Novak Djokovic has his work cut out for him in his chase for a calendar Grand Slam and a record number of Grand Slam titles.
It may not be a picnic for the Serbian at the U.S. Open. The heat in early September in New York can be almost as stifling as the heat that smothered Djokovic in the Tokyo Olympics.
Is it time for a change of guard on the ATP Tour? Maybe.
Just because Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal won’t stand in Djokovic’s way at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center doesn’t mean that Djokovic will have an open court to Grand Slam title No. 21.
ZVEREV MAY BE TENNIS’ BEST PLAYER
After watching Alexander Zverev polish off Andrey Rublev with a dominant attack of near-perfect hard-court tennis in Sunday’s Cincinnati final after overcoming two breaks in the third set to turn back Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals, the tall German looks like the best player in men’s tennis right now.
Of course, we haven’t seen much of Djokovic since his racket-throwing-smashing tantrum in Tokyo. Djokovic has been known for similar outbreaks throughout his career.
Djokovic didn’t suffer just another loss. This one was of great significance as it crushed Djokovic’s plan to make this a Golden Slam year with the crowns from the four majors and the Olympics in the same year.
CALENDAR GRAND SLAM IS PRECI0US
All that’s left is the Calendar Grand Slam. And that’s even more precious in tennis circles than a Golden Slam. Most tennis fans as usual probably didn’t pay much attention to the Olympics. Djokovic’s reaction to losing probably got more attention than tennis itself at the Olympics.
Djokovic has to win the U.S. Open to complete his dream of accomplishing something that hasn’t been accomplished since the great Rod Laver won two Calendar Grand Slams more than a half decade ago.
Djokovic appeared a little arrogant or self-centered after winning Wimbledon to move within one Grand Slam of breaking out of a 20-slam trio with Federer and Nadal.
“I’m not chasing anybody. I’m making my own path and my own journey, my own history,” Djokovic said.
OLYMPIC GOLD MADE ZVEREV A DIFFERENT PLAYER
Meanwhile, Zverev has finally blossomed at 24 years old. Winning the Olympic men’s singles gold medal has made all of the difference in the world to the super-talented Zverev.
Yes, Zverev can crash Djokovic’s party again, just as he did in the semifinals at the Olympics. Djokovic is riding a rare for him two-match losing streak after his flare-up in the bronze medal loss to Pablo Carreno Busta in Tokyo.
With newfound confidence, Zverev appears ready to win his first Grand Slam title.
No longer is Zverev looking for a reason to fall apart as he did in the 2020 U.S. Open final against Dominic Thiem. Zverev certainly doesn’t look as fragile as Djokovic did in his Olympic losses or Daniil Medvedec appeared in his run-in with a court camera in his semifinal loss to Rublev in Cincinnati.
A NEW FACE OF MEN’S TENNIS?
Zverev appears to be strong and in control these days. Not to mention powerful.
He seems to move about as well as Djokovic, maybe without the rubber-man look. Zverev consistently hits bigger and serves bigger than Djokovic. Those traits should enable Zverev to neutralize Djokovic’s consistency and court coverage.
Yes, it may finally be time for a new face of men’s tennis. Zverev would be a perfect fit with his 24-year-old movie star looks and bubbling personality. In short, he would be good for the game, especially with the sudden unpredictability of Federer and Nadal.
No one can replace Federer and Nadal for what they’ve done for the men’s game. The R&R Gang has been brilliant and loved by all.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com
Iga Swiatek Plays Her Own Style Of Tennis
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal could take some tips from the women’s world No.1.
Four years ago this month, Iga Swiatek was just about to turn 17 years old when she came to Charleston, S.C., to play in an $80K ITF tournament.
She looked much like other teenagers on the pro tennis tour. But you could tell that this 5-9 girl from Warsaw was more athletic than most of the other players. She hadn’t shaped her game yet as she played all over the court, defeating many of her opponents because of her athletic ability.
RANKED ONLY 412TH IN THE WORLD FOUR YEARS AGO
Swiatek was ranked only 412th in the world that May of 2018. She moved through qualifying all the way to the semifinals, winning six straight matches in the Charleston event.
She was athletic, but otherwise she didn’t look like someone with a high-level tennis game. She had many rough edges in her game.
The next time I saw her play was two years later. As I watched her on the tennis telecasts late in that unique fall French Open of 2020, I was shocked at her newly constructed tennis game. She wasn’t all over the court. She had a game plan.
She might have been mistaken for a Chris Evert or Tracy Austin of another era. This Swiatek made few errors. Her game was smooth as silk. She just hit the ball much harder than Evert and Austin.
MARCHING LIKE CLOCKWORK IN PARIS
Swiatek was like clockwork in marching through that French Open as a 19-year-old. It was her first career WTA singles title.
She didn’t make any other spectacular moves up the tennis ladder until 2022.
She was totally prepared to take over the world’s No. 1 ranking when Ashleigh Barty retired early this year.
And, wow, Swiatek has made everyone in tennis sit up and take notice of her game and accomplishments.
IGA’S PICTURE-BOOK TENNIS GAME
Swiatek plays a game of picture-book tennis, seldom having to over-exert herself in matches. Her game is a thing of art.
She smoothly blasts balls to every corner of the court with sheer perfection and power, never looking out of sync. She’s not a big hitter the likes of Serena Williams or Steffi Graf.
Swiatek just rips bullets all over the court with relative ease without appearing to be powerful.
She smothers her opposition with perfection.
With her stylish tennis attire, she looks thinner than a 152-pound player. She is a sensational mover. Opponents might as well keep their drop shots in their bag. Just ask the almost humiliated Ons Jabeur, the owner of one of the best drop shots in tennis but who was unable to execute winning points on drop shots in last week’s Rome final against Swiatek.
NOVAK AND RAFA SHOULD COPY SWIATEK
Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal could take some tips from Swiatek, who appears to be just as quick on the court as either of those two giants of men’s tennis. But she tops both of them with the way she makes her lightning-like move toward the net and then almost flawlessly connects her heavy top-spins with the ball and lifts it over the net with a flash of brilliance and power.
Dropping only five sets while winning her last 28 matches is a remarkable feat. In those 23 straight-set wins among her 28-match winning streak, she yielded a total of only 95 games. That’s an average of just over four games per match won by those opponents.
And, of course, Swiatek now looks like the heavy favorite to win her second French Open title.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as the tennis columnist for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier newspapers. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Steve Flink’s French Open Men’s Tournament Preview
There are five players who have the potential to claim the 2022 trophy but who is the favourite and why?
For the vast majority of fans in every corner of the globe, this is the best time of the year in the world of tennis. In less than a week, the French Open will commence at Roland Garros. The leading players will fight furiously across a fortnight to determine who will secure the most prestigious clay court prize in the sport.
Over the past 17 seasons in Paris, the redoubtable Rafael Nadal has emerged victorious no fewer than 13 times. In that span, Novak Djokovic has taken the title twice (2016 and 2021), while the Swiss duo of Stan Wawrinka (2015) and Roger Federer (2009), have been victors once. To be sure, Nadal has been more dominant on the dirt than any other player at the rest of the majors, and by a wide margin indeed. It is inconceivable that anyone will ever approach his Roland Garros record. No one will come even close.
Until a few weeks ago, Nadal seemed to be the prohibitive favorite once more on his favorite surface in Paris. Already confident after capturing his record 21st Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open in late January, Nadal took his third title of the season in Acapulco and then surged into the final at Indian Wells unbeaten on the season. But his 20 match winning streak was broken by the American Taylor Fritz as a compromised Nadal competed with a fractured rib on the California hard courts.
That kept the Spaniard out of Monte Carlo and Barcelona and off the courts for too long. He returned in Madrid and barely survived an ordeal against David Goffin, saving four match points against the Belgian to reach the quarterfinals. Then he lost in three sets to his teenaged compatriot Carlos Alcaraz in a stirring generational battle. Nadal moved on to Rome in search of an eleventh crown on the Italian clay. He accounted for John Isner in his opening match but then bowed out against the left-handed Canadian dynamo Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16.
It was not simply that Nadal lost to a player who nearly beat him a year ago in Rome, but the way he departed was what made it so disconcerting. He started that contest tremendously, playing almost vintage Rafa clay court tennis, dropping only a single game in a stellar opening set. But eventually he was beaten 1-6, 7-5, 6-2. From 2-2 in the final set, he lost 14 points in a row and eventually four consecutive games, moving timidly as the foot ailment that kept him away from tennis for most of the second half of 2021 haunted the Spaniard again. A lesser man than Nadal would have retired before the final bell had rung against Shapovalov, but the Spaniard stayed out there, faced the music and took his punishment, knowing he was going to lose.
Now he will be preoccupied by the foot issue all the way up to the start of Roland Garros. Even if it improves, the injury will weigh heavily on his mind. And so he no longer is the clear favorite heading into the next Grand Slam championship. I still believe his outlook could change decidedly over the next ten days if the pain diminishes and he can practice properly, if he can get through a few early round matches largely free of pain.
But that is no guarantee. In my estimation, the co-favorites are Djokovic—fresh from sealing his sixth Italian Open title and his first tournament win of 2022—and Alcaraz, who has captured his last two clay court tournaments in Barcelona and Madrid after opening his clay court campaign with a surprising loss in Monte Carlo against Sebastian Korda.
In my view, Djokovic’s chances of succeeding are marginally better than Alcaraz’s, simply because the Serbian is such a seasoned competitor who knows his way around the big occasions much better than Alcaraz. This will be, after all, the 67th Grand Slam tournament of Djokovic’s extraordinary career, and his 18th consecutive appearance at Roland Garros. He has been pointing toward Paris ever since being barred by the Australian government from competing in Melbourne. For him, it was a cruel irony that not only was he prevented from playing the 2022 Australian Open—and perhaps coming through for the tenth time at that tournament—but in turn Nadal improbably pulled off one of the most remarkable triumphs of his career to rule in Melbourne for the second time. It was a double-whammy for Djokovic, who watched his greatest rival move past him at the majors.
The view here is that Djokovic has left that devastating disappointment behind him, but the feeling grows that his motivation to defend his title in Paris has grown immeasurably. He wants this title at Roland Garros very badly. Here is a man who stood only one match away last year from establishing himself as only the third man in history— and the first since Rod Laver in 1969— to win the Grand Slam. Losing in New York at the U.S. Open to Daniil Medvedev in the final was a devastatingly potent pill to swallow for the incomparably ambitious Djokovic. Moreover, the humiliating experience of being granted a vaccine exemption by the Australian Open this year, but ultimately being barred from the tournament, left him for months with a deeply wounded psyche.
Djokovic started his season late in Dubai, losing in the quarterfinals to Jiri Vesely. He did not reappear on the ATP Tour until Monte Carlo, dropping his opening contest in the round of 32 to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. His lack of stamina in the final set of that 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-1 defeat was strikingly apparent. Djokovic moved on to Belgrade and struggled inordinately all through the tournament, conceding the first set in all four matches he played, falling in the final against Andrey Rublev 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-0. The way he finished that skirmish was strikingly similar to his setback in Monte Carlo. A thoroughly depleted Djokovic was a shadow of his normal physical self in the final set.
The world No. 1 realized he needed to step up his training regimen and recover his customary durability and match playing ruggedness swiftly. After a week off, he went to Madrid and lifted his game significantly, casting aside Gael Monfils and Hubert Hurkacz with his old efficiency, physicality and ruthlessness. Although he lost a classic semifinal encounter with Alcaraz that was exceedingly well played on both sides of the net, Djokovic took something substantial away from that defeat against the Spaniard. The match lasted three hours and thirty five minutes and went right down to the wire before Djokovic was narrowly beaten by the exuberant Spaniard in a final set tie-break. But the Serbian knew that he was getting much closer to the top of his game, and this time he was not fatigued at the end of a strenuous showdown.
On to Rome went Djokovic, and he came through handsomely to claim his 87th career title and his 38th Masters 1000 tournament. Not only that, but he played five more valuable matches in the process and did not drop a set, finishing off his confident run with triumphs over Felix Auger-Aliassime, Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Although Auger-Aliassime pushed Djokoivic to 7-5, 7–6 (1), the Serbian remained poised after leading 5-3, 30-15 in both sets and not holding his serve. That was a good sign. In his meeting with Ruud, Djokovic surged to 5-1 in the first set but did not serve it out at 5-2. That was apprehension, pure and simple. But once more he recaptured his emotional equilibrium and came away with a convincing 6-4, 6-3 victory.
At the last hurdle against Tsitsipas, Djokovic was tested mentally and emotionally again. He played perhaps his best set of the season to open the final, not granting the Greek stylist a single game. His forehand firepower and unerring controlled aggression was the key to his success. But soon Djokovic trailed 2-5 in the second set. And yet, he was not conceding anything. Djokovic roared back to force a tie-break and emerged deservedly with a 6-0, 7-6 (5) victory over the fellow he beat in a five set final at the French Open a year ago—not to mention a five set semifinal the year before.
Tsitsipas in my view is the logical fourth most likely champion this year in Paris. His clay court level of play en route to Roland Garros was much like the way he played in 2021. Tsitsipas defended his Monte Carlo title, lost to Alcaraz in a spirited clash in the quarterfinals of Barcelona, was beaten by Zverev in the semifinals of Madrid and then made his run to the final of Rome. That consistency puts him in good stead for Roland Garros.
He will surely be in the thick of the battle for the third year in a row at the French Open, but Tsitsipas may need some good fortune with the draw if he is going to secure his first major title at long last. His records against the three chief favorites for the title in Paris are not stellar. Tsitsipas is now 2-7 against Djokovic and he has lost his last six appointments against the Serbian. The Greek is also 2-7 against Nadal and 0-3 versus Alcaraz, including two meetings this season and one memorable showdown at the U.S. Open last year won by the Spaniard in a fifth set tie-break.
In my view, only one other player can be taken seriously as an authentic contender for the Roland Garros trophy— Sascha Zverev. The 6’6” German should have won the U.S. Open two years ago, squandering a two set lead against Dominic Thiem and later serving for the match in the fifth set before suffering a harrowing defeat. Last year in Paris he lost in a five set, penultimate round duel against Tsitsipas. Zverev has twice won the Masters 1000 title in Madrid and once was victorious in Rome.
He is an accomplished, all surface player, although he has yet to fully find his footing on grass. But after blazing through the second half of 2021– winning an Olympic gold medal and his second Nitto ATP Finals title in that span—Zverev has been disappointing thus far in 2022. He has played nine tournaments this season and has not garnered a title. On the clay he was good but not great, losing two semifinals in Monte Carlo and Rome to Tsitsipas, but defeating Tsitsipas to reach the final of Madrid before losing decisively to Alcaraz.
I put Zverev down at No. 5 on my Roland Garros list of contenders, but don’t give him much of a chance. To me, it will all come down to Djokovic, Alcaraz and Nadal, with Tsitsipas possibly finding a way into the conversation if everything falls into place. Nadal is slated to be seeded fifth. That could complicate his task. How can a champion who has won 105 of his 108 matches at Roland Garros be seeded so low?
Be that as it may, Nadal will approach this edition of the world’s premier clay court tournament dealing with deep inner doubts. He played only five clay court matches this year in his two tournaments, not nearly enough to give him the security he would have under normal circumstances. Only a fool would underestimate the greatest clay court player who has ever lived. Even in his current state of physical uncertainty, Nadal remains a larger that life figure who has turned dreams into reality over and over again. Nadal—who will turn 36 during the tournament— knows that he won’t have many more opportunities to rule again at Roland Garros, and that fact alone must be weighed against his recent physical misfortunes.
And yet, looming large and driven by their own large dreams are the two front runners in my view—top seeded Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, who should be seeded sixth. What works for and against Alcaraz is this inescapable fact: Roland Garros will be only his sixth appearance at a major tournament in his brief but sterling career. His best showing yet was at the U.S. Open last year, when he reached the quarterfinals.
So what business does this precocious 19-year-old have winning the French Open at such an early stage of his evolution? Quite simply, he has played the game this year like a wily veteran in many ways, winning four titles altogether, taking his last two titles on the clay, composing himself with extraordinary maturity, playing with a strategic acumen that totally belies his years.
This can work both ways. Alcaraz has never dealt with expectations—both his own and from a multitude of learned observers— like those surrounding him this year. In the end, he might stare into that stark reality and blink. But he is just as likely to look at the Roland Garros fortnight and see it as nothing more than an opportunity he is ready to seize. This kid is reminiscent in temperament to the 19-year-old Nadal who won his first major at Roland Garros in 2005.
In the last analysis, I am picking Djokovic. He has had Roland Garros in the forefront of his mind for months. Every match he has played across the spring on the red clay has been made more purposeful by his unwavering goal to win a third title at Roland Garros and a 21st major as well. He has brought forth a better version of himself with every tournament he has played since his clay court campaign commenced unceremoniously in Monte Carlo. I believe he is going to realize his lofty goal in Paris.
COMMENT: Was Carlos Alcaraz Flying Above His Real Game?
Over the weekend Carlos Alcaraz reached yet another milestone in his young career. However, the win needs to be put into some perspective too.
Young Carlos Alcaraz was brutal in his conquest of Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev on three consecutive days.
But it wasn’t all Alcaraz on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Madrid. He had help.
Nadal wasn’t ready to play yet, certainly not against someone as talented as Alcaraz appears to be. Nadal lacked training and confidence in his comeback from a rib injury suffered just a few weeks ago at the Indian Wells tournament.
RAFA WASN’T THE REAL RAFA
Nadal wasn’t the true Rafa. He missed simple shots and couldn’t find the handle on many other unforced errors.
And Djokovic? He kept making the same mistakes over and over. It was side-to-side, or nothing for the Serbian Wonder. Of course that style of play has been good enough to win 20 Grand Slam titles for Novak.
But Alcaraz is a cross-court magician, backhand or forehand. Alcaraz just looked like he was a faster mover than Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev. Alcaraz is a rugged mover, much like a football player. He isn’t in the class of smooth and fluid movers such as Nadal and Djokovic.
Alcaraz has an unpredictable backhand otherwise, like from the middle of the court where his over-hit backhands find the middle of the net quite often. That is, if his opponent makes him hit more backhands from the middle of the court.
ZVEREV TOTALLY UNFOCUSED
Then there was Zverev, trying to win his third Madrid Open. He was terrible. He was worst than Nadal and Djokovic put together. Zverev seemed to be sleep-walking or wishing he had skipped Madrid. He was that unfocused.
Alcaraz made the trio of top five players look like satellite circuit players. The 19-year-old Spaniard was viciously good. Obviously, his victims weren’t prepared for much of anything Alcaraz released on them.
Alcaraz may really be as good as he looked. But he can’t get much better than that.
Yes, he is too good to be true.
But Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev can play better.
PARIS, LONDON AND NEW YORK FANS DIFFERENT
The ATP Tour season isn’t over yet. There are still three Grand Slam singles trophies to be won.
And Spain is history for another year of hosting big ATP men’s tennis tournaments.
The fans in Paris, London and New York won’t be quiet as appreciative of the Spanish teen-ager’s every point.
But unless Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev change their game plans, it could be a long year for the trio and a joy ride the rest of the year for the kid.
ALCARAZ PLAYS TOTAL-ATTACK TENNIS
Alcaraz reminds me of Pete Sampras in a way. Like Sampras, Alcaraz plays total-attack tennis. Big forehands. Big serves. He just goes for the winner, regardless of the circumstances.
Throw the Alcaraz drop shot into the equation, and anything might happen. The drop shot may have been the real difference maker, especially against Nadal and Djokovic. They never figured it out or when it was coming.
The Alcaraz drop shot was that good.
Zverev never got into the match enough for the Alcaraz drop shots to make much difference.
This debate really might come down to the age differential between Alcaraz, and Nadal and Djokovic.
It’s almost unimaginable to think that a 19-year-old could maintain the level of play and health for about two decades in the likeness of Nadal and Djokovic. Or even Roger Federer. No one knows what the future holds, or when another drop-shot artist might take over the game.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as a tennis columnist in Charleston, S.C.. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
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