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COMMENT: Was Carlos Alcaraz Flying Above His Real Game?
Over the weekend Carlos Alcaraz reached yet another milestone in his young career. However, the win needs to be put into some perspective too.
Young Carlos Alcaraz was brutal in his conquest of Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev on three consecutive days.
But it wasn’t all Alcaraz on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Madrid. He had help.
Nadal wasn’t ready to play yet, certainly not against someone as talented as Alcaraz appears to be. Nadal lacked training and confidence in his comeback from a rib injury suffered just a few weeks ago at the Indian Wells tournament.
RAFA WASN’T THE REAL RAFA
Nadal wasn’t the true Rafa. He missed simple shots and couldn’t find the handle on many other unforced errors.
And Djokovic? He kept making the same mistakes over and over. It was side-to-side, or nothing for the Serbian Wonder. Of course that style of play has been good enough to win 20 Grand Slam titles for Novak.
But Alcaraz is a cross-court magician, backhand or forehand. Alcaraz just looked like he was a faster mover than Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev. Alcaraz is a rugged mover, much like a football player. He isn’t in the class of smooth and fluid movers such as Nadal and Djokovic.
Alcaraz has an unpredictable backhand otherwise, like from the middle of the court where his over-hit backhands find the middle of the net quite often. That is, if his opponent makes him hit more backhands from the middle of the court.
ZVEREV TOTALLY UNFOCUSED
Then there was Zverev, trying to win his third Madrid Open. He was terrible. He was worst than Nadal and Djokovic put together. Zverev seemed to be sleep-walking or wishing he had skipped Madrid. He was that unfocused.
Alcaraz made the trio of top five players look like satellite circuit players. The 19-year-old Spaniard was viciously good. Obviously, his victims weren’t prepared for much of anything Alcaraz released on them.
Alcaraz may really be as good as he looked. But he can’t get much better than that.
Yes, he is too good to be true.
But Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev can play better.
PARIS, LONDON AND NEW YORK FANS DIFFERENT
The ATP Tour season isn’t over yet. There are still three Grand Slam singles trophies to be won.
And Spain is history for another year of hosting big ATP men’s tennis tournaments.
The fans in Paris, London and New York won’t be quiet as appreciative of the Spanish teen-ager’s every point.
But unless Nadal, Djokovic and Zverev change their game plans, it could be a long year for the trio and a joy ride the rest of the year for the kid.
ALCARAZ PLAYS TOTAL-ATTACK TENNIS
Alcaraz reminds me of Pete Sampras in a way. Like Sampras, Alcaraz plays total-attack tennis. Big forehands. Big serves. He just goes for the winner, regardless of the circumstances.
Throw the Alcaraz drop shot into the equation, and anything might happen. The drop shot may have been the real difference maker, especially against Nadal and Djokovic. They never figured it out or when it was coming.
The Alcaraz drop shot was that good.
Zverev never got into the match enough for the Alcaraz drop shots to make much difference.
This debate really might come down to the age differential between Alcaraz, and Nadal and Djokovic.
It’s almost unimaginable to think that a 19-year-old could maintain the level of play and health for about two decades in the likeness of Nadal and Djokovic. Or even Roger Federer. No one knows what the future holds, or when another drop-shot artist might take over the game.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award as a tennis columnist in Charleston, S.C.. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Steve Flink: Stefanos Tsitsipas Turns His Year Around
Tennis Hall of Fame Steve Flink provides a comprehensive review of this year’s Monte Carlo Masters and the potential implications it could have for the upcoming clay swing.
Over the past four years, Stefanos Tsitsipas has established himself unequivocally as one of the game’s most charismatic players, ruffling some feathers along the way because of his hard-edged personality, developing a large legion of admirers with his diversified game and unflagging competitive spirit, capturing the attention of tennis fans from every corner of the globe by displaying his many attributes and exposing a few vulnerabilities. Complicated he is, but know this about Tsitsipas: he is totally dedicated to his craft and a multi-faceted man who is good for the game of tennis.
To be sure, Tsitsipas has been deservedly in the forefront of the game for quite some time. And yet, for a variety of reasons, this Greek stylist was not fully himself for much of the past year. He was shattered emotionally by losing the French Open final in 2021 after building a two set lead over Novak Djokovic in the final. His psyche and results suffered considerably thereafter. He had surgery for an ailing right elbow late last year.
But now Tsitsipas may well have turned the corner and recovered a large measure of self conviction by defending his crown at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters tournament on the red clay. By eclipsing the fleet-footed Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 6-3, 7-6 (3) in the final, Tsitsipas placed himself in elite territory at this illustrious Masters 1000 event. He joins Ilie Nastase (1971-73), Bjorn Borg (1979-80), Thomas Muster (1995-96), Juan Carlos Ferrero (2002-2003), and Rafael Nadal (2005-2012 and 2016-2018) as one of only six men ever to take the Monte Carlo title at least two years in a row. Clearly, that is no mean feat.
The achievement becomes all the more remarkable in light of his recent woes. After winning in Lyon last spring, Tsitsipas appeared in eleven tournaments the rest of the year and then six more at the start of 2022 without claiming a title. Those cumulative setbacks weigh heavily in the mind of any great player, and he unmistakably was wearing those wounds painfully across a long period of time.
Moreover, Tsitsipas nearly suffered what would have been one of the most devastatingly potent defeats of his career in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo. He was putting on a virtuoso display of his court craft against Diego Schwartzman, the “Little Big Man” of tennis. The Greek performer was flowing freely off the ground, coming forward at all the right times, volleying with panache, and serving with pinpoint accuracy and commendable variety in taking a 6-2, 5-2 lead.
Schwartzman is widely revered for his unwavering competitiveness and one of the largest hearts in tennis, but Tsitsipas seemed unstoppable up until that juncture. Yet he fell into disarray, dropping 14 of the next 15 points. Tsitsipas lost that set in a tie-break and then Schwartzman moved in front 4-0, 40-30 in the third set. Tsitsipas was on the edge of a humiliating defeat, but he approached down the line off the backhand, forcing Schwartzman into a passing shot error. Somehow, Tsitsipas rediscovered his winning formula, sweeping six games in a row from the brink of extinction to win the hard way 6-2, 6-7 (3), 6-4.
Having survived that harrowing ordeal, Tsitsipas upended Sascha Zverev 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals. Zverev has been well below par for most of this season, but he had acquitted himself honorably in overcoming Jannik Sinner to reach the penultimate round. Zverev had twice been up a break in the final set and served for the match in that hard fought baseline battle, but they went to a final set tie-break which was locked at 5-5. Sinner’s fragile psyche was evident there as he lost the last two points with unforced errors, falling 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (5).
That victory could conceivably have taken Zverev out of his 2022 doldrums and lifted him back to the level he exhibited so convincingly across the second half of 2021, when the German performed mightily and closed the year by defeating Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev back to back for his second ATP Nitto ATP Finals title.
But, instead, Tsitsipas was far too flexible and inventive for Zverev. He toppled the German for the seventh time in ten head to head appointments over the course of their careers. There were five service breaks in the opening set with Tsitsipas sealing it at last in the tenth game, but from 2-2 in the second set the Greek competitor pulled away inexorably as Zverev essentially surrendered. Tsitsipas deserves high marks for securing 16 of the last 20 points and four games in a row with unerring play to complete a 6-4, 6-2 victory, although Zverev’s passivity and resignation to losing down the stretch were disconcerting to me.
And so Tsitsipas found himself in the final against the surprising Davidovich Fokina. The 22-year-old came into Monte Carlo ranked No. 46 in the world. After accounting for the American Marcos Giron 7-5, 6-3 in the first round, the Spaniard then faced Djokovic. Although this was only Djokovic’s second tournament and fourth match of 2022, he remained a heavy favorite to beat Davidovich Fokina. In two previous meetings against the Spaniard, the Serbian had conceded only seven games in four sets.
But this time they met on an exceedingly windy day. Davidovich Fokina was hitting through the wind much better than Djokovic. The fact that Djokovic had not played a tournament since Dubai— in addition to the wind being so burdensome— made the world No. 1 particularly vulnerable on that afternoon. He lost his serve an astounding nine times across three sets (a career record), and never found his range off the ground.
Davidovich Fokina put himself within range of a straight set victory primarily because his court coverage was so extraordinary. Djokovic tried too many drop shots and his Spanish adversary chased them down with astonishing alacrity, largely taking that tactic away from the Serbian. Down a set and trailing 2-4 in the second set, Djokovic made it to a tie-break. From 2-4 down in that sequence, he took five of six points, securing the set with a masterful point which he won with a scintillating forehand down the line passing shot winner.
But Djokovic’s lack of match play hurt him badly in the third set. He could no longer stay with Davidovich Fokina from the backcourt. He admitted after his 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-1 defeat that his stamina was sorely lacking in the final set, conceding that he “ran out of gas.”
Meanwhile Davidovich Fokina did not waste his big win over the top seed. He beat David Goffin, Taylor Fritz and Grigor Dimitrov to reach his first Masters 1000 final. But he was outclassed by Tsitsipas in the title round contest.
The Spaniard managed to gain an early break for 2-1 in the first set but Tsitsipas had the upper hand almost entirely in sweeping seven of the next eight games to move ahead by a set and 2-0. Davidovich, however, was ready to make a move. He took three games in a row with heavier hitting and a reduction of errors. Nevertheless, Tsitsipas weathered that storm and broke again at 4-4.
Serving for the match at 5-4, Tsitsipas led 15-0 but lost his serve at 30. That should not happen to a player of his talent and experience. His first Masters 1000 final was in the summer of 2018 in Canada. He won Monte Carlo a year ago. He has been in three Australian Open semifinals and made it to the French Open semifinals in 2020 before reaching the final last year. Why was he so insecure trying to serve out the match against Davidovich Fokina? I don’t have the answer.
Tsitsipas did not gift that game to the Spaniard, but he did nothing special. Be that as it may, he served with more purpose and precision in holding on when he stood at 5-6, 15-30 and then played a disciplined and inspired tie-break to prevail 6-3, 7-6 (3) for his second Masters 1000 crown. This win could not have been more timely for Tsitsipas. It should propel him into the clay court campaign at full force, much the way his 2021 Monte Carlo tournament win did at that time.
Tsitsipas went on in 2021 after Monte Carlo to push Nadal down to the wire in the final of Barcelona. He had a match point before losing that clash. He then won another title not long before Roland Garros and nearly pulled off a trifecta that would have been spectacular in Paris, ousting Medvedev and Zverev before taking the first two sets from Djokovic in the final.
I expect Tsitsipas to enjoy similar success on the clay court trail this year. Winning Monte Carlo again will reignite the Greek in many ways. He will be a big threat at Roland Garros once more, and I would expect him to win another title along the path to Paris on the dirt. One important test for the Greek player could be a semifinal duel with Carlos Alcaraz this week in Barcelona.
Alcaraz, of course, has twice defeated Tsitsipas in recent times, including a magnificent five set victory at the U.S. Open last year. At the end of March in Miami, Alcaraz stopped Tsitsipas again, this time in straight sets.
Both of those encounters took place on hard courts. On the clay, Tsitsipas might have a slightly better chance, although I would still give Alcaraz the slight edge. The Spaniard will be even more eager to win a title in his country this week after a narrow loss to Sebastian Korda in Monte Carlo.
Korda must be admired for winning that battle. He had lost to Alcaraz in straight sets last fall in the title round meeting at the Next Gen ATP Finals, but this time around he came through admirably with the wind blowing ferociously. Korda was measuring his shots more skillfully than Alcaraz. The swirling wind seemed to mess more with the Spaniard’s timing while the American adjusted commendably.
Alcaraz served for the first set at 5-4 and 6-5 but could not close it out, falling short in a tie-break. After taking the second set he led 2-0 in the third but won only one more game. Korda prevailed 7-6 (2), 6–7 (5), 6-3 over Alcaraz before losing to Fritz.
I believe Alcaraz will get over that loss quickly. After reaching the semifinals at Indian Wells and winning Miami, his outlook will remain upbeat. He can win a clay court tournament en route to Paris and will be in the latter stages at Roland Garros as well.
As for Davidovich Fokina, I am encouraged about his prospects. He had won only 4 of 13 matches all season long before Monte Carlo, but now he is expected to be ranked No. 27 in the world following his latest exploits. He is one of the fastest players of all moving forward (and not bad laterally as well), his two-handed backhand is awfully good, and his capacity to go down the line off both sides sets him apart from most players. Davidovich Fokina now has to prove that he is worthy of his newfound status. In my view, he will do well in the upcoming clay court tournaments and win his share of matches, but replicating his Monte Carlo heroics will probably be too tall of a task.
Meanwhile, Djokovic will be in Belgrade this week for the ATP 250 event. This is a chance for him to get back into the swing of things, play a string of matches and perhaps pick up a title. To defend his crown at Roland Garros and thus win a third career title in Paris, Djokovic must find his rhythm swiftly and reacquire the habit of winning. He will be apprehensive competing at home, but the crowds will be cheering him on unabashedly.
So there you have it. In the coming weeks, Djokovic will be hoping to recover his confidence. Alcaraz will be eager to perform well on a surface he enjoys immensely. Zverev will be seeking to reassert himself. Davidovich Fokina will be looking at life from a loftier point of view. Last, but not least, Stefanos Tsitsipas will be having more fun playing professional tennis than he has for a long time after holding on to his crown in Monte Carlo and reminding his peers just how good he can be when he is anywhere near the peak of his powers.
A Renaissance of American Tennis
Like a steadily rising tide, fresh generations are taking the reins of US tennis
by Kingsley Elliot Kaye
The all-American final in Houston caps the positive trend of American Tennis in the last months. The pinnacle was Taylor Fritz’s triumph at Indian Wells, but a fresh generation of young American players has been making the headlines day after day with their results and performances. Is it too hasty to speak about a resurgence?
The US has always shaped the history of Lawn Tennis. From its outset, with champions like Bill Tilden, Donald Budge, Jack Kramer, to the open era: players like Connors, McEnroe, Sampras and Agassi still stand out as icons of our sport.
American players have often left a technical legacy, bringing innovation to the game. Just to mention a few: Big Bill Tilden was the first to employ perfectly executed dropshots and to lay special focus on tactics and even psychology. In the 50s Jack Kramer brought in power, a key asset of the game.
Connors with his aggressive anticipation can be considered as the forerunner of a gameplay which later was implemented by Agassi and has become a feature of contemporary tennis. Jim Courier proved how powerful and incessant groundstroke drilling can lead to the very top. McEnroe stands out as an unprecedented genius.
A Tennis movement is not just defined by its most glittering stars. Its consistency and durability rely on a plurality of players who constitute the bearing frame. They may not be regulars in the top 10, or even top 20, but will enjoy a career on the tour reaping consistent results and occasional breakthroughs to the highest.
Swedish tennis, for instance, inspired by Borg, in a few years was able to deploy a manifold cluster of young and eager players, not only following in the footsteps of their father, with his revolutionary double-handed topspin backhand and a rock-solid mental, but also venturing out in the serve and volley area. Names like Stefan Edberg and Anders Jarryd ring a bell for many.
German champions Boris Becker and Michael Stich were joined by a vivacious bunch, whose ranking ranged between top 20 and top 50: Steeb. Jelen, Kuhnen. In their wake came the Kiefer and Haas and Schuettler generation.
Instead, a world No. 1 from Brazil, Guga Kuerten, who enlightened the passage to the new millennium with his charismatic and joyful personality, remained a lone runner.
In the seventies American tennis averaged 30 players in the top 100, which often meant 3 in the top ten and 8 in the top twenty. The decade which followed witnessed a staggering peak of 45 in 1982, with 10 players in the top 20, and 25 in the top 50. Ivan Lendl is included in the count, but this does not cast a shadow on such figures.
The nineties were marked by the Courier/Chang/Agassi/Sampras generation, but showed some signs of decline beneath the golden surface, with a decreasing number of players in the top 100.
Andy Roddick was a valiant flag bearer of Stars and Stripes tennis in the first decade of the New Millennium, with his US Open victory in 2002, three Wimbledon finals and one US Open final, 5 ATP Master Series and 13 weeks at the top spot of the ranking. Yet US tennis definitively started dropping behind its history. The last ATP Ranking in 2005 featured Roddick (No.3), Agassi (No. 7) and Ginepri (No. 15) in the top 20, and only five other players in the top 100.
After Roddick retired in 2012, now and then American players succeeded in coming up with spotlight performances. Long John Isner for instance with his Miami triumph in 2018 and, in the same year, his unforgettable Wimbledon semi-final in which after 6 hours and 36 minutes, he eventually surrendered to South African Kevin Anderson 26-24 in an epic fifth set.
Jason Sock won the 2017 Paris Bercy Open, which allowed him to reach his best ranking, No. 8.
Sam Querry reached a Wimbledon semi-final in 2017 shattering British hopes for glory when he stunned Murray in quarterfinals, a notch above his 2016 run when he had knocked out Djokovic in the round of 16.
However exciting these results could be, they still had a somewhat sporadic flavour. Rankings are a truthteller, if not on sheer talent, on consistency: those years only Isner and Sock broke into the top ten and there was a low point in 2013, with no American in the top 20, worsened in 2021, when at times no US player was ranked in the top 30.
In spite of a still disappointing 2021 US Open, during the months which followed there was something in the air, something rising. Isner, Opelka and Fritz back in the top 30. Tiafoe, Korda, Paul in the 50; Brooksby, McDonald, Giron, Nakashima closely chasing. In fact, the last 2022 ATP ranking featured 12 American flags in the top 100.
And then this array of results in 2022, with Tiafoe’s final in Vienna in October 2021 as a prelude. Fritz triumphed at Indian Wells Open, Opelka in Dallas and Houston. Brooksby was runner up in Dallas and best Tsitsipas in Indian Wells. Cressy too made the final of the Melbourne Summer Set as Isner did in Houston yesterday. Speaking about performances, Korda was one point away from defeating Nadal in the second round at Indian Wells.
Often a tennis movement embodies a style. When we think of the Swedes, our memories rush back to beautifully geometrically conceived groundstrokes. Or the Spanish, traditionally born on clay courts, formidable baseline players determined to scurry and retrieve any ball, gradually evolving and adapting to the times.
American tennis, indeed, has always been characterised by variety, which is not surprising, considering the amplitude of the nation and its heterogeneity. And now it is just the case.
This new wave of US tennis is currently captained by Taylor Fritz, a solid all-round player, whose self-confidence surely will be boosted by his win in Indian Wells. Big serve (with some volley) is represented by Reilly Opelka. Sebastian Korda is an emblem of variety (his father’s genes may have had their say!), just as Jenson Brooksby, who is a strategy master too. Frances Tiafoe represents an all-offensive tennis. Tommy Paul, McKenzie McDonald and Brandon Nakashima are endowed with strong groundstrokes, excellent footwork and propension to attack. Maxime Cressy has revived pure serve and volley. Experienced players Isner, Giron and Kudla contribute to the team’s overall strength and consistency.
Some still may say that this cluster of American players may not appear as overpowering as in the past. It may be conceded. But times are different as well.
From 2005 to 2022 the cake of Majors was divided for the most part among Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, with Murray and Wawrinka getting their fair share (3 each) and outsiders Del Potro and Cilic, and more recently Thiem and Medvedev getting one bite.
Over the next few years the tennis scenario could be quite different and resemble the 1995-2003 period, with 17 different winners in the Majors. If competition gets as tight once more, with several top players standing a chance of winning a Major, these fresh US players will be in the number.
The clay season is about to get underway. The last American triumph at Roland Garros dates back to 1992, and Chang reached the final in 1995 proving that his win in 1989 was no stroke of luck. Despite meagre harvests in the recent years a few breakthroughs do stand out: Isner’s quarter-final in Madrid 2021, Opelka semi-final Rome 2021. At Roland Garros in 2020 Korda lost to his idol Rafa Nadal in the 4th round and Isner reached the same stage in 2018.
This time the feeling is that a new cycle has started, and this Renaissance is capable of breaking many boundaries.
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