Steve Flink: Rafael Nadal Moves Out in Front with Australian Open Triumph - UBITENNIS
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Steve Flink: Rafael Nadal Moves Out in Front with Australian Open Triumph

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Until this year, the story of Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open has essentially been a tale of misfortune. To be sure, he had won the title once in 2009, toppling Roger Federer in an inspiring five set final, signaling that his hard court game had advanced immensely, making most learned observers believe that his name would be back on the honor roll of champions many times in the years ahead at Melbourne.

But since that time his luck in that land had run out. He got injured in a loss to Andy Murray in 2010 and had to retire after two sets, was hobbled a year later when he was beaten by countrymen David Ferrer, and then was beaten in one of the greatest matches in the history of the game in the 2012 final by Novak Djokovic, losing after leading 4-2, 30-15 in the fifth set and missing a backhand passing shot that was his for the making.

Two years later, Nadal seemed certain to return to the winner’s circle when he took on Stan Wawrinka in the final. Nadal was 12-0 head to head against the Swiss heading into that contest, and had never even lost a set to his burly rival. But the Spaniard injured his back during the warmup and was a shell of his normal self as he lost in four sets to Wawrinka.

In 2017, Nadal collided with Federer for the second time in the Australian Open final, eight years after their last Melbourne meeting in a title round. This time, Nadal fought ferociously to build a 3-1 fifth set lead, but lost five games in a row to an adversary who went into a magical spell to wrestle the crown away from his celebrated rival. And then in 2019 Nadal came storming into the final without losing a set, only to encounter a sublime Djokovic who picked him apart in straight sets.

The list of jarring setbacks for Nadal is almost endless, including a quarterfinal with Stefanos Tsitsipas a year ago in the quarterfinals when the charismatic left-hander was beaten in five sets despite leading two sets to love. That was only the third time in his career that he had squandered a two set lead.

Time and again, Nadal has been either physically impaired or just plain unlucky at the Australian Open, where success should have come his way on so many other occasions. That is why his astonishing escape against Daniil Medvedev in a stirring final this time around in Melbourne will live irrevocably in his mind. Nadal was not only trailing the imposing Russian two sets to love, but he also was serving at 2-3, 0-40 in the third set before roaring back with the tenacity and temerity that have become his trademark across a singularly storied career featuring an enduring fighting spirit with an equanimity that no one in his profession has matched.

Nadal rallied valiantly to overcome Medvedev 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 in five hours and twenty four minutes, only 29 minutes shorter than the record breaking Nadal-Djokovic battle ten years ago. This victory over Medvedev was inarguably the greatest comeback of the Spaniard’s career.

Only three times previously had the great left-hander fought back to win from two sets down, and the last time was back in 2007 at Wimbledon against another Russian, Mikhail Youzhny. Never before had he done it in a Grand Slam tournament final.

Making his achievement all the more remarkable was the fact that Nadal had endured such a disruptive 2021 campaign. After losing to Djokovic in the penultimate round at Roland Garros, he had to skip Wimbledon to nurse an ailing foot. Returning to the ATP Tour in Washington, he was beaten by Lloyd Harris, and soon announced he would not compete at the U.S. Open. After going back home to Spain, he confirmed that he would not play again for the rest of the year.

Nadal played a few exhibition matches in December against Andy Murray and Denis Shapovalov, came down with a case of Covid which threatened to keep him out of Australia, but then entered the ATP 250 event in Melbourne shortly before the Australian Open, claiming the title there over Maxime Cressy but playing only three matches that week.

After all that disruption, Nadal was not expecting much of himself heading into the Australian Open. But he played his way into decent form and dropped only one set on his way to the quarterfinals. Bad karma seemed to resurface when he was confronted by an ailing stomach during his match with Shapovalov. Nadal cast aside the Canadian easily over the first two sets but then his stomach and the extreme afternoon heat nearly took him out of the tournament. Somehow, Nadal, who moved very cautiously at stages during the fourth set, recovered just enough energy and mobility to halt Shapovalov 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3.

He then defeated the Italian No. 1 Matteo Berrettini in a four set semifinal, withstanding a surge from the No. 7 seed. Nadal won the first two sets easily as Berrettini, perhaps worn out by debilitating five set clashes with Carlos Alcaraz and Gael Monfils, performed far too passively. But then he elevated his game considerably before Nadal prevailed 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. From the middle of the third set until late in the fourth, the Italian served five love games in a row before faltering.

And so Nadal set up his riveting appointment against the No. 2 seed Medvedev, one of the game’s most enigmatic and perplexing characters. Medvedev had survived a harrowing quarterfinal with Felix Auger-Aliassime, rescuing himself from match point down at 4-5 in the fourth set with a timely service winner before fending off six break points in the fifth set and holding twice from 15-40 down at the beginning and end of that set. He deservedly succeeded 6-7 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (2), 7-5, 6-4.

Thoroughly drained after that triumph, Medvedev did himself a favor by knocking out No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas 7-6 (5) 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 in an economical two-and-a-half-hour semifinal, earning his right to meet Nadal in the final.

Nadal was on an historical quest in search of a record 21st major title and the chance to join Djokovic, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only male players to win at least two titles at every Grand Slam Championship. Medvedev, meanwhile, was striving to establish himself as the first man in the Open Era to back up a breakthrough victory at a major by securing the next “Big Four” crown. 

Medvedev commenced the battle with deep confidence and no hesitation. After Nadal struggled to reach 2-1 in the first set, Medvedev swept five games in a row, outmaneuvering the Spaniard from the baseline, returning serve beautifully on the stretch, leaving his adversary befuddled in the process. But then Nadal found his range off the ground, improving his length off the forehand, lacing his backhand authoritatively deep down the line and sharply crosscourt, moving his serve around more effectively.

Nadal built a 5-3 second set lead and had a set point on serve in that ninth game. Medvedev erased it with a stinging backhand down the line that was unmanageable for Nadal. They went to a tie-break and once more Nadal was in command. He led 5-3 in that sequence but Medvedev refused to buckle. He captured four points in a row, coaxing two mistakes in a row from Nadal at the net, using the drop shot to set up a swing volley winner, and then producing a backhand passing shot winner up the line.

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That comeback gave Medvedev the tie-break 7-5 and a two sets to love lead. The 35-year-old Nadal’s prospects looked bleak against the 25-year-old Russian, and the Spaniard’s plight only worsened when he fell behind 0-40 at 2-3 in the third after Medvedev sent a jump backhand winner down the line for a winner. A service break for Medvedev here would have been catastrophic for Nadal. But he sent a winning forehand drop shot down the line and Medvedev then bungled the next two points. Soon Nadal had fashioned a clutch hold for 3-3. After losing the next game he took three in a row to seal the third set.

Medvedev was looking increasingly fatigued while Nadal was invigorated, and spurred on by a crowd entirely in his corner. The players traded service breaks in the third and fourth games of the fourth set, but Medvedev was broken again in a five deuce game as Nadal converted on his seventh break point to lead 3-2. Nadal obstinately recovered from 15-40 on his way to 5-3 as the match passed the four hour mark, and he sealed the set 6-4 after a love hold.

Improbably, the match had gone to a fifth set, with Medvedev increasingly beleaguered, agitated by the pro-Nadal audience, and infuriated with himself for not closing out the account in straight sets. A sprightly Nadal broke Medvedev for 3-2 in the fifth set, survived a six deuce game to reach 4-2, and held on confidently for 5–3. At 5-4, he served for the match and surged to 30-0, two points away from a long awaited second Australian Open crown. But he missed a looping forehand crosscourt, and double faulted. Medvedev took the next point and then broke back for 5-5 when Nadal netted a routine two-hander crosscourt.

The ghosts of Australian Opens past were surrounding Nadal, reminding him about his history of disappointments on Rod Laver Arena. Medvedev served an ace for a 30-15 lead in the eleventh game but then sent a backhand drop shot down the line, a play that had hurt him too many times against an astute opponent. It was not a bad drop shot, but Nadal angled a backhand winner past Medvedev. Although Medvedev saved two break points in that critical game, Nadal came through on the third, spending a high trajectory return down the middle, luring Medvedev into a forehand down the line error.

Serving for the match a second time, Nadal was unstoppable, serving an ace out wide for 40-0, punching a backhand volley low down the line that was too good. He held at love and completed a stunning five set victory. At long last he had Grand Slam title No. 21, breaking a tie with Djokovic and Roger Federer, standing alone at the top of the list for the first time. It was the second time he has beaten Medvedev in a five set major final. Defeating the Russian in the 2019 U.S. Open final was no surprise, but this one was a shocker in many ways. Before Novak Djokovic was deported after the draw was made, Nadal was expected to meet the Serbian in the semifinals. He was also anticipating a quarterfinal showdown with Sascha Zverev, but the German bowed out in a dismal quarterfinal performance against Shapovalov. It is doubtful that Nadal would have beaten either player.

Now Nadal has raised his record in Grand Slam tournament finals to 21-8. That is an extraordinary feat. Djokovic and Federer are both 20-11. They have been in two more finals than the Spaniard, but have come away with one less major title. Nadal has been more efficient. One reason, of course, is his invincibility at Roland Garros. Although he has lost three matches across the years at the French Open (two to Djokovic and one to Robin Soderling) Nadal has never lost a final on the clay in Paris. He is 13-0 in title round contests and 8-8 at the three other majors.

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He need not apologize for that fact, especially after his latest triumph in Melbourne, which has rounded out his record in the places of prestige. The next Grand Slam tournament, of course, starts in late May at Roland Garros. Nadal suffered one of his rare losses in 2021 at the French Open to Djokovic in the semifinals, but he will return in 2022 as the clear favorite. To be sure, his body is fragile and there is no certainty that Nadal will be able to perform at peak efficiency. But, all things being equal, even if he is not at his very best, the Spaniard will be the man to beat.

At the moment, the status of Djokovic is uncertain. He may or may not get the vaccine in the near future. If he does not decide to do that, he might miss all four majors this year and perhaps beyond. It could destroy his career.

The hope here is that he will get that vaccination soon. In 2018 he had a procedure to fix his issues with an ailing elbow and it turned his career around, enabling the Serbian to serve properly again and play free of pain. He won the last two majors of that season at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, took two more majors in 2019, added another in 2020, and secured three last year. Djokovic realized that the only way he could play the game at the highest levels and contend on his own terms for majors was to do the procedure.

He needs to look at the vaccine the same way. The Serbian has said he was in tears about having that surgery. He did not really want to do it, but understood it was essential for his welfare. He finds himself in the same predicament now. Without taking the vaccine he will put himself out of circulation and destroy much of the hard work he has done to put himself in a position to prevail in the chase for the most majors, and to add to his credentials as a candidate for being the greatest tennis player of all time.

Clearly, Grand Slam titles alone will not settle the issue. Djokovic has now finished seven years at No. 1 in the world, an unprecedented feat. Nadal and Federer have done it five times each and Pete Sampras concluded a record six consecutive years at the top from 1993-98. Djokovic has also resided no fewer than 358 weeks at No. 1 across his career, far more than anyone else in men’s tennis. And he has a winning career head to head record of 27-23 over Federer and 30-28 versus Nadal.

The case between the Serbian and the Spaniard remains exceedingly close for historical supremacy, and the third member of the iconic trio has strong credentials as well. Federer has been the most consistent of the “Big Three” at the biggest tournaments, once reaching 23 semifinals in a row at the majors, and 36 straight quarterfinals as well.

But it is entirely possible that Federer will win no more majors. He hopes to be back for Wimbledon this year, although that may not happen. He will be 41 in August. Time is not standing still. Perhaps Federer has a miracle left in him, but don’t count on it.

Since Roland Garros in 2018, Djokovic has won eight of the fifteen majors and Nadal has taken five. Federer last won a Grand Slam title at the 2018 Australian Open. The upcoming edition of Roland Garros will be crucial. If Nadal comes through on the red clay of Roland Garros again and secures Grand Slam title No. 22, he would pull two ahead of Djokovic. I have no doubt that Djokovic will win more majors after he sorts through his current dilemma, but who is to say that the indefatigable Nadal will not win another Roland Garros crown in 2023?

In my view, the French Open of 2022 will be a pivotal tournament for both Nadal and Djokovic. Djokovic can’t afford to fall behind Nadal by two major titles, but that could well happen. My feeling is that he will realize that he must get the vaccine to ensure that he can play when and where he wants in 2022 and in the next couple of years. And yet, even if he does, will he be able to topple Nadal two years in a row at Roland Garros? That is a tall order. I doubt that will happen. I believe Djokovic is a great clay court player and the best all surface competitor in tennis. Having said that, Nadal is a towering clay court player who will want his crown back this year. As it stands now, I believe he will do so.

Meanwhile, although Djokovic not playing and Nadal garnering his second title were the chief storylines in Melbourne, it would be a mistake to ignore the progress of a few others. Tsitsipas came out of a difficult period with his injured arm/elbow and made a fine run to the semifinals. He will be a big threat again this year in Paris after reaching the final in 2021 and leading Djokovic two sets to love. I am encouraged about him. Sinner did good work to reach another quarterfinal at a Grand Slam tournament. Despite being taken apart by a soaring Tsitsipas, Sinner is improving steadily at the age of 20. Berrettini demonstrated in Melbourne that he belongs in the latter stages of major tournaments. In 2019 he lost to Nadal in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Last year he was beaten by Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the French Open and the U.S. Open, and he was the runner-up to Djokovic at Wimbledon. He is going places.

So, too, is Auger-Aliassime. He was one point away from a second major semifinal in a row. He could not have been better in defeat than he was in Melbourne. His all court prowess is a joy to behold and he competes with a calm disposition. One of these days he is going to take one of the premier prizes in the sport.

For the time being, though, the focus remains on Nadal and Djokovic. Djokovic will be establishing his priorities and figuring out soon where he wants to go from here. Nadal is right where he wants to be, coming back from a long layoff to get the job done under daunting circumstances, revitalized after a disconcerting 2021 abbreviated season.

At long last, Rafael Nadal stands atop the ladder at the Grand Slam Championships. That means much more to him than he will ever say. Not once has he been boastful about any of his most important triumphs. Here is a man who has his life and achievements fully in perspective, who knows himself very well, who recognizes that winning without honor is not winning at all. At the 2022 Australian Open, Nadal as always wore his success elegantly.

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Roland Garros 2024: Has Crowd Noise Reached Boiling Point Or Is It Hyperbole?

Daniil Medvedev was one of the players who commented on the debate surrounding the Roland Garros crowd.

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Roland Garros has often been a place with energetic crowds that have been involved in plenty of controversial moments but has it reached boiling point this year?

The Roland Garros have been involved in lots of heated moments over the years whether it’s been finals involving Novak Djokovic, whether it’s been that epic Garbine Muguruza against Kristina Mladenovic clash or any Alize Cornet or Gael Monfils match.

The French crowd isn’t afraid to show its true feelings as it’s been one of the most passionate atmosphere’s in the world.

However there has been debate in the past as to whether the crowd has been bordering on the edge of being disrespectful.

That debate has boiled over at this year’s event as it all started when David Goffin claimed the crowd on Court 14 spat gum in his direction during his five set win over Giovanni Mpetshi Perricard.

Furthermore Iga Swiatek was pleading with the crowd in her on-court interview to remain silent during the point as they were seen shouting during a volley.

This kind of behaviour from the crowd as well as the retaliation from the players has seen tournament director Amelie Mauresmo see stricter rules being enforced by security and umpires on both sides.

So has this issue reached boiling point or is this an over exaggeration? Well here is what some of the players think.

Paula Badosa

“I think she (Swiatek) cannot complain, because I played Court 8 and 9 and you can hear everything. Like, I can hear Suzanne Lenglen, Philippe Chatrier, Court 6, 7 during the points.

“I think she’s very lucky she can play all the time on Philippe Chatrier and she’s okay with that. But I don’t mind. As I said, I played in small courts these days, and I was hearing so much noise. In that moment, I’m just so focused on myself and on my match that it doesn’t really bother me.

“Honestly, I like when the fans cheer and all this. I think I get pumped. Look, we had a very tough situation years ago when we were playing without fans with the COVID situation, so now, for me, I’m so happy they’re back and I think they’re very important for our sport.”

Grigor Dimitrov

“I think us as tennis players we’re very particular with certain things, and I always say one is the background. For example, let’s say if it’s too bright or if you have, let’s say, big letters, whatever it is, it’s a bit more difficult.

“Also, with the crowd, if you see the crowd moving in the back, it’s very, very tough because we are so focused on the ball. When we see that is moving, automatically your eye is catching that. On the movement part, I’m all for being absolutely still.

“Now, with the sound, there’s not much, I guess, we can do. I think either/or I’m very neutral on that, to be honest. I could play, I don’t know, with music on and all that. Of course, I prefer when everything is, like, a little bit more tame, so to speak, but this is a little bit out of our control.”

Daniil Medvedev

“I think it’s very tough, because there are two ways. So right now, in a way, there are, like, the kind of, I would say, unofficial rule — or actually an official rule, don’t interrupt players before second serve and when they’re ready to serve and during the point. Personally, I like it. Because I think, I don’t know if there are other sports than tennis and golf that have it, but because it’s so technical and, like, I would say every millimeter of a movement you change, the ball is going to go different side.

“So, you know, if someone screams in your ear, your serve, you could double fault. That’s as easy as that. That’s not good. At the other side, if there would be no this rule and it would be allowed all the time, I think we would get used to it. Now what happens is that 95% of matches, tournaments, it’s quiet. And then when suddenly you come to Roland Garros and it’s not, it disturbs you, and it’s a Grand Slam so you get more stress and it’s not easy.

“Yeah, I think playing French in Roland Garros is not easy. That’s for sure. I think a lot of players experience it. I would say that in US Open and Wimbledon is not the same. Australia can be tough. I played Thanasi once there on the small court. It was, whew, brutal. Yeah, I think, you know, it’s a tough question. I think as I just responded, it’s good to have energy between points, but then when you’re ready to serve, it’s okay, let’s finish it and let’s play tennis. Same before first and second serve. And then when there is a changeover, when there is between points, go unleash yourself fully, it’s okay.

“But again, when you’re already bouncing the ball, you want to get ready for the serve, if it would be 10 years we would be playing loud, we would not care. But for the moment it’s not like this so when you get ready for serve, you want to toss the ball, then suddenly ten people continue screaming, the serves are not easy, so for the moment, let’s try to be quiet.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, this year’s crowd has been more volatile and aggressive then seen in previous years which is a big problem for player safety.

However on a whole the crowd is also more passionate and entertaining which makes for a quality product.

As long as the crowd can control their temperament then most of the incidents are nothing but hyperbole and something the players need to get used to in a hostile Parisian environment.

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Steve Flink: The 2024 Italian Open Was Filled with Surprises

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In sweeping majestically to his sixth career Masters 1000 title along with a second crown at the Italian Open in Rome, Germany’s Sascha Zverev put on one of the most self assured performances of his career to cast aside the Chilean Nicolas Jarry 6-4, 7-5 in the final. By virtue of securing his 22nd career ATP Tour title and his first of 2024, Zverev has moved from No. 5 up to No. 4 in the world. That could be crucial to his cause when he moves on to Roland Garros as the French Open favorite in the eyes of some experts.

Zverev is long overdue to win a major title for the first time in his storied career. Not only has he won those six tournaments at the elite 1000 level, but twice— in 2018 and 2021—he has triumphed at the prestigious, year end ATP Finals reserved solely for the top eight players in the world. This triumph on the red clay of Rome is a serious step forward for the 27-year-old who has demonstrably been as prodigious on clay as he is on hard courts.

Seldom if ever have I seen a more supreme display of serving in a final round skirmish on clay than what Zverev displayed against Jarry on this occasion. He never faced a break point and was not even pushed to deuce. Altogether, Zverev took 44 of his 49 service points across the two sets in his eleven service games. He won 20 of 21 points on his deadly delivery in the first set and 24 of 28 in the second. He poured in 80% of his first serves and managed half a dozen aces and countless service winners. His power, precision and directional deception was extraordinary.

Although the scoreline in this confrontation looks somewhat close, that was not the case at all. Jarry was thoroughly outplayed by Zverev from the backcourt, and despite some stellar serving of his own sporadically, he could not maintain a sufficiently high level. He did manage to win 78% of his first serve points, but Jarry was down at 35% on second serve points won. In the final analysis, this was a final round appointment that was ultimately a showcase for the greatness of Zverev more than anything else. Jarry was too often akin to a spectator at his own match as Zverev clinically took him apart.

Zverev and Jarry arrived in the final contrastingly. The German’s journey to the title round was relatively straightforward. After a first round bye, he handled world No. 70 Aleksandar Vukic. Zverev dismissed the Australian 6-0, 6-4. The No. 3 seed next accounted for Italy’s Luciano Darderi 7-6 (3), 6-2. In the round of 16, Zverev comfortably disposed of Portugal’s Nuno Borges, ousting the world No. 53 by scores of 6-2, 7-5. Perhaps Zverev’s finest match prior to the final was a 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal dissection of Taylor Fritz, a much improved player on clay this season. Zverev did not face a break point in taking apart the 26-year-old 6-4, 6-3 with almost regal authority from the backcourt.

Only in the penultimate round was Zverev stretched to his limits. Confronting the gifted Alejandro Tabilo of Chile, he was outplayed decidedly in the first set against the left-hander. The second set of their semifinal was on serve all the way, and the outcome was settled in a tie-break. With Tabilo apprehensive because he was on the verge of reaching the most important final of his career, Zverev was locked in. After commencing that sequence with a double fault, Zverev fell behind 0-2 but hardly put a foot out of line thereafter.

He did not miss a first serve after the double fault and his ground game was unerring. Zverev took that tie-break deservedly 7-4, and never looked back, winning 16 of 19 service points, breaking an imploding Tabilo twice, and coming through 1-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2. Zverev displayed considerable poise under pressure late in the second set to move past a man who had produced a startling third round upset of top seeded Novak Djokovic.

As for Jarry, the dynamic Chilean had a first round bye as well, and then advanced 6-2, 7-6 (6) over the Italian Matteo Arnaldi. Taking on another Italian in the third round, Jarry survived an arduous duel with Stefano Napolitano 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. He then cast aside the Frenchman Alexandre Muller 7-5, 6-3.

Around the corner, trouble loomed. Jarry had to fight ferociously to defeat No. 6 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who had by then established himself in the eyes of most astute observers as the tournament favorite. Tsitsipas has been revitalized since securing a third crown in Monte Carlo several in April. And in his round of 16 encounter, the Greek competitor had looked nothing less than stupendous in routing the Australian Alex de Minaur 6-1, 6-2.

Unsurprisingly, Tsitsipas seemed in command against Jarry in their stirring quarterfinal. He won the first set and had two big openings in the second. Jarry served at 3-3, 0-40. Tsitsipas missed a lob off the backhand by inches on the first break point before Jarry unleashed an ace followed by a service winner. The Chilean climbed out of that corner and got the hold. Then, at 5-5, Tsitsipas reached double break point at 15-40 but once more he was unable to convert. He got a bad bounce on the first break point that caused him to miss a forehand from mid-court. On the second, Jarry’s forehand down the line was simply too good.

Now serving at 5-6, Tsitsipas had not yet been broken across two sets. One more hold would have taken him into a tie-break and given him a good chance to close the account. But Tsitsipas won only one point in that twelfth game and a determined Jarry sealed the set 7-5.

Nonetheless, Tsitsipas moved out in front 2-1 in the third set, breaking serve in the third game. Jarry broke right back. Later, Tsitsipas served to stay in then match at 4-5 in that final set. He fought off three match points but a bold and unrelenting Jarry came through on the fourth to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-4. That set the stage for a semifinal between Jarry and a surging Tommy Paul, fresh from back to back upset wins over Daniil Medvedev and Hubert Hurkacz.

Jarry and Paul put on a sparkling show. Jarry took the opening set in 42 minutes, gaining the crucial service break for 5-3 and serving it out at 15 with an ace out wide. When Jarry built a 4-2 second set lead, he seemed well on his way to a straight sets triumph. But Paul had broken the big serving Hurkacz no fewer than seven times in the quarters. He is a first rate returner. The American broke back for 4-4 against Jarry and prevailed deservedly in a second set tie-break 7-3 after establishing a 4-0 lead.

Briefly, the momentum was with Paul. But not for long. Jarry saved a break point with an overhead winner at 2-2 in the final set, broke Paul in the next game, and swiftly moved on to 5-2. At 5-3, he served for the match and reached 40-0. But he missed a difficult forehand pass on the first match point and Paul then released a backhand down the line winner and a crosscourt backhand that clipped the baseline and provoked a mistake from Jarry. 

The Chilean cracked an ace to garner a fourth match point, only to net a backhand down the line volley that he well could have made. A resolute Paul then advanced to break point but Jarry connected with a potent first serve to set up a forehand winner. The American forged a second break point opportunity but Jarry erased that one with a scorching inside in forehand that was unanswerable. Another ace brought Jarry to match point for the fifth time, and this one went his way as Paul rolled a forehand long. Jarry was victorious 6-3, 6-7 (3), 6-3.

Meanwhile, while all of the attention was ultimately focussed on the two finalists, it was on the first weekend of the tournament that the two dominant Italian Open champions of the past twenty years were both ushered out of the tournament unceremoniously. First, Rafael Nadal, the ten-time champion in Rome, was beaten 6-1, 6-3 in the third round by Hurkacz as he competed in his third clay court tournament since coming back in April at Barcelona.

He had lost his second round match in Barcelona to De Minaur. In his next outing at Madrid, Nadal avenged that loss to the Australian and managed to win three matches altogether before he was blasted off the court by the big serving and explosive groundstrokes of Jiri Lehecka. In Rome, the Spaniard won one match before his contest with Hurkacz. The first two games of that showdown lasted 27 minutes. Nadal had five break points in the opening game and Hurkacz had two in the second game. Neither man broke and so it was 1-1.

A hard fought and long encounter seemed almost inevitable, but the Polish 27-year-old swept five games in a row to take that first set, saving two more break points in the seventh game. He was mixing up his ground game beautifully, hitting high trajectory shots to keep Nadal at bay and off balance, then ripping flat shots to rush the Spaniard into errors. In the second set, Hurkacz broke early and completely outclassed Nadal. He also served him off the court, winning 16 of 17 points on his devastatingly effective delivery. With one more break at the end, Hurkacz surged to a 6-1, 6-3 triumph.

A day later, Djokovic, the six-time Italian Open victor, met Tabilo in his third round contest. Djokovic had played well in his second round meeting against the Frenchman against Corentin Moutet to win 6-3, 6-1. But afterwards, Djokovic was hit in the head by a water bottle while signing autographs. He had the next day off but when he returned to play Tabilo, the Serbian was almost unrecognizable. Beaten 6-2, 6-3, Djokovic never even reached deuce on the Chilean’s serve. On top of that, Djokovic, broken four times in the match, double faulted on break point thrice including at set point down in the first set and when he was behind match point in the second. Tabilo was terrific off the ground and on serve, but Djokovic was listless, lacking in purpose and seemingly disoriented. Some astute observers including Jim Courier thought Djokovic might have suffered a concussion from the freakish water bottle incident, but he did tests back in Serbia which indicated that was not the case.

Now Djokovic has decided to give himself a chance— if all goes according to plan— to potentially play a string of much needed matches at the ATP 250 tournament in Geneva this week. All year long, he has played only 17 matches, winning 12 of those duels. But nine of those contests were at the beginning of the season in Australia. Since then, he has played only eight matches. On the clay, he went to the semifinals in Monte Carlo where he benefitted from four matches, but he skipped Madrid and hoped to find his form again in Rome.

Realizing that losing in the third round there left him not only lacking in match play but not up to par in terms of confidence as well, Djokovic will try to make amends in Geneva. A good showing in that clay court tournament— either winning the tournament or at least making the final—would send the Serbian into Roland Garros feeling much better about his chances to win the world’s premier clay court championship for the third time in four years and the fourth time overall in his career.

How do the other favorites stack up? It is awfully difficult to assess either Carlos Alcaraz or Jannik Sinner. Alcaraz missed Monte Carlo and Barcelona and probably rushed his return in Madrid, losing in the high altitude to Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. Then he was forced to miss Rome. He is clearly underprepared. As for Sinner, he played well in Monte Carlo before losing a semifinal to Tsitsipas. He advanced to the quarterfinals of Madrid but defaulted against Felix Auger-Aliassime with a hip injury.

Will Alcaraz and Sinner be back at full force in Paris? I have my doubts, but the fact remains that Sinner has been the best player in the world this year, capturing his first major in Melbourne at the Australian Open, adding titles in Rotterdam and Miami, and winning 28 of 30 matches over the course of the season. Alcaraz broke out of a long slump to defend his title at Indian Wells, but missing almost all of the clay court circuit en route to Rome has surely disrupted his rhythm.

I would make Zverev the slight favorite to win his first Grand Slam tournament at Roland Garros. If Djokovic can turn things around this week and rekindle his game, there is no reason he can’t succeed at Roland Garros again. I make him the second favorite. Out of respect for Alcaraz’s innate talent and unmistakable clay court comfort, I see him as the third most likely to succeed with Sinner close behind him. But that is assuming they are fit to play and fully ready to go.

Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud must be taken seriously as candidates for the title in Paris. Tsitsipas upended Medvedev and Zverev in 2021 to reach the Roland Garros final, and then found himself up two sets to love up against Djokovic before losing that hard fought battle in five sets. Ruud has been to the last two French Open finals, bowing against Nadal in 2022 and Djokovic a year ago. They started this clay court season magnificently, with Tsitsipas defeating Ruud in the Monte Carlo final and Ruud reversing that result in the final of Barcelona. Both men figure to be in the thick of things this time around at Roland Garros.

Where does Nadal fit into this picture? He will surely be more inspired at his home away from home than he was in his three other clay court tournaments leading up to Roland Garros, but it will take a monumental effort for the 14-time French Open victor to rule again this time around. With a decent draw, he could get to the round of 16 or perhaps the quarterfinals, but even that will be a hard task for him after all he has endured physically the last couple of years. Nadal turns 38 on June 3. If he somehow prevails once more in Paris, it would be the single most astonishing achievement of his sterling career.

The battle for clay court supremacy at Roland Garros will be fierce. The leading contenders will be highly motivated to find success. The defending champion will be in full pursuit of a 25th Grand Slam title. Inevitably, some gifted players will be ready to emerge, and others will be determined to reemerge. I am very much looking forward to watching it all unfold and discovering who will be the last man standing at the clay court capital of the world.

NOTE: All photos via Francesca Micheli/Ubitennis

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Can Defensive Tennis Still Be A Success Story In Women’s Tennis?

Slam triumphs, top rankings: in just a few years we have witnessed the rise and fall of a certain way of playing tennis. So what’s really been happening? Kerber, Halep, and Wozniacki have been the latest successful performers of defensive gameplay.

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SIMONA HALEP OF ROMANIA - PHOTO: MATEO VILLALBA / MMO

The last two WTA 1000 events, Miami and Madrid, whose final featured Danielle Collins vs. Elena Rybakina and Iga Swiatek vs. Aryna Sabalenka respectively, have confirmed a trend that in recent seasons seems more and more entrenched in the women’s tour: the prevalence of offensive tennis over defensive tennis.

Compared to a few years ago, things seem to have profoundly changed, to the point of almost being reversed. This does not mean that a certain type of “reactive” game has disappeared, nor that tennis based on the effectiveness of the defensive component has been scrapped. Yet, it is a matter of fact that players who rely predominantly on this approach struggle to break through and reach the top positions, unlike just a few years ago.

Before trying to identify the reasons for this phenomenon, it is necessary to verify whether the thesis is true. Here are some data. Below are the WTA rankings of the past years starting from 2015. I have highlighted in yellow the players who, in my opinion, can be associated with a defensive type of tennis.

Immagine che contiene testo, schermata, Carattere, numero

Descrizione generata automaticamente

A first comment on the 2015-17 period and the players I highlighted. Few doubts about Wozniacki, Kerber, Svitolina, and Errani. These are athletes who were never afraid of engaging in long rallies, and who often strove to turn the match into an endurance challenge, an arm wrestle over durability. It was not logical for them to seek quick and rushed points.

Including Simona Halep may seem less obvious. However, in my view, in her approach there prevails a tendency to rely on a “reaction” strategy, hitting back at her opponent’s choices; a counter-attack game, specular to an idea of pure aggressive tennis based on systematically and immediately getting the upper hand in rallies.

That is why I also highlighted Radwanska and Sevastova. In their case, it was mainly their lack of power that forced them to leverage their opponent’s power. As a result, hitting a winner could not be their first option. Winning points by eliciting errors from their opponent was far easier, simply by lengthening the rallies.

I was tempted to include Stephens and Kuznetsova as well, but in their case the matter is particularly complex because they are such eclectic players that they are difficult to confine to just one category. In fact, on the occasion of Sloane Stephens’ victory in the 2017 US Open, I decided to describe Stephens as “indefinable.”

Now let’s move on to the next three years, 2018 to 2020. 

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2018 represents the pinnacle of defensive tennis, with four of its icons at the top of the rankings and three more in the top 15. After all, 2018 is the year that sees Wozniacki win in Australia (defeating Halep in the final), Halep in Paris, and Kerber at Wimbledon. At the WTA Finals in Singapore, Elina Svitolina reaps the most prestigious title of her career.

If 2018 is to be considered the zenith of defensive tennis, since 2019 there has been quite a crushing decline, confirmed by the rankings of the last three years, 2021 to 2023. 

Here follows a chart of the results in the Slams and WTA Finals from 2015 to 2024.

Immagine che contiene testo, schermata, Parallelo, Carattere

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The final Top 10 ranking 2023 featured no player with a markedly defensive imprint. Daria Kasatkina was the only flagbearer holding on in the top 20.  Players deploying aggressive tennis now seem to have taken the lead in operations.

Which are the causes that have led to the current scenario? I have identified three, which may also have been acting jointly.

1) Lack of generational turnover

One possible thesis is that the structural conditions of the women’s tour haven’t changed significantly, but that we are simply going through an episodic lack of generational turnover in defensive tennis. A temporary blackout which is bound to be overcome over time.

Wozniacki (born 1990) and Kerber (born 1988) were halted first by physical issues and then by maternity leave. Maternity also for Svitolina (born 1994), while Halep (born 1991) has been sidelined for almost two years by her doping case. In essence, all of the strongest defensive tennis players have disappeared from the top ranks due to factors unrelated to the court; somewhat prematurely, and that is also why there has not been time to find successors.

On the other hand, as of today, there are not many players aged under 30 on the horizon. I would mention Mertens (born 1995) and Kasatkina (born 1997). If we take into account that a possible alternative like Sorribes Tormo (best ranking 28) is 27, it’s quite hard to identify who can perpetuate defensive tennis.

2) Changed game conditions

For this second hypothesis, we are venturing along a complex and uneven path, which would require much more space for being addressed as it deserves. In short, the proposition holds that “slow” playing conditions favour defensive tennis, whereas “fast” playing conditions snugly fit with aggressive tennis. Should this hypothesis turn out to be grounded, organizers would simply have to decide to speed up or slow down the playing conditions and tables would be turned.

I recall the “very slow” 2018 WTA Finals in Singapore, won by Svitolina over Stephens.  As far as I am concerned, I do not have such data to suggest that in recent years the playing conditions have been sped up, thus penalizing defensive players. Almost certainly the last Finals (Guadalajara, Forth Worth, and Cancun) were played in faster conditions than the previous editions held in Asia, but it is far more complicated to prove this for the Slams and other major tournaments. 

I remember that when talking about playing conditions, not only the surface of the courts should be taken into account, but also the balls used (as well as humidity, altitude, etc). And for some essential data there no certainties, which means that the thesis is possible, but not provable.

3) Further growth of offensive players

Third hypothesis: in recent seasons new aggressive players who have risen to the very top have also enhanced the quality of their tennis, raising the bar to such heights which appear to be out of the reach of defensive players. Ultimately, offensive players have been making greater strides than defensive players.

I would say that such growth has manifested itself in two different directions. On the one hand, some players have further strengthened the offensive component, starting with the quality of their serve or and groundstrokes (as in the case of Rybakina and Sabalenka).

On the other, fewer “one-dimensional” tennis players have emerged. Currently we are seeing athletes who are comfortable not only when commanding the rally, but also when compelled to defend themselves. Let’s consider the latest year-end No. 1s: we went from Kerber/Halep (2016-18) to Barty/Swiatek (2019-2023). Well, both Barty and Swiatek were and are players capable of producing more wins than Angelique and Simona, but without going down when under pressure or scurrying and scrambling.

Wozniacki, Kerber, and Halep have relied on their great mobility and superior court coverage skills to reach the top. However, today No. 1 spot is held by a tennis player like Swiatek who, besides being a remarkable ball-striker, in terms of mobility is not at all inferior to Wozniacki & Co.

Indeed, my personal belief is that Iga is probably the best-moving tennis player since Steffi Graf. Maybe not yet when moving forward, but at least horizontally, off her right and left wing. In fact, as well as being endowed with a superlative rapidity and responsiveness, Swiatek possesses phenomenal coordination skills. A gift that enables her to organize her swing in very few moments, even if she is called upon to execute it at the end of a sprint or lunge, perhaps sliding. This means that those players who rely mainly on defensive skills are likely to find themselves lacking sufficient weapons to face an opponent with such qualities.

Conclusions

This is the current situation. What about the future? Since I do not possess a magic crystal ball, I do not feel like reciting a “de profundis” for defensive tennis. Things could change, especially in the long term.

In the short term, there is still the possibility that the “senior” players will be able to retrieve their best levels. After all, already last year at Wimbledon Svitolina was able to reach the semifinals after ousting Swiatek in the quarters. And probably if she had managed to defeat Vondrousova in the semifinals, in my opinion, she would have had very good chances against Jabeur, considering their records in finals (Ons 5 won and 8 lost, Elina 17 won and 5 lost).

Before being halted by Vondrousova, Svitolina had appeared as full of conviction, recharged by her maternity break. Which brings us back to the mental component, which can sometimes prove to be the extra weapon, capable of overshadowing physical-technical aspects.  If a defensive player endowed with an exceptional killer instinct were to burst into the WTA tour, quite different scenarios might open up.

Translated by Carla Montaruli

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