Nadal, Goffin and the Title Drought

by Saqib Ali

Rafael Nadal and David Goffin were both victorious in respective ATP 500 events in Beijing and Tokyo last week. Both men were playing with the confidence of men who had won recent titles. However, it was not the case before their previous titles. Nadal — prior to winning the U.S. Open this year — had not tasted hardcourt success for almost four years. His last title came in Doha in the beginning of the 2014 season. Goffin had last won a title on any surface in Metz, France in 2014. That’s where the similarities of these droughts end.  Continue reading “Nadal, Goffin and the Title Drought”

Laver Cup – Experiment with the Tennis Truth

 

by Saqib Ali

The inaugural Laver cup held in Prague is in the books. Named after the living legend Aussie, Rod laver, the event is loosely based on Golf’s Ryder cup. Only in this instance Europe takes on the rest of the world unlike America against Europe in the Ryder cup. The event will be played annually over one weekend and first team to secure 13 points will win the cup. Each day will have three singles and one doubles match. The points awarded per win increase every day as the event progresses and the final set like the ATP doubles matches will have a 10 point tiebreaker. The event will be held in different parts of the world each year, with Chicago getting the nod to host the second edition, where team world will play hosts.The event is a brainchild of Roger Federer and his manager Toni Godsick. The Federer goodwill was on full display as these kind of roasters are not easy to line up for the first edition. That being said there must have been lot of convincing done to introduce something of this scale during the season. Continue reading “Laver Cup – Experiment with the Tennis Truth”

The Silver Jubilee anniversary of the best US Open!

by

Saqib Ali

Something about time zones in tennis adds to its global appeal. For anyone who lives in India or other nations in that part of the world, the night session at the U.S. Open means watching tennis in pre-dawn hours. 

The year was 1992 and cable had arrived in India (almost exactly a year ago), which meant one full channel: Prime sports would be dedicated to my favorite sport and its tournaments. U.S. Open matches started when schoolkids were expected to be in bed — summer vacation in India usually ended on the day Wimbledon did. The school semester was in full flow during each U.S. Open, but watching tennis at the year’s final major tournament was too compelling to ignore. I did not drink coffee back then, but still would function with little or no sleep during the U.S. Open fortnight. The 1992 edition would remain one of my all- time favorite U.S. Open championships. My two favorite players did not come close to winning, but the tennis played during the two weeks produced epic encounters, one after another.  Continue reading “The Silver Jubilee anniversary of the best US Open!”

The Potential Qualifiers..

by Saqib Ali

The last major is upon us and the ATP tennis fraternity is heading to New York. Qualifying action starts Tuesday at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center. Tennis can be a very unforgiving sport — it has a knockout format all year long. Add to that the international nature of the tour. The travel from one stop to another is a drain on resources and part of the grind. Constant flights are part of most sports, but intercontinental travel is different. It makes tennis an extremely hard profession to master on a sustained basis. It is quite an expensive way to make a living. We (commoners) plan our small vacations or day trips extremely carefully. On those grounds alone, one can only begin to imagine how hectic life on tour really is.  Continue reading “The Potential Qualifiers..”

Snakes in the grass

by Anand Mamidipudi

Like Saqib, I became enamored with tennis in the mid-eighties. My earliest memories date back to watching John McEnroe win Wimbledon in 1984, on his way to one of the most dominant calendar years in the Open era (McEnroe lost only three times, one of which was inexplicably to an ageing Vijay Amritraj). Tennis really caught my fancy when a baby-faced 17 year old with a booming serve shredded through the draw to make the final against the formidable South African Kevin Curren. Becker was the underdog against Curren, who had stunned McEnroe in the quarterfinals. Becker’s performance in that final was thrilling – the kind that sets a nostalgic buzz in your ear and gives you goosebumps. His win at that young age remains one of the great dark horse stories in all sport. After that, I was hooked to the unpredictability of tennis, to the glory of Wimbledon, to the thrill of rooting for the unexpected winner. One of the things that I loved to do as a fan is to rummage through the field for other potential dark horses that could recreate the magic of 1985. It’s that time of the year again and here are my dark horses for this year’s Wimbledon.

Karen Khachnov

The young Russian has big guns from the baseline and enormous potential. His semi-final performance against Federer against Halle shows that he is not far away from the highest echelon. Look for Karen to improve upon his fourth round performance at the French Open and go even deeper.

Gilles Muller

The lefty who once stunned Andy Roddick in the first round of the US Open has a game carved out for grass. He made the semis at Queen’s and was a tiebreak away from winning the Hall of Fame tournament last year against Ivo Karlovic. An interesting piece of trivia – Muller and Karlovic have now played seven straight tiebreaks, with Muller having won five of them. Muller is no spring chicken at 34, but he is a dark horse.

Sam Querrey

In case people have forgotten one of the greatest upsets in recent memory, it was Sam Querrey who brought down the juggernaut of Novak Djokovic last year at Wimbledon. Djoker went into a funk he hasn’t recovered from since. Meanwhile, Querrey showed that his win was no flash in the pan by beating up on Rafa earlier this year in Acapulco. This much is clear: when Sam’s game is on, he is capable of serving up nightmares to the very best. If not for the man above on this list, I’d wager Sam would have won Queen’s.

Lucas Pouille

Everybody is waiting for Pouille to truly break through (as in win something big). The Frenchman with an enigmatic game (which seems to be par for the course for all Frenchmen – see Leconte, Pioline, Escude, Monfils, Tsonga, Gasquet et al) upended Nadal at the US Open last year. Given how Rafa has started this year, we know that young Lucas had done something special. Pouille has all the tools to win Wimbledon, but his level is infuriatingly inconsistent from one tournament to another (he won on grass a coupe of weeks ago at Stuttgart and then lost in the second round at Queen’s). Still I’m picking Pouille to take the next step up from his quarterfinal appearance at both Wimbledon and US Open last year and possibly take a bow in front of the Duchess of Kent on the second Sunday. That is, if he does not self-combust in the first round.

 

 

Splendors on Grass

by Saqib Ali

 

When I was introduced to the sport in the mid eighty’s and it was commonly referred to as Lawn Tennis. Grass court tennis was the norm in India and had more than a few weeks presence on the circuit. Grass was synonymous to the biggest tournament of all called the Championships, not the England Open but simply The Championships. Also known more popularly as Wimbledon to most. While grass tennis has all but evaporated form the tennis tour, winning Wimbledon still remains the most prestigious thing in the sport. Not to take away from the prestige of the other three majors but Wimbledon has an aura of its own. To the casual fan or someone who does not follow tennis, Wimbledon champion back in the day was the equivalent of the world champ or the most famous tennis player. And it is no coincidence that former tennis greats are often addressed as either former world number ones (if they reached the summit of course) or simply as former Wimbledon Champion! This year too the tennis world will look at the fortnight to produce another glorious chapter. Will we see a new champion or a familiar face triumphing on Center Court. As we are few days away from that chapter to unfold, here is a premature look at the possible contenders and the challengers of these championships.

Before we break down the favorites and the challengers I must say that men who have dominated these championships have become pretty good all court players as well.  Which is remarkable in itself as the likes of Federer, Becker, Nadal and many other men who have won here have no or little training on the surface. All these men have adopted so well on the surface where the movement has been the biggest challenge. Playing styles have changed over the years since Becker-Edberg locked horns in three successive title fights to the more recent three final duel of Federer- Nadal. Serve and volley has been replaced by attacking baseline exchanges. The court used to lose all its grass around the net area, whereas now it is the baseline which is the most worn out part of the court. What has not changed is the sheer quality of tennis one has to display to win these championships.

 

The Favorites

Roger Federer reconfirmed his status as the favorite to win his eighth Wimbledon title after dismantling the young German Alexander Zverev in Halle yesterday. He was my pick to win this year even after the loss to Tommy Haas last week or even after his not so convincing win against another next generation contender, Karen Khachanov in the semifinals. Predictions have a way of playing out silly lot of times but Federer’s masterful display against Zverev, stamped the much needed pre draw validation of his status as the favorite. Federer has always valued these two weeks as the most important time of the tennis year. And in a very longtime he comes into these championships as the strong favorite. The narrative around his story for the last twelve months is incredible, considering how he left the championships last year. There loomed a certain uncertainty if he would ever be a strong contender at these Championships. He has answered any concerns or doubts in the most emphatic manner. Nothing new can be said about how he has taken care of his body after all these years of top flight tennis. He knows he has made the right decisions and sacrifices to be in this position once again. Win or lose something tells me he will savor every minute of these championships.

Andy Murray The defending champ is another player who is literally at home on the lawns of Wimbledon. His movement is superb on grass and so is the feel if he comes to the net. I guess that is why he has won this thing twice. His ability to defuse the big servers is another aspect which makes him very complete on grass, where close sets are decided by a return there or a lob here! Since reaching the number one ranking, Murray has had a pretty tough time this year on and off the court until the recently concluded French open. His early departure at Queens is probably a big blow to his Wimbledon preparations. His two Wimbledon titles are quite remarkable given the immense pressure he is under every time he plays the Championships. For added pressure and expectations, it is the first time he comes into these championships as the world number one. On current form I don’t see him beating Federer, but a lot can happen between now and then if they were to square off. Murray’s season could be starting now as well similar to Federer’s!

 

Rafael Nadal will not have appeared in this short list few months ago. The tennis narrative changes fast and Nadal’s win at Roland Garros has propelled his status to a contender even though he himself feels otherwise. Of course we have to be realistic as Nadal has not made the last eight since 2011 at Wimbledon with few unceremonious losses to players he would not lose otherwise. Despite his newly regained confidence the first week at Wimbledon will be the critical phase for him in terms of survival. The new grass always plays fast and can be little tricky in the first week. The draw will be of huge intrigue for him as well. If he clears the first week then he can be a major threat as he definitely knows how to win here after reaching five finals at the Championships. He will be determined to avoid another early exit for sure, even though he cited his knees as suspect after winning the unprecedented tenth Roland Garros crown.

 

Milos Raonic is a throwback Wimbledon player with big booming serve and aggressive net play. But the problem is that Wimbledon is nearly not as rewarding to this kind of play anymore. The big four can be Raonic’s undoing because all of them move so well and return very well, especially Murray and Djokovic. Raonic represents the lost generation of players who have not broken through the gridlock of the big four at major tournaments as the new generation is ready to take over as well. But one thing you cannot accuse Raonic is for lack of trying. He has always brought in the best help possible and has kept improving. He has parted ways with former Wimbledon Champ Richard Krajicek right after Roland Garros and has brought in Mark Knowles as the consulting coach. His big obstacle has been his injury niggles for most of his career. He has not been able to build any kind of momentum so far. If healthy he can seriously be a great contender this year considering he already reached the finals last year.  Players don’t want to admit this but the decline of Djokovic form his nearly invincible has already created some opportunities at the top. Raonic must fancy his chances as this is the year of some uncertainty and he his is a major force on grass. Raonic takes himself very seriously and that can only be a good thing on this surface where instinctive play holds the key.

 

Novak Djokovic is a former three time winner of these Championships. The good part is he knows what it takes to lift that trophy on the second Sunday. However the tricky part is he seldom has looked like that guy for quite some time now. The turmoil of his tennis are well known of late. He has brought in another super coach in Andre Agassi and has tinkered his pre Wimbledon schedule this year by accepting a late wildcard in to the Eastbourne event. Ironically his quest will be of a different nature at these championships as he tries to dig deeper than ever to find that missing mojo. His class cannot be questioned, so write him off at your own peril.

There are three others who can go through the draw and become Wimbledon champs. Marin Cilic, Alex Zverev and Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios especially would be a favorite if had maintained health and form he displayed at the Miami Open. Arguably with the best second serve in the game, watch out for him if he clears weak one. Marin Cilic is one of the few players who knows what it takes to win a major and big titles. He is a little under appreciated by the experts in my opinion and is a very legit threat at these Championships especially if we have some upsets in the first week. Last but definitely not the least is the younger Zverev. This is a guy who probably will win contend for many big titles and a deep run is not out of the question for this year as well.

And the Oscar goes to….

by Anand Mamidipudi

The Academy Award for the Best Original Screenplay has been awarded to some of the most distinguished and gifted writers in history. Past winners include titans such as Woody Allen, the Coen brothers and, the youngest winner, Ben Affleck. The clear leader in this year’s race is another titan who, in real time, continues to script one of the most dramatic screenplays we have seen. Continue reading “And the Oscar goes to….”

My clay journey as a fan!

by Saqib Ali

Clay season is upon us and is in full swing. Like most surfaces it presents its unique challenges and the tennis changes on this surface more than any based on the weather conditions. Many consider it the standard test as this surface tests mental and physical endurance of a player. This is where the players seem like gladiators as they slide into points which produce battles of will and attrition. Continue reading “My clay journey as a fan!”

Lazy elegance that is Fabio Fognini!

by Saqib Ali

Fabio unloads his trademark down the line backhand and the crowd erupts on court 1. It is early stages in the second set of his contest against talented Frenchman Jermey Chardy. The conditions are hot with some wind and Fabio does his usual casual stroll. He walk is the very opposite of Agassi’s fast pigeon toe walk. Coach Davin applauds as he is surrounded by a big group of friends in Fabio’s box. There is no one who plays and walks like Fognini, no one! Along with Kyrgios and Safin, he is a player who is writing his tennis chapters in a very different ink. The effortlessness of his ground stokes is a treat to watch and the almost no care attitude is even more intriguing.

I first saw Fognini live seven years ago at the old grandstand in US open vs Fernando Verdasco. I had no idea of his talent as had only read his name on the scoring app and websites. He captivated that crowd with some brilliant shot making as he took a two set lead over then then seeded Verdasco. I did not finish that match as my friends wanted to catch a glimpse of another sublime player David Nalbandian,  whose match had just started on an outside court. We left but took notice of the unique ball striking talent of Fognini. Verdasco came back to win that match in five but Fognini had arrived on our radar. He is temperamental like most gifted players(not all) and has always failed with consistency in results. But even in losses he delights the fans with great stuff. There is never a dull moment in a Fognini match. His between the points strolling is so slow and yet during a point he is so quick on his feet.

If you have not watched Fabio Fognini in person live at a tennis event then please add it to your tennis wish list purely for his  amazingly light footwork. He is as effortless as they come and he is probably top 4 in my opinion in changing the direction of the ball from neutral or difficult positions on the baseline, the other three being Djokovic, Federer and Nishikori. While I followed the Fognini progress on the tour most of the time but even I was not sure if he has another gear in terms of desire to get better. Like most extremely gifted players I thought he was content wiht his game and will not invite change to get better. And dead wrong I was! When the news came out of him bringing Franco Davin as his coach I was pleasantly surprised. I wanted to see how this partnership would shape up. Does Fognini have the commitment to propel  his career to the next level? Going by his results in Miami it sure looks like. These are still early days but Fognini is about to play his first masters 1000 quarterfinals in North America.
I had the opportunity to speak with him during his post-match interview. He was constantly moving there as well and gave some heartfelt answers on his partnership with Davin. He admitted playing Chardy was a very tough win and looked forward to the challenge of playing Donald Young, whom he had not beaten in two attempts he pointed out himself. It will be a very interesting encounter as this match has all the ranking points at stake which may help Fognini to be seeded just in time for the French Open. Nishikori will be the slight favorite when they play their match at Crandon park today, but we know one thing for sure Fognini will not hold back on his free flowing tennis and will give the crowd some magic moments on the way. And grit is something he showed in dispatching his coach’s nation out of Davis cup in February when he came back to beat the Argentine Guido Pella in five sets. Fognini’s talent was always there but a well coached Fognini with determination and desire could be totally something very different!

 

The Tennis Cold War

by Saqib Ali

Tennis’s version of the cold war could be on full display in the ATP next gen battle. As the tour seeks and tries to promote the future of the men’s game, there is more than few American and Russian upstarts. Two of them were on show courts at the Miami open today in Crandon Park.  Francis Tiafoe of USA and Karen Khachanov of Russian Federation . Both men pack a big game and are endorsed by Nike, in fact both wore the same styled apparel today. I guess that’s where the similarities ended, at least for their Miami open fate.

Khachanov was up against Argentine journeyman Diego Schwartzman on the grandstand court. His power off both wings is there for anyone to watch. I must admit he hits the ball harder when viewed in person than on TV and his backhand is a thing of beauty if you treasure the Safin backhand. I have formed this notion about Karen that he plays his tennis in only one gear; basically the fifth gear. His game is about overpowering the opponent with his thundering serves and groundstrokes. Today was no exception as his racquet was doing most of the talking in the deciding set, be it a winner or an error. This is not to short change the effort of Schwartzman who absorbed the Russian’s power and redirected those exchanges with some great angles of his own. He made Khachanov pay for his poor and at times ambitious shot selection. The pro tour is a very unforgiving place once the book is out on how to beat a player. Khachanov plays a lot of big strike tennis with literally no plan B. It is pretty obvious the players know that he will spray his intent with a lot of unforced errors an they patiently wait for that moment or the right ball to punish. That’s what Schwartzman was able to do successfully as he won the decider in the third set tie break. The Argentine will now play David Ferrer in the next round, while Khachanov will work with coach Blanco to figure out the right balance needed to win these matches.

Tiafoe on the contrary played a much composed brand of tennis besides a minor hick up in the second set against the Russian veteran Kravchuk. Tiafoe showed his full range of power tennis and some fine touch at the net during this encounter. This was his second straight win against his opponent in as many weeks, as the pair met in the first round of last week’s Irving challenger. Tiafoe admitted later in his presser that it can be tough playing someone back to back and gave credit to his opponent for the improved fight. It’s still early days on tour for the young American but he seems to have embraced the big stage quite well in his few appearances this year and in particular the battle against Juan Martin Del Porto in Mexico. Coming in as the next gen star carries some pressure but to be one of the brightest hopes for the biggest tennis economy must add more expectations. Young Tiafoe has a date with tennis destiny as he takes on his idol Roger Federer in the next round. He is excited for the matchup to happen but was all praise for the Swiss Maestro. Tiafoe unlike Khachanov has already displayed the ability to adjust during the match if plan A is not firing.

They are both infants in tennis career terms, but if they were to become major rivals one day then this global sport will be the greatest beneficiary. Lets hope we see Karen vs Francis as one of the next big matchups of tennis  in years to come.