming event and other issues on the No Boundaries podcast which he is a co-founder of. During one part of the discussion, Kyrgios said that he doesn’t think that the Australian Open should go ahead due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The country has had one of the strictest rules in the world regarding the pandemic with many cities being placed into a lockdown for almost a year and heavy restrictions being placed on international travel.
‘I don’t think the Aus Open should go ahead, just for the people in Melbourne – you’ve got to send a message,’ Kyrgios said on the podcast.
‘How long did (Melbourne) do in lockdown? 275 days or something?’
However, the 26-year-old later clarified his comment and said his point was more about the people living in Melbourne and not that the tournament should be cancelled. Kyrgios reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open back in 2015 and has made eight consecutive appearances in the main draw. This year he reached the third round before losing to Dominic Thiem in five sets.
“To say that I’d want the Australian Open cancelled, I think that was the sentence that got taken out of context,” he said in a video on his Instagram account. “It’s more so for the people of Melbourne who have gone through hell and back. I think it’s been … nearly 300 days of lockdown and your freedom has been, you know, taken away from you.”
Next year’s Melbourne major is still yet to publicly confirm their entry requirements amid growing speculation that players will only be allowed to play in the tournament if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This is due to a health mandate being implemented in Victoria which requires all essential workers, including elite athletes, to be vaccinated. Premier Daniel Andrews has previously told journalists that he would not be making any exceptions to the rules for players.
Weighing in on the topic of vaccinations, Kyrgios said the idea of having a policy on Tour which requires all players to be vaccinated is ‘morally wrong.’ Novak Djokovic is among a group of players who have not revealed their vaccination status. Prompting speculation over if he will travel to Australia next January or not.
“(NBA player) Kyrie (Irving), Novak (Djokovic), these guys have given so much, sacrificed so much,” Kyrgios commented. “They’re global athletes who millions of people look up to and I just feel like it’s so morally wrong to force someone to get vaxxed. There’s other solutions around it.”
However, Kyrgios has also said that he thinks it is ‘morally wrong’ for unvaccinated players to be allowed in Melbourne.
“I don’t think it’s morally right to accept players from overseas that aren’t vaccinated to come into our country.” He stated.
Although Tennis Australia is yet to confirm their policy, media sources are reporting on Tuesday that unvaccinated players will be banned from the tournament. According to ABC Australia, Victorian Sports minister Martin Pakula told reporters that unvaccinated players would be banned from the Australian Open along with unvaccinated fans and staff.
Roger Federer Unlikely To Play Australian Open Next Year
One of Federer’s coaches has issued an update concerning his recovery from injury.
It appears that Roger Federer’s return to professional tennis will not occur in Australia after one of his coaches described the chances of him playing in the first Grand Slam of 2022 as ‘very few.’
Ivan Ljubicic has issued an update on the 20-time Grand Slam champion who has not played since his quarter-final loss to Herbert Hurkacz at Wimbledon. Shortly after that defeat, Federer underwent a third operation of his knee following a consultation with his medical team. He has already undergone two minor surgeries on his knee during the first half of 2020, as well as a separate procedure back in 2016.
Speaking in Zurich during a sponsor event for Mercedes-Benz back in September Federer said ‘the worst is behind him’ but he is taking his recovery slowly. Speaking about his progress earlier this week, coach Ljubicic said the Swiss maestro is unable to recover ‘as quickly as he used to’ due to his age. Admitting that the prospect of Federer returning to action at Melbourne Park is unlikely.
“I think there are very few chances, he is still recovering and knowing him, he wants to be sure he can play to win the tournament and be at 100%,” Ljubicic told Stats Perform.
“So I think the Australian Open is not a real possibility right now. But he will go step by step because he is 40 years old now and he needs to be patient. He cannot recover as quickly as he used to.”
Federer has won six out of his 20 major titles at the Australian Open with the most recent occurring back in 2018. He also missed the tournament this year due to his knee. Prior to this, he had made 21 consecutive appearances at Maelbourne Park (2000-2020).
However, Ljubicic is optimistic that Federer will return to competition and retirement talk is currently not on the cards despite his age. According to the ATP, only six players older than Federer have an official ranking but none of those are currently ranked in the top 200. Although Feliciano Lopez is the same age as him but is a couple months younger.
“We have spoken and I can guarantee he wants to return to playing tennis. When he decides to stop he will retire, but I don’t think it’s going to happen all of a sudden.” Ljubicic stated.
During his career, Federer has won 103 ATP titles and has earned more than $130M in prize money.
Australian Open To Outline Plans Next Week As Victorian Premier Says No To Granting Exceptions
It is looking increasingly doubtful that unvaccinated players will be allowed to play in the Grand Slam.
With just over two months until the start of the Australian Open there is still confusion over what the entry requirements will be for players who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.
There is speculation that those who have not been jabbed against the virus may be banned from playing at the Grand Slam tournament which will begin on January 17th. This is due to a health mandate implemented in Victoria which requires all essential workers, including athletes, to have their vaccinations. However, no official announcement has been made despite the new season beginning in less than eight weeks time.
Craig Tiley, who is the head of Tennis Australia, was questioned if unvaccinated players will be allowed to play in Melbourne on Tuesday at a special media event marking the announcement of Dylan Alcott’s retirement. However, the tennis official refused to shed light on the current situation.
“I just want this to be about Dylan today and then I’ll take any of those questions another time,” the Australian Associated Press quoted Tiley as saying.
It is understood that more information about the 2022 Australian Open will be announced next week at the ‘official launch’ of the event. However, this doesn’t mean that all details about the event will be disclosed.
On the same day as Tiley’s comment, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews reiterated his stance on the matter by stating he will not be applying for any exceptions to be made for tennis players. In a leaked letter issued by the WTA Players Council, one of the possibilities being discussed was allowing unvaccinated players to participate providing they go through a strict quarantine upon arrival in the country.
“I’m not going to have people sitting in the grandstands having done the right thing, only to have millionaire players that ought be vaccinated running around the place being essentially at such higher risk of spreading this – getting it and giving it,” Andrews said.
Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev, who contested the final of this year’s Australian Open, have refused to disclose details about their vaccination status. Meanwhile, others such as world No.9 doubles player Pierre-Hughes Herbert admits he is yet to be fully vaccinated.
“It’s a bit complex, because personally I’m not vaccinated. I don’t know if I will have time to do the two jabs and be vaccinated,” Herbert told reports in Paris on Sunday.
“It’s a bit difficult to tackle this subject right now. This situation in Australia is not very much open for discussion and open.”
Fellow French doubles player Nicolas Mahut said he received one vaccination shot three months after testing positive for COVID-19. Although this may not be enough to guarantee him entry into Australia.
“If I need a second jab after the Davis Cup, we don’t have a large window, so that’s it. The situation is not easy for me, as well,” he commented.
According to figures provided by both the ATP and WTA, more than 50% of players have been fully vaccinated.
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