US Open Day 12 – Men’s semis preview

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NEW YORK – On paper, at least, the second men’s semifinal is the defacto final.

But let’s hold off on handing out the big trophy for now. Because Grand Slam semifinal newbies Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain and Kevin Anderson of South Africa have something to say about it.

Carreño Busta, 26 and Anderson, 31, will lead off men’s semifinal day at 4 p.m. EDT. They will be playing by far the biggest match of their careers. And the fascinating thing will be to watch how each handles the occasion.

Both players benefited immensely from the fact that Andy Murray’s late withdrawal led to a somewhat unbalanced draw. 

Anderson defeated a qualifier, then Ernests Gulbis in straight sets and then Borna Coric (who had upset No. 4 Alexander Zverev in the previous round but couldn’t back it up). In the fourth round, he caught a break with Paolo Lorenzi, who had come of a section of the draw that included Jack Sock and Gilles Muller (whom Lorenzi took care of personally). And then, a surprisingy passive Sam Querrey. Most players would take that in a heartbeat.

Carreño Busta’s dream draw

Carreño Busta had an even easier ride, relatively speaking. No less an authority than Roger Federer referred to that (maybe a little bit of shade?) after his loss to Juan Martin del Potro. 

He drew qualifier, qualifier, qualifier and then qualifier to reach the quarters. The last of them was 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov, who upset No. 8 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the early going but, after six matches, had run out of steam. 

In the quarters, he defeated No. 29 seed Diego Schwartzman, who was not 100 per cent physically but had done him a great service in knocking out No. 5 Marin Cilic and No. 16 Lucas Pouille along the way. Most players would take that draw in half a heartbrat.

In his quarterfinal, Anderson was as expressive and aggressive as anyone had ever seen him. At 6-foot-8, he’s one of the big servers out on the ATP Tour, with a great trajectory. But as his career has progressed, he has become more than that.

All that was missing, perhaps, was that aggressiveness and drive.

Anderson the favorite

Anderson leads their head-to-head 2-0. Notably, the two played just a few weeks ago in Montreal, and the South African won in straight sets.

These two are the opening act in the figurative and literal sense. Because ticketholders, as much as they might enjoy discovering these two, will really be waiting for the main event that takes place immediately afterwards.

Del Potro had been 5-16 against Roger Federer going into their quarterfinal. But he had beaten him in some pretty big matches, including the 2009 US Open final and, now, the 2017 US Open quarters.

His record against Nadal is better – 5-8. 

They had not played for nearly three years when they met in the semifinals of the Olympic event in Rio de Janeiro last summer. Del Potro won that one – an emotional effort. He defeated him three consecutive times on North American hard courts back in del Potro’s breakout year in 2009. 

It’s a tough one to call. Nadal’s level has been up and down this US Open. And with all the talk of a potential Nadal-Federer clash here – it has never happened in their careers and who knows, it may never happen – he might prefer this one. 

Del Potro down – but not out

Del Potro seemed down and out against Dominic Thiem in the fourth round, as a virus laid him out and turned his nose Stan Wawrinka red. Somehow, he escaped that one in an incredible comeback. And he rode the wave through the match with a sub-par Federer who nevertheless had his chances.

Two more days of rest, and playing the later match, will help del Potro get to the endurance level that any opponent needs to take on Nadal in a best-of-five set match.

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Nadal destroyed 19-year-old Andrey Rublev in his own quarterfinal match, losing just five games and expending relatively little energy. But that match didn’t necessarily reflect his level; more than anything, it reflected the inexperience level of his teenaged opponent.

The Argentine’s cheering section was large and in charge in the Federer match, definitely a different dynamic than the 36-year-old Swiss star is accustomed to. Against Nadal, it may be overwhelming. And the fact that the sun will have set and the lights will be on in Arthur Ashe Stadium should turn this one into a great event.

Doubles champions crowned

 The men’s doubles champions were crowned earlier Friday.

No. 12 seeds Jean-Julien Rojer of the Netherlands and Horia Tecau of Romania defeated No. 11 seeds Marc Lopez and Feliciano Lopez of Spain 6-4, 6-3 to win their second major title.

The pair Wimbledon in 2015, and finished a superb season by taking the ATP Tour Finals in London.

It was the first US Open men’s doubles final in the open era (since 1968) to feature two teams seeded No. 10 or higher. 

Their pure doubles aggressiveness was the different in what was a rather routine victory, after both teams had superb tournaments.

Rojer and Tecau had the much tougher road; they defeated the No. 6, No. 4 and No. 1 seeds along the way. Lopez and Lopez defeated the fifth-seeded Bryan brothers in the semifinals, losing their first set in five matches to that point.

Del Potro spoils the Federer-Nadal party

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NEW YORK – There was a meeting of the board of directors of Tennis Gods Inc. Wednesday evening.

It was a heavenly dinner gathering thousands of miles above the Arthur Ashe Stadium roof that thankfully was going to allow tennis to be played, on a rainy evening in Queen’s.

The board had a major dilemma on its hands. It had to determine the outcome of the US Open quarterfinal clash between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro.

Said one esteemed board member, a bit of a traditionalist: “Awwww, we need to give all those fans who’ve been dying for at least one Federer-Nadal meeting in New York what they want. They’re not getting any younger. The clock is ticking.”

Said another, with a slightly wider view of things: “Of course. But isn’t it time we cut that very nice young man del Potro a break? We’ve been busting his chops for years with all these wrist surgeries and tough draws. I mean, don’t you all think we’d made him suffer enough?”

And so, the board was in the throes of a thorny dilemma. They were absolutely deadlocked between two good outcomes and unable to come to consensus.

Finally, after much deliberation, they decided not to decide. They would just stay out of it and let it play out. Whatever happened, happened.

Out-of-sorts Fed finally meets his match

What happened was something there had been clear signs of through the first 10 days of this US Open. But because Federer has had such an unreal first half of the season, no one wanted to pay attention.

The 36-year-old didn’t have it this entire US Open.

And he ran up against an inspired Argentine who, this night and through this tournament, very much did.

The 2009 US Open champion dispatched Federer 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4. It is del Potro, not Federer, who will meet Nadal in the semifinal on Friday.

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Almost immediately, the price for tickets to that match tumbled on the secondary market.

Before the match, asked to describe his opponent, Federer said this: “Big serve, big forehand, big heart.”

After scraping through his fourth-round match against Dominic Thiem by the skin of his teeth, suffering from a virus and a stye in his eye and low on energy, del Potro came back two days later and played his best match of the tournament.

It was a champion’s move.

“I did everything well. I served so good, I hit my forehand as hard as I can. And I think we played a great match and I deserved to win in the end,” he said during his on-court interview.

A smiling Federer, who offered a hug, too, greeted him at the net after the win.

Not enough mind, body, or game

And it was a lucid Federer who broke it down afterwards.

“I think there’s definitely things, you know, that happened in the preparation and throughout the tournament that led to my performance today, because I can play much better but I can play worse, too. So it was one of those matches where if I ran into a good guy, I was going to lose, I felt,” Federer said. “I don’t want to say I was in negative mindset, but I knew going in that I’m not in a safe place. Might have depended too much on my opponent, and I don’t like that feeling. I had it, you know, throughout the tournament, and I just felt that way every single match I went into.”

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The Federer support group had this look quite a few times during this US Open. They KNEW.

Federer didn’t have that feeling either at the Australian Open or at Wimbledon, he said. He felt in control of his service games there. And that’s the base on which he can mount his efforts to break serve.

“That’s why, rightfully so, I’m out of this tournament. Because I wasn’t good enough, in my mind, in my body, and in my game to overcome these three pillars. If you’re missing all three, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “I’m okay with it. And I tried until the very end. And smashing certain stuff in the net that I normally wouldn’t, smashing forehand volleys into the back fence, I mean, that stuff sucked. You know, honestly, it was terrible.

“Juan Martin did well. He served well, had some big shots when he needed to. That was the part, that he did so much better tonight, and that’s why he deserves to win.”

Not the back – exactly

Tactically, Federer wasn’t very lucid in key moments. Likely it was a function of, as he admitted afterwards, being weary after the hard yards to get healthy enough to even play.

Federer said his back wasn’t bothering him Wednesday night. And he said that it had been getting better throughout the event – something of a requirement, he said. Because if playing the US Open was going to make it worse, he wouldn’t have played.

But the back woes certainly contributed to the overall malaise he felt the whole way through, from the shocking five-setter against young American Frances Tiafoe and on.

“Did it take away something from my overall performance? Maybe not on the night. But leading into the night, you know, I just think it slowed down my rhythm and whatever it was throughout the tournament. Because I was never really able to turn it on completely,” he said. “I played okay, you know, but I never felt like I got to the great level I can play at. But that’s okay.”

Del Potro forehand firing

Tactically, Federer wasn’t nearly as lucid as he might have been. Certainly he hit too many balls to del Potro’s forehand. And this, even though he felt he couldn’t even afford to get into the rallies with the Argentine because he wasn’t playing well enough to stay in them.

The point that perhaps painted the best picture of that came at 3-5 in the fourth set, when Federer was serving to stay in the match.

He approached the net with a forehand he just cracked. But del Potro guessed right – you wouldn’t think he’d anticipate an approach shot to his big weapon, but after so many on the night, he did. The Argentine reflexed the ball right off the bounce – at a zillion miles an hour, headed straight for Federer’s head.

It was all he could do to get out of the way. And of course it landed inside the court.

A few minutes later, del Potro closed it out.

“Tonight I made my best backhands on the tournament in the important moments of the match, and it was in the set point of the third set, and then to break his serve in the fourth, and I hit my best backhand on the tournament tonight, which is a good signal for the future,” del Potro said.

Co-fan favorites – a Federarity

There aren’t many players in tennis who can break into the overwhelming crowd support Federer receives wherever he goes. Rafael Nadal in Spain, perhaps. Andy Murray at Wimbledon – but even that can be a coin toss sometimes.

There surely were more Federer fans than del Potro fans inside Arthur Ashe Wednesday. But the del Potro supporters were so deliriously loud as they chanted and encouraged their man, it felt at times as though they filled the house.

“You made me feel happy every time when I play here. And I love your support. I love to see all the crowd cheering for me, chanting for me, hitting my forehand the same time as me,” del Potro said.

He wasn’t emotional after this victory, as big as it was for him. The big guy was happy.

He knows he has more work to do this week. And he knows he has a shot at the title. He also knows that the match against Nadal, with two inexperienced, first-time semifinalists in the other half, is the de facto final.

Long time between Slam semis

His match  Friday will be del Potro’s first Grand Slam semifinal since 2013.

Del Potro’s backhand was steady enough that Federer didn’t feel it could be his go-to side. And he paid the price for that.

“I cannot believe to play another semifinal. All my injuries, all my surgeries, and especially to play here in New York is great,” he said on court.

“It’s my favourite tournament, my favourite city to play tennis.”

Federer legitimately believed that the right guy won on the night.

“Of course it is a pity, but, you know, Juan Martin deserves it more. I feel I have no place in the semis and he will have a better chance to beat Rafa, to be honest,” he said. “The way I played or playing right now, it’s not good enough in my opinion to win this tournament. It’s better I’m out and somebody else gets a chance to do better than me.”

Del Potro didn’t feel as though he was necessarily that guy. But he has two days to improve his outlook.

“Personally, I like to play against (Nadal) when I’m in good conditions. But it’s not the case at this moment, so I will see what happen,” he said. “But when you play semifinals on the Grand Slam, everything can happen. So you must be ready for the chance and playing against Rafa in my favorite tournament, I will try to enjoy the atmosphere, the game, and I know if I play my best tennis, I could be a danger for him.”

Looking down from above as they nursed their final brandy of the night, the tennis gods may well have been nodding in agreement as they wrapped up their special session.

Because maybe everything did work out as it should, even if they had nothing to do with it.

US Open Day 10 – What to Watch

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NEW YORK – Whatever watching you’re doing, it’s going to be on Arthur Ashe Stadium under the roof.

When the schedule for the second Wednesday came out Tuesday evening, the US Open didn’t even bother trying to schedule the myriad of junior and legends and men’s doubles matches that would normally have been played.

The weather forecast was that bad.

To the four singles quarterfinals scheduled on Arthur Ashe, they did add three women’s quarterfinal doubles matches on the Grandstand. But that was with a hope and a prayer.

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Women’s Matches to Watch

[1] Karolina Pliskova (CZE) vs. [20] Coco Vandeweghe (USA)

Two more Americans will try to add their names to the women’s singles semifinal roster, along with Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens.

Those two got it done – both in third-set tiebreaks, Tuesday.

First up is No. 20 seed Coco Vandeweghe, who has the toughest task of all against world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova.

Despite being the top-ranked woman in the world, Pliskova has been very much under the radar during the US Open. Part of that was the stadium-court scheduling and return of Maria Sharapova. The other has been the success of the American women at their home Slam.

Pliskova’s hold on No. 1 was tenuous going in. There were, in theory, eight women who could have ended the US Open in the top spot. But most of them fell away quite early. That includes No. 2 Simona Halep, who was just five ranking points behind at the start and had far fewer ranking points to defend this fortnight than Pliskova, a finalist last year.

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Now, only one player stands in the way of the Czech’s maintaining the top spot: Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza.

If Pliskova doesn’t reach the final (i.e., win this match against Vandeweghe and her semi-final as well), Muguruza will become the new No. 1, the 24th player in the history of the WTA Tour to do so.  

Pliskova won their last meeting, on the indoor clay-court track in Stuttgart. But Vandeweghe won their previous two meetings, on hard court in Dubai and at Wimbledon two years ago, in the second round.

There will be big serving, and hard hitting. And, hopefully, some fruitful net attacking by Vandweghe to change things up.

[15] Madison Keys (USA) vs. [Q] Kaia Kanepi (EST)

The theme of the day for the women is power as two more hard hitters take the court tonight.

“Late Night with Madison” has become a theme with the 22-year-old American, who has fed off the well-refreshed late night crowds on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

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Coco Vandeweghe and Madison Keys had no hard feelings after their Stanford final last month – clearly! Both returned to the top 20.

This time, she and Kanepi are the opening act for the blockbuster to follow between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro.

Kanepi, sidelined for much of the last few years with plantar fasciitis in both feet as well as a bout with the Epstein-barr virus, has gone through the qualifying and won four main-draw matches to get this far.

Keys has played some marathons, but still would be relatively fresher.

There’s a decade between them (Kanepi is 32). But they’ve only met once, on clay in Madrid in 2015 (won by Kanepi).

Men’s Matches to Watch

[1] Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. Andrey Rublev (RUS)

Nadal’s draw has worked out extremely well for him. He has yet to face a top-50 player, and Rublev is no exception.

But the 19-year-old Russian, who upset No. 7 Grigor Dimitrov earlier in the tournament, will be top 50 when this tournament is over. In fact, he’ll be in the top 40 no matter what happens against Nadal. Rublev also beat No. 9 seed David Goffin, clearly hobbled by a knee injury.

Nadal has never played Rublev. But he’s 1-0 against his coach, a Spaniard named Fernando Vicente. Nadal beat Vicente, who reached No. 29 in the singles rankings in 2000,  in straight sets in the first round of the 2003 US Open. Nadal was 17 at the time.

[3] Roger Federer (SUI) vs. [24] Juan Martin del Potro (ARG)

This rematch of the 2009 US Open final was the most hotly-anticipated potential clash on the men’s side with the exception of one – a potential Federer-Nadal semifinal.

That del Potro got to this place at all was close to miraculous, after he struggled with a virus in the 36 hours before his match against No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem.

Down two sets to none, aching and ailing, del Potro somehow found a way to come back and win in five. It was a match he called “unforgettable.”

He should be feeling better by this point. But obviously not at his best. 

Federer had an unblemished record against his previous three opponents (Mikhail Youzhny, Feliciano Lopez, Philipp Kohlscrieber). He’s 16-5 against del Potro. But the Argentine’s victories over him have hurt.

He defeated Federer twice at his hometown tournament in Basel, Switzerland. And he defeated him in the US Open that year, ending Federer’s streak of five straight titles at Flushing Meadows.

It’s going to be a long day of tennis before this one gets going tonight. Hopefully, the wait will have been worth it.

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.

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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.”

Stiff neck may not cost del Potro

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WASHINGTON – Juan Martin del Potro’s match against Kei Nishikori ended around 2 a.m. Friday morning.

So there was no press conference to explain why the big Argentine had the trainer out, and what the issue actually was during the third-round match.

Nishikori won, 6-4, 7-5.

Del Potro’s PR rep took to Twitter this afternoon to explain that del Potro woke up with a stiff neck Thursday morning. And it got worse out in the heat.

Anti-inflammatories didn’t help.

Jorge Viale wrote that it was not expected that del Potro’s summer schedule – Montreal next week, followed by Cincinnati and the US Open – would be compromised.

So, given all the forfeits at the Rogers Cup, that’s good news.

Del potro

Tangled up in (Nike Paramount) Blue

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In a few weeks, when Wimbledon rolls around, the end of the blue period will be upon us.

But until then, we are not yet done with the Nike Blue – Paramount Blue, officially – that was ubiquitous during the clay-court season.

It was a step above the yellow and green neons that fought a valiant battle for supremacy on the Nike players during the Indian Wells-Miami swing a couple of months ago.

But the French Open was absolutely overrun with it.

Here is just a small sample of the protagonists. They ranged from the juniors, to the pro players – even to legends like John McEnroe and Conchita Martiez.

There were two varieties for the women. The basic kit matched up with the shorts worn by the men.

Some of the women were chosen to wear the non-patterned Maria Sharapova kit : Russian juniors Olesya Pervushina and Anastasia Potapova, American Anastasia Anisimova, Croat Alja Tomljanovic and Canadian Françoise Abanda.

But the vestiges from the battling neons era remained.

Where are the blue socks?

It was all about the shoes and socks.

Nike

We asked several Nike players why the heck the shoes didn’t match. None of them had an answer; they just wear what they’ve given, or paid to wear.

But one did point this out: “The socks don’t match, either!”

There was a little of the green neon around the trim of the shirts – and of course the Swoosh. But the sock/shoe wardrobe malfunction was definitely out-of-the-box thinking.

They should all have been wearing Nadal’s shoes. And it would have been perfect.

Nike

As well, they are also 10 French Open, winning championship shoes. They could even have kept the personalized “Rafa” and No. 9 on the backs of them – just for good karma.

The only outfit that matched the shoes was the black version of the kit, worn by Genie Bouchard.

Nike

On a related note, the two junior girls’ finalists and all four girls in the doubles final were tangled up in Nike Paramount blue. So you can see where the future is headed once they all graduate to the pro tour.

Del Potro done in Paris, but optimistic

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ROLAND GARROS – If he had his two-handed backhand of old, Juan Martin del Potro knows that he could have given No. 1 seed Andy Murray a better battle in their third-round match at the French Open Saturday.

But it’s not quite there – yet. So given what he has to work with, his first Roland Garros in five years went well on the whole, despite the 7-6 (8), 7-5, 6-0 defeat.

“The first two sets were really tight, and it was only few points for Andy, and he won both sets. But I felt playing so good for the two hours and a half, and then I was enjoying the match. The crowd was enjoying the match, too. And I think we made a great show for them,” del Potro said. “But in the end, Andy played better in the specific moments, and he won.”

The first set took an hour and 25 minutes. Del Potro had his chances. 

“When you play the best players, they give you very, very few occasions, opportunities. When they do, you can’t make a double fault like I did today. There was this other point. I had a set point. And I was going to win the set, right? Instead of being aggressive, I didn’t really do much. At that point, he won. See? That’s what happened,” del Potro said. “But beyond my tennis and so on, I need to improve my backhand. Andy is one of the smartest guys on the circuit, and he knew what my weak point was. Today, on clay, if I had been in slightly better conditions and with a better backhand, it would have been more difficult for him.”

Delpo

At the end of the first set, after a ball on set point against him was (correctly) called out, del Potro leaned on the net post for most of the set break.

It’s tough to accept when you put nearly an hour and a half into something, have your chances, and know you probably lost your best opportunity at beating a world No. 1. Because slogging away for another three hours-plus to win three sets against an opponent who’s excellent at slogging away for three hours-plus, on a damp, slow day, is a daunting prospect.

Murray fully realized the significance.

“Obviously his reaction at the end of the first set, you know, he was pretty disappointed. He had some opportunities to close it out, and he served a double fault in the tiebreak on one of the set points. It was an important first set for a number of reasons, but the conditions today were very heavy and tough, not easy to come back from,” he said.

Chess match won by Murray

When two premium players face each other, each knows what the other is going to do. The chess match comes down to who executes it better.

The other aspect – and this is far more true on the men’s side than the women’s side – is that both players often see the chess game the same way.

Del Potro: “I felt I was playing well. I could feel I was hurting him mentally. But it still was extremely complicated, because he was starting to return the balls better. My serve was not hurting him as much anymore later into the match. He was a real No. 1.”

Murray: “I was starting to play a bit better towards the end of the set. I was starting to get a better read on the returns and I wanted to come out and make it really tough for him beginning of that second set.”

Del Potro had been feeling it in his back and shoulder before the tournament even began. So to get to the third round was not so bad, after all. 

So-so clay season – but at least a season

This was to have been the Argentine’s first full clay-court season in five years. But after his first win in Estoril in early May, he withdrew and returned home after his grandfather died. He missed Madrid the following week as well.

To add to his struggles, del Potro sure hasn’t had much draw luck. His ranking is finally high enough to get him seeded, but in terms of Grand Slams he’s still slotted to get a top-8 seed in the third round. “If I want to change that, I need to improve my ranking; it’s the only solutions to get better draws,” he said.

del Potro

He should already probably be ranked higher. But some of his best results haven’t counted. No points are awarded at the Olympics, where he had a great tournament last summer in Rio. And no points are awarded for Davis Cup, where Argentina won it all in 2016.

Del Potro faced Novak Djokovic, a last-minute wild card, in the second round in Acapulco in March. He faced him again shortly thereafter in his second match at Indian Wells. And then, he drew Roger Federer  for his second match in Miami. With a little better draw luck, del Potro might have been in the top 16 by now.

He plans to play two warmups leading up to Wimbledon: ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands in 10 days and Queens’s Club the week after that.

(Screenshots from FranceTV)

Even Delpo hugs no solace for Almagro

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ROLAND GARROS – There are moments on a tennis court where humanity trumps tennis.

They are nearly always sad moments.

Thursday at the French Open, Nico Almagro and Juan Martin del Potro shared one.

The 31-year-old Almagro has been at this 15 years. He’s been in the top 10, won 16 ATP Tour titles and more than $10 million in prize money. He’s accomplished quite a lot in the grand scheme of things and on the ATP Tour these days, 31 is hardly retirement time.

But his last two tournaments have ended in agony and tears because of a left knee injury.

The Spaniard had just won the second set against his old friend del Potro when, early in the third, the knee went – again.

It happened just two weeks ago in Rome when he was playing another good pal, Rafael Nadal. He was forced to stop in the fourth game of the match.

On that occasion, it almost looked like he’d taken a bullet in the knee, when he went down in a heap after what seemed like a fairly innocuous twist as he landed after hitting a shot. It didn’t seem possible Almagro could be back in time for the French Open. But he was. And he won his first-round match against Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus.

But it was hard-fought, four close sets. And sometimes it’s the day after, and the day after that, that prove the challenge with a not-quite-healed injury.

Deja vu all over again

The Spaniard felt the knee in the second game of the third set. Del Potro headed over to Almagro’s side of the net, but quickly returned to his own side as Almagro indicated he would try to continue. 

On what turned out to be the final point of the match, Almagro let a second serve just fly by. He didn’t even see it; his head was already down. He already knew it was over.

You could hear him from the top of Court 2, as the entire court went silent. He fell backwards onto the court, his chest heaving up and down, wracked with sobs.

Throughout, del Potro was as solicitous as it’s possible to be on a tennis court – especially on such a big occasion for both. They were extraordinary scenes. The Argentine stepping over the net to get to the other side to offer what help he could. Helping his old friend back to his chair, and sitting with him to offer comfort once he had retired from the match.

Del Potro is the guy you want around if the worst thing in the world happens to you. But even the power of a Delpo hug wasn’t nearly enough in this case.

Take a look:

DelPo not exactly tip-top

Del Potro knows exactly how it feels to be unable to do what you do best because of an injury. He has lost years to his wrist issues and, indeed, is playing his first French Open in five years.

“I tried to, I don’t know, tried to find a good words for that moment. I say to him, ‘Try to be calm.’ Try to think about his family, his baby. And sometimes the heart is first than the tennis match or the tennis life,” he said afterwards. “It’s an unpleasant feeling. You have a player who is suffering quite a lot. He was in agony. It was tough. I told him that tennis is important, but health matters more than tennis in this case, because I want him to be out of his bad patch.”

The Argentine, who will play No. 1 seed Andy Murray in the third round, wasn’t feeling all that great himself. 

He had treatment for a groin injury earlier in the match, and the anti-inflammatories still hadn’t quite kicked in when Almagro made the point moot – at least for this day.

“It happened to me when I was at 3-1 or 4-2 (in the first set). I had to hit the ball with my backhand, and I was wrong-footed. And I felt pain on the groin and lost some mobility. I won the set very quickly,” del Potro said. “In the second set, had to call the doctor so that I could get some anti-inflammatories, and I hoped that the anti-inflammatories could be effective. All of a sudden, he suffered pain on his knee.”

Del Potro said the groin situation is nothing new.

“I know I have one day and a half to feel better. It’s an old problem for me, so my physio knows how to treat that. But I will see,” he said. “Hopefully I can be in good shape, because I would like to play 100 per cent in the third round, and I’m feeling good with my game at this moment. But I need to be in good shape, as well.”

 

Tennis – the ultimate democracy

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ROLAND GARROS – First of all, no offense intended as we mention that Diego Schwartzman of Argentina is not a big fellow. That’s not breaking news.

But watching him practice with countryman Juan Martin del Potro Friday afternoon at the French Open, what stood out is how much of a democracy tennis is – at least on the field of play.

No weight classes. No age classes. It’s a sport where a man listed at 6-foot-6 and 214 pounds (he may be taller) can face a man listed at 5-foot-7 and 141 pounds (he may be shorter). They can go toe-to-toe on court for hours. And Goliath won’t automatically beat David, despite an extreme physical advantage.

field

The two are only 10 spots apart in the ATP Tour rankings, too.

It’s a sport where (on the women’s side, at least), a 43-year-old can play a 16-year-old – and the young legs won’t automatically mean victory. In fact, it can end 6-4 in the third set.

All-Argie 1st round for Del Potro – Pella

On the minus side for del Potro, there’s a good chance Schwartzman feels better than he does does heading into this French Open. Bigger parts break down more often.

Goliath is feeling it in the back and shoulder as he heads into a first-round encounter with another Argentine, qualifier Guido Pella. On the plus side, the No. 29 seed is in Andy Murray’s section of the draw. And Murray might even be feeling worse.

Schwartzman, good on clay (he won Istanbul last year on the dirt) plays lucky loser Andrey Rublev of Russia.

Despite his physical woes, del Potro still got out for two practice sessions Friday. The first one in the morning was with another undersized overachiever, Spain’s David Ferrer.

Here’s how they looked on Court 1.

Bouchard likely to make RG decision Saturday

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ROLAND GARROS – On the plus side, Genie Bouchard got out onto the practice court Wednesday.

She had been scheduled to hit in the small annexe courts, up near the Bois de Boulogne. But she ended up on Court Suzanne Lenglen in the middle of the qualifying zone. So some fans did get to see her hit.

A couple of the young boys waiting for Richard Gasquet to take the court after her weren’t too impressed. They had no clue who she was. They kept asking her, “Madame, une balle s’il vous plaît!” (Ma’am, give us a ball, please!)

Hitting was about all Bouchard did. There was no running, and Bouchard was careful not to land on or push off much with the injured right ankle.

As is the case with Simona Halep, who has an injury to the same right ankle, she lands on her left foot after the serve. So both were able to hit serves Wednesday, but neither moved a whole lot.

Here’s what it looked like:

The Canadian was in remarkably good spirits considering she’s in a race against the clock to be fit enough to play in the second Grand Slam tournament of the season.

It’s always better to laugh even when you might feel like crying – a good way to get through life’s trials.

Decision time looms

Bouchard is continuing with intensive treatment on the ankle. She’s likely to make the decision whether or not to give it a go on Saturday.

The singles draws will be made Friday. So that means she may be in the women’s singles draw whether or not she plays. Because she’s unseeded, even if she does pull out afterwards, it won’t mean the draw will have to be reshuffled.

Halep was one of the favourites to win the title before the ankle injury suffered during the singles final in Rome last week. She’ll be the No. 3 seed. Should she decide not to play, they would have to re-do the seeds and shuffle things around if she makes the call later than Friday morning.

These two are not the only players who have question marks around them as the tournament gets closer.

After losing in Lyon Wednesday, Juan Martin del Potro said back and shoulder pains have him pondering the possibility of missing the French Open – again.

With his series of wrist surgeries, and his decision to skip the clay-court swing a year ago as he was coming back to action, the 2009 US Open champion hasn’t played at Roland Garros since … 2012.

Hard to believe.

Everyone’s previews and predictions are going to have to wait until all these question marks become exclamation points. Otherwise, they might be out of date before the tournament even begins.