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bett1open Preview: The Berlin Anomaly

The WTA returns to try and conquer a city that offers vast potential to the tour.

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London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Berlin: the list of Western Europe’s major capitals is so familiar it almost rolls off the tongue. When it comes to the ATP and WTA calendars, however, one of them has long been conspicuous in its absence.

 

This week the bett1open, a WTA Premier 500 grass court tournament, takes place in Berlin. It’s the first tour-level tennis of any kind in the city since 2008.

BERLIN: ‘POOR, BUT SEXY’

It’s not just in tennis terms that the German capital remains something of an anomaly, even 32 years after the Berlin Wall came down. Berlin is an instantly recognisable name in a list of the world’s capital cities, yet in many aspects the city is not even a leader within Germany itself. It’s not an industrial powerhouse like Stuttgart, nor a financial hub like Frankfurt or Munich. It can’t even stake a strong claim in Germany’s national sport, football, where it is dwarfed by the footballing heartland in the western state of Nordrhein-Westfalen (home to the cities of Dortmund, Düsseldorf, and Mönchengladbach, to name but a few). As recently as 2013, there was no team from the capital city in Germany’s top football league, the Bundesliga, an unheard-of situation in all other European nations.

Instead, modern Berlin has carved out a niche as an enclave popular with artists and musicians, with cheap rents (until recently, at least), a relaxed lifestyle and a renowned electronic music scene that drives its unrivalled nightlife. It’s a bohemian place, relatively underdeveloped economically, but it just so happens to also be the political capital of the biggest economy in the European Union. When analysing the post-reunification struggles of die Hauptstadt, British historian James Hawes describes how in the mid-2000s ‘every other European capital city helped to fund its country; only in Germany was it the other way around’. Whether the city really cares is another question altogether – in 2003 mayor Klaus Wowereit famously described his city as ‘poor, but sexy.’ Indeed, an entire tourism marketing campaign used this very slogan.

THE GRAF EFFECT

This precarious financial position is one of the reasons that an incarnation of the Berlin Open hasn’t appeared on the WTA tour since 2008 (when Russia’s Dinara Safina triumphed). Once considered one of the most important clay court warm-up events for Roland Garros, the tournament fell victim to the financial problems faced by the Deutsche Tennis Bund (German Tennis Association) in the 2000s, largely attributed to the significant drop in interest in the sport in Germany following the retirement of Steffi Graf. The rights for the tournament were sold in 2004 to a consortium in Qatar, who continued to run the tournament for a few years before selling the licence back to the WTA in 2008.

Steffi Graf had a huge impact in Germany, both on and off the court (image via WTA on Twitter)

On the men’s side, the barren patch has lasted even longer. The ATP Tour last came to Berlin in 1991, also for a clay court event, without even so much as a Challenger Tour event taking place in the city since.

COMING IN FROM THE COLD

This is all about to change. Berlin has transformed rapidly in the past decade and is arguably more ready than ever for a tournament to make the city its long-term home. For better or worse (many of the politically left-leaning city’s residents would argue the latter), Berlin has never been more commercially attractive, remaining incredibly popular with creatives and young people in general, and its ‘cheap and cool’ appeal has naturally also brought interest from big business. Rents and property prices are soaring, commercial projects are popping up all around town, and the city now even has not just one, but two Bundesliga teams for the first time in its history. Tennis administrators have decided that the time is right to join in the fun.

Successful exhibitions were held last summer during the COVID break, including one that took place in a hangar at the disused Tempelhof Airport, giving the court backdrop a real post-apocalyptic feel that Berlin seems to specialise in. Dominic Thiem and Jannik Sinner were among the stars on show, as well as a seemingly ageless Tommy Haas. A Challenger event was reportedly being planned for the same venue this July, although this has not yet been announced in the schedule by the ATP. Either way, the emergence of a genuine top German talent in Alexander Zverev certainly gives the idea of bringing the men’s game here some added weight.

The hangar at the disused Tempelhof Airport, site of last year’s exhibition and a touted venue for a new ATP Challenger Tour event.

THE WTA MAKES THE FIRST MOVE

Which brings us to the WTA Premier 500 grass court tournament, taking place this week (14th-20th June). The big return to Berlin has already endured a difficult start – the inaugural tournament was scheduled for 2020 but became a victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

The more hedonistic side of the city won’t be so visible at the Rot-Weiss Tennis Club, located in the city’s more affluent and leafy western outskirts, but the stellar line up of players should ensure some electric beats for the crowd to along nod along to. Aryna Sabalenka (world number 4), Elina Svitolina (no. 6), Bianca Andreescu (no. 7) and Iga Swiatek (no. 9) lead the field, with Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova and Garbiñe Muguruza also involved. The tournament lost Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka in the wake of events at the French Open, but the difficulties of persuading players to travel to a new tournament have been outweighed by the advantage of being part of a grass court season that offers only limited choice as top stars look to get in shape for Wimbledon.

There is home interest, too, with German number one Angelique Kerber leading the charge. Sadly absent will be Sabine Lisicki, who hails from Berlin itself and has serious grass court pedigree but is sidelined with the latest in a horrendous string of injuries.

Angelique Kerber will be looking to improve on a disappointing 2021 thus far (image via Wimbledon on Twitter)

WIMBLEDON PREPARATIONS BEGIN

As is always the case with events between the French Open and Wimbledon, it is hard to predict who will come out on top. Even top players need time to adjust to the grass, particularly those who went deep at Roland Garros and will be playing their first grass court event of the year. Regardless, this represents a big opportunity for the WTA. Berlin might be a curious mix of politicians, techno heads, and tech entrepreneurs, but it’s a city of 4 million that is full of youthful energy. On the face of it, it should be a prime candidate for a stop on the tennis merry-go-round. It will be interesting to see how this latest attempt to lay down roots in this most unique city fares.

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Roland Garros Daily Preview: A Busy Day of Second Round Action on Wednesday

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A look at Court Philippe Chatrier (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

Wednesday’s schedule is overflowing with big names and compelling matchups.  Four of the top six men’s seeds will play their second round matches, and all face intriguing opposition.  Defending champion Novak Djokovic plays Alex Molcan, who is coached by Novak’s longtime coach, Marian Vajda.  13-time champ Rafael Nadal faces France’s Corentin Moutet, who took out 2015 champ Stan Wawrinka in the first round.  Spain’s new rising star, Carlos Alcaraz, takes on fellow Spaniard and accomplished clay courter Albert Ramos-Vinolas.  And third-seeded Sascha Zverev goes against Sebastian Baez, who won a clay court title last month in Estoril.

 

However, the day’s most competitive ATP matches may not involve those top names.  Second round clashes Sebastian Korda and Richard Gasquet, as well as between Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric, could prove to be two the day’s best men’s singles contests.

Women’s second round action on Wednesday features a blockbuster matchup, as 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu meets Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic.  In a battle of two Major semifinalists from 2021, Maria Sakkari takes on Karolina Muchova.  And five other Major singles champions will take the court (Kerber, Kvitova, Azarenka, Stephens, Raducanu).

Throughout the tournament, this preview will analyze the day’s five most prominent matches, while highlighting the other notable matches on the schedule.  Wednesday’s play begins at 11:00am local time.


Sascha Zverev (3) vs. Sebastian Baez – Second on Court Philippe Chatrier

This is a dangerous draw for Zverev, as Baez is one the 2022’s fastest-rising players.  The 21-year-old from Argentina started the year ranked 99th, but is now 36th, having accumulated 28 match wins at all levels, and claiming a clay court title last month in Estoril.  He was also a finalist earlier this year on clay in Santiago.  These players met just two weeks ago in Rome, with Zverev prevailing in two tight sets.   I expect another tight affair on Wednesday, especially since Sascha has a history of getting involved in five-setters at Roland Garros.  In the last four years here, he’s played eight of them.  However, it’s worth noting his record in those matches is 7-1.  Zverev’s fire power should enable him to get past the up-and-coming Argentine.


Maria Sakkari (4) vs. Karolina Muchova – Second on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Their only previous encounter was a doozy.  Last year on clay in Madrid, Muchova dominated the first set 6-0, Sakkari took the second in an extended tiebreak, but Karolina eventually prevailed 7-5 in the third.  That’s one of many painful losses Maria suffered last season, with the most painful coming in the semifinals of this event a year ago, when she went down in defeat despite holding a match point over eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova.  Sakkari has persevered extremely well, and started off 2022 16-4, though she’s just 4-3 on clay this season.  However, Muchova is only 6-2 the entire year, as an abdominal injury kept her off the court.  The more in-form Sakkari should be favored to avenge her loss to Muchova from a year ago.


Belinda Bencic (14) vs. Bianca Andreescu – Third on Court Philippe Chatrier

This is a rematch from the semifinals of the 2019 US Open semifinals, when Andreescu was victorious after two extremely close sets on her way to her maiden Major title.  That semifinal remains Belinda’s best performance at a Slam.  And the French Open has easily been her worst Major, where she is 6-5 lifetime, and never advanced beyond the third round.  But Bencic is having a strong clay court season, with a 10-2 record, and a title in Charleston.  Andreescu has missed a lot of time over the last few years, including the first three months of 2022.  Yet she’s a decent 7-3 on the year, with her only three losses coming to top 15 players.  And on a big stage such as Court Philippe Chatrier, Andreescu usually brings her best tennis.  I give the Canadian the slight edge to grit out the upset over Bencic after a significant battle.


Sebastian Korda (27) vs. Richard Gasquet – Fourth on Court Suzanne Lenglen

Both players completed their first round matches on Tuesday due to rain, leaving them no day of rest, though they both won in straights sets and should feel rather fresh.  Korda eliminated Australia’s John Millman, while Gasquet dismissed South Africa’s Lloyd Harris.  It was this event two years ago where Sebi made his Major breakthrough, reaching the fourth round in just his second main draw appearance at a Slam.  The 21-year-old American is the only player to earn a victory over Carlos Alcaraz this season on clay, and also achieved a clay court semifinal in Estoril.  Gasquet spent much of this month playing Challenger events, though he did reach a tour-level semi of his own just last week in Geneva.  Clay is not Richard’s strongest surface, but he was a quarterfinalist here in 2016.  He’ll certainly be motivated by the inspiring efforts of his fellow countrymen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles from Tuesday.  And with this match scheduled late in the day, he’ll benefit from a rowdy French crowd behind him.  However, Korda’s more reliable groundstrokes should allow him to get past the Frenchman, with an Alcaraz rematch perhaps awaiting him in the third round.


Grigor Dimitrov (18) vs. Borna Coric – Fourth on Court 14

Dimitrov is a meek 13-11 lifetime at Roland Garros, but he is a solid 9-4 on clay this season, and was a semifinalist in Monte Carlo.  Coric is trying to rediscover his form after missing a full year of action due to shoulder surgery.  He’s just 2-6 at all levels since returning, and was on a five-match losing streak coming into this event before earning a first-round win over Carlos Taberner.  Borna has a clay court title on his resume, and has previously fought his way to victories at Majors in matches he had no business winning.  The 2020 US Open comes to mind, when Coric came back from seemingly sure defeat against Stefanos Tsitsipas, saving six match points along the way.  I would not be surprised if he pushes Dimitrov on Wednesday.  Yet Grigor seemed perfectly comfortable in his opening round, dropping only three games, and is the favorite in this match as well.


Other Notable Matches on Wednesday:

Angelique Kerber (21) vs. Elisa Jacquemot (WC) – Kerber survived the first round of this event for only the second time in seven years, and did so in thrilling fashion.  Angie defeated Magdalena Frech in an over three-hour affair, and was cheered on vociferously by the Parisian crowd.  On Wednesday, she plays France’s Jacquemot, a 19-year-old who earned her first Major win on Monday.

Amanda Anisimova (27) vs. Donna Vekic (Q) – Anisimova took out Naomi Osaka in the opening round.  Vekic is a former top 20 player who has battled injury in recent years.  Two years ago on clay in Rome, Amanda overcame Donna in two tiebreak sets.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Alex Molcan – Djokovic’s last loss in the second round of a Major was at the 2017 Australian Open, at the hands of Denis Istomin.  Molcan is a 24-year-old from Slovakia who reached finals at two 250-level clay events this season.  Last year on clay in Belgrade, Novak defeated Alex in straights.

Carlos Alcaraz (6) vs. Albert Ramos-Vinolas – Alcaraz is now 29-3 on the year, and is currently on an 11-match win streak.  Ramos-Vinolas was a quarterfinalist here in 2016, and has won four clay court titles in his career, including this February in Cordoba.  Alcaraz has claimed both of their previous meetings.

Rafael Nadal (5) vs. Corentin Moutet (WC) – Despite questions regarding the status of his chronically-injured foot, Nadal prevailed easily on Monday, dropping only six games.  Moutet beat Stan Wawrinka in four sets the same day. 


Wednesday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Planning Key For Daniil Medvedev’s Comeback From Hernia Surgery

Daniil Medvedev cruised past Facundo Bagnis in his opening round at Roland Garros.

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Daniil Medvedev (@atptour - Twitter)

Daniil Medvedev has spoke about preparation and planning after his first win since hernia surgery.

 

The second seed was victorious in his opening round at Roland Garros after beating Argentinian Facundo Bagnis 6-2 6-2 6-2.

Medvedev usually hates the clay court season but the Russian, who reached the quarter-finals last year, cruised to victory with the loss of just six games.

This is only Medvedev’s second tournament since hernia surgery which took place after the Miami Open.

Speaking to the press after his win Medvedev said that planning was the key to his comeback, “The thing is that, yeah, for sure when I made surgery, I didn’t know — I thought I’m not going to come back on clay. I thought I’m going to come back for grass,” the Russian admitted.

“But straightaway we made a good plan with my team, with my doctor team and physio team, to try to get me back on track as fast as possible. Because also what is tough is there is no sign of when you can actually start playing tennis. It’s just kind of you start, and if you feel pain, you should stop straightaway.

“So I started after four weeks, which usually it can take up to six weeks, I heard, average. I never had pain, so we are going step by step slowly, first day 30 minutes and then 45. Same, yeah, I went to Geneva to see how my body is. I felt great physically. I managed to put really strong practice hours here before Roland Garros. I feel 100% ready physically, so thanks to my team.”

Medvedev will look to build momentum as he prepares to miss Wimbledon due to Russian and Belarusian athletes being banned.

Now for the world number two the focus is on Roland Garros and on clay and after his match he broke down why he isn’t as effective on clay than he is on hard courts, “I would love to think that it’s not mental, because every time I start playing on clay every year, because you have to, I’m like, Come on, you know, just be better. This year is going to be different, is going to be, for you, the clay, and then I feel like I need a lot of time to adapt,” Medvedev explained.

“It’s about the movement, and I think my strokes are given like in the air because the balls are much heavier, they have dirt on them, so a lot of my balls, not at Roland Garros but other courts, for example, it was the case in Geneva, I feel like I’m doing a good job but it just goes in the net.

“When you don’t know what you can improve, that’s where it’s tough because you’re, like, What do I do next shot? Yeah, it’s not the case here, so I’m happy about it. So I know I’m capable of doing some good things. But, yeah, I need to be 100% focused and ready for what clay has to give to me. Right now I feel ready.”

Medvedev will look to continue his confidence on Thursday when he takes on Laslo Djere in his second round match.

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Denis Shapovalov Left ‘Frustrated’ After Early Roland Garros Exit

Denis Shapovalov has a lot thinking to do after his round one exit to Holger Rune in Paris.

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Denis Shapovalov (@andertennis - Twitter)

Denis Shapovalov left feeling frustrated after he lost 6-1 6-3 7-6(4) to Holger Rune in the first round of Roland Garros.

 

The Canadian headed into the opening round with confidence after reaching the last eight in Rome.

However Shapovalov hit 53 unforced errors in an underwhelming performance as he went to an in-form Holger Rune.

Rune, who won Munich and reached the semi-finals in Lyon, played electric tennis as he moves into the second round to play Henri Laaksonen or Pedro Martinez.

As for Shapovalov he was left frustrated and admitted improvement is needed ahead of the grass court season, “For sure I wasn’t able to bring out my best performance,” Shapovalov said in his post match press conference.

“It’s definitely frustrating. It just shows I have a lot to work on. And just
excited to get back to work. Never think I’m done learning and improving.
So, yeah, it’s difficult moment, but I just keep working. I didn’t really
show up today, so it’s a little bit difficult.

“Holger is playing some great tennis, won his first title, semis last week, I believe, pushing some top guys. So yeah, for sure not taking anything away from him, obviously he’s playing great tennis.

“But I think against most players today I wouldn’t come out the winner. So, yeah, a little bit frustrating on my side and just feel like I need to improve some things. Be sure that I’m ready for the slams.”

It’s another disappointing grand slam performance from Shapovalov who recognises he must do better in the future in order to break into the world’s top 10.

Speaking of the future the grass court season is up next where Shapovalov reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon.

However due to the ATP’s decision to remove ranking points as a result of the ban on Russian and Belarusian players at Wimbledon, whatever happens at SW19 Shapovalov will lose a hefty amount of points.

That is a decision that the Canadian doesn’t necessarily agree with, “I haven’t decided anything yet. Been trying to focus on this tournament,” Shapovalov admitted.

“I think first of all, if you have a pro competition, that everybody should be competing. I completely understand the politics and the situation they’re in. But again, if you have a tennis tournament that’s supposed to have the best athletes in the world, it shouldn’t matter where you’re from, this and that, you know? So everybody should be competing.

“I also don’t agree with the ATP to take out all the points. The most guys it’s affecting are the guys in the top rankings. Obviously Novak, me, Hubi, Berrettini, who is not playing here, we’re going to drop a lot. I think they could have gone with it a different way, maybe keep 50 percent like they have in the past or some kind of fairness. But even a guy like Fucsovics is going to drop out of the top 100, you know.

“So it’s difficult for the players when you don’t have a chance to defend and especially on a surface like grass where it’s already so short and the players that play well on that surface they don’t have that many opportunities tom make points, so you take a huge chunk of it out, it’s super difficult for players.”

It’s a dilemma many players will face heading into Wimbledon over the next few weeks.

As for Shapovalov his next tournament will be in Stuttgart which starts on the 6th of June.

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