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The tour this week

Saqib Ali

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By Saqib Ali

This past weekend three champs were crowned at the ATP main tour. Jo Tsonga was one of them as he continued a strong indoors season by capturing his 3rd Marseille title and taking his career tally to 14. He was strong through this stretch and is now an impressive 7 in the rankings and 4 in the annual race. His power game and shot making was on full display against his compatriot Lucas Pouille, who himself stopped a slumping few weeks of results. On his way to the title Tsonga won a much anticipated battle with defending champ Nick Kyrgios in the semis. Both men possess easy power, especially the young Aussie has an effortless serve. The match went the distance and after some disagreements with the chair Kyrgios lost serve and it was enough for Tsonga to seal the win. This was easily the best match in Marseille this week. Tsonga has been injured a lot in last few years, so the sight of him winning two titles in two weeks bodes well for his North American hard court swing. Of course the conditions will change but time is running out for Tsonga and other top plyers who have not been able to make a mark at these prestigious events due to the four headed monster also known as the big 4. His best results have been 5 quarter finals appearances in both Indian wells and Miami and has run into Djokovic and Nadal in three of those.

Tsonga is a big match player and he probably remains inspired at his age by seeing the late resurgence in Stan Wawrinka’s career. Tsonga is someone who has played some of his best tennis at the big stages but has run into a top player more often than not. This is a season that has not gone according to form and Tsonga with a new found confidence will head to the California desert hoping for a slight opening of the draw. There are no easy draws in these Masters 1000 events but Tsonga has to be playing some of the best tennis of the year now as he along with Grigor Dimitrov and Jack Sock are the only multi title winners of the young tennis season. Could this be the first time he reaches beyond the last eight in either of the two events? Cannot wait to find out!

Also making his return to the winners circle was Dominic Thiem. Thiem’s playing schedule has been the discussion in most of his press appearances. After securing a decent result in the Rotterdam indoors, Thiem switched surfaces and continents the next week. He came to Rio to play the 500 event. All week long he seemed a different player than last six months. He dictated play with his heavy ground strokes and took his 8th career title without dropping a set. His coach has come out to say that their team acknowledges that they made some questionable scheduling decisions. Thiem is a clear contender on clay and it’s better for him and his fans that he does not enter competition every week.  That being said he is switching surfaces again as he is entered in the Acapulco draw this week. He has proven that he can play on most surfaces but the continuous switch in three weeks is little questionable given his top player status. I am a fan of his game and I hope he has rediscovered his winning ways.

This week marks the return of all the big names coming back to action. Djokovic has deepened the already heavy draw in Acapulco, while Federer and Murray will battle it out in the Dubai heat. Tennis royalty is gearing for the Indian Wells event and this week will serve as good preview of things to come.

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Roundtable — The Roger Federer Schedule Formula

Tennis Accent Staff

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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

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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:

1) Rotterdam was not part of Federer’s original 2018 scheduling plan. It was an improvised move. I wrote about it at the time at Tennis With An Accent.

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?

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Roundtable — What Shanghai Means For Borna Coric

Tennis Accent Staff

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ATP - via Twitter

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.

Nope.

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.

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Djokovic Wins Shanghai and Carries Excellence Everywhere He Goes

Tennis Accent Staff

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ATP - via Twitter

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.

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