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THE ZEN OF ZVEREV: SASCHA STAYS IN THE MOMENT

Saqib Ali

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Jane Voigt

If you were standing close to Alexander Zverev after he won yet another five-set match at Roland Garros on Friday, you might have heard a sigh of relief. He had escaped a match point and, probably more important to the German, another round with reporters who could have pummeled him with questions.

“Why do you think you can’t make it at Grand Slams?”

“When do you think you’ll win one?”

But the second seed won’t face that nightmare, at least for another day. He escaped by defeating a ready, willing and able Damir Dzumhur, 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6(3), 7-5. The speedy native of Sarajevo and No. 26 seed showed Zverev that he has to continue to improve in order to come closer to his dream: a Grand Slam title.

“He (Dzumhur) is a tough opponent and one of the biggest competitors that we have,” Zverev told the press. “I was not surprised. Not surprised at all.”

The win is a mini-achievement for Zverev. For the second time in his short career he has advanced to the fourth round at a major. His first foray to this critical juncture in a 128-player draw was last year at Wimbledon.

“He should be proud of himself after coming back from another five-setter,” James Blake said, calling the match for Tennis Channel.

Pride is okay for a moment, then it has to be set aside. More hard work is needed from Zverev. His net game was a glaring weakness on Friday: 27-64. He donated the one match point to Dzumhur on a missed net shot. Zverev erased it with a big serve, his ultimate weapon. Yet his winners and unforced errors equaled those from Dzumhur: 59 and 51.

So should we expect the 21-year-old to bust through the draw now because fans, and the press, won’t be satisfied with a fourth-round exit? Is this where the pressure mounts for Zverev? Or is he on the right route?

Roger Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam champion, was nearly Zverev’s age when he advanced to a quarterfinal at a major for the first time. That was 2001. Federer defeated reigning Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras in five sets to then lost to Tim Henman in the quarterfinals. Two years later Roger won his first major title at The All England Club. He defeated Mark Philippoussis in straight sets in the final. Seven years beyond that benchmark, in 2010, Federer had 16 Grand Slam titles. But it didn’t matter how many he had in the first round of Wimbledon that year. Alejandro Falla took Federer to the brink of elimination. Down two sets, Federer mounted a comeback of comebacks, telling fans he was a little bit lucky to have won. Then, he lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.

There are ups and there are downs. The trajectory does not climb steadily upward.

Federer has lost twice to Zverev, who is 16 years younger. He believes Zverev will be a “major threat to the game’s elite for years to come,” Reuters reported.

“‘I like what I’m seeing in Sascha,” Federer said, after a round-robin win against him at the ATP Tour Finals last fall. “‘I see somebody who is working toward the future. I feel like he’s working toward how he could be playing when he’s 23, 24, in terms of fitness, planning, organization, all these things.”

“‘What I like about Zverev is he’s got the full package,” Federer said, when comparing him to contemporaries Nick Kyrgios and Denis Shapovalov.

Full package is quite a compliment coming from Federer, who many believe is the greatest player of all time. But the anointment doesn’t preclude struggles. Zverev’s struggle against Dzumhur made clear that he can overcome a gray day, damp conditions, and a game opponent when he keeps plodding forward while balancing all the elements a champion needs to cultivate.

“‘He’s still very young, still up-and-coming to some extent,” Federer said, after losing to Zverev in the final of the Rogers Cup last summer in Montreal, tennis.com reported. “I just think it’s important to sometimes take a step back and actually see the good things you’ve done, give yourself time, maybe set the bar a bit lower. First let’s many try to look for a quarters or a semifinal, not just right away think coming to the Australian Open, U.S. Open, and I have to win this thing.’”

It seems that Zverev has adopted the Federer Zen method, where staying in the moment and planning your next steps is the best way to Grand Slam history.

“When you’re down match point, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, how am I going to turn this match around?’” Zverev told the press, when asked about inner battles. “I’m trying to win each point. I’m trying to win matches. If it takes me three sets, great. If it takes me five sets, that’s also great. It doesn’t matter how much time I’ll spend on court. It doesn’t matter if it goes 9-7 in the fifth.”

What matters to Zverev?  He advanced to the next round.

“I’m going to play in two days and that’s it,” he added. “There is nothing more to it.”

“I have the feeling that he may have set too high goals for himself, which is good and important,” Federer told the Noz, a German publication.

But just because Zverev has won three Masters titles doesn’t mean a major is next.

“This is the logical process in the mind,” Federer added. “But if you’re thinking of the semifinals or finals but you’re still in the second round at break and at break point, then it’s hard to play normally.”

Federer went through phases. So will Zverev. And yes, he is better equipped going into next week at this French Open. Why? Because he won two five-setters and because he won, period. Confidence and trust in his game increased on Friday.

“I remember my first-ever Grand Slam major match was against Gabashvili, and it was 9-7 in the fifth,” Zverev said. “To start your Grand Slam career like that was awesome and then win my first match on center court (at Roland Garros) 7-5 in the fifth … there’s no better way.”

Make no mistake, though. The round of 16 is a different set of circumstances. That Zverev has won two five-set matches against players ranked 29 (Dzumhur) and 60 (Dusan Lajovic) won’t deter the level of competition coming his way next week. Those guys — Kei Nishikori, Dominic Thiem, and, perhaps, Karen Khachanov — don’t care about the struggle. They don’t care about the fact that Zverev has a 32-8 match record, that he’s seeded number two, that he has beaten Federer a couple times and listens to his advice. So as much as the in-the-moment plan is a good one, Zverev’s game has to be revved from the start and keep improving until he faces the exit door.

Image source -John Anthony/ISPA/Tennisclix

 

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RG18

NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.

At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)

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RG18

WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.

“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.

Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.

Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.

We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.

Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.

The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.

More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.

Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.

Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.

2018 Roland Garros - 24 May

Both Images taken from – Jimmie 48

Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.

In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.

The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.

The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.

In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.

We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.

 

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RG18

Testigos de la grandeza

Saqib Ali

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Briana Foust

Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.

Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)

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