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.

 

Advertisements

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

USO_Mens_Trophy

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

RN_0819_TY_6

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

AM_0812

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

SW_0807

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.

JWT

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.

FL_0818_Ready

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:

TR

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.

GS

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

DF_Joy

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

EG_Smash

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

Good_Smyczek_Moment_0901

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.

TB_Kit_1  TB_Kit_2  TB_Kit_3  TB_Kit_4

  • 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!