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.

Doubles Kyrgios – a different Kyrgios

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If you’re not a big fan of the volatile Aussie Nick Kyrgios, but you’re keeping an open mind and you’re willing to see another side to him beyond some of his less-endearing on-court moments, here’s a suggestion:

Watch him play doubles.

The 21-year-old is a different guy on the doubles court. He’s much more relaxed, he smiles a whole lot more, and perhaps he lets more of his real personality shine through. He also takes it very seriously.

Kyrgios and Jack Sock are into the quarter-finals of the Madrid Open doubles after a pair of straight-set wins against two very accomplished doubles tandems. They defeated Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau in the first round, and upset No. 5 seeds Raven Klaasen and Rajeev Ram 6-4, 6-4 Tuesday.

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Kyrgios and Sock hug it out after beating Rojer and Teacu in the first round of doubles at the Madrid Open. (Screenshot: TennisTV)

These two, good mates, have often tried in the past to team up on the doubles court. For a few years, Sock and Canadian Vasek Pospisil were a steady duo (they won Wimbledon in 2014 in their first tournament together).

After that, one circumstance after another prevented it. Only once has it happened. But they had to retire after the first set of their second-round match in Toronto last summer against Pospisil and Daniel Nestor.

But they practice together often – to the reported mild dismay of Australian Open captain and Kyrgios advisor Lleyton Hewitt.

Hewitt, as serious as a heart attack during practice when he played, thinks they don’t work hard enough because they joke around too much.

Court comedians

He’s not totally wrong. Check out this footage of the pair entertaining the crowd thoroughly at the Rogers Cup in Montreal in 2015.

The thing about these two is that the kids LOVE them. And that’s the demographic that will make the game grow during the next era, the one without Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

Teenaged boys follow them around as though they’re a pair of pied pipers. In the video above, all the boys from Tennis Canada’s high-performance junior program were on hand and watched most of the practice. Félix Auger-Aliassime (then 14, in the red shirt on the left) is probably the best 16-year-old in the world right now. He won the boys’ title at the US Open last summer.

Kyrgios plans to play doubles at the French Open with fellow Aussie Jordan Thompson. He also hopes to play mixed doubles with his girlfriend, Ajla Tomljanovic of Croatia.

Here he is at Wimbledon playing mixed with Madison Keys.

And here he is playing mixed with Genie Bouchard at the US Open last summer. It was just a couple of hours after that match that Bouchard had her fall in the women’s locker room. 

Different guy, huh?

Next up for Sock and Kyrgios are either No. 4 seeds Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo or the alternate American pair of Brian Baker and Nick Monroe.

Jet-lagged US Davis Cup squad all win openers in Houston

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When the top players point to scheduling issues when defending their lack of total devotion to Davis Cup, they’re not just whining.

The US Davis Cup players crossed the world twice in a week to defend their nation’s colours, first to Brisbane to take on the Aussies then back the U.S. to meet their commitment to the only American tournament played on red clay, this week in Houston.

All four played at the Miami Open, and may have had a few days at home before going all the way Down Under to Brisbane for a World Group quarter-final tie last weekend. The U.S. No. 1, Jack Sock, also got sick along the way.

The Americans went down to defeat at the hands of Nick Kyrgios and his squad. They then got right back on a plane Monday to return to the U.S., to the Houston event.

Sock, John Isner, Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey – luckily for them – are the top four seeds at the tournament. Even more luckily, it’s a 28-player draw so the top four seeds all received first-round byes.

Jet-lagged, disappointed but undeterred, the four all took the court Thursday for their second-round matches. All managed to pull out victories although none of them were routine.

Sock will play No. 6 seed Feliciano Lopez in the quarter-finals Friday. Johnson will play No. 5 Fernando Verdasco,  Querrey No. 8 seed Thomaz Bellucci and Isner – who had the toughest one of all in his tournament opener – will play 20-year-old American wild card Ernesto Escobedo.

At some point, it’ll all hit them. But the tournament, which relies heavily on the Americans to generate interest and sell tickets, surely appreciates their efforts.

Late start on the terre battue for all

The American players don’t necessarily run over the Europe for the real clay-court season as early as they could at the best of times. Still, it’s no surprise that none of the four signed up for the Monte Carlo Open, set for next week and designated a Masters 1000 event (with the prize money and points that go along with that).

None of the four will play either of the two clay-court events the week after that, in Barcelona and Budapest the week of April 24. A little recovery time before the meat of the season through the French Open at Wimbledon is a smart move.

Ryan Harrison is the only American in the Monte Carlo main draw, as of today.

 

Buss: Despite notable absences, Davis Cup drama in store

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The future of the Davis Cup has been a hot topic of late.

It has become somewhat of an obligation necessary to qualify for the Olympics –  also under the ITF’s aegis. And it has become a bucket-list event for the top players; no career resumé can be complete without a Davis Cup crown.

Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka led Switzerland to the 2014 Davis Cup title and have played only once since then. With the commitment of the game’s top stars sporadic, the event has lost much of its once-formidable cachet.

With the current schedule of mandatory ATP events  so demanding, committing to (potentially) four more weeks of pressure-packed play has been deemed too much by the tennis elite.

Compounding the Davis Cup’s scheduling woes are that at the moment (Ed: the scheduling tends to change every few years, with the ATP having to sign off on the selected weeks) the weeks set aside for World Group ties come the weeks after the Australian Open, Miami Open, US Open, and the year-end ATP Tour Finals.

I’ve been positing for years now that the ITF and ATP need to join forces to find a way make Davis Cup a marquee event that is held all at once, at a major facility, with ATP ranking points at stake (as there were a few years ago) and significant prize money at stake. Hold it in the fall after all the majors have been played; use the weeks freed up on the ATP calendar to slot some of the events displaced from the indoor season.

In theory, it’s a no-brainer. Practically, the details are mighty devilish.

All Davis Cup challenges aside, eight colorful, storied teams remain alive in this year’s World Group. They will square off beginning Friday in four quarterfinals

Let’s take a look.

The popcorn quarter that wasn’t: Spain visits Serbia

Nobody can accuse Spain’s Rafael Nadal of abandoning his home country. Spain has won the Davis Cup four times during his illustrious career.  But Nadal has known since January there would be a need for his services against a Novak Djokovic-led Serbia and he has chosen to sit out Spain’s quarterfinal tie against Serbia this weekend.

Nenad Zimonjic is now a playing captain; Djokovic’s form is uncertain for the weekend, but he’s there. (ITF/Srdjan Stevanovic)

Once again, his absence really hurts the concept of Davis Cup as a premier event. If there has been one thing missing from this golden era of men’s tennis, it has been a deciding Davis Cup rubber between two of tennis’ Big Four. And time is running out. These next couple of years may well be Davis Cup’s very last chance to see the best from this era face off.

No certain Brexit now: Great Britain visits France

With Andy Murray out with a testy elbow, it appeared Great Britain was heading for an early “Brexit” from this year’s Davis Cup. But despite the persistent loyalty of France’s top players to the competition they have never won as a group, the four nouveaux Mousquetaires –  Gaël Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon – are unavailable.

(The last time none of the four were part of a Davis Cup squad, most were still in their teens. That was in 2005 against Sweden, when the team was Sébastien Grosjean, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Arnaud Clément and Michaël Llodra). 

That leaves Jérémy Chardy, Nicolas Mahut and Julien Benneteau to join rising young star Lucas Pouille on indoor clay in Rouen, France.

By far the youngest member of the French squad, Lucas Pouille is expected to lead them to victory (ITF/Corinne Dubreuil)

Pouille, at No. 17, is the only player currently ranked in the top 40 (the other three have reached that level during their careers). So this has the makings of a highly unpredictable tie with all sorts of room for high drama and unexpected heroes. Whichever nation emerges will need its best players healthy to have any hope of advancing to November’s finals.

Entrée and dessert: Italy visits Belgium

Fabio Fognini, who came back from two sets down to win Italy’s deciding rubber against Argentina in January’s first round, will not be able to answer the bell Friday. Fognini is nursing a few sore body parts from his surprise to the Miami Open semi-finals last week, But the Italians are deep; Andreas Seppi, Paolo Lorenzi and Simone Bolelli, who has just returned from injury, have been nominated. Surprise 2015 finalist Belgium is led by David Goffin. He’ll be a tough customer to beat indoors at home.  With only two players in the top-50 competing, and with Belgium’s No. 2 singles player a long step down from Goffin, this one could be unpredictable.

Thunder Down Under: USA visits Australia

Just as the National Hockey League has so-called “Original Six” teams, the Davis Cup have Team Australia and Team USA.

The Americans have won the Davis Cup 32 times, the Aussies 28 times. That puts them No. 1 and No. 2 on the all-time list. But none of those titles have come recently; the USA’s last win came in 2007, Australia’s in 2003.

The two countries played last year with the U.S. coming out on top. A lot has changed since then. Lleyton Hewitt is a full-time captain now, while Nick Kyrgios has become one of the most dangerous players on the ATP tour.

Kyrgios could use his temperamental sidekick Bernard Tomic. But this will not be Bernie’s weekend. After Tomic declined to make himself available for the first-round tie in January, Hewitt decided to keep the winning squad intact for the quarterfinals.

John Isner’s dress shoes may still be in his closet at home, but he’s standing tall in Brisbane. (ITF/SMP Images)

Team USA is as loaded on the singles side as it has been in years with Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, John Isner and Sam Querrey joining captain Jim Courier in Brisbane. Notably, though, longtime Davis Cup stalwarts Bob and Mike Bryan  – once a near-guaranteed point in the crucial Saturday doubles rubber – have retired from Davis Cup play.

The match of the weekend should be Sock vs. Kyrgios, the fourth match of the tie and first up on Sunday (Saturday night in North America). They are two of the hottest players in 2017 not named Roger Federer. And they are are good friends. It will be interesting to see how their loose, engaging styles of play translate to the pressure cooker of a tight Davis Cup tie.