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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Eleven Reasons to Watch the Men at the 2015 U.S. Open

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Men’s professional tennis is enjoying a Golden Age.  Two of the sport’s stars, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, are vying for the title of “Greatest of All Time.”  Close on their heels is Novak Djokovic, who currently dominates the tour and who will easily finish his career among the sport’s ten best.  Further enhancing the quality of tennis week by week is an unprecedented number of seasoned veterans in the Top 100, players who because of advances in sports medicine and training techniques are able to maintain their fitness well into their 30s and benefit on court from hard-earned emotional maturity.

The year’s fourth and final Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open – in which 128 men compete in best-of-five-set matches scheduled over two weeks – will see farewell performances from two of the sport’s sentimental favorites, scrapping efforts from up-and-coming stars, legacy-burnishing performances from all-time greats, and numerous gut-wrenching fights in which both combatants give their all.

Tennis is rarely more fun or more fascinating than during a Grand Slam.  Here are eleven reasons to watch in the days to come:

 

1. The Big Four! (Or are they the Fab Five?)

Four players – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray – have won 31 of the last 35 (and 37 of the last 43) Grand Slam tournaments, of which there are four per year, and 82 of the last 97 next-tier Masters 1000 tournaments, of which there are nine every year.  The quartet’s wholesale dominance of the sport earned them the moniker “The Big Four.”  Even as various members of the group have suffered injuries and illnesses or have otherwise slumped in recent years, a Big Four player (or two) has nearly always reached the finals of the important tournaments.

This summer, tennis writers decided to expand the Big Four into the Fab Five with the addition of 30-year-old Swiss player Stan Wawrinka, who has won as many Grand Slam titles as Andy Murray (two), and who soundly trounced Novak Djokovic in the final of this year’s French Open.

Why watch?

A match involving a Fab Five player promises jaw-dropping virtuosity, heart-stopping fight, and more than a little drama. If you have a chance to see one of these men play, I recommend that you take it.

Roger Federer

RF_0822_Serve

The thirty-four-year-old Swiss Federer is the all-time leader in Grand Slam titles, with 17, and is tied with Djokovic for second place in Masters 1000 titles with 24.  He has earned a Career Grand Slam by winning titles at all four of Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open on hard court, the French Open on clay, Wimbledon on grass, and the U.S. Open on hard court).  Federer leads his head-to-head record with Djokovic 23-22, leads Murray 14-11, and leads Wawrinka 16-3.

Although Federer has not won a Grand Slam title since Wimbledon of 2012, he reached the Wimbledon final in both 2014 and 2015.  Best on grass and indoor hard courts, Federer is always dangerous on hard courts, where he can use his inimitable grace and unmatched variety to optimal offensive advantage.

In the lead-up to this year’s U.S. Open, Federer skipped the Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal in the first week of August and then won the Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati in the following week.  His fans, who include several prominent tennis commentators, are picking him to win this year’s U.S. Open title.  This he might be able to do, although his ability to prevail in seven best-of-five-set matches over a two week span has been called into question in recent years, especially in light of the competition offered by his rivals in the final rounds.

Rafael Nadal

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Twenty-nine-year old Spaniard Rafael Nadal is currently tied with Pete Sampras for second place in Grand Slam titles with 14, this in spite of his having missed seven of the 49 Grand Slam tournaments for which he has been eligible during his career.  His 33 percent Slam win rate (14 of 42) is higher than Federer’s (17 of 65) but lower than Bjorn Borg’s (11 of 27).

Nadal owns the most Masters 1000 titles of all time (27).  He is the only male player to have won at least one Grand Slam per year every year for 10 consecutive years.  He completed the Career Grand Slam at the tender age of 24 and owns an Olympic gold medal.  He is also the only male player in tennis history to win titles at Grand Slam tournaments on three different surfaces (hard court, clay, and grass) in the same year (2010).

Nadal has winning head-to-head records against each of the other players in the Fab Five: 23-10 against Federer (including 9-5 on hard courts), 23-21 against Djokovic, 15-6 against Murray, and 12-2 against Wawrinka.

For Nadal, 2015 has been a year in the wilderness.  A mid-2014 wrist injury followed by appendicitis meant that Nadal played only five matches in the second half of 2014, during three of which he was ill with appendicitis.  Although Nadal has made an art of returning from injuries repeatedly throughout his career, his most recent comeback has been rocky.  For the first time, Nadal has suffered failures in one of his greatest strengths: his mental toughness.  He has lacked confidence in his shots and decision-making and has lost several matches that in past years he would have won.

By practicing hard and with a positive attitude, Nadal has gradually reconstructed his game much as one might assemble a jigsaw puzzle: better and fuller over time but always with notable gaps.  At the Cincinnati Masters 1000, he played two excellent matches but managed to lose his second match to an opponent who was playing the best tennis of his life.  In New York this week, Nadal says he feels close to recovering his highest level.

If Nadal were to reach the U.S. Open final, he might in seven matches face five or six players who have defeated him in the last 12 months.  His draw will be a test of his tennis and of his character.

He could vanquish his demons and announce to the rest of the tour that he has recovered his top form.  Or he might fall at the first hurdle and return home to Mallorca and continue rebuilding.  In 2015, Nadal’s path is difficult to predict.

Novak Djokovic

ND_0823_Leap

Twenty-eight-year-old Serb Novak Djokovic has dominated the tour in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015.  Whereas Nadal started winning at least one Slam title per year at the age of 19, Djokovic did not win his second Slam title until age 23, at the Australian Open of 2011.  Since that time, though, Djokovic has been on fire, winning eight Slam titles and reaching six additional Slam finals in the last five years.  During that same period, he has won 19 of his 24 Masters 1000 titles.

Djokovic owns winning head-to-head records over Murray (19-9) and Wawrinka (18-4).

Djokovic has an uncanny ability to reach every ball – at times with this body stretched or contorted to the extreme – and hit winning shots from anywhere on the court to anywhere in the court.  Djokovic gets to sharply-angled shots that would beat nearly anyone else on the tour and returns them so aggressively as to make a response from his opponent nearly impossible.  He is one of the most adept at return of serve, sending many players’ hardest serves back to the baseline at a server’s feet.  When Djokovic’s game is accurate and consistent, he is virtually unbeatable.

In 2015, Djokovic’s win-loss record is 56-5.  He has won two Grand Slams and four Masters 1000s, and he has reached the final in every tournament he has played except one.

And yet…

At the two tournaments whose titles he most wanted to win – the French Open and the Cincinnati Open, neither of whose trophies he has yet to hold – Djokovic lost in the final, to Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer, respectively.

If Djokovic has a weakness, it is that his head can fail him on the largest stages.  He is only 9-8 in Grand Slam finals (compared to 17-9 for Federer and 14-6 for Nadal).  In his head-to-head history with Nadal, although Djokovic leads 17-13 in best-of-three-set matches at smaller tournaments, Nadal leads 9-4 at Grand Slams and 10-4 overall in the best-of-five-set format.

Based upon his 2015 record, Djokovic has to be the favorite to win the U.S. Open title, but based upon his career-long record at the Slams, he is not a sure bet.

Andy Murray

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One week older than Djokovic, Andy Murray owns two Grand Slam titles, the 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon.  The twenty-eight-year-old Scot won the 2012 Olympic gold medal at Wimbledon.  Murray also owns 10 Masters 1000 titles and has a winning record (8-6) against Wawrinka.

Murray is one of the greatest defenders tennis has ever seen.  He gets to nearly every ball and returns almost everything into play.  His befuddles and frustrates his opponents with constant changes of angle and spin.  Very few players have the aggressive power to hit past or through him.

Murray’s strength has also proven to be a weakness; throughout his career, he has tended to rely too heavily on his fitness and defensive genius rather than on playing aggressively when indicated, with the effect of limiting his success against the top players.  To win his Slam titles, Murray played more aggressively than is his natural wont.

Murray arrives at the 2015 U.S. Open in excellent form, having won the warm-up Masters 1000 event in Montreal over Djokovic.  Based on the draw released this week, to win in New York, Murray would probably have to beat Wawrinka, and then Federer, and then either Djokovic or Nadal.  Fit, enjoying his tennis, and fully recovered from late-2013 back surgery, Murray is ready this year for the challenge.

Stan Wawrinka

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Thirty-year-old Swiss Stan Wawrinka is a late bloomer who can be extremely dangerous.  Armed with a powerful forehand and a lethal, blistering one-handed backhand that he can direct either crosscourt or up the line, Wawrinka on a good day can beat anyone.

Wawrinka won his first Grand Slam title (of two) at the 2014 Australian Open, where he beat Nadal in the final.  After Wawrinka had dominated the first set, Nadal suffered a crippling back injury early in the second set.  He could barely move for the remainder of the match.  (Even hampered by his back, Nadal still managed to win the third set, as Wawrinka played terribly because of nerves.)  It’s possible that Wawrinka would have won that match even if Nadal had not been injured, but unfortunately for Wawrinka (and Nadal), we can never know.

Wawrinka’s second Grand Slam title came at the 2015 French Open, as a result of a truly brilliant aggressive performance against the pre-tournament favorite (and near-unanimous commentator pick) Djokovic.  (Two rounds earlier, Wawrinka had similarly dispatched Federer.)

Warinka won his lone Masters 1000 title in April of 2014, after winning his first Grand Slam.

To win in New York, Wawrinka might have to beat Murray, Federer, and then either Djokovic or Nadal.  This is formidable challenge, but Wawrinka’s powerful game and virtuosic backhand make it possible.

2. “Dark Horse” Contenders

A few players find themselves on commentators’ lists of “dark horse” candidates with outside shots at the title whenever a Grand Slam rolls around.  These are players who consistently finish the year near the top of the rankings and who have reached Grand Slam finals before (and, in the case of the three players listed here, have wins over Roger Federer).

Perennial “dark horses” include:

29-year-old Czech Tomas Berdych, a 6’5″ power hitter who reached the Wimbledon final in 2010 and won a Masters 1000 title in 2005.

TB_0818_Outfit

30-year-old Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a big-serving shotmaker who reached the 2008 Australian Open final and owns two Masters 1000 titles.

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Another player likely to be considered a “dark horse” this year is the defending champion, 26-year-old, 6’6″ Croat Marin Cilic.  Cilic played consistent, powerful tennis throughout last year’s tournament, blasting Roger Federer off the court in the semifinal and then showing remarkable poise in winning the final in straight sets over Kei Nishikori.

Cilic’s 2015 has been inconsistent and relatively weak, hampered early in the year by injury.  Although he is unlikely to repeat as champion (he would probably have to beat Djokovic or Nadal, and then Murray or Federer), Cilic himself has shown that at a major tournament anything is possible.

MC
Why watch?

These three men are excellent, consistent players.  Especially in the early rounds, they can be counted on to entertain.

3. Understudies Waiting in the Wings

Mindful that the 28- to 34-year-old Big Four will retire within the next five to eight years, tennis broadcasters have made a deliberate and carefully engineered effort to cultivate fanbases for players of the next generation.  Three players in the 24- to 25-year-old range have emerged as the strongest threats to the Big Four.

KN

25-year-old Japanese Kei Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open finalist, has two wins over Federer, two wins over Djokovic, one win over Murray, and one win over Nadal.  Playing in a style very similar to that of Djokovic, Nishikori dominates opponents by hitting the ball early on the rise and redirecting it with his very effective backhand.

Nishikori’s weakness is physical fragility.  Several times during his career, he has chalked up big wins over top players only to find himself injured on the following day.  Nishikori sat out the Cincinnati tournament with a leg injury.  Whether that injury will hamper him in New York remains to be seen.

MR

Twenty-four-year-old, 6’5″ Canadian Milos Raonic has three wins over Murray, one win over Federer, and one win over Nadal.  Armed with a huge serve, improving rally skills, and a strong work ethic, Raonic plays as though he is determined to rise to the top (by any means necessary).

Raonic has not yet recovered fully from foot surgery that kept him out of this year’s French Open.  With his nearly unbreakable serve, he can be dangerous, but he might not be in good enough form to win this year in New York.

GD

Twenty-four-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov has one win over Djokovic and two over Murray.  Blessed with grace and great talent, Dimitrov can hit such a variety of shots that he has drawn comparisons to Federer.

Dimitrov finished 2014 ranked 11 but has fallen to 17 in a 2015 campaign that has included some catastrophic losses.  Dimitrov has the talent and physical fitness necessary to win the U.S. Open.  Based upon his recent performance, though, he might not yet be mentally ready for the challenge.

Why watch?

Each of these three players is likely a future Slam winner.  Nishikori in full flight displays breathtaking dominance.  Raonic has one of the best serves on the tour.  Dimitrov regularly provides some of the most sublime gee-whiz moments of a tournament.

4. Favorites Taking a Final Bow

This year, two accomplished tour veterans will play the U.S. Open for the last time.

LH

Thirty-four-year-old Australian Lleyton Hewitt, winner of the 2001 U.S. Open and 2002 Wimbledon, will retire in January, after the 2016 Australian Open.  Known throughout his career as a scrappy fighter, Hewitt can be counted on to give an opponent everything he can handle and more.

MF

Thirty-three-year-old American Mardy Fish will retire at this U.S. Open.  Always a tough fighter with a strong backhand, Fish raised his game to a new level in 2010 and 2011 by taking off extra weight.  In early 2012, six months after reaching his career-high ranking of 7, Fish began to experience cardiac symptoms that required an ablation procedure and that led to crippling bouts of anxiety, effectively ending his career.

This summer – recovered, confident, and accompanied by his wife and infant son – Fish has played a farewell tour on the U.S. hard courts.  Speaking openly about his ordeal in an effort to help others who suffer with anxiety, Fish is enjoying his final professional matches as he prepares to retire on his own terms.

Why watch?

Hewitt’s and Fish’s final matches will surely be hard-fought.  Their curtain calls will be followed by moving tributes to well-loved and widely-respected veterans.

5. Young Guns: The Ten Teens

The U.S. Open men’s draw will feature 10 teenagers.  The last time there were as many teens – 1990 – none of these young men had been born.

Why watch?

These are possible stars of the future, some of whom might fill face each other in Grand Slam finals five to ten years from now.  Remember their names:

Hyeon Chung, 19, South Korea

Borna Coric, 18, Croatia

Jared Donaldson, 18, United States

Thanasi Kokkinakis, 19, Australia

Yoshihito Nishioka, 19, Japan

Tommy Paul, 18, United States

Andrey Rublev, 17, Russia

Frances Tiafoe, 17, United States

Elias Ymer, 19, Sweden

Alexander Zverev, 18, Germany

 

6. Veterans Still at their Best

In recent years, tennis has seen a growing number of players over 30 in the top 100 and in the top 50, including several players who are playing their best tennis now at ages that only a decade ago would have seemed impossible.

IK

Thirty-six-year old Croat Ivo Karlovic, or “Dr. Ivo,” as he is know affectionately on the tour, uses his 6’11” frame to generate unreachable serves that seem to come out of a tree.  Playing some of the best tennis of his career, Karlovic recently hit his 10,000th ace.

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Carrying himself with confidence and calm consequent to his relatively advance years, thirty-three-year-old Spanish lefty Feliciano Lopez has reached his career-high ranking of 12 in 2015.  Now ranked 18th, Lopez arrives in New York in strong form.

GM

Thirty-two-year-old Luxembourger Gilles Muller is another relatively tall (6’4″) player, and another lefty, to play his best tennis well after the age of 30.  He reached his career-high ranking of 34 this past spring.

Why watch?

All three of these players excel at the highly entertaining and increasingly rare serve-and-volley style.  Their matches can be a treat to watch, and, since they usually involve few rallies, they can be relatively short.

7. Advantage: Height

Height presents a trade-off in tennis.  On the plus side, height gives a player a bigger serve, a wider reach at the net, and more powerful groundstrokes.  On the down side, tall players find it more difficult to move around the court.

Players at the top of the rankings, with a few exceptions, are typically at useful intermediate heights of  6’1″ and 6’4″.  However, in recent years, advances in equipment and training have enabled a growing number of very tall players to succeed on the tour.

Among the giants are the aforementioned Milos Raonic, Ivo Karlovic, Marin Cilic, and Tomas Berdych.  Others include South African Kevin Anderson (6’8″), Americans Sam Querrey (6’6″) and John Isner (6’10”), and Czechs Jiri Vesely (6’6″) and Lukas Rosol (6’5″).

Why watch?

Whether the growing ranks of the tall is good or bad for tennis is debatable, since taller players tend to play a relatively boring style of tennis derisively termed “servebot.”

That said, the athleticism and power of the taller players can be breathtaking.

8. The Beauty of the One-hander

Once upon a time, a typical tennis player used one hand to hit his backhand.  More recently, players have found that they need two hands on the backhand in order to cope with their opponents’ power and spin.  Thus, one-handers are becoming an endangered species.

Why watch?

One-handed backhands can be sublimely beautiful and shockingly effective.

If you have a chance to see one of these practitioners of the beautiful one-hander, grab it.

  • Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria)

 

  • Richard Gasquet (France)

 

  • Mikhail Youzhny (Russia)
  • Philipp Kohlschreiber (Germany)
  • Tommy Robredo (Spain)
  • Roger Federer (Switzerland)
  • Stan Wawrinka (Switzerland)

9. Never say die: Fighters to the End

The best-of-five-set format of the Grand Slams brings out the ultimate in an admirable breed of players who prevail over their opponents by outlasting them — by sustaining high-level tennis over many hours, fighting until the last point, and never giving up.  One exemplar of this fighting style is Nadal, who is said to play every point in a match as though it were his last.

Others include:

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33-year-old Spaniard Tommy Robredo, who holds the distinction of having come back from two-sets-to-none deficits to win in five sets at all four of the Grand Slam tournaments, and who very dramatically clawed his way back from two-sets-to-none deficits to win three consecutive matches at the 2013 French Open.

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30-year-old Frenchman Gilles Simon, who makes up for his relative lack of power with great defensive skills, determination, and guile.

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33-year-old Spaniard David Ferrer – probably the greatest maximizer of his talent on the tour.  Standing only 5’9″ on his very tallest days, Ferrer has made up for his lack of altitude and wingspan by working hard to cultivate consistency and great foot speed and by making the most of his strengths and minimizing the impact of his weaknesses.  Ferrer has a wickedly accurate forehand and a reliable backhand.  One of his greatest strengths is a talent for reading an opponent’s serve, throwing himself at the ball, and returning nearly any serve into play.

Ferrer has won one Masters 1000 title and reached a Grand Slam final at the French Open in 2013. With 24 career titles, Ferrer is only two titles shy of being the most accomplished male tennis player never to have won a Slam.

Why watch?

Commentators, and especially those who are not former players, sometimes dismiss the fighting style because it might lack flash or pizzazz.

In my opinion, the fighters’ matches can be the most riveting.  Every such contest is a great display of heart.

10. Broken to Love: Tantrums and other Misbehavior

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Like all sports, tennis has its bad boys.  I won’t give them much ink here, but it is not difficult to find tantrums, racquet smashes, verbal attacks on referees, line judges, and ballkids, and other appalling behavior via searches on Novak Djokovic, Jerzy Janowicz, Ernests Gulbis, Fabio Fognini, Ryan Harrison, or Nick Kyrgios.

Why watch?

Gulbis and Fognini can be perversely entertaining (especially Gulbis, shown above, who tends to be good-natured in his racquet smashes).  A Janowicz or Harrison tantrum can be a spectacle.  Kyrgios, who faces Murray in the first round in New York, may not last long in the tournament, which might be just as well.

11. The Home Team

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There are sixteen American men in the draw.  Most are young.  It might be difficult for any to reach the fourth round of seven, but the home crowds – especially the home crowd behind the last U.S. man standing – can create magical moments.

Whom to watch?

Steve Johnson, Sam Querrey, Denis Kudla, Tim Symczek, Donald Young, Jared Donaldson, Frances Tiafoe, Ryan Harrison, John Isner, Tommy Paul, Mardy Fish, Ryan Shane, Jack Sock, Rajeev Ram, Austin Krajicek, and Bjorn Fratangelo.

Predictions

Preceding every Grand Slam is a suffocating flurry of predictions.  It seems that every tennis journalist in the world goes on record with guesses as to who will win, who will lose early, and who will surprise the field.  These predictions are then reported in the tennis media with a breathlessness more appropriate to actual results, as though those slated to win ought to be anointed champion on the spot.

I don’t understand the impulse to make predictions and pronouncements, and I don’t like the effect such predictions have on tennis commentary.  Play-by-play announcers, either consciously or not, inevitably shade their commentary to support their own biases, since nobody wants to be wrong.

Thus, my five predictions relate not to winners and losers but rather to other aspects of the game.

  • Tomas Berdych’s on-court attire will be loud and garish, but he will still make it look good.

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  • Roger Federer will have the crowd solidly behind him at every match, even if he plays an American, unless both he and Nadal somehow manage to both reach the final, in which case the crowd support will be closer to 50-50.
  • Novak Djokovic will not get as much crowd support at any of his matches as he wants or as his fans believe he deserves.
  • John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, with their powerful serves and relatively weak return games, will average more tiebreaks in their matches than Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Wawrinka, and Nadal combined.
  • During the first week of New York heat, players will fight tooth-and-nail for five sweltering sets, as a matter of honor, merely for the right to play in the second or third round.

That is why the Grand Slams are so much fun to watch!

 

 

 

 

Going it Alone: Character Lessons from the Gladiatorial Combat that is Singles Tennis

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There is no safety net in tennis.

Each combatant stands on court entirely alone, without the support of teammates or coaches, often for hours at a time.  He or she must conquer court conditions, an opponent, and at times him- or herself without any outside help.

Tennis is perhaps the only sport in which a competitor can win more points than his opponent and still lose a match.  Thus, the mental game at least as important as the physical.  The key to a victory is winning what players call “the important points,” i.e., break points (which determine whether a player can win his or her opponent’s service game), set points (which give one player victory in a set), and match points.

A champion tennis player must be able to instantly forget what has transpired and must maintain a keen competitive intensity in order to capitalize on an opponent’s vulnerability.  In addition to talent, technique, and stamina, tennis requires patience, clarity of thought, problem-solving skills, strategic flexibility, and great mental fortitude.

Next weekend, the tennis world will crown its first Grand Slam champions of 2015 at the Australian Open in Melbourne.  One hundred twenty-eight men and an equal number of women entered the singles competitions on week ago.  As I write, 12 men and 12 women remain.

Tennis’ four yearly Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open on hard courts, the French Open on clay, Wimbledon on grass, and the U.S. Open on hard courts again) afford numerous examples of athletic virtuosity – a cornucopia of impossibly fast serves, brilliant defensive saves, and sublime winning shots.  YouTube abounds with “Gee whiz!” match highlights.

To me, the players’ mental ebbs and flows and the psychological contest intrinsic to each match are at least as interesting as the athletic endeavors.  One can learn a great deal from tennis about human nature and about character, especially in the high-stakes crucible of a Grand Slam, in which the men have to play best-of-five-set matches.

One of my favorite stories out of Melbourne this past week starred Feliciano Lopez, a 33-year-old Spanish left-hander with an old-school, serve-and-volley playing style.  Having played the best tennis of his career in 2014, Lopez entered the Australian Open with his highest-ever Grand Slam seed, 12.  This ensured that he would not meet a more highly-ranked player until the tournament’s fourth round.

FL_0124_FP Feliciano Lopez

Danger struck Lopez in his first-round match.  He required five sets, and had to fight off three match points, to put down a spirited challenge from 21-year-old American Denis Kudla.

Two days later, Lopez took to the court for his second-round match on a hot and humid afternoon.  His hard-hitting opponent, 26-year-old Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, blasted winners left and right, bossing Lopez around the court, and won the first two sets 6-4 6-4.

Lopez soon found himself down two breaks of serve in the third set.  Only minutes away from elimination from the tournament, Lopez dug in and refused to concede.  He broke Mannarino’s serve twice to force the contest back onto even terms.

When Lopez served at 3-4, Mannarino broke him and served for the set (and the match) at 5-3.  With his back to the wall, Lopez dug in again and managed to break Mannarino’s serve and keep his chances alive.  Both players held serve until they reached a tiebreak at 6-6.  Quickly, Lopez found himself in trouble, dropping his first service point and falling to a 0-3 deficit in the tiebreak.  Lopez refused to go quietly.  He fought and scraped, making up the deficit, taking a lead, and finally prevailing in the tiebreak to win the third set after fighting off a match point.

In the fourth set, Mannarino began to show signs of incipient heatstroke.  Lopez broke Mannarino’s service twice and raced to a 4-0 lead, at which point Mannarino collapsed onto the pavement.  Mannarino had to be transported to a hospital, where he received intravenous fluids.  Lopez was awarded the win by default.

Lopez could have conceded the match.  He could have said to himself, “It’s hot. My opponent is playing well.  Even if I win the third set, I will have to win two more to take the match. Why not give in?”  Instead, he refused to go away and thereby won a battle of attrition.  As I write, Lopez is still alive in the competition as the oldest player in the men’s final 16.  (He is also the only man still alive in both the singles and the doubles tournaments.)

As Winston Churchill said, “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.”

The tale of sportsmanship and valor about which the most ink was spilt last week unfolded on the night before Lopez’s heroic stand.  That story featured Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal and American journeyman Tim Smyczek in the lead parts and the heat that would ultimately fell Mannarino in a pivotal supporting role.

Tied for second on the men’s all-time Grand Slam title list with 14 and owner of an unsurpassable record of excellence on clay courts, Nadal arrived at Melbourne in a questionable state of fitness.  After winning a record ninth French Open title last June, Nadal had suffered a freak wrist injury that kept him out of the North American summer tournaments and the U.S. Open.  When he returned to competition in China in October, he was almost immediately stricken with appendicitis, which effectively ended his season.  An aggressive course of antibiotics enabled him to avoid surgery far from home but forced him to delay his appendectomy for four weeks until early November.  He was unable to begin off-season training until the first week of December.

Injury- and pain-free but rusty and lacking match play, Nadal lost his first and only singles match of the year before arriving in Melbourne.  While practicing hard in the week before the Australian Open, Nadal told anyone who asked him that he did not feel ready to contend for the title and badly needed match wins.  A favorable draw in the first round gave Nadal a veteran opponent whose game he knows very well, which enabled him to chalk up a win.  In the second round, he was to face 27-year-old American Tim Smyczek, whom he had never played before, in a night match on Melbourne’s premier court, the Rod Laver Arena.

Smyczek is a 5’9″ native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Currently ranked 112 in the world, he was forced to enter a qualifying tournament in order to gain entrance into the main draw.  Smyczek won his three qualifying matches and then, having drawn an Australian Wildcard, prevailed in his first-round match in straight sets. Smyczek had never played in the vast Rod Laver Arena (or, for that matter, on the main court at any of the Grand Slam sites).  The tournament gave him a practice hour in the stadium to enable him to get used to its sight-lines and cavernous space.

At 7 p.m. local time on Wednesday, Nadal and Smyczek walked onto the court in front of a lively evening crowd.  After a week of moderate weather, heat and humidity had arrived suddenly on Wednesday and persisted into the evening.

The first set went according to script for the former World #1 and the newcomer.  Nadal controlled the points with his thundering forehand and blistered winners around the court, taking the set quickly and easily.

During the second set, Nadal began suffering from the heat.  He became nauseated.  His head and his stomach ached.  Unable to tolerate the foods and replenishment drinks he uses during a match, he resorted to drinking plain water.  His electrolytes became seriously depleted.  Dizzy and afraid that he might fall over, Nadal became concerned that he might have to default out of the match.

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Before he could default, though, Nadal appeared to be on course for a loss.  Smyczek played brilliant ball, sticking to a well-thought-out game plan, and took the second set.  When Nadal became too dizzy to successfully serve out the third set, Smyczek pressed his advantage to take a two-sets-to-one lead.  Nadal began to fear that he might find himself on the next flight home to Spain.

Displaying courage and determination for which he has been renowned throughout his career, Nadal found a way to win the fourth set.  Grimacing after shots and bending over between points, he broke Smyczek’s serve and managed to hold onto his own, pushing the match to a fifth set.

At two sets all, Nadal was not out of the woods.  Smyczek did not waver.  For nearly an hour more, the two men remained locked in nervy, fifth-set combat, staying on serve until Nadal finally broke Smyczek to go up 6-5 and give himself a chance to serve for the match.

While serving at 6-5, Nadal won the first two points with a powerful one-two-punch winner and a successful serve-and-volley play.  He lined up for the third point and tossed up the ball for his serve.  In that instant, a man in the crowd let out an horrific yell.  Nadal missed his serve badly.  As the crowd loudly booed the disruption, Nadal stood for an exasperated moment before returning to the line to attempt his second serve.

What happened next is highly unusual in the increasingly cut-throat world of tennis and will stand for years to come as an inspiring example to all players.

With a signal to the chair umpire and to Nadal, Smyczek said, “Go ahead and take another first serve.”

Smyczek was under no obligation to do this.  Down 5-6 late in a fifth set to an ailing opponent, he could within the rules have accepted the fan’s interference as a lucky break and attacked Nadal’s typically weaker second serve.

As Smyczek explained later, “[The yell] clearly bothered him. You know, I thought it was the right thing to do.”

 

Nadal gratefully took the extra first serve and won the point.  Five points later he won the match.  He collapsed to the court in relief, celebrating his victory over physical suffering as he might have done if he had won a title instead of a second-round match.

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Nadal’s first words in his post-match interview on the court and in his post-match press conference were salutes to Smyczek’s outstanding sportsmanship.  Tennis players, fans, agents, publicists, coaches, and commentators echoed Nadal’s sentiments in a deluge of praise for Smyczek from literally all over the world.  In an instant, Smyczek became a hero in the world of tennis simply for doing the right thing.

As Nadal later told the press, “[Such good sportsmanship] should not be surprising, but is [a] surprise. That’s not [a] positive thing. But [what Smyczek did] is good. Is great. Is very difficult to [concede that serve] and he did.”

Tennis has historically been implicitly governed by an honor system.  Players are supposed to call themselves for infractions such as being hit by the ball, touching the net before the point has ended, or reaching across the net to hit the ball.

Unfortunately, recent years have seen the rise of a win-at-all-costs mentality.  Players fail to report being hit by a ball (the now-retired Chilean Fernando Gonzalez); fail to report touching the net (Canada’s Milos Raonic); reach across the net to hit winners (Serbia’s Novak Djokovic); and not infrequently take advantage of chair umpires’ mistakes to help their own causes.  The worst offenders among today’s players yell at their coaches when matches aren’t going their way, scream so loudly when they hit the ball that they impede their opponents’ shots, take long bathroom breaks between sets to disrupt their opponents’ momentum, and (with the exception of Nadal, who has never broken a racquet) smash their racquets in frustration.

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Tim Smyczek did none of this.  On the largest stage of his career, he played the best tennis of his life.  He served big.  He peppered the court with winners.  When his opponent started to flag, he kept his focus and stuck to his game plan.  Even when the match wasn’t going his way, he never yelled.  He never glared at his coach.  He never smashed a racquet or showed any frustration.  He kept his celebrations modest and was gracious in defeat.  A consummate professional through all five sets, he topped off his performance with the most gracious act of sportsmanship tennis has seen in years.

A few weeks from now, Smyczek will return to competition in low-profile, minor league tournaments, the traditional province of players ranked near 100.  His tennis will take place primarily outside the spotlight for the rest of the year, but his behavior in that split-second in Australia will live on in the sport’s memory.

Tim Smyczek is the only professional tennis player from Wisconsin.  As a Wisconsinite, I am proud to have him representing my country and my state.

Quote for Today

“That was really special tonight. It was pretty clear Rafa didn’t have his best stuff. But it just shows the kind of player, the kind of champion he is because, you know, he was sick and not playing well. That was his C or D game. He found a way to win. So hats off to him. That’s why he’s one of the best.” – Tim Smyczek