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Djokovic Climbs the Historical Ladder Once More

The Serbian capped off a brutal spell, beating Nadal at the French Open for a second time while coming back from two sets down twice. Can he complete a calendar year Grand Slam?

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Novak Djokovic - Roland Garros 2021 (via Twitter, @rolandgarros)

Collecting my thoughts after watching Novak Djokovic capture a 19th Grand Slam singles title and thus move up to only one title behind both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the all time race for supremacy, my appreciation for this man and his multitude of achievements and attributes has reached a new level. Here he is, half way to a 2021 Grand Slam, poised to make even more history, zeroing in on the majors with all consuming intensity. It is hard to imagine that he won’t make a spirited bid to establish himself as the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to sweep all four majors in a single season.

 

But let’s pause briefly to consider what he just accomplished at Roland Garros. By winning the French Open for the second time, he has established himself commendably as the first man since Laver to take all four majors at least twice in the course of a career. Some would call it a second career Grand Slam, but the bottom line is that Djokovic has realized a feat that neither Federer nor Nadal has managed. Federer will surely never win a second French Open, and Nadal has been agonizingly close to garnering a second title at the Australian Open, falling in the finals four times “Down Under” against Djokovic (2012 and 2019), Stan Wawrinka (2014), and Federer (2017). Against both Djokovic in the former and Federer in the latter, Nadal was up a break in the fifth set but his wishes went unrewarded. Will he win in Melbourne again? Probably not.

Laver, of course, captured his first Grand Slam in 1962 and his second seven years later. The latter was a singular feat and worthy of immense admiration. The only other male player to put his name on the trophy at least twice at all of the “Big Four” events was Roy Emerson in the sixties—all in amateur tennis. No one else but Djokovic has done it strictly in the Open Era. It is another major feather in his cap made all the more remarkable when one considers how the redoubtable Nadal has monopolized Roland Garros for a good long while. He had won all but three of the previous 16 French Open editions, and had lost only two matches on his cherished surface while retiring once in 2016 with a wrist injury.

Djokovic had claimed his first Roland Garros crown five years ago with a hard fought final round victory over Andy Murray. But the Serbian was stifled by Nadal three times in the finals, losing to the Spaniard in 2012, 2014, and 2020. In turn, Djokovic lost to a soaring Stan Wawrinka in the 2015 title round contest. And altogether against Nadal, he had lost seven of the eight times they had collided in Paris prior to this year.

And yet, he not only became the first player to upend Nadal twice on the Parisian clay, but he also established himself as the first ever to do it after losing the first set. The Djokovic-Nadal semifinal this past week was a beauty, filled with magnificently contested and imaginative rallies from beginning to end, enhanced by the competitive mettle displayed on both sides of the net.

I don’t agree with some of the authorities who are calling this classic encounter an epic. It was, to be sure, an evocative performance from Djokovic and one of the finest triumphs of his illustrious career. But looking at the contest and comparing it to other Djokovic-Nadal duels, it does not measure up in its entirety. Their 2012 Australian Open final round skirmish was unquestionably superior, going down to the wire before Djokovic prevailed 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 as the Serbian somehow survived after Nadal served with a 4-2, 30-15 lead in the fifth. The 2013 Roland Garros semifinal won by Nadal 9-7 in the fifth set was another gem that was superior to this one in 2021, and so was the 2018 Wimbledon semifinal with Djokovic overcoming his old rival 10-8 in the fifth set on the fabled Centre Court.

But Djokovic’s 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 triumph in their latest showdown was still a dandy. It falls short of an epic in my mind because the first set was played with too much apprehension from both players. Djokovic had two break points in the first game and a 40-15 lead in the second, but did not exploit those openings. Before he knew it, Nadal led 5-0. The spectacle seemed eerily similar to the 2020 final when Nadal obliterated Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5.

But, this time around in the penultimate round, things played out differently. Djokovic took three games in a row, saved six set points and gradually found his game in that crucial span. I believe in many ways that is where he won the match; both players moved into the second set knowing the climate had been altered and recognizing that the battle was fully on. Nadal realized he could have closed out the first set sooner. His failure to do so surely weighed heavily in his mind.

Djokovic had clearly found his range and Nadal’s insecurity started to surface as the conditions changed. The evening air was cooler, making it harder for Nadal to get the high bound he wanted on his topspin forehand. And the Serbian was raising the temperature of his game considerably. They exchanged service breaks early, but then Djokovic regained control as he peppered away with his crosscourt forehand angles to pull Nadal off the court time and again on the Spaniard’s backhand side. That pattern propelled Djokovic through that second set and into the third. Yet finishing off that second set was no facile feat for Djokovic. At 4-2 he erased three break points against him and he had to save two more when he served the set out at 5-3. It was hard work but Djokovic was back deservedly to one set all.

Make no mistake about it: the third set was colossal in terms of the outcome, and it was the single best set that Nadal and Djokovic have ever played against each other on any surface. It was immensely inspiring to watch.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – Roland Garros 2021 (ph. ©Cédric Lecocq _ FFT)

The two titans pushed each other to the hilt in pursuit of a two sets to one lead, displaying a dazzling brand of shotmaking, imposing their wills, hoping they could move out in front and carry the momentum into the fourth set.

Nadal was frequently under extraordinary stress. Djokovic broke for a 3-2 lead but Nadal retaliated for 3-3 with one of his signature forehand down the line winners. Nevertheless, Djokovic took control again to reach 5-3, and then served for the set at 5-4. He went to 30-0 but missed an easy forehand down the line. Nadal made Djokovic pay a substantial price for that mistake, breaking back for 5-5 with a stream of winners including a backhand pass up the line and a forehand winner down the line.

The drama was not over. Twice in the eleventh game the Spaniard found himself break point down, but he saved one with a bounce smash winner and the other with a forehand down the line winner. After moving to 6-5 and heading for the changeover, Nadal wore the expression of a man convinced he was going to win this tennis match.

When Djokovic served at 5-6, the Serbian was down set point and missed his first delivery. But he responded to this propitious moment with typical fortitude. His backhand down the line drop shot was immaculately measured, and even a determined Nadal could not get it back into play. Djokovic held on for 6-6, and appropriately the set was settled in a tie-break.

Nadal opened with a double fault but soon the sequence was locked at 3-3. Djokovic connected with a scintillating forehand angled crosscourt winner. Then Nadal took the net away from Djokovic and had the court wide open for a forehand volley—only to punch it long.

The 13-time French Open victor produced an excellent forehand drop shot winner to narrow Djokovic’s tie-break lead to 5-4 but the top seed followed with a clutch ace down the T and a beautifully directed forehand down the line response to a Nadal drop shot that was unmanageable for the Spaniard. Djokovic had at last sealed this astonishing set 7-4 in the tie-break. He trailed 2-0 in the fourth set but then collected no fewer than six games in a row, taking 24 of the last 30 points in the process. Djokovic raised his career record against Nadal to 30-28 with his 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2 win.

In the final, he took on Stefanos Tsitsipas for the eighth time in their careers. Djokovic had been victorious in five of their previous seven meetings, including a five set Roland Garros semifinal in 2020. No one knew—not even Djokovic himself—how well he would recover from his four hour and eleven minute extravaganza with Nadal, but Djokovic looked fresh enough early on. Had he exploited two break point opportunities in the opening game of the match, Djokovic might well have been off and running.

But Tsitsipas held on with three consecutive aces for 1-0. Djokovic was breezing along on his own serve until the tenth game, when he saved a set point by out-dueling Tsitsipas in a 25 stroke exchange. He held on for 5-5 and broke in the following game. Seemingly, the set was over.

But at the changeover, Djokovic appeared to lose his focus. The umpire had given Tsitsipas a time violation warning not long before and Djokovic made his case that the players should be given some latitude since they had to fetch their own towels. He proceeded to play a terrible game on his serve and Tsitsipas made it back to 6-6. In the ensuing tie-break, Djokovic trailed 0-4 and 2-5 but then took four points in a row and reached set point with Tsitsipas serving at 5-6. Djokovic’s return was well struck off the forehand but Tsitsipas flicked it back brilliantly down the line for a winner.

The Greek stylist took the set 8-6 in that tie-break and then took apart Djokovic 6-2 in the second. Tsitsipas was on the verge of an uplifting triumph in his first Grand Slam tournament final. But Djokovic was soon revitalized, turning the skirmish back in his own direction permanently when he broke in a marathon six deuce game for 3-1 in the third set with a bruising forehand inside in return that coaxed Tsitsipas into an error. He secured that break and, suddenly, it was a different kind of match altogether.

Djokovic had left the court for a locker room break after the second set and that had left him revitalized. He rolled through the rest of the third set and never looked back. Tsitsipas had no Plan B. Once Djokovic started hitting out more freely and serving with greater authority, Tsitsipas was dazed and dispirited.  Djokovic broke the No. 5 seed twice on his way to a 3-0 fourth set lead with the persistency of his returns and better court coverage.

The primary problem for Tsitsipas was his inability to make any dent whatsoever in Djokovic’s service games. The world No. 1 dropped only three points in four service games across the entire fourth set. Nothing much changed in the fifth set as Djokovic moved inexorably toward victory.

On his way to serving for the match at 5-4 in that final set, Djokovic won 16 of 19 points in his four service games. Meanwhile, he was pressuring Tsitsipas constantly. He nearly broke in the opening game before doing so in the third. Coasting along on his own delivery, he destroyed Tsitsipas by going to the heavy kicker in the ad court as a first serve, setting up piercing forehands time and again. Tsitsipas never had an answer to that tactic.

At 2-4, Tsitsipas fell behind 15-40, but drew Djokovic in with a drop shot and won that point with a high volley into the open court. He held on there but Djokovic went to 5-3 with a love game. Serving for the match at 5-4, Djokovic was clearly tense but he remained disciplined, dynamic and unshakable. Despite one botched volley at 15-0 and an errant crosscourt backhand at 30-15, he moved to 40-30 before Tsitsipas struck a golden backhand down the line for a winner. Djokovic refused to be rattled, defending skillfully out of his forehand corner twice and then driving a forehand down the line for a clean winner. On his second match point, he moved foreword behind a forehand swing volley and then emphatically put away a high forehand volley crosscourt.

And so Djokovic succeeded 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in four hours and eleven minutes— precisely the same time it took him to oust Nadal. Over the last four rounds, Djokovic had done some very impressive work, rallying from two sets to love down to defeat Lorenzo Mussetti in five sets, stopping Matteo Berrettini in four sets, removing Nadal in the penultimate round and capping it all off by staging his spectacular comeback against Tsitsipas.

The last player to win a major and twice rally from two sets to love down during the tournament was the American Ted Schroeder at Wimbledon in 1949. Djokovic is the first fellow in the Open Era to realize that considerable feat. In addition, Djokovic raised his record in career five set matches to a remarkable 35-10, and lifted his winning record in Grand Slam finals to 19-10. Moreover, he joined an elite cast of competitors who have triumphed in major finals from two sets to love down. Bjorn Borg—who greeted Djokovic at the presentation ceremony at Roland Garros—did it in the 1974 Paris final against Manolo Orantes. Ivan Lendl overcame John McEnroe ten years later in the same fashion at Roland Garros. Andre Agassi completed his career sweep at the majors with a 1999 final round comeback against Andrei Medvedev after going down two sets. Gaston Gaudio upended Guillermo Coria from two sets behind in 2004. And then last year at the US Open, Dominic Thiem was trailing Alexander Zverev by two sets to love but he came back to win. Those kinds of title round comebacks are very rare indeed.

Now Djokovic has taken the first two majors of the year, fueling a lot of talk in the tennis community about a Grand Slam. He also won the Australian and French Opens back to back in 2016 but then fell in the third round of Wimbledon against Sam Querrey, which was a shocking loss. And yet, he had at that time won four majors in a row dating back to the middle of the previous season. No one in men’s tennis had swept four in a row since Laver won his Grand Slam in 1969. His range of ambitions was diminished at that point.

Circumstances are different now. Djokovic will be more sharply focussed on his goals after claiming major title No. 19. He won the last two Wimbledon singles titles in 2018 and 2019, so he will be awfully eager for a third title in a row. Over the years, he has grown increasingly comfortable on the grass, a surface which rewards his unique kind of agility, his court awareness and his capacity to keep his shots consistently low and deep.

Will he win the Grand Slam, or perhaps even a “Golden Slam” if he can manage to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games? I would not rule it out. He has made it abundantly clear that the majors now are more important to him than ever. They are his first and, in many ways, only priority.

His triumphs in Melbourne and Paris have given Djokovic the conviction he needs to wrap up this season in style. Winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open may be a tall order on top of what he has already done, but I believe he will be very self assured on the lawns this year. He will not yet be thinking about a Grand Slam when he is in Great Britain. Winning Wimbledon would put him on level ground at last alongside Nadal and Federer with 20 major titles and that alone will be foremost on his mind.

I make him the clear favorite and believe he will collect the most prestigious crown in tennis for the sixth time. If that happens, he would head to New York knowing full well that he has had very hard luck at the U.S. Open. He has been in eight finals on the hard courts he loves so much, but has claimed the title only three times. If Djokovic is victorious at Wimbledon, his desire to win the Open will be insatiable. And if someone has upset him in London, Djokovic will want to make amends and demonstrate his big match superiority once more at the Open; either way, he will be very difficult to beat at Flushing Meadows.

Djokovic was typically forthright when asked about his thoughts on the Grand Slam following his win over Tsitsipas in the French Open final. He said, “Everything is possible. I mean, definitely in my case I can say that what I’ve been through in my career, in my life, this journey has been terrific so far. I’ve achieved some things that a lot of people thought it would not be possible for me to achieve. I did put myself in a good position to go for the Grand Slam. But you know, I was in this position in 2016 as well. It ended up in a third round loss at Wimbledon. This year we have only two weeks between the first round of Wimbledon and the finals here, which is not ideal because you go from really two completely different surfaces, trying to make that transition as smooth as possible. Obviously I will enjoy this win and then think about Wimbledon in a few days time. I don’t have an issue to say that I am going for the title at Wimbledon. Of course I am. Hopefully I can use this confidence that I have right now and take it into Wimbledon. Then let’s take it from there.”

Djokovic’s entire purpose in his professional life is where he ends up in the hierarchy of history. He has spoken with complete candor and clarity about what he wants to achieve. He has already surpassed Federer for most weeks at No. 1 in the world and is at 325 and counting. He is now well on his way to breaking Pete Sampras’s record for most year-end finishes at No. 1, pushing hard to reside at the top for the seventh time when the curtain closes on 2021. He will almost certainly finish ahead of Federer and Nadal in his career head to head appointments with them. At the moment he is 30-28 with the Spaniard and 27-23 over Federer. He is the only player to win every Masters 1000 event at least once.

And so it is all about Grand Slam tournaments from here on in. The feeling grows that Novak Djokovic will not be looking back on his career in a decade or so with any reservations whatsoever.

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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.

Editorial

Cameron Norrie’s Surprise Win at Indian Wells Could Land Him a Well-Deserved ATP Finals Berth

As Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev disappointed, the Brit (along with Basilashvili, Dimitrov and Fritz) were ready to seize the day

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Cameron Norrie ad Indian Wells 2021 (Credits: @BNPPARIBASOPEN on Twitter)

We have grown accustomed across the last bunch of decades to the most important tournaments in tennis being controlled by an elite cast of competitors. That has been the case not only at the Grand Slam events but also at the Masters 1000 showcase championships. While there has been a large degree of predictability associated with these prestigious gatherings of great players, that has been comforting for followers of the sport who have embraced familiarity.

 

And yet, every once in a while there is no harm when a big tournament produces startling results and a semifinal lineup that no one could have foreseen. That is precisely what happened this past week in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California. For the first time at a Masters 1000, not a single player ranked among the top 25 in the world made it to the penultimate round. The semifinalists were none other than Great Britain’s Cam Norrie (No. 26), Grigor Dimitrov (No. 28), Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili (No. 36), and Taylor Fritz of the United States (No. 38). Their seedings were somewhat better because some top players did not compete at Indian Wells. Norrie was seeded No. 21, Basilashvili No. 29, Dimitrov No. 23 and Fritz No. 31.

These rankings and seedings were almost unimaginable, but all of these players deserved to be in the forefront. The left-handed Norrie took apart Dimitrov 6-2, 6-4 in the opening semifinal with surgical precision and uncanny ball control, and then Basilashvili followed with an overpowering 7-6(5) 6-3 performance in eclipsing Fritz. Here were four distinctive players displaying their collective talent proudly on the hard courts in California. Outside of Roger Federer, Dimitrov may well be the most elegant player of the past twenty years with his well crafted running forehand plus his spectacular and versatile one-handed backhand. Norrie is cagey, resourceful, disciplined and versatile. His forehand carries a significant amount of topspin and can bound up high while his two-handed backhand is fundamentally flat. His serve is strategically located and reliably precise. He is a tennis player’s tennis player.

Fritz combines considerable power with remarkable feel. He serves potently and places it awfully well. He is a constantly improving craftsman with a wide arsenal of shots. And Basilashvili is the biggest hitter in tennis, pounding the ball relentlessly off both sides, unleashing forehand winners from anywhere on the court almost at will, never backing off from his goal of blasting opponents off the court.

So all four semifinalists were worthy of getting that far. Moreover, it was fitting that Norrie and Basilashvili would square off in the final. Norrie has celebrated a stellar 2021 campaign. This was his sixth final of the season and he had already amassed 46 match wins coming into the final. Norrie has made immense strides as a match player all year long, and he was poised to put himself in this position. He is a masterful percentage player cut from a similar cloth to Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. Norrie measures his shots impeccably, giving himself an incessantly healthy margin for error, refusing to miss by being reckless or narrow minded.

Basilashvili is made of different stock. He had lost in the first round in five of six Masters 1000 events this season because he misses so much with his risky shots. When he gets on a roll, Basilashvili is an exceedingly dangerous player who can make the most difficult shots look easy. But he can also beat himself and is often his own worst enemy with his obstinacy. Basilashvili lost his last nine matches of 2020. Norrie is at the opposite end of the spectrum with his consistency and methodology, understanding his limitations, always obeying the laws of percentage tennis.

The contrasting styles of the two finalists made it an intriguing confrontation. But, in the end, Norrie withstood a barrage of big hitting from Basilashvili, refused to get rattled by the explosive shotmaking of his adversary, and ultimately prevailed 3-6 6-4 6-1 to claim the most important title of his career. It was a fascinating final in many ways as Norrie opened up an early lead before Basilashvili found his range, but then the British competitor reasserted himself over the last set-and-a-half with cunning play down the stretch as the wind force increased and Basilashvili faltered flagrantly.

Nikoloz Basilashvili – Indian Wells 2021 (foto Twitter @BNPPARIBASOPEN)

Norrie moved ahead 3-1 in the opening set but then the Georgian held easily and broke back for 3-3 on a double fault from the British No. 1. Basilashvili promptly held for 4-3 at love. He had won three consecutive games, and clearly the complexion of the set was changing significantly. Norrie realized he was in jeopardy but was unable to halt Basilashvili’s momentum. The British competitor was broken again in the eighth game as Basilashvili released two outright winners. On break point an angled forehand crosscourt from the Russian coaxed an error from his left-handed adversary. Serving for the set at 5-3, Basilashvili was totally composed and confident. He held at love with an ace for 40-0 and then a dazzling forehand down the line winner.

Not only had Basilashvili taken the set on a run of five consecutive games, but he had also swept 20 of 25 points in that spectacular span. When Basilashvili broke for a 2-1 second set lead, he seemed entirely capable of driving his way to victory behind an avalanche of blazing winners. But Norrie refused to lose optimism. Basilashvili suddenly lost both his range and his rhythm off the ground, particularly on his signature forehand side. Four unforced errors off that flank cost him the fourth game and allowed Norrie back on serve.

But Basilashvili was persistent, working his way through a couple of arduous service games on his way to 4-4. Nevertheless,  Norrie was unswayed by his opponent’s fighting spirit. The British player held at love for 5-4 in that pivotal second set with a drop shot winner and then broke at love to seal the set with his finest tennis of the afternoon. On the first point of the tenth game, Norrie lobbed over Basilashvili into the corner and took the net away from his opponent. Although Basilashvili chased that ball down, turned and unleashed a potent backhand crosscourt pass that came over low, Norrie was ready, making a difficult forehand drop volley winner that had the California crowd gasping. On the next point, Norrie released a scintillating backhand passing shot winner down the line. Consecutive forehand mistakes from a shaken Basilashvili allowed Norrie to break at love to salvage the set 6-4 on a run of eight points in a row.

The left-hander was in command now, taking the first two games of the third set confidently. He then trailed 0-40 in the third game. But Norrie responded to this precarious moment commendably, collecting five points in a row to hold on for 3-0, demoralizing Basilashvili in the process. Basilashvili self destructed at this critical juncture of the match, giving all five points away with a cluster of errors. But Norrie was also outstanding on defense in that stretch.

The match was essentially over. Although Basilashvili fended off a break point in the fourth game of that third set, Norrie sedulously protected his lead thereafter, capturing 12 of 16 points and three consecutive games to close out the account with a flourish. From 4-4 in the second set, Norrie had won eight of the last nine games and his first Masters 1000 crown. Norrie started the year at No. 71 in the world but now stands deservedly at No. 16 following his astonishing triumph at Indian Wells. It was a job awfully well done, and he was a worthy winner in the end.

But I must add that the three top seeds at Indian Wells all failed to perform up to their expectations. Let’s start with Medvedev, the top seed in the absence of Djokovic. He confronted Dimitrov in the round of 16 and was leading 6-4, 4-1. Medvedev was up two service breaks in that second set. He seemed certain to prevail but performed abysmally thereafter. At 4-1, he opened the sixth game with a double fault and then double faulted again at 15-40. Dimitrov held easily in the seventh game and then Medvedev was broken in the eight game after missing five out of six first serves.

Now Dimitrov held at love and then Medvedev started the tenth game of the second set with another double fault. He lost his serve for the third time in a row and thus conceded the set 6-4 after dropping five consecutive games and 20 of 26 points. Medvedev missed 15 of 17 first serves at the end of that pendulum swinging set.

Dimitrov raced to 3-0 in the third, later advanced to 5-1, and eventually came through 4-6 6-4 6-3 as Medvedev imploded. To be sure, Dimitrov was magnificent in many ways, particularly with his running forehand. But Medvedev was his own worst enemy and his attitude was reminiscent of the man we witnessed in years gone by who was often mercurial. He was infuriated with himself and his situation, competing irregularly, smashing his racquet, advertising his vulnerability.

Grigor Dimitrov – Indian Wells 2021 (foto Twitter @BNPPARIBASOPEN)

Meanwhile, No.2 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas wanted to reignite his game after losing early at the US Open, but the Greek stylist struggled inordinately in every match he played before Basilashvili ousted him 6-4 2-6 6-4 in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Tsitsipas was trying to manufacture some emotions that simply were not there. He was out of sorts and off his game. At 3-3 in the final set, down break point, fighting hard but playing poorly, Tsitsipas double faulted and never really recovered. It may take him quite some time to recover his best form after a debilitating year.

And what of Sascha Zverev? Here was a man who had won the gold medal at the Olympic Games in August and then secured the Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati. He lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the US Open but seemed to be ready to take the title at Indian Wells after reaching the quarterfinals. But Zverev wasted a 5-2 final set lead against Fritz.

Zverev had a match point in the eighth game on Fritz’s serve that the American saved stupendously. Zverev had sent a deep crosscourt forehand into the corner that seemed unanswerable but Fritz took it early on the half volley and flicked it down the line to rush Zverev into an error. In the following game, serving for the match at 5-3, Zverev double faulted at 30-15 but still advanced to 40-30 with a second match point at his disposal. Once more, he double faulted. In the end, after Zverev served another damaging double fault on the first point of the final set tie-break, Fritz succeeded 4-6 6-3 7-6(3).

Zverev had no reason to be embarrassed about losing to a first-rate Fritz, but nonetheless the German should have been dismayed by those crucial double faults. He said afterwards that he felt he was the clear tournament favorite after Tsitsipas had lost earlier that day, but why didn’t he play with more conviction when it counted against Fritz? Was Zverev getting ahead of himself by thinking about winning the tournament when he was still trying to succeed in his quarterfinal? I have a feeling that was the case. He is too seasoned a campaigner to allow that to happen at this stage of his career. I thought Zverev was more professional than that.

Undoubtedly the unexpected setbacks suffered by Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev opened a window for Norrie to see his way through to a career defining triumph, but that takes nothing away from his success. Cam Norrie is now at No.10 in the Race to Turin for the ATP Finals, and Rafael Nadal is out for the year. So the British lefty could well qualify for that élite season ending event which is reserved for only the top eight players in the world. After his uplifting victory at Indian Wells, only a fool would doubt that Norrie will very likely be in the field at Turin, which is no mean feat.

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Indian Wells Daily Preview: 2019 Finalists Andreescu and Kerber Face Stiff Competition

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Bianca Andreescu is the defending champion of this event (twitter.com/BNPPARIBASOPEN)

Monday hosts some stellar third round matchups in both the men’s and women’s singles draws.  10 of the days’ 16 singles matches feature seeded players colliding.  They include 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu, three-time Major champ Angelique Kerber, and newly-crowned US Open champ Daniil Medvedev.

 

Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule.  Monday’s play gets underway at 11:00am local time.

Angelique Kerber (10) vs. Daria Kasatkina (20) – 11:00am on Stadium 2

It’s the 2018 runner-up against the 2019 runner-up.  Both players submitted subpar results thereafter, but have bounced back strongly in 2021.  Kasatkina started the year ranked outside the top 70, yet is now inside the top 30 after racking up 36 wins and reaching four finals.  Kerber rediscovered her mojo on the grass.  Since her title run in Bad Homburg, she’s 18-4.  These two players have split eight previous encounters, though Kasatkina leads 4-2 on hard courts.  Most recently they met two years ago in Tororto, where Daria prevailed 6-4 in the third.  Their clash of styles on these slow courts should provide some dynamic, compelling rallies.  But based on Kerber’s current level of confidence, I give her the slight edge.

Bianca Andreescu (16) vs. Anett Kontaveit (18) – Second on Stadium 2

Andreescu may be the defending champion and higher seed, but as of late, Kontaveit has been the better player.  She recently hired Dmitry Tursunov as her coach, and she’s been on fire.  Since late-August, Anett is 14-1, with two titles.  By contrast, Andreescu is only 6-8 since Roland Garros, with the US Open the only event where she has won back-to-back matches.  However, Kontaveit did withdraw from a WTA event in Chicago two weeks ago with a thigh injury, so she’s not been 100% after playing so much tennis in such a short span.  Bianca rarely goes down without a dogged fight, especially at big events on hard courts, but she may be the underdog on this day.  And she’s never beaten Kontaveit, who is 2-0 against Andreescu, including a straight-set victory earlier this year on the grass of Eastbourne.

Other Notable Matches on Monday:

Diego Schwartzman (11) vs. Dan Evans (18) – Schwartzman saved match points on Saturday against American Maxime Cressy, while Evans survived a grueling three-setter against Kei Nishikori.  Two months ago in Cincinnati, Diego defeated Dan in three.

Casper Ruud (8) vs. Lloyd Harris (26) – Ruud leads the ATP with five titles this season, winning his first hard court event just eight days ago in San Diego by defeating three top 30 players.  Harris is on the verge of breaking into the top 30 himself, coming off his Major quarterfinal debut in New York. 

Reilly Opelka (16) vs. Grigor Dimitrov (23) – This summer in Canada, Opelka took out Dimitrov in straight sets, though these slower courts will mitigate some of his Servebot prowess.

Su-Wei Hsieh and Elise Mertens (2) vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek – These teams played what was perhaps the most exciting doubles match of the year at Roland Garros, when Mattek-Sands and Swiatek saved seven match points to eventually prevail after three hours and 11 minutes.

Ons Jabeur (12) vs. Danielle Collins (22) – These are two of the WTA’s strongest performers in recent months.  Last October at the French Open, Collins upset Jabeur 6-4 in the third.

Denis Shapovalov (9) vs. Aslan Karatsev (19) – Since advancing to his first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, Shapovalov is a meek 4-6.  Karatsev achieved the same feat back in February, but is now 8-11 since mid-May. 

Coco Gauff (15) vs. Paula Badosa (21) – This could be one of the best matches of the day, between two of the WTA’s fastest-rising performers.  Gauff is just a few wins away from putting herself into qualifying position for the WTA Finals.

Hubert Hurkacz (8) vs. Frances Tiafoe – Tiafoe leads their head-to-head 2-1, though Hurkacz claimed their latest clash, two years ago in Winston-Salem.

Roberto Bautista Agut (15) vs. Cameron Norrie (21) – Norrie has accumulated 42 wins on the year, reaching five finals.  Bautista Agut has underperformed this season, and hasn’t achieved a final since March.

Daniil Medvedev (1) vs. Filip Krajinovic (27) – Medvedev is looking for his 50th win of 2021, while Krajinovic arrived at Indian Wells with a record of 17-17.  However, he did defeat Daniil at the last staging of this event two years ago.

Barbora Krejcikova (3) vs. Amanda Anisimova – Krejcikova is one of many players who have shared how exhausted they’ve felt after such a busy season, though it’s been an incredibly successful one for her.  Anisimova dropped only seven games in four sets played last week.

Monday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Medvedev is the winningest on hardcourts, but it’s not enough to become the world N.1

At least as long as Novak Djokovic is around: an analysis of Daniil Medvedev’s numbers from 2019 Wimbledon to the 2021 US Open. He surely wins a lot, but relies too much on the hard courts.

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92 – the number of the matches won on hardcourts (outdoors or indoors) by Daniil Medvedev since the end of Wimbledon 2019.

Right after the Championships played two years ago, the 25-year-old Russian was not yet at the level of the best players, but he certainly wasn’t an also-ran either. He had in fact already reached the threshold of the Top 10, a ranking he attained thanks to his wins in four ATP tournaments: during 2018, in what was for him the first season ended in the Top 50, he won the ATP 250 in Sydney and Winston Salem and Tokyo’s ATP 500, to which he added Sofia’s ATP 250 in February 2019.

 

He had already shown he deserved a top-ten ranking in the previous months, thanks to four wins over foes who belonged to the world’s élite (the most prestigious win he had was on Djokovic in Monte Carlo 2019, the tournament in which he recorded his only semifinal appearance in a Masters 1000 event played on clay).

In August 2019, in the first tournament played with a top 10 ranking in Washington, the turning point of his career arrived: Daniil reached the final, losing against Kyrgios, but from the tournament played in the capital of the United States, he started an impressive streak of 25 wins (eight of which against Top 10-ranked players) in the following 27 matches.

These victories allowed the Russian to claim two Masters 1000 titles (Cincinnati and Shanghai) and an ATP 250 (St. Petersburg), as well as to reach two very important finals at the Masters 1000 in Montreal and at the US Open. Thanks to these results, the Russian pocketed a total check of $5,123,640 in prize money alone in a few weeks, and a booty of 4,050 points that allowed him to climb to the fourth place in the rankings back in September 2019. A sudden rise was followed by an inevitable period of adjustment. Daniil closed 2019 with four consecutive defeats between the debut in Bercy’s Masters 1000 and the three round robin matches of the ATP Finals, and even 2020 – at least until the end of October – was made mostly of shadows: his record before playing in Bercy was a subpar 18-10. When his decline seemed unstoppable, Medvedev rose again during the season finale: from the first round of the last Masters 1000 of the ATP calendar, the Muscovite began a 20-match win streak (12 of which against Top 10 competition) that earned him the Parisian tournament, the ATP Finals, the ATP Cup, and a run to the Australian Open final, when he was brutally halted by Djokovic.

His growth has never stopped since. In February 2021, he won his eleventh ATP tournament in Marseille and the following Monday he earned a great honour, becoming the first tennis player other than the Big Four (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray) to rise to second place in the ranking since Hewitt, who 794 weeks earlier – it was July 18, 2005 – found himself ranked world N.2 for the last time. The Muscovite did not impress in Miami but at Roland Garros – after having lost his debut match in six of the previous seven tournaments played on clay – he surprised everyone by reaching the quarterfinals. Medvedev continued his season by avenging his debut on grass – a bad defeat against Struff in Halle – with the Mallorca title (his first ATP title on this surface) and for the first time reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, where he lost in five sets against Hurkacz.

In the summer played on outdoor hardcourt, he disappointed at the Tokyo Olympics (where he was defeated by Carreno Busta in the quarterfinals) and in Cincinnati (in Ohio he was stopped in the semis by Rublev, who won over him for the first time after five defeats in as many previous matches against Daniil), but in between he won the fourth Masters 1000 of his career in Toronto. His first Grand Slam title, the US Open, came in the tournament where he’d lost a five-set final to Nadal in 2019. Medvedev won with a clear display of superiority over his colleagues: in the seven matches that led him to triumph, the only one to take away a set from him was qualifier Botic Van De Zandschulp in the quarterfinals. The other six opponents, including a Serbian named Djokovic, never managed to snatch even five games per set from him.

With the victory of the last Grand Slam of the year, Medvedev consolidated his second place in the ranking with a current tally of 10,780 points, “just” 1,353 less than Djokovic and 2,430 more than Tsitsipas. Unfortunately for him, the race for the number 1 in the world, however, appears to be rather difficult, more than what his current ranking implies.

Up to the next Australian Open, the Russian defends 5,585 points (52% of his total share of points) and it is therefore very difficult for him to claim the number one ranking in the next six months: Djokovic, in addition to the advantage he currently holds, has a smaller amount to be wary of in the same period, an amount of 4,835.

In order to close the gap, Medvedev must above all improve his performance when he is not playing on hardcourts: in the last 26 months, as you can read from the table that compares his performance with that of his main antagonists, he has won more matches than everybody else on hardcourts, and by a large margin. In total, he has won 21 more matches than Djokovic and put on the bulletin board a greater number of tournaments, as many as 9, including the US Open, the ATP Finals and four Masters 1000 titles. His own win percentage on hardcourts starting from July 2019 to today is lower (by 3 percentage points) only than that of the Serbian champion alone, and similar to that of Nadal – the latter has however played about half of the Russian’s matches. Medvedev’s ranking is all based on tournaments that are played on the hard courts: between outdoors and indoors hardcourt events, Medvedev has collected 88% of his current points, a big disproportion looking at the other players (from our summary diagram it is shown how, among those players, only Zverev has collected a higher percentage than 60% of his points on the same surface).

In the last two years, the current number 2 in the world has played only when forced to do so: just eight events, from which he collected a title (Mallorca, where he faced only two Top 50 players, Carreno and Ruud, both tennis players with very little expectations on grass) and won only twelve matches. If it seems more than likely that over the next few years Medvedev will be one of the big favorites in the tournaments that will be played on hard, the numbers confirm the impression that only by improving the results on other turfs the Russian could aspire to do the last and most difficult step he is missing: becoming the best player in the world.

Article by Ferruccio Roberti; translated by Michele Brusadelli; edited by Tommaso Villa

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