Federer, Bouchard to hit Hopman Cup

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There’s still a long way to go in the 2017 season.

But let’s talk about the start of 2018 already, shall we?

One of the first events of the year is the Hopman Cup exhibition, a long-standing event held on the west coast of Australia in Perth.

This year’s dates are Dec. 30, 2017 to Jan. 6, 2018. There’s usually a rocking New Year’s Eve party involved, too.

The biggest thing about the 2017 edition was that it was where Roger Federer began his comeback, after six months away. 

It was a perfect choice – matches against quality opposition, but with no pressure, to gauge his form. It worked out well for him a few weeks later in Melbourne at the Australian Open.

The good news in Perth this year, as the event announced the field on Wednesday, is that Federer is back.

That was actually the event’s first official announcement, all the way back in June. And it’s a major coup with no less than three ATP Tour events – Brisbane, Doha and the Maharashtra Open in Pune, India (formerly the Chennai tournament) no doubt vying for Federer’s $ervices.

Joining Federer on Team Switzerland will be Belinda Bencic, the 20-year-old who has had injury issues of her own. So this time, it will be her comeback.

Bencic has won just one match all year on the WTA Tour. And she was sidelinedwith a wrist injury from early May, until her return at an ITF event last week.

Federer did have an epic – a 7-6 (1) 6-7 (4) 7-6 (4) loss to his occasional practice partner Alexander Zverev.

But Switzerland didn’t actually win; France (Richard Gasquet and Kristina Mladenovic) defeated them in the round-robin portion and won the whole thing.

France isn’t among the eight teams for 2018. Neither are Great Britain, the Czech Republic or Spain – all of which took part in 2017.

Joining Federer and Bencic will be Zverev and Angelique Kerber for Team Germany.

Zverev played with Andrea Petkovic last year; this will be Kerber’s first appearance in Australia.

As well, Canadians Vasek Pospisil and Genie Bouchard will team up. Bouchard played with countryman Milos Raonic back in early 2014 – shortly before Bouchard’s big breakout result at the Australian Open.

Bouchard teamed up with Pospisil the following year in 2015. She defeated Serena Wiliams there, and then reached the Australian Open quarterfinals a few weeks later.

Russia’s Karen Khachanov will team up with Svetlana Kuznetsova.

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Bouchard and Pospisil faced Serena WIlliams and John Isner at the Hopman Cup three years ago.

For Australia, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Daria Gavrilova will represent.

David Goffin and Elise Mertens will play for Belgium

For the USA, Jack Sock and Coco Vandeweghe will fly the flag.

And, last but not least, Naomi Osaka and Yuichi Sugita of Japan fill out the field.

Switzerland, USA, Russia and Japan will be in Group B. Canada, Germany, Australia and Belgium will be in Group A, for round-robin purposes. They’ve already made the schedule, so fans can pick and choose what matchups they want to see well in advance.

Canada plays during the Sunday, Wednesday and Friday day sessions.  Federer will play Saturday (vs. Japan), Tuesday (vs. Russia) and Thursday (vs. the USA) evenings. 

That means Nick Kyrgios, the top Aussie, won’t be there.

But it’s a pretty interesting field nonetheless, with plenty of high-profile players on both sides.

The format is two singles, and then mixed doubles. Last year, they used the “Fast Four” format for the mixed.

The Laver Cup: overall, a great debut

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Pretty much everything Roger Federer touches turns to gold.

So why anyone would have any doubt that the first edition of the Laver Cup would be anything but a smash?

It was, on every level, a huge success. Sellout crowds, high-quality tennis, plenty of drama and emotion, a bulletproof format … and Roger and Rafa.

It was a such a perfect storm that even the absence of many top players turned out to be a plus.

Team World (Team America, really) ended up a young squad of millennials – both real and throwback. They decided to have their own private party in front of 14,000 people inside the O2 Arena, and millions more around the world.

“They had the better chants and the better moves, but in the end, Team Europe got it done,” said Laver Cup maestro Roger Federer, who pretty much notices everything and has a uniquely passive-aggressive way of letting you know.

Team World wins the “Team Fun” award

inauguralOutmatched on the court for the most part, Team World won the fun contest

The contrast between Team World and Team Europe couldn’t have been more stark.

Obviously most of the older players were on Team Europe. At times during the weekend you almost got the sense they were exchanging stock tips while Team World recreated The Floor is Lava, this summer’s trending challenge on YouTube.

Just keeping track of Frances Tiafoe’s ever-changing head gear was a trending challenge in itself. Veterans John Isner and Sam Querrey were young again. And green rookie Denis Shapovalov got more corrupted by the day. He may never be the same.

But by the very end, the last 20 minutes of the Roger Federer match, Team World stepped it up – led by an emotional and demonstrative Rafael Nadal.

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Yes, Nadal actually did this in the heat of the Sunday drama. He got a little excited.

Superb staging

The “black” court turned out to play dark gray on television. And it immediately became a visual that will always be associated exclusively with the Laver Cup. 

The ball stood out on the stark backdrop for television viewers. But the blue and red lighting around the court and in the stands prevented it from being too drab.

As well, the stark white of the high-end sponsors also stood out. Don’t think that wasn’t a huge factor as well.

They really did think of everything. One complaint fans often have when watching tennis on television is that the radar gun that measures the serves is hard to find, and often hard to see. In this setup, the numbers were big and bright and always easy to find.

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The stage where the rest of the teammates cheered was also perfectly set up. The fans could access both teams during changeovers (and even during the matches) for autographs. But if the players wanted to leave the court – especially the losers – they could do so in a straight line towards the locker room. If they didn’t want to deal with the autograph seekers, they didn’t have to.

At the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore and to a large extent at the ATP Tour Finals in London, the fans are often in the dark as the court is lit up. It makes for a bit of an isolated atmosphere although it does hide any empty seats. At the Laver Cup, the stands were lit in a way that fit in perfectly with the court. But it also allowed you to see the fans.

It was pitch-perfect. It almost didn’t even look real.

inaugural

 

Next-Gen graphics, camera angles

A company based in Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles called Girraphic was the mastermind behind the graphics, which were unlike most of what you see all season long.

They were spectacular, especially the ones superimposed on the net. 

Great variety of camera angles

The camera angles were also varied. The baseline cam (affectionately referred to as the “butt cam” because they often close in on the derrière of the player returning serve) has been used before. But rarely this often.

They also had an improved version of the net cam; Bob Feller, the legendary ESPN tennis producer, says, “stay tuned”.

Federer annihilated it at one stage, which was amusing. They had a fish-eye lens at the net that showed the entire court in a new way. There were slow-motion replays of emotional moments and Team Fun routines. It was frantic, but it didn’t feel that way.

Having the coaches on court – and the players playing coaches as well – made for far more interesting cutaways than you’ll see at a regular tournament. There, the endless go-tos are countless shots of Mirka Federer biting her lip, or Jelena Djokovic looking like she might lose her stuff at any moment, get old quickly.

They had to dim the microphones at times, given some of the cussing by Team World. (There were no such issues for Team Europe; captain Bjorn Borg said more during his trophy ceremony speech than he said on court for three days).

Trying too hard

For whatever reason, the braintrust behind the Laver Cup decided that the word “exhibition” was a bad word.

It was clear that a talking point went out to everyone to emphasize that it wasn’t an exhibition. That it didn’t feel like an exhibition. And that it meant something to these guys. They were devoted in their dedication to bringing home the Laver cup to their (country? continent? world section?). And that it meant the world to them.

The thing is, why is the word “exhibition” by definition a bad word?

That’s exactly what this was. Perhaps out of this, a new category somewhere between tournament and exhibition called “special event” may be created.

But they tried so hard. Way too hard.

It’s worth remembering that every single person trying to convince you the Laver Cup “wasn’t an exhibition” had a financial stake in the event. The players received a ton of money up front (and an additional $250,000 each for winning). Federer’s management company, Team 8, for which he is the biggest earner, made a major investment.

Everyone from the chair umpire to the all-star cast of commentators and analysts took home a nice additional paycheque for their participation. It was to the point where the commentators were making excuses for some salty language on Team World’s side with platitudes like “It just absolutely shows how much these guys want to win for Europe and the world.”

Actually, it just showed that they use profanity. As many of us do on a tennis court. As they do during the regular Tour events as well. But they’re not used to being amongst a gaggle of buddies on a tennis court with the microphones on.

Giving the players (and captain) such a pass would only happen in an exhibition. In many ways, the vibe on that level was much as it was for that first, money-heavy season of IPTL. Which was, of course, much derided as “merely an exhibition.”

Format on point

The very nature of the team format was going to make for great competition.

In a standard exhibition, where two top players fly in and out of a city for a one-nighter, they’re playing for themselves and the crowd. 

Regardless of the circumstances, if you play against two of the greatest of all time, you’re going to go all out. And if you are one of the greatest of all time, you didn’t get there by not taking it seriously every time you step on the court.

The place was packed. Everyone had fun. Everyone came out a winner. The fans loved it. Everyone made lots of money.

There is no downside, and little need to preach semantics.

The stated intention to honour the champions of the past in naming the event after Rod Laver, and having Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as captains (neatly dovetailing with the opening of the movie based on their rivalry) put a nice, sincere veneer on what is very much a money-making enterprise.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

What’s ahead

The pitch-perfect execution of the inaugural edition is a double-edged sword, in a sense.

Not that this is a bad problem to have.

But it’s going to be awfully hard to duplicate – for so many reasons.

First of all, the event is going to move around. Next year, at the same time, it will take place at the United Center in Chicago.

We know this, because the Laver Cup already had a video message ready from the mayor of the city, and they had a press conference in Chicago just after noon.

The well-heeled crowd in Prague was enthusiastic but extremely civilized. It was only in the waning moments that they began to do those things the diehard fans hate, like cheering for missed first serves.

The crowd in Chicago will be quite different.

The makeup of “Team World” also will be quite different.

What a perfect world it would be if this year’s cast were playing “at home” in Chicago. Their act would play even better. And imagine, conversely, that players such as Nishikori, Murray, Raonic, Anderson and del Potro had been on “Team World” instead of Shapovalov, Kyrgios, Tiafoe, Isner and Sock.

Team Fun probably a one-off

The atmosphere would have been completely different – not nearly as lively. And John McEnroe, as captain, wouldn’t have had nearly the same positive impact. That’s going to be impossible to recreate next year.

What if, next year, Federer and Nadal aren’t blessed with the same health and good form they’ve enjoyed this year, their renaissance year? It’s inarguable that these two are definitely on a year-to-year basis, at this stage.

Without them, it’s not the same event. It’s arguably barely a top-flight event, despite the illustrious resumés of the other player options. In the special-event solar system, star power counts exponentially.

It’s also worth noting here that Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori had not committed to the Laver Cup before their injury woes. Will that change now that they’ve seen it work so amazingly well? It might. It might not.

Federer and Nadal transcend borders. The others, not nearly to the same extent. You know Federer is committed as long as he’s healthy, given his business ties. Countryman Stan Wawrinka likely would do him a solid. But did Nadal just do a one-off favour for his frenemy? We’ll find out.

They should also consider shortening the time between matches. It could run a half hour or more. We realize the need to sell merchandise and adult beverages. But with only one match to talk about, the commentators had a tough time filling. And it’s easy to lose your audience these days.

Collateral effects

Overtly or not, this event has been positioned as a potential alternative format to the century-old Davis Cup competition. That’s partly because of the weekend team format. And it’s also because of the fact that Nadal and Federer played it while skipping representing their country this year.

No doubt there are plenty of secret board meetings over at ITF headquarters. And the drama is made even more real by the fact that the USTA and Tennis Australia – two federations that run Grand Slam tournaments under the ITF umbrella – are involved in a major way. At the very least, the huge money the players were paid just to show up dwarfs the relative pittance they earn for representing their country – with far fewer weeks’ commitment.

But the effects go beyond that, right to the heart of the Tour that made all these players rich and famous.

There were two 250-level ATP Tour events the week of the Laver Cup – Metz and St. Petersburg, Russia. There are two 250-level events in faraway China this week that brush up against the end of the event, Shenzhen and Chengdu.

Stars needed at the 250s

It’s no secret that the 250-level tournaments are struggling to varying degrees. The only way they can make a good go of it is if they can attract a big name to play in the event. That draws the fans; more crucially, it also draws corporate sponsorship.

Metz and St. Petersburg were out of luck. (There was a story reporting that Djokovic had committed to the St. Petersburg tournament before he shut down his season). Tomas Berdych, who would have been the No. 3 seed in Shenzhen, pulled out before the event began. (Why he even entered it, knowing as far back as February when he was doing Laver Cup promotion in Prague with Federer that he’d likely play, is a question for him).

Shapovalov had committed to a big Challenger in Orléans this week. With his subsequent rise, he obviously was a big drawing card. He pulled out late in the game.

Tiafoe also withdrew from Shenzhen. He’s a crowd-pleaser. But it also cost him a chance to earn some ranking points which, at this stage of his career, he still needs. Denis Shapovalov had committed to a big Challenger in France this week. He only played on the Laver Cup’s opening day; he pulled out of Orléans that very day. That’s late in the game.

Tired, jet-lagged top seeds

Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, the No. 1 seeds in Shenzhen and Chengdu, respectively, remain on board so far. But they’ll arrive in Asia very late, after a very long trip. And they’ve both signed on for doubles, as well.

Alexander Zverev is the top seed in Shenzhen this week, and was likely well-paid for it. He’ll arrive pretty drained, and jet-lagged, with little rest of prep time to face Steve Darcis in the second round.

They’ll be jet-lagged – and perhaps even a little hungover from the post-victory celebrations. They won’t have given themselves the best chance to win. That does them a disservice. And it also hurts the tournaments that no doubt paid them handsome appearance fees, as top-10 players, to show up.

And who knows if any other Laver Cup participants might have considered playing?

In the end, the Laver Cup seems to be here to stay. As well it should; it was all kinds of fun and, no doubt, quite profitable for all.

It’s only an exhibition. But it combines the best elements of everything tennis has to offer right now. It needs to stay.

What remains to be worked out is how it best can fit into the overall tennis landscape. Because it needs to fit. The alphabet soup of competing tennis factions all need to figure out a way to make that happen.

(All screenshots used for this post came from the Laver Cup’s livestream)

ATP Tour Rankings Report – Aug. 14, 2017

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Well, it’s done. 

With Andy Murray’s absence in Cincinnati, and Roger Federer’s withdrawal, Rafael Nadal will become No. 1 in the world next Monday, no matter what he does this week in Cincinnati.

It will be the first time the Mallorcan has earned the top spot since 2014. No doubt he wondered often if he would ever get there again.

Nadal can also put some distance between himself and the other two, with a good run in Cincinnati. He is defending only 90 points. And the field is, let’s face it, pretty decimated.

He is the only top-6 player in the draw.

In other moves, Coupe Rogers champion Alexander Zverev takes over the No. 7 spot, bumping Dominic Thiem to No. 8.

On the Upswing:

rankingsKevin Anderson (RSA): No. 32 ————–> No. 27 (back to being seeded  at the US Open, where he belongs).

Robin Haase (NED): No. 52 ————–> No. 35 (Haase’s first career Masters 1000 semifinal has his ranking the highest it’s been since he hit his career high of No. 33 five years ago. Doesn’t seem as though he’s been better than that, somehow?)

Adrian Mannarino (FRA): No. 42 ————–> No. 36

Hyeon Chung (KOR): No. 56 ————–> No. 49 (career high for the 21-year-old)

Yen-Hsun Lu (TPE): No. 70 ————–> No. 61 (The 34-year-old seems quite content to win Challengers in Asia to keep his ranking in sight. It’s his second in two weeks, and the best player he had to beat was ranked No. 124. He makes a lot off the court, as the best male player out of Taipei)

Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA): No. 69 ————–> No. 63 (a singles career high for the 26-year-old “doubles specialist”. Right?)

Denis Shapovalov (CAN): No. 143 ————–> No. 67 (The Canadian teenager had a breakthrough week in Montreal. He’s the only 18-year-old in the top 100).

Dudi Sela (ISR): No. 77 ————–> No. 70 (Top seed at the Vancouver Challenger this week)

Guido Pella (ARG): No. 92 ————–> No. 75 (Pella won the Claro Open Challenger in Colombia)

Sergiy Stakhovsky (UKR): No. 115 ————–> No. 99 (Back in the top 100 after winning the Slovenia Open Challenger).

Alexander Bublik  (KAZ): No. 125 ————–> No. 104 (The funky 20-year-old hits a career high after winning the Aptos Challenger in California)

Taylor Fritz (USA): No. 131 ————–> No. 120

Ricardas Berankis (LTU): No. 196 ————–> No. 165 (It hasn’t quite worked out for the former top junior. But he’s still battling).

On the Downswing:

Ivo Karlovicrankings (CRO): No. 34 ————–> No. 44

Janko Tipsarevic (SRB): No. 58 ————–> No. 69 (caught a break when Kei Nishikori pulled out of Cincinnat, with a bye into the second round of the main draw)

Dusan Lajovic (SRB): No. 68 ————–> No. 82

Daniel Evans (GBR): No. 65 ————–> No. 86 (Suspended, this is only going to go in one direction)

Nicolas Almagro (ESP): No. 81 ————–> No. 91 (Playing a Challenger in the Dominican Republic this week, his first week back since the French Open after knee surgery).

Marcel Granollers (ESP): No. 99 ————–> No. 110 

Road to London

Zverev isn’t just Next-Gen any more. He stands behind only Federer and Nadal in the race to London.

Rankings

Road to Milan

Zverev clinches a spot in the year-end Next-Gen finals. But will be play? Meanwhile, Shapovalov No. 4 with a bullet.

rankings

(For the complete ATP Tour rankings picture, click here).

Zverev both present AND future as he wins Montreal

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Alexander Zverev, all of 20, leads the pack of future ATP Tour stars known and heavily marketed as the “Next-Gen”.

But the way he’s playing this season, he’s hardly “next”.

He’s here.

The German impressively took care of a sub-par Roger Federer in the Rogers Cup final Sunday. It was an emphatic 6-3, 6-4 victory that may well have been his, even if his 36-year-old opponent had been at 100 per cent.

Since saving match points against Richard Gasquet in his first match in Montreal (one involved a 49-shot rally), Zverev was the form player of the tournament. He punctuated that form Saturday night when he straight-setted 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov.

Shapovalov had been enjoying a life- and career-changing week. He upset Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal back-to-back on his way to the semis. In that sense, the younger player definitely lent a helping hand to his fellow Next-Gener by eliminating two major challenges for him.

But that’s tennis.

“(Saturday) I played someone who is two years younger. I haven’t done that in my career so far. That was something new for me. Obviously I had nerves today, which I had better under control than yesterday. I thought yesterday was a very tight match. Could have gone both ways. I felt like I didn’t play as well as I did today. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of shots under control,” Zverev said. “When I’m playing really well, when I’m feeling the ball really well, I feel like those nerves go away because I just know what I’m doing. Yesterday obviously I played well, but nowhere near as what I did today.”

Remembering Boris

There were references to another young German prodigy with the milestones Zverev reached Sunday. He became the first German player to win the Rogers Cup since 1986. Boris Becker was 18, a month removed from his second straight Wimbledon title, when he defeated longtime rival Stefan Edberg in the final in Toronto.

Zverev also is the first German player to win five titles in a season on the ATP Tour since Becker did it in 1996.

He is the youngest player to win the Rogers Cup since a 20-year-old Novak Djokovic (with his May birthday, he was a month younger than Zverev is today) won in Montreal.

Djokovic pulled off the rare trifecta; he defeated No. 3 Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals. And then he defeated No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the semis. In the final, he beat No. 1 Federer in a third-set tiebreak, on a windy day much like Sunday.

Zverev
Federer joked during the trophy ceremony he needed to ask Zverev how he won Montreal: Federer has yet to win at a tournament he really likes. So much for naming it after him. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

Zverev did observe, as some did, that Federer’s physical form went way off early in the second set. The velocity on his serve dropped. And even his serve motion changed. By the end, he wasn’t crouching down in his typical serve return position, but almost standing straight up.

(Federer addressed that in his press conference. He’s going to take a few days before deciding whether to play Cincinnati next week).

“Obviously I noticed it. At the score of 2-2, I think his first serve got a little bit slower. You got to ask him what happened there. I don’t know. But yeah, I mean, I definitely noticed it,” Zverev said.

New career high

Zverev will leapfrog  over fellow youngster Dominic Thiem into a career-high ranking of No. 7 on Monday.

Between his title in Washington, D.C. a week ago and the Masters 1000 title Sunday, he has put 1,500 points on the board in the race for the ATP Tour finals in London.

As a first-round loser a year ago in Toronto, his net haul is significant.

And in the short-term, he can make even more gains in Cincinnati and then at the US Open. Zverev lost to No. 102 Yuichi Sugita in the first round in Cincinnati a year ago. And then he lost in the second round of the US Open to the currently suspended Dan Evans.

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Federer was full of praise for the youngster, and seemed genuinely happy about his success. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

With Novak Djokovic out for the season and defending Cincy champion Marin Cilic on the shelf, Zverev certainly can aspire to the No. 5 spot by the end of the summer season.

Zverev is in a quarter of the Cincinnati draw with the ailing Milos Raonic, who lost his first match in Montreal. And he’s in the same half with Federer, who may not even play.

“Alexander has been around for a while now. Not a whole long time. But at this level, I’ve gotten to play him already now for the fourth or fifth time, practiced a ton with him. We know each other well. I’m just really happy for him, to see that he’s taking everything not just to the next level, but the two next levels, winning two Masters 1000s,” Federer said. “It’s extremely difficult to win. He’s won two this year. It’s a wonderful achievement for him.

“I wish him the best for the coming months and hope he can finish the season very strong, because there’s opportunities now.”

Federer had Zverev pegged pretty early as one to watch. The notion of longevity and the challenge of playing the kids is important to him. He remembers appreciating the fact that Andre Agassi stayed around long enough so that Federer could face him on multiple occasions.

Also: they make great and (theoretically) tireless practice chum. So he often invites the up-and-comers to train with him at his base in Dubai. 

Nearly 2 1/2 years ago, when Zverev was still just 17, Federer had him out practicing at Indian Wells.

He did it again this year. Same court.

Two year-end finals?

Zverev already has clinched his appearance in the inaugural Next-Gen finals. He is eons ahead of everyone else although Shapovalov, with his effort this week, zoomed up from No. 11 to No. 3 in the race .

As for the regular Tour finals in London, Zverev now is behind only Nadal and Federer, who have already clinched their spots in the final eight.

He said after winning the Masters 1000 in Rome last May that there was no reason for him to choose which final event to play, should it come to that. He could certainly play both.

And the Next-Gen Finals in Milan are an event practically built around the 20-year-old, as the best-known and most-marketable of the new generation of players. So to skip it would not be without its consequences.

But Zverev will have played a lot of tennis by November.

If he began the 2017 season as a lock to be the best amongst the next, he may well end it being amongst the best – period.

Zverev
Zverev to the ballboys: “Hey, guys, get over here for the photo NOW!” He’s just a few years older. (Screenshot: TennisTV.com)

Scratchy Federer reaches Montreal final

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The generally immaculate Roger Federer has looked rather disheveled this week in Montreal.

His game, too, has been somewhat disheveled.

But there he is in the final of the Rogers Cup on Sunday.

He’ll meet No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev, and will try to win the tournament for the first time since 2006 – and the first time ever in Montreal.

His 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory over a surprise semifinalist, his friend and frequent practice partner, Robin Haase, Saturday was relatively stress-free compared to his victories against Spaniards David Ferrer and Roberto Bautista Agut in previous rounds.

Which is not to say it was easy.

Adjusting to the speed

Federer’s ongoing surprise at the speed of the courts may have something to do with his institutional memory of Uniprix Stadium. The stadium court in Montreal has long been considered slower then the courts in Cincinnati next week or at the US Open later this month.

He has attributed that to the fact that it is his first tournament on the hard courts. But that’s been true the other years he has played in Canada first, or in Cincinnati (where he has had far more success).

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Haase and Federer practiced together often this week. But it didn’t really help Haase, who was in his first Masters 1000 semifinal.

But the speed, plus the fact that the balls fly even more during the day sessions he has generally been scheduled for, have motivated him to be ultra-aggressive from the very start of the event. 

It’s been successful for him. But it hasn’t been easy. But against Haase, he served much better than he had earlier in the week.

“It’s been a bit up and down this tournament, the serve. I’ve been serving okay in patches. But that’s not what I like doing. I like to be consistent, then serve clutch when need be. It’s not been really going this way,” he said. “I really hoped before this match that I was going to be better, serve better on the first serve, more accurate, to the lines. Then especially second serve, have a higher, you know, winning percentage on second serves. I excelled today. So that’s great. It’s good confidence going into tomorrow.”

Federer lost just 5-of-30 points on his first serve against Haase. And he lost just 5-of-24 points on his second serve. He faced just two break points. The first-serve rate of 56 per cent wasn’t quite where it should be. As well as Zverev returns, he’ll have to pick that up.

Unshaven, disheveled finalist

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Federer’s not his usual immaculate self. But he has grinded his way to the Rogers Cup final.

The newly 36-year-old has come off the court looking far more the worse for wear – far from his usual dry, well-coiffed, composed self in the on-court interviews post-match.

The whiskers might easily be explained by the fact that his family isn’t with him this week; they’ll join him in Cincinnati.

It’s like a boys’-only bachelor trip to the cottage – except in a five-star hotel. He doesn’t have to worry about his kids going “Papa, your face hurts!” when he kisses them good night.

Federer hasn’t been playing great tennis. But he’s still winning.

“Look, I’m happy. You don’t always have to play your very best to come through. Of course, I’m very happy that I’ve made it here. It was a good decision for me. If I would have known I would have gone to the finals, I would have said ‘yes’ right away. Sometimes you’ve just got to wait and see how you feel,” he said. “I’m happy, most happy that I’m actually really healthy going into the finals. I haven’t wasted too much energy. I’ve been able to keep points short. I’ve been really clean at net. I think my concentration and just my playing has gone up a notch. I’m just playing better. So I’m very excited for the finals tomorrow.”

Federer hasn’t forgotten how to lose – he’s a long way from invincible. But in his appearances in Masters 1000 and Grand Slam tournaments this year, he has been unbeatable. His record in those stands at a gaudy 30-0.

Milestones and top spots

A victory on Sunday, in addition to being his first title in Montreal, would be the 94th of his career. That would tie him with Ivan Lendl for second place in the modern era, behind only the 109 titles of Jimmy Connors.

“I have reached levels that I never thought I would be able to reach, winning so many titles. Each title you can add is like a thrill. I am playing tennis to try to win titles,” Federer said. “I always said that the ranking, if you’re not No. 1 in the world, doesn’t count really. It’s secondary. Now I’m lucky, because both are in sight.”

And it would give him a huge leg up on next week, when the new No. 1 on the ATP Tour is decided.

If he loses, he will be the one chasing Rafael Nadal for the top spot. If he wins, Nadal will be the one doing the chasing, with a steeper hill to climb.

(Screenshots from TennisTV.com)

Video: Guest coach Ferrero gets to work

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Make no mistake, Alexander Zverev remains firmly a family business.

His parents (and the cute doggie) were on hand, as always, Sunday as Alexander Zverev got to work with guest coach Juan Carlos Ferrero.

The 37-year-old former No. 1 and French Open champion joined Team Sasha for the hard-court season. It was definitely an out-of-the-box choice given Ferrero’s clay prowess.

But if you have an opportunity to have a champion whispering in your ear, you take it.

“He surprised me with how strong he is. When you see him on the court, he is very thin. But then I saw him practice, work in the gym. He likes to practice a lot on the court, like four hours today, and then work in the gym,” Ferrero told the ATP Tour website. “I think he’s ready to grow up a little bit and try to improve the things that he has to improve. It’s a good start.”

Ferrero a quiet presence

As is so often the case with the guest “super-coaches”, Ferrero didn’t say all that much although he did contribute more in a late-afternoon practice, when the two sat in side-by-side chairs during water breaks.

He said more than your average super-coach (with the exception of the chatty Boris Becker) tends to say, though.

Ferrero is a six-footer, taller than the average man. It’s amazing how small Zverev makes even tall men look.

Here’s what it looked like.

Zverev adds Ferrero for US summer

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Former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero is a French Open champion. Of his 16 career titles, 13 came on red clay.

And rising star Alexander Zverev has no particular history with Spain. He has spent his life training either in Germany or Florida.

So Ferrer certainly is an out-of-the-box choice to be an added voice for the North American hard-court season.

But the 37-year-old will be by Zverev’s side beginning in 10 days at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C.

Ferrero already is in Saddlebrook, Florida with Zverev, braving the heat and humidity to prepare for the hard-court swing. That will include Masters 1000 tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati after the D.C. event, and will culminate at the US Open.

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Just 17 here, Zverev practices with Roger Federer at Indian Wells in 2015. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Ferrero thrilled with the challenge

(Random fact: Zverev’s older brother Mischa has a 3-1 record against Ferrero).

“Zverev is a different player. He has the makings of a champion,” Ferrero said in a statement through his academy, Equelite. “It’s a challenge that fills me with enthusiasm and desire to do my best.”

The 20-year-old, currently ranked No. 11, originally had been the second-highest ranked player behind Dominic Thiem at the D.C. tournament. But a trio of last-minute wild cards has changed the landscape.

In addition to those two, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov will be in the draw.

The five will be ranked No. 7 through No. 11. And Zverev will end up the No. 5 seed in the tournament. For a 500-level tournament, the trophy suddenly got a lot more challenging.

Add him to the super-coach ranks

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Back in 2008, Ferrero sported a mullet. It was an unfortunate time. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Ferrero works with players through his academy. But he has not been active out on the coaching circuit since his retirement in 2012.  

Despite his resumé, he seems to get overlooked among all the Spanish champions. There could well be internal, political reasons for that. Or perhaps Ferrero just goes about his business quietly, and he’s not willing to play the game.

When Carlos Moyá stepped down as Spanish Davis Cup captain in 2014, Ferrero seemed the front-runner to replace him.

Instead, the Spanish federation made an ill-advised decision to name former player Gala León Garcia. Garcia had few relationships with anyone on the Davis Cup team. And she didn’t even have all that lustrous a resumé as a player on the WTA Tour. But after that experiment went sour, they didn’t choose Ferrero. They nominated Conchita Martinez.

Ferrero was an integral part of Spain’s 2009 Davis Cup squad. He won the fifth and deciding rubber against Germany in the quarterfinals. But when Rafael Nadal returned to play in the final, Ferrero was not even selected to the squad. Even worse, he wasn’t included in the presentation ceremony after Spain won its second consecutive Davis Cup.

Federer teaches master class to Zverev

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Credit to the kid, Alexander Zverev.

He took the beatdown in the Halle finale with future champion’s aplomb, even if he was nowhere near happy about it.

The 20-year-old German was looking to be the youngest-ever champion at his home-country grass-court event.

Instead, he was beaten by the oldest-ever champion, Roger Federer.

Federer won his ninth Halle title with a 6-1, 6-3 victory that took just 52 minutes. Of the now 92 titles Federer has won in his career, this one was the quickest in terms of time.

It was a comprehensive beatdown of the type the Swiss star can come up with, when faced with one of the young, rising stars of the game.

In his final match before Wimbledon, the 35-year-old pulled out the entire arsenal of grass-court weapons. Notable among them was the drop shot, especially the forehand inside-out drop shot. It proved a hugely effective tool against the very tall Zverev on the slippery short-court grass. 

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The drop shot was a big weapon for Federer against Zverev Sunday. On this one, he went toppling into the net and may have dinged his Achilles a bit. He got a pat on the back from Federer. (TennisTV)

Increased use of the slice

Federer also readjusted, for a final time in match conditions, his tactics on the backhand side.

The Swiss star returned in Australia after a six-month absence with a notably improved topspin backhand. It was a big reason for his victories at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami. 

 If he got a little carried away with using it when he made his grass-court debut in Stuttgart last week against friendly foe Tommy Haas, he made the necessary adjustments in his five matches in Halle this week.

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Federer cracked up when the beaten Zverev told him he wasn’t liking him very much, at that particular moment. (TennisTV)

Against Zverev, he used the slice over the topspin 65 per cent of the time. Again, a hugely effective tool.

During the trophy ceremony, the 20-year-old Zverev was smiling, as gracious as could be. Not in a “I don’t deserve to be on the same court with you” kind of way. It was more of a “Okay, you’re the grass maestro. Lesson learned. Moving on. I’ve got 15 years on you, old man” kind of way.

“Looking forward to playing him again, but not really liking him today,” said Zverev, who also said he “hoped” Federer would win Wimbledon and thought he could do it.

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Zverev took the defeat well – hopefully not too well. Still a very good week for him. (TennisTV)

On Federer’s side, a little wistfulness, disingenuous or not. 

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to win this tournament again, so I’m going to enjoy this one as much as I possibly can,” he told the crowd.

Zverev was denied in the doubles final as well. Teamed with older brother Mischa, the pair lost to No. 1 seeds Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo 7-5, 3-6, 10-8.

Federer nails down the No. 3 seed at Wimbledon with the victory. It doesn’t change anything from having been the No. 4 seed in terms of the possibilities of his draw. But he’ll probably like the look of it anyway.

He’ll remain No. 5 in the actual ATP Tour rankings, come Monday.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

Djokovic to face Zverev in Rome final

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It was certainly going to be difficult for Dominic Thiem to come back and play another one of the greatest ever, less than 24 hours after beating Rafael Nadal in straight sets.

Thiem handed the nine-time French Open champion his first defeat on clay this season. Novak Djokovic brought Thiem back down to earth with a resounding thud.

The Serbian, who turns 30 on Monday, brushed off the legitimate Thiem threat in just under an hour. The 6-1, 6-0 victory was comprehensive.

Thiem won just two of 13 points with his second serve, just 46 per cent with his first serve in suffering la baguette and le bagel.

Djokovic was screaming and roaring as though he was in his closest match of the season. There was fire in him that had not been seen in quite awhile. The tennis was to the same level. 

“This is undoubtedly my best performance of this year and maybe even longer. I’m overjoyed and happy with every minute that I spent on the court today. It was a perfect match. Everything that I intended to do, I have done it and even more,” Djokovic told the media in Rome. “There’s not much to say except that I am so grateful to experience something like this, because I have been waiting and working for it for a long time.”

It was his second victory of the day. In the afternoon, Djokovic picked up his quarter-final match against Juan Martin del Potro at 6-1, 1-2 and finished off a 6-1, 6-4 victory.

He was happy.

What to take from it? Only good news for Djokovic, who found the fire and may well stoke it right through the fortnight in Paris.

For Thiem, it’s one he can turn the page on quickly. His victory over Nadal Friday might have been in straight sets, but it took nearly two hours. And when you wake up the next morning after playing Nadal, you feel it in a way you would against few other players.

Thiem went 12-4 during the French Open tuneup season, losing twice to Nadal and once to Djokovic. His work is done.

It seems that Djokovic’s work has truly just begun.

First meeting

He will face No. 16 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany in the final. The 20-year-old and the world No. 2 will be facing each other for the first time.

“I’ve had a lot of tough matches in this tournament, I’ve had a lot of tough opponents. To be in the final here is amazing for me,” Zverev said after defeating surprise semifinalist John Isner of the U.S. 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-1. “He served something like 78 per cent, so it’s not easy to break him. And I managed to do it three times.”

Zverev is the first German to reach a Masters 1000 final since Nicolas Kiefer played Nadal in Toronto at the 2008 Rogers Cup.

He is the youngest to reach a Masters 1000 final since a teenaged Djokovic won Miami in 2007.

After a sub-par start to the season, Djokovic currently stands at No. 16 in the race to the ATP Tour Finals in London. That’s an improvement over No. 23 the previous week. But if he wins Sunday, he’ll be up to No. 4 with a bullet.  If he does, Zverev would be right behind him at No. 5.

Weekend Preview – May 20-21, 2017

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Friday sure was a Next-Gen kind of day in Rome, wasn’t it?

While there is inherent danger in putting forth any hot takes based on a single match, Dominic Thiem’s victory over Rafael Nadal in the Italian Open quarter-finals was definitely an “I have arrived” moment.

It was the third time in three tournaments that Thiem and Nadal have met. The first two came in finals. In the first one in Barcelona, the 23-year-old was out of gas and a little outclassed. In Madrid, he gave the Mallorcan a lot to handle, even in defeat. Friday in the Rome quarter-finals, he treed.

“It’s always such a tough thing to beat Rafa, in general and on clay probably even tougher. I knew I had to change something from Madrid and Barcelona. And my game plan went almost perfect today,” Thiem said. “I think he is always getting stronger as it goes deeper in the tournaments, but it doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter which round. I’m really happy that I did it, and also to play that kind of a match.”

Nadal had a look afterwards that basically said, “Right, too good, kid. See you in Paris in best-of-five”. 

Not the worst outcome

In context, this was a tournament Nadal really didn’t need to play, after he won 15 straight matches to take Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, losing only two sets in the process. But he played.

He got more matches in, and stockpiled more ranking points. But Nadal also now gets the weekend off. And he doesn’t have to expend the mental and physical energy to try to win a fourth title this spring.

“It’s normal that one day you don’t feel perfect. If you are unlucky on that day, the opponent plays unbelievable. So tomorrow, I will be in Mallorca fishing or playing golf or doing another thing. That’s it,” Nadal told the media in Rome. “It’s obvious that I did not play my best match. I have been playing a lot. Madrid and Rome, back-to-back, after playing Barcelona and Monte-Carlo back-to-back, so it’s not easy after playing almost every day for the past four weeks.”

That doesn’t mean Nadal didn’t give it everything. And it also doesn’t mean Thiem wasn’t fully deserving. To play that sort of power game on clay, and maintain the level, is incredibly difficult to do.

Even though the 6-4, 6-3 win took nearly two hours, nearly 50 per cent of the points lasted five shots or less. That was the only category in which Nadal edged out his young rival – and barely at that. The longer the points went, the more they swung in Thiem’s favour. Against Nadal, that is an impressive stat. 

Nadal’s 76 per cent first-serve effort meant he probably was not nearly as aggressive with that stroke as he needed to be, as indeed he had been in previous weeks. 

Zverev vs. the big servers

The other Next-Gen encounter was the first-ever meeting between Alexander Zverev and Canadian Milos Raonic.

A hamstring issue has curtailed Raonic’s clay-court swing. But he looked impressive in dispatching both Tommy Haas and Thomas Berdych in straight sets. His winners-to-unforced ratios in both matches were off the charts.

Against Zverev, after recovering from being a break down twice in that first set, it was one-way traffic in a 7-6 (4), 6-1 Zverev victory.

Telling stats

The young German’s consistent power off both sides exposed Raonic’s movement. And he couldn’t make enough of an impact with his serve. Raonic served harder than Zverev – but barely harder. He was just 8-for-18 at net. And his 33 unforced errors were far too many.

After not losing his serve in the tournament, Raonic was up against it Friday. “I broke him four times, which is quite impressive, against a server like him,” he said. “I tried to mix up my position – sometimes be aggressive, sometimes try to defend.”

With his big serve, Raonic doesn’t often suffer 6-1 set losses unless he’s injured. And he seemed healthy enough – just under pressure all the time. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

Now, the two young bucks have to do it again.

Zverev will face another huge serve in John Isner, the first American to reach the semifinals in Rome since Andy Roddick in 2008. He’ll have had plenty of practice after the Raonic match.

Thiem awaits the winner of a thunderstorm-suspended match between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro.

“You beat such a great player and the next day again, you play again against a really tough opponent,” Thiem said.

Djokovic won the first set 6-1, but they were interrupted after three games in the second set as the stadium court was drowned. 

The two resume at 1:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon. Thiem can sleep in, in anticipation of facing the winner at 8 p.m. Saturday evening.

Muguruza awakens in Rome

Overshadowed as always in these joint ATP-WTA Tour events, the women have most often gotten the early match on the Centrale court – when the stands are empty – and the late-night match. 

Muguruza has had a reassuring week in Rome, as she heads to Paris to defend her French Open title.

So the energizing run by reigning French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza has gone under the radar.

Muguruza lost her first match in Stuttgart, and her first match in Madrid. But in Rome, she had a good draw to the quarter-finals and found a way to beat No. 9 seed Venus Williams Friday night.

She will play No. 8 Elina Svitolina, who defeated slumping No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova Friday. No. 6 seed Simona Halep, fresh off her triumph in Madrid, has continued her good form. She will face No. 15 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands. 

A Halep – Muguruza final is probably the best that could be extracted from the Madrid draw, especially after Maria Sharapova lost early to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. 

Here’s the Saturday singles schedule:

preview

Sunday’s women’s final will be first up at 1:30 p.m., with the men’s singles final not before 4 p.m. (CET)