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THIEM AND BERTENS TRY TO BE TRUSTED, NOT DUSTED

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

When Catholics are blessed on their foreheads during Ash Wednesday Mass, the priest or liturgical minister now says, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” However, in an older time, the words accompanying the blessing were more severe and dramatic: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” The words are a reminder of our fragility and mortality, meant to instill or maintain humility and a sense of urgency in the community of believers.

Dominic Thiem and Kiki Bertens don’t need Catholicism at the 2018 French Open — they already know they have a lot of work to do and must treat this tournament with the urgency of a career-shaping tournament.

Yes, it’s true that for the 24-year-old Thiem and the 26-year-old Bertens, this is hardly a “last chance gulch” moment. Barring a career-ending injury, these two players should get more legitimately reasonable chances to make a run at Roland Garros. This is not a case of a 29- or 30-year-old player getting the draw of a lifetime and having a golden chance to win an elusive first major. Thiem and Bertens have time to win the French Open. Their problems exist on other surfaces, where they aren’t nearly as comfortable…

… but that is the point: At this stage of their tennis careers, Bertens and Thiem rate as prime threats at Roland Garros, not at the other three majors. This loads a lot of pressure on their shoulders in Paris. It’s a good pressure in the sense that they have high expectations to carry, but it’s a bad pressure in that it can easily weigh them down. Then consider the consequences, especially for Thiem, a 2017 semifinalist: A relatively early loss would leave the 2018 season in tatters. It would create a barren spot in the one place where both Thiem and Bertens expect to load up on rankings points at the majors. They would both head to the grass season out of their element and low on confidence, heading toward a season without the kind of accomplishment they could hang their hats on.

To be clear, it’s not as though Bertens or Thiem have to win Roland Garros to leave Paris feeling satisfied in a few weeks. If Bertens could fight past Simona Halep and make the semifinals, she would rightly feel that she has achieved something substantial. Being able to make a first major final would be a dream come true. Winning it all? Exponentially more so… but at the very least, Bertens needs to leave France with the concrete realization that she reinforced her status as a formidable clay-court craftswoman. If she can achieve that, she can be at peace with her tournament and her season.

For Thiem, the outlook is similar to Bertens’, but with even more pressure.

Thiem has established a higher standard the past 13 months against Rafael Nadal than anyone else on the ATP Tour. Novak Djokovic has the best chance of standing in Rafa’s way in a five-set match, but in terms of observed results since early May of last year, Thiem is the man who has thwarted Nadal on red dirt in Europe. He might not be able to stand up to Rafa over five sets this year in Paris — as was the case in last year’s semifinals — but if Thiem gets thrashed in his first major final, he would still leave the City of Light with the knowledge that unless or until Stan Wawrinka can rejuvenate his game, the Austrian is the world’s second-best male clay-courter. Given how frail Thiem is on non-clay surfaces, he badly needs to win the bottom half of the draw and stand against Rafa on Sunday, June 10, even if that match becomes a rout.

Thiem could face a moment of truth in the round of 16 against Kei Nishikori. He sorely needs to avenge the Madrid final if he does indeed face Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals. He could meet Djokovic in the semifinals. If Thiem wins all three of those matches, imagine the sense of affirmation he will feel. If he can’t get past the quarters and poor play holds him back, Thiem will shed a large number of rankings points. He will have no convincing reason to think he can make a charge up the rankings list in the second half of the season. His coaches might find it harder to get through to him, but if this Roland Garros becomes a total bust, Thiem might need to get through to his coaches and impart the idea that he needs to see new people.

Rafael Nadal is playing for an 11th French Open title, so in that sense, he is playing for very high stakes… but if he loses, he still has 10 French Opens. Novak Djokovic has pressure on his back, but his body might not yet be ready to deliver maximum results in five-set matches, and he also has 12 majors to his name. He has a lot at stake, but he also has a lot in his trophy case. If one was to identify a prominent player with a chance to make a Roland Garros final who has no huge titles to his name, Thiem tops the list.

Bertens isn’t a top-10 player — unlike Thiem — and for that reason, the stakes don’t fall as heavily on her back at this event. One might say that Simona Halep is playing for the highest stakes, an argument I wouldn’t spend time confronting. It’s an entirely sensible position. Yet, Halep’s Australian Open final did a lot to support the idea that Roland Garros doesn’t HAVE to be the place where Halep wins her first major. She can realistically win it anywhere. Roland Garros is more likely than Wimbledon, but not necessarily more likely than the two hardcourt majors.

Bertens? She has to make her stand in Paris. Most of her highly-ranked peers on the WTA Tour can win in multiple places, but Bertens doesn’t possess that level of versatility. This is why she and Thiem have the most to win — and lose — in Paris. These are the contestants playing for the highest stakes in France.

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Image taken from Zimbio.com
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ROLAND GARROS WASTES NO TIME CREATING CONTROVERSY

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Well, that didn’t take long.

After an Australian Open in which logistical decisions rightly came under fire, the French Open — before playing a single main-draw point on Sunday — has already stumbled over the rock in the pathway known as tennis scheduling.

To be sure, this is not nearly as severe as the Australian Open women’s final being played outdoors, but it still rates as yet another unforced error by tournament organizers. It might not affect the course of the tournament, but one principle keeps evading the people who schedule (and make other logistical decisions about) tennis tournaments: The players involved might overcome hardships, but whether they do or not, there should be few to no questions about whether a scheduling decision has an impact on an outcome. (more…)

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ROLAND GARROS Q&A

Saqib Ali

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RG QUESTONSJane VoigtMert ErtungaMatt ZemekBriana FoustSusie Reid
Women’s winnerPetra KvitovaSimona HalepElina SvitolinaElina SvitolinaSimona Halep
Women’s FinalistSimona HalepElina SvitolinaSimona HalepKiki BertensElina Svitolina
Men’s WinnerRafael NadalRafael NadalRafael NadalRafael NadalRafael Nadal
Men’s FinalistDominic ThiemDominic ThiemNovak DjokovicDominic ThiemNovak Djokovic
Dark Horse Women’s DrawKiki BertensMarketa VondrousovaAnett KontaveitSerena WilliamsSerena Williams
Dark Horse Men’s DrawNovak DjokovicLeo MayerKei NishikoriKei NishikoriKei Nishikori
Early Seeded Casualty Women’sSloane StephensCaroline GarciaMadison KeysGarbine MuguruzaCoco Vandeweghe
Early Seeded Casualty Men’sJuan Martin Del PotroJohn IsnerKevin AndersonJuan Martin Del PotroStan Wawrinka
Best First week clash women’s draw (Potential)Wozniacki vs CollinsKvitova vs Capede -RoygMuguruza vs KuznetsovaMuguruza vs KuznetsovaCibulkova vs Georges
Best First Week Clash Men’s draw PotentialDjokovic vs Ferrer (Rd 2)Edmund vs De MinaurCoric vs KohlschrieberVerdasco vs NishiokaCoric vs Kohlschreiber
Image taken from Zimbio.com
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ROLAND GARROS MEN’S DRAW: 5 BIG QUESTIONS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Which questions emerged when the draw became reality? Five questions don’t encompass all the intrigues and possibilities of a draw, but they capture the main storylines.

1 – Spanish worker bees or ATP Finals combatants for Djokovic?

Novak Djokovic received as good a draw as he possibly could have hoped for, but now comes the challenge of turning that great draw into a great result. If he is to make the semifinals — where either Dominic Thiem or Alexander Zverev would pose a formidable challenge — Djokovic will likely have to beat at least one of these four players if not two or three:

Roberto Bautista Agut (round 3)

Grigor Dimitrov (round 4)

David Goffin (quarterfinals)

Pablo Carreno Busta (QFs)

Those four players can be neatly segmented into the Spanish worker bees and the two men who played in the ATP Finals title match last November in London. Goffin, when locked in, offers the stiffest challenge on clay, but he is in the other section of this quarter of the draw, so Djokovic might not have to face him by the time he gets that far (assuming he does). Moreover, Goffin has not quite built back the level of form he established last year, before his February 2018 eye injury.

Bautista Agut memorably pushed Djokovic at Roland Garros in 2016, winning set one and taking a 4-2 lead in the fourth before losing in four sets in three hours and 16 minutes. He has struggled recently, but Djokovic has to prove that he is a five-set endurance man once again, and if that match goes deep into a fourth set, RBA will count on his stamina to work in his favor. Djokovic is a clear favorite, but again, he and his body have a lot of work to do. His draw sets up great, but if his stamina is not yet at full capacity, Nole will need to win matches in straight sets to enjoy a smooth tournament. How he fares in a 3.5-hour battle in 2018 is a currently unanswered question. Carreno Busta and Dimitrov aren’t heavyweights, but they are physically fit players. Attrition is what Djokovic has to confront even more than the actual draw.

2 – Can Kei Nishikori become Clay Nishikori at Roland Garros?

The spotlight in the bottom half of the draw most fully falls upon Djokovic, and then Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, but lurking in that half is a man who has played a lot of high-quality clay-court tennis over the course of his career. Kei Nishikori memorably outplayed Rafael Nadal in Madrid a few years ago before his body betrayed him… as it so often has. Nishikori made the Monte Carlo final this year. He knows his way around a clay court. Yet, he has never made a Roland Garros semifinal, let alone a final. Nishikori — it might shock you to know — has not made the semis or better at any of the majors other than the U.S. Open. It is time to shatter that statistic, and with an erratic Thiem and a not-yet-proven Zverev in his half of the draw, why can’t Kei be the one to face Rafael Nadal in the final on Sunday, June 10?

If his body holds up, this is a draw Kei can use to his benefit. Is he ready to step through the portal?

3 – Can a quality clay-court player in Rafa’s half of the draw win a “smaller” Roland Garros title?

Let’s not pretend that Nadal has a tough draw. It’s as smooth a path as he could have wanted. In terms of storylines from Rafa’s half, however, one can find some compelling choices. One is the small cluster of players in Kevin Anderson’s section, which is the other section in Nadal’s quarter.

In that (Anderson) section are Diego Schwartzman, Borna Coric, and Pablo Cuevas. All three men are comfortable playing on clay — two are from South America, where clay tennis is a way of life, and Coric’s game is a highly compatible fit with clay’s point-construction-based dimensions. Yet, none of these men have gotten beyond the third round at Roland Garros. They all have draws which scream “quarterfinals.” One man can lose 2, 2 and 1 to Rafa in the quarterfinals and still be overjoyed with his 2018 Roland Garros. One man would have reason to be moderately satisfied with a fourth-round result. Anyone in this mini-group who fails to make the fourth round would have reason to be very disappointed in his Parisian campaign.

4 – Is Juan Martin del Potro healthy enough to play at a B-plus level on a relatively consistent basis?

If he is, he should make the semifinals unless an in-form Kyle Edmund or (in what would be a surprise) a focused Fabio Fognini are waiting for him in the quarterfinals.

5 – Can Alexander Zverev make short work of his first week?

Of course, everyone wants to know how far Zverev will go in this tournament, specifically if he can get to a major quarterfinal for the first time, but the deeper question people should be focused on is Zverev’s management of his first week. The draw, on paper, has given Zverev a good path. However, he just played three straight weeks of tennis and needs to successfully decompress this week before restarting the engines in Paris. That process of “restarting” might be rough, so Zverev has to handle it well if he is to take a big step forward at the major tournaments.

A second-round matchup with Dusan Lajovic — who beat del Potro in Madrid — could be tricky. Assuming Zverev wins in round one, watch that match against Lajovic. If Zverev can cleanly wipe Lajovic off the court in 85 minutes, it will suggest that he is ready to evolve at this tournament. If he needs 3.5 hours to win that match, he might be depleted when he gets to the third round and could be ripe for another early exit.

Roger Federer set the standard on this score: Win easily in week one of a major to set up a push in week two, when the competition gets tougher. If Zverev wants to oppose Rafa in the final, he very likely needs a smooth flight in the first week, regathering his energies for the second week…

… assuming he gets there, which is not a safe assumption to make, given his history at the majors.

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Image taken from Zimbio.com

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