Steve Flink: Stefanos Tsitsipas Turns His Year Around - UBITENNIS
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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.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas - Montecarlo 2022 (foto Roberto dell'Olivo)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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