Steve Flink on Novak Djokovic Rewriting Tennis Tistory - UBITENNIS
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Steve Flink on Novak Djokovic Rewriting Tennis Tistory

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by Steve Flink

At the end of his 70th career Grand Slam tournament and his 19th appearance at Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic made good on two overriding goals. He captured his 23rd major title, moving to the top of the men’s list at last with the triumph. In turn, he took his third crown at Roland Garros, which made him the first and only man in the history of the sport to secure at least three singles titles at all four majors. He raised his record in major finals to 23-11, and has now claimed victory in 15 of his last 18 title round contests at the Grand Slam championships. Moreover, the 36-year-old established himself as the oldest man (at 36 years and twenty days) ever to rule at Roland Garros.

By virtue of his latest monumental win in Paris, Djokovic moves back to No. 1 in the world and, for the second time in three years and the third time overall in his career, he is half way to a Grand Slam after securing the first two majors of the season. Having won the last four Wimbledon singles titles and seven altogether at the shrine, he will be a clear favorite to come through again next month on the lawns of the All England Club.

In his final round meeting at Roland Garros against No. 4 seed Casper Ruud—who was appearing in his third Grand Slam final of the last five played—Djokovic struggled inordinately early on to find his energy, rhythm, and customary ball control. He would make 32 unforced errors across three sets on this occasion, but 18 of those self inflicted wounds were in the first set. He made only 14 more the rest of the way.

Djokovic’s first set difficulties started in the second game on his serve. In a five deuce game, he had three game points but could not convert, and a resolute Ruud took full advantage. The Norwegian broke Djokovic for 2-0 and held on for 3-0. He was disrupting Djokovic skillfully from the backcourt, largely with high trajectory shots which made the Serbian play awkward shots above his shoulder too frequently.

The battle was being fought by and large on Ruud’s terms until he served at 4-2. Until that juncture, he was not only making Djokovic uncomfortable, but also executing his own game plan superbly. His vulnerable backhand was holding up surprisingly well, and his forehand was first rate. But he lost his serve apprehensively in the seventh game, bungling an overhead at break point down.

In the high humidity, Djokovic seemed to be breathing hard, but he fended off a break point in the eighth game. Having already missed a few routine overheads, he played his smash carefully and then answered Ruud’s response with a forehand drop volley winner on the 25th shot of a demanding exchange. Djokovic held on for 4-4 with an impeccable serve down the T setting up a forehand winner. He then had a break point in the following game, only to pull a forehand wide.

Ruud fully understood that he needed this opening set more than Djokovic. The 24-year-old held on steadfastly for 5-4 and had the Serbian down 0-30 in the tenth game. Djokovic met that moment boldly, making a backhand drop volley winner, and coming forward again to force an errant backhand pass. At 30-30 Ruud overhit a forehand second serve return, and then Djokovic approached the net again to draw an error. It was 5-5. Both players held at 15 for 6-6, and so, fittingly, a tie-break settled the outcome of the set.

That did not auger well for Ruud. Djokovic had won all five tie-breaks he had played in the previous rounds and had not made a single unforced error in any of them. Nothing changed against Ruud. Djokovic sent a flat forehand scorching down the line for a winner on the first point, and never looked back, wrapping it up with an ace and a forehand winner. He prevailed seven points to one and put himself out in front after 82 taxing minutes with his sixth tie-break triumph of the tournament. He played a total of 55 points in those six tie-breaks without making any unprovoked mistakes. None. Zero. Pause briefly and think about that.

The boost to Djokovic in coming from behind to win that set with such a dominant tie-break performance spilled over into the second set. He held at love for 1-0 with an ace, broke Ruud in the second game with persistence and polish from the backcourt, and then held for 3-0 at 15 after two aces and a service winner took him to 40-0. Djokovic surged to 5-2, had Ruud down 15-40 in the eighth game, and nearly sealed the set there.

The 24-year-old held on gamely, however, erasing two set points again him and forcing Djokovic to serve out the set. That was no problem for the Serbian, who held at love and reached two sets to love with a backhand down the line winner.

There is no better front runner in tennis today, and probably there never has been. But Ruud commendably fought on valiantly despite the severity of the obstacle he faced. At 1-1 in the third set, Djokovic had a break point that he squandered by netting a routine backhand down the line. On his way to 3-3, Djokovic conceded only one point on his own serve but Ruud was refusing to surrender.

The Norwegian gave himself an opening in the eighth game with Djokovic serving at 0-30, but the 36-year-old produced a fortunate forehand let cord winner. Djokovic swiftly took the next three points, winning two of the three with an ace and a service winner, taking the other with a swing volley that was too much for Ruud to handle. The set score was locked at 4-4.

Ruud remained unwavering, holding on for 5-4. But Djokovic simply raised the stakes one last time, and unleashed some of his most unanswerable tennis down the stretch. He held at love for 5-5 with two aces down the T in the deuce court and a game concluding forehand winner struck with clarity and conviction. He then broke Ruud at love, commencing that game with a backhand down the line winner, closing it with a two-hander driven crosscourt for another winner. Serving for the match, he raced to 40-0, missed a forehand crosscourt, and then coaxed one last error from a beleaguered yet thoroughly professional Ruud.  Djokovic had closed out the match and the tournament in style, taking three consecutive games, 12 of the last 13 points, and prevailing 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5. He made history of a high order once more with another supreme display of tactical acuity, increasing technical soundness off both sides, and enormous willpower. It was a final of which he could be proud. Across the last two sets, he did not face a break point, winning 44 of 53 points in eleven service games.

And yet, while every final is eagerly anticipated because of the immense and sometimes monumental consequences, the match everyone wanted to see more than any other at this edition of Roland Garros was the duel in the penultimate round between Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz. In the weeks leading up to the French Open, it seemed entirely possible that Djokovic and Alcaraz would be the top two seeds. That, of course, would have ensured they could only meet in the final.

But when Daniil Medvedev surprisingly took the Italian Open crown in Rome, he moved past Djokovic in the ATP Rankings to No. 2 in the world. As fate would decree, Djokovic and Alcaraz— the two players who had captured the last three majors between them—ended up on the same half, and so they clashed in the semifinal round instead.

The first two sets of their encounter were nothing short of stupendous. The tennis soared to unimaginable levels. Both players were primed for the contest. It had the feeling of a final. Djokovic was magnificent in the opening set. He was out-dueling Alcaraz from the baseline, using the backhand down the line judiciously, walloping his forehand with extraordinary control and power and control, and beating the Spaniard to the punch in one crackling exchange after another.

Conceding only three points in his first two service games when he put ten of eleven first serves in play, the Serbian made his move in the fourth game. At break point, Djokovic implemented the drop shot to draw Alcaraz in. The Spaniard angled a forehand crosscourt in response. Djokovic answered with a forehand down the line, taking the net away from Alcaraz. The Spaniard tried to pass the Serbian with a backhand crosscourt, but Djokovic covered the net with alacrity, putting away a backhand volley into the open court.

Djokovic made that one break count. He held at 30 for 4-1, and sedulously protected his delivery in a five deuce seventh game, erasing three break points against him to reach 5-2. After Alcaraz saved a set point in the following game with a swing volley winner, Djokovic held his nerve admirably when he served for the set at 5-3. Down break point, he released a 129 MPH service winner out wide. He followed with a service winner to the Alcaraz forehand in the deuce court, and closed it out forcefully. Coming in behind his first serve, he coaxed an errant backhand return from Alcaraz. The set went to a supremely disciplined Djokovic, 6-3.

Gradually, Alcaraz found a higher level in the second set. Perhaps one inspirational moment altered his thinking and made him believe. With Alcaraz serving at 1-1, 15-0, Djokovic drew him forward with a backhand drop shot, and then cut off Alcaraz’s response with a backhand volley down the middle. Alcaraz chased it down with his customary speed, somehow wheeled around, turned, and sent a spectacular forehand pass crosscourt. The Spaniard beamed. Djokovic smiled appreciatively. The crowd applauded vociferously.

But considerable drama remained across the rest of that memorable second set. Serving at 2-3, 40-0, Djokovic netted a backhand down the line and immediately started shaking out his arm. He held on for 3-3 but, after Alcaraz moved in front with a hold for 4-3, the trainer came out at the changeover and massaged Djokovic’s right arm.

Perhaps preoccupied with whatever he was feeling, Djokovic was broken for the first time in the match to trail 5-3 as his serve speed dropped significantly. Nonetheless, he played a terrific return game to break right back with a backhand down the winner. Now serving at 4-5, Djokovic was down 0-40 but he swept five points in a row with precision serving, timely attacking and stinging groundstrokes.

The Serbian was back to 5-5. He then reached break point in the following game, only to mishandle a high backhand, uncharacteristically sending it wide crosscourt. Alcaraz managed to hold on for 6-5, and a tie-break seemed almost certain. But Djokovic served-and-volleyed on the first point of the twelfth game and angled a backhand first volley wide. Alcaraz proceeded to break at love, winning the set 7-5, making it one set all, leading most observers to believe that the best might be yet to come for both players.

But after Alcaraz held in the opening game of the third set, Djokovic was serving at 40-30 in the second game and it was apparent that the Spaniard was in trouble. He lost that point with an off balance netted forehand return as Djokovic reached 1-1, but now Alcaraz was writhing. He was cramping all over his body on an exceedingly hot day. He took a timeout to have the trainer rub his legs, but the delay resulted in the automatic loss of the third game. Cramps are not considered an injury but rather a loss of conditioning.Djokovic had the benefit of a service break for 2-1 without hitting a ball.

The match was essentially over. Djokovic won a deuce game for 3-1, broke at love for 4-1, held at 15 for 5-1, and broke again at 30 to take the set 6-1. All Alcaraz could do was swing away and hope for the best but his mobility was severely restricted. Somewhat better in the fourth set, Alcaraz honorably stayed out there and took his punishment. Djokovic moved to 5-0 before Alcaraz ended an eleven game losing streak. Soon it was over and Djokovic had triumphed 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1. For the first two sets, it was a glorious spectacle. Across the last two sets it was painful to watch, although Djokovic was highly professional in refusing to become distracted by an ailing adversary.

Djokovic had made it to the penultimate round by ousting No. 11 seed Karen Khachanov, who had been to the semifinals of his previous two majors and was hoping to keep that string going. Khachanov was bearing down hard as he took the first set from a listless Djokovic, and then both men held through the first twelve games of the second set. Djokovic had still not broken serve as he headed into a crucial second set tie-break. In that sequence, he was letter perfect, prevailing 7-0.

The triumph in that second set tie-break against Khachanov carried Djokovic right through the rest of the match. He lifted his game exponentially, swept through the third set 6-2, and built a 4-2 fourth set lead. Having won eleven of the last fifteen games since the start of the tie-break, Djokovic was back in his groove. Khachanov briefly halted his opponent’’s momentum, rallying to 4-4. But Djokovic once more went into his lockdown mode, capturing eight points in a row and two straight games to close out the battle 4-6, 7-6 (0), 6-2, 6-4.

In the previous round, Djokovic had dissected Juan Pablo Varillas 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. The Peruvian had knocked out a pair of seeds en route to the Djokovic appointment, defeating No. 19 Roberto Bautista Agut and No. 13 Hubert Hurkacz. He had won three five set matches in a row before taking on Djokovic, but the No. 3 seed took him apart methodically.

Perhaps the primary reason Djokovic was so sharp in his confrontation with Varillas was the third round test he had against the Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. The No. 29 seed had toppled an off form Djokovic in their previous meeting at Monte Carlo in 2022, and he knows his way around a clay court well. He played an intelligent match and made Djokovic work awfully hard in the first two sets.

At 5-5 in the opening set, Djokovic, struggling inordinately with the wind at his back, served three double faults and lost his serve. He managed to break right back, but soon trailed 1-3 in the tiebreak before taking six of the next seven points to prevail 7-4, wrapping it up with a blazing forehand return winner. At 5-6 in a pendulum swinging second set, Djokovic was down set point but he refused to miss and forced his will on his adversary. In the ensuing tie-break, Djokovic was serving with a 4-1 lead, lost the next four points to trail 4-5, but collected three points in a row to reach two sets to love. On to victory he went 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-2. What could easily have been a five hour marathon ended instead in three hours and thirty six minutes.

Rounding out Djokovic’s road to the final, he was pushed hard in an 87 minute first set against Marton Fucsovics but thereafter he rolled to a 7-6 (2), 6-0, 6-3 second round victory. And his first round assignment was relatively routine as Djokovic accounted for Aleksandar Kovacevic 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1) after serving for the match at 5-4 in that third set against the world No. 114.

As for Ruud, the No. 4 seed took apart qualifier Elias Ymer 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in the first round before a somewhat difficult 6-3, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory over Giulio Zeppieri, a qualifier from Italy who had toppled the ever dangerous Alexander Bublik in the opening round. Ruud had to fight from behind to defeat Zhizhen Zhang 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 in his third round skirmish. Next on Ruud’s agenda was a 7-6 (3) 7-5, 7-5 win over the Chilean Nicolas Jarry, a player who had beaten the Norwegian right before Roland Garros in the quarterfinals of Geneva.

That victory took Ruud into an eagerly awaited quarterfinal against No. 6 seed Holger Rune of Denmark. Ruud had beaten Rune in a four set quarterfinal at Roland Garros a year ago. But the Norwegian had suffered his first loss in five career collisions with Rune in Rome. Coming into the tournament, many in the tennis cognoscenti believed Rune might be ready to reach his first major final, and perhaps in a best case scenario even win the tournament.

But Rune was stretched to his limits by one of the world’s most improved clay court players. Francisco Cerendulo of Argentina—the No. 23 seed—took Rune into a fifth set tie-break after squandering an opportunity with the Dane serving at 3-4, 0-40. That meeting lasted one minute shy of four hours, and it was apparent from the outset of the Rune-Ruud quarterfinal that Rune was terribly depleted. He was almost unrecognizable over the first two sets, and Ruud fully exploited the situation, conceding only three games.

Early in the third, Rune found some energy and inspiration. It was enough to earn him a set, but that was it. Ruud resumed his mastery of the match with first rate ball striking and fine strategic acumen. He succeeded 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. That gave the 24-yer-old an opportunity to face Sascha Zverev in the semifinals in a showdown most observers believed was a tossup.

It was, ultimately, nothing of the kind. Although Zverev was appearing in his third consecutive semifinal at Roland Garros and playing top of the line tennis, he was well below par against Ruud. Zverev was outmaneuvered from the backcourt and his first serve— one of the best in the business—was not finding the corners with regularity. He won only 55% of his first serve points and 45% on his second delivery and was broken six times. A highly focussed Ruud romped 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 in two hours and nine minutes.

Meanwhile, the upset of the tournament took place in the first round. Medvedev was riding high after Rome, where he won the first clay court title of his career, Not only that, but heading into Roland Garros he had won 39 of 44 matches and five titles altogether this season. But Medvedev was ushered out of the tournament in four hours and fifteen minutes by none other than qualifier Thiago Seyboth Wild 7-6 (5), 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. The Brazilian was hitting brilliantly through the wind and clipping lines with astounding consistency, but the fact remains that Medvedev saved two set points in the second set tie-break and seemingly had control of the match. He lost his serve three times in the fifth set. This enigmatic fellow lost in the third round of the Australian Open and  then bowed out in the first round at Roland Garros. He should be better than that.

No one is saying that about Novak Djokovic. What made his Roland Garros championship run all the more remarkable was because it came on the heels of one of his most disappointing clay court seasons. The best he did in three tournaments en route to Paris was to reach the quarterfinals in Rome, where he did not play well against Holger Rune in a three set clash,

During that stretch, Djokovic was struggling with his elbow and battling other ailments. But when the most prestigious prize of them all on clay was at stake in Paris, Djokovic was not found wanting. By succeeding at Roland Garros, the world No. 1 has put himself in an enviable position. Not many players stand much of a chance against Djokovic at Wimbledon. In my view, he has an excellent chance of garnering an eighth title to tie Roger Federer’s men’s record.

Two years ago he did get the job done on the lawns, and then went all the way to the final of the U.S. Open. He was three sets away from becoming only the third man and sixth player to win the Grand Slam. But he lost to Medvedev in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

I believed then that despite his astonishing drive and determination that he would never get a chance like that again. I thought it was asking too much of him. And yet, here he is with another opportunity to set himself apart on the historical ladder of the game he has played so prodigiously for a living. Here he is, heading into Wimbledon committed to winning there again, thoroughly believing in himself. Here is Novak Djokovic, chasing and making history of the rarest kind, relishing the thought of adding to his luster, fully appreciating the life he leads and the targets he keeps hitting. Of the last 17 majors Djokovic has played, he has been victorious in no fewer than eleven.

Will he take these next two majors and establish himself as the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to secure a Grand Slam? I believe he is going to realize that remarkable feat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paula Badosa

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

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

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

Grigor Dimitrov

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

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

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

Daniil Medvedev

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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Steve Flink: The 2024 Italian Open Was Filled with Surprises

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Credit Francesca Micheli/Ubitennis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTE: All photos via Francesca Micheli/Ubitennis

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

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

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SIMONA HALEP OF ROMANIA - PHOTO: MATEO VILLALBA / MMO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Lack of generational turnover

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

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

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

2) Changed game conditions

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

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

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

3) Further growth of offensive players

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

Translated by Carla Montaruli

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