A Farewell Hymn to David Ferrer, Unsung Hero of the Big Four Era

David Ferrer never stops moving.

He paces. He bounces. He hurls himself at an opponent’s serve. He sprints. He swats a shot with all the power he can muster. He pivots and hits again. And again. And again. When at last a point ends — more often than not over the years in his favor — he slows down. And returns to pacing, back and forth, back and forth.

Nicknamed the Energizer Bunny, the Little Beast, the Wall, and “Ferru,” 36-year-old Ferrer is renowned on the men’s professional tennis tour for his tenacity, his stamina, his competitive intensity, and his work ethic.

Over the course of his 18-year professional career, Ferrer has earned 27 tour-level singles titles, including a prestigious Masters 1000 level trophy (in 2012, indoors, at Paris – Bercy).  He reached the quarterfinals or better at all four Majors, reached the semifinals at three (not Wimbledon), and reached the final of the 2013 French Open (losing to countryman and “King of Clay” Rafael Nadal). From the beginning of 2012 through mid-2014, he reached the quarterfinals or better at ten consecutive Majors.

Ferrer is the most decorated man playing entirely in the Open Era (1968 – present) never to have won a Major title.

He spent 15 years in the ATP Top 100 and over five-and-a-half years in the Top 10.  He qualified five times among the Top 8 for the year-end World Tour Finals.  In 2013, he finished the year ranked #3 behind Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (and ahead of Roger Federer).

All of this he has achieved in the “Big Four Era,” the most competitive period in the history of men’s tennis.

Against the Big Four, Ferrer has notched 17 wins: he is 5-16 against Novak Djokovic, 6-14 against Andy Murray, and 6-24 against Rafael Nadal.  The only member of the Big Four against whom he is winless (in 17 tries) is Roger Federer.

Since he has never managed to beat Federer, some tennis writers are at times tempted to downgrade Ferrer in favor of other Big Four Era also-rans, such as big hitters Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, both of whom have wins over Federer at Majors.

In terms of overall career stats, Ferrer ranks well above both Tsonga (16 singles titles, two Masters 1000 titles, one Major final) and Berdych (13 singles titles, one Masters 1000 title, one Major final).

Why might Ferrer, for all of his success, have been unable even once to solve the puzzle of Roger Federer, while the less accomplished Tsonga and Berdych have managed six wins over Federer apiece?

The answers are simple: height, and the advantage height confers in shot power and court coverage.

Federer is 6’1″. Tsonga is 6’2″. Berdych is 6’5″.

Ferrer is only 5’9″.

In spite of Ferrer’s tremendous skills and dogged determination, Federer was an unfortunate match-up for Ferrer.

 (With 6’8″ Jerzy Janowicz after the 2012 Paris-Bercy final.)

How Ferrer has been able to create such a wildly successful tennis style with his limited stature is a classic story of optimization. Lacking in power, Ferrer specialized in pinpoint accuracy.  Ferrer could place his forehand anywhere in the court on a dime. He compensated for his relatively soft service delivery by befuddling his opponents with serve placement.

Lacking the wingspan to prevail consistently at the net, Ferrer instead wore his opponents down with a tactically sound baseline game.  Groundstroke after groundstroke flew from Ferrer’s racquet to locations over the net that made his opponents uncomfortable.  Compensating for his lack of reach with lightning footspeed, Ferrer ran down every ball, sent shots back to awkward locations, and — at times through lengthy and arduous battles — wore his opponents down.

Ferrer also excelled at reading and returning his opponents’ serves – a talent that bought him great advantages against the 6’5″ and taller “servebot” players he encountered with increasing frequency late in his career.

One of the best matches I ever saw him play was a win over 6’10” American John Isner on the fast, dry clay in Madrid. Again and again, Ferrer launched himself at Isner’s fast, high-bouncing serves, often making contact with the ball while airborne himself, and nearly always getting the ball back into play.

 (With John Isner in Madrid.)

Another of Ferrer’s trademark skills is his uncanny ability to break an opponent’s serve when his opponent is serving for a set.  (Among some of his fans, earning a crucial set-saving service break is known as “pulling a Ferrer.”)

 (Meme created by @bellezavitale)

Ferrer’s most ardent fans might disagree on this point, but for me the match that best exemplified Ferrer’s dogged fight and determination was the 2013 Australian Open quarterfinal against hard-serving countryman Nicolas Almagro. After winning the first two sets 6-4 6-4, Almagro served for the match three times.  Each time, Ferrer managed to break.  Ferrer eked out the third set 7-5 and the fourth set in a tiebreak before he crushed Almagro’s spirit and cruised to a 6-2 win in the fifth.

Even after a signature win such as that one, he never bragged. Reserved, soft-spoken, and thoughtful, Ferrer, who early in his career described himself as “the worst player in the Top 100,” remains to this day humble and unassuming (in spite of a very respectable $30 million career prize money total). He lives in Valencia in his home country of Spain rather than in a tax haven.  He is close to his family and loyal to his friends.

Ferrer played for Spain at three Olympics — 2008, 2012, and 2016 — coming closest to a medal (heartbreakingly close) in the 2012 doubles competition, when he and partner Feliciano Lopez finished fourth.

 (With Feliciano Lopez.)

He loves playing for his country. He has said that early in his career he would have handed out water bottles just to have a chance to participate in Davis Cup.  By his own reckoning (as reported in several interviews), his best and most important performances have come in that team competition.

In 2008, he helped Spain to its third Davis Cup trophy (a/k/a “salad bowl”) in nine years.

In 2009, he came back from two sets down to defeat the tricky and unpredictable Radek Stepanek in the final as Spain won its fourth trophy in ten years.

In 2011, he played what he himself calls the best match of his career in a five-set win over 6’5″ Argentine rocket-launcher Juan Martin del Potro. The match was a dogfight.  Ferrer was so often behind on his serve that one of the U.S. commentators quipped, “to save time, Ferrer should begin every service game 0-15.”  In the end, Ferrer’s defense and stamina prevailed over del Potro’s power, helping Spain to another Davis Cup trophy.

In 2012, with Rafael Nadal sidelined with knee injuries and Ferrer playing some of the best tennis of his career, Ferrer led Spain’s Davis Cup team to the final against the Czech Republic, where he did all he could for the team by winning both of his singles matches, in front of a hostile crowd, over Berdych and Stepanek.

Perhaps it is fitting in light of Ferrer’s many years as a Davis Cup star that his last great performance delivered a crucial point for Spain in this years Davis Cup quarterfinals.

Ferrer arrived at the tie, held on a clay court in the bullring in his hometown of Valencia, riding a years-long decline in form.  After a decade without what he termed “important injuries,” Ferrer started suffering pain in his Achilles tendons in 2015. Recovery time away from the tour cost him shot precision and endurance.  The consistency that had been the hallmark of his game left him, sapping his confidence. No longer able to rely on his groundstrokes and the accuracy of his serves, Ferrer saw his form and ranking decline.

Notwithstanding those set-backs, Ferrer never lost his love for tennis or his desire to compete.  He even won a title in the summer of 2017 on the claycourts of Båstad, Sweden.

By the time of the Germany/Spain Davis Cup tie in April of 2018, Ferrer had recovered his game sufficiently to play for the Spanish team in his hometown and in front of his family, his wife, and his friends.

 (“The Armada” in Valencia.)

“The Armada,” as the Spanish team calls itself, was the oldest team contesting this year’s Davis Cup quarterfinals.  Its opponent, Germany, fielded the youngest.  Throughout the weekend, Germany’s youngsters pushed Spain to the brink.

Rafael Nadal delivered wins in his two singles matches, as was expected (or at least hoped, given his winter injury struggles) of the “King of Clay.” Ferrer lost his first singles match to 6’6″, World #3 Alexander Zverev.  The doubles match — crucial to many Davis Cup ties — was a nail-biter, lasting five sets and eventually going to the plucky German pair.  The outcome of the tie was to be decided by a contest between Germany’s veteran, 34-year-old Philipp Kohlschreiber, and the 36-year-old Ferrer.

Over five hours and seven minutes, Kohlschreiber and Ferrer scrapped and battled. More than once, Kohlschreiber appeared to have the match in hand, only to have Ferrer seize the initiative by (as is his wont) breaking when Kohlschreiber attempted to serve for a set.

On the match point, after Ferrer hit his final blistering, crosscourt backhand, he stood and waited, unsure whether his shot had landed in.  After Kohlschreiber had viewed the ball mark and slumped in resignation, Ferrer collapsed to the ground in relief.  Hero of the weekend, Ferrer had ensured that his team would play this coming September in another Davis Cup semifinal.

That valiant and emotional victory will stand as one of the last, if not the last, of Ferrer’s landmark wins.

In the weeks after his Davis Cup triumph, Ferrer withdrew of four tournaments in order to be home with his wife, Marta, when his son, Leo, was born.  When he finally returned to competition in May, Ferrer was a shadow of his best.  He has since won a few matches but never two in a row. Ferrer admits today that the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion of having a new baby has worn him down.  He no longer has either the physical consistency or the mental focus crucial to the success of his game.

Ferrer has realized that “this journey of [his] life is coming to an end.”

In July, he announced his plans to retire. He said he would play the North American summer hard court events.  For the rest of 2018 and the start of 2019, he plans to play events if he is invited to. He hopes to retire at home in the spring on clay, in either Barcelona or Madrid.

This week, for the first time since 2003, Ferrer has dropped out of the Top 100. He arrives at the U.S. Open eager to play (declaring that he “loves tennis”) but far below his best.  He plays for the joy of it now, even though at times his Achilles tendons hurt so much that he can barely walk down stairs.  With Marta and Leo at his side, he says he plans to “live” the U.S. Open as his last Major.

 (Posted by David Ferrer.)

He will walk onto court for his first-round match on Monday night against teammate, rival, friend  — and World #1, and defending U.S. Open champion! — Rafael Nadal. On paper, Nadal is a terrible draw for Ferrer, but Ferrer says he views the match as “a gift.”  Facing Nadal enables him to play what may well be his last U.S. Open match in tennis’ biggest arena, Arthur Ashe Stadium.

When Nadal and Ferrer last met at the U.S. Open — in the 2007 Round of 16 — Ferrer prevailed in four hard-fought sets.  Ferrer is not as strong a player today as he was then, and Nadal for his part has improved. Although it is possible the Ferrer will beat Nadal on Monday — he has, after all, beaten Nadal six times — the most likely ending will see Ferrer waving good-bye to the crowd as he exits the court for the last time.

Ferrer reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals three times and the semifinals twice. As the Ashe night session crowd watches what may be his final effort at a Major, I hope they remember his shining moments in Flushing Meadows.

– His 2007 victory over then-#2 Nadal, which helped propel Ferrer to a Top-8 finish for the year.

– His riveting win over Janko Tipsarevic in the 2012 quarterfinals, which came down to a fifth-set tiebreak.

– The first-set of his 2012 semifinal against Novak Djokovic, in which Ferrer adapted beautifully to windy conditions while Djokovic struggled.  (The match was called because of a threatened storm, which never materialized. When the pair resumed play on the following day in still conditions, Djokovic won.  Had the match continued in the wind, Ferrer might well have prevailed.  This was certainly the closest Ferrer came to a U.S. Open final. It might have been his closest brush with a Major title.)

– His 2013 rematch against Janko Tipsarevic in the Round of 16, which Ferrer won in four sets, and in which Ferrer characteristically broke serve at least once while his opponent was serving for a set.

I hope the crowd on Monday night bestows upon Ferrer the respect and admiration he deserves. Ferrer always gave his all and fought until the last ball had bounced twice.

Ferrer’s career ranks him among the sport’s all-time best, possibly (as some fans suggest) meriting a place one day in the Tennis Hall of Fame.

The ATP World Tour will be much poorer without Ferrer’s fight, his heart, his humility, his work ethic, and his soft-spoken wisdom.

Adiós, Ferru.

And thank you.

 

The best Ferrer highlight reel I have seen.

 

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Australian Open For All To See: Two Ugly Facts Brought To Light By Nadal’s Early Exit

The men’s tennis World #1, Rafael Nadal of Spain, was derailed in his attempt to win a second Australian Open title by an injury that forced him out of his quarterfinal against Croatia’s Marin Cilic.

Injury, and specifically injury in Australia, is familiar territory for Nadal and his fans.  On three previous occasions – during his quarterfinal against Andy Murray in 2010, during his quarterfinal against David Ferrer in 2011, and during the final against Stan Wawrinka in 2014 – Nadal suffered injuries that stopped him in his tracks (knee, thigh, and back, respectively).

This year’s setback, though, differed from the others.  During his previous Australia injury losses, Nadal was never in a winning position.  He lost in 2010 and in 2011 in straight sets, and he won a set in 2014 only because Wawrinka played execrably for a half-hour.  Against Cilic in 2018, however, Nadal was up in the score by two sets to one and playing well enough to win when, in the fourth game of the fourth set, he pulled a right hip flexor muscle on a sprint to the net.

Had the injury not occurred, Nadal might well have won the match.  His record against the semifinal opponent, Kyle Edmund, suggests that absent the injury, Nadal would probably have reached the final.

While Nadal’s fans gnash their teeth and grumble about the Spaniard’s rotten luck in Australia since his 2009 title run, his serendipitous absence from this year’s final cast a spotlight onto two unpleasant facts that would have remained sub rosa had Nadal played for the trophy.

 

  1. Roger Federer is not the infallible box office draw that journalists, commentators, and others in the tennis establishment assert that he is.

Midway through the tournament’s second week, ESPN’s John McEnroe declared, “Roger Federer is the player people come to see!”

This rang false when he said it.  The 2017 Wimbledon final between Federer and Cilic garnered poor television ratings in the United States, while the most-watched stream from that Wimbledon tournament was a match featuring Nadal, not Federer.

Because about 90 percent of tennis commentators and writers are Federer zealots, it is understandable that McEnroe, who seems rarely to step outside the tennis media bubble, might be under the impression that Federer sells the most tickets.  Evidence from this year’s Australian Open final suggests otherwise.

Here was Roger Federer, treated as a god by many in the sporting media, reputed to be the most graceful athlete ever to don gym shoes, attempting to win an historic 20th Major title in a sparkling career.

And there were still tickets available at full price (or at discounts!) a scant four hours before the match was to begin?

Had Nadal played in the final, the match would have sold out; his sizable and enthusiastic local fan base would have snapped the tickets up.

Nadal’s absence from the final made it all too evident that Federer is not McEnroe’s “player people come to see.”

The tennis establishment – commentators, writers, governing bodies, and tournament managers – does itself a disservice with its worshipful focus on Federer.  Data from Wimbledon 2017 and Australia 2018 suggest that if the sport continues to promote Federer at the expense of other players, it does so at its peril.

 

2. The tennis establishment is willing to “grease the skids” for Federer.

Throughout the Australian Open fortnight, Federer played essentially a different tournament from everyone else.  Daytime temperatures soared above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching at court level in the “heat bowls” of the stadia up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.  Federer’s potential opponents for later rounds, including his most recent vanquisher, World #7 David Goffin, sweltered through afternoon matches and lost.  Federer, meanwhile, was generously scheduled for the cooler evenings in five of his first six rounds.  (The sole exception was a gimme fourth-round contest with world #80 Marton Fucsovics.)

Fans complained mightily and with justification as six-time former champion Novak Djokovic was forced to play the highly entertaining, and box office gold, Gael Monfils in oven-like conditions on the same day as one of Federer’s evening matches.  (On the other half of the draw, the box office stars Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov alternated in the daytime and evening slots during the five rounds they both played.)

That Federer’s salubrious scheduling throughout the tournament smacked of favoritism all observers agreed, but no one could identify clear bias on the part of the tournament until the final.

Conditions were forecast to be hot for the 7 p.m. final on Sunday, 28 January, with temperatures in the high 30s C (above 95 degrees Fahrenheit).  Cilic warmed up for the match on an outdoor court in order to become acclimated to the conditions.  Presumably, he set his string tensions, which are sensitive to temperature and humidity, accordingly.

Meanwhile, Federer made the puzzling decision to prepare for the contest on an indoor court.

Shortly before match time, the tournament announced its decision to close the roof of Rod Laver Arena and turn on the air conditioning.  Cilic had been given no warning.  His string tensions were all wrong.  Unsurprisingly, he started slowly.  Cilic lost the first four games of the match and, although he pushed the match to five sets, he never recovered.

According to the tournament’s own Extreme Heat Policy (which had not been invoked a day before, when the women’s finalists fought so hard over nearly three hours that one was sent to the hospital with dehydration), the stadium roof is to be closed only when both the following criteria obtain: ambient air temperature over 40 C, and a humidity measure called “wet bulb” above a specific threshold.  Although the wet bulb reading on the evening of the men’s final was slightly above threshold, the air temperature was never over 37 C.

From the tournament’s official media guide:

Closing the stadium roof changes court conditions profoundly.  Indoor courts are windless and more humid than outdoor courts.  Tennis balls tend to bounce lower indoors than outdoors.

All four of the Grand Slams are supposed to be outdoor tournaments at which players are tested against the elements.  Only two men’s Slam finals have ever been played under roofs: the 2012 Australian Open, and 2012 Wimbledon.  In both cases, the matches started in the open air, and the roofs were closed only because of rain.  The 2018 Australian Open final is the first men’s Slam final to have been played entirely indoors.

Not coincidentally, Roger Federer is one of the best indoor players in the history of tennis.  Wind is his adversary, neutering his aggressive attacking style.  A closed roof suits him to perfection.

Had Cilic been warned that the roof was to be closed for the final, he would have had a chance.  He would have prepared himself and his racquets for the conditions he would face.  But he was not told in advance.

And Federer is quite candid about the fact that he was told.

So the Australian Open violated its own heat rules to close the roof for the men’s final, thus handing the better indoor player (Federer) an advantage.  They told Federer in advance, enabling him to prepare himself and his string tensions for the cooler air.  They did not warn Cilic.

In the long and colorful history of sports malfeasance, I think medals and trophies have been stripped for less.

Of course, it is not Federer’s responsibility to keep his opponent informed.  He might not have known that the tournament was leaving Cilic in the dark.

That said, the tournament’s cheating on Federer’s behalf rather than Federer’s cheating himself does not render his title any more legitimate.

Only the appearance of corruption is necessary in order to ruin a sport and thus destroy the livelihoods of many.

As writer Andrew Prochnow pointed out, “Had Nadal been in [the] final, blowback from roof closure would have made that act impossible.”  The tournament would not have dared pull the same trick.

Tennis fans have long suspected tournaments and the sport’s governing bodies of taking subtle steps to favor Federer, from unfair scheduling decisions, to selective rule enforcement (such as a disproportionate focus on the Time Rule during Nadal’s matches in 2015), to selective rule non-enforcement (e.g., in Montreal in 2017, when Federer should have been called for both ball abuse and audible obscenity and thus lost a penalty point against Ferrer but was not cited for either infraction), to ad hoc rule changes (e.g., requiring players to stand for the coin toss within 60 seconds of walking onto court, which affects Nadal more than any other player).

Even the Slams’ dropping from 32 seeds to 16 seeds in 2019, which appears to be favored only by a handful of bored journalists, would have the effect of knocking out the player(s) who make(s) slow and/or nervous starts in the Slams.  This is usually Nadal.

Until now, tennis fans have been unable to prove structural favoritism toward Federer.  With the 2018 Australian Open final, everything has changed.  It is now demonstrably clear that the tennis establishment, if given the opportunity, will cheat on Federer’s behalf.

This is terrible for tennis.

 

PC Guerrilla Warfare: The Sportscaster Whose Apt Word-Choice Cost Him His Job

broken_tennis_ball_by_ Photo by mountainboy965C

The Backstory

Dateline Melbourne, Australia, in sunny mid-January of 2017.

The world of sport is abuzz with excitement over tennis’ first Grand Slam of the year.   Tweedy veteran writers, chatty ex-players, and disheveled bloggers, blessed with a surfeit of subject matter in the waning years of tennis’ richest era, feverishly weave narratives from the week’s trendy storylines.

Can Serena Williams reassert herself at the top of her sport at the age of 35?

Will Novak Djokovic rediscover his unbeatable 2015 form, or will his 2016 wobbles continue into the new season?

Can the sport’s rising, hot-headed youngsters dethrone any of the grizzled veteran champions?

Can Rafael Nadal produce in 2017 another miraculous return from injury as he did in 2006, 2010, and 2013?

What about Roger Federer and Venus Williams, both great champions over 35 — can either of them put together a strong run in Australia?

Starved of live tennis during the month of December and of Grand Slam action since September’s U.S. Open, the sport’s global fan base (whose semi-official slogan during the Australian Open is, “Sleep is for the weak,”) is as eager as the commentary corps for drama and action.  To satisfy fans with immediate, complete event coverage, many broadcasters deliver live streams of most or all competition courts throughout the two-week event.

The principal U.S. broadcaster is ESPN, a sports programming leviathan that began presenting the Australian Open in 1984 and now covers three of the season’s four tennis Majors.  ESPN supplies U.S. fans with streams from Australia of all 254 singles matches and many doubles matches, employing an army of on-air staff — some former players, some professional “talking heads” — who work either individually or in pairs to provide live play-by-play coverage.

Many of ESPN’s live-stream voices offer commentary both more analytical and more useful to the viewer than that of the big-name stars on ESPN’s flagship channels.  From this “B team,” one might hear:

“Although Joe clearly walked out today with a game plan to attack Steve’s backhand, he has changed tactics and is now hitting short to the forehand to draw Steve into net against his will and either pass him outright or hit a two-shot pass.”

By contrast, the less prepared and more ego-driven of ESPN’s stars might deliver rhetorical gems such as:

“This is painful to watch.”

(Coasting on his reputation, John McEnroe rarely seems to do in-depth homework and devotes much of his commentary to reminiscence about players he faced in the 1970s.  Chris Evert’s statements are at times so vapid that she has inspired a widely used, colorful hashtag.  Pam Shriver talks mid-match about her children.  When Mary Carillo doesn’t especially like the players in front of her, she tends to chatter about anything but the match; late in the 2014 French Open men’s final, she infamously digressed onto the subject of 1980s-era boxing.)

Prominent in ESPN’s live-stream broadcasting stable is Doug Adler, a 58-year-old former tennis pro who played during his college years the University of Southern California.  A veteran of commentary since 2004 and an ESPN employee since 2008, Adler is so adept at spontaneous play-by-play narration that he frequently covers matches without a partner.

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The Fatal Moment

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mic

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It is Day 3 of the Australian Open, Wednesday, the 18th of January (and Tuesday evening, the 17th, in the U.S.)  First up in the main stadium, Rod Laver Arena, is 36-year-old American Venus Williams, the 13 seed and winner of seven Grand Slam singles titles, 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, and two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles, to accompany an Olympic gold medal in singles, an Olympic silver medal in mixed doubles, and a staggering three Olympic golds in women’s doubles.  Her opponent is Switzerland’s Stefanie Voegele, nine years younger, six inches shorter, and roughly 100 ranking spots below Williams.  One of the team of two ESPN live-stream commentators is Doug Adler.

Not surprisingly, the match is a rout.  Voegele is unable to counter Williams’ superior power, variety, movement, and court coverage.

Early in the second set, as Voegele struggles to hold her first service game, Adler says this:

“She misses the first serve, and Venus is all over her…You’ll see Venus move in and put the [guerrilla?/gorilla?] effect on, charging…”

What exactly does Adler say?  Please listen for yourself to the following 21-second video clip.

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Update: The video above was pulled from YouTube on the day after I published this article.  Below is a new video.  Adler’s words begin at the 40-second mark.

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The Controversy

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Storm 2

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Adler claims he said, “You’ll see Venus move in and put the guerrilla effect on,” adding that his use of “guerrilla” referred to a successful “Guerrilla Tennis” ad campaign undertaken by Nike in the 1990s.

The 1995 Andre Agassi Nike Guerrilla Tennis ad:

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“Guerrilla” is indeed an appropriate descriptor for Venus Williams’ charge as she pounces on her opponent’s second serve.  Tennis writers and commentators frequently invoke the term “guerrilla” to characterize sneaky attacks.  Had neither player been of African ancestry, Adler’s apt comment would have passed unnoticed.

This particular match, however, made Adler famous.

Within minutes, social media were flooded with rage from indignant fans under the impression Adler had said “gorilla.”

New York Times reporter Ben Rothenberg, whose deliberately provocative and bratty online snark has earned him the nickname “Trollenberg,” decided to fan the flames.  Rather than ask Adler to clarify his intent, Rothenberg tweeted outrage to his 51,600 followers.

Rothenberg went so far as to dismiss out of hand the possibility that Adler had said, “guerrilla.”

br_011817

Why “doubtful,” Mr. Rothenberg?  Do you read minds?

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The Aftermath

pink-slip

ESPN suspended Adler immediately after the Williams/Voegele match, demanded that he apologize the next day on every live stream (which he did, citing an unfortunate choice of words), forbade him to comment upon any more matches in Australia, and sent him home in disgrace.

Within days, Adler was fired by ESPN.

On February 14, Adler filed suit against ESPN for wrongful termination, stating that his reputation is “damaged forever.”  In the words of Adler’s attorney, David Ring, “It was not only political correctness gone overboard, but also a cowardly move that ruined a good man’s career.”

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Justice?

scales

Since it is nearly impossible to discern from the recording whether the word uttered by Adler is “gorilla” or “guerrilla,”  it would be fairest and most reasonable to assess Adler’s past record as a broadcaster before branding him a racist.

Had Adler ever exhibited any signs of racism?  In his 13 years of full-time tennis broadcasting, had he ever referred in a less than respectful manner to Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Donald Young, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, Gaël Monfils, Dustin Brown, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Frances Tiafoe, or any other player of African ancestry?

I believe the answer to those questions is No.

Adler’s friends and colleagues, including African American radio host Larry Elder, attest to his character (although among Adler’s friends only Elder has had the courage to speak publically about the recent travesty).

There is every reason to believe Adler’s statement that the word he used was indeed “guerrilla.”

In effect, what happened here?

  • While providing commentary for a Grand Slam tennis match, Doug Adler used a completely appropriate word to describe a player’s sneak attack.
  • Some viewers misunderstood the word as a racial slur.
  • A social media mob called for Adler’s firing on the basis of that misunderstanding.
  • ESPN caved to the mob’s demands.

Should ESPN require that its on-air staff treat athletes and coaches with respect?  If they want to attract viewers, yes.

Is ESPN entitled to fire broadcasters who behave inappropriately on the air?  Certainly.

But was ESPN within its rights to fire a broadcaster, and effectively brand him a racist and thus torpedo his future career prospects, merely in response to the clamoring of an hysterical mob?

I say no.

The Courts will decide.

As a knowledgeable aficionado of the sport myself, I admit that I occasionally find Doug Adler’s assessments of and prognostications about specific tennis players wrong-headed.  While not always in agreement with his opinions, I cannot remain silent as he is railroaded out of his chosen profession at the instigation of a PC mob.

So here’s what I think:

Doug Adler is entitled to the benefit of the doubt from the world of sport.

Ben Rothenberg owes Adler a public apology.

ESPN owes Adler financial restitution and reinstatement as a tennis commentator.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And So It Begins: Last-minute Thoughts About the 2016 French Open

TB_0518 World #8 Tomas Berdych on the velvety Roland Garros clay.

After six weeks and ten tournaments in nine countries, the men’s European clay court season arrives at its apogee and ultimate proving ground this coming week at the French Open.  Action begins tomorrow, May 22, with 16 singles matches at Roland Garros in Paris.

A few quick thoughts about what we have learned from the men’s clay court warm-up events —

Who’s Out

Roger Federer, suffering from a combination of knee and back injuries that kept him out of the Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid and led to early losses in Monte Carlo and Rome, withdrew from the French Open in advance of the tournament draw.  Federer, whose game is much better suited to grass than to clay, hopes to resume competition in time for the pre-Wimbledon grass court tournaments.

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Juan Martin del Potro, on the comeback trail from a series of four wrist surgeries, decided to forgo Roland Garros and move immediately to the grass, where he hopes his booming serve will pay dividends.

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The charismatic and highly talented Frenchman Gael Monfils — ever a crowd favorite, and one of the most upbeat and good-natured players on the tour — was forced to withdraw from Roland Garros after being hospitalized this week with a viral illness.

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Who Has Proven Himself to be a Dangerous Contender

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Twenty-two-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem won the title today in Nice and reached the final in Munich, where he lost a very tight contest to German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber.  Earlier, in Monte Carlo, he mounted a very stiff challenge to eventual champion Rafael Nadal.

Currently ranked 15 in the world and rising quickly, Thiem will surely win the French Open someday.  Five of his six titles to date, and two of his three in 2016, have come on clay.  His well-rounded game is precise, aggressive, and great fun to watch.

He will arrive in Paris brimming over with confidence from his win in Nice although perhaps somewhat tired.  He is a dangerous opponent for anyone.

 

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Japan’s Kei Nishikori, currently ranked #6 in the world, delivered several strong performances this year on the European clay.  He reached the final in Barcelona, where he lost a close match to Rafael Nadal.  At the Masters 1000 events in both Madrid and Rome, he played barnburner semifinal matches with World #1 Novak Djokovic, losing in two sets in Madrid and in three sets in Rome.

Over the course of his career, Nishikori has beaten every player now seeded ahead of him at Roland Garros (Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and Nadal).  His speed, footwork, and shotmaking, and his ability to rob opponents of time by “taking the ball early,” make him formidable on clay.  Fortuitously blessed with a good draw, Nishikori could easily reach the quarterfinals, where he might encounter Andy Murray.

If he keeps his health and fitness, Nishikori could well find himself hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 5.

 

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Defending French Open champion Stan Wawrinka will arrive in Paris as he did last year, having bolstered his confidence with a victory at his home tournament in Geneva.

Owner of a powerful forehand, a strong serve, and a one-handed backhand that is both lethal and sublime, Wawrinka can beat anyone on the right day.  Although inconsistent and unpredictable, “Stan the Man,” as his sponsors call him, proved last year in Paris that he is capable of winning the title.

 

The Favorites?

The 2016 men’s singles competition at Roland Garros is the most open in years, with three players having emerged from the Masters 1000-level events as favorites (and perhaps even as co-favorites): Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal.

Nadal won the title in Monte Carlo without ever facing Djokovic.

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Djokovic won the title in Madrid without ever facing Nadal.

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Murray lost to Nadal in the semifinals of Monte Carlo and beat him in the semifinals of Madrid.

Murray lost to Djokovic in the final at Madrid and beat him in the final at Rome.

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Djokovic and Nadal faced each other once, in the quarterfinals of Rome, where Djokovic won 7-5 7-6.  Nadal said afterward that he was happy with his performace, that both sets had been “on his racquet,” and that he had been, “very, very, very close” to winning.

Only Nadal of the three favorites won two titles in the lead-up to Roland Garros: in Monte Carlo and in Barcelona (a competitive 500-level tournament where neither Murray nor Djokovic was in the field).

The tournament whose conditions (i.e., altitude, clay quality, weather) are most similar to Roland Garros is Monte Carlo.  Nadal won that title, beating Murray in the semifinal.  Djokovic lost in his first match.

Madrid, featuring high altitude and hard-packed clay, is the least like Roland Garros.  Djokovic won that title, beating Murray in the final.  Murray had beaten Nadal in the semifinal.

Rome, like Paris, is at sea level.  There, Murray beat Djokovic in a hard-fought, testy, and rainy final.

Can one divine French Open outcomes from this data?

First, a few words about the tournament draw.

Nadal’s Roland Garros draw is freakishly difficult.  His first opponent, the 6’4″ cannon-serving Australian Sam Groth, demands intense concentration from his opponent and offers no rally rhythm.  The last time Nadal opened a French Open campaign against a “serve-bot” (2011, against 6’10” John Isner), Nadal got down two sets to one and needed five sets to eke out a victory.

In the third round, Nadal could face the flamboyantly talented and dangerously unpredictable Fabio Fognini, who beat Nadal three times in 2015.  The fourth round could bring a meeting with Dominic Thiem (see above).

In the quarterfinal, Nadal could face France’s Jo Wilfried Tsonga, who has the physical skills to beat anyone on the tour, and who will have the enthusiastic support of the home crowd.  In the semifinal, Nadal could face Djokovic.

Over his first five rounds, Djokovic faces a relative cakewalk.  None of Djokovic’s early-round opponents has any recent history of success against him.

Murray will have a tricky first match against the wily 37-year-old Czech Radek Stepanek, whose variety and unpredictability can be maddeningly difficult to face.  En route to the quarterfinals, Murray could encounter two tricky serve-bots, John Isner and the 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, though neither is likely to threaten Murray’s exemplary return game and defense.

Murray could face formidable challenges in the quarterfinals against Nishikori and in the semifinals against Wawrinka.

Murray will not face either Djokovic or Nadal until the final.

 

What does their Rome match and other recent history say about a Djokovic/Nadal semifinal?

Djokovic owns a 26-23 career head-to-head record against Nadal and has won their last seven meetings, three of which have been on clay. Advantage, Djokovic?  Not necessarily.

From mid-2011 until mid-2012, Djokovic also won seven straight matches against Nadal.  By the end of his seventh loss (the 2012 Australian Open final), Nadal had figured out how to counter Djokovic’s new tactics.  When the two next met, at the 2012 French Open final, Nadal won.

Some commentators have suggested that Nadal’s loss to Djokovic in Rome earlier this month would put him at a mental disadvantage in Paris.  I am not so sure.

Nadal’s competitive psychology is such that he takes every opponent seriously and approaches every match with the idea that he “needs to play [his] best tennis in order to have chances to win.” (That phrase has appeared in his press conference transcripts innumerable times over the years.)

Had a few points gone differently in their match in Rome, and had Nadal prevailed over Djokovic, he likely would have thought, “OK, I won, but it was close. I still need to play my best to have chances to win.”  Djokovic, meanwhile, would have arrived at the following Nadal match full of vinegar and determination to avenge his recent loss.

Having lost in Rome, but having kept the match very close, Nadal will probably approach his next meeting with Djokovic with optimism (in addition to his usual intention to play his best).

The contest between Nadal and Djokovic in Rome proved that Nadal is ready to compete toe-to-toe with Djokovic.  Both players know that now.  This cannot be a comfortable feeling for Djokovic.

 

What about Andy Murray?

Murray has long been one of the sport’s greatest defenders – he can chase down and return shots all day – but aggressive play does not come naturally to him.  He has a decent first serve, but his second serve has traditionally been his most attackable weakness.  Mentally, he has not always exhibited the fortitude and consistency necessary to win against the best players.

In 2016, Murray has improved both his first serve and his second serve and implemented successful plans of attack against both of his major rivals.  During the Rome final against Djokovic, he managed to be the mentally and emotionally stronger combatant under very difficult and rainy conditions.

If Murray reaches a final against either Djokovic or Nadal, he can take some confidence from the fact that his most recent meeting with each on the clay courts this year was a win.

Murray has never in the past been considered a contender at Roland Garros, but as Stan Wawrinka demonstrated in 2015 (after losing in the first round of the 2014 French Open), history is irrelevant.

It is the best player on the day who wins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reign in Spain: Four Lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Open

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(Please click here to read my preview of the 2016 European clay court men’s tennis season.)

The anomalously high altitude clay tennis tournament in Madrid came to a close on Sunday as Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray 6-2 3-6 6-3 to win the title, garnering his record 29th Masters 1000 crown.

The first set was all Djokovic as the Serbian World #1 delivered nearly flawless tennis and demonstrated that at his best he can send a tennis ball from any stretched position to any location on the court.  In the second set, Murray dug in for a fight.  Raising his aggressive intensity, and taking advantage of a dip in his opponent’s form, Murray broke serve early and held on to win the set.

The final set was nervy and tight, with each player alternating between brilliance and sloppiness and momentum shifting repeatedly.  Djokovic broke serve first but relinquished his advantage a few games later.   By forcing Murray into a defensive mindset, Djokovic broke for a second time but nearly broke himself back as he served for the match.  The 5-3 game was riddled with Djokovic errors.  Murray had at least four chances to break.  I lost count of the number of deuces and wasted match points before Djokovic was finally able to put the match away.

The result of the final set was at least as much about Murray’s suffering a mental block as it was about Djokovic’s exhibiting superior prowess on the court.  Especially in light of the fact that Madrid’s high-altitude courts are faster than the courts in Paris, Djokovic’s tight three-set win is no guarantor of his eventual victory at the French Open.

Four quick lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Masters:

Watch out for Juan Martin del Potro.

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Juan Martin del Potro, the 6’6″, 27-year-old gentle giant from Tandil, Argentina (affectionately known as the Tower of Tandil), has suffered some of the worst injury luck of any player on the tour.  Only months after overpowering Roger Federer in a five-set slugfest to win the 2009 US Open, del Potro suffered a wrist injury that required surgery and forced him to miss most of the 2010 season.  He returned to the tour in 2011, played well enough to win the Olympic bronze medal in 2012, and finished 2013 in the Top 5.  His hopes for additional Grand Slam titles were dashed in early 2014, when he suffered an injury to his other wrist that also required surgery.  Twice in 2014 and 2015 he rehabbed and resumed training only to discover additional wrist problems.  In all, del Potro’s four wrist surgeries have forced him to miss three years of what might otherwise have been his prime.

The Argentine, who is beloved by many fans for his sweet temper, rejoined his tour colleagues in February and played his first clay match since 2013 in Munich last month.

This week in Madrid, del Potro signaled that he could pose a dangerous threat at the French Open.  In a highly anticipated first-round match against rising star Dominic Thiem, del Potro pounded serves, blasted groundstrokes, wrested control of rallies, and overpowered one of year’s most successful clay courters convincingly.  Afterward, Del Potro shed tears of joy and relief.

The rest of the tour would be wise to take note.

Del Potro is unlikely to win the French Open.  His match fitness is not yet sufficient to carry him through seven rounds of best-of-five-set matches later this month in Paris.  However, he could play the role of spoiler.  Del Potro will not be seeded in Roland Garros, so he will be a “dangerous floater” in the draw.  He could meet anyone in the tournament’s first two rounds, when the top players are most vulnerable.  Based upon del Potro’s performance against Thiem, an early meeting between del Potro and a tournament favorite could alter the event’s course significantly.

 

Andy Murray is in excellent form.

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Britain’s Andy Murray, a two-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic gold medalist, never much enjoyed playing on clay.  Having grown up on indoor hard courts in his native Scotland, and having stepped onto a clay court for the first time at age 15, Murray found movement on clay courts alien and uncomfortable and historically enjoyed his weakest results at clay events.

All this changed in 2015.  Murray won his first clay title at an April 250 event in Munich and followed that win with a victory at the Masters 1000 event in Madrid.

At the 2016 Madrid tournament, Murray again looked sharp.  With a beefed-up first serve and a much-improved second serve (traditionally his great weakness), Murray complemented his devastating defense and return game with impressive management of his own service.  He defeated Rafael Nadal in a cold, damp semifinal through dogged and aggressive play.  Although ultimately unable to overcome Novak Djokovic’s mental edge in the final, Murray played one of his strongest matches against Djokovic in years.

Murray has already reversed one important result in this clay court season by turning a defeat to Nadal in Monte Carlo into a win in Madrid.  His close loss to Djokovic this week could conceivably lead to a win in Paris.

Murray must be considered a contender, even if a long shot, for this year’s French Open, especially if he is able to advance through the draw without ever having to face Djokovic.

 

Novak Djokovic is a favorite, but not necessarily The Favorite, for the French Open.

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Novak Djokovic played much better in Madrid than he had played in Monte Carlo three weeks earlier.  Having had time to acclimate himself to clay and to rest from his grueling and victorious tear through the early-season hard court events, Djokovic demonstrated much-improved movement and ball-striking.

At times, he exhibited his robotically perfect best, returning every ball with power, precision, and devastating accuracy, dragging his opponents around the court, creating impossible angles, and dominating proceedings absolutely.  At other times, he displayed a mental vulnerability that has become increasingly commonplace for him in 2016.  He broke his own serve with a series of errors as he tried to serve out his semifinal match against Kei Nishikori.  He nearly repeated the feat in the final by gift-wrapping several break chances for Murray in the final game.

If Djokovic plays at his best in the crucial moments of his matches at Roland Garros, he will be nearly unbeatable.  However, if he allows his level to drop, as he did against Murray and at moments against Nishikori, he could be vulnerable to an upset.

 

Weather is a crucial factor on clay.

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Clay demands greater adaptability from tennis players than any other surface, because clay is the only surface on which play continues in the rain.  Grass courts are dangerously slippery in the rain.  Hard courts become ponds, and even in a drizzle a hard court’s painted lines become treacherous.  By contrast, clay courts can absorb water, allowing play to continue though a light shower.

When rain begins, though, clay tennis evolves in a matter of minutes into what is effectively a new sport.  Cooler temperatures and falling rain conspire to slow the ball’s transit through the air.  The balls grow heavy as they pick up water and wet clay.  The heavier balls refuse to take spin, reducing the effectiveness of top-spin shots and necessitating changes of strategy.  Players are required to hit harder while simultaneously recalibrating their shots for the new conditions.

In Madrid, the contrast between rainy clay and dry clay conditions was on display during the quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Joao Sousa, which was effectively two different matches.

During the first set, the sun shone through cloud cover.  Nadal controlled the rallies with his vicious top-spin, and Sousa generated a series of wild errors as he desperately tried to match his opponent’s power.  In less than 26 minutes, Nadal won the set 6-0.

Rain started during the second set.  The balls became heavy.  Nadal’s top-spin lost much of its bite.  Sousa’s flat bullet shots started landing in rather than out.  After playing to a draw for eight games, Sousa broke Nadal’s serve in the ninth game and took the set 6-4.

By the third set, the stadium’s roof had been closed for three games.  Although the rain no longer fell inside, the air was still cold, and the court and balls were still sodden.  Nadal continued to struggle for advantage until the balls were changed (according to the standard schedule) in the eighth game.  With, at long last, dry felt to deal with, Nadal was able to use his spin and power to advantage and break Sousa’s serve.  Nadal went on to win the set 6-3.

Whether the weather be wet or dry in Roland Garros this year will play a crucial role in determining the French Open champion.

 

This week the tour moves on to a Masters 1000 event in Rome, where the rainy weather is predicted to begin on Wednesday.

 

The French Open begins in two weeks.
Stay tuned.

 

Return of a King: Five Quick Thoughts about the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters

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(Please click here to read my preview of the 2016 European clay court men’s tennis season.)

For over two hours today in Monte Carlo, Rafael Nadal and Gael Monfils battled to a stalemate.  The supremely athletic and highly entertaining Frenchman matched the King of Clay shot for shot, game for game, and offensive blow for defensive dig.  After two sets, the contest was even.

As the first to serve in the third set, which would determine the championship of this Masters 1000 event, Nadal told himself he needed raise his level of aggression and boss the rallies with his blistering forehand.  Stepping to the line, Nadal landed his first serve and proceeded to take control of the set and the match.

Having chased down and returned a staggering number of Nadal’s punishing shots through two exhausting sets, Monfils ran out of steam.  Unable to repel Nadal’s persistent attacks, Monfils conceded the third set in a “bagel” — by a score of 6-0.

In his 100th career final, Nadal won his 68th title, his 48th title on clay, his 28th Masters 1000 title, and his record ninth title in Monte Carlo.

Five quick thoughts about the week’s events:

 

Rafael Nadal’s game, decision making, problem solving, physical endurance, and — most importantly for him — mental strength are in very good shape.

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Nadal sliced through a brutally tough draw in Monte Carlo with aplomb.  After an opening win over Britain’s #2 player, Aljaz Bedene, Nadal:

  • Defeated rising star Dominic Thiem in straight sets, saving 15 of the 17 break points he faced.
  • Rolled over current French Open champion Stan Wawrinka 6-1 6-4.
  • Came back after dropping the first set to outlast World #2 Andy Murray in a dogfight.
  • Prevailed over the suffocating defense of a completely dialed-in Gael Monfils.

Nadal has suffered in recent years from physical disability and, more recently, severe confidence problems.  Judging from this week’s performances, most of Nadal’s problems are in the past.

Game on.

 

Gael Monfils could be a contender this year at the French Open.

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Long acknowledged to be one of the most athletically gifted players on tour, the 29-year-old Monfils has delivered inconsistent results over his career, in part because he has been prone to injury, and in part because of a lack of discipline, or a tendency to go on mental walkabout during matches.

In Monte Carlo, Monfils demonstrated that dedication, focus, and concentration inspired by his new coach, Mikael Tilstrom, are bearing fruit.  The Frenchman reached the final without dropping a set and offered Nadal a stiff challenge for two hard-fought sets.

If Monfils can maintain his form, he could reach at least the final eight at the French Open.

 

Novak Djokovic is not infallible.

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As Nadal observed about Djokovic in the week before the Monte Carlo event, “winning is tiring.”

Djokovic arrived in Monte Carlo — his place of residence — having won five titles in 2016 and 28 of the 29 matches he had contested.  During his first match in the Principality, perhaps showing weariness consequent to having reached the final of nearly every tournament he has played this year, Djokovic fell to the World #53 player, 22-year-old Czech Jiri Vesely.

Whether that loss will turn out to have been a minor speedbump and the week’s rest an unexpected boon — or whether Monte Carlo will mark the start of a diminution of Djokovic’s fortunes — remains to be seen.

 

The most engaging matches don’t always involve the top players.

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The early rounds at Monte Carlo boasted several thrillers between players ranked in the teens through the fifties.  World #17 Roberto Bautista Agut outlasted #33 Jeremy Chardy in three tight sets.  World #50 Marcel Granollers edged past #51 Alexander Zverev in two-and-a-half hours under the lights and in the rain.  World #13 David Goffin fought off match points to defeat the ever-dangerous Fernando Verdasco.

Even when headline-makers are nowhere to be seen, there is no lack of drama on the court.  Matches involving relative unknowns can be terrifically entertaining.

 

The doubles world has a new pair of stars.

during day eight of the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters at Monte-Carlo Sporting Club on April 17, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.

As the 37-year-old twins Bob and Mike Bryan relinquish their hold on the world of men’s doubles, an unassuming French pair, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, have made a strong case to assume the Bryans’ mantle.  In the last six week, Mahut and Herbert have won three Masters 1000 doubles titles on hard courts in Indian Wells and Miami and on clay in Monte Carlo.

No team except the Bryans has won Indian Wells, Miami, and Monte Carlo in succession in recent years.

The 34-year-old Mahut — perhaps better known as the loser of the three-day-long marathon match against John Isner at Wimbledon in 2010 — and the 25-year-old Herbert are as engaging and likable as they are skillful on the court.

As men’s doubles are on the verge of losing their best-known stars, Mahut and Herbert offer the sport a welcome new attraction.

 

For your enjoyment, a compendium of the tournament’s most virtuosic points:

 

Coming up next week are tournaments in Barcelona and Bucharest.

 

The French Open begins in five weeks.

 

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Dirt Ballet: the Beauty and Drama of Clay Court Tennis

RN_Clay_Shoes (Photo by @puepppy.)

In April, professional tennis players change their shoes.

Gone are the standard smooth “tennies” designed for comfort on hard courts.  In their place are textured soles optimized for traction on loose, red powder.

A whirlwind of travel that carries players through the summer heat of Australia, South America, and the tropics and sets them down in March on the hard courts of North America, delivers them in April to the European “red dirt.”  There they contest a series of clay court tournaments that culminates in the French Open.

Over the next six weeks, in eight different countries, players will be tested in what many fans believe to be the purest form of tennis — where the surface gives no advantage to raw power, where players must be proficient at every aspect of the game (serve, return, groundstrokes, volleys, and defense), and where players face the greatest physical and mental demands of the year.

What is the “clay”?

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The “clay” in a modern clay court is typically crushed brick layered upon a gravel base to improve drainage.  The court’s top layer is a fine red powder.

Much as an ice rink is smoothed periodically by a Zamboni, a clay court is swept to rid the surface of footprints, skid marks, gouges, and ball marks.  Usually, a clay court is swept after every set and sprayed with water as needed to prevent the top surface dust from blowing.

 

What makes clay court tennis special?

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The key characteristics of a clay court, from a player’s perspective:

  • It is slippery.

Movement on a clay court is night-and-day different from movement on the hard courts on which professionals spend most of the year.  Stopping, starting, and changing direction are all made more difficult by the court’s dusty top layer.  Balance becomes especially critical.

The slipperiness affects tactics (for example, it’s especially profitable on clay to aim a shot behind a moving opponent) and profoundly affects a player’s timing.   The most adept claycourters learn to slide into their shots.

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  • The ball’s bounce is high.

Clay rewards players who put heavy topspin (i.e., forward spin) onto a ball by giving topspin shots a high bounce.  (By contrast, on grass courts and many indoor hard courts, top-spinning balls tend to say low.)

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The high bounce can throw off an opponent’s timing and/or place the ball above an his optimal “strike zone,” in either case making it difficult for an opponent to hit the ball with power and accuracy.

 

  • The ball always leaves a mark on the court surface.

At clay tournaments, players cannot ask for computerized “Hawkeye” challenges, because every shot leaves a mark.  Instead, players can summon umpires out of their chairs to check ball marks.

Or, in rare cases, compel a cameraman to photograph a mark.

 

  • The surface is “slow.”

As the ball strikes the court surface, the clay holds it briefly during the bounce, giving an opponent an extra fraction of a second to reach the ball.  (By contrast, grass courts and many hard courts are “fast.”)

Speed (from news.bbc.co.uk)

Consequently, it is much more difficult on clay than on a hard court for a player to hit a winning shot past his opponent.  Rallies are long, and matches are both physically and mentally arduous on clay.

Clay rewards players who have good defensive skills (i.e., the ability to run down opponents’ shots and keep a ball in play).  Some of the tour’s most proficient claycourters, including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and David Ferrer, excel at forcing their opponents to “hit one extra shot” and eventually miss.

Defense alone, though, is not sufficient to guarantee wins.  Those who succeed on clay know when and how to hit an aggressive shot that either takes control of a rally or wins a point outright.

Clay rewards decision-making, shot-selection, problem-solving, patience, and the vanishing art of point construction — the chess match wherein each player tries to think several shots ahead and outmaneuver his opponent to make space on the court for a winning shot.

Executed well, clay court tennis offers both breathtaking athleticism and fascinating drama.

 

The Spring European Clay Court Season

The marquee event of the clay court season is the French Open, the calendar year’s second Grand Slam tournament, held at Roland Garros in Paris.  To ensure that players reach Roland Garros in optimal clay court form, the tennis tour devotes six weeks to warm-up tournaments in Europe.

Week 1: Monte Carlo

Leading off the series is the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters tournament.  First played in 1897, this “Masters 1000” event (one tier below the Grand Slams) offers fans and players alike the most beautiful setting of the season.

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The 2016 event, which begins on April 10, boasts the strongest field in years, with seven of the world’s top eight players and a bumper crop of highly talented youngsters playing.  There are no easy matches.  Nearly every player faces a tough slate of potential opponents.

The defending champion is World #1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who has won the event twice in the last three years.

Rafael Nadal won eight consecutive titles in Monte Carlo, from 2005 through 2012.  His record might never be equaled.

 

Update: Rafael Nadal def. Gael Monfils 7-5 5-7 6-0 to win the title in Monte Carlo.

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Click here for Five Quick Thoughts about the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters.

 

Week 2: Barcelona and Bucharest

During the week of April 18, some lower ranked players who did not qualify for the Monte Carlo tournament will begin their French Open preparations at a smaller “250” event Bucharest.  Most of the top players will either sit the week out or travel to a medium-sized “500” event in Barcelona.

Because Barcelona’s Open BancSabadell serves as the Spanish national championship, nearly every healthy Spanish player is in the field.  Thirty-four-year-old Spaniard David Ferrer has said that winning the Barcelona title would mean as much to him as winning a Grand Slam.

Fourteen of the last 20 Barcelona champions have been Spanish, including eleven straight from 2003 to 2013 (and Rafael Nadal eight times between 2005 and 2013), but the player to hoist the tournament’s enormous trophy in the last two years has been the scrappy Japanese baseliner Kei Nishikori.

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Update: Rafael Nadal def. Kei Nishikori 6-4 7-5 to win his ninth title in Barcelona.

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Fernando Verdasco def. Lucas Pouille 6-3 6-2 to win the title in Bucharest.

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Week 3: Istanbul, Munich, and Estoril

In the week of April 25, mid-level and lower ranked players will hone their clay court skills at three small 250-level tournaments in Istanbul, Munich, and Estoril, while most of the Top-20 players take a breather before back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome.

Update:

Philipp Kohlschreiber won a barn-burner of a final over Dominic Thiem, 7-6(7) 4-6 7-6(4), to take the title in Munich.

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Diego Sebastian Schwartzman upset Grigor Dimitrov 6-7(5) 7-6(4) 6-0 in Istanbul to win the first title of his career.

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Nicolas Almagro outlasted his countryman Pablo Carreno  Busta 6-7(6) 7-6(5) 6-3 to take the title in Estoril.

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Week 4: Madrid

Since the early 2000s, the lead-up to the French Open has included three Masters 1000 tournaments.  Two of those three are the events in Monte Carlo and Rome.  Until 2008, the third Masters 1000 on clay was held in Hamburg.  Because of Hamburg’s inclement weather (and, most likely, some behind-the-scenes politics), the third clay Masters 1000 was moved to Madrid in 2009.

The Madrid tournament poses a unique challenge during the pre-Roland Garros swing: high altitude.  The ball travels faster through the air in Madrid than at the sea-level events, and Madrid’s relatively dry air makes the court both faster and more slippery.

As a joint men’s and women’s event with limited court space, the Madrid tournament is known for its long days.  Often matches start after 11 p.m.

Nearly every year of the Madrid clay event’s young life has brought intense drama.

  • In the inaugural event in 2009, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played a four-hour-and-three-minute semifinal, which is the longest best-of-three-set match in the Open Era of men’s tennis.  Nadal won the match but had nothing left for the next day’s final.  The psychological blow of losing that marathon may have contributed to Djokovic’s loss in the third round of that year’s French Open.  The physical wear-and-tear surely contributed to the knee problems that led to Nadal’s fourth-round loss at the French and his subsequent two-month absence from the tour.

 

  • In 2011, Djokovic surprised Nadal and angered the home crowd by carrying out some decidedly in-your-face celebrations after beating Nadal in the final, including (by some accounts) a swim in a nearby canal and noisy dancing with his team on top of a parked car.

 

  • In 2012, the tournament replace the red clay with blue clay.  Although the blue clay showed up better on television, it might have been catastrophic for the players, because it was extremely slippery.  Players who typically remain centered over their feet, such as Roger Federer and David Ferrer, were relatively unaffected.  For Nadal and Djokovic, who tend to hit more off-balance defensive shots, the conditions were potentially lethal.  After 2012, the tournament switched back to red clay.

Blue

  • In 2013, a crowd still angry at Djokovic for his behavior in 2011 gave him a hard time during his loss to Grigor Dimitrov.  Djokovic, who has never had patience with hostile crowds, and who often behaves as though every crowd owes him affection, screamed at his hecklers in Serbian, “You can lick my ____, and I can ____ your mothers!”

Djokovic has not played in Madrid since 2013.  This year he will return.  It will be interesting to see how he gets along with the assertive and opinionated Madrid fans.

The event’s defending champion is Andy Murray.  Nadal has won the Madrid event on clay three times.

Update: Novak Djokovic def. Andy Murray 6-2 3-6 6-3 to win the title in Madrid.

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Click here to read Four Lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Open.

Week 5: Rome

The week after Madrid takes the players back to sea level at the Intenationali BNL d’Italia in Rome, first played in 1930.  The tournament grounds feature a steeply raked stadium surrounded by statues in a classical style, located atop the site of the swimming venue of the 1960 summer Olympics.

Statues

Djokovic comes into this year’s Rome event as the two-time defending champion, having won the title four times in the last six years.  Nadal holds the record for Rome titles with seven.

 

Update: Andy Murray def. Novak Djokovic 6-3 6-3 in the Rome final to win his third clay title and his second at the Masters 1000 level.

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Week 6: Nice and Geneva

The last week before the French Open will find most of the top-ranked players in Paris practicing at Roland Garros, speaking to the media, and appearing at sponsor events.  Meanwhile, 250-level events in Nice and Geneva offer final tune-up opportunities for late-arriving journeymen players as well as a few hometown stars.

Update:

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Stan Wawrinka def. Marin Cilic 6-4 7-6(11) to win his second consecutive Geneva title and his third title of 2016.

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Like Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem defended his 2015 title and earned his third trophy of 2016 by defeating fellow rising star Alexander Zverev 6-4 3-6 6-0 in Nice.

 

Weeks 7 and 8: The French Open, Roland Garros, Paris

On 22 May, 128 men will begin the quest for the year’s second Grand Slam singles title at the French Open at Roland Garros.  Fifteen days later, one man will hoist aloft the tournament’s storied trophy, the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

Coupe

Because Roland Garros is the only Slam site with no lighting for night matches, and since clay matches tend to be long, the French Open is the only Slam whose first match is held on a Sunday.

Every Grand Slam tournament offers compelling drama from the start.  It is fascinating to watch players ranked 70 or 80 in the world, with no hope of winning the title, battle tooth-and-nail for the right to advance to the next round.  Every day of the first week promises valor, heart, and sportsmanship.

One of my favorite tales of Roland Garros valor took place in 2013 and starred thirty-one-year-old Spaniard Tommy Robredo.  Known as a tenacious fighter, and expert like many of his countrymen in the art of tennis on clay, Robredo outdid himself by coming back from two-sets-to-none deficits to win five-set matches in three consecutive rounds, a feat unmatched in the previous 86 years.  After his third comeback, Robredo collapsed the court in tears as the stadium crowd chanted his name.

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More drama, of the “never-a-dull-moment” variety, erupted later in the same event, when flare-wielding political protestors crashed the men’s final between Nadal and Ferrer, spooking both contestants.

 

In addition to the French crowd’s perennial hope for a homegrown champion, the intrigue at Roland Garros 2016 — whose field is more open than it has been in years — features a cast of terrific clay court players all of whom have fascinating storylines.

 

The Contenders

It is highly probable that the man left holding the Coupe de Mousquetaires this year will be one of a short list of “usual suspects.”

The King of Clay – Rafael Nadal

RN_by_zoricdragan Photo by @zoricdragan.

Twenty-nine-year-old Spaniard Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player in the history of tennis.

  • He leads all men in the Open Era with a staggering 91.6 match winning percentage on clay.
  • He is in second place in the Open Era with 47 titles on clay.
  • He won a record 81 consecutive matches on clay from 2006 to 2008.
  • He won in excess of 50 consecutive semifinal matches on clay from 2008 to 2015.

 

Several attributes of Nadal’s highly individualistic style are especially well suited to the red dirt.

  • The unmatched topspin he applies to his shots, especially to his forehand with the distinctive “lariat” follow-through.

Clay_Lariat_Action

  • Excellent, precise footwork.
  • A deep understanding of the game and of point construction.
  • Formidable problem-solving skills.
  • Great competitive intensity that wears down many opponents as Nadal plays every point as though it were his last.

Nadal has won eight Monte Carlos, eight Barcelonas, three Madrid titles on clay (and one when the tournament was played on an indoor hard court), seven Romes, and nine French Opens.

That’s nine titles at the most physically and mentally demanding Major tournament.

No one else has ever won as many as eight titles at a single Slam.

Nadal is no slouch on surfaces other than clay. He owns four titles, including two Wimbledons, on grass (which, fast and low-bouncing, is essentially the opposite of clay).  On hardcourts, he has sixteen titles, include two US Opens and one Australian Open.

Nadal’s career has been a series of injury outages followed by comebacks.

  • In 2005, six months after winning his first French Open, Nadal broke a bone in his left foot (later found to have been congenitally deformed) and was reduced to hitting balls while seated in a desk chair.
    In 2006, he returned to the tour, won his second French Open, and reached his first of five consecutive Wimbledon finals.

 

  • In 2007 and 2008, the arch supports he was required to wear to protect his vulnerable foot started to wreak havoc on his knees.  In 2009, knee pain forced to stop competing for two months and miss Wimbledon.
    In 2010, in a spectacular run that started in Monte Carlo, Nadal won seven titles, including the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, in the process becoming the first and only male player in the history of the sport to win three Slams on three different surfaces in the same year.

 

  • In 2012, severe knee tendonitis forced Nadal off of the tour again, causing him to miss the second half of the season, including the London Olympics.
    In 2013, Nadal returned from a seven-month absence to win ten titles, including the French Open and the US Open, and finished the year at #1 – this in spite of his having missed the Australian Open entirely.

In 2014, Nadal suffered three apparently random physical failures: the first, a back injury that befell him in the middle of the Australian Open final in February; the second, a freak wrist injury in August that forced him to miss the US summer hard courts and the US Open; the third, in October — four days after he had returned to competition — acute appendicitis.

In 2015, Nadal experienced what he describes as a “mental injury.”  For the first half of the year, he suffered crippling anxiety on court.  He was unable to control his breathing or his emotions.  He was, as he recently described it, “competing against himself.”  During that stretch, Nadal delivered several truly baffling performances — including at Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, and later Wimbledon — in which he seemed unable to make decisions and could not hit accurate shots to save his life.

Through what he describes as “daily hard work,” Nadal was able to gradually rid himself of the anxiety.  He told the press in October that those bad feelings had gone away.

Because he is what some coaches call a “confidence player,” Nadal faces a maddening chicken-and-egg problem during his every comeback:

To win matches, he needs the confidence to go for big shots on important points.
To have confidence, he needs to win matches.

Last month, in Indian Wells in the desert of southern California, Nadal seemed at long last to have turned the corner.  He had four good wins over difficult opponents and then played his best match against Djokovic in nearly two years.

Nadal said in a recent interview that, unlike last year, he now enjoys practices and matches, and he feels ready to compete with anyone.

In 2016, Nadal is fit, healthy, and happy as he returns to his favorite surface and to events where he has enjoyed great success in the past.

(Memo to his would-be opponents: watch out.)

 

The Reigning King of the Tour – Novak Djokovic

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One year Nadal’s junior, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title (in Australia) in 2009.  After floating in the Top 4 for four years, Djokovic came into his own in 2011, winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open, and finishing the year at #1 for the first time.

Beginning in 2012, Djokovic opened each year by telling the press in January of his desire (or intention) to win the year’s French Open, and thereby complete his Career Grand Slam (which Federer had achieved in 2009 at age 27 and Nadal in 2010 at age 24).

In 2012, Djokovic reached the Roland Garros final and lost to Nadal.

In 2013, Djokovic lost to Nadal in a semifinal — a virtuosic five-set masterpiece that has been called the greatest match ever played on clay.

In 2014, Djokovic again reached the final at Roland Garros and again lost to Nadal.

Last year, with Nadal floundering, promised to be Djokovic’s golden opportunity.  Reversing his Roland Garros script, Djokovic dispatched his usual nemesis by trouncing him efficiently in a quarterfinal.

On the morning of the final, only the Swiss Stan Wawrinka stood between Djokovic and his Career Grand Slam.  After Djokovic won the first set, he seemed well on the way to achieving his much-talked-about dream.

Then Wawrinka delivered the three best sets of tennis he has played in his life, a breathtaking display of power and precision.  Pounding the ball off of both wings, Wawrinka kept Djokovic on the run.  Wawrinka controlled most of the rallies with bludgeoned groundstrokes and hit winner after blistering winner.

When it was over, and Djokovic stood on the podium once again holding the runner-up plate, he received a lengthy standing ovation from a crowd sympathetic to his plight.

During the balance of 2015, Djokovic lost only two matches, both of them finals.

Djokovic enters the 2016 European clay court season having won all of his completed matches this year (his only loss was a retirement), but he has shown some uncharacteristic vulnerability.

At the Australian Open, Frenchman Gilles Simon employed persistent defense to drive Djokovic to distraction, force Djokovic to five sets, and draw more than 90 unforced errors from the Serb’s racquet.

In Indian Wells, Djokovic lost a set to World #165 Bjorn Fratangelo and later against Nadal commited a striking number of errors with his best shot, the return of serve.

In Miami, Austrian Dominic Thiem was able to create a passel of break point opportunities against Djokovic but could not cash them in.  In the next round, Belgian David Goffin broke Djokovic several times but was unable to maintain any advantage.

It is possible that Djokovic will “run the table” on the European clay.  He might this year finally win the French Open.

Or he might lose a few points at important moments and find himself on the unfamiliar losing end of a match.

Djokovic will be the oddsmakers’ favorite at every event he plays from now through Roland Garros, but he is not a shoo-in.

 

Federer

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When 34-year-old tennis superstar Roger Federer published his 2016 tournament schedule, his European clay court season was rather thin.  Focusing on tournaments more likely to enhance his legacy (specifically, Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics), Federer had opted to minimize his work on clay.

Then in early February, Federer’s plans were upended by a turn of events new in his experience: an injury that required surgery.  Having been forced to sit out for two months, Federer decided recently to refocus on the clay events, beginning with Monte Carlo.  This renders the tournaments both more interesting for fans and more lucrative for tournament sponsors.

Although he might have lost with age a bit of speed and consistency, Federer is still the most graceful player ever to pick up a tennis racquet.  With his lethal serve and time-robbing aggression, Federer can still consistently beat 80 to 85 percent of the players on the tour.

Federer’s playing style is best suited to faster, low-bouncing surfaces (to wit, grass and indoor hard courts at sea level).  Winning a clay tournament at the Masters 1000 or Grand Slam level is a tough task for him.  That said, if breaks were to fall the right way, anything could happen.

Federer, like Nadal, has shown repeatedly that one is unwise ever to write him off.

 

The Reigning French Open Champion – Stan Wawrinka

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Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka owns two Grand Slam titles: the 2014 Australian Open and the 2015 French Open.  Physically strong, and blessed with a one-handed backhand as lethal as it is beautiful to watch, Wawrinka at his best can beat anyone on the tour.

Wawrinka is also wildly inconsistent.  In 2014, the year of his first Grand Slam and also his first Masters 1000 title (in Monte Carlo), Wawrinka lost nine times in a tournament’s first round, including a straight-sets loss in the first round of Roland Garros.

In the following year, Wawrinka played brilliantly at Roland Garros, beat both Federer and Djokovic, and won the title.

It can be difficult to predict on any given day which Wawrinka will show up on court.  Realistically, he could lose early in two or three events on the European clay.  With equal probability, he might win three or four of the titles.

Any Wawrinka match is worth watching for the quality of his tennis and for the likelihood of on-court drama.

 

The Intrepid Fighter – David Ferrer

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Thirty-four-year-old Spaniard David Ferrer is known and respected on the tennis tour for his dogged determination and indefatigability.

Although at 5’9″ Ferrer might be too small to win a Grand Slam during this Golden Age of men’s tennis, experts and commentators agree that in a different era Ferrer would have won at least one Slam and probably a French Open.

With 26 titles, Ferrer is the most highly decorated male player in the Open Era never to have won a Slam.  Like many of his countrymen, Ferrer excels on clay, having won 12 of his titles on the red dirt.  Ferrer has reached the semifinals on clay in Madrid, the final in Barcelona, the final in Monte Carlo, and the final in Rome.  In 2013, he reached the final at Roland Garros, where he lost to Nadal.

Although Ferrer might have slowed down somewhat with age, his disciplined point construction, tenacious defense, and outstanding return of serve can still carry him to victory over most players on clay, especially in a best-of-five-set format.

Ferrer may appear to be an outlier among these Contenders, since he has not yet won a title on the European clay, but I believe he belongs on this short list because in his trophy cabinet at home he has hardware from Roland Garros.

Only five active male players have contested a French Open final.

  • Nadal (2005 – 08, 2010 – 14)
  • Federer (2006 – 09, 2011)
  • Djokovic (2012, 2014, 2015)
  • Wawrinka (2015)
  • Ferrer (2013)

 

The Second Tier

Among the remaining 123 men who will contest the singles competition in Paris, at least 15 have the potential to cause upsets within the draw.  Some worthy of especial note:

Dominic Thiem

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Twenty-two-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem is almost certainly a future French Open champion.  As highly disciplined as he is talented, Thiem possesses a well-rounded game as well as a gorgeous one-handed backhand.

Thiem has won two titles so far this year, including on clay in Buenos Aires, where he beat Nadal in the semifinal.  Although Thiem may not be ready to win seven best-of-five-set matches at Roland Garros, he might well be capable of taking a Masters 1000 title in the coming weeks.

 

Kei Nishikori

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With a playing style sometimes described as “Djokovic without the celebrations,” Japan’s Kei Nishikori has established himself solidly among the game’s Top 10.  Nishikori’s easy power and precise ball striking can carry him past any player.  In recent years, he has notched wins over Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic.

Two of Nishikori’s eleven titles have come on clay, both in Barcelona.  If he stays healthy, which is always the biggest question with Nishikori, he could be a threat at any of the European clay events.

 

Gilles Simon

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Like David Ferrer, Frenchman Gilles Simon has turned an unprepossessing physical presence into an asset.  Although not endowed with great power, Simon brings to court some of the cleanest and most tenacious defensive skill on the tour.  An absolute nightmare of a match-up in a best-of-five format, Simon could give the home fans reason to cheer into the second week at Roland Garros.

 

Roberto Bautista Agut

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With two titles already this year, 27-year-old Roberto Bautista Agut is the most successful Spanish player through the first quarter of 2016.  In his short career on tour, he has won four titles, including one each on clay and grass.

Bautista Agut’s clean, well-rounded game is probably not strong enough to carry him to the trophy stand at any of the spring’s clay events, but he could serve as a spoiler.

 

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

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As a player, 30-year-old Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a bit of an enigma.

Sometimes he channels his prodigious talent and athletic ability into an aggressive, powerful game that defeats all comers.  He has beaten Federer twice in Grand Slams, including once at the French Open.

At other times — such as his 2013 dismantling by Ferrer one round after his victory over Federer at Roland Garros — Tsonga looks disoriented and defeated well before the end of the first set.

A subject of Roland Garros scrutiny and pressure every year as a top French prospect, Tsonga truly has a game that would enable him to win.

Whether he hoists any trophies this spring, or pulls off any important upsets, or bows his head in defeat, will depend upon which Tsonga shows up to play.

 

So who will win?

I don’t make predictions. 🙂

 

Update: Novak Djokovic def. Andy Murray 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4 to win his first French Open title and complete his career Grand Slam.

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Quote for Today

“If” doesn’t exist in sport. That’s the real thing. If, if, if – never comes. The thing is, you have to do it. – Rafael Nadal