by Saqib Ali
Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios are seen as two future major champions in men’s tennis. To be more precise, they are seen as part of a set of players who will soon contend for major titles. Thiem is seen as one of the three best clay-court players in the world, while Kyrgios at his best can beat most top players on all surfaces outside of clay. Together they possess some of the biggest shots in the men’s game today; Thiem’s forehand is a deadly weapon on clay while Kyrgios’ serve, if on target, can wreak havoc, no matter who is trying to return it. They both have a decent fan base considering their global appeal. However they both have gone about their business quite differently on the tour. Surprisingly they have faced each other only once in pro tennis, in a match Kyrgios could not finish.
Thiem has built a reputation of being a workhorse. He is seen as someone who likes to play a lot of tennis. His schedule has been a talking point for tennis pundits throughout the years. A general consensus is he plays too much and hence has been fatigued at important points in the tennis season. He has been asked this question by quite a few reporters during the many press appearances he has had this year. At times he has acknowledged that he and his team will look into the scheduling. At times he has been clearly unhappy when asked about his scheduling. One interesting choice he made earlier this year was when he flew to South America from Holland to play a clay event, only to play a hardcourt event in Mexico the following week. Of course he won the clay event, but the miles he put on the body and the choice of consecutive weeks of play on different surfaces did not fit the decision making process of a top player. Thiem was also criticized for his decision to play the Antalya grass event, where he delivered a tired performance in a first-round loss. This loss prompted murmurs of appearance fees that sometimes draw top players to smaller events. This was a very uncharacteristic criticism toward Thiem, and an unfair one. Even his harshest critics will not cite him for a lack of effort.
Unlike Thiem, Kyrgios has openly said this year that at times he has lacked motivation and has tanked some matches. This candid admission is too revealing to some tennis fans — it further polarizes tennis watchers and adds to the enigma Nick has become. Kyrgios’s love-hate relationship with his tennis life is there for all to see. He is learning tennis lessons as his own pace — it can be very frustrating for the most loyal Kyrgios fans to stick to his side. Before him many players such as Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin had a similarly philosophical take on their profession and why they suffered on court emotionally. Kyrgios has had moments of brilliance this year… and some forgetful losses as well. His upside is huge, which keeps the loyalists glued in anticipation of when he might strike next. To be fair to Nick, he has tried working with a new coach this year, but cut ties after an unsuccessful U.S. Open campaign. Kyrgios wants to figure this out on his own terms but has slowly given the conventional tennis life a chance as well, in terms of a player coach relationship. Kyrgios clearly does not have the same workload as Thiem. Even if he did, he would likely have more injury niggles than his frame can handle at this point in his career. His Achilles’ heel has been his fitness at most majors this year. Kyrgios needs to manage this better if he is to make a serious run deep in meaningful events next year. This will also help him achieve his goals for his foundation that he spoke so passionately about last week. He also suffered a big loss in his personal life in the spring – passing of his grandfather.
Thiem is known to work hard off the court — that can help him avoid fitness-related injuries. This is a testimony to his very professional approach to the game. He is way better managed than Kyrgios in this department. However Thiem has also been under the scanner for his mediocre run on hard courts this year. Last year he had won 31 matches on hard courts coming into his hometown tournament in Vienna. This year he has won only 22 of the 40 hard-court matches at the same juncture. This is a cause of concern for a player who plays too much and has been residing in the top tier of the rankings for almost two years. His breakout match was against Djokovic in Miami last year. He lost that match but challenged the then-World No. 1 in that match. That showed the world his hitting power — he stayed with Djokovic in lot of long baseline exchanges. If we have not forgotten already – Novak Djokovic was the standard of hard court tennis during that phase. That match propelled him to newer heights even though he did not win it. He had a good year in 2016. With that came the high expectations of the following year – and he has clearly felt the weight of being the hunted. His hard-court game has struggled mostly against big servers. This year he has had some rough losses against that very kind of player. A dip in confidence can be magnified in a one-on-one sport like tennis, more than a team sport. Opponents can sense when someone is struggling to close out matches — and Steve Johnson exactly knew this was the case with Thiem in Shanghai. Thiem could have been underplayed in the inaugural Laver cup, where he was part of a supremely talented team Europe. In his only singles outing he prevailed over the big serving John Isner. This was a win which few of us thought would be a good confidence booster for the young Austrian. It was short lived as he has lost his three matches on tour since then, and none of them were to the prototype of the player we discussed earlier. Will he start standing closer to the baseline and attack more? It will need to be seen as he is a modern day Thomas Muster who is very good on one surface but needs the adjustments on other surfaces.
Both men also battle the long shadows of their respective countries’ tennis heroes. Kyrgios comes from the land where tennis has enormous tradition, Australia. The ghosts of Laver, Newcombe and even Hewitt are very hard to live up to. Young Kyrgios is often under fire back home for his tennis actions and commentary, at times rightfully but also other times in a misunderstood way. He seems to suffer from a generational gap of expectations and has at times seemed determined to let his tennis speak for him, as he did in a couple of Davis cup weekends this year. That is definitely one way to win back some Aussie love for him — Davis Cup is huge in Australia.
Kyrgios has called off his season due to the resurfacing of the same injury that has bothered him since Wimbledon. He has headed back to Australia. In his parting message he said his goal is to be ready for the upcoming big Australian summer. Time is still on his side for now – here is hoping he figures out a few of the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle; that is the ATP life on tour. Thiem too, battles the legend of Muster – who is seen as a national hero in his country for his French open win and Davis cup heroics. Thiem is clearly regarded as someone who has more overall potential to achieve greater things but his decision of skipping Davis cup has not been taken kindly to. After a long season, Thiem has still a lot to play for. He can mend some fences at home by making a strong run in the Erste Open – of course winning it all would go a long way. for his support at home. His year still has some meaningful tennis left and unlike Kyrgios – tennis is all Thiem wants and is driven to succeed at it even more.
Championship glory is the destination and both these gladiators are taking their own path towards it. Thiem keeps marching ahead even though sometimes he seems to hit a certain wall, whereas Nick has the capability to getting their sooner but he choses to stop and go the other way at times. These are two contrasting mindsets – who have a very good likelihood to succeed on their own terms with slight tinkering of the absolute work approach they know. As fans, we have the best seat in this live theater where new and exciting chapters will be written soon for both. And tennis will not be poorer if this combo would contests major weekend matches in the near future.
Roundtable — What Shanghai Means For Borna Coric
QUESTION: How did Shanghai change your perceptions of Borna Coric, if at all?
ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad
Borna Coric had a big win over a Swiss star this past week. It wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Stan Wawrinka has showed hints of regaining his form since the U.S. hard court swing. He looked good in Cincinnati with wins over Diego Schwartzman and Kei Nishikori before going out in the quarterfinals. Stan also made the semifinals in St. Petersburg. But Coric, ranked 19 coming into Shanghai, was steady on his serve in set 3, and was able to pocket 1 of 3 break chances. So…
Oh, wait a second. He had a win over another Swiss star, too.
Coric’s win over Roger Federer wasn’t entirely unexpected either. Coric had been a tough out for Federer in their Indian Wells semifinal in March, winning the first set and being a break up in both the second and third sets. He had won a famous victory in the Halle final over Federer. I had the sense, then, that Federer had run out of gas in the third set (he had played nine matches on grass in two weeks), but Coric was well worth the win.
After the final I tweeted:
“Nothing but positive things to say about Borna Coric today – he was mentally really strong, had a solid game plan, served well and attacked the net intelligently. And took his chance in the first set TB, which was a huge moment in the match.”
On Saturday, Coric was even better than he had been in June: He was dominant on serve, conceding no break points. He won the short rallies, the mid-length rallies and the longer rallies. You can argue he won the net points as well, going 100 percent when he came to net, which was once (Federer was 11 of 15).
Coric’s reward was his first M1000 final against Novak Djokovic, who (as we discussed Sunday at Tennis With An Accent) is looking ominously close to his dominant best. Coric wasn’t blown out (as his near contemporary, Sascha Zverev, had been in the semifinal), but he won fewer than three points for every four won by Djokovic. It was a competitive match, but never really close.
Coric announced himself on the ATP World Tour with a win over Rafael Nadal at Basel in 2014, when he was not yet 18 years old. But in the early part of his career he looked to me like a pure grinder, winning matches more with his legs than his racquet. Four years on, he’s still winning more matches with power and consistency than finesse — a work in progress, not yet the full meal deal.
I can’t honestly say that Borna Coric shifted my perceptions of him significantly this week. I think he’ll be a good player, but I’m far from convinced he’ll be a great one.
MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk
I have been following Coric since his younger years and am not surprised by the development in his game, nor by his success. In fact, I would argue that his injury-prone mid-2016 to mid-2017 period held him back tremendously, putting him behind peers such as Alexander Zverev, although Borna has been mentally ahead of them for many years (see, for example, Borna’s win over Sascha in Cincinnati 2015, in which mental toughness and maturity made the difference at the end).
Cool-headedness under pressure and a high IQ have always been a part of his pedigree. Having been forced to press the reset button late 2016 due to knee surgery and then suffering another setback due to other rehabilitation issues after a short comeback in early 2017, Coric could finally begin to focus on ameliorating his overall skills after that.
By now, he has had ample time to upgrade his stroke production and set the parameters for a complete all-around game with no visible weaknesses. His forehand and serve appear to be the biggest improvements, but I would add to that, the forward-backward first-step quickness which allows him to pounce on a shorter ball and move forward when he recognizes an opportunity.
This added first-step dimension, for example, allows his already sound net skills to come to the foreground. I am not saying that he is “faster” or that “he moves better,” but rather, that he is applying his existing great footwork to the enhancements in his game he has made over the last 12 months. This week was comprehensively the best performance of his career in my opinion, including the final.
The next (and the last) puzzle to solve for Coric, before he can be counted as one of the major forces in men’s tennis, is consistency in big tournaments in terms of results. This is where Zverev, to mention one of his equals again, is a step ahead of him. 2018 has not been “that” year for Coric… not yet.
MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek
Yes, Borna Coric should have beaten Roger Federer in Indian Wells, but he got tight and let that match slip away at the end. Therefore, when Coric met Federer in the Halle final, Coric had something to prove. He played like it, besting Federer in three sets and taking advantage of an ever-so-slight lapse by the Swiss in a first-set tiebreaker.
Over the course of his career, Federer has been very good (against players other than Rafael Nadal) at avenging losses in meaningful moments. The 2010 U.S. Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic was one of the most painful defeats of his career. Then came 2011 Roland Garros, one of the more satisfying wins of Federer’s tennis life. The 2011 U.S. Open semifinal might have been even more painful than 2010. No problem – Federer struck back against Djokovic in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinals.
The beat goes on, and the point is simple: Federer is good about correcting the losses which carry an extra sting – or if not sting, certainly an extra cost such as a Halle title.
Coric had more to prove in Halle after the Indian Wells “agony in the desert.” In Shanghai, this figured to be Federer’s moment of revenge, especially after a high-level performance against Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals seemed to get him back into a rhythm.
Coric didn’t allow Federer to get comfortable at any point in a routine straight-set match. Coric’s serve – winning the amount of free points Nishikori struggles to win – will lend ballast to his career as long as it remains potent. Coric’s forehand can be very weak at times, but in Shanghai, it looked a lot more solid.
Do I think Coric will have a huge 2019? No… but I do think he will become more consistent.
Coric is like a WTA top-10 player – and this is not a criticism: His results veer all over the place, but he is good for a few very big runs at significant tournaments each season. That’s good – just in a volatile way. I think Coric won’t lose in the round of 64 or 32 at tournaments nearly as often next year. He will make more rounds of 16 and quarterfinals. That’s what this Shanghai tournament has done to change my perceptions of Coric.
Whether he can push beyond the quarters or 16s of big events is something I don’t yet feel confident enough to answer. Nevertheless, Coric is definitely moving in the right direction. Shanghai – specifically the “No, you’re not going to avenge your loss against me!” response to Federer – moderately but genuinely increased my expectations for what he can, and will, achieve.
Djokovic Wins Shanghai and Carries Excellence Everywhere He Goes
Question: What is the big story coming out of Shanghai?
MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk
Novak Djokovic is getting it done, with a crushing level of domination since his Wimbledon title. The Shanghai title adds to his rise to the top — for me, the story of the year in men’s tennis — in that it is less what he is doing than how he is getting it done: on a variety of surfaces, in all aspects of the game.
He is winning matches with a considerable gap in the level of tennis between him and his opponents. Shanghai ATP 1000 is the tournament that moves the goalposts in 2018’s biggest story in men’s tennis: It moves them from Novak’s “comeback and rise to the top” to Novak’s “command at the top.” The former took place at Wimbledon. The latter is resonating since then, and it seems to be here to stay for a while. It also begs the question: How long will it continue? The last time Novak was in command of men’s tennis, it lasted a couple of years. Can it last that long this time around, too? After the Shanghai title, these are substantial questions that need to be put on the table.
For Novak to be as dominant as he was at his peak — I mean results-wise only, because game-wise, he is already there (another Shanghai confirmation) — he would need to collect titles on all court-speed variations over an extended period of time. Winning Shanghai brings him ever closer to that. He is not completely there (he may get there, depending on his results next Spring on clay), but this title represents a giant step in that direction.
ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad
Two big stories came out of Shanghai – a presence, and an absence.
The presence was the form of the tournament winner, Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has always enjoyed the Asian swing: Nick Lester, the Tennis TV commentator, tweeted after Novak’s quarterfinal win over Kevin Anderson:
Novak Djokovic’s @ATPWorldTour record on Asian soil since the start of 2009 now sits at 56-4.
Make that 58-4. According to Greg Sharko, the ATP stats guru, Shanghai 2018 was Djokovic’s first tour title without getting broken in the tournament. Djokovic won 85 percent of his first-serve points and 60 percent of his second-serve points.
If you couple that with Novak’s trademark return excellence, you have a very formidable tennis player. I took a look at Djokovic’s return stats for the tournament. Only Coric, who had put on a serving clinic against Federer in the semifinal, was able to win more than 50 percent of his second-serve points – a bare majority of 9 from 16. Over five matches Djokovic’s second-return points won percentage was 57, just below his second-serve points won percentage.
Craig O’Shannessy is a tennis analyst and strategist who tweets as @BrainGameTennis and consults with Djokovic. Craig spotted (in a match against Tsonga) that Djokovic had effectively played with three serves to the Frenchman’s one: Djokovic’s second-serve returns were as effective as his own second serves. This is what Novak did for the whole tournament in Shanghai, effectively played with three serves to one.
Novak scrapped his way to the title in the last Masters 1000 in Cincinnati, and a discerning observer (the tournament’s No. 1 seed) suggested that he still had room to improve before the end of the season. A U.S. Open and another Masters 1000 have followed; if Djokovic hasn’t reached his best level yet, the rest of the field ought to be fairly nervous for 2019.
The rest of the field? I hate to say it, but with the honorable exception of the players Djokovic beat on his way to the trophy, you have to mark it down as an absence. Two of the Big 4 were physically absent, with Rafael Nadal recuperating from a knee strain and Andy Murray having shut down his season. The fourth member of the group, Roger Federer, fought his way into the semifinals and looked to have run out of mental and physical energy against Coric.
Del Potro and Cilic, newly 30, had tournaments to forget, with Cilic falling in the first round to Nico Jarry and del Potro laboring with illness early in the week before retiring after a heavy fall caused a knee injury in his R-16 match with Coric. Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, like Cilic, couldn’t win their first match.
Del Potro has qualified for the ATP Finals in London. Barring injury or an implausible Jack Sock- like run in the last tournaments of the year, Cilic and Thiem will join him. But the second big story from Shanghai is the absence of any serious consistent competitor to the Big 3 for major titles.
As Federer and Nadal did before him, Novak Djokovic has returned from injury as an apparently unstoppable force. He will likely go into Melbourne in 2019 as the clear Australian Open favorite. It’s a long way off, but Roland Garros 2019 – and a possible clash between Djokovic playing for a second Novak Slam and Nadal for an almost unthinkable 12th French Open title – is a distinct prospect.
MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek
The big story could not be anything — or anyone — else: Novak Djokovic put his stamp of mastery and dominance on men’s tennis. At the U.S. Open, the oppressive weather conditions prevented him from playing at his best through the first five rounds, which he still managed to navigate with typical resourcefulness and drive. Once the weather became tolerable over the final weekend of that tournament, he played the lockdown lights-out tennis against Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro which defined him at his peak periods this decade.
Wimbledon was an extraordinary tournament and an equally extraordinary achievement for Djokovic because he wasn’t quite the transcendent, overwhelming force he had been in 2015 and the first half of 2016… yet still found a way to lift the trophy and very quickly complete his revival. Djokovic was outplayed by Rafael Nadal for most of that epic semifinal — a match which will likely be remembered as one of the most important in tennis history — but served remarkably well in crunch-time moments to prevail, 10-8 in the fifth set. That was a spectacular response to pressure, making Wimbledon once again the site of Djokovic’s proudest accomplishments.
At the U.S. Open, however, Djokovic escaped the withering heat and — in his last two matches in New York — kicked two very good players to the curb in comprehensive beatdowns.
We who cover tennis thought that this might be the launching pad for another Pax Djokovic.
That is EXACTLY what we received in Shanghai — only this wasn’t just a two-match finishing kick in the semis and final. This is how the whole week unfolded.
Djokovic is sitting in the clouds, high above Rafa and (even more especially) Federer. The distance between him and Zverev is enormous.
This is Novak’s world, and we are just living in it.
Saturday in Shanghai Confirms the Djokovic Restoration
It is one thing to desire revenge. It is another thing to deliver it, especially in a dominant fashion.
Novak Djokovic got everything he wanted out of his Saturday in Shanghai.
You KNEW Djokovic wanted to get on a court with Sascha Zverev after the 2017 Rome final in which the young German won his first Masters 1000 championship in a clean and methodical manner. Zverev calmly dissected Djokovic’s game that day in Italy, flashing on a big stage the talent which has since catapulted the (now-) 21-year-old to a large collection of ATP titles, including two more Masters trophies. Zverev is just beginning what has all the makings of a supremely prosperous career. What he did against Djokovic could reasonably be referred to as “The Moment,” a point in time I identify as decisive in a player’s career.
As I have written on previous occasions, “The Moment” — if a player does something significant enough to achieve it — marks a player for greatness. Roger Federer had “The Moment” against Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. Zverev announced himself in Rome one and a half years ago.
Yet, as well as Zverev played that day, the benefit of hindsight allows us to appreciate how physically limited Djokovic was. The Serbian superstar, we can acknowledge, was laboring through pain, which hampered him in an immediate sense, but also interfered with the mind-body dualism athletes need to maintain clarity and fluidity in everything they do. Zverev deserved all the credit for his performance, but Djokovic was not in a position to be at his best.
Saturday in Shanghai, Djokovic — fit, prepared, and at the top of his game — gained his chance to show Zverev what he was capable of.
The result was predictable, but said predictability should not — and cannot — take away from the majesty of a brutal beatdown.
This is Djokovic in full flight. This is the player who put the rest of the ATP Tour at his feet in 2015 and the first half of 2016. This was not about Zverev’s inadequacies (though they exist and need to be reduced by Ivan Lendl in 2019). This was about Djokovic being a fully restored player in every sense and delivering a butt-kicking which reminded Sascha how far he has to climb to reach the Djokovic standard.
In one hour, this evisceration ran its course.
Djokovic will technically be World No. 2 on Monday — surpassing Federer — but everyone can see that Novak is the world’s best tennis player by a considerable distance at the moment. If he chooses to play Bercy, he will be the favorite there. He will be the favorite to win the ATP Finals in London. He will be the favorite (assuming there are no injuries in the intervening months) at the Australian Open in January.
In his first great season — 2011 — Djokovic dominated the tour from January through the U.S. Open, but that immense workload took a toll on his body, and he ran out of gas in autumn of that year. In 2015, he carried his dominance through the ATP Finals, and in 2018, after a first half of the season spent regrouping and rediscovering his rhythmic balance, Djokovic is comparatively fresh with less tread on the tires. He is in position to roar some more — just as he has done against Kevin Anderson in the Shanghai quarterfinals and Zverev in the semis. It is hard to see him losing to Coric — who upset Federer in Saturday’s other semifinal — on Sunday.
A brief word about Federer: One can plainly see that the Swiss, despite his high-quality win over Kei Nishikori in the Shanghai quarters, is struggling to find a balance between rest and match play. It’s almost** as though being 37 years old requires tough choices and involves a struggle to discern the limits of mind and body!
** = NOT ALMOST!
The new world rankings on Monday reflect the flow of the 2018 ATP season: Federer has been the third-best player on tour. That is still phenomenal for a player his age, but Nadal is certainly second, and Djokovic is just as certainly Numero Uno.
The Djokovic Restoration Tour of 2018 continues unabated. That is what Saturday in Shanghai most authoritatively confirmed.
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