Goodbye Roger Federer, best wishes for your second life - UBITENNIS
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Goodbye Roger Federer, best wishes for your second life

I watched hundreds of your matches. Yet, five minutes would have just been enough.

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By Ubaldo Scanagatta

 

We all understood his talent was endless. Tennis fans could not help but fall in love. Every match, everywhere, he was always playing before a home crowd. Today I’m writing about the classiest player ever. Tomorrow I may write about the man. We all had a dream: if only we could hit just one of his shots.

Five minutes would have just been enough and…  The great champions of sport are the only human beings who are allowed to die twice.  Today grief is unanimous, universal. Universal because… our world is far too small. Eulogies and personal, nostalgic memories are pouring in from all over.  Everyone is shedding tears. Not just the champions of a generation. Even those of the previous eras. And far beyond the narrow boundaries of the Tennis Planet, a microcosm.

There is no media or social network which hasn’t published the most inspired obituaries of the greatest writers.  Even – especially? – of those who have never watched an entire match of his… but the news that Roger Federer’s first life, the most eternal, has come to an end blasted out yesterday. It is a chronicle of a death foretold. But, unlike Santiago Nasar, he decided to end it.

The event is sad, ever so sad.  Roger will not have the funeral honours of the Queen of England. Yet King Roger will no longer be stepping out onto the tennis courts. It’s not a Swiss custom. But there will be many of us mourning him. Millions. When I say that everyone is weeping for him… it’s true.

The funeral must be celebrated. Pages and pages in the newspapers dedicated to mourning, reports on the various networks, relishing a first, inevitable docuseries.

De Profundis shall envelop in a shroud of sadness even the most ardent fans of Rafa Nadal, Nole Djokovic and Andy Murray, the three of the Fab Four who are still doggedly attached to their first life. Until their last breath. Hopefully not before turning 41 (Roger’s age).

His first 40 years – let’s be honest and not exaggerate with hyperboles…his last year is not to be counted – have been extraordinary. As far as champions are concerned, records speak for themselves. They cannot be questioned.

Many friends asked me to evoke a personal memory about Roger Federer, knowing that I first saw him play when he was 16 and a half years old and won the Easter Junior Tournament at the Florence TC in 1998 beating Filippo Volandri 64 64. Then I saw him when he made his debut in Davis Cup at Neuchatel on 2 April 1998, aged 17 years and 8 months, and defeated Sanguinetti. I was in Milan when Roger won the first of his 103 tournaments, just after turning 19. At that time someone could still doubt he would become such a phenomenon, even though today many boast they had immediately understood it.

Believe me if I tell you that when, on 2 July 2021 – he wasn’t even twenty –  I saw him beat Pete Sampras in his private garden at Wimbledon, in a five-set match which lasted 3 hours and 40 minutes (he won 190 points, Sampras 180 and no fewer than 20 were outstanding, unbelievable), I couldn’t help writing “I reckon I have just witnessed the official changing of the guard in the United Kingdom: this kid is endowed with such an extraordinary talent that I have no doubt I’ll be writing a countless number of articles about him in a very near future.”

Indeed I was surprised he took one year more than I expected, almost all 2002, to prove I was right. He was less precocious than Nadal and Djokovic. Has his career lasted longer? We’ll see.   

I was not in Basel, his hometown, when, after having met the world of tennis there as a ball boy, he won his 103rd tournament. But I saw it on TV. And I remember writing that it wouldn’t really be fair if he stopped at 103 titles when Jimbo Connors had won 109. It wouldn’t be fair because several of those 109 were fake tournaments. Tournaments organized by Jimbo’s manager, Bill Riordan, and Jimbo’s mom, Gloria. The 103 tournaments that Roger won were won in a different way. And how many more would he have won if he had “humiliated” himself and played those of a lesser status? He could have done that, but he was too proud to… bow his head.

He wouldn’t have been chic. And, come on, let’s forget the lengthy and tedious GOAT debate: who is the most chic tennis player ever, the one who has never been seen sweat, the most elegant for the way he play and dresses … whoever his sponsor was? At first his sponsor was American, Nike, at only 16 years of age. Then Japanese in recent years, Uniqlo. There are also discussions about who was the strongest. But there is no arguing about who has always been the most chic! Maybe even in pyjamas, but we should ask Mirka.

He recalled in his farewell message that he had played over 1500 matches. Being crazy as I am about tennis and great tennis shows, watching Federer play has always been a guarantee of a great show – and I was lucky I didn’t have to pay for the ticket … but I would have paid for it in any case! – I’d love to reconstruct my past to find out how many matches I’ve seen live. And on TV. Just for a silly and useless personal satisfaction. I had so many great moments watching him, that’s for sure. How many ohhs of wonder did he elicit from me, until I got used to it and resolved not to yield to surprise anymore.

I have certainly seen all of his 20 Grand Slam triumphs, across three continents and not just his 8 Wimbledon titles. And his victory number 1251, the last, against our Lorenzo Sonego, before the last defeat, number 275, the one with Hubi (with H … it wasn’t me) Hurkacz. Yes, even Federer has lost a lot more tournaments than he has won, 103. Gentlemen, this is tennis. King Roger has also lost a lot. Even one of the most successful tennis players in history has had to learn how to cope with defeat. On the other hand, without losers (I personally know this category very well) there would be no winners.

Continuing the description of the Federerian paradoxes, the ones you will read about everywhere, Roger has been many more weeks without sitting on the tennis throne than the 310 weeks in which he reigned.

I do not believe – and not because of the openheartedness we feel for those who … no longer exist – that we should give importance to the fact that in 40 duels against Nadal, Roger won only 16 (40%) and in 50 challenges against Djokovic, 23 out of 50 (46%). It is a bit of the same story with Connors’ 109 titles and Federer’s 103 titles. But it is not fair to compare pears and oranges, to compare players of a different age, a 5-year gap with Nadal and a 6-year gap with Djokovic in different periods and with battles that took place on different surfaces (the reference to Rafa Nadal and his indisputable superiority on clay is anything but coincidental).

Instead, I believe that If I had just meant to write what many have written better than I have about the tennis player Roger Federer, there would have been no need to watch him hundreds of times like I did. Except for the pleasure, the inexhaustible enjoyment of course.

It could have really taken just five minutes to… “discover” all his incredible repertoire. In five minutes we would have immediately noticed the fluidity and elegance of his serve and of all his shots, yes, all of them, forehand, backhand, volley, half volley, dropshot, blocked return of serve, sliced backhands, top spin backhands (post Ljubicic), delicate touches like McEnroe (“If I were  more gay I would let myself be caressed by touches like those ” Gianni Clerici used to say about SuperMac but he could also have said that about Roger), aggressive attacks, sneaky attacks (sneaky attacks returning serve with a chip and charge) played with the speed of a pop up, as someone wrote. And what about his tweeners? He hit them in all the possible ways, forehand, backhand, down the line, winning lobs.

We all wished we could play just one of the shots he had. I was racking my brains to think of a shot he has never, not even once, managed to come up with in his magical repertoire. In the end, it came to my mind: the tweener smash! But…nobody is perfect.

Yes, there was no need to follow him in hundreds of matches. Five minutes would have just been enough . Thanks for giving me thousands of those five minutes, Roger. And best wishes for your second life, to you, to Mirka, to the four twins, to everyone. A part of my life as a journalist also goes away with you. And it is not a legend. It was history, true history.  Beautiful. Thanks Roger.

Translated by Massimo Volpati

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Novak Djokovic’s Moment Too Big For Tsitsipas

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Image via Australian Open twitter

Perhaps, it was too much for Stefanos Tsitsipas to think about achieving in one day. That’s beating Novak Djokovic and winning his own initial Grand Slam title, not even to think about the bonus part of the package — becoming the No. 1 player in the world.

 

At any rate, it obviously wasn’t meant to be for Tsitsipas to derail Djokovic.

Djokovic accomplished it all in one neat package.  Say hello to the player many tennis experts are now calling the greatest player ever. Of course, that’s a little premature due to the fact Rafa Nadal was all alone with 22 Grand Slam titles before Djokovic matched the total on Sunday by winning the Australian Open’s men’s singles title.

FORGET THE GOAT TALK

Then,  there’s the great Roger Federer, in reality, possibly the greatest player who ever lived.

So, forget GOAT. It doesn’t matter, whether Nadal or Djokovic wins another Grand Slam title.

Poor Federer. He’s probably home with his children laughing about all of this.

And Rod Laver? Of course, Laver was on hand to watch Djokovic’s superhuman effort.

Back to reality. The moment.

Djokovic lived there Sunday night.

THE MOMENT WAS TOO MUCH FOR TSITSIPAS

Tsitsipas wasn’t ready for the challenge. Djokovic certainly was.

It’s as simple as that.

Novak played great. Tsitsipas didn’t give himself a chance to win.

Djokovic stayed in the moment. Tsitsipas allowed the situation to take over his game and apparently his mind.

Tsitsipas must have been back home in Greece where he would be crowned if he could be No. 1 in the world and win a Grand Slam.

NEAR-PERFECT NOVAK A LEGEND

Tsitsipas had his chances, even though he was down 4-1 in the first set before you could blink an eye.

He actually was two points from winning the second set in regulation, then quickly fell behind, 4-1,  in the tiebreaker.

Tsitsipas took the third set to another tiebreaker, but lost the first five points and then lost the match, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5).

He never seemed to be keyed into the match, repeatedly miss-hitting key shots, even to open courts.

Meanwhile, Djokovic was near-perfect. He surely is a great one, a legend.

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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Novak Djokovic Saves The Day In This Australian Open

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Novak Djokovic - 2022 Nitto ATP Finals Turin (photo Twitter @atptour)

It’s a good thing the Aussies allowed Novak Djokovic to stay in Melbourne this year.

 

Otherwise, the young crowd of players might have taken over completely in this Australian Open. After all, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray, Daniil Medvedev and Iga Swiatek among others didn’t stick around very long.

Novak is saving the day Down Under for the great ones.

This is an Australian Open unlike any in recent years. It’s almost like the Australian Open, with its usual midnight to early-morning Eastern Time matches has taken a step backward in world tennis. 

American fans apparently no longer can watch those great matches that start at 3 a.m. or 4:30 a.m. ET, except on ESPN+.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN LOST IN THE SHUFFLE

This Australian Open appears to be kind of lost in the shuffle this January, virtually taking away its major status.

In the absence of those early-morning battles, I guess it’s okay that most of the top men and women other than Novak, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Tommy Paul, Elena Rybakina and Jessie Pegula have sang their Aussie songs and headed elsewhere, except maybe for doubles.

Don’t overlook the tall Russian Rybakina on the women’s side. She’s two wins away from her second Grand Slam title, having upended the top-ranked Swiatek in the round of 16 and then taking care of former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the quarterfinals.

ALMOST LIKE A COLLEGE EVENT

Ben Shelton and J.J. Wolf are certainly outstanding American college level talents that came racing out of the winter red-hot.

But like MacKenzie McDonald, who thrashed an unprepared Nadal with a college-like all-power game only to falter the next round against a journeyman player like Yoshihito Nishioka, it’s doubtful that either Shelton or Wolf can stand the test of the only great one left — Djokovic.

In the long run, Shelton especially and Wolf likely will be stars. But these newcomers aren’t likely to hit the tour with the greatness that Carlos Alcaraz displayed when he was healthy during the last half of 2022.

WATCH FOR THE OTHER STARS AFTER AUSTRALIA

Other stars from last year such as Jannik Sinner, Cameron Norrie, Casper Ruud, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Felix Auger-Aliassime will make their own noise once the tour hits Europe and America.

As far as Americans other than Paul, I like the looks of young Jenson Brooksby, who upended the second-ranked Ruud in the second round. The 22-year-old Brooksby looks like a future star, that is if he gets in better physical condition.

Thus, Novak appears to be an almost certainty to sweep to his 22nd major title in an event that has been his own private playground for much of his career. That shouldn’t change on Sunday in the Australian Open final. 

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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A Dream Week For Holger Rune In Paris

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image via https://twitter.com/RolexPMasters

Across the springtime of 2022 and culminating at the end of summer, a 19-year-old Spaniard named Carlos Alcaraz made history of the highest order in his profession.

 

Alcaraz was astonishing during that span, establishing himself as the first teenager in the men’s game since Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2005 to capture a major when he took the U.S. Open title. This electrifying performer now resides at No.1 in the world and will probably conclude the year at the top despite an abdominal injury preventing him from competing at the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin.

To be sure, Alcaraz has been the sport’s “Man of the Year” in so many ways. And yet, a fellow teenager has now joined the Spaniard in the top ten, and that surely is no mean feat.

Denmark’s Holger Rune celebrated the most stupendously successful week of his career by improbably toppling the six-time champion Novak Djokovic to win the Rolex Paris Masters crown. Rune upended the game’s greatest front runner with a final round triumph he will surely remember for the rest of his life. Somehow, despite being in one precarious position after another—and finding himself dangerously low on oxygen at the end— Rune fended off a tennis icon who had swept 13 matches in a row over the autumn. Rune upended an unwavering yet apprehensive Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 to garner his first Masters 1000 title. The grit and gumption he displayed on this auspicious occasion was ample evidence that he authentically has a champion’s mentality, a wealth of talent and a reservoir of courage that must be deeply admired.

It was a fascinating contest from beginning to end. Djokovic was unstoppable in the first set, breaking Rune in the fourth game when the precocious Dane served two double faults which seemed largely caused by overzealousness. Djokovic won 21 of 26 points on serve, nursed the one break he got very professionally, and outmaneuvered Rune time and again from the backcourt. His controlled aggression was first rate. Serving for that opening set at 5-3, Djokovic closed it out at love.

He then reached 0-40 on the Rune serve in the opening game of the second set, but squandered that opportunity flagrantly with an errant backhand passing shot, a netted forehand second serve return and a cautious overhead that eventually cost him the point. Rune held on sedulously, and soon moved to 3-0. That opening game was critical, changing the complexion of the set and allowing Rune to believe he was in with a chance.

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Rune held serve the rest of the way to make it one set all. But, once more, Djokovic took command. He broke the Dane for a 3-1 third set lead when Rune went for broke on a big second serve down the T and double faulted. Djokovic sought to cement his advantage in the fifth game, opening up a 30-0 lead and later advancing to 40-30. He stood one point away from a 4-1 lead which might have proved insurmountable, but Rune made the Serbian pay for a backhand approach lacking sting and direction, passing Djokovic cleanly down the line off the backhand.

Rune managed crucially to break back, closing the gap to 3-2 and denying Djokovic a hold he should have had. Djokovic was visited at the changeover by the trainer, who attended to a left quad issue that was burdening the Serbian. But thereafter Djokovic seemed physically fine and appeared to be wearing Rune down. Leading 4-3, Djokovic pressed hard for a break, but again Rune obstinately stood his ground and came up with the goods in the clutch.

There were two deuces in that eighth game, but the Dane refused to allow Djokovic to reach break point. On both deuce points, the 19-year-old unleashed dazzling backhand winners down the line before holding on gamely. The set went to 5-5, and Rune’s opportunism was again showcased. Djokovic was ahead 30-0 but Rune collected four points in a row to seal the break, taking the last two on unprovoked mistakes from Djokovic.

And so Rune served for the match in the twelfth game of the third set with a 6-5 lead. His lungs were almost empty as Djokovic probed time and again to climb into a tie-break. It was hard to imagine if Djokovic managed to break back that Rune would be able to stay with him in that playoff. He was exhausted from the mental, emotional and physical strain of the hard fought third set.

Six times in that last game Djokovic stood at break point, but he could not convert. Rune’s temerity when it counted was almost breathtaking. He erased the first break point by lacing a forehand down the line for a winner, and then benefitted from a shocking Djokovic netted running forehand on the second. Then Djokovic had complete control on his third break point, only to send a backhand drop shot into the net.

Rune remained unrelenting, saving the fourth break point with an overhead winner, and erasing the fifth when Djokovic pulled a backhand pass wide with a clear opening. Rune reached match point for the first time but his explosive second serve landed long for a double fault. Djokovic advanced to break point for the sixth and last time, only to be stymied by a service winner from the Dane. Soon Rune was at match point for the second time, and he closed out the account stylishly with a forehand pass at the feet of Djokovic, who was coaxed into a netted half volley. For the first time ever in 31 Masters 1000 tournament finals, Djokovic had lost after securing the opening set. Walking on court with Rune in Paris, Djokovic’s career record overall after winning the first set was 891-38 (just shy of 96%), which is a higher success rate than any other male player in the Open Era.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUTX37tFaos

Through nearly the entire last game of the encounter, Rune knew full well he had to finish it off there. Djokovic was well aware that his opponent was physically spent. Both players understood that the match was totally on the line; Djokovic would almost surely have prevailed in the tie-break had they gone there. For Djokovic, the loss was disappointing but not necessarily devastating. He put himself in a position to win twice, but did not realize his goal.

Yet he recognized that perhaps the match he played in the penultimate round against Stefanos Tsitsipas had taken a toll on him mentally. He had crushed Tsitsipas in the first set. From 2-2 in the first set he won five games in a row and then had a 0-30 lead on the Greek competitor’s serve early in the second set. Tsitsipas escaped and stretched Djokovic to his limits before the Serbian came through from a mini-break down at 3-4 in the third set tie-break to win four points in a row. Djokovic was victorious 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4) but that victory required an inordinate amount of emotional energy.

An exuberant Rune was ready to pounce if given the opportunity. He did just that.

In fact, Rune set a Masters 1000 tournament record with five wins over players ranked in the top ten. His Paris indoor journey started when he fought back valiantly to defeat Stan Wawrinka 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3), saving three match points in the process (two in the second set, one in the third). After that escape, Rune stopped Hubert Hurkacz 7-5, 6-1, Andrey Rublev 6-4, 7-5, Alcaraz 6-3, 6-6 retired, Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4 6-2 and then Djokovic.

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Rune’s dynamic rise into the top ten has not happened by accident. He has won 19 of his last 21 matches, appearing in four consecutive ATP Tour finals during that remarkable span. He was beaten in the title round contest at Sofia by Marc-Andrea Huesler, won Stockholm over Tsitsipas, lost to Auger-Aliassime in the Basel final and now is the Rolex Paris Masters champion. Auger-Aliassime had won three straight titles before Rune stopped him in Paris. Djokovic had not lost since Auger-Aliassime defeated him at the Laver Cup. Rune refused to be intimidated by the size of their reputations and the strength of their recent records.

Rune wisely decided to skip the Next Gen ATP Finals this week in Milan. He will fittingly be the first alternate for the Nitto ATP Finals coming up in Turin starting on November 13. I have no doubt he will be ranked among the top five in the world by this time next year, and perhaps even reside among the top three. What impressed me the most in his match with Djokovic was his adaptability. Although Djokovic often set the tempo in that duel, Rune’s tactical skills were outstanding. At times he looped forehands and sent soft and low sliced backhands over the net to prevent Djokovic from feeding off of his pace. In other instances, Rune hit out freely and knocked the cover off the ball. He constantly shifted his strategy and Djokovic could not easily anticipate what was coming next. Rune employed the backhand down the line drop shot skillfully as another tool to keep Djokovic off guard.

No one in the game opens up the court better than Rune to set up forehand winners produced with a shade of sidespin that fade elusively away from his adversaries. Djokovic was the only player all week in Paris to comfortably return Rune’s serve, but on the big points Rune had an uncanny knack for finding the corners and landing big first serves. He saved ten of twelve break points against Djokovic. Moreover, he converted all three of his break points against a renowned opponent. Djokovic broke him twice but Rune would have lost his serve three more times if he had not performed mightily when his plight looked bleak.

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What was most demonstrable at the Rolex Paris Masters was Rune’s propensity to play with immense poise under pressure. Not only did he survive that skirmish with the three time major champion Wawrinka in the opening round, but he somehow overcame Djokovic despite winning five fewer points across the three sets (97 to 92). Rune played the biggest points better than one of the most formidable match players of all time. He is a highly charged young player who has rubbed some players the wrong way with his high intensity bouts of abrasiveness on the court, but his comportment in Paris was very impressive and he did not put a foot out of line during his appointment with Djokovic. He handled the occasion awfully well under the circumstances.

In the weeks and months ahead, Rune will become a target of lesser ranked players looking to enlarge their reputations by virtue of striking down more accomplished adversaries. He will feel a different kind of pressure when he moves through the 2023 season in search of the premier prizes. But this is an enormously ambitious individual who is reminiscent of Alcaraz in terms of his outlook, sense of self, and mentality. They may well develop a stirring rivalry over the next five to ten years that will captivate galleries all over the world. Throw Auger-Aliassime into the mix with Alcaraz and Rune as well.

Tennis will be in exceedingly good shape in the years ahead. Djokovic remains in the forefront of the sport and he is a very young 35. The 36-year-old Nadal is not yet done by any means. But the younger generation is upon us, and it is apparent that Holger Rune is going to take his place among the game’s most illustrious players with increasing force, persuasion and urgency.

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