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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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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The Next Group Of Hopefuls To Replace The ‘Great Trio’ May Be Beaten Out By Youth

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Carlos Alcaraz - Roland Garros 2022 (photo Roberto Dell'Olivo)

What is it with this supposedly great crop of newer and younger players groomed to take the places of the “Great Trio” of  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the top of the men’s game?

 

Only Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have won Grand Slam titles, both at the U.S. Open. And that’s about it. Medvedev just fell to Marin Cilic in the French Open round of 16.

Who?

You remember the 33-year-old hard-hitting Croatian who won the 2014 U.S. Open. Cilic had hardly been heard from since the 2018 Australian Open where he was runner-up . . . until  Monday when he needed just 45 minutes to conquer Medvedev.

THIEM JUST ANOTHER PLAYER THESE DAYS

Thiem? He looked like the real deal in 2020 when he won the U.S. Open. The Austrian is now 28 years old and an injured right wrist in 2021 has pushed Thiem far down the ATP rankings.

Then, there was the next presumed superstar: Stefanos Tsitsipas. The aggressive potential superstar came up empty on Monday against a virtually unknown teenager. Holger Rune was fantastic in his four-set domination of Tsitsipas.

The just-turned 19-year-old Rune appears to have it all: speed, quickness, power and touch. A 40th ranking isn’t too bad for a teen-ager, especially when it will zoom higher as the result of his advancement to a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

ARE MEDVEDEV, THIEM AND TSITSIPAS REALLY THAT GREAT?

Maybe Medvedev, Thiem and Tsitsipas aren’t really as good as they once appeared to be. They are certainly not in the category of all-time greats. They have had their chances to become household words.

Maybe the members of this group weren’t meant to be the superstars to replace Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as fan favorites.

Maybe, it’s the next group of younger players, even teenagers. Yes, it appears that Carlos Alcaraz may outshine the likes of Thiem, Medvedev and Tsitsipas in the next few years.

MAKE WAY FOR CARLOS ALCARAZ?

It just happens the 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz may become one of the eventual replacements for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Carlos Alcaraz is one week younger than Rune.

Alexander Zverev might have been ahead of the others if he hadn’t blown so many chances for stardom the last few years. Still, he is the Olympic champion and probably has more potential than Thiem, Medvedev or Tsitsipas.

A HERD OF PLAYERS WAITING TO MAKE THEIR MARKS

There is a herd of virtually unknown players waiting to make their mark. For instance, take Casper Ruud, 20-year-old Jannik Skinner and Matteo Berrettini. They have the potential to beat anyone.

But Alcaraz and Rune look like the best of the new young guns of tennis.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter who wins the Nadal-Djokovic quarterfinal showdown in Paris. They are two of the greatest players ever. Nothing is going to change that, not in Paris or anywhere else. Their place in history is written in stone, alongside Federer.

WOMEN’S GAME UNPREDICTABLE

The women’s game is even more unpredictable than the men’s game. One reason is because the WTA no longer has superstars the likes of Venus and Serena Williams, and Ashleigh Barty.

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek looked ready to take over the women’s game with her long string of consecutive wins. But in the last two rounds of the French Open, Swiatek has looked like just another good player at times.

That may be due to the fact that the Polish sensation is going for her second French Open title while taking a 31-match winning streak into the quarterfinals. But it happened in the third round against 95th-ranked Danka Kovinic and then again Monday in round of 16 against 74th-ranked Qinwen Zheng.

Swiatek suddenly looked very average, but then bounced back to take both matches in the cool weather once she put on a white jacket in each match. She aroused her game early enough to avoid losing a set against Kovinic, but not against Zheng.

PEGULA MAY TEST SWIATEK

Swiatek now will face newlywed Jessie Pegula in the quarterfinals. Pegula is now playing the best tennis of her career and has rocketed to No. 11 in the world. Like Swiatek, Pegula is a fighter. She won’t go down easily and may be Swiatek’s toughest test remaining in Paris.

The 28-year-old Pegula called Charleston her home while she trained for a couple of years at the then Family Circle Cup complex, which is now the home of the Credit One Charleston Open stop on the WTA Tour. Pegula was married in last October at the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Pegula also is having doubles success in Paris. She teamed with Coco Gauff to reach the third round in doubles, hoping for a victory there to advance to the doubles quarterfinals as well.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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