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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.”)

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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.

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  • 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

 

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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