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 Serve and volley has been replaced by attacking baseline exchanges.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.

Back to the future

by Anand Mamidipudi

If you are the sort of person that is nostalgic about those epic matches between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, then we have good news for you. Yes, we managed to sneak in the word “epic” into the previous sentence because Federer merely led Roddick 21-3 in their rivalry! But there is hope for the A-Rod fans coming from the next generation.Yesterday Jack Sock, of Lincoln, Nebraska, born not far from the birthplace of the great Andy Roddick, defeated Grigor Dimitrov, the Roger clone also fondly known as “Baby Fed” to many fans who just can’t seem to have enough with one Federer in their universe.

Sock relies on a big serve, a whiplash forehand, a prayer of a backhand and oodles of gumption to compete against some of the top players in the world. If this all sounds very familiar to Roddick fans, then they would have been terrified by the sight of his opponent, Dimitrov, who plays with balletic grace, oozes creativity and flashes a single-hander like he was the second coming of Zorro. The difference, then, is that Grigor, while not quite an impostor, is not touched by genius like his idol, Roger. On the other hand, Sock is a reasonable facsimile of his Nebraskan predecessor, with a lesser serve, but a more devastating forehand.

Mentally, Sock and Dimitrov are poles apart. Sock is making a career out of nerveless comebacks (a case in point would be his win against Cilic in Davis Cup), while Dimitrov’s creativity extends to finding new ways to lose. This factor evens out an obvious gap in talent and Sock now leads their head-to-head 3-1, the last two on hard courts being epics (that word again) that would sit comfortably alongside the greatest hard court matches if these two ever progress to the next level and win a few slams.

Yesterday, they met for the fourth time in their budding rivalry and played their best match. Grigor made a statement with his pristine shot-making to take the first set 6-3. Sock was looking flat as a noodle. Then the young American pulled up his socks and began to show why his bazooka forehand is so feared in men’s tennis. Sock won the second set and seemingly had the momentum when Dimitrov stepped it up another notch to lead 3-0 in the third set.

In the past decade, Andy Roddick fans would be shaking their heads and heading for the exits when Roger found that imaginary sixth gear. Luckily, we’re talking Sock-Dimitrov here. Two simultaneous switches turned on and off as Sock hit his way back into the match while Dimitrov took a mid-deciding set siesta. Dimitrov woke up just in time to suddenly hold three match points on Sock’s serve at 5-4, 0-40. Surely there was no Houdini act coming from the young American this time. Wrong. Sock hit three of his specialty forehands to pull himself even at 5-5. Atlanta Falcons fans know the moment when the tide changes. This was that moment in the match. In the tie-break, Grigor fought hard and even held a match point at 7-6. But sport’s cruel karma always rewards the guy that really wants to win and not the one who is trying not to lose.

Roddick fans will remind you that Andy had the last laugh against Federer, defeating him in the Miami Masters in three sets. Yesterday, Sock beat Dimitrov, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7).

 

 

No Country for Young Men

By Anand Mamidipudi

This is the tale of two Aussies. They play tennis. Sometimes. At other times, they play mind tricks. They mess with our fragile loyalty, with their own immense potential, with tradition, with how things are meant to be in our world of warped justice.

This is the tale of two Aussies. They are prodigies. They are temperamental. They are gifted. They don’t give a shit really. They are ultimately two mates who have so much in common except their fates. This is the tale of Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios, one destined to be a glorious chump, the other marked for greatness. The fact is, we will never know which one is which, because just as they beguile your senses with their ethereal brilliance, they will also befuddle you with their indifference.

Tomic’s father, John, is from Croatia, the land of the famously moody Goran Ivanisevic. He brought Bernie to the shores of Australia at the tiny age of 3. He put a racket in the hands of his little boy and bade him to play with the heart of Hewitt, the mind of Sampras, the range of Federer and the power of Ivanisevic. John didn’t just tell Bernie this, he seared it into his mind with a rod dipped in hot lava. Bernie did not have a normal childhood (who does?) because of his Dad but he also did not have normal results. Bernie, with his young Cadillac smooth groundstrokes, began to destroy every opponent and won two junior Slams and three Orange Bowls before he turned 18. At 19, he was the youngest quarter-finalist at Wimbledon since Boris Becker. Legends of the sport went into raptures describing the potential of young Tomic.

Kyrgios’ father, Giorgos, is from Greece and his mother, Norlailla, is from Malaysia. Together these immigrants concocted the perfect tennis talent in Nick. Young Nick reluctantly picked tennis over his first love, basketball, and soon began to boss over all other boys in his age group. As he trampled upon the field at the junior Australian Open, the world gushed about his transcendental talent. It was like watching a sneak preview of the next great player in tennis, one who would vanquish all comers, who would change the way the sport is played.

This is the tale of Bernie and Nick, two meteors shooting through the midnight sky, while the world gawps at their brilliance and yet wonders whether they will crash and burn. This is their gift and their curse. They have been picked to succeed and still presumed to fail. The truth is, they have done neither, and in all likelihood will turn out to be heroes in the end.

In the tennis world of the Big Four, and the next gen comprising of the likes of Zverev, Coric, Chung and Fritz, nobody confounds our senses like Bernie and Nick. After a decade of being pampered by the likes of Roger, Rafa, Djokovic and Murray, we’re anxious about whether such riches will be found in this sport ever again. When we watch Bernie and Nick, our hopes are raised in a vacuum, because we see in their games the sort of generational talent that draw legions of fans. None of that hope has transpired into reality yet because we have come to realize that their outrageous talent is couched in rebellion, like it has with many players past.

Tomic, gifted with arguably the greatest ball sense of any player in his generation, is also the more flawed and vulnerable player of these two. His testy relationship with his father and rejection of mainstream coaching comes in the way of realizing his full potential. In pure tennis terms, he is a limited mover, and his fitness and shot selection are questionable. Most importantly, he periodically checks out of important matches and consistently seems to lack the singular ambition and drive that defines great champions. While he is young, and can hold his own against anyone not in the big 4, there’s an increasing sense that he has peaked already because he won’t will himself to greater summits.

On the other hand, young Kyrgios is only just starting out. At 21, he has already beaten three of the greatest players of all time and has broken into the top 20. His win against Djokovic this week was a belligerent war cry that resonated across the tennis world. The challenge for Nick is to find a way to channel his limitless potential into consistent results (he lost to journeyman Sam Querrey in the next round). Tennis has seen many such volatile talents like Nastase, McEnroe, Safin and Agassi. They all succeeded because they ultimately found out that the elixir of success was only available to those who cared about winning and worked hard for it. Nick beginning his journey of self-discovery. In rallying with Djokovic from the baseline, Nick displayed hitherto unseen patience in waiting for the right moment to take over the match. Notably he won the longest point of the match when the mighty Djokovic lost concentration before Nick did.

Nick’s shot-making talent rivals some of the all-time greats and his full arsenal, including what could become one of the greatest serves in history, was on display against Djokovic. The match revealed to all why we have judged Nick harshly, for he is only 21, an age at which Roger Federer was still getting his feet wet. Nick is already well-positioned to use his effortless power to make deep runs at the big tournaments. On the other side, Bernie’s main challenge would be to take the sport seriously enough to work on his shortcomings  like a weak second serve and inferior movement at this level. Winning a slam is not beyond Bernie after the Big 4 finally retire into the sunset.

What is really at contention is the attitude of both players. They have exhibited poor judgment in their words, belittled their sport, tanked matches, made crude gestures. In short, they have behaved like immature teenage brats in their short careers. Whether this is a growing up phase – in Bernie’s case all the more complicated by a father who behaves even worse than he – or simply the attributes that hold them back from greatness remains to be seen. The media scrutiny and more vociferous global fan base will not help. It is a fascinating study of how two young players from immigrant families tease and torment both with their games and personalities. Tennis has never lacked out-sized egos. In an interview on Tennis with an Accent, two-time Australian Open champion Johan Kriek said, “there wasn’t a football stadium big enough to hold the egos of” the likes of McEnroe and Connors. Still one could see how these enormous egos contributed to extraordinary results.

This is the tale of two young gladiators, Nick and Bernie, unfolding in front of a global audience. Will they harness their otherworldly talents and rule the sport or will they simply wither away into oblivion as wasted talents? This is the tale that is looking for an ending and there might be more than one in the coming years.

The tour this week!

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.