Internazionali d’Italia Daily Preview: Championship Sunday in Rome - UBITENNIS
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Internazionali d’Italia Daily Preview: Championship Sunday in Rome

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Novak Djokovic expended a lot of energy and emotion on Saturday in Rome (twitter.com/InteBNLdItalia)

On Sunday, it will be the 57th installment of the most prolific men’s rivalry of the Open Era, as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal play for the men’s championship.  Djokovic is going for his record-extending 37th Masters 1000 title, and his sixth in Rome, while Nadal is looking to tie Djokovic with 36 Masters titles by winning Rome for the 10th time.  After playing for nearly five hours on Saturday, what will Djokovic have left in the championship match?

 

In women’s singles, Karolina Pliskova has reached her third consecutive final in Rome.  She’ll face the reigning Roland Garros champion, Iga Swiatek, who is making her WTA 1000 final debut.  In men’s doubles, Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic are one match away from an astounding sixth title of the season.  And in the women’s doubles, the final is yet to be set, as one semifinal is still to be played.

Karolina Pliskova (9) vs. Iga Swiatek (15) – Not before 2:30pm on Center Court

Each of these players have saved match points to reach this championship match: Pliskova against Ostapenko, and Swiatek against Barbora Krejcikova.  Outside of the match against Krejcikova, Swiatek has not dropped a set this week.  But unlike Pliskova, Swiatek had to play both her quarterfinal and semifinal on Saturday, spending almost twice as long on court.

Iga has now claimed 14 of her last 15 matches on clay, with her only loss coming at the hands of world No.1 Ash Barty.  Meanwhile, Karolina hasn’t reached a final or semifinal at any event held outside of Rome since January of last year.  As much as Pliskova has excelled the last three years in Italy, Swiatek’s recent form makes her the favorite in their first career meeting.  Iga’s more versatile game, and more positive attitude, give her a distinct advantage.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Rafael Nadal (2) – Not before 5:00pm on Center Court

Djokovic leads their overall head-to-head 29-27, but Nadal leads 18-7 on clay, and 5-3 in Rome.  This is their first match since last year’s Roland Garros final, which went decisively to Nadal in straight sets.  On clay, Rafa has now taken their last four encounters, with Novak’s last victory on this surface coming in the final of this event five years ago.

After saving match points and surviving an epic clash with Denis Shapovalov on Thursday, Nadal has won his last four sets by scores of 6-3, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.  That includes a straight-set victory over Sascha Zverev, who defeated him just a week prior in Madrid.  Following a few subpar performances this clay court season, Rafa appears to have found his top level, just in time for Roland Garros.  This is a familiar pattern for Nadal, and a big problem for Djokovic, who will certainly be playing on tired legs.  Neither of these men have been a Masters champion this year, but that will change on Sunday, and it will likely be Nadal.

Other Notable Matches on Sunday:

Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic (2) vs. Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury (5) – Mektic and Pavic are a sensational 36-4 in their first season as a team.  Ram and Salisbury won last year’s Australian Open, but lost to Mektic and Pavic earlier this year in Miami.

Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara (4) vs. Sharon Fichman and Giuliana Olmos – the winners of this semifinal will face Kristina Mladenovic and Marketa Vondrousova in the championship match later in the day.

Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Roland Garros Daily Preview: Novak Djokovic Goes for his 19th Major Title Against Stefanos Tsitsipas

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An airborne Novak Djokovic on Friday in Paris (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

In 2006 at this event, Novak Djokovic reached his first Slam quarterfinal.  15 years and 18 Major titles later, the 34-year-old has become one of the greatest players of all-time.  On Friday, in a fantastic semifinal, he became the only man to ever defeat Rafael Nadal twice at the French Open.  A win today would pull him within one Major title of not only Nadal, but also Roger Federer.  And it would make him the first man to win each Grand Slam tournament twice since Rod Laver in 1969.

 

In 2016 at this event, Stefanos Tsitsipas made his Slam debut.  Five years and four Major semis later, the 22-year-old has reached his first Slam final.  On Friday, he survived a dramatic five-set semifinal against Sascha Zverev.  A win today would make him the youngest man to win a Major since Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009.  And it would make him the first man to win in his first Grand Slam final appearance since Marin Cilic in 2014.

Also on Sunday, the women’s doubles championship will be decided, with the two most recent French Open women’s singles champions on opposite sides of the net.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (5) – Not before 3:00pm on Court Philippe-Chatrier

Djokovic leads their head-to-head 5-2, and 3-0 on clay.  After winning two of their first three encounters, Tsitsipas has now lost the last four.  Last October in the semifinals of this tournament, Djokvoic was up two-sets-to-love when Tsitsipas came storming back to even the match, yet Novak closed out the fifth set decisively.  They also met just a few weeks ago in Rome, where Djokovic won an extremely-tight three-setter, which took over three hours to decide, and was played over the course of two days.

The last time Djokovic defeated Nadal at Roland Garros, in 2015’s quarterfinals, he was upset in the championship match by Stan Wawrinka.  Will Tsitsipas play the role of Wawrinka on Sunday?  Both men played grueling matches on Friday, but Novak’s ended about five hours later, was over 30 minutes longer, and undoubtedly was more physically and emotionally draining.  And Tsitsipas should fine some confidence in knowing his last two matches against Djokovic on clay have been anything but blowouts.

Novak is 18-10 in Major finals, with four of his losses coming in Paris.  He will fully understand what a huge opportunity this is to win the French Open for a second time, after eliminating Rafa on Friday.  I expect Djokovic to be much more prepared for this moment than he was six years ago against Wawrinka, and than Tsitsipas will be in his first Slam final.  Novak Djokovic is a considerable favorite to win his 19th Major title.

Other Notable Matches on Sunday:

Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova (2) vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek (14) – Saturday was the biggest day of Krejcikova’s career, winning her first Major in singles.  Less than 24 hours later, she looks to be a double champion.  Her and Siniakova were two-time Slam winners in 2018.  Swiatek was of course the champion here in singles last October, while Mattek-Sands has won all five women’s doubles finals she’s ever played at Majors, and all with her former partner, Lucie Safarova.

Sunday’s full schedule is here.

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Did Rafa Nadal take his foot off the gas too early?

Novak Djokovic pulled off the upset in emphatic fashion, but that doesn’t mean he will get an easy win on Sunday against an inspired Tsitsipas

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USTA league tennis has some of the same characteristics as big-time professional tennis. After all, both are real tennis.

 

Of course, the league tennis players aren’t getting rich while playing on several different teams at the same time. In fact, there are no financial rewards for the league players. Well, the USTA is a different situation. The USTA and different tennis organizations get a tidy sum of money from the millions of players’ registration fees.

SOME OF THE SAME SEMBLANCES

The tennis matches themselves have some of the same semblances. Just because a USTA league team wins the first set of a match doesn’t mean it can take its foot off the gas pedal. There is an avalanche of players/teams who dominate their opponents in the first set, then get dominated in the second set. Then comes the tie-breaker. And anything can happen because the first-set winner has lost much of its confidence and is no longer sharp for the decisive  tiebreaker

That’s about what happened to Rafa Nadal in Friday’s French Open semifinals. He looked unbeatable the first five games. Rafa then appeared to take his foot off the pedal, and he was lucky enough to survive Novak Djokovic’s late charge in the first set. But that was about it for Nadal in a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 loss.

NADAL WENT AWAY TOO EARLY

Nadal just wasn’t there for the second set. Serving became a problem and Nadal was broken in three of his four service games in the set. Nadal just simply hit too many first serves into the net. That allowed Djokovic to tee off too many times on Rafa’s second serves.

Then came the tiebreaker. Not the 10-point match tiebreaker the USTA leaguers use to decide matches that split the first two sets.

This one was the  one the pros use when a set other than the fifth set goes to 6-6. Rafa put up a good fight in the third set. He even had a set point in the 12th game. But basically the tiebreaker practically sealed the verdict when Djokovic got to Nadal’s drop shot on the 11th point and placed a return where Nadal couldn’t put the ball into play.

RAFA SHOULD HAVE KEPT HIS FOOT ON THE PEDAL

The 35-year-old Spanish legend wasted too much energy in holding off Djokovic late in the first set, playing too loosely in the second set and even while getting to the third-set tiebreaker. Nadal should have kept his foot on the gas pedal the way he normally does in beating everyone he faced in Paris for 13 years.

Rafa wasn’t back on his game in the third set. He had a chance to deadlock the tiebreaker at 4-4, but put an open-face racket on a sitting-duck volley, and the ball went up in the air a bit while sailing off the court. That left Djokovic with a 5-3 advantage.

Nadal didn’t recover. He won only one of the last three points in the tiebreaker, dropping the breaker and set on a 7-4 verdict for Novak. That might as well have been the match.

A TIRED NADAL WORE A HEAVY GRIMACE

 Rafa broke Djokovic in the first game of the fourth set and then held service for the last time in the match for a 2-0 lead. The damage was already done.

Nadal wore a heavy grimace on his face the rest of the way when he went to the service line. He appeared to be very tired of chasing Djokovic’s barrage of drop shots. After all, Rafa hasn’t faced many long matches the last couple of years, and maybe he wasn’t prepared to go five sets this time.

Rafa went out meekly, very un-Nadal like as he won a total of only six points in the last six games of the match.

Nadal hasn’t committed so many unforced errors in a long time. Of course, Djokovic played brilliantly the last three sets. He simply forced Nadal to hit too many backhands and chase too many drop shots.

DJOKOVIC MIGHT NOT HAVE A PICNIC ON SUNDAY

Perhaps it was time for Nadal to experience an off day. Of course, he’s still tied with Roger Federer at 20 for the most Grand Slam singles titles, with Djokovic trying to sneak up to No. 18 in Sunday’s final against Stefanos Tsitsipas.

But that one might not be a picnic for Djokovic. Tsitsipas will apply tremendous depth and power from start to finish, the way the talented Greek did in a 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 4-6, 6-3 win over Alexander Zverev in Friday’s other men’s semifinal.

Tsitsipas appeared to be fit enough to battle Djokovic for five sets. This final should be another barnburner.

WILL NADAL PLAY WIMBLEDON AND U.S. OPEN?

As for Nadal, hopefully he will play Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He could pick up the title in either event with a little luck, and maybe help from the likes of Tsitsipas, Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, a few of the other young guns and old-timer Roger Federer.

Nadal may have made a major mistake in strategy by not attacking Djokovic relentlessly with  sizzling forehands. He played Novak’s cat-and-mouse game too often.

Nadal is fully capable of winning on grass and hard courts as his seven Grand Slam titles on those courts might indicate, including five on hard courts at the U.S. Open and Australian Open. He also has a hard-court title from the Olympics.

If not, it’s been a grand time for tennis fans to follow the exploits of Federer and Nadal for most of the last two decades.


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

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Roland Garros Daily Preview: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Barbora Krejcikova Play for the Women’s Championship

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Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova during Thursday’s semifinals (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

10 years ago at this event, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova reached her first Major quarterfinal.  As a teenager, she was up a set and 4-1 against defending champion Francesca Schiavone, but failed to close out the match, losing 7-5 in the third.  The Russian would reach 10 more Slam quarters in both singles and doubles, yet lose every one of them.  At the age of 29, she’s reevaluated her career, and rededicated herself to training and achieving bigger accomplishments.  This week, on her 12th try, she finally broke through to the semifinals at a Major, and promptly won her semi in straight sets to reach her first Slam final.

 

Five years ago at this event, Barbora Krejcikova reached her first Major semifinal.  That was in women’s doubles, alongside her long-time partner, Katerina Siniakova.  They would go on to win this tournament in 2018, the same year they won Wimbledon.  That was a year after her coach and inspiration, Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna, sadly passed away from cancer.  On Sunday, Krejcikova and Siniakova will play for their third Major title as a team.  But this past year, Barbora has made huge strides in singles.  Last autumn, she arrived in Paris ranked outside the top 100 in singles, yet reached the second week of a Major for the first time.  Eight months later, the 25-year-old saved a match point in an epic semifinal against Maria Sakkari to reach her first Slam final.

Also on Saturday, the men’s doubles championship will be decided, with Frenchmen Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut playing for their fifth Major title.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (31) vs. Barbora Krejcikova – 3:00pm on Court Philippe-Chatrier

This will be new territory in multiple ways: not only their first singles championship match at a Major, but also their first career meeting.  They have met twice in recent years in doubles, with Krejcikova and her partner Siniakova prevailing both times in straight sets.  It took Anastasia a record-breaking 52 Slams to reach her first final, while this is only Barbora’s fifth time in the main draw of singles at a Major.  As Christopher Clarey highlighted on Twitter, this will mark the sixth consecutive year the women’s singles champion will be a first-time Slam champ.

Pavlyuchenkova has long been a dangerous draw, as she’s built a reputation for taking out top players.  Her victory last week over Aryna Sabalenka was the 37th top 10 win in her career.  As per WTA Insider, that’s the most top 10 wins ever by a player who themselves has never been ranked that high.  But it’s Krejcikova who has put together the stronger season, with a record of 24-8.  Barbora reached the final in Dubai, and is currently on an 11-match win streak, coming off a title run just two weeks ago in Strasbourg.  Between singles and doubles, she’s won 16 matches over the last 20 days.

In each of her six victories to this stage, Pavlyuchenkova has avoided having a lower second-serve-points-won percentage than her opponent.  Krejcikova did so against five of her six opponents, with the exception being Elina Svitolina, who converted only two of seven break points, and failed to protect her own serve.  The percentage of second-serve-points-won should be the key statistic to track during this match. 

That would seem to favor Pavlyuchenkova, who is the stronger and more consistent baseline player.  But this match will likely come down to who better manages the emotions of this momentous occasion.  In her 15th year of Grand Slam competition, will Anastasia be motivated or overwhelmed by the knowledge of how rare an opportunity this can be?  Based on the composed way she has handled herself through six rounds, it feels as if Pavlyuchenkova is ready to capture the moment, and win her first Major title.

Other Notable Matches on Saturday:

Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut (6) vs. Alexander Bublik and Andrey Golubev – The French team were champions here three years ago, and have narrowly escaped defeat four times this fortnight, most recently saving three match points in the semifinals against Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah.  Bublik and Golubev have defeated two seeded teams in just the fourth tournament of their partnership.

Saturday’s full schedule is here.

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