Monday, May 22, 2017

Wk.20- The Week That Changed a Career

Hey, all. Galileo here.

One of the best things about tennis, apart from the relative gender balance and Svetlana Kuznetsova, is the surfaces. In football, soccer and baseball you have one field or diamond. You can't play ice hockey on custard or peanut butter. You can't play basketball on sand. But on tennis you have a mix of surfaces. And some players are better on one kind. It's a really unusual trait. It sets us apart.

On grass you want quick rallies. You won't see a 12 or 15 shot rally on grass ever. If you watched a day of Wimbledon you might see five of those. But clay is different. You have to be fit and you have to be ready to grind, and to win a point five different times. And with clay the key to winning is to go deep. If you just sit back and rally, keep it deep and restrict your opponent, you'll win that rally most of the time. Of course, he is trying to do the same thing to you. It's why David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro have such long rallies, or did. It is why Pablo Carreno Busta and his compatriots are so effective.

And it is the reason Germany's Alex Zverev beat Novak Djokovic. He just nailed every ball onto the back ten per cent of the court. He didn't go for any outlandish shots. He played percentage tennis and kept that ball out of the strike zone of the Serbian. It is also hard to hit it by him because, like another great German player, he has a terrific wing span. It is Graf-like in a way, the manner in which he can just hit any ball. He glides an inch to his left and that's all he needs.

And the shots. He is silky smooth. No shot is over-worked or clunky. Nole's forehand, in particular, looks very mechanical. There are no hitches in the German's technique, no pauses or kinks. It is a totally smooth motion. And he does it off both wings. Novak could not find a solution during the match and the 6-4, 6-3 scoreline is pretty accurate. The only weapon Nole could use was the dropper. But it isn't a proper weapon. It hasn't won Aga Radwanska a slam and it didn't win the Serbian this match. You could see the frustration written across the world number two's face. He couldn't break down the German's game.

It wasn't just in the rallies that the German was controlling the match. Novak's famous return was absent. Zverev's was serving well, particularly out wide, but you would still have thought he would be able to get a handle on his opponent's serve. The German didn't even play out of his skin. He was so comfortable, so at home, in dismantling one of the best five guys ever to play our sport. And it is not often that you watch a player, or a match, and you think I want that guy's shot for my own. The Richard Gasquet backhand. The Gonzo forehand. Amelie Mauresmo's volley. But if this BACKSPINNER could have the Zverev backhand, he would be a happy guy. The sheer disguise is ridiculous. Is he going to hit a dropper? Go for a deep slice? No, he's just driven it inside out and put it right on the baseline. Point over.

But he is not the only one who has had a spectacular week. Dominic Thiem has achieved the impossible. He has become a legitimate rival for Rafael Nadal on clay.

Let's read on and find out more...

* - Del Potro rises four places to 30th. That guarantees him a French Open seed. With a kind draw he could go on a deep run. If I were the Argentine I'd want to see Andy Murray as early as possible.
* - Ferrer and Simon round out the top 32. For those guys, the Spaniard in particular, this slam is one of their last chances to make a run.
* - Zverev has risen seven places to break into the top ten for the first time. He is ahead of Goffin and Dimitrov. He is defending third round points at the French. A quarterfinal run or better could see him take a top eight place at Wimbledon.
* - No change in the top five. Murray, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Raonic and Nadal. Neither of the top two rankings could be classified as 'safe'. But not yet in massive danger.

ROME, ITALY (Red Clay)
S: Alexander Zverev def. Novak Djokovic 6-4/6-3
D: Herbert/Mahut d. Dodig/Granollers

...At 20 years old, he is in the top ten. Nick Kyrgios has not done that yet. Like Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov, the breakthrough for Zverev has come on clay. Thiem beat Wawrinka and Dimitrov took out Djokovic, both in Madrid. Zverev's big win has come at last. He has never been to the fourth round of a slam. He has never gone further than the quarterfinals of a Masters tournament. He has never even won a 500 level tournament. This is a little reminiscent of when Sam Stosur won that U.S. Open. She had barely even won a single final before then. No nerves from the youngster, not a wobble, not a double fault out of place. This BACKSPINNER has been genuinely concerned about where tennis goes after Serena Williams and the big four go. But now we have Zverev, Thiem, Kyrgios, Chung, Svitolina, Barty and Christian Garin. We have some very impressive talent coming up who are ready to win, who are getting better with every match. If one of those seven does not win a slam in the next two years then I will do a forfeit of Todd's choosing.

Anyway, this week Zverev was seeded 16th, but with men's tennis being what it is right now, no draw is ever unmanageable. And being seeded always helps. He opened with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 win over the big South African Kevin Anderson. He saw off Viktor Troicki 6-3, 6-4 and it was a similar result against (new father) Fabio Fognini. The Italian, and conqueror of Murray, could only muster six games against the surging German. Once you start to win it's hard to stop, hard to fall out of the groove. And Zverev is a player who is utterly groovy. In the quarterfinals he beat Milos Raonic 7-6[4], 6-1. That is a big result. The Canadian is a very hard player to breadstick. It is another top ten win for the German, too. They are starting to mount up, they really are. Against John Isner in the semis, he struggled to a 6-4, 6-7[5], 6-1 victory. But to lose the middle set in a breaker and respond by dropping just one more game? It's an extremely mature response. And in the final, well, you know what happened there - Djokovic was humbled, denied in another Masters clay final.

...The last few weeks have felt like the Zverev and Thiem show. Do you know what the ATP lacked the last ten years? A true rival for Rafa Nadal on clay courts. This clay swing we got a taste, a brief sip of what it could have been like. The Spaniard beat Thiem in two finals during this clay-court swing. At Barcelona and Madrid he was found wanting. But he did Nadal in last week. Nadal ran out of gas in a way he wouldn't have a decade ago. But the credit really foes to Domi because he hit Rafa out of the park. He spanked the fuzz off the balls. His backhand was incredible, and Nadal struggled to predict or deal with it. Nadal has been working under the, until now fairly logical, theory that if you hit to a guy's backhand enough it will crumble. But when they hit out at you he doesn't know what to do. Dimitrov, Federer and Thiem have all been able to make him look a bit silly by simply hitting through their one-handers. The days of Gaston Gaudio and even Fernando Gonzalez have gone now. Gaudio would have done nothing in this era. His backhand was a big liability. Thiem is one of the new generation who are making that shot look viable. This week he had a good first matching, beating Pablo Cuevas 7-6[4], 6-4. Thiem struggled in the third round against American Sam Querrey. He saved three match points in the final set breaker to edge through 3-6, 6-3, 7-6[9]. Then he gave Nadal a beating in a 6-4, 6-3 victory that was not as close as the scoreline suggests. Alas, he met Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals. He is 0-5 all time against the Serb. He has taken one set, at the 2016 WTF, but even that was in a breaker. Djokovic owns him. And in Rome he obliterated him 6-0, 6-1. That match lasted exactly one hour. Another Roland Garros run is certainly likely for the fiery youngster.
...In a big tournament like this you can always give a very talented local a go. Meet Gianluca Mager. He is 22. He has been as high as 290 in the world. He just made his main draw debut. He has a big serve and used his wildcard to good effect - he pushed Aljez Bedene hard before retiring hurt. The Italian lost 7-6[3], 4-6, 0-3. He retired with cramps, but the good news is that he is on the Youtubes. Yes, here he is:

...The German is continuing to win matches and put the younger generation to shame. After so many years in that business we call tennis, he just wants more. He first played in Rome in 1997. Yes that is two decades ago. He lost to Carlos Moya 6-4, 6-2. Boris Becker played in that tournament. So did Pete Sampras. Tommy Haas is the living, breathing embodiment of the word 'veteran.'

...Well, this makes no sense. We should probably call Scoob and the gang to take off Isner's mask. He had the most Isner tournament you can have. He opened by beating Ramos-Vinolas 6-7[4], 7-6[4], 6-1. Then he beat Florian Mayer 7-6[4], 7-6[4]. Next it was Wawrinka, who Isner brushed aside 7-6[1], 6-4. In the quarterfinals he beat Cilic 7-6[3], 2-6, 7-6[2]. In the semi, he won another breaker but lost in three. Has anybody ever played eight breakers in five matches? On clay? Isner only rises two places in the rankings despite all that winning. He needs to teach me how to play a tiebreaker. He also broke the tournament record for aces. So, an excellent week all round.
...Fognini led the Scot 4-0 in the first set. From there he never really let go, and won 6-2, 6-4. Andy Murray was on top of the world last year. He won Wimbledon and the Olympic Gold. He took home a slew of trophies after the U.S. Open. He was riding high. Even Novak couldn't stand in his way. It was all going to plan. But tennis can change so quickly and so brutally. Iva Majoli won the French Open in 1997. She was done by 1999. Murray just looks frustrated and angry the whole time. He isn't enjoying himself, he isn't having a good time. He is struggling and he can't seem to fix it.
...Oh, it is good to see the Tower of Tandil raze a draw to the ground once again. And this BACKSPINNER picked it. Seeing Del Potro a force again, even just making a quarterfinal run, is heartening. If not for injury Del Potro would one day have risen to world number one. He would be a Roland Garros champion by now. His 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 defeat, or dismantling perhaps, of Rafael Nadal at the 2009 U.S. Open, in the semi-finals, is burned into my memory. It was a display of controlled aggression, brutal precision and raw firepower not seen since. Nobody has done that to Nadal over five sets since. Not in that fashion. This week he showed off by beating 10th seed Dimitrov 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 in the first round. He beat Britain's Kyle Edmund 7-5, 6-4 in the second round. He knocked perennial top eight player Nishikori 7-6[4], 6-3. It took him almost two hours and several match points, but he did it. But he couldn't keep up the momentum, losing 6-1, 6-4 to Djokovic in the quarters. It is the perfect time for a run. The big man has found form going into the French Open.


1. Rome R2 – Fognini d. Murray 6-2, 6-4
...Shock and horror. You keep expecting Andy Murray to turn a corner. It hasn't happened yet. This is the latest in a string of awful matches. Fognini has played well, but our world number one is a joke.
2. Rome F – Zverev d. Djokovic 6-4, 6-3
...This is the turning point in the German's career. He looked so composed throughout the match. I think it is also the end of Novak's career. He has hired Andre Agassi to fix his problems, but it just seems desperate. The next 12 months will be telling.
3. Rome QF – Thiem d. Nadal 6-4, 6-3
...There is only one way to beat Nadal; you have to hit through him. It is what Lukas Rosol and Robin Soderling did so well. It is the reason Federer has had successes against the Spaniard this year. Thiem executed it perfectly. Is Rafa still a huge favourite for Roland Garros? Yes. Are there question marks? Yes.

Ramos-Vinolas [3] d. [6] Querrey
Isner [4] d. Anderson
Ramos-Vinolas [3] d. [4] Isner

...Neither Wawrinka or Nishikori will actually play this one. I don't even know why Nishikori signed up. Anyway, the week before a slam is always unpredictable. So, because it is on clay, we'll go for a Spaniard.

Berdych [3] d. [1] Raonic
Tsonga [2] d. Seppi
Tsonga [2] d. [3] Berdych

...This BACKSPINNER has no clue who will opt to play and who won't. But doesn't this seem roughly accurate?

We finally have good news on the Dasha front. In the doubles, she and A-Pavs lost to Arruabarrena and Parra-Sontonja. They did make it go three, but that is not a very fruitful partnership. In the women's singles, Gavrilova qualified, beating Mattek-Sands in the process, and caused a huge upset in the first round. She beat Madison Keys 2-6, 7-5, 7-5. She blew a 5-2 lead in the second set, but clung on. In the third set she and Keys traded breaks before Gavrilova struck in the 11th game and finished it with an ace. She wouldn't have had to enter qualies if she hadn't made a mistake with the forms. But there you go. She beat Caroline Garcia in the second round 7-5, 3-6, 6-3. Next she beat Kuznetsova 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 (a year after losing to Sveta in Rome). But in the quarters she succumbed to Kiki Bertens 6-3, 6-3. It was a bizarre result. But that's what a week in Dasha's life is like.

A post shared by Daria Gavrilova (@daria_gav) on

In Strasbourg, Dasha has entered the singles but not the doubles. In the opening round she saw off Louisa Chirico 6-2, 6-3. Now she faces dangerous qualifier Elizaveta Kulichkova. She is, if you hadn't guessed, a Russian. With withdrawals and the like, Dasha is going to get a seed at the French. Apart from in Melbourne, she has not been to the third round of a slam. Could this be her time?

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