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Roland Garros Daily Preview: Nadal and Djokovic Face Two Standout Italian Teenagers

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Lorenzo Musetti is one of the sport’s fastest-rising stars (twitter.com/rolandgarros)

13-time champion Rafael Nadal will play 19-year-old Jannik Sinner, while 2016 champion Novak Djokovic takes on 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti.  A third “Big Three” versus Italy matchup was also scheduled for Monday, but Roger Federer’s unfortunate decision to withdraw has given Matteo Berrettini a walkover into the quarterfinals.

 

The only remaining French Open champion in women’s singles is defending champ Iga Swiatek, who will face 18-year-old Marta Kostyuk for the first time.  Last year’s runner-up, Sofia Kenin, will play Greece’s Maria Sakkari, who defeated Kenin earlier this year.  And 17-year-old Coco Gauff looks to reach her first Major quarterfinal, but 2020 Australian Open quarterfinal Ons Jabeur will not be an easy out.

Monday’s play will begin at 11:00am local time on all courts except Chatrier, which starts at 12:00pm.

Coco Gauff (24) vs. Ons Jabeur (25) – 12:00pm on Court Philippe-Chatrier

This will be their fourth meeting in less than a year.  Two months ago on the green clay of Charleston, Jabeur defeated Gauff 6-3, 6-3.  Last September in Rome, Coco prevailed in straight sets.  And last August in Lexington, Coco prevailed in three sets.  Gauff has advanced extremely comfortably through three rounds, and received a retirement from Jen Brady after taking the first set on Saturday.  Jabeur dropped the second set of her third round match against Magda Linette by a score of 6-0, though recovered nicely to win in three.  Coco is now on an eight-match win streak, coming off a title run in Parma right before this fortnight.  However, other than an injured Brady, that run hasn’t included any victories over a top 30 player.  And Gauff continues to have some service woes, striking 14 double faults and only five aces through three rounds.  Jabeur is a fierce adversary, with a vast assortment of weapons in her game.  And she’s had an excellent clay court season, with a record of 13-3.  But on this day, the power, speed, and confidence of Gauff may be enough to reach her maiden Slam quarterfinal.  After a year of disappointing results at Majors, this feels like Coco’s time.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Lorenzo Musetti – Second on Court Philippe-Chatrier

This should be fun.  Musetti has quickly proven himself to be not only an elegant ball striker, but also a rugged competitor.  After upsetting David Goffin in the first round, he backed up that win with a thrilling five-set victory over fellow Italian Marco Cecchinato, who was a semifinalist here in 2018.  That was Musetti’s first-ever five-set match.  And I do not get the impression Lorenzo is the type of player to be overwhelmed by the momentous occasion of playing the 18-time Major champion in the biggest match of his career to date.  I expect Musetti to thoroughly challenge Djokovic, especially with his stellar one-handed backhand.  But unfortunately for the Italian, Novak is currently in top form.  Dating back to his title run two weeks ago in Belgrade, he’s claimed seven straight matches, and hasn’t been pushed beyond of a score of 6-4 in this tournament.  Djokovic has never lost in the fourth round of Roland Garros (14-0), and it would be quite surprising if that changed on Monday.

Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Maria Sakkari (17) – Third on Court Suzanne-Lenglen

It was the first week of this season when Sakkari took out Kenin in Abu Dhabi, promptly winning the final 10 games of the match after going down a set and a break.  Their other two encounters both occurred in 2018, and both went to Kenin in three.  It’s been a rough year for Kenin, but she’s displayed a lot of heart and determination in advancing this far, particularly in a solid win over Jessica Pegula two days ago.  Sakkari was also involved in quite the tussle on Saturday, overcoming Elise Mertens after three hard-fought sets.  The 25-year-old is now looking to reach her first Major quarterfinal.  Kenin impressively struck 48 winners against Pegula, though Sakkari notched 53 against Mertens.  I’m interested to see which player can better assert their offensive game and control rallies, but movement and defense might be the deciding factor, especially on this surface.  I give the slight edge to Sakkari based on recent form.

Rafael Nadal (3) vs. Jannik Sinner – Not before 4:00pm on Court Philippe-Chatrier

This is a rematch from last autumn’s quarterfinals at this event.  On that day, Sinner served for the first set, but failed to close it out, and was soundly defeated in straights.  When they met again a few weeks ago in Rome, it was a bit tighter, but Rafa won 7-5, 6-4.  Nadal has now claimed 32 consecutive sets at the French Open, dating back to the 2019 final.  However, I think that streak will come to an end at the hands of Sinner.  Jannik improved his form with each match last week, and seems poised to provide the King of Clay with a true test.  Of course, we’re talking about Rafael Nadal and Roland Garros, so predicting a Sinner upset would be careless.  But a four or five set battle feels completely plausible.

Iga Swiatek (8) vs. Marta Kostyuk – Not before 9:00pm on Court Philippe-Chatrier

Speaking of reigning Roland Garros champions who have forgotten how to lose sets in Paris, Swiatek has won her last 20.  And yesterday in doubles, she played one of the most intoxicating matches of the year, as her and partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands saved an astounding seven match points to overcome Su-Wei Hsieh and Elise Mertens after over three hours.  That surely drained considerable physical and emotional energy out of Iga, though she’s fully fit and should be rather fresh, especially with this match scheduled in the night session.  However, her opponent today could be quite challenging.  Kostyuk is making her debut at this stage of a Major, yet got here without dropping a set.  She’s a former Australian Open junior champion, and is close friends with Paula Badosa, who is also enjoying her breakout Slam.  After defeating an injured Garbine Muguruza in the first round, Marta will play for her second-career top 20 win.  The Ukranian seems to be on the verge of further success, though that may have to wait for another tournament.  The way Swiatek has been playing, I would not bet against her.

Other Notable Matches on Monday:

Barbora Krejcikova vs. Sloane Stephens – Like Swiatek, Krejcikova is still alive in both singles and doubles.  The 25-year-old has now reached two consecutive fourth rounds at the French Open.  Stephens has already taken out two other top Czech players: Karolina Pliskova and Karolina Muchova.  This is their first career meeting.

Diego Schwartzman (10) vs. Jan-Lennard Struff – Schwartzman has been dominant thus far, not dropping a set.  He’s vying for his third Roland Garros quarterfinal in four years.  Struff has never been farther than this round at a Major, but he’s got plenty of momentum, winning six straight sets since upsetting Andrey Rublev in the first round.  They’ve split two previous matches, with the clay clash going to Schwartzman.

Nicole Melichar and Demi Schurrs (3) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Elena Rybakina – Melichar and Schurrs are two-time champions this season.  Pavlyuchenkova and Rybakina will face each other in the singles quarterfinals on Tuesday.

Monday’s full schedule is here.

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A Look at the Numbers: the Second Serve Is the Key to Victory for the Best in the Business

We conducted a comparative analysis of time periods, surfaces and player rankings. It turned out that the serve is becoming more and more important. However, the situation is different when it comes to matches between Top 10 players.

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We often muse about the evolution of the style of play over the last few decades. It is relatively simple to identify a turning point in the introduction of new materials, which progressively led to the obsolescence of wooden racquets starting in the 1980s. It can be said that the swan song of the old wooden racquets took place with Miloslav Mecir’s victory at Indian Wells in 1989 (a player as talented as he is unjustly forgotten). From that moment on, all the major tournaments were won by athletes brandishing a more modern racquet with a bigger sweet spot, a much wider point of impact at maximum effectiveness, which now extends to pretty much the whole of the racquet head.

 

From that moment on, the tennis style, at least at the highest levels and in particular for men (who traditionally hit harder) changed in favour of baseline rallies instead of net play, following in Bjorn Borg’s footsteps (thanks to the greater effectiveness of topspin shots which, because of new technologies, can be successful even from defensive positions). The 90s were mostly characterised by the Sampras-Agassi dualism, i.e. the challenge between an extraordinary server and an exceptional returner. After a short interregnum, Federer, Nadal and then Djokovic appeared on the scene, three players who have broken almost every record, especially in the Slams.

However, these three legends are quite difficult to classify in their playing styles – the same cannot be said for their competition, though. In the same period, we can identify, just behind them, players such as Murray, Roddick, Del Potro, Wawrinka: all equipped with a very solid first serve. And the same can be said for the elusive Next Gen, which has been awaited to take over for a few years, although at the moment it seems that they’ll still have to wait awhile. Likewise, the majority of the new contenders make the serve a cornerstone of their game: think for example of Medvedev, Sascha Zverev, Tsitsipas or Thiem.

Is the serve becoming increasingly important over time? The data made available on the ATP website, which include rather detailed statistics on all the matches held from 1991 to 2017, allow us to test this hypothesis more systematically. For this purpose, we will distinguish three periods within our analysis: 1991-1999, 2000-2009 and 2010-2017. We will compare them in statistical and data-driven terms, with a careful look at the role of the serve.

ACE RATES

Picture 1. Average difference in terms of ace between winner and loser

First of all, we can verify whether, and to what extent, the winner is also the player who hits the most aces: even if there are different degrees, this is the case in all three periods considered. In the 1990s, in fact, the average difference between the winner and the loser in terms of ace is 1.44. It reaches 1.64 in the first ten years of the new millennium (marking a strong growth, +13.8%) and 1.71 in the last period considered, from 2010 to 2017. It would therefore be tempting to conclude that the serve, in its most direct manifestation of effectiveness (the ace), has gained an increasing weight in determining the winner of a high-level match.
But what happens if we narrow the analysis to the Grand Slam tournaments, which represent the most important moments of the season, with all the big players competing (injuries notwithstanding)? In this case, the result is diametrically opposite: the difference measured in the 90s is 2.35 and decreases to 2.29 in the early 2000s. This difference settles, on average, at 2.15 in the last period considered.

At this point, however, we are reminded of the words of Andre Agassi, who often received comments related to the not exceptional effectiveness of his serve compared to the rest of his game. The American acutely observed that very often, and in particular when he was able to hit a first serve, even if he did not get a direct point, he put himself in a position to play an easy shot immediately after the serve. Considering the effectiveness of his groundstrokes, this was more than enough to make it difficult for the opponent to break his serve and to put him under pressure. On this basis, let’s try to delve more deeply by focusing on another stat, which is more indicative of serve performance overall and not just in terms of direct points: the percentage of points won with the first serve.

PERCENTAGE OF POINTS WON WITH THE FIRST SERVE

Picture 2. Average difference in terms of percentage of points won on first serve between winner and loser

By repeating the analysis and applying it to this new statistic, we actually obtain a concordant result, both considering the totality of the tournaments or just the Slams. Considering every tournament, in the 1990s the winner of a match gets a percentage of points with the first serve that exceeds that of the losing player by 10.8%. In the early 2000s, the gap rises to 11.1%, reaching 11.5% in the third period considered (2011-2017). Focusing on Grand Slam tournaments, the trend remains similar in relative terms, although starting from a slightly lower base: the initial average difference is 10.4% in the 1990s, which grows to 10.7% and finally to 11.2% in the two subsequent periods considered.

We can conclude that, in average terms, the player who wins the match is the one who manages to get points from his first serve, thus imposing his game on the opponent. Once again, let’s try to re-read the data between the lines, considering another observation made by a great tennis player, former world number three and now Roger Federer’s coach: Ivan Ljubičić. During an interview, he was asked to compare Federer’s serve to that of other players, including Stan Wawrinka. Ljubo highlighted that, even though Wawrinka was able to reach higher speeds on the first ball, Federer was gifted with a more complete and unpredictable serve. But that’s not all.

One of the strengths of Federer’s serve is the second ball. “On Roger’s second ball“, concluded the Croatian coach, “it may be relatively simple to return, but it is still very complicated to attack“. In this sense, we look at another aspect of the serve: not only as a definitive shot (ace) or an aggressive one (first ball), but also as a tool to avoid being a victim of the opponent’s aggressive return: in a certain sense, it is a maneuvering shot, if not an outright defensive one. So, let’s try to ask ourselves if, especially at high levels, the second serve is key to victory, and the weight it takes throughout the years.

PERCENTAGE OF POINTS WON WITH THE SECOND SERVE

Picture 3. Average difference in terms of percentage of points won on second serve between winner and loser

Again, we will first examine all the tournaments, and then focus on the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. Considering the former, we identify a decisive step forward between the 1990s and the early 2000s, with the difference in terms of the percentage of points won on the second serve which goes up, on average, from 10% to 11%. Over the following years, up to 2017, there was still a slight growth, which leads to an average gap of 11.1%.

Focusing on the Grand Slam tournaments, we register a similar dynamic but, in this case, starting from a higher base: we go from an average gap of 11% (90s) to 11.8% (early 2000s), to reach an average difference of 12% on the points won with the second serve in the period 2010-2017.
Thinking back to what we observed in terms of percentage of points won on the first serve, we can assume that, in a best-of-five event, especially in the advanced stages of a match, players lose both brilliance and precision. It is therefore not surprising that the longer rallies, which start from a second and not from a first serve, end up determining the result of a match.

Starting from a first intuitive observation based on the evolution of playing styles, we have collected evidence that seems to support, in different forms, that the pattern suggested by intuition (the growing importance of the serve) is reflected in the data. Now let’s try to take a step back and, buoyed by this, ask ourselves: considering that more and more top players are focusing on their serve, is this shot assuming an increasing importance even in matches between Top 10 players

THE TOP 10

Picture 4. Average difference in terms of ace (top) and percentage of points won on the first and second serves (bottom) between a top 10 winner and loser

By examining picture 4, it can be noticed how the evolution of the role of the serve seems to be characterised in a different way, at least in the last three decades, in matches between Top 10 players. As for the difference in terms of aces between winners and losers, we witnessed a growth in the early 2000s, followed by a marked decrease in the period 2010-17.

It is also worth noting how the average values ​​associated with Top 10 matches are higher than the average values, ​​considering all the matches in the first two decades. In other words: in the 1990s and in the early 2000s, the difference in terms of aces between winner and loser in a Top 10 match was on average twice as much as the difference between aces in any other match. Between 2011 and 2017, however, the difference for the Top 10 is less than half of that associated with a generic match. The statistics relating to the points won on the first and on the second serve confirm this. The first serve becomes almost a “must have” at a high level and, for this reason, it cannot be the shot that “makes the difference” – because everybody has it.

The percentage of points won with the first serve grew from 8.1% in the 1990s to 9% in the early 2000s, then decreased to 8.5% in the year 2010-2017. On the contrary, the performance with the second serve grew in both decades, with an acceleration in the last analysed timespan. On average, we move from a 9% difference in the 90s to a 9.9% difference between 2000 and 2009. Then we reach an 11.8% difference between 2010 and 2017. We would therefore conclude that the serve has become a sort of business card to be presented at the entrance of the club of the best players in the world: a shot that cannot be ignored but that is not enough to beat the opponents, and thus to conquer Grand Slams et similia.

Let’s now try to verify this hypothesis once again by recalculating the statistics about the effectiveness of the serve, this time making a distinction between surfaces. In other words, let’s try to answer this question: is what we have deduced valid both on grass, on hard, and on clay?

GRASS, HARD AND CLAY

Picture 5. Average difference in aces between winner and loser, distribution by surface

By observing the trend of the difference in aces between winner and loser by surface, we observe how the gap between clay and hard court is roughly constant. This would raise more doubts over the theory according to which surfaces tend to be more and more alike over the last few years. There is a dissonant dynamic with regards to grass, in contrast with the other surfaces and the global average analyzed in section 2. In this regard, it can be observed that there are fewer and fewer serve & volley players, even on grass. In this sense, therefore, we can imagine that even a mediocre server will look to hit an ace when he hits the first serve on that surface. Consequently, he won’t want or need to end the point at the net. Due to the decreasing frequency of net approaches, the service box, especially in the final rounds of the tournaments, tends to return higher speeds than the baseline, an area where the grass is worn out and thus slower. Hitting a very fast first serve and going for an ace can therefore be the way to go for many players. It should also be noted, however, that even during the last period covered the difference in aces, in absolute terms, is greater on grass than on hard and clay, despite a downward trend.

Picture 6. Average difference in terms of points won on the first between winner and loser, distribution by surface

Considering the average difference in terms of percentage of points won with the first serve, and making a distinction not only by period but also by surface, we observe a different trend. On grass and on clay, the gap tends to grow (particularly on clay, from the 1990s to the first years of 2000s), while for hardcourts the statistics are more or less stable, with a slight decline in the early 2000s followed by a small increase starting in 2010. Perhaps it is the statistics about the clay that deserve specific reflection. While trying to analyse this growth, we can reflect on the fact that the early 2000s marked the success of players on clay courts (apart from Nadal) who make the power of their shots a winning card. The dirt aficionado, therefore, is no longer a Sergi Bruguera or a Thomas Muster, who were pure pushers, but rather players who attacks from the baseline: from this point of view, we can just recall the remarkable results of Wawrinka, or even of Federer himself. In this sense, therefore, even if the surface tends to reduce the number of direct points with the serve, it can be understood how these players end up creating a gap between themselves and the opposition in terms of percentage of points won with the first serve.

Picture 7. Average difference in terms of points won on the second between winner and loser, distribution by surface

The difference in terms of points won on the second serve shows similar trends between the three surfaces. In all three periods considered, the greatest difference is on clay, followed by hard and grass. Grass is experiencing a significant growth (from 9.7% to 11.2%) from the early 2000s, perhaps due to the fact that more and more players, even on grass, play from the baseline.

Given all the previous considerations, it could perhaps be observed that, at least starting from the early 2000s, despite the growing importance of the serve, the greatest difference between winner and loser is in terms of percentage of points won on the second serve, and not on the first one. This phenomenon is even more pronounced in Top 10 matches. This is what the data are telling us. However, we should try not to receive them like a verdict, but rather to interpret them like a story. As Dostoevsky recalled in Crime and Punishment, “Facts are not everything – at least half the business lies in how you interpret them.”

Article by Damiano Verda; translated by Luca Rossi; edited by Tommaso Villa

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The Other Side of Press Conferences

American author and journalist Mike Mewshaw gives his take on the controversy that surfaced at this year’s French Open

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After Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, the debate about press conferences keeps cropping up.  Pressers have been analyzed from more angles than Rafa’s forehand or Serena’s backhand.  Players, both active and retired, have weighed in with their opinions, along with coaches and sports therapists.  The consensus is that tennis reporters are insensitive, disrespectful, sexist, racist, and eager to provoke controversy.

 

The constant threat of illness, the absence of fans, the isolation, and loss of income has certainly added to impatience with reporters.  Venus Williams tartly suggested she maintained her composure during interviews by realizing she could beat any hack in the room; none of them could hold a candle to her. 

But this sort of disrespect runs in both directions.  While players view reporters as pesky publicity machines, at best, or gossip-hounds at worst, some journalists regard players as spoiled high school dropouts who couldn’t write a grammatically correct paragraph if their endorsement contracts depended on it. With all due deference to Naomi Osaka, I would urge her and her colleagues on the ATP and WTA tours to view things from a different perspective.  The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the press just as it has on them.  Plenty of tennis reporters have lost their jobs.  Almost all of them earn less income.  They face the same risks of infection and submit to enough Covid tests to leave them as red-nosed as Rudolph.

Under the circumstances, reporters who travel the tour, along with those covering matches remotely from their basements, have done a creditable job.  Sure, they sometimes sound testy, just as the players do.  Of course their questions can be repetitious, just as the players answers can be. 

Over the past four decades, I’ve covered more press conferences than I now have white hairs on my head.  I’ve heard racist comments, sexist remarks and massively insulting accusations.  But more often than not, the putdowns were aimed at reporters or at other players.  In the old days, these seldom made it into newspapers, and the really offensive quotes and admissions of rule breaking were deleted from press conference transcripts.  In that politically incorrect era, Arthur Ashe, for instance, came in for a raft of prejudice.  Ilie Nastase openly referred to him as negroni.

Although it’s now largely forgotten, Billie Jean King’s sexuality was accepted by the press long before many on the women’s tour spoke up in her defense.  While male journalists can be appallingly insensitive—Italian Hall of Fame journalist Gianni Clerici used to print Steffi Graf’s menstrual cycle in La Repubblica—it would be difficult to find anything less “woke” than Martina Hingis’ description of Amélie Mauresmo as a “half-man” who “travels with her girlfriend.”  Or Lindsay Davenport’s comment after Mauresmo beat her, “I thought I was playing a guy.”

Predictably, both women walked back these quotes, accusing the press of taking their words out of context.  That’s an ancient canard on the circuit—shoot off your mouth, then claim you were misquoted.  I remember Buster Mottram, then the British Number One, complaining about rowdy fans in Rome, accusing Italians of being animals.  At his next press conference he carefully parsed the remark.  Suddenly the voice of reason, he observed that human beings were all, anthropologically speaking, animals. 

If Buster had won a few majors, his quotes might have been immortalized, like Andre Agassi’s wisecrack at the French Open, “I’m happy as a faggot in a submarine.”  That line made the list of Esquire Magazine’s annual Dubious Achievement Awards. 

John McEnroe’s infamously objectionable conference quotes could only be contained on a wall as vast as the Vietnam War Memorial.  Even if one had the space and energy to chisel them in stone, many would have to be bowdlerized.  One that barely passes the censor’s blue pencil is his barbarous backhand at a female reporter who had the impertinence to question him.  “Lady, you need to get laid.”

In some cases actions speak louder and more loathsome than words.  After a match in Milan, a local female journalist asked Jimmy Connors, “Why do you always touch yourself in a particular place?”  Jimmy shoved a hand down his shorts and gave his genitals a good shake.  “It feels good.  You should try it.”

To repeat, I empathize with Naomi Osaka’s aversion to press conferences.  More than she might imagine I agree that they can be frustrating, stress producing, depressing, and borderline transgressive.  I accept the sage advice of deep-think editorials and socially conscious scribes that reporters need to raise the level of their game.  But so do players who could profit from sensitivity training, anger management, and basic etiquette lessons.  With mutual respect for all those who share a rough road toward an uncertain future, the tour could become a better place for everybody.


Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, among them AD IN AD OUT, a collection of his tennis articles, now available as an e-book.

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French Open, Steve Flink: “The Third Set of the Semifinal Was the Best in the Djokovic-Nadal Rivalry”

A final recap on the Parisian Major. Can Djokovic clinch a calendar year Grand Slam? Krejcikova’s double win and Zverev’s shortcomings

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The 2021 French Open was one for the history books, with countless historical milestones and topics. Ubitennis CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta and Steve Flink have summed it all up, touching on Novak Djokovic’s three comebacks and the interruption to Rafa Nadal’s Roland Garros reign, while keeping an eye on the upcoming Championships at Wimbledon. Here’s their chat:  

 

VIDEO SCHEDULE

1:14 – On the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal: “The third set was the best in their rivalry, and even Djokovic highlighted this match as one of the best he has played at the French Open.”

4:40 – “I thought that whoever won the third set tie-breaker would have won the match, although Nadal came out strong at the beginning of the fourth, before running out of gas…” Was the Spaniard uncharacteristically dispirited?

08:40 – Can Djokovic win all four Majors like Rod Laver did in 1969, becoming the only man in the Open Era to complete a Calendar Grand Slam?

09:40 – On the final against Tsitsipas: “That break of serve in the third set really changed the tide for good…”

11:50 – “There were two Novaks in this tournament…”

17:00 – “The Serbian will remember this win as one of his best, both because of his win against Nadal and because of his comebacks against Musetti and Tsitsipas.”

18:50 – Djokovic was criticised for his behaviour during the match against Berrettini – are the media and the fans too tough on him?

24:45 – On Zverev vs Tsitsipas: “Had the German broken in the opening game of the decider, it would have been him facing Djokovic on Sunday.”

26:00 – “Zverev can’t really expect to beat someone like Tsitsipas after failing to show up for two sets, he needs to work on the mental aspect of his game.”

28:20 – Again on Djokovic and the Grand Slam. He’s been here before, in 2016: can he go all the way this time?

34:45 – The women’s tournament: “The Krejcikova-Pavlyuchekova final was a good match, the Czech player should be proud of what she has achieved.”

Transcript by Giuseppe Di Paola; translated and edited by Tommaso Villa

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