QUESTION: How must Roger Federer adjust his 2019 schedule, if at all, and should he try to play Bercy between Basel and the ATP Finals in an attempt to get more match play?
MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk
For the rest of this year, Federer should not consider playing Paris Indoors unless he loses early (and I mean, early) in Basel and he feels that he needs more match play before the ATP Finals. Personally, I would like to see him pass on the Paris Indoors regardless of the result in Basel, and focus on the ATP Finals. A strong finish there makes his season an undeniable success.
As to his schedule in 2019, Marc Rosset mentioned in a thoughtful piece few months ago that Roger’s schedule can work against him if he does not go far in the few tournaments he enters. In 2017, the fact that he crushed the field through the spring season worked in his favor when he decided to pass on the clay-court season. This year, with approximately the same schedule, he was not able to perform as well. I do believe the amount of match play is important for Federer, because I firmly believe that he performs better and better as he accumulates wins. He is a phenomenal front-runner. Thus, I feel that playing progressively fewer tournaments is not the right decision.
I would like to see him reintegrate one ATP 1000 on clay and Roland Garros back to his schedule, and I refuse to believe that he has no chance to win them, or reach the finals, in those tournaments (provided good form, the path to winning is always there, details of that path to be explored another time). I would like to see him play at least five tournaments of elite status (3 ATP 1000, 2 majors) by the time Wimbledon comes around. He will still be ready for Halle and Wimbledon. He can still decide to pass on the clay-court season if he happens to excel in the spring, as in 2017.
As for the hardcourt U.S. Open swing and the fall, he can keep his current schedule. That makes four majors and several ATP 1000 tournaments. He and his seasoned team (Paganini, Luthi, and Co.) can figure out how to prepare for such a schedule without too much difficulty. In my opinion, it beats playing 3 majors and 4 ATP 1000s for the year, with the season mostly riding on success at Wimbledon.
ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad
Just over 10 years ago, in August of 2008, I sat in a journalists’ press conference at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Roger Federer answered questions posed after his stunning defeat at the hands of Gilles Simon, a then little-known player. A month earlier, Federer had fallen to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, ending a five-title streak and presaging a change at the top of the ATP after years of Pax Federana.
Federer seemed stricken by the loss to Simon, and one of the journalists decided now was the right time to ask the 26-year-old if he was thinking of calling it quits:
To some extent, do you agree with Justine Henin’s decision to retire at the peak of her career?
ROGER FEDERER: Do I agree with that? Not today. Ask me another day. Please don’t kill me with questions like this.
“Please don’t kill me with questions like this.”
We’re a decade on, and Federer has had a steadily increasing drumbeat of questions about what he’s still playing for, how long he’ll keep coming back — witness our friends @TheTennisPodcast asking, “What do you think the final tipping point for Federer to call it a day will be?”
Our roundtable question has a medium-term element — adjusting the 2019 season — and a shorter-term question, whether Federer should try to get more match play at Bercy. But I don’t think you can answer either question without thinking long term, something Federer has proven exceptionally strategic about.
Federer has, I think, been very clear about what he wants to do — to be able to compete to win tournaments, which requires staying fresh but also playing enough matches to be able to prevail at the end of final sets, as he did twice in Shanghai and in a tight quarterfinal in Cincinnati against Stan Wawrinka. But there are hints that even his amazing stamina is beginning to dwindle – he has looked less explosive at the end of tournaments since going down to Borna Coric in the Halle final this year, and his defeat by John Millman in sweltering conditions in New York was the first time I’ve seen him laid low by the environment rather than an injury sustained in play.
Staying fresh is getting harder, which means that adding matches or tournaments is very unlikely. I can see Federer playing in Paris if he goes out in R32 or R16 in Basel, but not otherwise. Then, after the ATP Finals in London, the calendar resets, and Federer himself gets to answer the question: Is it one more year, or more than one?
He won’t tweet out the answer, or reveal it on Oprah. But I believe that (a) Federer wants to play one more time at Roland Garros and (b) he won’t do so in a year that he thinks he can win Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.
As things stand, I think his Plan A is to approach 2019 as he has 2017 and 2018, then reassess after the Australian Open and Masters 1000s in the U.S. A disappointing first quarter could mean there’s more gas left in the tank, and Rome and Paris could then come back into play because they’re enjoyable tournaments to play while energy levels are still high.
Or it could be the signal that the tipping point has been reached. Only Federer knows when the long term shifts from an 18-month horizon to 6 months.
MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek
NOTE: Saqib and I are still trying to get sponsors for our podcast and website to move to a self-sustaining model of funding without need for donations… but we are not there yet.
Mert and Andrew both gave great answers above to this question, but as you can see, those answers represent two different sides of the coin. I find myself torn between those two competing impulses.
I should add that Mert’s answer is more connected to a belief in what Federer is capable of doing. Andrew’s answer is more rooted in a detached assessment of Federer’s modus operandi and the thought process attached to it. I think in many ways, both are right – Mert in thinking that Federer can play more tournaments without suffering physically, Andrew in laying out where Federer’s thought process probably stands.
On the Bercy question, I think that unless Federer loses in the R16 of Basel (or earlier), he should skip that tournament in France. Yes, a big points opportunity is there, but if Federer goes deep in Basel, he will be toasted for Paris, and that serves no one’s best interests. I also think that Federer has carried a specific plan through the first 10 months of 2018. Why change the plan now? It is in the offseason that Federer should reconsider his methods.
What can I say that Mert and Andrew haven’t said? Two things:
While I was wrong about the decision in certain ways – chiefly, that I ignored the value of earning the World No. 1 ranking by winning a match, as opposed to watching the rankings change when Rafael Nadal pulled out of Acapulco – my instincts were correct in terms of noting that the decision was likely to carry a cost. I was wrong about Federer not playing Miami, but it also has to be said that Federer barely played Miami. He lost his first match to Thanasi Kokkinakis. He was tired at the end of Indian Wells. Rotterdam threw Indian Wells and Miami off course, which in terms of points was not productive. The value of having a World No. 1 ceremony in The Netherlands was the tradeoff. That kind of tension should be kept in mind when considering Federer’s 2019 schedule.
2) Federer’s 2017 schedule was bold and unconventional at the time. When that scheduling plan worked, it became natural to follow it in 2018. I think that in 2019, Federer should try to do something bold and unconventional again. Why shouldn’t this revolutionary figure try, in these final years before he retires, to experiment and tinker? Why not treat 2019 differently from 2017 and 2018 in an attempt to give him more information and options for 2020 and, should he choose to play it, 2021?
Consider this point: If Novak Djokovic had not restored his game, maybe the 2017-2018 template would make more sense. However, with Djokovic on top of tennis, Federer might want to play portions of 2019 in ways that are different from what he has done before. Federer, it is widely acknowledged, was stubborn about sticking with the smaller racquet face until he lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon in 2013. Imagine if he had switched two or three years earlier. Federer can do that with scheduling in 2019, before he reaches the end of the line.
I personally think Federer will play through 2020 at minimum. The question is if he will make 2021 his last season or call it a career after 2020. Assuming 2020 is the last hurrah, 2019 is a year in which to try things he hasn’t tried before.
My thought: Play a conventional style of tennis at the Australian Open and then in Indian Wells and Miami. See if the level of play comes appreciably close to Federer’s standards. If it does, stay on course. If not, Federer should play clay in 2019 and use it as a laboratory to try new things such as more net rushing to shorten points and matches, reducing strain on his body. So what if he picks up a few losses and doesn’t look good? He can “gather information,” as he likes to say, for the rest of the year and, moreover, his career.
Extending a career is good, but extending a career while remaining supremely ambitious is better. Federer’s skipping of clay in 2017 – an unorthodox move — served him well at Wimbledon, but now it seems time for a newly unconventional plan. Expanding boundaries, not just safeguarding risk avoidance, has marked Federer’s career. The needle needs to move more toward adventure and away from caution, because at this stage of his journey, really – just how much does Roger Federer have to lose?
Observations In The Arena — Second Serve
You saw the photo of the escalator outside the O2 Arena – that’s the cover photo for this story. More on that here:
Consider the value of being No. 1. How much must Lacoste have paid to get every advertisement on the escalator leading up to the O2 from the Tube? It’s Nole Nole Nole as you ride up…
This is what it was like for me on Day Two — my second day, not the players’ second day — at the O2.
First off: Wednesday we were in seats that were literally the highest in the O2, farther away from the court than any others. Behind us lay nothing. On Thursday we were in row D, five rows up from the court, almost directly behind one of the player benches. Wednesday’s view was macro in the extreme, not terrible but certainly not visceral. Thursday’s seats let us understand the speed and spin of the shotmaking, while giving up some understanding of all the angles.
I’ll take Thursday’s perches, thank you very much.
While we’re talking about our seats, and in light of the ATP’s new logo meant to appeal to a younger demographic (really?), how about changing one aspect of tennis’s traditional rules? I’m no burn-down-the-house radical, far from it, but it’s just silly that folks in the nosebleed seats, as we were Wednesday night, can’t come and go during play. Nearer to the court? Yeah, I get it and agree with it: no moving about and reasonable silence. But when you’re so high up that clouds are floating between you and the rows below, I think it’s safe for ticket buyers to take their seats during points, move about, and even leave to get a beer.
The fact is that if they had used binoculars the players couldn’t have seen us last night. Hey ATP, want to attract the casual sports fan? Let him or her move around some in the remote seats. It ain’t no big thing. Really.
Now, to the day’s play on Thursday.
Tennis-specific observations are in regular print. Non-tennis observations are in italics.
On with the show:
First, the doubles:
Both members of the two teams were dressed more or less like their partners, and the color schemes of the two teams were clearly different from each other. This works great for television. Bravo.
Back to television once again: Make no mistake, even when a player appears to be slightly built on TV, the odds are he is not in real life. Jamie Murray gives the television impression of being rather skinny and lightweight. He’s not. He’s 6-foot-3 and, well, okay, 185 pounds — not a WWF specimen, but not small. None of these guys are small. Kontinen and Peers are more barrel-chested than Murray and Soares, but nobody’s NOT bigger than average, and by a good margin.
Murray got a code violation for language, but only when the baseline judge walkedup to the chair and reported Murray’s offending speech, which was probably heard by no one but Murray, the lines judge, and three spectators. That got Murray’s goat but didn’t deter him from carrying on. Still, it’s rather silly to take the rules so far.
(Editor’s Note: Insert Carlos Ramos talking point here, positive or negative. — Matt )
The match pitted a reaction-based team versus a power team. None of the four players are slow, and all of them can hit the ball hard, but overall it’s fair to break down the dynamic that way. Murray-Soares basically say, “We dare you to challenge our reflexes.” Kontinen-Peers tried that, hoping to hit through the No. 3 seeds, but fell in the match tiebreak, 10-2. Murray-Soares finished the round-robin part of the tourney unbeaten.
Now, to the singles:
Due to IT issues I missed much of the first set. According to my friend Graham, it was a story of Kei Nishikori being AWOL: 23 unforced errors and just not looking sharp. Almost four unforced errors per game is definitely not Kei’s standard operating procedure, so either Thiem was on hyperdrive or Nishikori was out of sorts. Graham assures me it’s the latter.
As to how the Japanese player is looking, his kit is an improvement over the not-quite-coordinated outfit from when I last saw him. His racquet is something new: I don’t think it’s one of Wilson’s camo frames, but maybe. It’s a golden, slightly shiny brown. Japanese market only? Anyway, it goes well with his clothing.
We note that Thiem frequently goes counterintuitive and moves back to return second serves, taking a huuuuge cut at the ball. And by “moves back,” I mean he stands 18 feet behind the baseline. Graham wonders if Thiem actually practices doing that.
Nishikori made various pushes to try to bring the match level, but overall the second set feels like Thiem’s to lose. To finish one rally the Austrian hit a backhand down the line so hard — so so so hard — that all you can do is laugh out loud. It’s amazing to see.
Having posted only a 43-percent first-serve rate in the first set, Nishikori did begin some brilliant tactical serving: He started mixing up 96-mph first serves with others at 120, and it paid dividends in some unforced (sic) return errors from Thiem.
On the slower serves it’s as though Kei was starting a 21-out-of-the-hand point – “Okay, I’ll get it in play and then we rally out the point, yeah?” – since Thiem isn’t trying to attack on the slower deliveries or, more to the tactical point, is put off by the variety of serves he’s seeing. Going on the offensive is harder to do in such a situation.
As a measure of how hard Nishikori tries to right the ship, note that he served and volleyed twice at 2-2 in the second set, when he had to work hard to hold. After the first attempt we scratched our heads – “If you won doing that, why wouldn’t you do it more often?” – and then he did it a second time, winning both with some truly fine volleying.
I applaud him for it. You have to believe that when a player has reached the top 10 his game is pretty set, and an established reflection of his personality. For Nishikori to add serve and volley to his game, successfully — and even on the occasional point as a tactical variation — is deserving of credit.
The second set did provide a wide variety of shotmaking; explosive blasts from Thiem, lightning bolts of flat winners from Kei, drop shots, quick exchanges with both of them at the net, and a “Wowza!” backhand smash from Nishikori. There was not enough from Nishikori’s side of the ledger, however. He just seemed out of sorts. Serving at 4-4, 40-30, with Thiem again standing 18 feet behind the baseline for a second serve, Kei double faulted to let Thiem serve for the match, which he did, finishing with a super impressive 30-0 point and then an ace.
Neither this match nor the previous night’s Isner-Cilic tussle achieved the status of being top-shelf matches, but they both had fine episodes. It occurs that matches achieve great status through sustained momentum on the part of both players, long stretches where neither breaks the narrative of successful hitting with silly or unforced mistakes. Absent that, we spectators can enjoy some fine moments, and we have, but we’re hoping to catch a battle that rewards us with some transcendence.
Observations At The O2 — An Up-Close Look At The ATP Finals
I am in London for the ATP World Tour Finals (I refuse to type the acronym, believing some marketing person should be written up for that socially inappropriate three-letter reference), joining up with friends Graham and Alan who are down from Scotland. All of us taught tennis together a long time ago – Alan and I first met over 40 years ago – and we all still play a reasonable level of club tennis. We like to believe we bring old-school virtues melded to an understanding of modern tennis techniques and trends. Please do not disabuse us of that belief, dear reader.
What follows are impressions and observations from the matches we are seeing at the O2. By the time you read these the score lines will be known, so while the outcomes will be discussed, what matters more are the routes taken to the W, and the L, by the players. The final scores won’t be the point. There’s always more happening on and around a tennis court than simply who managed to hit the last ball inside the lines.
The tennis observations I make below are in regular-format print. The non-tennis observations I make are in italicized print.
Let’s have some fun:
Years ago I attended some exhibition matches at Caesar’s Palace Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., in the United States; Sampras, Roddick, Safin, Lendl, Wilander, a mishmash of eras, styles, and states of professional decorum. To begin, the players were escorted onto the courts by actors dressed as Roman Centurions and Centurionettes (sorry, don’t know another word). There was some smoke, too. That show couldn’t hold a candle to the opening at the O2.
“Over the top” doesn’t begin to do it justice. I think the words “hero” and “legend” were tossed about a few times by the “voice of God” announcer. Think “Get ready to rumble!” mixed with the light show at a Pink Floyd concert and you get the idea.
The ball kids were introduced as a group. Really. They got to stand at attention in two groups, in spotlights, before dutifully running to their appointed stations. Carlos Bernardes, the international umpire, was introduced, and the lines judges got a mass introduction as well. It’s nice, actually, but certainly way different from a traditional match atmosphere.
Isner came out firing on all cylinders. His first couple of serves were 135 and 136, and while he didn’t break Cilic’s first service game, he threatened. They were both pounding the ball.
Pete Bodo, the American tennis journalist, has written that big hitters who are not great movers often find success on slower courts, however counterintuitive that might be. Bodo’s reasoning is that the slower court gives them the time to track down balls and get set up to drop the hammer; Andriy Medvedev’s (1999) and Samantha Stosur’s (2010) French Open final offer relevant examples… as does Isner’s own record at the French.
That makes me wonder if Isner’s strategy on these courts, generally regarded as being quick if not fast, is to strike first and avoid getting into rallies with Cilic. Isner is big, really big, and there’s no way he can scoot coast to coast chasing multiple skidding balls per point. He has to go nuclear, and he did so well enough to take the first set.
I’m taking notes on my smartphone during the match. What does it say about celebrity, technology, and tennis’s place in society when spellcheck corrects for “Federer,” but for “Cilic” routinely gives me the word “Colic”?
Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the momentum shifted towards Cilic. There were more shots per point, and Isner’s serve wobbled a little. Cilic broke when receiving at 3-4 as Isner double faulted on game point. Later in the match, when Isner lost his serve again with a double fault, he threw his racquet down, perhaps in a failed attempt to bounce it back up into his hand, and got a code violation (as he should have). But right after that the O2 showed a replay on the big screens of Isner chucking his stick, highlighting it. Mixed message, no?
Looking around the O2 you see Nitto’s name everywhere. It’s an interesting sponsorship. I know of the company because it is involved in the cycling world, specifically manufacturing parts. However, in what way is Nitto otherwise known to the general public? None that I know of; Jane and John Doe have no way to actively support Nitto, yet they believe there’s value in backing the ATP Finals. Is the Japanese firm laying the groundwork for a bigger presentation at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
Cilic took the second set, and both players started the third with rather meek service games. Overall, however, Cilic was more stable and successfully assertive. He clearly began to read Isner’s serve better and better, going so far as to crack one return winner off a 140-mph Isner delivery.
Chicken, or egg? Did Isner’s serving bombardment weaken because he lost some rhythm, or because Cilic made a few good returns and that got into Isner’s head? A little of both? We’ll never know, but it demonstrates why the best players know to press on with as little letup as possible when they’re behind, or struggling; you never know what will tip the scales in your favor.
Conversely, with Cilic serving a break up at 4-3, on the deuce point Isner got a forehand return to hit and chipped it back to the center of the court. Hey, I get it: Make your return. But given that if Cilic took that game he would have had two chances (at 5-3) to close out the match, Isner couldn’t afford to be that passive. He paid the price. The Croatian ripped a mid-court forehand for ad-in, and while Isner held at 3-5, Cilic served it out decisively for the win, 6-7 (2), 6-3 6-4.
— A few words about the doubles, in which Herbert-Mahut defeated Melo-Kubot in straights.
A lot has been written already about the speed of the court, or lack of it, and we can get into that in a later post, but it seems it’s too quick a surface for Melo and Kubot to work their magic. They are the higher-ranked team, after all, so one would have expected at least a closer contest, but it never developed. From our perch (literally at the uppermost seats possible), it appears the French duo sport more all-around games better suited to the fast conditions.
Mahut and Herbert also kept their play focused on Kubot — the weaker player, or perhaps injured slightly? At one stage in the second set, after having been broken to start, he netted a 115-mph first serve and then double faulted, again into the net, with a 105 second-serve attempt. Shoulder problems? Maybe. He served bigger later on, but missed a few high volleys, too. All in all the French were just too solid.
Skip Schwarzman is an ex-USPTA teaching pro who started playing when Rod Laver was king. (In fact, Laver is still king.) Teaching gigs included Philadelphia; Fribourg and Romont, Switzerland; and Oxford, England. I first learned to teach from Mr. Frank X. Brennan, Sr., coach of Billie Jean King, who taught us that if we were good players we would be welcome all over the world. He was right, as usual.
Zverev Gets A Reminder Of The Distance He Must Travel
Tennis, as I am fond of saying, is a dialogue. Most sports — golf being a conspicuous exception — involve the push and pull of one side’s reactions to the other. From this tension between two competitors comes the complex and often counterintuitive reality of sports: You can play better on one day and still lose. On the other side of the coin, you can play worse on another day and still win. Your opponent might be the bigger and more important variable.
Such has been the case for Alexander Zverev at the 2018 ATP Finals.
All things considered, Zverev has played two relatively similar matches in London. He defeated a player who is chronically unable to raise his game at the ATP Finals. He lost to a player who almost always finds solutions at the same tournament.
Zverev defeated Marin Cilic, who — entering Wednesday, before his match against John Isner — had won only one match in London in four ATP Finals appearances. Zverev then lost to Novak Djokovic, who has won five ATP Finals championships and is steamrolling toward his sixth.
The opponent was the main variable.
This does not, however, mean Zverev had no say in the Djokovic match. It also doesn’t mean Sascha has Zvery little to worry about. He has PLENTY of work to do in the coming offseason, regardless of whether he advances to the semifinals this weekend.
I begin nearly every discussion of Zverev these days with the reminder/disclaimer that Sascha’s career is still well AHEAD of schedule. No NextGen player has made more consistent or substantial advances than Zverev. He is a stone-cold rock of reliability at Masters 1000 tournaments. Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Kevin Anderson, and other high-quality players in their early 30s have spent many years struggling how to find the special sauce of success at Masters 1000s. Zverev already owns three M-1000 trophies and made seven quarterfinals this year at that level of the ATP Tour.
Zverev’s challenge is to walk over the hot coals of pressure in the biggest matches at the biggest tournaments against the best players. He handled Cilic in match one, but Djokovic — as usual — set the much higher standard in match two. Much of what happened on Wednesday was the product of the World No. 1 remaining supremely steady in important moments, but at least some of the day’s decisive developments came from Zverev’s inability to pounce… and his subsequent failure to handle that disappointment. From this realization comes a fascinating detail about Sascha’s journey at these ATP Finals.
Anyone and everyone who watched the Djokovic match could pinpoint the moment this match turned. Zverev had multiple break points at 4-4 in the first set and could not convert them. His failure to break in that ninth game of the match flowed in part from an inability to attack vulnerable second serves. Yet, those kinds of moments happen for all tennis players. No one plays several years on tour without enduring those frustrations. We saw Djokovic deal with that frustration in his Bercy semifinal against Roger Federer, in which he went 0 for 12 on break points.
Djokovic, though, kept holding serve throughout the third set of that match, despite failing to gain a decisive lead. Most players would have allowed the accumulation of missed chances to get to them, creating a very familiar Federer escape.
Djokovic isn’t most players. He is a standard of success unto himself.
Sascha might have been Zvery close to winning the first set against Djokovic on Wednesday, but as the saying goes, “So close, and yet so far away.” The small margins in tennis look like the Grand Canyon when one sees the vast difference between two athletes’ responses to scoreboard pressure and high-stakes tournaments.
Ivan Lendl knows how poorly Zverev responded to that ninth-game failure to break Djokovic. That’s exactly the kind of situation Lendl himself failed to handle in the biggest moments against Jimmy Connors (especially at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon) before he finally turned the corner in 1984 and 1985. That’s the real-world experience Team Zverev is counting on Lendl to impart to Sascha, as this coaching relationship tries to take root and bear fruit in the coming offseason.
Zverev’s bright start on Wednesday, followed by his abrupt fall off a cliff in the second set, inverted his performance against Cilic two days earlier. In the Cilic match, Zverev started the match as a dead fish, with Cilic having a sitter forehand for 5-1 but somehow missing it. Zverev battled back, but even then, Cilic’s failure to challenge a call at 5-4 and deuce prevented the Croatian from getting a set point on Zverev’s serve. Cilic played a terrible service game at 5-3 to enable the set to continue.
Zverev wasn’t very good in that first set, but as soon as he stole it in a tiebreaker, he played and served a lot more freely in the second set. Wednesday’s match against Djokovic was exactly the opposite.
Zverev very plainly knew how to run with good fortune in a first set, and didn’t know how to confront adversity at the end of a first set two days later. In both matches, he played one set well and one set poorly. The results were different — the opponent was indeed the main variable — but the inconsistent performances were the same.
Establishing a higher ceiling is part of a young athlete’s task. Lendl beefing up the Zverev forehand and improving the German’s footwork is how that process will occur. Yet, in the pursuit of raising a ceiling, one cannot forget the equally important need for a young athlete to raise his floor as well.
Raising a ceiling is needed to beat the best players in terms of skill and raw athletic prowess. Raising a floor is much more in the province of the mental game, because the mental giants in any sport are able to win even when they are struggling. Mental strength shows up the most when the shots aren’t flowing and the opponent is resolute in offering resistance. Personal struggles against an opponent who demands persistence create a supreme test for an athlete.
Cilic doesn’t demand persistence — he will donate a key game late in a set against elite players. Djokovic always demands persistence. He gives virtually nothing away.
The first set against Djokovic might have been Zvery close on Wednesday, but it showed Sascha just how much growing, learning and internalizing he must do under Lendl’s watch to grow into the even more complete player he hopes to become.