Steve Flink On Wimbledon 2023 - UBITENNIS
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Steve Flink On Wimbledon 2023

Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic’s epic five set battle headlined Wimbledon 2023.

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Perhaps there has never been a generational clash quite like this one in the Wimbledon final. Here was Carlos Alcaraz at the age of 20— but with the mindset and game of a 30-year-old—facing the 36-year-old Djokovic, who was performing all through the tournament and across the Grand Slam season like a man a decade younger. Alcaraz was in search of a second Grand Slam title, and deeply determined to add the world’s most prestigious crown to the U.S. Open championship he secured last September.

Contrast his plight with that of Djokovic. The Serbian was trying for the second time in three years to sweep the first three majors of the season and move on to New York in quest of a calendar year Grand Slam—the only authentic kind there is. Already Djokovic had moved past Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros to the top of the men’s list with 23 Grand Slam singles titles, but now he stood one match away from a tie with Margaret Court at 24 for the most majors sealed by a man or woman.

Moreover, Djokovic was seeking to equal Roger Federer’s men’s record of eight singles titles at the shrine of Wimbledon, and to win the world’s premier title for the fifth straight time and stand alongside Federer (2003-2007) and Bjorn Borg (1976-80) by realizing that feat. Djokovic had not lost on the Centre Court for ten years, since confronting Andy Murray in the 2013 final. He carried a 45 match Centre Court winning streak into the arena when he took on Alcaraz, and a 34 match winning streak overall at the sport’s showcase event.

As for the Spaniard, he had his own historical reasons to succeed. Only two Spanish men had ever won Wimbledon, with Manolo Santana taking the title in 1966 in the amateur era and Nadal winning twice in 2008 and 2010. In turn, Alcaraz was attempting to become the third youngest man in the Open Era to be a Wimbledon singles champion. Boris Becker claimed the preeminent tournament in tennis 38 years ago at 17 and Bjorn Borg won his first title in 1976.

No doubt history was swirling .in the air as Djokovic and Alcaraz stopped onto Centre Court for their eagerly awaited final round appointment. Alcaraz was seeded first based on his No. 1 status in the ATP Rankings but Djokovic was the clear favorite due to his Wimbledon dominance and his vast experience as a big match player of long standing. By reaching his 35th major final, Djokovic had surpassed Chris Evert for the record in that category and he was in dogged pursuit of a 24th Grand Slam title. Alcaraz was appearing in only his second major final.

That gap in experience seemed consequential at the outset of this duel on a windy Sunday afternoon in Great Britain. It was Djokovic who came out of the blocks blazing while the Spaniard was misfiring in the early stages, overcooking too many shots and playing into the Serbian’s hands. Be that as it may, Djokovic could have been no better than he was in the opening set.

He did struggle in the first game of the match but he saved a break point with a 127 MPH service winner to the backhand. After two deuces, he held on with another unanswerable first serve released at 125 MPH to the Spaniard’s backhand. Now that he had that hold behind him, Djokovic went to work with striking clarity and precision. Alcaraz was coaxed into three forehand mistakes in the following game while Djokovic released one winning forehand of his own. The Serbian broke for 2-0 at 30 and then held at 30 with a 121 MPH ace down the T.

Alcaraz could feel Djokovic bearing down on him. He rallied from 15-40 to deuce in the fourth game but Djokovic converted on his third break point for 4-0 with a deep backhand crosscourt return drawing an error. Djokovic promptly held for 5-0 at 15, sending a 121 MPH serve down the T to set up a swing volley winner off the forehand. To 5-0 he went. Djokovic wrapped up the set 6-1 with a love hold, putting away an overhead to seal it in only 35 minutes.

But Alcaraz responded admirably to the swiftness of his first set disappointment. As Djokovic struggled with his toss in the burdensome wind, the Spaniard broke for 2-0 after two deuces as the Serbian pulled a forehand crosscourt wide at break point down. Djokovic retaliated immediately to break back in the third game by probing once more to draw Alcaraz into forehand errors. He then saved a break point on his way to 2-2. The two players stayed on serve for the rest of the set.

That meant this critical set would be settled in a tie-break, which seemed like a big advantage for Djokovic. He had won no fewer than 15 tie-breaks in a row at the majors, including his last three at the Australian Open, six more at Roland Garros and another six during this edition of Wimbledon. Justifiably confident, he surged to 3-0 in this sequence as Alcaraz drove a backhand long down the line before Djokovic delivered a pair of unstoppable first serves.

Alcaraz quickly took his two service points and then benefitted from a netted backhand drop shot from Djokovic to reach 3-3. Nevertheless, Djokovic advanced to set point with Alcaraz serving at 5-6. The Serbian made a fine return off a first serve and Alcaraz replied with a deep crosscourt backhand. Djokovic has long possessed the best and most reliable backhand in the game. His two-hander is rock solid and he measures it impeccably under pressure. But, shockingly, he sent his two-hander into the net tape.

The two players changed ends of the court and now Djokovic erred once more off the backhand, netting another shot inexplicably. Those two glaring mistakes took Djokovic from the brink of a two set lead to set point down. He tried to serve-and-volley behind a 118 MPH first serve out wide in the ad court, but Alcaraz anticipated that play uncannily and laced a magnificent two-handed return up the line for a winner. The tie-break belonged to Alcaraz eight points to six. The match was deadlocked at one set all. In the space of a few crucial minutes the match had significantly changed colors.

Djokovic was clearly perturbed by what had happened. With Alcaraz keeping more and more returns in play and forcing Djokovic to generate his own pace, the Spaniard surged to 3-1 in the third set. They then engaged in a spirited 27 minute game stretching across 13 deuces. Alcaraz’s persistence was rewarded as he gained the break for 4-1. A dispirited Djokovic lost eight of the next ten points as Alcaraz moved into a two sets to one lead by virtue of that 6-1 third set success.

The seven-time champion took a long bathroom break after the third set, but soon was in another precarious corner when he served at 0-1, 15-40 in the fourth. But he pieced together four points in a row to reach 1-1. At 2-2, Djokovic broke by chipping a soft backhand pass at the feet of Alcaraz and eliciting a half volley error. Revitalized, Djokovic held at 30 for 4-2 and moved to 5-3 with a love game on his delivery.

Now Alcaraz seemed fatigued. In the ninth game of the fourth set he double faulted twice and was broken at 15. The set was in the Djokovic victory column 6-3, and he had the advantage of serving first in the final set. Djokovic fended off a break point on his way to 1-0 in the fifth, and he advanced to break point in the second game. He opened up the court with a crosscourt backhand, approached behind an impeccable forehand down the line, and seemed certain to win the point. But when Alcaraz lobbed off the backhand, Djokovic was concerned about the wind and chose to play a forehand swing volley rather than an overhead. Trying to go behind the Spaniard and much to his dismay, Djokovic netted that shot.

That was a major opportunity missed by Djokovic. Gamely, Alcaraz held on for 1-1 with a forehand drop shot winner and a dazzling forehand winner down the line. At 30-30 in the following game, Djokovic did not get in position properly for Alcaraz’s return down the middle and he netted a forehand. Down break point, Djokovic was beaten by a superbly executed backhand down the line passing shot from Alcaraz.

In a flash, Alcaraz had come from nearly being a break down in the final set to surging in front 2–1. He now was playing with unmistakable energy and inspiration. He held at love with an ace down the T for 3-1. Serving at 3-2, Alcaraz trailed 15-30 but he coaxed two forehand errors from Djokovic and held with another ace for 4-2 by releasing a 123 MPH ace out wide. Alcaraz was soaring to another level at this stage. He went to 5-3 with a second serve ace at 40-15 out wide in the deuce court.

Djokovic held comfortably at 15 for 4-5 and forced Alcaraz to serve out the match in the tenth game. At 15-15, the Spaniard lunged to his left for a remarkable drop volley winner off a well struck pass from Djokovic, who then used a deep return to set up a forehand winner for 30-30. Yet Alcaraz was unshakable. A 130 MPH first serve down the T provoked an errant blocked backhand return from Djokovic. At 40-30, Alcaraz connected with another excellent first serve. The return was short and then Alcaraz’s forehand rushed Djokovic into an error. In four hours and 42 minutes, Alcaraz upended Djokovic 1-6, 7-6 (8-6), 6-1, 3-6, 6-4. It was a title hard earned and a victory well deserved. His fifth set performance was stirring and spectacular.

Djokovic commenced his quest for a fifth crown in a row at Wimbledon with a 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) triumph over Argentina’s Pedro Cachin. The world No. 68 had Djokovic down an early break before the Serbian found his range and captured the first two sets comfortably. Nonetheless, Cachin served superbly all through the third set and the No. 2 seed could not break him. They went to a tie-break and Djokovic was, as usual, impenetrable.

Next on the agenda for Djokovic was the seasoned Jordan Thompson. The 29-year-old world No. 70 performed at a level much higher than his ranking. Djokovic broke him once in the opening set but the rest of the way he had his work cut out for him. Thompson was serving-and-volleying behind almost every first delivery and most of his second serves as well. He was sound on the volley throughout. Djokovic once more came through with another nearly impeccable tie-break display to seal the second set, releasing three aces, a service winner and an unstoppable second serve. He did not concede a point on serve, prevailing seven points to four. Djokovic managed one more service break in the final game of the match to record a 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5 victory.

His next adversary was a familiar foe. Djokovic had faced the burly Swiss powerhouse Stan Wawrinka on 26 occasions in the past, and had been victorious in 20 of those meetings. Wawrinka however, had ousted Djokovic every time he had won a Grand Slam tournament, upending the Serbian in a five set quarterfinal at the 2014 Australian Open and in four set, final round duels at the 2015 French Open and the 2016 U.S. Open.

Wawrinka, however, is a shadow of his former self. The 38-year-old walked onto Centre Court for his third round appointment with understandably low expectations. Djokovic proceeded to pick him apart for two sets, but then Wawrinka revisited his past and managed to move through the third set and into a tie-break. Wawrinka was ahead 5-3 with the 11PM curfew looming, but Djokovic refused to miss thereafter while the Swiss faltered. Djokovic swept four points in a row to reach the fourth round with a 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5) win.

Now he took on the ever dangerous Hubert Hurkacz, a Wimbledon semifinalist two years ago and the man who handed Roger Federer his last Wimbledon loss. Hurkacz was seeded 17th this year after experiencing lackluster results most of the season. And yet, he had not lost his serve prior to his collision with Djokovic, and the 6’5” Polish competitor realized he had nothing to lose. He had never beaten his adversary in six previous career meetings.

Hurkacz served magnificently in this tense contest which started on Sunday evening and carried over into the following afternoon. The opening set went to a tie-break, and Hurkacz served consecutive aces to lead 6-3. Djokovic cagily collected the next two points and then blocked back a 130 MPH first serve from the Polish player. Hurkacz bungled a forehand approach and suddenly it was 6-6. Djokovic then used a sliced backhand to extract an error from Hurkacz before the Polish player missed a second serve return off the forehand. Five consecutive points had gone to Djokovic from triple set point down. He had taken the tie-break eight points to six.

As was the case in the first set, there were no service breaks in the second, although Djokovic was unlucky when he had a break point for 5-3. Hurkacz stabbed desperately at a volley which somehow went over the net. Djokovic chased it down but fell  into the net as he made contact with the ball. In the second set tie-break, Hurkacz was once more poised for success, serving with a 5-4 lead. But he anxiously netted a backhand. Then Djokovic sent a backhand passing shot up the line for a winner for a 6-5 lead. Although Hurkacz saved a set point to make it 6-6, Djokovic was unrelenting, capturing two points in a row to secure the tie-break 8-6 and move in front two sets to love.

The curfew forced the players off the court, and so they concluded the contest the following day. The first night they had played under the roof but now they were outdoors and still Hurkacz was serving stupendously despite the sun and the wind. At 5-6 in the third set, he achieved his lone service break over the Serbian with some timely shotmaking, and so the two competitors battled into a fourth set. At long last, Djokovic found a way to break serve, making that move at 3-3. He then closed out the account with two love holds, including a pair of aces in the tenth game. Djokovic won this fiercely fought encounter 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (8-6), 5-7, 6-4.

He was now in the quarterfinals, and up against the No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev. The Russian was timing the ball beautifully in the first set, breaking Djokovic at 4-4. The set soon belonged to him 6-4. But Djokovic raised his game immediately at the start of the second, surging to a 5-0 lead. He took that set 6-1. He then served for the third set at 5-4 in a pulsating game featuring six deuces. Rublev had three break points before Djokovic sealed the game on his fifth set point. Djokovic was out in front to stay. He broke Rublev at 1-1 in the fourth set and took 16 of 19 points on serve. With Rublev serving at 3-5, the 25-year-old missed all five first serves. Djokovic refused to let him get away with it and wrapped up the victory 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3. This was a high quality contest. Rublev put an awful lot of returns in play and his backhand has never been better. But he lost to a better craftsman and match player.

In the penultimate round, Djokovic took on No. 8 seed Jannik Sinner for only the third time. A year ago in the quarterfinals, Djokovic had rallied from two sets down to topple the Italian in five sets. This time around, the Serbian got the job done in straight sets, although all three sets were tough for the victor. Sinner was appearing in his first semifinal at a major. He had two break points in the first game, but Djokovic was unyielding and he held on. Djokovic pounced in the second game. He broke for 2-0 by unleashing a deep return that set up a scorching forehand which drew an error from Sinner. Djokovic protected that break sedulously, fending off another break point on his way to 4-1 by picking on the Sinner forehand again. Serving for the set at 5-3 and down 0-15, Djokovic produced three consecutive aces—all down the T—and followed with a service winner. Set to Djokovic, 6-3.

The favorite broke again for a 2-1 second set lead and then dealt calmly with two awkward moments in the fourth game. At 15-15, he grunted loudly after hitting a backhand down the line, perhaps thinking he had made a winner. But Sinner had a play on that ball. The umpire called him for a hinderance. Later, at deuce, he was given a time violation warning for taking too long between points. But he held on for 3-1. Despite squandering a great opportunity to break again when Sinner served at 2-4, 15-40, Djokovic methodically closed out that set. Serving for a two set lead at 5-4, he opened and closed that tenth game with aces and held masterfully at love to secure the set 6-4.

Across the third set, Sinner was highly impressive from the backcourt and served well under pressure. At 1-1 he rescued himself from 0-40. With Djokovic serving at 4-5, 15-40, Sinner had double set point but he could not exploit the opening. Djokovic, despite being perturbed by the crowd cheering presumably for a longer match, held on gamely for 5-5. In the ensuing tie-break, Sinner led 3-1 but double faulted. Djokovic swept six of the last seven points from that juncture to win 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) and make it to his ninth Wimbledon final.

As for Alcaraz, he opened his campaign with a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 triumph over the Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, a 36-year-old who is moving into retirement. Only once did Alcaraz lose his serve. He managed to hit 38 winners while making only 14 unforced errors.

His next assignment was against Alexandre Muller, another Frenchman who is 26 years old and ranked No. 84 in the world. Alcaraz prevailed 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 with a sporadically brilliant display. He converted only 2 of 14 break points and this time his unforced error count was 41 versus 32 winners. Be that as it may, he did not lose his serve and he took the tie-break confidently and comfortably.

On he went into a third round skirmish with the Chilean Nicolas Jarry. The No. 25 seed pushed the Spaniard close to his limits before the top seed emerged with a 6-3, 6-7 (8-6), 6-3, 7-5 win. Jarry saved a set point at 5-6 in the second set tie-break with a well executed serve-and-volley combination and then took the next two points for one set all. After Alcaraz regained the upper hand in the third set, Jarry built a 3-0 lead in the fourth set and had the Spaniard down 15-40 in the fourth game. Alcaraz avoided getting broken for a second time in the set and then rallied from 1-4 to 4-4. After Jarry reached 5-4, Alcaraz collected three games in a row to get the victory.

In the round of 16 against Matteo Berrettini, Alcaraz was tested again before carving out a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 win over the 2021 Wimbledon finalist who had knocked out two seeds this time around. Berrettini had accounted for No. 15 Alex De Minaur and No. 19 Sascha Zverev, defeating both men in straight sets. But after his strong start against Alcaraz, the big serving Berrettini was broken four times over the last three sets as the Spaniard improved his return game significantly.

And so Alcaraz found himself in the quarterfinals facing the No. 6 seed Holger Rune of Denmark, a fellow 20-year-old. Many in the know anticipated a long and close confrontation but that was not the case at all. Alcaraz rolled to a 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-4 victory without losing his serve. He took 79% of his first serve points and 71% on his second, facing only one break point and erasing it in the opening game of the match. That carried Alcaraz into a quarterfinal Centre Court showdown against No. 3 seed Daniil Medvedev. Medvedev had been taken apart flagrantly in the final of Indian Wells by the Spaniard earlier in the season, losing that one-sided clash 6-3, 6-2.

In many ways, Alcaraz humiliated Medvedev on the California hard courts that were playing slow. Medvedev believed he would be better off on the grass against his younger rival, but that was not really so. Alcaraz got the first break of the match to move ahead 5-3 in the first set and never looked back. He blitzed to a 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory despite losing his serve twice in the third set. Medvedev rushed, made inexplicable unprovoked errors, did not locate his serve well at all, and seemed muddled of mind. He had no game plan and was resigned to defeat by early in the second set. Alcaraz put 80% of his returns in play, his best number in the tournament. The view here is that the match-up with Alcaraz is a nightmare for Medvedev, who has no clue how to combat his rival.

For quite a while in the quarterfinals against the surging American Chris Eubanks, Medvedev was also at a loss about how to proceed tactically. Eubanks came from a set down to take the second and third sets with his uncompromising, free-wheeling, and exhilarating brand of attacking tennis. The fourth set went to a tie-break and Eubanks made it to 3-3, standing potentially four points from a stunning victory and a place in the penultimate round of the world’s premier tennis tournament. But it all seemed to hit him then, physically and psychologically. Medvedev rallied for a 6-4, 1-6, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 win. Nevertheless, it was a golden moment for Eubanks, who came into Wimbledon on the heels of a tournament win on the grass in Mallorca. The 27-year-old American had upset No. 12 seed and 2022 Wimbledon semifinalist Cam Norrie in a second round, four set contest, and he came from two sets to one down against No. 5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas for a five set round of 16 victory. He may well be seeded at the U.S. Open, which would have been inconceivable even a few months ago.

Even a few weeks ago, it was inconceivable that Alcaraz could win Wimbledon this year given his lack of grass court experience. But triumphing at Queen’s Club gave him considerable encouragement. By the end of Wimbledon he was playing like a grass court veteran. After the first set of the final, Alcaraz varied his game exquisitely against Djokovic and made excellent use of the sliced backhand. He displayed surprising patience from the baseline and stayed in long rallies with the backcourt maestro. The bottom line is that he now can win on every surface.

Does this mean we are talking about a changing of the guard? Not so fast. Djokovic remains eager to collect more prestigious trophies. His bid for the Grand Slam this year is gone but he will be determined to win his fourth U.S. Open and 24th major in New York. He will inevitably take at least a few more majors. He had split two sets with Alcaraz at the French Open before the Spaniard got full body cramps. In their previous meeting a year ago on clay, Alcaraz prevailed 7-6 in the third set. Aside from pursuing more majors, Djokovic might well be fueled by meeting Alcaraz on more big occasions and turning the tables on this man 16 years his junior.

It may be essential for Alcaraz and Djokovic to keep developing a rivalry over the next couple of years for as long as the Serbian is still competing. There is no doubt in my mind that Alcaraz is going to win at least 15 majors in his career and perhaps more than that. In the long run he will be tested by the likes of Sinner, Rune and others in his generation. But the view here is that we need more memorable skirmishes now between Djokovic and Alcaraz. The tennis they played against each other at Wimbledon was nothing less than stupendous.

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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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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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Descrizione generata automaticamente

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.

Immagine che contiene testo, schermata, Parallelo, Carattere

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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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