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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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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.

___________________________________________________________________________

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.

Editorial

EXCLUSIVE: How The ATP Plans To Make The Tour More Welcoming For LGBT Players

The governing body of men’s tennis has received praise for taking a proactive approach to the topic with the help of a leading LGBTQ+ organisation and a top research university.

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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)

During the first week of the US Open, there was an abundance of rainbow-theme flags and wristbands worn by both players and fans to mark the tournament’s first-ever Open Pride Day.

 

The event was part of the USTA’s Diversity and Inclusion strategic platform which aims to make tennis more inclusive. Unlike the women’s game, there are no openly LGBTQ+ players on the men’s Tour and there have been few historically, even though various players have spoken of their support for anybody on the Tour who decides to come out. Including Stefanos Tsitsipas and newly crowned US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, who were questioned about the topic following their second round matches. Meanwhile, Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime revealed that there is an ongoing survey related to LGBTQ+ issues being conducted by the ATP.

“Recently I’ve started doing a survey inside the ATP about the LGBTQ+ community,” he said. “It’s important these days to be aware of that and to be open-minded and the ATP needs to do that, in today’s time it’s needed.

“The reason we don’t have openly gay players on the ATP Tour, I’m not sure of the reason, but I feel me, as a player, it would be very open, very welcome. Statistically, there should be some, but for now there’s not.”

In response to Auger-Aliassime’s comment, UbiTennis looked into the work currently being done by the ATP alongside two other parties. Their decision to venture into LGBTQ+ representation on the Tour is part of their recent commitment to support the mental health and wellbeing of their players and staff. Last year, in May, they formed partnerships with Headspace and Sporting Chance.  

The survey currently being conducted by the ATP started after the governing body of men’s tennis 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. Denison was the lead author of the Out on the Fields study, the first international study on homophobia in sport and the largest conducted to date.

“I have been personally impressed with the initiative of the ATP and their desire to find ways to mitigate the broad impact of homophobic behaviour (in particular), not only on gay people, but on all players.” He told UbiTennis during an email exchange.

“We know of no other sporting governing body in the world that has been proactive on LGBTQ+ issues, and has taken a strong focus on engaging with both the LGBTQ+ community and scientists to find solutions.”

Denison says the norm has been for sports bodies to address this issue after they have been either pressured to do so or if the LGBTQ+ community got the ball rolling themselves. Incredibly, research conducted as part of the Out On The Fields initiative documented 30 separate studies which found sports organisations ignored discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ people in sport.

Monash University has supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they are using to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome. The methodology is similar to a study Denison conducted in 2020 that focused specifically on the team sports rugby union and ice hockey.  

“We suspect that tennis isn’t inherently more homophobic than other sports, or traditionally male settings. Instead, there is a disconnect between people’s attitudes towards gay people (e.g. the recent pro-gay comments by top players) and their behaviour, specifically their use of homophobic banter and jokes,” said Denison.

“This behaviour, which is largely habitual, creates a hostile climate for young gay/bi people who drop out or hide their sexuality. This means gay/bi players are invisible in youth tennis and leads to the downstream problem of no professionals. The banter/jokes continue because people think it is harmless.”

The hope is that players will also agree to be interviewed by the researchers for them to get a better understanding. All of the results will then be used by Pride Sports and Monash University to recommend evidence-based solutions. It is unclear as to how long the study will take or when the findings will be ready. 

Former top 100 player Brian Vahaly is one of the few players to have been both openly gay and played at the highest level of the men’s game. However, he didn’t fully come to terms with his sexuality until after retiring from the sport at age 27. Speaking to UbiTennis earlier this year, Vahaly shed light on the potential barriers for gay players.

There were a lot of homophobic jokes made on Tour. It’s a very masculine and competitive environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of gay representation, except for the women’s Tour. With me not having the personality of an outspoken advocate (for LGBTQ+ issues), certainly not in my twenties, I needed some time to understand myself. To me, in tennis I didn’t feel like there was anybody to talk to or anybody that was going through anything similar.”

The ATP has spoken with Vahaly about their initiative and he has become ‘quite involved.’ Through their discussions, he got acquainted with Denison for the first time. As a professional, Vahaly peaked at a ranking high of 64th in the world and won five Challenger titles. After retiring from the Tour, he has served on the USTA’s board of directors since 2013. 

“I am happy to hear that the ATP is finally taking action to address this issue.  I’m impressed they are taking a thoughtful, data-driven approach to make a meaningful difference here,” he told UbiTennis. 

The ATP aims to make the men’s Tour more welcoming to potential LGTBQ+ athletes playing either now or in the future. For those who question if such an initiative is important in 2021, you only have to look at the younger demographic.

Sportsnet quoted CDC data from 2019 which showed that 26% of American LGBTQ+ teenagers aged 16 or 17 has contemplated suicide, five times more than those who identify as straight (5%). Among those teenagers who heard homophobic terms, 33% self-harmed and an additional 40% considered doing so.

More than 2000 players around the world currently have an ATP ranking.

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Editorial

Statistical Profiles: Alexander Zverev

What is keeping the Tokyo 2020 gold medalist from winning a Grand Slam title?

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At twenty-four, Alexander “Sascha” Zverev is clearly among the best five players in the world, having achieved in 2017 his best ranking of world N.3 and having recently won the gold medal at the Olympics in Tokyo. This would be enough, perhaps, to highlight the talent of the young German of Russian origins, but there is much more to it: he can attack from the baseline with great ease both from the forehand and the backhand sides, and combines these skills with one of the most powerful serves on tour. After his first appearance in an ATP tournament (he won his first match in Hamburg in 2014 as a wild card), many foresaw a bright future for him.

 

Instead, in spite of 17 career titles, Zverev has not yet been able to win a Major, the Litmus test for every great champion. Even in the last edition of Wimbledon, Zverev succumbed to underdog Félix Auger-Aliassime in a five-setter.

Let’s look for an explanation within the data, particularly those that refer to the 79 singles matches he has played so far in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York, in order to try to better understand the causes of this discordant note in what is already a great career nonetheless.

RESUMÉ

Before focusing on Grand Slam matches, it is worth mentioning that the German number one has already won five Masters 1000 titles: the first on clay in Rome in 2017, defeating Djokovic in the final in straight sets; the same year, he won the tournament in Montrèal (on hardcourts), this time beating Federer. Then he won in Madrid twice, in 2018 and 2021 on clay, beating Thiem in 2018 and Berrettini in 2021, before recently winning in Cincinnati against Rublev. Not to be forgotten are the most precious jewels of Zverev’s collection, namely the triumph of the ATP Finals 2018 – once again defeating Djokovic after having eliminated Federer in the semis – plus the aforementioned Olympic gold medal, beating Djokovic once more before dispatching Khachanov in the final.

It was precisely the win at the O2 Arena three years ago that seemed to have definitively propelled Sascha to the pinnacle of world tennis, not only because of the wins per se, but also for the extraordinary quality of play he expressed in all areas of the court. Instead, something seemed to stop working.

In 2019, Zverev reached “only” three finals: in Geneva, in Acapulco, and at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai. However, only in Switzerland he could get to the title (in a third-set tiebreaker against Nicolás Jarry), while he was soundly defeated by Kyrgios in Acapulco and by Medvedev – in steamroller mode – in Shanghai.

In 2020, a season marked by the pandemic, Zverev seemed close to a big break. He first reached the semifinals at the Australian Open (his first at a Major) and then reached the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first (and currently, only) time at the US Open. In both circumstances, he faced his good friend (and rival) Dominic Thiem. The fast surface should have, on paper, given an edge to Zverev, who in fact won the opening two sets in Flushing Meadows with a score of 6-2 6-4. At that point, once again, the tune changed: Thiem found new energies, while Zverev struggled. After tying the score, it was the Austrian who won the decisive tiebreaker, denying Zverev the trophy.

The 2021 season seems to fit into the same pattern: Zverev has already won four finals including two at Masters 1000 events, he is fourth in the Race and won gold in Tokyo, and yet he couldn’t go past the quarter finals in Australia, the semifinals in Paris (defeated by Tsitsipas in five sets), and the aforementioned 4th round at Wimbledon. So, a great regularity at high levels but with no real peak (compared to the level of play that he is able to express). Let’s now take a closer look at the data to try to better understand this dynamic.

OVERVIEW

Before delving into the analysis in search of winning and losing patterns, an overview will be presented, framing Zverev’s style of play with a series of statistics, the average values of which are shown in Figure 1, separately by surface.

FIGURE 1 – Average match statistics for Alexander Zverev at Grand Slam tournaments (click to enlarge)

It can be observed how both the average number of aces (in particular on fast courts) and that of double faults is quite high, proving that the serve is, in a way, both a blessing and a curse for the German player. He gets many points from it but, at the same time, it is that very stroke which sometimes puts him in danger, especially in clutch moments. 

Comparing different surfaces, a good balance can be observed: of course the number of winners is bigger on hard and grass, due to the specificities of these surfaces, and the difference in the number of net points is also easy to understand (albeit quite marked): almost absent on clay, definitely more frequent on hard, and even more on grass. A second set of statistics, shown in Figure 2, can help us get an even more precise idea:

FIGURE 2 – Second set of statistics for Alexander Zverev at Grand Slam tournaments (click to enlarge)

We note, in particular, a significant decrease in the percentage of points won with the second serve, compared to the percentage of points won with the first serve. On all surfaces, Zverev wins more than 70% of points with the first serve, while only on grass he exceeds 60% with the second, falling under 50% on clay.

It is only natural to attribute this difference to psychological factors too, given that in his first 1000 final, on the Rome clay in 2017, in a best-of-three tournament against the best returner on tour (and probably the greatest returner of all-time, Novak Djokovic), Zverev managed to win 69.2% of points on his second serve. The underdog role he played that day perhaps allowed him to play with less pressure and to showcase his qualities.

To be noted is a good effectiveness for Zverev at the net, particularly on hardcourts, where he wins over 70% of such points. Let’s now try to deepen the analysis, looking for patterns related to a Zverev win or defeat in a best-of-five match.

MOST SIGNIFICANT PATTERNS, THE KEY ELEMENTS OF ZVEREV’S GAME

So far, we have focused on Zverev’s game one aspect at a time. In this section, with the help of technology, we will consider more aspects simultaneously in order to develop a multivariate analysis. In particular, we will try to find out which of the various match statistics (which represent our input variables) are decisive, and how so, with respect to victory or defeat (which represent our output variables).

For greater clarity, we will ensure that the classification algorithm used will automatically return – based on the available variables – a model consisting of a set of rules which represent the statistically most significant patterns that lead the German to winning or to losing. Below, we illustrate the three most significant rules calculated as follows:

1 – “If Zverev wins at least 4.7% more points than his opponent with his first serve and hits fewer than 15 double faults, then he wins the match.” This pattern is quite general but extremely precise: it occurs in more than half of the matches won by Zverev in Grand Slam tournaments (to be precise, in 56%, corresponding to 38 matches) and in none of his 22 losses.

2 – “If Zverev hits at least 3.2 more winners than his opponent per set, then he wins the match.” This pattern is extremely precise: it occurred in 18 cases and Zverev won every time.

3 – “If Zverev does not win at least 2.1% more points than his opponent with his first serve, if he hits fewer than 43 winners, and if he amasses more than 27 unforced errors, then he loses the match.” This pattern is even more specific but, once more, there are no exceptions: it occurred six times and Zverev lost in all circumstances.

The more a stat appears as a relevant condition within these patterns, the more we can define it as a key element of Zverev’s game. We will therefore be able, on the basis of the data, to draw up a feature ranking of the various aspects of his game, distinguishing those that, to a greater extent, alone or in combination with others, prove to be decisive.

FIGURE 3 – Feature ranking of Zverev’s Grand Slam matches. The length of the bar represents the relevance of the feature, the direction represents the direction of the correlation (direct correlation bars extend to the right, reverse correlation bars to the left)

As can be seen in Figure 3, the most important element for Zverev turns out to be the difference in performance compared to the opponent in terms of the points won with his first serve. Of course, as this difference increases, the probability of victory also increases, and that is why the corresponding bar of the graph (the top one) points to the right, indicating a direct correlation. On the contrary, the second bar indicates an inverse correlation with respect to the average number of shots per rally: in other words, the shorter the rallies, the likelier Zverev is to win the match. Examining the other three bars which constitute the feature ranking, we can identify, as other items of interest, the difference with the opponent in terms of the number of winners (direct correlation) and unforced errors (inverse correlation) and, albeit more weakly, in terms of the number of net points played by the opponent (inverse correlation).

Trying to interpret these results, we are led to deduce that, from a more general perspective, the key element for Zverev may be his level of initiative. In other words, if the German looks to win many quick points, shortening the rally and not offering to his opponent the opportunity to get to the net too often, as the data also tells us, he has a very good chance of winning the match. Of course, unforced errors also have a weight: this attitude must not become too wasteful in terms of points gifted to the opponent.

Trying to summarize further and to move from data analysis to tactical choices, one could perhaps venture a piece of advice to Zverev, actually often reiterated by many experts: he should try to play as close as possible to the baseline. In fact, it is from that position that he manages to be aggressive without forcing too much and without letting himself be trapped in a thick web of long rallies. Who knows whether Sascha, mindful of his loss against Auger-Aliassime at Wimbledon, will decide to give this tactic a try, perhaps as early as the upcoming US Open.

Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Alessandro Valentini; edited by Tommaso Villa

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Editorial

It’s Possible That Roger Federer May Never Again Be The Player He Once Was

Further surgery is set to sideline the Swiss Maestro from the Tour for ‘many months’ as he faces a very uncertain future.

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Roger Federer (SUI) waves to the crowd as he leaves the court after being defeated by Hubert Hurkacz (POL) in the quarter-final of the Gentlemen's Singles on Centre Court at The Championships 2021. Held at The All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon. Day 9 Wednesday 07/07/2021. Credit: AELTC/Ben Solomon

As the weeks passed since Wimbledon, the news about Roger Federer became increasingly worrisome to his wide legion of admirers all over the globe. He had reached the quarterfinals at the All England’s Club, and that was no mean feat. About one month shy of his 40th birthday, Federer established himself as the oldest man to reach the last eight at Wimbledon in the Open Era, and the oldest at any major since 43-year-old Ken Rosewall at the Australian Open in December of 1977.

 

But I digress. Despite his remarkable showing at Wimbledon, the fact remained that the Swiss Maestro performed abysmally toward the end of his straight set skirmish against Hubert Hurkacz, dropping the third and last set 6-0. Federer would say not long after that disconcerting day that he had aggravated his knee during the grass court season, but some insiders are suggesting that the injury occurred during his defeat against Hurkacz. 

Whether that was the case or not, Federer’s comeback after enduring two knee surgeries across 2020 had been halted. Soon he would pull out of Toronto and Cincinnati on the ATP Tour, and it was apparent that he would either come to the U.S. Open badly prepared, or not go to New York at all.

Now we know that Federer will not be among the 128 players in the men’s draw at the Open because he will be soon undergoing  yet another knee surgery in the hopes that he might improbably return to the ATP Tour next year. As he addressed his multitude  of followers on social media a few days ago, Federer sounded realistic about his aspirations. He simply wanted to let his fans know what was going on in Federer World and give them the benefit of seeing him on camera and hearing how he felt about his current predicament.

Federer did not let his admirers down. He spoke to the public graciously on social media without looking through rose-tinted lenses. He said, “I’ve been doing a lot of checks with the doctors, as well, on my knee, getting all the information as I hurt myself during the grass court season and Wimbledon. Unfortunately, they told me for the medium to long term, to feel better I will need surgery, so I decided to do it. I will be on crutches for many weeks and then also out of the game for many months.”

He spoke about his desire to be physically healthy, and then added, “I want to give myself a glimmer of hope, also, to return to the tour in some shape or form. I am realistic, don’t get me wrong. I know how difficult it is at this age right now to do another surgery and try it [making a comeback].”

https://twitter.com/TennisChannel/status/1426995174501019648

Those were poignant words from a champion who knows what he is confronting, realizes that returning to big time tennis and living up to his lofty standards will be arduous, and understands the immense size of the challenge ahead. Listening to the Swiss conveying his thoughts, I had the distinct feeling that Federer is bracing himself for the likelihood that he will never again be even remotely what he once was.

Beyond that, Federer was simply dealing with a harsh reality he could not have imagined when he left Wimbledon after a reasonably good run. To be sure, he knew that he was ailing, but he hoped having another surgery would not be part of the equation. And yet, here he is now, facing the future with cautious optimism, trying to figure out a path to lead him back toward where he wants to be, hoping he can reinvent himself convincingly, and determined to recover from another surgery and perform at least selectively on his own majestic terms.

Keep in mind that Federer has been through this routine too many times over the years. In 2016, he was playing with his children a day after losing in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic, and he felt something strange in his knee. That led to a February 3 surgery for a torn meniscus. He returned in the spring but had to close that season down after a semifinal defeat at the hands of Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.

Federer took an awkward fall during that loss to the Canadian and had to do rehabilitation on the knee. He did not play again in 2016 but remarkably returned in Melbourne for the 2017 Australian Open and improbably pulled off no fewer than three five set victories in his spectacularly triumphant run, toppling Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal in those memorable contests. His rescue mission from 1-3 down in the fifth against Nadal when he captured five games in a row for his fifth Australian Open crown was a career defining moment.

The resurgent Federer secured an eighth Wimbledon title later that year and then defended his Australian Open title with a five set triumph over Marin Cilic at the start of 2018. He very nearly achieved a career groundbreaking honor at Wimbledon in 2019 when he reached his twelfth final on the Centre Court by ousting Nadal in a sterling semifinal performance. In the final, he served for the match at 8-7 in the fifth set, reaching 40-15 and double match point on his serve against Novak Djokovic in the sixteenth game, only to lose that stirring encounter with the Serbian. Federer had never stopped Nadal and Djokovic in the same Grand Slam tournament, and so his historic bid fell narrowly and agonizingly short.

Be that as it may, his body was holding up surprisingly well in that stretch from 2017-2019. But then he suffered a setback at the start of 2020 after losing to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian Open, and was out for the remainder of that season. In that period he had two more knee surgeries. Federer was not ready to play at the Australian Open this year. He made his comeback in Doha this year on the hard courts, losing to Nikoloz Basilashvili in the quarter finals. His knee was still burdensome so Federer waited until Geneva on the clay to appear again, dropping his first match there in the round of 16 to Pablo Andujar.

Then Federer managed to record three match triumphs at Roland Garros on his way to the round of 16, but, concerned that he could hurt himself again, he defaulted against Matteo Berrettini in the round of 16. On to Halle he went, but Federer won only one match there before bowing out against Felix Auger-Aliassime. He did manage to move on to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon which was no mean feat under the circumstances, but his knee was acting up again. And so now he is where he is after all of the stopping and starting. Even for someone of Federer’s stature and stability, these are daunting times. For more than a year-and-a-half, he has been thrown into a world of uncertainty.

Roger Federer (SUI) Credit: AELTC/Jed Leicester

And so he will take it step by step in the months ahead, recognizing that things might not turn out quite the way he wants. But Federer surely knows that, even if he had stayed healthy, collecting more major titles was going to be awfully tough at his age. If he has the good fortune to emerge from his upcoming knee surgery with a clean bill of health for most of 2022, Federer may need to accept a standard that he would have scoffed at in days gone by. After every match victory at Wimbledon this year, Federer seemed to savor the moment more thoroughly than ever before, perhaps feeling internally that this was as much as he could ask of himself.

The feeling grows that Federer will not play on much longer. It is entirely possible that one way or another he won’t play much in 2022. Even in a best case scenario, it is hard to imagine him playing beyond next year. If that is the case, he should have few regrets.

He might be somewhat dismayed that Djokovic and probably Nadal will surpass him at the majors in the next year and beyond. All three superstars have secured 20 career majors, but this three-way tie could well be broken by Djokovic at the U.S. Open. Yet there are so many achievements Federer can celebrate— and console himself with— if his career is indeed almost over now.

He has won 103 tournaments across the years, and that is second only to Jimmy Connors (109) in the Open Era among the men. He holds the record for most Wimbledon singles titles taken by a man with eight. He has had winning streaks of five titles in a row at both Wimbledon (2003- 2007) and the U.S. Open (2004-2008), a feat unmatched by anyone in the history of the game. 

There is more. Federer’s consistency across his prime at the majors was unparalleled. He set an astonishing record by reaching 23 consecutive semifinals at the Grand Slam events (2004-2010) and he also advanced to at least the quarterfinals of 36 straight majors (2004-2013). His consistency from his early twenties through his thirties was astounding. His longevity is beyond reproach; Federer established himself as the oldest man ever to reside at No. 1 in the ATP Rankings at the age of 36 in 2018.

On the flip side of the coin, Federer will almost certainly finish behind both Nadal and Djokovic in his career head to head meetings against his two foremost rivals. Nadal currently leads Federer 24-16 in their rivalry, including triumphs in six of their nine finals at the Grand Slam tournaments. Federer also trails Djokovic in their career series—the Serbian is ahead 27-23. Moreover, Djokovic has the edge over Federer 4-1 in final round duels at the majors.

Be that as it may, Federer should feel awfully proud of what he has done, and not the least bit regretful if he is unable to ever compete again on the premier stages—or anywhere else for that matter. Roger Federer has been a singularly popular player for the bulk of his career, cheered on vociferously by audiences everywhere he goes, buoyed by his vast appeal as the sport’s most elegant stylist, inspired above all else by knowing that his artistry has never been taken for granted by learned tennis observers.

If Federer is able to play on for another year, he should consider himself one fortunate fellow. If not, he must meet that moment of departure with equanimity, and remind himself that playing such a transcendent role in the game’s evolution as the most revered tennis figure of modern times is perhaps Federer’s largest contribution to a game that he loves unabashedly.

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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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