New York

Sure, the videos are not my normal look, but we can still enjoy them; and, in fact, isn’t this the best time of the year to step-up your game?  Ha.  Call it my chip and charge, catching the reader off guard (more on that momentarily).

It’s time for New York City tennis, folks.  American bias aside, NYC is the big one, last major of the year, North American hard courts, where great players make big statements under the big lights.  Indeed, New York has the “it” factor, the U.S. Open customarily showcasing the best games on the tour, the best athletes, the player that can handle the pressure, the size of it all along with the heat and speed of a bunch of New York minutes full of a bunch of world class tennis.

This is all about one or two players.  You know exactly what I’m talking about.  If Murray can make a run here and win a second U.S. Open, wow, more power to him.  Montreal was impressive.  He’s had a sneaky good year, actually.  Taking down his side of the draw, which could include Federer, and then beating, most likely, Djokovic in the final would be story-book stuff.  With out going into detail, I don’t see it happening.

This about Novak and Roger.  That’s it.  Nishikori, not a chance.  Cilic?  Speaking of the two 2014 finalists, that was a disaster.  Or an unbelievable accident.  Bizarre.  If Roger/Cilic and Novak/Nishikori played ten final fours, how many times would both Cilic and Nishikori advance?  If you’re about to say, “Well, actually. . . ” you’re full of shit.  That was ridiculous. Good for Cilic and Nishikori, exclusively.  Having them both advance was, really, a nightmare.  Not just for the spectating public, but for the two losers.  Novak v Cilic.  Roger v Nishikori.  Imagine the possibilities.  Of course, Novak v Roger would have been unreal.  But again, hurricane are-you-kidding-me rolled into the NYC semi-finals last year and destroyed the place.

Novak should face Roger in the final in 2015.  Of course, this is tennis, five sets, so lady luck will certainly be visiting upset city through out the draw, which means we brace ourselves for anything.  But Novak should face Roger in the final.

Novak v Goffin at best in the 4R.  Nobody should scare Novak in that bracket and Goffin should look to get straighted as Novak owes him and the Serb should be in good form after some early warm-up matches.  Who does Novak get in the QF?  Look at that draw.  If Nadal makes it there, I will be surprised though this is tennis and his luck just might turn around after that nice move he made by standing-up for the game and for Stan after refusing to pair with Kyrgios in an exhibition match.  Good stuff.  As I said in a previous post, this will be the worst kind of punishment for Kyrgios – worse than a fine or suspension.  The fans and his peers’ rejection will be brutal – not ideal for a player trying to climb the heights of the ATP.  Rafa and Raonic in that bottom bracket should not concern Novak very much at all.  See you in the SF, Nole.

Neither Nishikori (hip and results other than ’14 USO) nor Cilic strike me as serious threats though if the Croat does make his way through and finds the SF, you never know.  Just don’t see it.

In the bottom bracket, how can you look beyond Wawrinka, Murray, maybe Gulbis or Gasquet and Federer?  Sure, Berdych could make a run, but he’s been missing, probably doesn’t have the matches, the confidence.

As for some long shots, interesting early matches: having just said Kyrgios has a long journey ahead to regain his credibility, wouldn’t an upset of Murray in 1R go a long way toward said respect.  Lol.  That is just too much, but Kyrgios, believe me, has that kind of fire power both in his racquet and between the ears.  He can get up for one match to make a mess of the place.  Murray 3-0 against, all in straights, twice in majors, says no.  Is Kevin Anderson finding world-beating form in Winston-Salem, enough to make a run at the USO?  Are Isner or Karlovic going to bother Roger?  He’s a combined 17-2 against, generally owns big serves.  Just don’t see the big upsets, though you know there will be a few.

The point here is if you’re a betting man, you take the chalk and you should do pretty well.  Last year, for instance, Cilic was finding pretty good form on the HC, losing to Roger in a close one in Canada and Stan in Cincy.  He wasn’t that visible, but you could see some form was taking shape.

This is Novak’s to lose.  It’s his time.  This is a must win for him.  He doesn’t look very sharp on the HC, nor has he looked very sharp in New York over the years.  It’s that simple.  His path to the SF is clear.  From there, he has a lot to prove on this big U.S. Open stage where he’s seen a lot of difficulty closing the deal.

Roger, on the other hand, has closed the deal here five times.  Of course, that seems like a long time ago.

I liken his journey in 2015 to what Sampras did in the 2002 U.S. Open.  Granted, there are many differences in player, the field, and even age.  Pete, 31, was in a downward spiral the year or two prefacing the ’02 USO.  He entered as the 17th seed.  Can you imagine seeing a four-time champ early in your draw?  Ask Tommy Haas how he felt, the 3rd seed who got Pete in 4R (an interesting story is how Pete, during those first few easier rounds, started to find his form and faced the big serving Brit Rusedski in the 3R.  Pete beat him in a brutal five-setter.  In the press room, Rusedski said Pete had lost a step; in short, the Brit wasn’t impressed.  WTF?  You lost.  Rumor has it, Pistol Pete got a little more motivated.  Haas was next.  Agassi got it in the final).

Pete won his first USO in 1990.  He won his last in 2002.  That’s a twelve year separation.  He was younger than Roger is now, granted.  But Roger is in great form, #2 in the world.  Winning a sixth U.S. Open is not completely off the table this year, in my opinion.  We know his struggles in this format.  We know Cincy is a flawed USO prognosticator.

But here’s what I think:  Roger reminded us of a game that cast a spell on tennis about thirteen years ago.  Cincy gave me flashbacks, which I called The Federer Reminder.  But here’s some clarification of what he demonstrated: he showed us NOT some “funny” gimmicky second serve return surprise attack.  That was a distraction.  The key to Roger’s game in Cincy was his attacking presence throughout the game and the match, on first and second serves, during HIS serve, during rallies, etc.  He came to the net.  He threatened to come to the net.  He stayed back and his opponent thought about him coming to the net.  This was the Roger Federer we remember.  This was the one who vanished around 2007, who decided to stay on the baseline and try to beat Rafa and Novak playing their game.  There is risk coming to the net, especially when your opponent can pass at will.  But if that’s an integral part of your game, of your attacking athletic brilliance that purchased your esteemed mantle of greatness, you have to stay with that, at least not abandon it.  Roger on that attack, through out the game, is a tough out.

Rog is coming to the net now; he needs to come to the net now.  The second serve service-line blitz is not the play, though I guess if he can mix it in here-and-there, bravo.  It’s the commitment to the net through out the game.  He was never broken during Cincy.  That’s the serve and volley.  That along with his attacking backhand, constantly coming forward, putting pressure on his opponent, waiting to smash 3-4 hit rallies into thin air.  That’s the brand of tennis that can make a big run in NYC. That’s what I meant by the best of Roger is a truly sublime quality of tennis.  Is it the best ever?

Watching Pete play recently made me second guess the point of trying to make these claims.  Pete’s serve was probably the best there ever was.  His first AND his second.  Couple that with his incredible drive, his masterful net presence, huge ground strokes, very long and athletic. . .

I see similarities between Pete and Roger.  Cocky, dominant games.  Hard court and grass masters.  Both have seven Wimbledons and five U.S. Opens.  Will Roger be courageous enough to find and stick to his game?  Will Novak be able to consolidate 2015 and the legitimacy of his run at the likes of Pete, Rafa and Roger?

Let the drama begin.

The Federer Reminder: Cincinnati 2015

Bild: (c) 2015 Getty Images

In light of the sensational year Novak Djokovic is having, this 2015 campaign usurping his legendary tennis of 2011, Roger Federer’s dominant 7th Cincinnati Masters over the weekend reminds us, again, that he is still here and he’s the greatest to ever play the sport.  This has never been clearer.  Those who disagree, I am eager to weigh your stash.

Yeah, such an opening sounds like a big empty boat on the seas of subjectivity, but if you WATCHED the match, the final, against the world’s #1, against the guy who schooled Federer on the Swiss’ favorite patch of grass a couple of months ago, you should see that the kind of tennis Rog is playing right now, at the age of 34, is the best tennis you will ever see. Suggestions that the Serb was tired are piss poor.  Pretending Nole’s dominance couldn’t continue against this great three-setter master, who happens to own this particular event, is unforgivable.  Forget statistics, head-to-heads, training and coaching: Roger continually demonstrates how this game can ultimately be played.

I do not want this to miss: go watch the match and observe the differences in championship mettle, in form, in sheer athletic ability and sport acuity.

I am not a Fedhead.  I certainly enjoyed his dominance in the aughts and we can all rehash that period of our lives.  The previous golden age made way for the age of Roger.  He has been marvelous.  The interruption of that dominance became an awkward uncle you hate to run into on holidays.  You might have wanted to avoid watching as, mainly, Rafael Nadal somehow got into Roger’s head and made a nice career for himself, at the expense of Roger.

But here’s the thing: Rafael Nadal’s tennis, at its peak, is not the show stopper that is Roger Federer.  Rafa beat-up opponents and this had as much to do with his physical and mental intimidation as it did his tennis (see how Stan dealt with this at the AO 2014; he met this Nadal intimidation head-on and laughed him off the court – something Magnus Norman has a bit of a read on, mind you).  That Fedal H2H is so overblown I am here now to crush every little nonsensical vestige of it that I can find.  I would venture to guess that many Federer fans do not like Rafa.  On the other hand, I doubt that many Rafa fans dislike Roger.  Why is that?  Sympathy?  I’ll assert that Fed fans feel deep down that Rafa’s dominance of Roger is some kind of freak-show that interrupted the greatest show on court.  Rafa fans, conversely, feel deep down that they’re getting away with murder; they might actually thank Roger.  They know their clay court prince has made a living out of toppling the monarchy.  They rejoice, for their blue collar conspirator owns the Swiss king.

On Sunday, we watched Roger absolutely dominate Novak Djokovic.  It wasn’t close.  The first set was some of the best tennis I’ve seen that wasn’t in a major.  This wasn’t necessarily because world #1 and #2 were trading majestic blows. Roger was asserting a style that completely baffled Novak.  His return of serve and net play was devastating.  His serve was deadly.  Novak hung on for dear life.

Granted, these hard courts favor the Swiss.  Why?  Because they are, many of us will argue, the most pure and uncorrupted tennis surface.  The hard courts help articulate the purest strike of the ball, where footwork is magnified and because of the speed of the game, the fluency of shot making comes to the fore.  This is an ideal venue for the game. The U.S. Open in about a week will highlight the accuracy of this argument even though the history of tennis already has.

Of course, Roger’s incredible display over the weekend can be juxtaposed with the fall of the Spaniard.  Just mull all of that around in your head for a while, and watch some highlights (or a taped version) of the Cincy 2015 final.  The whole Fedal affair drowns now in insignificance.  What an embarrassing comparison.  Roger at 34 is playing the kind of tennis that men can only dream of playing.  His attacking tennis radiating athletic genius and technical brilliance is something to behold and Sunday reminded us of this.

Then there’s Nole.  He is #1.  His tennis is clinical and special and becoming legendary before our very eyes.  But he is no Roger Federer.  Just compare their backhands.  Roger is so much more athletic and versatile with that stroke.  The one-hander, though we know of its vulnerability versus the big kick to that back corner, is just classical and beautiful. Wawrinka and Gasquet remind of this, as well.  It’s almost tough to explain, but I’ll leave it at it’s better tennis.  I might argue that Nole’s game is safer, perhaps can survive lulls in his game as his defensive style keeps him alive and his devastating forehand and back-hand down the line can be world class effective.  But when Roger’s backhand and forehand are working like that, even at 34, get the hell out of here with these comparisons.

And to be clear on Nole’s GOAT consideration: he has so much work to do it’s a little overwhelming.  Having said that, I really do want to see him show everyone that these two Masters 1000 results will pale and disappear if he can hoist that U.S. Open trophy.  As I have said many times, this is the Djokovic era now and we should all want to see him succeed immensely.

The only concern I have about Novak is his physical stamina.  We can recall the early Djokovic who struggled in the heat, with this asthma, etc.  He’s much healthier now, stronger and more durable (obviously).  People can say all they want about his struggle on these courts, but he’s struggling.  He’s looked vulnerable for two weeks now.  Roger ran circles around the Serb and if you want to argue that the difference here is simply one played Montreal while the other rested, I say you’re biased and/or delusional.  I’m not sure those of us who want Novak to make a case want to highlight his difficulty with these faster courts.  Not sure what to say other than I hope he can find a more durable and energetic form. You can imagine what opponents make of this, which only adds to Novak’s legacy as he has been escaping incredibly from near-certain defeats.

Here comes NYC with potentially multiple four and five setters against the best in the world.  Again, that’s my only concern; he doesn’t look great physically.  And I’m not sure what that was serving at 0-1 in the second set against Roger where he coughed-up three double-faults to forfeit the game, set and match.  Yikes.  We know five sets is a different animal, and guys like Novak can bounce-back and change the course of a match in those circumstances, but his quality just doesn’t seem near enough to win another major in two weeks.  Rest-up, Nole.  Bring that clinical, world #1 quality we know and love to the big apple.

Federer faced three breakpoints against Lopez in the QF, but otherwise was almost flawless and did not, in fact, face a single-break point in the SF and F versus the two best returns of serve in the game.  Speaking of returns of serve, watching Roger come to net repeatedly on second serves, sneak in to the net during rallies and completely dictate points through out the match was a tennis lesson for all-time.  Can he continue to play 1-2 feet in front of the baseline, picking balls cleanly and creating near impossible angles for his foes in Flushing Meadows?  You might remember some of Nole’s great passing shots to Roger’s net invasion, but those merely kept the match interesting.  Those were few and far between Roger’s efficient and technically brilliant and strategic tennis.

Sure it was only Cincy, a best-of-three format where the Swiss master feels right at home.  We shouldn’t be really surprised by this kind of dominance since he’s 7-0 in finals there.  I hope we realize for sure that we shouldn’t be surprised either that the sun hasn’t set on Roger Federer.  Whether or not he can win a sixth U.S. Open, his eighteenth major, this we do know: his game at its best is the best the game has ever seen.

Men’s Tennis Of Course

Of course we see predictability this week in Cincinnati as this dramatic USO series gets closer and closer to New York City.  Of course, we’re all excited about the big apple’s men’s major tennis opera starring Novak and Andy in leading roles, with Roger playing the older, more subdued crowd favorite.

Nothing really “off” course at this point.  We are in a kind of waiting game, anticipating (some of us anxiously) the direction of the ATP narrative.  Of course, this tennis story involves the current and immediate future of U.S. Open tournament series play, as well as the career arch of some of the players.

Cincinnati is the second of the two significant Masters 1000s that precedes the U.S. Open and naturally we get a chance to see who’s finding meaningful form, the kind that will translate to the best-of-five-under-the-big-spot-light-major-championship kind of tennis.  New York is a storied venue with some of the best to ever play this game playing their best tennis. We should agree that the hard courts make a compelling argument for the best surface to determine the best, most complete game.  It’s not a coincidence that two of the GOATs have five a piece in Flushing Meadows, a venue rich in tennis championship history – where the U.S. National Championships began in 1881.  Of course, this tennis championship now has massive international significance.

Glance at a list of past USO champions and you see the importance of these late season hard courts; you see the correlation between play at the Western & Southern Open and the U.S. Open – what makes what’s happening on the courts this week so intriguing.  The list of past champions at the U.S. Open, of course, is a who’s who of men’s tennis history, the stories of brief periods of brilliance or extended periods of dominance.  In more recent tennis history, the list recalls particular characters like Marat Safin.  I remember that U.S. Open final where the prodigious 20-year-old Russian dominated Sampras in straights.  Anyone who saw him play knows his game was scary natural and should have translated into much more tennis championship success.  Character and other factors somehow derailed this tremendous talent.  Pat Rafter is another U.S. Open memory, who’s game fit nicely on the North American hard courts. 1998 marked a great year for this particular Aussie.  He beat Sampras at the final in Cincy and went on to claim his second straight U.S. Open crown.  Take a look at the history of Cincy and compare it to Flushing Meadows.  A very interesting walk down memory lane and a reminder of how significant these hard courts are in determining who is the best in the world.

Cincinnati at the Quarterfinals

So, what’s been happening in Cincinnati this week?  Well, things are going fairly according to plan, of course.  Let’s start with Rafael Nadal.  The bizarre Nadal-Federer relationship reared its ugly head again.  How totally mesmerizing is this pair?  Nadal, as we all know, has owned this rivalry dating back to that 2004 Miami Masters.  The seventeen-year-old Spaniard, ranked #34 in the world at the time, beat Roger in 3rd round play in straights.  Of course, Roger was #1 at the time and we were all off on our merry amusement park ride of tennis intimidation that Roger so agreeably went along with. What in the world was that?  No question in my mind that this first Miami 2004 impression affected the two forever.  That’s what this relationship seems like: forever.  Forever Nadal to dominate the Swiss great.

As Cincy began to roll-out, the tennis peanut gallery began to whisper “Roger Rafa quarter final.”  Uhg.  Here we go again.  Of course, the Nadal camp saw this as a perfect opportunity for the struggling Spaniard to sharpen his tools into much more convincing form.  Despite my stance that Nadal is done, I actually lent one ear to this bizarro world that is Roger-Rafa H2H.  It’s disturbing.

But, in deed, I did already reiterate Nadal is done.  I used my eyes to make this pretty outspoken statement.  His game, without his aggressive (even angry), bullying ground strokes and clutch-point play, is so uninspiring.  This is the origin of my particular bias.  I have nothing against Nadal himself; he seems like a decent guy.  But his tennis is anything but classic.  Sorry.  His other uncle is a professional futboler.  Rafa’s game is similarly athletic, big, bruising, running down balls, burying them into his opponent’s backhand corner rather than the back of the net.  He’s a tremendous athlete.

And yet his most important trait may be his mental game.  As rough and unrefined as is his tennis, his clutch gene is predominant.  How many times have you seen him out-think his opponent?  It’s unbelievable.  An interesting dichotomy for sure: unrefined yet sneaky intelligent, even competitively sublime.

Well, as I said (no, I am not saying I told you so – oops, I just said it), his days of dictating a match appear to be long gone.  The only surprise from this 3R loss to Lopez is the fact that he was beaten by one of his minions.  The rise of Spanish tennis under Nadal has been impressive (there are several legitimate players from this not so much championship tennis factory), but he always has his way with them.  Not in Cincy 2015.  He’s done for the tournament and, as I have suggested, for all time.

What happens now to Rafa?  Talk is of hope for a coaching change (from Nadal Nation).  I have already said a big reversal in form will be suspicious.  He is not injured; rather, he is inept.  With the tennis power that now graces these tournaments, especially in later rounds, Nadal can not possibly find the form to compete.  How?  Can he develop a serve and volley game?  A bigger serve?

As I clumsily tried to clarify in my article about Roger, his longevity and class will keep him way out-front of Nadal despite their bizarre H2H that only Freud can explain, I’m afraid.  Roger at 34 is playing beautiful tennis.  Another Cincy title this week would be very impressive.

How will the subdued crowd favorite fair with Djokovic and Murray still alive?  His form looks convincing and likewise the two leading men of the ATP have been winning in light of some pedestrian tennis.  A win is a win, but Nole and Andy have done, seemingly, just enough to get past some less-than-stellar opposition.  Dimitrov would have done himself many favors by closing-out that 3R match vs. Murray.  Wow.  And how does the exhausted Djoker go down 0-3 in the third and reel-off six straight?  Ha.  Is there a silver-lining for Dimitrov and Goffin?  Is there a moral victory in there?  #1 and #2 continue to impress.

We see that Djokovic is finding his game.  His straight-set dismantling of Stan this morning is just want the Djoker needed.  Perhaps he had a couple of drinks with Boris in order to find that killer instinct he’s been missing.  Again, like Wimby (as one of my favorite commentators pointed-out), Nole is finding form late in a tournament, shedding some of that flabby tennis in early play, arriving at the final four in closing-the-deal shape.  Is Cincy giving us, as it has historically, insight on New York City? We’ll have to wait and see, but this early QF result seems awfully ominous for the rest of the ATP cast.

Enjoy!

2015 Rogers Cup: The Takeaway(s)

  1. Tennis is a brutal sport.  Last night, I was watching replay of Murray beating Isner in Davis Cup play earlier this year and one of the announcers recalled a poignant, intimate exchange with Murray where the Scot basically said tennis is a brutal sport.  There were so many examples last week of this tough merciless atmosphere these gentlemen endure during tournaments like a 1000 or a major.  The battles are fierce, the tennis heroic and tragic; in the end, we’re left wondering what, how, why, and most importantly wanting more.  Murray has seen a lot of big time tennis in his day; he’s been on the short-end many many times, perhaps giving cause to his referenced confession. Good on him for finding some well earned hardware along the way.  No doubt these guys have to earn their hardware.
  2. Murray is a threat to Djokovic.  Granted, if you look at the numbers, the statistics, you see this: 19-8 (Djokovic, before yesterday).  Wow.  That’s dominant.  If you asked me about this H2H, I would have given you a much more accurate read.  How?  I watch tennis.  A lot of tennis.  In my recollection, Murray has beaten Djokovic when it counts.  In the matches that matter, Murray is not Djokovic’s whipping post. I recall, of course, Murray taking him down during USO and Wimbledon finals.  Djokovic has a mere 3-2 advantage on him in major finals.  In 2014 Djokovic (according to one H2H source) was 4-0 vs. Murray. Those matches were as follows: Miami Masters QF, USO QF, Beiging SF, and Paris Masters QF.  I’m the first to say a win is a win.  But I might argue that we should focus on matches with bigger stakes, namely tournament finals. Going back to 2011, in masters and major finals between these two, Djokovic has a 6-4 lead.  These are in finals. Biggest stage.  Murray is anything but a push-over for Djokovic.  The bigger historical perspective backs this up, too.  That 3-2 edge in major finals is a red flag for those proselytizing the Serb’s dominance of the Scot.  Djokovic’s overall 9-8 in major finals again highlights this issue.  Novak is at the top of the sport right now, but he has work to do to convince of his historical dominance. The Scot proved again yesterday that this is a more even rivalry than those superficial numbers suggest.
  3. Losing Montreal is not the end of the world for Djokovic.  As I said in a recent post, I would almost prefer (rooting for the Serb to triumph at the USO) that he get to a SF or F at both Montreal and/or Cincy so he can still peak in much more important circumstances.  Winning Montreal and/or Cincy and losing the USO would be a disaster. Care to disagree?  I suspect that if his arm is recovered for Cincy, he will win since A) he has yet to win this tournament and B) he is moving toward championship form.  On the other hand, he may come-up short next week, as well.  And again, I couldn’t care less in terms of his outlook for the USO.  It is very difficult to peak for 3-4 weeks vs. this deep of a field.  In Cincy, here comes Roger, rested and looking to add another Cincy title, find his HC form for NYC.  The draw is out, and it’s going to be tough.  To summarize, there is no need for the Djokovic camp to worry or panic at all.  In fact, this could be just what the doctor ordered (and take care of that arm, Nole!).
  4. Nishikori was brilliant, but is still not quite a threat to win a major.  Of course, last year’s USO final contradicts that statement some.  Still, I see him as a bit of a long-shot to get through these deep draws.  Having scored a nice win vs. Nadal (his first in eight tries), he faced the music vs. Murray who was rolling.  After his QF win, I was asked who I like in the Murray/Nishikori and I said Murray immediately.  Mainly, because I had seen Murray’s form. Secondly, Kei’s win over Nadal was not the dynamite result some might have celebrated because. . .
  5. Nadal is done.  I know, I know, I might be eating crow in 2016 or 2017 when he reaches 2 major finals and wins his 10th or 11th FO.  Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?  It is.  He is awful right now.  His play vs. Stahkovsky was boring and his win vs. the 33-year-old Youzhny was anything but impressive because Youzhny is not the same player he was in 2006-2012.  Plus he’s had a very poor 2015.  Nadal getting beat in straights by Nishikori was not shocking (nor would Nishikori losing to the Spaniard who has 14 majors have been shocking).  The second set had a nice pivotal couple of games as Rafa battled back from 1-4, but Nishikori was able to prevail.  Good for him.  Big confidence boost.  The eye-test is what, for me, really hurts Nadal.  He’s just not the frightening, bullying base-line presence he once was.  I hope fans are noticing this fall.  It’s a bit of a pattern and at the same time pretty sudden, at 29 years old, and precipitous.  And a big reversal of form at this point would be almost silly to imagine.  I see a huge build and push for his 10th FO next year, but otherwise he seems to be on the downside of his career with a game that can not weather the storm, so to speak.
  6. Can Gulbis keep his game afloat?  I mentioned him in my post where I looked at the possible challengers to Djokovic’s run at greatness.  He moves in and out of tournament play but at only 26 years of age I had to include him.  I like his game a lot.  I mentioned he would be “stalking” that bracket late in the week and he absolutely gave Djokovic a test.  Ru-an’s take on this was spot-on: “Djokovic Tries to Lose Against Gulbis but Finds It Impossible.” Ha ha.  That is exactly what I saw.  Novak’s demeanor was ideal.  He was having fun, on the brink of defeat. When Djokovic went up 1-0 in the third, I was off to run errands.  But kudos to Gulbis for his keen game sense, his power and finesse and for that lovely fore-hand!  Great stuff.  Keep those emotions in check, Ernie, and keep doing what you’re doing.
  7. The Wawrinka/Kyrgios drama is for the tabloids, not the ATP.  Having said that, listening to Gimelstob chime-on about how the ATP board feels, how several players are concerned and want punishment for the Aussie, listening to journalists and bloggers react. . . seems like it’s already taken-on a life of its own and I’m waiting for it to grace the cover of a tabloid or the feature of a TV celebrity news show.  More interesting for me is that he was beating the Swiss until the latter’s retirement from the match and then Isner pounded him amongst jeering from the crowd. My quick take on this is the chair umpire needs to take more control of these matches, try to subdue this kind of crap.  After that, I suppose it depends on the incident, but a couple of things for sure: he will have to face reaction from fans and fellow players; this can be very tough given what obstacles are already out there in order to win tennis matches and tournaments.  I like his game a lot.  But for his sake, he needs to get his act together.  That match vs. Isner is what he’ll have to endure and most could see how quickly he wanted off of that stage.  And I’m not sure what Stan’s love life has to do with Kyrgios’ inability to control himself.

We’re on to Cincinnati.

Tournament Talk

Wednesday evening and already there is much drama in Montreal.

Let’s get out front on this conspiracy theory of mine – the tournament directors absolutely want Nadal in the final four of this tournament (probably the ATP, as well, as a general hope and prayer). Great for the weekend events/ratings and perhaps a chance to build this player’s confidence to contend on other hard courts in the near future.  Nadal drives an audience. Still. Obviously.

Here’s a summary of the draw and some early results.

Djokovic opened with Bellucci, a tough 27 year-old Brazilian who gave the Serb a tough two-set welcome-back-to-the-tour reception.  Djokovic next faces my favorite American, Jack Sock, who missed a big opportunity last week in D.C.  Be that as it may, he knocked-out Dimitrov and will get a nice tennis lesson from Novak.  The point is Djokovic has to face some legitimate fire-power early and often and it’s only Wednesday.  At the bottom of his bracket is Berdych, already gone, beaten by 26 year-old American Donald Young. We’ll give Berdych a pass because he recently married, so he’s probably a bit smashed; nice win for the young American.  But Gulbis is stalking that lower bracket, having brought the young Thiem back-to-earth in the first round and ready to tangle with Djokovic in a few days if all goes to plan.  If you don’t know Gulbis’ game, tune-in. In sum, a tough little draw.

In the next bracket, Wawrinka is already gone.  You read that right.  He had to face Kyrgios following his R1 bye.  Kyrgios, for anyone watching tennis, is a major gun slinger, who already has big results despite being only twenty-years-old.  Yep, the Swiss FO champ is gone.  Pretty tough draw I’d say.  Next would’ve been Isner, who has bounced back brilliantly from his work in D.C., where he clearly had some physical issues.  Isner having a great early NA HC season.  At the bottom, the local boy Raonic is out already, as well, with Dr. Ivo doing his typical massive serve damage.  Tough draw.

Next, you have the sympathy parade for Rafael Nadal at the top of his bracket.  He, the seventh seed, got a Ukrainian named Stakhovsky following his bye.  Not much of a challenge beyond the first set TB. Next up for Rafa: Youzhny.  Wow. Is it 2008?  If Youzhny hadn’t won, Nadal would have faced the ever dangerous Simon.  Yes, I’m being sarcastic.  If Nadal can beat the 33 year-old Youzhny, he gets Nishikori, which will be a test.  Though I’m afraid the middle-aged Japanese star doesn’t scare Nadal.  Nadal is 7-0 vs. Nishikori.  Again, well done, Roger’s Cup.  This is a weak draw, one favoring the struggling Spaniard.  Horse shit if you just do a little glance at the match-ups through-out the draw.

Lastly, Cilic, at the top of his bracket, is already gone having had to face the unpredictable but dangerous Tomic.  If Cilic had gotten through that, he’d be face-to-face with Tsonga, defending champ.  Brutal draw.  At the bottom of that is none other than Murray, Andy Murray.  Murray survived a tough early match vs. Robredo who generally plays him well.  If Murray can beat the big serving G. Muller (who upset Monfils), he gets Tsonga.  Again, very tough draw.

I called this in my last post.  Indeed, it’s happening before our very eyes.

All this to say, things happen for a reason.  I’m watching you, ATP.  This is crap.

2015 Rogers Cup in Montreal

So that’s where we are this week: Montreal.  I’ll try to keep this short since there’s a lot of tennis to watch, patterns to develop, form to be found.

A little re-cap of the Citi Open in Washington D.C.  From my American perspective, I was disappointed to see Jack Sock go down in the QF to fellow American Stevie Johnson.  Johnson does not have the promise of Sock; Sock’s stock took a dive in that match.  I watched some of the tennis there and Sock’s body language and lack of focus was a very poor showing.  Whether he and Johnson are BFFs or whatever, the match lacked execution from the 22 year-old.  He would have had a decent shot vs. Isner in the SF and who knows what would happen after that.  Could have been a huge stepping-stone.  Fail.

The Isner/Nishikori final featured a decent look at the 25 year-old Japanese player’s form.  He’s rounding into good HC form in time to make another push in September in NYC.  He controlled points early and often vs. Isner.  But Isner, if you watched the match, was hurting.  He’s been playing a lot of tennis (having won the week before in Atlanta), and had trainers working on his shoulder during the match.  Add that to fatigue on a 6′ 10″ frame and you had a fairly minor test for Nishikori.  Isner’s game relies so much on his serve; this is usually enough to advance at a 500 unless he runs-up against players with a game like Kei.

Nishikori looked solid.  I especially liked how he was able to win the SF and F after losing the first set (SF vs. Cilic no less!).  That seems to be a good sign of his confidence and experience.  This was his third title of the year.  Along with his runner-up finish at the 2014 USO, people might be getting pretty excited about the world’s #4.  Keep in mind, however, he’s never won a 1000 and his wins this year are vs. Kevin Anderson (Memphis), Pablo Andujar (Barcelona) and a beat-up Isner (D.C.). Montreal will be a much better test, of course.  Our eyes are on the second best two-handed backhand in the game. Stay tuned.

As for Montreal, this should be very interesting.  Djokovic needs to reassert himself, remind the field of his dominance; that’s the mission of this 1000×2 fortnight.  Reaching the final of both Montreal and Cincy seems like musts for the Serb. On the other hand, he could lose in the 2R and still run amok at the USO, claiming his 10th major.  In other words, though these tune-up tournaments can tell us a lot, they can also be misleading. Having said that, I believe the tennis is hugely mental at this point (so long as players are physically healthy).  It’s the final major of the year, a lot of tennis has been played; guys are tiring.  Djokovic has shown a big vulnerability in this last major.

Therefore, he needs to be rested and confident.  Winning one of these 1000s (or both) would be great, but more importantly he would maintain his world-beating confidence.  This is paramount.  I suspect he wants to add to his wins in Canada (3) and win a first Cincinnati Masters.  Again, as long as he is playing in the SF (at least) or the F, I think that’s enough for him to elevate his fitness and remain confident.  Dominating these 1000s and losing the USO would be tragic, imho.  Similar to golf, or other sports with smaller build-ups to the big dance, finding rhythm and confidence in order to peak in the championship is more critical than winning these tune-ups.  Having said that, who can stop the Djoker?

My eyes are on Nadal.  Monfils just crushed Fognini, which adds a little clarification to that Hamburg final.  Nadal has the easiest draw in Montreal.  He only faces Nishikori in the QF where things certainly will get interesting across the board for everyone.  But he has very little early-on.

Speaking of that potential QF, I did like the discussion of Nishikori’s mental strength that was had during his D.C. run.  The commentary compared him to Borg, statistically, in terms of focus, big points, etc.  Great to hear.  He’ll need that against the Spaniard who has made a career out of bullying his opponents (a topic I will take a look at later this week).

Djokovic could face a Dimitrov in 3R.  Wawrinka might have Kyrgios in 2R; Cilic faces Tomic next, and Murray has a Robredo and probably a Monfils before the 4R.  Nadal will breeze into the QF (or maybe not if his form is as suspect as some of us think it is).

So, let’s watch some tennis and re-visit on the other side as we prepare for Cincinnati (though do stay tuned for my post about Nadal and the importance of his mental game in the next few days).

Who do you like this week and why?

Association of Tennis Professionals: 2015

Are we safe to assume that men’s professional tennis is secure in its ability to parade for us generational greatness and feed us, so to speak, this insanely delectable meal of world class tennis that seems perpetual, eternal? We have had an amazing run.  The 70s and 80s to the 90’s and early aughts to the three amigos (Fed, Rafa and Nole). Think about that for a second.  The Open Era technically began in 1968, when professionals could then compete with amateurs in the Grand Slams.  Laver actually won a calendar GS in 1969.  Then began “the run.”  The 70’s included Rosewall and Conners, Borg and Nastase, Gerulaitis, Villas, and onto McEnroe and the 80’s: more Conners, Borg and McEnroe along with Wilander, Lendl and Edberg.  Becker helped define power tennis, gave the profound introduction to Sampras, Agassi, Courier, et al.  Finally, the next/last 13 years or so have been phenomenal (where that word actually works), need less to say.  Roger, Rafa and Novak have put-on a show for the ages.

Many of us think Novak has officially taken over (this happened a year or two ago really, but the Serb seems to have been a little reluctant to take the proverbial reigns).  He has fierce competition from several current players, but the direction of this era appears to be telling a particular story of Djokovic, his family’s chosen one, his country’s tennis pride. Who is here, now, to challenge Djokovic and then succeed him at the end (it’s okay to see it that way – this “end” will take 2-4 years to apply ;) of this latest chapter of tennis nobility?

What does the men’s game look like in four years?  I am comfortable making these assumptions knowing full well things could change tomorrow.  If you live long enough you understand that (naturally) odd and sometimes crazy (terrible/fantastic) things can happen in the blink of an eye.  At the same time, predictability exists big time.  You just have to read the story.

The questions we might ask about Djokovic’s chances (and the assumptions we make) to make a run at GOAT sound similar to the questions about the future of tennis.  Here’s one: who is going to prevent Djokovic from winning 7 more majors?  Chances are he will win 3-5 just because that’s most likely. Individual health, family and life in general (see remark above), can easily and often does foil a plan.  But let’s say his mental and physical lives are ideal and he continues to develop, get stronger, without having to deal with Roger and Rafa (outside of medical miracles, mind you). Who you got beating Djokovic in September?  How is he not winning his sixth Aussie, and finally winning the French and three-peating Wimbledon, etc.?  People will beat the Serb.  The question is who?

Here’s a random list of players and their age: Stan (30), Murray (28), Cilic (26), Del Potro (26), Tsonga (30), Nishikori (25), Dimitrov (26), Raonic (24), Kyrgios (20), Kokkinakis (19), Gulbis (26), Thiem (21), Sock (22), Goffin (24), Coric (18), Berdych (29), Gasquet (29), Nadal (28) and Federer (34), et al.  There are many missing but this is pretty representative, I’m afraid.

The premise that I really want to use here to open this discussion is that the player has won, has made progress, whether it’s a Del Potro who has won a major and had several legitimate battles (wins and losses) with, in his case, the top of the sport; or even a Dominic Thiem. I would argue he is legit because he’s still so young, yet he’s collecting hardware.  We might say he’s “coming.”

I am not using a computer to calculate averages/percentages/chances/bullshit.  I am using the “I watch a lot of tennis (but need to watch more), have for years, have a lot of context to help in this determination of future stars/people who can strike one iota of fear into the Djoker.  Again, this discussion is one in the same.  Like it or not.

Murray is an interesting case.  He has two majors and SEVERAL SF and F appearances. Bad timing for this bloke.  And despite this success (because he has been successful, in the end), like I’ve said, I just don’t see the class to tangle with Djokovic (Murray win a major) at this point.  Common sense says he could definitely win another one, but another 2 or 3? Not buying it.  He is the one guy who will consistently challenge Djoker.  Tough to argue otherwise unless you think Nadal is going to reinvent himself and make 2-3 finals in a year and win one or two more majors.  Exactly.  This is good news for Murray (being mentioned on this blog as Novak’s biggest challenge ha aha ahah).  It is good news for him, indeed, that he only has to deal with one monster rather than all three.  At 28, he’s not over-the-hill at all.  Bottomline, we may have seen the best from Murray, but he’s still going to be around here bugging Djokovic while the Serb attempts to make history.

Cut to the chase.  Del Potro’s refreshed insistence that he return to form is perhaps the most interesting thing out there for me.  His wrist might be too much.  But this desire to find a new coach and get healthy is interesting news.  Even though Novak is 11-3 vs. Del Potro, the Argentinian is a man.  He plays him very tough recently and the wins come at SF Indian Wells, Olympic finals, and Davis Cup.  Those are fairly high stakes events.  11-3 is still pretty dominant.  And Juan needs to get healthy.

Cilic.  He won the USO and like Del Potro, he’s 26.  Both men’s 6′ 6” dimensions undermine the value a bit in my opinion, but they have time on their sides.  Del Potro’s 2009, at age 20, was near scary: QF AO, SF FO and win at USO.  Twenty years-old.  He and Cilic seem right where they want to be.  They need to get consistent.

I watched Cilic play today at the Citi Open, play a tight first set vs. Chung, young Chinese player who held his own in the first.  Cilic was 100% on first serve points won.  Strong.  His ground strokes looked deep, good distribution of shots; he won the TB 7-2 and easily won the second set to move on.  He is worth watching, for sure.  At the same time, Ted Robinson and Courier pointed out how he is 0-6 vs. the top ten since winning the USO.  Robinson, on Cilic pursuing a #1 ranking, “You gotta beat people to get there.”

That is the premise for this entire article.  You have to beat people.

Stan is a well known commodity.  He’s great when he’s great.  I read recently his backhand is 1 mph slower than his forehand (when operating on all cylinders).  That’s balance, scary balance given the weight and power of his ground strokes.  Big serve.  But he’s 30 and inconsistent.  Certainly, a very relevant opponent for the next couple of years, folks.

Thiem, yes. He’s winning and has a big game.  Athletic, controls and wins points, good serve and only 21.  Ru-an has been talking this kid up for a while.  Good stuff.  I watched him finally control and dominate the Swiss final vs. Goffin, who is #15 in the world.  Thiem, yes.

Dimitrov, not as much.  Changes are on the horizon, but at 24 he needs to get into some majors finals.  He’s seen a Wimbley SF.  We love his game, the baby Fed.  But he has to start winning.  He was promising, like Thiem, but he has to progress.  Will be interesting to see who coaches him.

There’s much to be said about more players, their stock, the quality of their games and maturity.  Think of what Fed did at 19 (beat defending champ Pete at Wimbledon), or what Novak was doing in his early 20s, getting to USO and AO SF and F, winning his first at 21.  These aspiring stars need to win, get those Ws on their resumes, into their confidence lockers. Learn a few things from your elders!  Rafa was a freak, winning his first of many FO at 18.  The greats win early and often. That’s where Del Potro is most interesting, perhaps.

I will say, lastly, that the two young Aussies will be interesting to watch – Kyrgios and Kokkinakis. Very young.  Kyrgios I have seen play and has tremendous game.  A little squirrely (immature), he needs good coaching (as do they all and what specifically seems to be affecting Murray and Dimitrov – similarity in the work of Lendl.  One benefitted briefly and one made a pitch, but could not land the champion coach).  A little shout-out, too, to Jack Sock’s game (a rare American).  He’s 22 and has been seeing some good tennis in bigger tournaments. He took a set from Nadal in the 4R at FO this year.  Okay, a long shot.  But one to watch just in case.

What do you think of the game, currently?  Who can withstand the Djokovic attack?  Who takes the baton from Novak and defines their place in the sport?  Whoever can has to follow quite a circus, the GOAT air show of tennis artistry that we have appreciated all the more when it elevates into intensely waged tennis court world wars.