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.

inaugural
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.

inaugural

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)

Improbable comeback puts del Potro in QFs

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NEW YORK – He’d been suffering from a virus for 48 hours, had a stye in his eye and generally looked so gray and ashen you figured he might not even go the distance.

But Juan Martin del Potro is a tennis player. And unless they risk further injury by carrying on, tennis players usually play on.

Because you never know what can happen.

The 2009 champion somehow, improbably, and with some help from opponent Dominic Thiem, came back from two sets to none down to pull off a 1-6, 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1, 6-4 victory Monday to reach the US Open quarterfinals. 

He saved two match points along the way, with two monster serves.

Del Potro will face five-time champion Roger Federer on Wednesday. 

Federer already knows what to expect.

DelPo feeling Po’ly

Del Potro said he was seriously considering retiring in the middle of the second set, not even an hour in. He said the crowd support – the Grandstand was full to bursting and with buzz to burn – inspired him to hang in there.

“It was very important because I was trying to retire the match in the second set. Then I saw the crowd waiting for more tennis, waiting for my good forehands, good serves. I took all that energy to change in a good way and think about fight and not retire,” he said afterwards. “And I did well, and I start to enjoy little bit more about the fans. I think I did everything well after the third set. The crowd enjoy with me all points. It was unbelievable atmosphere.”

Smaller court only enhanced fan frenzy

At first, the Grandstand – only the third-biggest court on the grounds – seemed somewhat disrespectful to the only former champion in the lineup other than Nadal and Roger Federer.

It was the only one of the eight men’s and women’s singles matches being played Monday that wasn’t either on Arthur Ashe Stadium (five) or Louis Armstrong Stadium (two).

del Potro
The atmosphere for the match between Juan Martin del Potro and Dominic Thiem on Grandstand was electric on Labour Day (Photo: USTA/Brian Friedman)

But it turned out to be a perfect arena for a dramatic comeback.

“I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move well. Dominic was dominating the match so easy. But then when we start the third set, I broke his serve very quick, and then I won the set in 20 minutes. Then the history change a lot,” del Potro said. “I starting to see the crowd. I took all the energy from the fans. That’s what I did in the end, just keep fighting. I don’t give up any points from the third until the fifth set. I was ready to win the match in that moment.”

Any comeback takes some cooperation. And Thiem did his bit. As mature and masterful as he can look when he’s winning, that’s how young he can sometimes still look when faced with a surging opponent or a tight situation.

The match ended on a double fault, which probably sums up Thiem’s day.

Next up, the 2009 rematch

Del Potro’s issues weren’t injury-related, which is welcome news for the next step. He’ll have more two days to recover from whatever virus he was wrestling with. So you’d have to expect he’ll be feeling a whole lot better when he takes the court against Federer in a rematch of that 2009 US Open final. 

As Federer was dispatching Philipp Kohlschreiber in straight sets nearby, inside cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium, he could hear the roars from the nearby Grandstand. “That’s the first time I experienced that. Clearly Grandstand wasn’t where it used to be. But, I mean, they had epic crowds,” Federer said.

del Potro
Federer’s win over Phlipp Kohlschreiber was routine. The vibe around his quarterfinal clash with del Potro will be quite different. (Photo: USTA/Darren Carroll)

“He’s a good guy. I know him well. But when he was hurt, clearly I didn’t see him for a long time. I was sorry for him because I think he had a legitimate good chance to become world No. 1 at that time. Him and (Nikolay) Davydenko, actually both of them got hurt at the wrong times in their careers. Both had a chance to go for world No. 1 at that time. ’09, I think it was,” Federer added. “So I’m really happy for him. It’s a good match to look forward to. Reminds me clearly of the 2009 finals that we had, which was an epic, too. I hope we can produce another good one.”

Federer was a combined 39-0 against his last three opponents at this US Open, and he kept those perfect head-to-heads intact.

Against del Potro, he’s an impressive 16-5. But when del Potro has defeated him, he has really hit him where it hurts.

Twice, the Argentine beat Federer at his hometown tournament in Basel, Switzerland (2012 and 2013). He defeated him at the ATP Tour Finals twice as well. And in that 2009 US Open final when Federer was going for a sixth consecutive title. Notably, Federer hasn’t won here since.

“The greatest guy on the history”

“I admire him, too. Everybody loves him. Is going to be interesting match for play. It will be after eight years again in the central court of this tournament. I know how to play if I want to win, but I will see how physically I feel after this battle,” del Potro said. “But always is a pleasure to play the greatest guy on the history.”

Federer’s crowd advantage is significant against nearly every opponent he plays – even against Andy Murray at Wimbledon, the crowd is somewhat torn. But in del Potro, he will run up against an opponent who will have plenty of support of his own.

He won the event, which always helps. But there’s a huge Spanish-speaking and Argentine population in New York. You could see and hear some of them going out of their DelPo-lovin’ minds during the match against Thiem.

But they’re not alone. There’s something about the gentle giant that just engenders a lot of love and devotion. Perhaps it’s the stark contrast between his hulking physicality and his gentle demeanour. Maybe it’s his journey.

“I don’t know. I think the people loves my effort to come back and play tennis. They know what have been through with all my wrist problems. They like one guy who never give ups, and he’s trying to play tennis,” del Potro said. “You can see my backhand is not good enough yet, but I’m still trying. I think the people likes that.”

US Open Day 4 – What to watch

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NEW YORK – A marathon, 87-match singles spree caught up on Tuesday’s rainout, so the US Open is back to normal. At least for a few days.

And on Day 4, it’s Rafa and Roger time, as both play their second-round matches.

Whether they’ll rotate day and night session on Arthur Ashe for as long as both are in the tournament is too soon to predict.

But Federer has the late-afternoon slot against Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny. And Nadal has the late-night session against New York-born Japanese player Taro Daniel.

Neither figures to struggle. But you never know.

The men’s and women’s doubles, as well as the mixed doubles, also get under way today. The doubles might have begun Wednesday but for the catchup on the singles side. So the schedule is full.

Some of the players who playd their first rounds Wednesday will have to play again today. On the men’s side, with the best-of-five, that’s more of a factor.

Among those players are Juan Martin del Potro, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov and Gaël Monfils.

Women’s Matches to Watch

[12] Jelena Ostapenko (LAT) vs. Sorana Cirstea (ROU)

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Ostapenko has generally been fairly quiet out there since her surprise win at the French Open. Although she did have a decent run at Wimbledon. But her North American summer hasn’t amounted to much.

Cirstea should not be an unsurmountable obstacle. But you never know. On the plus side, upsets have meant that there isn’t a single seeded player potentially in Ostapenko’s way until the quarterfinals. So watch out.

Cirstea crushed qualifier Lesley Kerkhove in the first round, despite a rather comprehensive (and unusual) tape job on her right arm in practice leading up to it.

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Yanina Wickmayer (BEL) vs. [Q] Kaia Kanepi (EST)

This is a matchup between two former top-15 players, who have fallen on more difficult times.

The 27-year-old Wickmayer, currently at No. 129, was No. 12 in the world when she was 20. Kanepi, who has struggled with Guillain-Barré syndrome and mononucleosis the last few years, was ranked No. 15 just five years ago, after a (relatively) late surge up the rankings.

She’s currently at No. 419. And she had to use a protected ranking just to get into the qualifying.

It’s a great opportunity for both.

Daria Kasatkina (RUS) vs. Christina Mchale (USA)

Kasatkina, still 19, had a great run this past April in winning the Har-Tru event in Charleston. But since then, she has struggled, no doubt in part because of an ankle injury. She lost first round in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome (there can always be a hangover exhaustion effect after a young player does such a big thing, and hers lasted the clay-court tuneup season). 

She didn’t play between the French Open and Wimbledon, and hasn’t won back-to-back matches since.

As for McHale, she’s 25 now. And it’s been five years since she broke into the top 25 right around this time. She’s ranked No. 63 and it might be time for a good result, so close to where she grew up.

Men’s Matches to Watch

[6] Dominic Thiem (AUT) vs. [WC] Taylor Fritz (USA)

The new father has his entire extended family with him in New York, and the group effort was effective in a comprehensive first-round win over veteran Marcos Baghdatis.

Thiem is a different customer. And though he’s not renowned for his hard-court efforts, he had no trouble at all in dismissing another wid card, Aussie Alex de Minaur, over two days to reach the second round.

[31] Feliciano Lopez (ESP) vs. Fernando Verdasco (ESP)

Former doubles partners, friends and longtime foes, the two veteran Spaniards meet again on, as it happens, Court 13.

Both lefties, they go at it in completely different ways as Verdasco is a fairly stubborn baseliner, while Lopez is much more of an all-court attacker in a very non-Spanish way. 

Surprisingly, they’ve only played eight times – and never at a Grand Slam. And only once since 2013. There’s no pattern from their meetings as both have beaten each other on the various surfaces. 

Superficially, this is also a highly attractive matchup. But you didn’t read that here.

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[7] Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs. Andrey Rublev (RUS)

Rublev is one of the less-heralded young guns. But he’s on his way just the same. 

He’s left to carry the torch for the 4 Slam tennis academy as his countryman and training partner Karen Khachanov was upset in the first round. And he’ll bring plenty of fire to this match against Dimitrov.

If Dimitrov were in the bottom half of the draw and not the top, you’d give him a ghost of a chance on a deep run in this tournament. As it is, most likely will make his seeding and get to the quarterfinals. But he has to get through Rublev first. And that’s easier said than done.

RG men’s quarters almost true to form

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ROLAND GARROS – Milos Raonic, the No. 5 seed at the French Open, played spoilsport in what turned out to be a true-to-form final eight.

The Canadian was upset, 8-6 in the fifth set after four hours and 17 minutes, by No. 20 seed Pablo Carreño Busta in the fourth round on Sunday.

But the other seven top seeds made it. And along with Carreño Busta, they make up a top-quality, if predictable, elite eight bracket.

Which is not to say that they all arrived here in thoroughly predictable fashion.

Here’s a look at their twists and turns through the first week of the tournament.

No. 1 – Andy Murray

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Murray was in good spirits before the tournament began, and might even have avoided chiding coach Ivan Lendl for wearing the same way-too-big polo shirt two days in a row (he really did). (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The top seed went about it all bass-ackwards. He lost sets to players he probably shouldn’t have (Andrey Kuznetsov, Martin Klizan) and didn’t lose sets to players he maybe could have (Juan Martin del Potro, the powerful Russian Karen Khachanov).

But along the way the Brit appeared to rebuild some of the confidence lost along the way this season – just in time for the pointy end of the tournament.  

He even managed to make jokes!

Fitness for battle: 8

Quarter-final opponent: [8] Kei Nishikori

No. 2 – Novak Djokovic

Much was made of the new face in Team Nole, as Andre Agassi arrived with great fanfare shortly before the tournament began. 

Agassi is reportedly gone now, but promises to be back when and if Djokovic needs him. While he was here, he watched Djokovic navigate some pretty good players routinely. Except for Diego Schwartzman.

The Argentine was right in there until his body failed him in the late going of their five-setter in the third round. He even led two sets to one. With Djokovic’s up-and-down results this season, it would have been an unlikely upset, but by no means an impossible one.

Whether his earlier rounds – he had, by most measures, a good draw – were enough preparation for what his quarter-final opponent will bring to the table is a question that will be answered on Court Suzanne Lenglen Tuesday.

Fitness for battle: 8

Quarter-final opponent: [6] Dominic Thiem

No. 3 – Stan Wawrinka

The only big (Swiss) cheese in the draw this year with the absence of Roger Federer, Wawrinka’s season has been below his standards. But while it’s a cliché to say a player peaks for the Grand Slams, the 32-year-old REALLY peaks for the Slams. Which probably is why he’s won three of them, including this one.

Wawrinka faced two of the more dangerous lower seeds in the tournament in Fabio Fognini and Gaël Monfils, and got through both in straight sets. Again with Fognini, the body didn’t cooperate.

Against Monfils on Monday, everyone was hoping for a blockbuster. But these two good friends made it more like a fun match for beers in their local Swiss public park. 

When it was over, Wawrinka looked as though he almost felt badly that Monfils couldn’t put up more resistance. He knows more than most that his great friend, at 30 but with a fragile body, won’t have many more chances to make a deep run at his home-country Slam.

“It was a mentally exhausting match, I think. We were both tense. And we know each other so well. We knew how important it was, for him or for me, to play well,” Wawrinka said.

On the worrisome side, the Swiss star’s back locked up from the beginning of the match. It’s what he calls the most fragile part of his body, always managed but never worry-free.

 

Fitness for battle: 7

Quarter-final opponent: [7] Marin Cilic

No. 4 – Rafael Nadal

It appeared the nine-time French Open champion was back for real in 2017 after a great start to the season. But who knew to what extent?

His French Open prep was vintage, although stubbornly deciding to play Rome despite already having won three titles looked like a bad call when he was on fumes by the quarterfinals. He lost to Dominic Thiem there, after beating him twice earlier in the clay-court season.

Raonic, slotted to be his quarter-final opponent, might have posed a few more challenges than Nadal’s young countryman Carreño Busta. Nadal is pretty much money when he’s playing fellow Spaniards. And Carreño Busta is coming off a draining, emotional marathon win while Nadal is fresh as a margarita amarilla.

Fitness for battle: 11

Quarter-final opponent: [20] Pablo Carreño Busta

No. 6 – Dominic Thiem

With his efforts during the spring clay season, and with fellow youngster Alexander Zverev winning Rome, it figured these two would be in the mix in the second week in Paris.

But Zverev flamed out in the first round against Fernando Verdasco. And so it was left to Thiem to make his seed. He did so very much under the radar, without dropping a set and ceding more than four games in only two of the 12 sets he played. 

Had he faced David Goffin in the fourth round, rather than Horacio Zeballos, Thiem might have been tested more. But Goffin’s nasty ankle injury, suffered in the first set against Zeballos, took him out.

In the quarter-finals, we’ll find out if he has a Plan B, after getting just one game against Novak Djokovic in the Rome semi-final a few weeks ago. On the plus side, he won’t have to play him the day after he has to play Nadal.

Fitness for battle: 8

Quarter-final opponent: [2] Novak Djokovic

No. 7 – Marin Cilic

With Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem all in the final eight, no one is talking about Marin Cilic.

He’s used to that – especially in Paris, where he is a quarter-finalist for the first time in his career a year after losing in the first round, to No. 166-ranked Marco Trungelliti of Argentina.

Cilic has had a sweet draw, and hasn’t lost more than three games in any set. He caught a break in the fourth round Monday as opponent Kevin Anderson retired in the middle of the second set due to injury.

The last time Cilic faced Anderson was in the third round of the 2014 US Open. For what it’s worth, he won the tournament.

Fitness for battle: 7

Quarter-final opponent: [3] Stan Wawrinka

No. 8 – Kei Nishikori

In the third round, Nishikori caught a break when rain came to suspend his match with the younger, bigger, stronger Hyeon Chung of South Korea. When play resumed Sunday, Nishikori still looked dead on his feet, his stiff back  – or something – limiting his movement to a major degree.

Somehow, he got through that one.

Then on Monday, he faced Fernando Verdasco and looked basically the same in losing the first set 6-0. Somehow, he warmed up the body parts and got through that one as well. Let’s face it, though, he got help from Verdasco.

This is kind of the story of Nishikori’s career; his inability to keep his body as strong as his will has held him back from … who knows what?

Fitness for battle: 3

Quarter-final opponent: [1] Andy Murray

And, finally, the outlier

No. 20 – Pablo Carreño Busta

No one gives the 25-year-old a shot against his much-decorated compatriot in the quarter-finals. Maybe not even the Carreño Busta family, for all we know.

The man himself said after his win over Raonic that if he didn’t think he had a shot, he wouldn’t take the court. He might get his behind kicked, he might pull off a miracle. But he can’t ask for more than playing the clay GOAT and his good friend on a big stadium court in the French Open quarter-finals.

Hopefully his family, who had to leave to catch a flight back to Spain in the third set of his match against Raonic, will fly back to see this one.

Fitness for battle: 5

Quarter-final opponent: [4] Rafael Nadal

Nadal vs. Carreño Busta is on Court Philippe Chatrier Tuesday, while Djokovic vs. Thiem is on Court Suzanne Lenglen. You have to think the champion is going to come out of that group.

Nishikori vs. Murray and Wawrinka vs. Cilic will be Wednesday, with far less fanfare.

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:

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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)

Rafael Nadal makes it cinco in Madrid

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As Rafael Nadal tried for número cinco in Madrid Sunday, solving Dominic Thiem proved a far more daunting task than it had been in Barcelona.

Two weeks ago, after a close start, the clay maestro took care of the 23-year-old Austrian 6-4, 6-1. This time, on the bigger stage of a Masters 1000-level event, Nadal had his hands full in what turned out to be a hard-fought, high quality 7-6 (8), 6-4 victory.

This is the fifth title for Nadal in Madrid, a place he has never truly embraced. That’s mostly because of the big variance in conditions with Roland Garros caused by the altitude. And Nadal is a stickler for the details. 

But given the wave he’s riding, any nitpicks the Spaniard may have with the conditions could quickly be cast aside.

No. 4 secure – should he pass on Rome?

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Nadal will now move up to No. 4 in the rankings, a spot that is secure for the French Open. (TennisTV.com)

Nadal will slide past Roger Federer and into the No. 4 spot in the rankings on Monday. That spot looks secure until the French Open; the ranking points from this week’s Masters 1000 tournament in Rome already have been deducted.

Federer isn’t playing Rome. The challengers behind Nadal, including Canadian Milos Raonic, can’t catch up.

The No. 4 seeding is a key slot. At No. 5, a player is guaranteed to meet one of the top four as early as the quarterfinals – assuming both players get there. At No. 4, there is an extra round’s grace.

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Thiem pushed Nadal to the limit during much of a straight-sets win that was far more of a battle than even the tight scoreline indicated. (TennisTV.com)

A perfect 15-0 on the European clay, there therefore isn’t much incentive for Nadal to play Rome. He certainly doesn’t need more matches. The way he is playing, and moving, he might well go deep into the week.

Beyond seeking to add another title to his already illustrious resumé – and, let’s face it, playing tennis is really fun when you’re winning – he may well consider he’s had enough preparation and skip it. But that’s to be determined.

Unlike Federer, Nadal has never made a major priority to schedule rest when appropriate. He only knows one speed. He hasn’t yet made the transition to the “I’m 30 now, I can’t quite do what I used to do” club.

Still, after the match, Nadal declared his intention to play Rome. He said it was a very important event, and he would have a few days to rest before taking the court again.

Masters still a virtual monopoly

If Nadal does pull out, the player who would most benefit would be … Thiem. The No. 8 seed is in the same quarter of the Rome draw with Nadal.

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Dominic Thiem’s clay-court season has proven he will be a major contender at Roland Garros. (TennisTV.com)

For Thiem, who defeated Nadal on clay in Buenos Aires last year after the Spaniard had match points, it was another breakout effort. He stacked up extremely favorably with the finest dirtballer of all time on his home soil. The Austrian stayed with Nadal for so much of the match, needing to go for more risk with his shots and making plenty of them.

When the rallies were nine shots or less, the two were virtually even. Thiem even had a slight lead. Once the rallies hit 10 strokes, Nadal had a 20-8 edge. That, essentially, was the difference in the match.

Thiem is just the latest young gun to try valiantly but fail to win a Masters 1000 title. The “Big Four” of Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won 24 of the last 25. They’ve won 37-of-40 since 2013, and 75-of-85 since 2008.

All eyes on the draw

On Monday, Thiem be No. 7 in the ATP Tour rankings. That means that unless something cataclysmic happens in Rome, the Austrian will be the so-called “player to avoid” in the upper reaches of the men’s singles draw.

Nadal at the 2015 French Open draw: (Please don’t pick Nole. PLEASE don’t pick Nole!) (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Two years ago, Nadal was seeded No. 6 at the French Open and not at the top of his game. He still was the man the top four seeds wanted to avoid. The draw ceremony, which Nadal attended as defending champion, was as tense as could be. Everyone wondered if Novak Djokovic could possibly be the one to draw him as a potential quarter-final opponent in the year that was, to that point, the Serb’s best chance to win his first French Open title.

That’s exactly what happened. And both did get there. Djokovic won that match in straight sets, but Stan Wawrinka snuck through from the bottom half of the draw and won the tournament.

Thiem has company this time around. If Federer plays – his fans still breathlessly await confirmation – he, too, will be one to watch as the No. 5 seed.

Draw ceremonies are typically pretty dry stuff. This year, there will be even more suspense.

Weekend preview – May 13-14, 2017

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On paper, the first Mutua Madrid Open semifinal is the final, as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will meet for the 50th time in their careers.

Djokovic leads the head-to-head, 26-23. The 50 meetings are an Open era record.

In fact, the Serb leads the head-to-heads with all of his main rivals. That’s a fact much underreported during an era in which there seems only to be room enough for one “great rivalry” – Federer vs. Nadal.

The Djokovic-Nadal clay-court rivalry can be divided into two eras. And the Madrid tournament was the turning point.

Nadal won their first nine meetings on the terre battue. The 10th came in the semifinals of the Madrid Open in 2009. The Mallorcan won, but it was by far the closest Djokovic had come. Nadal had to mount a major comeback before prevailing 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (9).

They didn’t meet again on clay for two full years. The 10th meeting came … in Madrid.

Djokovic defeated Nadal 7-5, 6-4 and got on the board. Since that breakthrough, Djokovic leads the clay-court rivalry 6-5. He has won the last three, and their seven meetings overall.

The match will take place exactly a year to the day since their last meeting, in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Italian Open.

Djokovic runs the rivalries

Djokovic is playing his first tournament since dismissing his entire support team. He has been accompanied by younger brother Marko and spiritual advisor Pepe Imaz.

Winner heavy favourite for title

The winner of Djokovic vs. Nadal will be the heavy favourite in Sunday’s final as two long shots reached the semifinals in the other half of the draw. 

No. 1 seed Andy Murray’s level was a concern in a loss to lucky loser Borna Coric. No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka was far from impressive as he went out to the ultimate conundrum, Frenchman Benoit Paire.

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The young Austrian will attempt to reach his first Masters 1000 final Saturday in Madrid. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The second semifinal will feature the players who took advantage of those upsets. No. 8 seed Dominic Thiem of Austria (who defeated Coric) will play unseeded Uruguayan veteran Pablo Cuevas (who defeated Paire).

If No. 27 Cuevas can take the title, he would be the lowest-ranked player to win a Masters 1000 tournament since Paris in 2005 when Tomas Berdych (then No. 50) won.

The women’s final

As the week in Madrid unfolded, the women’s field imploded again.

Seeded players Johanna Konta and Garbiñe Muguruza lost before Monday even dawned. No. 2 Karolina Pliskova was eliminated early for the second consecutive week. Top seed Angelique Kerber injured her hamstring in the final game she played against Canadian Bouchard in the third round.

She’s the top seed in Rome this week, but doubtless doesn’t expect much.

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Defending champion Halep has improved with every match this week, and is the favorite in the final. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The form player has been Romania’s Simona Halep, the defending Madrid champion and No. 3 seed. She is battle-tested after pulling out tight victories against two proven veteran clay-courters, Roberta Vinci and Samantha Stosur.

In the final, Halep will face No. 14 seed Kristina Mladenovic. The No. 1 Frenchwoman is on quite a run during this initial part of the women’s clay-court season.

Mladenovic ended Maria Sharapova’s comeback tournament in Stuttgart and reached the final. Friday, she defeated doubles partner and 2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova to reach the Madrid final.

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Kristina Mladenovic is looking for a big title to consolidate an impressive clay-court campaign. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Women’s doubles

The women’s doubles final on Saturday will feature two relatively new pairings, as the ladies have played musical chairs in this first part of 2017.

Martina Hingis (who went from Sania Mirza to Coco Vandeweghe over the last year) now partners with Yung-Jan Chan of Taipei. Chan had long played with her sister, Hao-Ching Chan.

They will meet Timea Babos of Hungary (who used to play with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova) and Andrea Hlavackova (who played for years with fellow Czech Lucie Hradecka, then with Shuai Peng). Got that straight?

Sock-Kyrgios pull out

On the men’s side, a brash Aussie-American combo blazed through the draw to the semifinals.

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Kyrgios and Sock are mowing through the field – and having a great time doing it. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Nick Kyrgios didn’t have the fortitude or energy to offer more than token resistance against Nadal in the singles. But in his defense, he flew from the U.S. to Australia to attend his grandfather’s funeral, and then back to Madrid.

But his efforts with good mate Jack Sock in the doubles were impressive.

Sock and Kyrgios rolled through Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau (the 2015 Wimbledon champions and defending Madrid champions, unseeded this year). They then upset No. 5 seeds Rajeev Ram and Raven Klaasen (champions at Indian Wells). Both victories came in straight sets. 

On Friday, they beat the well-decorated Bryan twins 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 10-7 in a barnburner that featured zero breaks of serve. They out-aced the Bryans 13-0 and gave up only one break point. They saved all six break points they faced.

(Their semi-final opponents were to be No. 4 seeds Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo. Unfortunately, they gave them a walkover.)

The other match will pit home-country favorites (and reigning French Open champions) Feliciano Lopez and Marc Lopez against the French team of Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.

The Madrid men’s singles and doubles finals will take place Sunday.

Rome already under way

If you needed any more tennis, the qualifying begins in Rome Saturday, on both the men’s and women’s sides.

Nicolas Almagro, who gave Djokovic such a tussle in the Serb’s Madrid opener, is in the men’s field along with the likes of Kevin Anderson and Alexandr Dolgopolov. All three are former top-15 players; they have seen their rankings drop because of injury and couldn’t get straight into the main draw.

A notable qualifying absentee on the women’s side is Bouchard. The Canadian reached the quarter-finals in Madrid and lost to Kuznetsova Thursday night. But she was a late scratch, for reasons still undetermined.