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TORONTO 2018: REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK

Saqib Ali

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Omar Rawji

That was definitely one of the best weeks of my life.

I’m a huge tennis fan, nerd, die-hard — whatever you want to call it. I watch the majors from start to finish, I am invested in all the Masters 1000 tournaments throughout the year, and I follow what’s happening in the other ones too.

Having a chance to cover a Masters 1000 event, my second Rogers Cup, just weeks before the U.S. Open was overwhelming to my senses. For most of the tournament there are matches on all courts – legends such as Rafael Nadal playing on centre court, future stars such as Frances Tiafoe on other courts, Wimbledon finalists Novak Djokovic and Kevin Anderson playing doubles together – it was almost impossible to keep up.

Being in Canada, feeling the excitement around Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger Aliassime was very fun to be a part of. I could see my followers paying close attention to tweets about them, which was cool because Canadians are usually not overly engaged with my tennis coverage.

Over the course of the week, covering all the big stories, there were a bunch of others that didn’t get as much exposure. I wanted to get into some of them, and I thought the hardcore tennis fans who read Tennis With An Accent would appreciate this.

I also saved a bunch of other observations for Saqib’s podcast, which we’ll record later this week, so make sure you listen to that too.

  1. How the players welcomed the service clock

The 25-second service clock was officially introduced to the ATP a week before the Rogers Cup at the Citi Open in Washington. Toronto was the first Masters 1000 tournament where it was used, so many players were seeing it for the first time. Almost all players liked it, and several talked about how they actually felt as if they had more time to serve.

Here’s Djokovic talking about that feeling:

“I actually feel like there is more time now than before because the shot clock starts counting down once the chair umpire calls the score,” he said. “Sometimes it takes several seconds before the chair umpire calls the score if it’s a long exchange or a good point and the crowd gets in.”

Grigor Dimitrov also spoke about the service clock after his match against Tiafoe in which he received a warning for going over time.

Considering the argument he had with the umpire, this was a surprising answer:

“Honestly, I think it’s great,” he said. “I mean, it’s my first tournament to play with the shot clock. I think it’s actually pretty cool. I like it a lot.

I think what happened was just — first of all, it was heat of the moment, and I just believe that you just don’t give warning right away. It’s like you can warn me a few times. Say, ‘Hey, you’re close,’ or something like that, but in such a tough moment to come up with that, I just didn’t think it was fair.

“I guess that was the flamboyant side on my end, and I apologized. I absolutely apologized after for sure. Behavior like that shouldn’t be tolerated. I’m not that type of a person. But, again, it was just in such a big moment of the match.”

The strongest opponent of the service clock was Nadal, and while his stance could have been predicted, the way he explained it showed there’s a lot more to it than simply not enjoying being rushed, since he is famously one of the slower players between points.

Here is his explanation. Yes, it’s long, but I think it deserves to be shown entirely, because Nadal has obviously put some thought into this, and he makes a strong case:

“As I said before the tournament, I personally don’t like [the service clock], but not because it goes against me,” he said. “The problem when I talk sometimes about this kind of stuff it’s because the people think that I have the benefit because I am a slower player.

“No. I can be faster, but I like to think. That’s the thing. I understand the sport. Not like a thing that the things go fast. My experience in the world of tennis is that the matches that became part of the history of our sport are not matches that the duration of the match is one hour thirty, you know?

“Not one match that the people remember in the history of our sport are matches that the final duration of the match are two hours. You know, that’s the real thing.

“So the match that the people remember are matches that are epic, the matches that the people gets involved, and my experience is I don’t see the people get crazy and involved in the match when the ball, all it goes two or three times over the net every time.

“I see the people goes crazy and enjoy and feel the passion for the sport when you have rallies of 15, 20 balls. And that’s my feeling. And when you have continuous rallies of that kind, you can’t be ready physically to play another point like this in 25 seconds.

“That’s my point of view but the rules are going another way. For me personally, it doesn’t affect me. I just need to go faster. I go faster and I accept and try to do the thing the better way possible, and I did it during the whole week. That’s all.

“It’s not about something that goes against me. When I say it, it’s something that I believe for the sport is better another thing. But as I always say, it’s only my personal opinion. The people who runs the sport have a different opinion, and I 100 percent respect. Maybe they are right and I am wrong. That’s all.

“But the clock, if the umpire are able to use it the right way, it’s good because gives you plenty of time. Because they call the score, then they put the clock on and if the umpire have a little bit of knowledge about the things, how long are the point, they put the clock a little bit later, I think the clock don’t affect at all.

“It’s just something that is there and is a good thing. If the clock goes straight, it’s going to be a negative thing but in my opinion, the umpires during the whole week are doing a fantastic job. They are managing the thing very well, even better than without the clock. So well done for all of them.”

  1. Why Tsitsipas reminds me of Nadal

It’s a lofty compliment, I know, but there is something about Stefanos Tsitsipas that reminds me a lot of Nadal.

It’s not a shot – not his forehand or his serve – but the most important part of what makes Rafa one of the best tennis players ever. It’s his ability to stay in the moment, to not be bothered by whatever may have happened just a moment earlier, and to analyze and re-analyze a match, even when things look completely bleak.

Here is Tsitsipas talking about how he came back in the second set against Rafa, after being soundly outplayed in the first – the final score was 6-2, 7-6 (7-4).

“I tried analyzing what I was doing wrong,” Tsitsipas said. “I tried remembering of how other opponents played against Rafa on hard courts and that gave me an idea of how I should play against him. There were some guys that I was thinking of. So I tried playing the way — I’ve seen many videos of Rafa on hardcourt. Many of them he won. Some of them he lost. It started working on the second set. I started executed this plan after I got broken in the second set.

“It was pretty late but still I was there. And he got a bit tighter at 5-4 when he was serving for the match. On my serve, I started feeling more and more relaxed and comfortable with my service games. And he was struggling returning my balls back and taking control of the rally. I even had a set point, actually, so I was very close to making something.”

Tsitsipas’s answer after he beat Djokovic, 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-3, was even more telling of his ability to stay calm and in the moment:

“I remained calm. I tried few things that I didn’t try before and I played a bit,” he said. “I played a little bit more with variety and changed the pace a bit of the ball, played deeper, played smarter.”

“Now I’m more familiar with his game. I know a bit better the patterns that he’s using on the court. So I felt confident. I felt confident with my game. And I knew he had some issues in some particular shots in his game, I would say. So I was waiting and, like, I grabbed him like a bulldog and stuck there and executed – yeah, I executed my plan.”

As I wrote before, this ability to stay calm and focus on the next point reminds me of Rafa. The other player it reminds me of is Djokovic, who, even when he was young, would come back after losing a tiebreaker or a tight set and play with a clear mind in an attempt to win the next set.

I have a feeling this ability will serve Tsitsipas well as he tries to lead the NextGen players in the future.

It may well be what gets him a Grand Slam title before Sascha Zverev or all the other talented young players.

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