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FOUR-OH ITALICO

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Yes, yes, yes — the home of the Italian Open is the Foro Italico, but on Friday, one of the most loved stops on the two tennis tours becomes the “Four-Oh Italico,” because there are four genuine blockbusters on the docket, two for the WTA and two for the ATP. In terms of talent, storyline, or both, these are four matches fans and tournament directors would not have minded having in a Sunday final… but they will all be quarterfinals on Friday in Italy.

Maria Sharapova’s win over Daria Gavrilova on Thursday in Rome was utterly predictable… but it has to be said that Gavrilova’s 0-4 third-set comeback against Garbine Muguruza the night before was anything BUT predictable. Sharapova had a good situation on her hands, but she had to put in the work needed to take advantage of it, and she did. Beating a tired opponent should not be used as a gauge of form, but playing the reigning French Open champion on Friday should give us more of an insight into the status of Sharapova’s game. Her match against Jelena Ostapenko owns box-office-level dimensions. If you enjoy seeing two fundamentally aggressive players trade howitzers all day, this is the match for you.

Angelique Kerber, having been injured, needed matches this week. Elina Svitolina, after another early exit in Madrid, needed matches this week. They both achieved their basic goal of getting to Friday. One will move on to Saturday and collect even more match play before Roland Garros. Kerber and Svitolina both exited Paris last spring under difficult circumstances, Kerber in her “annus horribilis” and Svitolina after losing a 5-1 second-set lead to Simona Halep in the quarterfinals. Both women want to change the tone, texture and trajectory of the stories they are writing in 2018. Now they get to do something about it against each other. Svitolina should rate as the favorite, but after she stumbled through a bagel in set one against Daria Kasatkina before rallying to take the match in three, one should not be too comfortable in assuming anything about that match.

On the ATP side, Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori will meet again after locking horns in Madrid. Both men looked very smooth in convincing round-of-16 wins on Thursday. A natural point of intrigue will relate to the different conditions in Rome compared to Madrid. Djokovic-Nishikori matches usually get to a stage in the seventh game or later when the outcome of the set hangs in the balance and Nole reliably seizes the moment. Nishikori needs to win this match not for the points or the money, but to give himself the belief that he can prevail in a tight situation against Djokovic. It has happened in the past (see the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals), but it doesn’t happen most of the time.

As for Djokovic, he will be playing in a Masters quarterfinal for the first time in many months, since he was just coming off his necessary health-related break in Indian Wells and Miami and had to miss the second half of the 2017 season due to injury. Djokovic was stopped by Dominic Thiem in the round of 16 in Monte Carlo. He almost earned a date with Rafael Nadal then. He is close to earning a date with Rafael Nadal now.

Speaking of Rafa… his match against Fabio Fognini would not carry as much intrigue in Monte Carlo or Barcelona or in a hardcourt Masters 1000, but in Rome, it crackles with electricity. Fognini — showing how much he has underachieved in all his years of playing professional tennis — is only now arriving at his first Rome quarterfinal. What a prodigious waste of talent. Yet, as he showed against Dominic Thiem earlier this week, when he decides to compete and dig in his heels, he is a very tough out. He is not a long-distance endurance man — five-set matches at this stage of his career do not suit him — but in a best-of-three firefight, his chances of winning should be taken seriously. With Italian fans backing him every step of the way, Fognini could be a very rough customer on Friday. Nadal needs to get an early lead on the scoreboard so that the crowd won’t be too involved. It is rare when a player of Rafa’s status runs into such a thorny combination of opponent and crowd, but this qualifies as a rare instance. The matchup isn’t necessarily what makes this confrontation special; it’s the timing and location which lends contextual intrigue to the encounter.

Sharapova-Ostapenko. Kerber-Svitolina. Djokovic-Nishikori. Nadal-Fognini. One day in The Eternal City.

This is what the old Latin phrase “panem et circenses” means in tennis terms. A quartet of dream quarterfinals will enliven the Four-Oh Italico.

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Image taken from Zimbio.com

 

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ATP Tour

Roundtable — ATP Major Showdowns in 2019

Matt Zemek

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Robert Deutsch - USA TODAY Sports

What is the one ATP matchup you really want to see at the major tournaments in 2019?

Before we begin:

We offered our selections for the WTA matchup we most wanted to see at the 2019 majors in this roundtable at Tennis With An Accent.

You can support our work and our grassroots tennis coverage — tailored to the dedicated tennis fan, not the clickbait-minded casual fan — at this specific link. Tell your tennis-fan friends that TWAA is a destination they can trust for sober, intellectually honest tennis analysis.

Now, on with the show, and the answers to today’s roundtable question:

JANE VOIGT — @downthetee

ATP rivalries have been concentrated at the top for over a decade. Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, or any combination of those three, sell boatloads of tickets and even draw the attention of international celebrities. Their names will never be forgotten. However, tennis marches on, so my 2019 scorecard looks beyond the tried-and-true to the kids, such as Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Alex de Minaur for best matchups on the radar.

All four of these rising stars are court-runners, meaning they have not only raw footspeed, but anticipation. I gasped the first time Tiafoe dug out a dribbling drop shot. His takeoff speed looked like top speeds from other competitors. Then de Minaur popped up at the Citi Open in July. His slight build is a big asset, meaning he never says no to a tennis ball coming at him no matter how absurd a return seems. Tsitsipas bloomed in 2018. Shapovalov continued to impress. But for sheer “wow factor,” I say Tiafoe and de Minaur is the hot ticket. The sooner the better, too, which means the Australian Open.

ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad

In contrast to the WTA, the ATP can look forward in 2019 to the continuation of some of the most storied rivalries in the Open Era.

That’s if the top players are healthy – and of course it’s a big if, as Rafael Nadal’s knee injury in New York and Andy Murray’s and Stan Wawrinka’s slow climbs back to full fitness have demonstrated. By October 1, there won’t be a single male Grand Slam champion younger than 30. One of the younger champions, Juan Martin del Potro, has started to emulate other 30+ stars in paring back his schedule.

A few younger players have begun to establish rivalries. Sascha Zverev (21) and Nick Kyrgios (23) have played six times to date, splitting the spoils. We had a first meeting at a Grand Slam between two Generation Felix stars, Denis Shapovalov (19) and Felix Auger-Aliassime (18). (Editor’s Note: Ask Andrew what he means by Generation Felix if you are unsure of the reference. It will be worth your time.) Will that be one of the great rivalries five years from now? Perhaps.

Sorry if this isn’t very imaginative, but I go back to the Big 3 for my two main matchups to watch. After reversing fortune in 2017 against Nadal, Roger Federer hasn’t played his former nemesis once in 2018. Could we hope for some rematches in 2019? If there’s one single match I’d like to see, it’s Nadal versus Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. Djokovic is the one player who has consistently threatened – and on one occasion beaten – Nadal in his fortress.

Bring it on, one more time.

MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk

There is not much to say here due to the giant gap that still exists between the top 3 and the rest of the arena, so to speak. The same can be said for quality of play. When the Big 3 play each other, top-quality tennis is much more likely to be produced than in any other matchup not involving them.

Assuming they come into the two weeks not carrying injuries, Djokovic versus Nadal at Roland Garros would be my top priority for 2019. Federer-Djokovic at Wimbledon would be number two (the last two matches they played against each other there were excellent).

If I had to include a match not involving two of the top three, I would go with Juan Martin del Potro versus any of the top three at Wimbledon.

If I were forced to choose a match without any of the top three, I would take an in-form Fabio Fognini at the Australian Open or the U.S. Open versus any of the top members of the Next Gen, the people he enjoys criticizing so much in some of his pressers.

SAQIB ALI — @saqiba

Sascha Zverev versus Novak Djokovic. Zverev will win majors one day, but where will he be in 2019? I would love to see him go up against Djokovic? How quickly will Zverev develop under Ivan Lendl?

MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek

I also regard Zverev-Djokovic as the match I most want to see at the majors next year. Given Djokovic’s high ranking, it is likely that such a meeting would occur in the semifinals of a major. If it happens in the quarterfinals, so be it, but if it happens in a semifinal, it would probably mean that Zverev will have made his first major semifinal, which would spice up tennis and create fresh hope that the younger generation is ready to make its mark.

Of the eight ATP major finalists in 2018, only one – Dominic Thiem at Roland Garros – is currently younger than 30. Thiem isn’t even 26. Having a 21- or 22-year-old Zverev (he turns 22 in April of 2019) make a major semifinal or final would give tennis a glimpse of the future and offer fans of non-Big 3 players the assurance that the next decade might give rise to a championship-caliber force.

The other reason a Zverev-Djokovic match would crackle: Zverev’s win over a man who, in retrospect, was far from fully healthy in the 2017 Rome final. Zverev is the challenger and the man trying to make his mark, but Djokovic would be playing for revenge.

Djokovic would be a heavy favorite in 2019 should the two men meet, but if they do meet in a major semifinal, the confrontation might give rise to subsequent reunions in 2020 and 2021. It would move forward the story of tennis.

Postscript/addendum: If forced to pick a matchup other than Zverev-Djokovic: Thiem-Djokovic at Roland Garros. A Zverev-Djokovic match would be interesting on any surface.

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ATP Tour

Roundtable – “Mo Money Mo Problems”

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

Is the ATP’s suspension of Mohamed Lahyani appropriate – the result, the process, both, or neither?

ANDREW BURTON:

Tennis authorities have sent a clear message to umpires in the last two weeks: exercise more discretion. Sorry, don’t exercise any discretion. Treat players as human beings. Wait a second, don’t do that. We value your experience. We’ll throw you under the bus as soon as anyone complains about your decisions.

Only the last of these will be heard by chair umpires, and they’ll likely act accordingly.

The ATP’s decision to fine and suspend Mohamed Lahyani after his intervention with Nick Kyrgios may have been the same even if another umpire, Carlos Ramos, hadn’t become embroiled in an even more controversial incident at the end of the tournament.

I doubt it.

You can find fault, if you choose, with either man’s handling of his respective match. Both were hung out to dry, and now we learn that at least one of the officials has been publicly sanctioned.

Their fellow officials will draw the right lessons from this: Don’t take risks. Don’t stand out. Don’t attract controversy.

If you do, be prepared to pay for it. Interpersonal skills and judgement – even occasionally flawed, human judgement – aren’t appreciated.

Get ready for robots in the chair.

MERT ERTUNGA:

Lahyani’s actions with Kyrgios were not appropriate, especially the part where he passionately talked to Nick for an extended period of time (not the part where he — at first — tried to tell him to show better effort). Hence, I see nothing wrong with some type of penalty applied to Lahyani for his actions and do not find the two-week suspension inappropriate.

I do question, however, the timing of the sanction and the entity that made the decision. The incident occurred during the U.S. Open tournament run by the ITF and the USTA, and it took place two weeks ago. One can see it as the ATP doing what the ITF and the USTA should have done expediently at the time.

There is, however, no agreeable way to justify the fact that the ATP itself waited two weeks to pass this suspension. I consider that particularity to be a procedural failure on the ATP’s part.

MATT ZEMEK:

A hypothetical for your consideration: Arsenal plays Manchester United on August 17. Two and a half weeks later, after two more Premier League games have been played by both teams, the league announces a sanction on one of the referees for a missed call in the Arsenal-Man U match.

The Dallas Cowboys play the New York Giants in Week 2 of the NFL football season in the United States. The NFL announces a suspension for a referee who made a bad call in that game, but makes the announcement after Week 4 of the season.

An NBA basketball official makes a terrible mistake in Game 12 of the 82-game regular season. He works a 13th and 14th game but then gets suspended before his 15th game.

This is essentially what tennis did with chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani. I personally disagree with a two-week suspension; I thought that relegating Lahyani to doubles matches during the second week of the tournament was punishment enough. Yet, the suspension – a result of a process – is a minor issue compared to the process itself.

This process was — and is — atrocious.

Sports officials don’t need an FBI investigation after they make a mistake. Information and context can be gathered from the relevant parties relatively quickly. People in supervisory roles look at the visual, textual and circumstance-based evidence. They determine how well an official performed. They suspend him or downgrade him or caution him within 36 hours if not 24.

I have had my (basketball) officiating performances graded right after my game ended. I met with the graders in the locker room. They talked to me about what I did right, what I did wrong, and what I needed to improve. It comes with the territory… but the process is not supposed to be prolonged.

Relegating Mo to doubles at the U.S. Open nevertheless meant he was allowed to work matches. Why should a sports official be allowed to work matches when an unresolved situation hangs over his head? What if I made a bad call in a basketball game on Monday but was then allowed to work on Thursday, did the Thursday game, and then was suspended for the next game on Saturday? Why would I have any confidence in the leadership of the officials’ association I worked for? How could I trust the governing body of the sport I was officiating?

I can see the need to wait 24 hours to gather information in situations such as this, but not much more. Workers – that is what chair umpires are – deserve swift resolution of performance-based matters. This is exactly the kind of thing a tennis umpires’ union would be able to address.

I hope umpires get angry and focused enough to band together in the right ways and for the right reasons, especially since they are already underpaid and are being given more work (monitoring serve clocks).

You can approve of the suspension itself yet hate how the ATP carried out this process. You can accept the result yet loathe how the ATP had no sense of timing — none whatsoever — in bringing it about.

Bollocks.

Follow Andrew on Twitter: @burtonad

Follow Mert on Twitter: @MertovsTDesk

Follow Matt on Twitter: @mzemek

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ATP Tour

The Roundtable Cup — Davis and Fed and Laver

Matt Zemek

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Robert Hanashiro - USA TODAY

If you ruled tennis for 24 hours, how would you arrange or rearrange Davis Cup, Fed Cup, Laver Cup, and related events, either in terms of the calendar, the format of the events, or anything else you feel is important?

BRIANA FOUST:

With Davis Cup and Fed Cup, my initial changes would be to make the competition format the same for both the men and the women. The differing rules can be confusing, so I would use the format of Davis Cup for both genders. Why? I like the way Davis Cup highlights the doubles rubber and makes it a pivotal moment for winning a tie.

I would also make Fed Cup and Davis Cup into alternate-year events. The new Davis Cup format has retained home and away ties for the qualifying round, but I would bring that back for the final round as well. Neutral locations can be used for the first iteration; the champions earn the honor of hosting the finals the following year. That solves the issue of home ties being in an unresolved location and gives the champions the potential bragging rights of hosting the best team-competition finals.

For an exhibition such as Laver Cup, I would get rid of it with adequate changes to the national competitions. There are enough demands on players with the current schedule. If I had to keep Laver Cup, I would move it to the down period after the Australian Open.

MERT ERTUNGA:

I would consult with the players first, although the question presumes I can proceed at my own discretion.

In scheduling, I would give the priority to Davis Cup and Fed Cup because they have a history (regardless of the format change), whereas Laver Cup and other events like it qualify as “intense” exhibitions in which winning or losing does not matter as much to the players (or to the masses). I would go back to the pre-reform format in Davis Cup (in all aspects), but if I cannot, meaning my hands are forced into some type of modification, I would at least keep the three-day format with the reverse singles intact, which was a characteristic unique to Davis Cup and set the stage for a potentially dramatic weekend.

Laver Cup is a separate category of event (as I mentioned above). I would work with its runners to make the best of it, but in terms of priority, it would come after ATP and WTA Tours, Davis Cup and Fed Cup.

ANDREW BURTON:

If I ruled tennis for 24 hours, I’d take stock of my kingdom. The first thing I think I’d conclude is that it’s broken into squabbling baronies – more Game of Thrones than the Berlin Philharmonic.

So I’d realize that until we sorted out the whole calendar, and the balance between the demands and opportunities for players, the needs of tournaments, of national organizations and trans-national groups such as the ITF, ATP and WTA, sorting out one question — non-tournament-based competitions like the Fed Cup, Pique (formerly Davis) Cup and Laver Cup —  creates issues elsewhere.

It’s all part of a web. Tug on one strand, another vibrates — or breaks.

JANE VOIGT:

As long as money remains the bottom-line goal of sports, in this case tennis, people will expand the number of events in order to increase income. Capitalism might have been unique to the U.S., but its supposed value has circled the globe. Therefore, as long as earnings upstage the value of players and what they bring to tennis, the expansion of the number of tournaments won’t cease. So how do we arrest this cycle?

Tennis needs an overarching body under which are all other bodies in the game fall: ITF, ATP, WTA, Grand Slams, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, and expositions such as Laver Cup. Its first job: Limit the season in order to decrease or, at least, stabilize the rash of injuries. Next: Pay players equally, no matter the level of event. Grand Slams pay all players equal amounts. However, outside of them, women are paid substantially less per tournament. Next: Throw out the newly-signed ITF legislation that eliminated home-court advantage in Davis Cup. Use best-of-three format for Davis Cup – fine. But for goodness sake, did you hear the crowds’ roars during the semifinals this past weekend?

MATT ZEMEK:

Davis and Fed Cup should be held every year, and under their traditional formats, but the demands on ATP players at four different points on the calendar should be considered. My one tweak to Davis Cup: Give the four semifinal nations a reward for playing deep into the previous year’s calendar by giving all of them a first-round bye into the quarterfinals. This would give top ATP singles players a lot of incentive to play the quarterfinal ties each season. Since players are generally fresher early in the season, that idea makes structural sense.

In Olympic years, one could make Davis Cup an eight-team tournament with either no February ties OR, as an alternative solution, putting the quarterfinals in February and the semifinals in April. I would lean toward February quarterfinals and April semis in Olympic years.

Speaking of Olympic years: There should be no Laver Cup in Olympic years. The Laver Cup, if it really does want to be the Ryder Cup of tennis, should be held every other year, just as the Ryder Cup has been. Laver Cup would ideally be held in odd-numbered years to avoid conflicting with the Olympics. Therefore, after Geneva in 2019, the next Laver Cup should be in 2021.

What I would also like to see with Laver Cup: Rotate it through different periods of the calendar year and see if that adjustment can free up new possibilities in the tennis calendar. Late September is a time when a lot of players are worn down. Try something else and see what it can offer.

One specific set of possibilities: In 2021, move the Bercy Masters to February, specifically when the Dubai ATP tournament is normally held. Move Dubai to two weeks before the Australian Open so that the year’s first major is preceded by a 500. Move the ATP Finals to the week vacated by Bercy. Then make Laver Cup two weeks after the ATP Finals, neatly placed between the ATP Finals and the Davis Cup Final.

Have comments about these ideas? I’ll explain mine, and my colleagues will explain theirs if you ask nicely. Catch me at @mzemek.

Briana: @4TheTennis

Mert: @MertovsTDesk

Andrew: @burtonad

Jane: @downthetee

Our site: @accent_tennis

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