The Reshaping of an Era - UBITENNIS
Connect with us

Comments

The Reshaping of an Era

While Djokovic will still compete for the biggest titles, Medvedev and Zverev proved at the ATP Finals that they are coming for the title of World No.1

Avatar

Published

on

Alexander Zverev at the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals (Twitter - @atptour)

For as long as I can remember, those of us who inhabit the world of tennis as journalists and surveyors of the scene have referred to the hierarchy of men’s tennis as “The Big Three”. The oldest member of that iconic trio is, of course, 40-year-old Roger Federer. He was joined by 35-year-old Rafael Nadal and 34-year-old Novak Djokovic. These luminous figures have carried the game forward regally and collectively for the better part of two decades, claiming a record 20 men’s major titles apiece, scaling the heights of the sport time and time again, leaving all of their peers dumbfounded and deflated by virtue of their enduring excellence— not to mention their unbending pride and professionalism. It has been an era unlike any other in the history of tennis as these superstars have enthralled fans in every corner of the globe with their talent, tenaciousness and temerity.

 

But as the curtain closes on 2021 and the Nitto ATP Finals have just concluded in Turin, it is becoming increasingly likely that the sport is currently moving into a fascinating new era. In many ways, it appears as if the men’s game is being reshaped. Federer may not return to competitive play until the summer of 2022. By then he will be closing in on his 41st birthday, and the feeling grows that he will not be around much longer in the upper echelons as a player. He might even decide to retire by the end of this coming season. Nadal is hoping he can resume his winning ways swiftly when he returns to Melbourne for the Australian Open, and surely wants to round into his finest clay court form across the spring before heading to Paris for a serious bid at a 14th French Open crown.

And yet, only time will tell if Nadal’s foot woes— which plagued him in 2021 and cut his season short—will linger in 2022. The depth of his determination knows no bounds, but the fact remains that his task of reclaiming a place at or near the top of the game will be daunting. Perhaps Nadal will reinvent himself once more and redefine his greatness in the process, but there are no guarantees. The first six months of 2022 will be critical for the redoubtable Spaniard and he will have the chance to make himself a central figure again, but if his foot remains problematic Nadal might be heading toward the closing stages of his illustrious career. Despite an abbreviated 2021 campaign of only seven tournaments and 29 matches (24-5), the dynamic Spaniard finished his record 17th consecutive year among the top ten in the world at No. 6.

Djokovic, of course, is coming off one of his most exhilarating campaigns. In 2021, he moved within one match of winning the Grand Slam, sweeping three majors in a row to tie Federer and Nadal at 20 in total, finishing his seventh season at No. 1 in the world to break Pete Sampras’s record of residing at the top for six years (1993-98). Djokovic claimed two other titles during his spectacular 2021 campaign including a recent triumph at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Paris. Although the Serbian was beaten in a pulsating semifinal at the ATP Finals by Sascha Zverev— and thus was unable to take a sixth title at the season-ending tournament—the fact remains that he celebrated one of the three greatest years (alongside 2011 and 2015) of his astonishing career, and he still stands deservedly alone at the top of is craft.

I believe that there may well be a new “Big Three” in the game over the next couple of years with Djokovic clearly very much in the mix, but joined by the two men who collided in the final of the  Nitto ATP Finals at Turin. Zverev won that prestigious title for the second time by upending defending champion and US Open victor Daniil Medvedev in the title round contest. In my view, Djokovic will find himself in frequent combat over the next couple of years against both the German and the Russian on the premier stages in the sport.

To be sure, Medvedev has not yet demonstrated an affinity to play the same brand of lofty tennis he has exhibited on hardcourts when he shifts to clay and grass courts. He reached his first quarterfinal at Roland Garros this year after four first round defeats on the Paris clay in the preceding years, and has yet to advance that far on the lawns of Wimbledon. At the All England Club, he has never made it to the quarterfinals, although he was one set away this year from going that far before losing to Hubert Hurkacz.

The fact remains that Medvedev did win a pre-Wimbledon ATP Tour event this year in Mallorca, Spain on grass, and he was a semifinalist at the ATP Masters 1000 clay court tournament in Monte Carlo two years ago. That is a modest accomplishment, but still an indication of what he can do on his least favorite surface. I have no doubt that Medvedev will make major inroads on the other surfaces in the next few years, even if his preference will still be competing on hard courts.

As for Zverev, he has displayed his versatility and virtuosity for quite some time. As long ago as 2017, this gifted individual won Masters 1000 crowns on both clay and hard courts in Rome and Canada. He took a second Masters 1000 clay court crown in 2018 at Madrid. And this year he was victorious in two more Masters 1000 events, succeeding on clay again in Madrid and on hardcourts in Cincinnati. Like Medvedev, Zverev has struggled inordinately on grass at Wimbledon and has yet to make it past the fourth round. But the feeling grows that he will adapt in due course to the lower bounces and turn himself into a formidable grass court player.

It is simply no accident that Medvedev and Zverev have established themselves as the second and third best players in the world. That is a status they have irrefutably earned. No one won more titles on the ATP Tour this year than Zverev, who finished his best season yet with six. Moreover, he collected the gold medal at the Olympic Games, although no ATP points were available at that prestigious event. Zverev closed the 2021 season by capturing four of his last seven tournaments in a hardcourt blaze.

Daniil Medvedev at the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals (Credit: @atptour on Twitter)

Medvedev was only marginally better than Zverev in 2021, securing his first Major by upsetting Djokovic in New York, losing to Djokovic at the Australian Open and Paris Masters 1000 finals, and winning the Canada Masters 1000 title in Toronto. He won four titles in addition to reaching two major finals and coming though for the first time on one of the premier stages.

Beyond what they did on their own, both Zverev and Medvedev pushed Djokovic to the hilt in riveting rivalries. Zverev and Djokovic clashed on five occasions in 2021 with the Serbian prevailing 3-2 in the series, although Zverev won two of their last three clashes. Medvedev was 1-2 against Djokovic. Djokovic now holds a 6-4 career lead against Medvedev and he is 7-4 versus Zverev.

But what makes it all so compelling is that Medvedev and Zverev both improved significantly over the course of the 2021 season and their standards are so high that they will keep forcing the ever open-minded and singularly flexible Djokovic to raise his game. I believe Djokovic is up to that considerable task and will at least hold his own with his two toughest younger rivals in 2022 and 2023, but Zverev is only 24 and Medvedev 25. They are just approaching their primes. Djokovic is stretching his prime as long and as far as he possibly can.

I can envision some classic confrontations among this accomplished trio in the coming years. Djokovic will be preoccupied with moving permanently past Federer and Nadal into sole possession for the most majors ever taken by a man, but achieving that mission will be determined to an extent by how he fares against Medvedev and Zverev. They will be his chief adversaries.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between Zverev and Medvedev will be fascinating to follow as well. The Russian warrior had toppled the German competitor five times in a row leading up to the final in Turin, including a narrow triumph during the round robin portion of the ATP Finals.

Let’s look at that contest first. Medvedev broke Zverev once in the course of winning the first set but neither man garnered a break the rest of the way. Zverev took the second set in a tie-break. On they went to settle it all in a third set tie-break, and Zverev moved out in front 4-2. On the crucial seventh point, he sent his normally trustworthy two-handed backhand down the line and into the net without being provoked. Medvedev climbed back to 4-4 and then Zverev squandered another opportunity. He lobbed over the Russian’s backhand side, forcing Medvedev to play a relatively weak high backhand volley crosscourt. Zverev was set up for a backhand down the line that would have given him the point, but drove it long. Although Zverev saved a pair of match points from 4–6 down, he was eventually ousted 6-3 6-7(3) 7-6(6). In that clash, there was only the thinnest margin separating the two players. They would meet again, of course, with the stakes much higher in the final, but more on that skirmish later.

Despite the disappointment of a narrow failure against Medvedev, Zverev prevailed in his two other Red Group round robin assignments in Turin against an injured Matteo Berrettini (7-6(7) 1-0 ret.) and a wobbly Hubert Hurkacz 6-2 6-4, and that earned the 24-year-old a semifinal duel with Djokovic. The world No. 1 had played top of the line tennis in all three of his Green Group round robin matches, taking apart Casper Ruud, Andrey Rublev and Cam Norrie without losing a set.

Djokovic and Zverev had pushed each other to their physical and emotional limits in all four of their previous meetings across 2021. The Serbian had triumphed 7-5 in the final set at the ATP Cup before eclipsing Zverev again in a come-from-behind four set Australian Open quarterfinal. Zverev had turned the tables on Djokovic in the semifinals of the Olympic Games at Tokyo, rallying from a set and a break down to win 1-6 6-3 6-1 before garnering the gold medal easily over Karen Khachanov.

The rivalry was renewed in New York at the US Open when Djokovic surpassed Zverev 6-2 in the fifth set of a stirring semifinal showdown. Proving that the past is indeed prologue, these two magnificent players produced another blockbuster in Turin. The level of play was nothing short of stupendous, especially over the first two sets. At the end of the first set, both men created space for crucial opportunities. It was pivotal in determining the outcome of the match because no one in the Open Era has a better record after winning the first set than the game’s finest front runner Djokovic.

Zverev was serving at 4-5 in that opening set when Djokovic went to work with quiet ferocity. He reached set point with a crackling backhand down the line that was unanswerable. Zverev met that moment commendably, unleashing a 136 MPH first serve out wide in the ad court. Djokovic’s blocked backhand return landed long. On the following point at deuce, Zverev went for broke with a dangerous 138 MPH second serve down the T, and Djokovic was unable to get it back into play. Zverev held on gamely for 5-5.

In the eleventh game, Djokovic found himself perched precariously at 15-40. He decided to serve-and-volley to the forehand and Zverev’s crosscourt return was wide. And then, at 30-40, Djokovic played a point that was so extraordinary he could only smile incredulously at what he had just done when it was over. Once more, he served-and-volleyed. Zverev’s backhand return was letter perfect, hit hard and low crosscourt. Djokovic stayed low, picked up the backhand half volley immaculately, and sent that shot sizzling down the line with improbable pace and excellent depth. On the run, Zverev had no play at all.

Djokovic took the next two points to hold on for 6-5 and then reached 0–30 in the following game. But Zverev swept four points in a row to reach a tie-break, producing a clutch backhand volley winner, putting away an overhead, releasing a superb service winner, and lacing a backhand winner down the line with cool precision.

Novak Djokovic at the 2021 Nitto ATP Finals (Credit: @atptour on Twitter)

Zverev outplayed Djokovic in the tie-break 7-4, benefitting from a double fault at 2-2 by Djokovic— the first all tournament long from the Serbian. Djokovic retaliated with a service break at 4-4 in the second set, and soon sealed the set. But, to the chagrin of himself and his legion of supporters, Djokovic played one poor game at 1-2 in the third set that cost him the whole match. He was broken in that game entirely on his own mistakes, making three unforced errors off the forehand and one off the backhand. Zverev was ahead 3-1. He was apprehensive at 4-2, taking too much off his first serve and cautiously steering his groundstrokes. But Zverev fended off one break point on another forehand unforced error from Djokovic, and came through to win 7-6(4) 4-6 6-3. Across the three sets, Zverev double faulted only once.

Despite the supreme physicality of that match, Zverev seemed fresh and unruffled in the final despite his losing streak against Medvedev. Truthfully, Medvedev had not played that well heading into the final. He opened with a 6-7(5) 6-3 6-4 victory over Hurkacz, came within two points of defeat against Zverev and then saved two match points against alternate Jannik Sinner, who took Berrettini’s place and crushed Hurkacz in straight sets.

Understandably, Medvedev was concerned about preserving energy for his semifinal encounter when he faced Sinner in the round robin. But he took the first set comfortably before losing a tie-break in the second set. In the middle of the third set, down a break at 2-4, Medvedev was no longer interested in fighting through long and debilitating rallies. He started shortening points and hitting almost every second serve like a first delivery. Eventually, Medvedev somehow pulled out that match with his undervalued survival instincts, saving two match points in the third set tie-break, winning 6-1 6-7(5) 7-6(8).

The world No. 2 did perform more persuasively in a 6-4 6-2 semifinal dismissal of Casper Ruud, pulling off his only straight set win of the week. But in my view it was not enough to give him the unwavering confidence required to defeat Zverev in the final. In some ways, the situation reminded me of what happened a few weeks earlier at the Paris Masters 1000 event. Medvedev had made his way to the final with big point efficiency but he was not necessarily at the top of his game. He played a very good final against Djokovic, but the Serbian was clearly the better man on that important occasion. He succeeded in three sets.

This time around against Zverev, Medvedev knew full well that he had been fortunate to escape against the German in the round robin. Medvedev was also well aware that it is no simple task to beat the same player twice in a week at a tournament reserved for only the elite. In fact, prior to this title round appointment, the player who had lost in the round robin all through tournament history was triumphant when taking on the same player again in the final 10 out of 18 instances.

Zverev himself had achieved that feat once before, defeating Djokovic in a straight set final after losing to the Serbian in the round robin three years ago. Pete Sampras holds the record with three reversals of fortune in his five times as the champion at the ATP Finals. In 1994, 1996, and 1999 Sampras turned the tables on a prominent opponent to lift the trophy. He did it against Boris Becker in 1994 and 1996, and repeated that remarkable feat in 1999 against Andre Agassi.

Medvedev was fundamentally outplayed and out-served by Zverev on this occasion. Zverev was at his zenith and gave one of the greatest performances of his career. In ten service games against one of the sport’s premier practitioners on the return of serve, Zverev never even faced a break point. He won 33 of 40 points on his first serve (83%) and eight of fourteen on second serve (57%). Altogether Zverev connected with 74% of his first serves. In the round robin against Medvedev, Zverev made 79% of his first serves but his location and pinpoint precision were far superior in the final. As was the case against Djokovic in the penultimate round, Zverev served only one double fault in the final round match versus Medvedev.

So often in the past, Zverev’s confusion over how hard to hit his second serve has been a terrible hindrance, but this year in Turin he found considerably more clarity of mind and took no unnecessary risks. In the entire tournament, he produced only five double faults in his five matches. His averaged 75% on first serves for the tournament and held serve in 56 of 58 games for a 97% success rate. To be sure, the hardcourts in Turin were playing exceptionally fast and were a server’s domain. Djokovic was broken only three times in his four matches and Medvedev lost his serve only four times in five contests. But Zverev’s serve was the best of anyone in the field, and his ground game was impenetrable. He hardly missed against Djokovic and was awfully good from the backcourt against Medvedev in the final as well.

Zverev established early leads in both sets of this confrontation between two towering men who both stand at 6’6”, and the German never relinquished his authority throughout an impeccably played final on his side of the net. Incidentally, this was the first time the final was contested by two players without one of them being over 25 since David Nalbandian, 23, beat Roger Federer, 24, in 2005. Zverev is now 24 and Medvedev 25. That is a significant as a barometer for the future. Their best is yet to come. Moreover, in the FedEx Year-End ATP Rankings of 2021 just released, eight of the top ten are in their twenties; only Nadal, 35, and Djokovic, 34, are in their thirties. Eight of the top ten are 25 years of age or younger; the last time this happened was in 1995. That is not inconsequential. 

In any case, Zverev made his move in the third game of the match. After Medvedev rallied from 0-40 to 30-40, the German profited from a fortunate winner off the net cord to secure a quick service break lead. He won 20 of 25 points on serve in that dominant set, and advertised his superiority on the day by taking a 23 stroke exchange with a scintillating forehand winner down the line that gave him a 5-3 lead. In every aspect of the game—from his serve, to his baseline prowess, to his agility at the net—Zverev was the decidedly better player.

In the second set, the script was much the same. Helped by a Medvedev double fault that created a 15-30 opening, Zverev broke at 30 in the first game and never looked back. He was taken to deuce in one service name before holding for 4-2, but otherwise was untroubled. Zverev served for the match at 5-4 and from 0-15 he never lost another point, closing out the contest with a second serve ace out wide in the deuce court. The scoreline was 6-4, 6-4 for Zverev but the gap between the two combatants was considerably larger than that.

Now we can imagine a future sparkling with possibilities among the captivating trio of Djokovic, Medvedev and Zverev. This is not to say that others will not be others in the conversation. Stefanos Tsitsipas had a spectacular first half of 2021, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, opening up a two sets to love lead in the French Open final before losing to Djokovic, and winning his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo. By the end of the year he was ailing with an arm/elbow injury. Felix Auger-Aliassime made inroads this year and will improve enormously in 2022. Dominic Thiem will be back in the coming year looking for a second major title. Nadal just might surprise us all with a sweeping physical recovery.

But— the way I see it—the levers of control will largely belong to the three distinctive individuals from Serbia, Russia and Germany. They figure to be the pace setters over the next couple of years. It seems entirely possible that we are heading into a spellbinding stretch featuring a fellow in his mid-thirties who just might be the greatest tennis player of all time, and a couple of keynote performers in their mid-twenties trying to knock the Serbian off his pedestal. I am looking forward to watching it all unfold.

___________________________________________________________________________

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.

Comments

Iga Swiatek Plays Her Own Style Of Tennis

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal could take some tips from the women’s world No.1.

Avatar

Published

on

Photo by Roberto Dell’Olivo

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. 

Continue Reading

Comments

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?

Avatar

Published

on

Il campo Philippe Chatrier di Parigi

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Continue Reading

ATP

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.

Avatar

Published

on

CARLOS ALCARAZ OF SPAIN - PHOTO: DIEGO SOUTO / MMO

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. 

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending