Steve Flink’s Preliminary French Open Projections - UBITENNIS
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Steve Flink’s Preliminary French Open Projections

Once again Rafael Nadal is the clear frontrunner but who has the ability to stop his run to yet another title at Roland Garros?

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Rafa Nadal - Roland Garros 2020 (via Twitter, @rolandgarros)

As I write this piece, the French Open draw has not yet been made. That makes it difficult to make projections that are too bold or specific, but I am ready to present my overview of Roland Garros and to look at what could unfold over the next few weeks at the most important clay court tournament on the planet.

 

No matter how the draw turns out (Will Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic end up in the same half and meet in the semifinals? Who will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals? What else is in store?) the view here is that no one is going to deny Nadal another triumphant run at his favorite tournament in the world. Nadal is almost surely going to collect a fourteenth crown in Paris, and thus move past Roger Federer into first place among the men as the winner of the most Grand Slam singles titles ever. Nadal is poised to collect his 21st major title after a hard and productive clay court campaign.

To be sure, he was somewhat vulnerable on the red clay this time around. He was ousted in a three set quarterfinal at Monte Carlo by the big hitting Andrey Rublev, and thus prevented from winning that tournament for the twelfth time. The dynamic Spaniard took that loss with his usual equanimity, realizing there was a long road ahead on the dirt, understanding that his form would inevitably improve.

He moved on to Barcelona, and at that ATP 500 event he made amends for his Monte Carlo setback. Nadal was pushed to the hilt by an inspired Tsitsipas in the final. The gifted Greek stylist played with all of his heart and a great deal of verve, bringing Nadal to the brink of defeat. Tsitsipas had a match point and was somewhat unlucky not to convert it. His return of serve was sent deep down the middle. After Nadal commendably flicked it back crosscourt, Tsitsipas unleashed a heavy forehand deep into Nadal’s backhand corner.

Rafa barely got that ball back on the stretch as his two-hander clipped the net cord and fortunately stayed in play. Nadal went on to win that point and claimed the match 6-4, 6-7 (6), 7-5. It was a narrow escape but Nadal deservedly came away with a twelfth crown in Barcelona in a match he needed badly from a psychological perspective.

And yet, he was still not fully in the groove on his best surface. Nadal was ushered out of Madrid in the quarterfinals by a composed and confident Sascha Zverev, who extended his winning streak over the Spaniard to three head to head matches in a row. Zverev won that contest in straight sets after trailing 4-2 in the opening set. He served beautifully, waited for the right openings to approach the net off his forehand, and defended ably in many instances. But Nadal was understandably very unhappy with his performance, and his negativity was readily apparent.

Having lost in two of his three clay court appearances, Nadal once more needed a boost when he went to Rome. And that is precisely what he got in the end. Nevertheless, he was in a very precarious position when he took on Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16. The Canadian left-hander played perhaps the finest clay court tennis of his career to nearly produce a major upset on the Italian clay. 

Shapovalov won the first set and led 3-0 with a break point for 4-0 in the second set. Nadal struck back audaciously to win six of the last seven games to salvage the second set. Nevertheless, the Spaniard soon trailed 3-1 in the final set before getting back on even terms. Be that as it may, Nadal was down match point twice when he served at 5-6 in the final set and was fortunate that the Canadian was a bit impetuous on both opportunities. Nadal came through in a final set tie-break to win a crucial encounter.

Buoyed by that escape, Nadal avenged his Madrid loss to Zverev by upending the German in the quarterfinals. He next took apart the towering American Reilly Opelka in the semifinals, and then he won what was arguably the best played clay court match of the 2021 season by overcoming Djokovic 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 for a tenth Italian Open crown.

Djokovic was first rate across the three sets of high quality tennis. He had the early break for 2-0 in the opening set but Nadal broke right back. At 5-5 the Serbian had a game point but double faulted and was soon broken. But he swept through the second set sublimely and then had two break points with Nadal serving at 2-2 in the final set. Djokovic missed a high forehand into the net tape on one of those break points, and once Nadal held on there he took control the rest of the way, closing the gap in his personal career head to head series with Djokovic to 29-28 for the Serbian.

Nadal did not want to be beaten in three out of four tournaments en route to Roland Garros, and he avoided that fate by playing the big points better than Djokovic in both the first and third sets. He came away with a second clay court title of the season and a considerable lift heading into the French Open. In my view, he raised his game decidedly against Djokovic when he had to, and the Spaniard was pounding the forehand as prodigiously as he has in a very long while. In turn, his serve location and velocity were significantly improved.

Nadal’s tournament preparation for Roland Garros was over and he has put himself in good stead. He will turn 35 early in the tournament but the eminent left-hander is playing like a much younger man. No matter how modest he is and how little he says about his confidence or convictions, the view here is entirely clear—Rafael Nadal fully believes he is going to win a 14th French Open.

I would give only two other men a serious chance to win at Roland Garros. To be sure, Djokovic and Tsitsipas must have everything fall into place perfectly to win in Paris, but both men should be very well prepared to give it their all at the French Open.

Djokovic must be considered the distant second favorite behind  Nadal for a number of reasons. He has won the tournament before which is no mean feat, coming through in 2016 for his fourth Grand Slam title in a row, becoming the first man since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep four straight major titles. Djokovic is one of only two players ever to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, eclipsing the Spaniard in the 2015 quarterfinals.

Balanced against that fact is this: Djokovic has been beaten three times in the finals of the French Open by Nadal, bowing against his chief rival in 2012, 2014, and 2020. In last year’s final, Djokovic was taken apart 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 by Nadal in their most one-sided contest ever on such a big occasion. Altogether, his record against Nadal at Roland Garros is 1-7.

The fact remains that Nadal respects Djokovic as a player more than anyone else. The final last year was an anomaly. Nadal was letter perfect on that afternoon while Djokovic was far away from the top of his game. If they meet again this year, the match will not resemble that one. In Rome, Djokovic was outplayed in the end but the margins were exceedingly slim and both players were well aware of that.

The Serbian is competing this week in Belgrade and looking for his first title since taking the Australian Open at the start of the season for the ninth time. Djokovic should win the tournament and thus give himself a boost as he approaches Roland Garros. He played an abysmal match in losing to Dan Evans in the round of 16 at Monte Carlo, and then was beaten in a well played semifinal by Aslan Karatsev in the first of two Serbian tournaments he would play on his way to Roland Garros. But Djokovic was too tight to do himself full justice in that contest.  His break point conversion rate was not up to his standard. Karatsev saved 23 of 28 break points against him in that duel. And then Djokovic lost that hard fought clash with Nadal in Rome.

Djokovic should be ready in Paris. While Nadal clearly has history uppermost on his mind as he goes full force after the title in Paris, Djokovic will be similarly motivated. If Nadal wins the tournament, Djokovic would trail the Spaniard by three majors, but if the Serbian prevails he could close the gap to one title. That is a huge difference.

While Djokovic will have the match play he needs to perform at optimum level in Paris, so, too, will the surging Tsitsipas. The Greek player won his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo, lost narrowly to Nadal in that Barcelona final, fell in the round of 16 in Madrid, but then nearly toppled Djokovic in a stirring quarter final battle in Rome. Tsitsipas served for the match before losing that riveting encounter 7-5 in the third set.

That was his second agonizing clay court loss of the season. Both Nadal in Barcelona and Djokovic in Rome demonstrated that they are the best big pressure players in the game. But Tsitsipas recovered well from the Djokovic loss. This past week he won his second clay court crown of the season in Lyon. That triumph could not have been more timely.

There are others, of course, who are capable of capturing the title at Roland Garros under the right set of circumstances. But two of the top four seeds are at very low emotional ebbs at the moment. Dominic Thiem has been magnificent in many ways over the last five French Open editions. In 2016, he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals. A year later, Nadal beat him in the penultimate round. And then in 2018 and 2019 he was the runner-up to Nadal. Last year, Thiem fell in the quarterfinals against Diego Schwartzman but he was weary then after winning the U.S. Open a few weeks earlier.

Now the Austrian is simply not himself physically or emotionally. He skipped Monte Carlo, lost to Zverev in the semifinals of Madrid, fell in a closely contested round of 16 skirmish against Lorenzo Sonego in Rome and then bowed out tamely this past week 6-3, 6-2 against Cameron Norrie, who made it to the final and lost to Tsitsipas.

Thiem is a great clay court player, but his spirits now are so diminished that I don’t see him going deep into the draw in Paris. His vulnerability is unmistakable. And what of world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev? He has freely admitted that clay is a surface he simply does not understand. He has struggled inordinately all spring. I expect Medvedev to lose early at Roland Garros. He has been beaten in the first round at the French Open no fewer than four years in a row. His morale is low. It is hard to imagine him making much of an impression. For Nadal to be seeded behind Medvedev in Paris is a glaring injustice.

I believe Sascha Zverev is going to be a factor in Paris. The 2020 U.S. Open finalist was victorious in Madrid, taking his third career Masters 1000 clay court title. He has the game to succeed on any surface but does he have the emotional stability to get through a fortnight in Paris this time around? I doubt it, although he is one player Nadal would rather not have to face.

Four other players could make their presence known depending on their draws. Rublev is a workhorse who approaches every tournament as if it will be the last one he will ever play. But after his final round appearance in Monte Carlo, his results on clay were disappointing. Matteo Berrettini is very comfortable on the clay and reached the final in Madrid, but can he move beyond the quarterfinals or perhaps the semifinals? I doubt it. 

Meanwhile another Italian must be watched closely. Jannik Sinner has not done himself justice during the clay court season but the Miami Masters 1000 hard court finalist is among the most determined competitors out there. He pushed Nadal hard in a respectable loss at Rome. He can make inroads after reaching the quarters last year in Paris and nearly winning the first set from Nadal. But the feeling grows that Sinner’s best case scenario is a semifinal showing.

It all comes back to Nadal. This is a man on a mission. He will be looking to peak in Paris as he does almost every years. Here is a redoubtable champion who won Roland Garros the first four times he played it (2005-2008)  before a shocking round of 16 loss to Robin Soderling in 2009. Then he won five in a row (2010-2014) before losing to Djokovic in 2015 and withdrawing prior to a third round match in 2016 with an injury. Since then he has won four more titles in a row. 

Beating Rafael Nadal in a best of five set match on clay is the toughest task in tennis. I am almost certain he is going to be the last man standing again in Paris.

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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.

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Why Celebrating LGBT+ Pride Month In Tennis Matters

Besides the fancy rainbow-coloured clothing that is worn, there is a far more important reason.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

June is when players switch their focus from the clay to grass in order to tune up their preparations ahead of the prestigious Wimbledon Championships. But for some linked to the sport this month is also significant for another reason.

 

It is LGBT pride month which is an initiative that was originally created as a way to mark the Stonewall Riots which began on June 28th 1969 in New York. A series of protests took place in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn which was the catalyst in the fight for equal rights among the LGBT community. In the UK the first pride March was held in 1972 and today there are more than 100 events in the country annually.

Today Pride is about promoting equality in the world with various organizations taking part, including tennis. The British Lawn Tennis Association has gotten more involved this year by hosting a series of Pride Days at their ATP and WTA events. They have taken place on the Friday of tournaments in Nottingham, Birmingham and Queen’s. The final one is taking place this Friday in Eastbourne.

“We still live in a time when people don’t always feel like they can be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity, so the more we can do to show support and let them know everything is ok the better,’ British player Liam Broady recently said.

https://twitter.com/the_LTA/status/1537788274890121216

Some may wonder as to if Pride events such as these are necessary in tennis considering it is 2022 and lives for LGBT people have improved considerably over the years. However, there is still work to be done. One study called OUTSPORT found that 90% of LGBT+ respondents believe that homophobia and transphobia is a problem in sport and 33% remain closeted in their own sporting context. Another study conducted in recent years is Out On The Fields which found almost eight out of 10 respondents felt that an openly gay person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event. Obviously, these findings vary depending on the sport and the country, but it still illustrates the seriousness of the subject.

In tennis, the WTA Tour has seen various LGBT role models triumph at the very top. Both Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were some of the very first professional athletes to come out publicly during the 1980s which was a decade when misinformation about the Aids crises lead to the stigmation of the gay community. King said she lost all of her endorsements within 24 hours after being outed in 1981 and that was before the Aids crisis erupted. Navratilova also experienced similar misfortunes.

The WTA was founded on the principles of equality and opportunity, along with positivity and progress, and wholeheartedly supports and encourages players, tournaments, partners and fans’ commitment to LGBT+ initiatives,” the WTA told UbiTennis last week.
“The WTA supports LGBT+ projects across the tennis family, such as amplifying our athletes’ voices on this topic through the Tour’s global platforms, increasing awareness by incorporating the LGBT+ spirit into our wider corporate identity, among many other initiatives.”

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) tells UbiTennis the sport has a ‘proud history of advocating social change.’ The organization oversees the running of all junior events, Davis Cup, Billie Jean King Club and the Olympic tennis events.

“Inclusion is one of the ITF’s core values and a pillar of the ITF 2024 strategy. Tennis as a sport has a proud history of advocating social justice and instigating change. Within the tennis community, we embrace the LGBTQ community and full support any initiative, such as the celebration of Pride Month, that continues the conversation and furthers progress in ensuring sport and society are free from bias and discrimination in any form. There is always more that can be done, and we will continue to make every effort to ensure that all our participants, our employees and fans feel welcome, included, and respected day in, day out.” The ITF said in a statement.

Whilst the women’s Tour has had plenty of LGBT role models, it is different on the men’s circuit. At present there is no openly gay player in men’s tennis where around 2000 people have an ATP ranking. In recent months the governing body has looked into making the Tour more inclusive. Last year they reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Monash University supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they used to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome.

It has been over nine months since news of the survey taking place emerged but the findings are still to be published. In an email to Ubitennis, the ATP confirmed that they are ‘finalizing their next steps’ and will be making an announcement shortly. They acknowledge that the survey process has taken longer than expected but it is unclear as to why.

As for those who may be experiencing difficulty in their personal lives regarding their sexuality, Brian Vahaly has his own advice which he shared with Ubitennis last year. Vahaly is a former top 100 player who came out as gay after retiring from the sport.

“Find somebody to talk to, somebody you trust. Know that people like us are there if you have questions. It’s just nice to have somebody to talk to who can help you learn about yourself,” he said.
“What I try to do is in terms of putting my family forward is that we live a pretty ‘normal life.’ I have two kids, I have a house and I walked my kids to preschool this morning. It doesn’t have to be such a defining characteristic of who you are. In the sports world, it feels that it is magnified, but what I want to show is that you can have a great athletic career, meet somebody and have a family no matter your sexuality.”

Pride is as much about making sports such as tennis an open environment for everyone as it is about marking a series of historic protests which took place in America more than 40 years ago.

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

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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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

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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