Andy Murray returns after 342 days

If you wanted an ideal set of circumstances to maximize the impact of favorite Brit Andy Murray’s return to tennis after nearly a year, you couldn’t have asked for better.

The 31-year-old playing at home in London, on grass, before a packed house at Queen’s Club nearly unanimously on his side.

And he also was playing Nick Kyrgios.

Murray had never lost to Kyrgios, with whom he has a very congenial rookie-veteran relationship. And very nearly defeated him again.

In the end, the 23-year-old Aussie prevailed 2-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5.

Murray

“I thought I did okay. I certainly could have done some stuff better, at the beginning of the second set I thought my level at times was good; sometimes not so good,” Murray told the media after the match.

“I’m really happy that I got on the match court today and played. It was a close decision. I have not been practising loads at all … I really haven’t played a whole lot of tennis, so I’m happy I got out there and competed and performed respectably.” 

Murray’s double fault was an anticlimactic ending to a match that had far more drama than you might have expected, on some unexpected levels.

A whole lotta chuntering

MurrayBoth players were in peak form in terms of the regular exchanges with their supporters. The Brits have a perfect word for this: chuntering.

There was a whole lot of chuntering, with Kyrgios making clear that whatever was ailing him, it hurt and that he was unclear on quite what to do.

He was waging his own internal battle in addition to dealing with a hip issue.

MurrayKyrgios was trying to beat Murray for the first time in his career. He was wrestling with the possibility of losing to a player who was playing his first match in forever.

Or perhaps with not wanting to show up a player he has a lot of respect for, had Murray’s form not been up to it.

And perhaps he was going back on forth on how his body might hold up even if he did win. To defeat Murray, then withdraw before the next match would be unfortunate for both.

“It was strange because on big points, when I won them, I almost felt bad if I showed any emotion. Like I didn’t really want to get into his grill at all,” Kyrgios said. “But the whole time, it was kind of good to see him back out there, but it was a very awkward match for me because I was thinking the guy hadn’t played a match in a year, and I was getting smoked in the first set. I was, like, this is not going to be a good look if I lose this match.”

Kyrgios has doubles on the docket with his Davis Cup captain, the “retired” Lleyton Hewitt, this week.

My hip’s worse than your hip

MurrayIt was Kyrgios who looked the worse for wear out on the court. It was Kyrgios who limped off after the victory.

“Two-all in the first set, I split-stepped and my hip kind of pinched a little bit and I was dealing with a little bit of pain for the whole match as ridiculous as that sounds because the guy was out from a hip injury (surgery),” Kyrgios said

MurrayAs for Murray? Well, he grabbed his back a few times – a common occurrence for any player getting his body used to the low-bouncing grass.

He actually looked pretty good. But the big test, after a match lasting two hours, 40 minutes, will be how he feels Wednesday morning.

He told the media afterwards that he was uncertain about his next move.

‘I won’t rule anything out just now. I won’t rule out playing Eastbourne and not playing Wimbledon. And I wouldn’t rule out not playing a tournament next week and trying to get matches like in an exhibition tournament, as well, to get ready for Wimbledon,” he said. “‘I’ll kind of need to wait and see what happens the next few days and chat with my team about that, because I don’t know exactly what’s best for me just now.”

Had Murray won, he would have faced a juicy (and too premature) matchup against the current British No. 1, Kyle Edmund.

Instead, it will be Kyrgios against Edmund in a clash of old junior rivals just three months apart in age, and four spots apart in the ATP Tour rankings.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

Federer to Stuttgart final – and back to No. 1

On a day when three top players returning from long absences played quality tennis on the lawns of Stuttgart, Roger Federer came out a double winner.

Not only did he come out on top in his semifinal match against Nick Kyrgios, he also guaranteed a return to the top of the rankings on Monday.

Federer got past Nick Kyrgios 6-7 (2), 6-2, 7-6 (5) in Saturday’s second semifinal.

“I’m very happy, very relieved, I thought it was the tough match I expected. We’ve played so many breakers already I’ve stopped counting,” Federer said during his on-court interview. “I lost the last couple of matches with match points so (I thought) maybe it’s going to happen again.”

On Sunday, he will play former world No. 3 and Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic.

Raonic defeated No. 2 seed Lucas Pouille 6-4, 7-6 (3) in the first semifinal.

He’s No. 1

The victory ensured that Federer will return to the No. 1 ranking when the new list comes out on Monday.

Stuttgart
A match played in good spirits, with Kyrgios’s respect for Federer showing in everything he did. (TennisTV)

But, if he wants to stay at the top of the heap for Wimbledon, he will have to win the tournament in Halle, Germany next week. Otherwise, Rafael Nadal will take it back.

(Federer will still be the No. 1 seed, because of the grass-court seeding formula used for the men).

“It was close. Could have gone either way, naturally. I’m happy I got it and got back to world No. 1 next Monday, so it’s very exciting. And I got another final, so it’s great news,” Federer said.

This is Federer’s first tournament since Miami in late March, where he lost to Thanasi Kokkinakis in the first round, in a third-set tiebreak. In his previous match, he had lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the Indian Wells final – in a third-set tiebreak.

For Kyrgios, Stuttgart was a return to singles for the first time since the Houston clay-court event in early April.

He played the doubles in Lyon, on clay, the week before the French Open and won it with his friend Jack Sock. He also played doubles at the Surbiton Challenger last week, losing in the first round.

Stuttgart

Raonic back and looking for a title

For Raonic, Stuttgart is a return after he missed Rome and the French Open with a knee issue that began during the 2017 offseason. He spent six weeks unable to train full out, or even serve. And that compromised the beginning of his 2018 season.

His fitness went up several notches during the American hard-court swing through Indian Wells and Miami. He reached the semis in the desert and the quarters in Florida, losing to del Potro on both occasions.

But after giving a walkover to Marin Cilic in the third round in Monte Carlo, and losing to young countryman Denis Shapovalov in the same round in Madrid, the 27-year-old crossed off the clay-court season and began to prepare for the grass.

The Stuttgart final is his first since Istanbul a year ago, on clay.

He will be looking for his first title in 2 1/2 years – since Brisbane to start the 2016 season.

There, he defeated Federer in the final.

Stuttgart
“Really excited to play Milos. He’s in great shape again. it’s nice for him. And I hope we can play another great match.”

Federer is 10-3 against Raonic. He lost to him in five sets in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals, and defeated him in straight sets in the 2017 quarterfinals.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

In the end, Kyrgios ran out of time

PARIS – Less than 24 hours after winning the doubles title in Lyon with pal Jack Sock, Nick Kyrgios made the call to pull out of singles at Roland Garros.

“Unfortunately I have to withdraw from this year’s French Open. Having consulted with my team and medical experts it is deemed too risky for me to step out and potentially play five sets on clay, especially as I have not played a singles match in nearly two months,” Kyrgios wrote on Twitter.

“I’ve worked hard to be ready and desperately wanted to play Roland Garros, which is very special to me but I literally ran out of time.

“A dramatic spike in load on my elbow could potentially put me back to square one and with the grass court season around the corner it is something I cannot and will not risk.

“The good news is that I am finally pain free, working hard and enjoying my training and am looking forward to being back in singles action in Stuttgart.

“I’m sorry to those fans that bought tickets to watch me play but am also grateful for the continued love and support.”

Doubles champs in Lyon

Kyrgios and his good mate Jack Sock were playing in their fourth career tournament together.

They went into Lyon and fought through four matches to win the title even though Kyrgios had not played since early April, at the clay-court event in Houston.

Unseeded, they faced four unseeded teams to take it.

No All-Aussie matchup

The draw gods decreed a potentially juicy first-rounder for Kyrgios in Paris. He had drawn a qualifier – and that qualifier turned out to be his fellow Aussie Bernard Tomic.

Instead, yet another lucky loser will get into the main draw.

It’s the second withdrawal of the day after Viktor Troicki pulled out with a back issue not long before he was to face No. 4 seed Grigor Dimitrov on Stade Suzanne Lenglen.

Dimitrov played Mohamed Safwat of Egypt instead.

Tomic’s new opponent was to be Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India. But Gunneswaran is in the main draw of a Challenger event in Italy this week and is already there. Poor guy; he’s out at least 40,000 Euros.

Kyrgios had signed on for doubles in Paris with his friend Matt Reid. But the draw is out, and they’re not in it.

(Feature photo from the ATP Tour’s Twitter feed)

Desert days for Nick Kyrgios (video)

MIAMI, Fla. – Nick Kyrgios’s Miami Open ended Tuesday night, with a 6-4, 6-4, fourth-round loss to No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev that had it all.

It was frustrating. And perplexing. Also, annoying. And don’t forget exciting. However, the ears of anyone sitting courtside probably are still ringing from Kyrgios’s use of that word that begins with the sixth letter of the alphabet.

The Aussie defeated Dusan Lajovic and No. 22 seed Fabio Fognini in straight sets before the Zverev match.

But in prime time, against another young gun, he was extremely annoyed at his camp, at himself, and at a back that troubled him early on. At 2-5 in the first set, it didn’t appear as though he would even finish the match; he had called for the physio to come out at set’s end.

And then he went out and broke Zverev to make it close, which then nullified the invitation.

And then, it seemed (we can only guess), the back loosened up and the match had more than a few exciting moments.

Considering that just a week before the tournament began, Kyrgios wasn’t even serving, and wasn’t even hitting many tennis balls, it was a surprising result overall. 

Nick
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

Keeping busy in the desert

What do you do when you’re at a tournament site, and you can’t play a tournament?

You find ways to keep busy.

Kyrgios arrived in Indian Wells at the end of February, as girlfriend Ajla Tomljanovic was playing in the WTA 125K Challenger at the same site the week before the main event.

He was supposed to be resting, not hitting tennis balls – although he did sneak out a few times and hit a few, even if he didn’t serve. (Does ping pong count?)

Nick

No doubt he was hoping to play the BNP Paribas Open, without much conviction that he would be able to because of his elbow issue.

So, what to do?

One day, when Tomljanovic was about to take the court to play Viktorija Golubic in the quarterfinals of the Challenger, a full-speed Kyrgios nearly ran down your Tennis.Life correspondent trying to get to the court.

The match was about to begin, and Kyrgios didn’t dare be late.

We’re told he had also been watching her opponents’ matches, doing some advance scouting – and even … taking notes.

He made it. And throughout the 6-3, 6-3 win, he didn’t miss a ball being struck. No texting or other phone work except on changeovers. No distractions when friends Matt Reid and Liam Broady dropped by for a bit.

Total focus.

Practice, as the match plays on

A week later, after he had pulled out of the BNP Paribas Open, Kyrgios had a light hit.

Ironically, the match he was to have played – a second-rounder against Daniil Medvedev – was being contested right behind his practice court, on Stadium 5.

Except it was lucky loser Matteo Berrettini playing it, not Kyrgios.

Who knows if Kyrgios was even aware. But the sound of the scoring, juxtaposed with Kyrgios having an easy hit, was symbolic of … something.

Last Nick hit before Miami

At the end of his time in the desert, Kyrgios had one last practice. Thanasi Kokkinakis was there, along with Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt.

At this point in the tournament the crowds thin out quite a bit outside the main stadium.

But look at the people watching this practice. And Kokkinakis and Kyrgios were not above a bit of crowd-pleasing.

And at the end, they made a whole lot of people go home happy – including one little girl who was flabbergasted by a surprise gift.

And that’s the Kyrgios conundrum.

Polarizing figure

There’s that faction that get offended at everything he does, pretty much. And probably always will.

There’s the faction that’s personally offended by seeing a man born with such a unique gift fail to maximize it, and sometimes not even appear to take it seriously. As if that’s a duty, a responsibility.

And then there are those who see his small kindnesses, how good he is with the kids. They see the player who took the time to make the kids from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tennis teams feel awfully good.

They see how open he is with his emotions, and it strikes a chord that you struggle to find with many modern professional athletes, who strive to have a poker face, stay in their bubble, and try not to let the big crowds in – not even a little bit.

Despite not having played since Davis Cup seven weeks before, match- and practice-shy and still nursing his elbow, Kyrgios came to Miami to give it a shot. And he won two matches against solid opponents in impressive fashion.

Young guns meet

And then, the payoff – a high-profile match against another young player. These two, if things break right, will be battling for big titles for the next decade. 

Nick
(Screenshot: TennisTV)

The future was on display, just as it had been earlier in the day when Borna Coric and Denis Shapovalov went toe-to-toe in a dramatic, full-effort match won by the more experienced of the two.

But sometimes, especially when he doesn’t feel prepared or confident, you get … what you got Tuesday night against Zverev.

Kyrgios kind of ran the gamut there – from thinking about giving up early on as his back was bothering him, to giving it his all, to trying to find things to pump himself up. To dropping a bushel of F-bombs.

Zverev didn’t seem to mind overmuch. He got a kick out of some of it. And he admirably kept his focus even when it seemed everyone else’s focus was on what Kyrgios might do next.

And, in the end, he advanced to the quarterfinals.

So another Kyrgios experience is in the books. 

We’ll see what happens in Estoril, Portugal, which is the next scheduled stop on the Kyrgios Road Show.

Berdych, Kyrgios end their seasons

It became a trend some time ago.

On Thursday, the latest to join the “end your season early” gang were Tomas Berdych and, later in the day, Nick Kyrgios.

Kyrgios had appeared hobbled by a number of issues in recent months – his shoulder and his knees. But mostly, a hip issue he has carried since Queen’s Club, just before Wimbledon.

He said awhile back that he would probably need surgery on it some day.

But he doesn’t want that day to be now.

“I have played a huge amount of tennis since coming back from my hip injury in Washington and unless I want this to escalate to an injury that requires surgery, I need to listen to my body and my team,” Kyrgios said in a statement released on Twitter.

“This year hasn’t been as successful as I would have liked, especially at the Slams although it has been positive in some other areas. It’s been no secret that I have had some sad moments to deal with away from the court which have added to my disappointments throughout the year.”

Berdych

Berdych’s back woes

Berdych, who began the season in the top 10, is currently down at No. 18 and announced  he’s skipping the final two weeks of the season because of persistent back pain.

It had been fairly evident in recent months that he was a mere shadow of his former self.

“I have been playing matches with back pain since Wimbledon and in my last match in Beijing I felt like it was not getting better,” Berdych wrote on Twitter.

“And I was advised by my medical team to give it a few weeks of rest, and to have treatment, in order to be completely (healthy) and pain free and to be ready to compete at the start of 2018.”

Early-birds club membership full

The two players join an ever-larger group of top-20 players on the men’s side who have called an early end to their season.

Berdych

Novak Djokovic: Retired after the first set of his quarterfinal match against Berdych at Wimbledon, announced July 26 he was shutting it down for 2017.

Stan Wawrinka: After reaching the French Open final, lost first round at both Queen’s Club and Wimbledon. Announced Aug. 4 he was having a procedure on his knee and would be out for the remainder of 2017.

Kei Nishikori: Lost his first match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, then felt a “pop” in the wrist while practicing in Cincinnati. Announced Aug. 16 he was out for the season with a wrist issue, but was opting not to have surgery.

Andy Murray: Lost to Sam Querrey in five sets – the last two went 6-1, 6-1 – in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Pulled out of Beijing and Shanghai Sept. 6, and out of the Paris Masters Oct. 13, which basically ended his season.

Milos Raonic: Lost his first match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, pulled out of Cincinnati and the US Open. Underwent a procedure on his wrist, then returned for the ATP Tour event in Tokyo. Won his first match with a one-handed backhand, then withdrew before his second match with a calf issue. Raonic  withdrew from the final two events of the season earlier this week.

Another day, a new drama for Kyrgios

If you’re a Nick Kyrgios fan – or part of Team Kyrgios – every day is a roller-coaster ride.

He goes from sublime to profane from one day to the next. And then he shows off the huge, giving heart that’s in there.

And then he loses his cool once more.

Tuesday was no exception, as the 22-year-old Aussie retired after losing the first set of his first-round match in Shanghai against American Steve Johnson.

He wasn’t injured, not physically. Later he explained the health issues he was dealing with. 

(Update: Kyrgios didn’t submit to the mandatory physical exmination after the retirement, so he forfeits his 1st-round prize money of $21,085 US. He also was fined $10,000 US for unsportsmanlike conduct).

It’s not easy being Kyrgios, sometimes.

To recap:

Saturday

Kyrgios impresses in beating world No. 4 Alexander Zverev in the Beijing semis.

Sunday

drama

Kyrgios doesn’t have much, get a penalty point, clashes with umpire Mohamed Lahyani on several occasions. And then he goes down 6-2, 6-1 to Rafael Nadal in the Beijing final.

The match did, however, take more than an hour and a half. And there were some moments of brilliance. So there was that.

Monday

Kyrgios reveals a new charitable endeavour in Australia on the Players Voice website.

drama

Kyrgios said he has found his purpose – playing for the kids. He has found the reason for him do be doing what he’s doing, aspects of which he doesn’t really like very much.

He and his family plan to build a “facility for disadvantaged and underprivileged kids where they could hang out, be safe and feel like they were part of a family. There’d be tennis courts and basketball courts and a gym and an oval to kick the footy. There’d be things to eat and beds to sleep in.”

They’re looking for some land in Melbourne – chosen because it’s the sporting capital of Australia over his hometown of Canberra – and looking for corporate partners. 

Kyrgios wrote that whenever he’s back in Australia he’ll be hands-on: running tennis camps, shooting hoops, cooking, cleaning up. And he wrote that everything should be “well under way” by Australian Open time, with a fundraising event in partnership with Tennis Australia planned for early in 2018.

After taking the high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, Kyrgios went out with doubles partner Lucas Pouille and defeated Rohan Bopanna and Pablo Cuevas in a match tiebreak in the first round at the Shanghai Masters.

And then came …

Tuesday

Tuesday was a day Kyrgios did not really want to be out there. Like some players, he’s not always great with the back-to-back, breakneck speed of tennis events. And there were some extra challenges, which he outlined later.

And he had a tough first round against American Steve Johnson. Who knows, maybe being the No. 13 seed was a bad omen.

He clashed with chair umpire Fergus Murphy. He got a warning for firing a ball far out of the court. And then, up 4-3 in the first-set tiebreaker, he got a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

After losing the tiebreaker 7-5, Kyrgios walked up to the net with hand outstretched, calling it a day against a rather surprised Johnson.

The crowd booed  him off the court.

Shanghai not his happy place

Two years ago, Kyrgios racked up three unsportsmanlikes and ended up with a big fine and a provisional suspension that would have kicked in without some “good behaviour” through the ensuing four months.

Tuesday was not a good day. Kyrgios, along with several other tennis players and their team members traveling on that high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai, caught some sort of bug. So he was struggling from the get-go.

It doesn’t help that for Kyrgios, an asthmatic, the air quality in China is a rough go as it is.

Later, Kyrgios sent out a message on social media.

And, on the plus side…

He’s flawed. But he seems to be really trying. It’s hard to ask for much more.

It brings to mind the words of Samuel Beckett, famously brought to tennis by none other than Kyrgios’s non-best friend, Stan Wawrinka.

drama

Kyrgios and Pouille are due to play No. 1 seeds Henri Kontinen of Finland and Kyrgios’s countryman John Peers out on Court 7, late Wednesday afternoon in Shanghai.

Beijing weekend – Kyrgios’ best and worst

When Nick Kyrgios met Alexander Zverev Saturday in the China Open semifinals, he was devastating.

It was the fourth meeting between the young guns this season. And Kyrgios has now won three of them.

Not only was his tennis world-class, the Aussie got inside Zverev’s head so comprehensively in the 6-3, 7-5 win that it was the younger, higher-ranked German who was on racket-snapping detail.

Kyrgios sang along to the stadium soundtrack on the set break. And he came out in the first game and hit two ridiculous volleys on the first point. Then, he pulled a Roger Federer-like SABR (although with a two-handed backhand) on the second point that got the crowd into it.

Which unnerved Zverev enough that he double-faulted on the next point.

Zverev lost his cool a few times in the face of Kyrgios’s shotmaking in the Beijing semifinals Saturday. (TennisTV.com)

Later, after a brilliant 31-shot rally, he beat Zverev with a deft and well-conceived shot that was within the German’s reach at the net. But it dipped so dramatically right in front of him that he couldn’t handle it.

Which unnerved Zverev enough that he double-faulted on the next point, coughed up the break of serve and then went rogue on his tennis racket.

What a difference a day makes

The victory put Kyrgios in the final against Rafael Nadal, whom he defeated in their last meeting, on a hard court in Cincinnati in August.

But when Kyrgios came out on Sunday, he wasn’t the same fellow.

Mainly, his serve wasn’t the same. And that likely was the main source of his tennis frustration. His first delivery landed at a 70 per cent clip against Zverev. Against Nadal, he couldn’t break 50 per cent.

And he was cranky, getting into it with umpire Mohamed Lahyani from the get-go on some dodgy line calls. There was no getting him out of his funk.

Alexander Zverev really didn’t quite know what hit him at times during his loss to Nick Kyrgios in the Beijing semifinals. (TennisTV.com)

The SABR didn’t work. He got a couple of challenges wrong. At one point, when Nadal was ready to serve (and we know how long that takes), Kyrgios was still giving Lahyani lip and the world No. 1 had to back off.

There were some ill-advised serve-volley plays on second serves. And unlike much of the week, Kyrgios played speed-dating on his service games, barely waiting for one point to finish before he was ready to begin the next.

Mohamed Lahyani was on the receiving end of some abuse from Kyrgios during the Beijing final. It was unreasonable enough that the friendly umpire assessed a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. (TennisTV.com)

On the changeover at 2-5, Lahyani assessed a point penalty, so as he served to stay in the set, he was down love-15 before he stepped to the line.

Two double-faults at 30-all, and the set was over. And the match; Kyrgios earned just one more game as Nadal won 6-2, 6-1 to win his 75th career title.

In a little more than 24 hours, the space of a short weekend, the best and the worst of Kyrgios were on display.

In other words, not an atypical Kyrgios weekend.

“He played well. I played terrible. He’s in great form. He just destroyed me today, so it was too good,” Kyrgios told the media in Beijing. “I put in a pretty good week, had some good wins. It’s tough to find positives when you won three games in the final. But I guess there were positives. In the semi-final I played well, obviously beating Alex (Zverev).”

When it was good, it was GOOD

It was a shame. Because when the tennis was at forefront of this Beijing final, it was breathtaking. But after four wins during the week, the Aussie had turned the page on Beijing.

It wasn’t as though the crowd didn’t get its money’s worth. The women’s final preceded the men Sunday night. As well, despite the lopsided score and the lightning round on serve, the match still took an hour and 32 minutes – 15 minutes longer than the much tighter contest against Zverev.

With two opponents Sunday – Nadal, and himself – Kyrgios was unable to repeat the impressive level he displayed in his semifinal win over Alexander Zverev. (TennisTV.com)

Kyrgios will drop a couple of spots in the rankings – he’ll be just out of the top 20 Monday. The Aussie won the tournament in Tokyo a year ago and so failed to defend 200 of the 500 points he earned.

Still alive for London

Meanwhile, Kyrgios moved up – five spots – in the race to the ATP Tour finals in London. He stands 15th;  in reality, he’s 12th with the idle Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray ahead of him. With two Masters 1000 series tournaments to come, he’s far from out of contention.

And he’ll get right back at it in Shanghai, with a tough first-round match against Steve Johnson in singles, but slotted into a good section of the draw.

With only second-round points to defend and the difference between No. 21 and No. 13 only 400 points right now, it’s an opportunity. He’s also playing doubles with Lucas Pouille.

The Kyrgios road show rages on, coming to a tennis stadium near you.

Europe 7, World … 1 – but a fun one

So far, the Laver Cup tussle between Europe and “World” has gone pretty much as expected.

One-way traffic for Team Europe.

After three sessions, they lead the exhibition event 7-1.

But for a couple of unlucky let cords and a few inches, a win by Jack Sock over Rafael Nadal Saturday might have made it 5-3. But it didn’t go his way.

That one Team World win, though, was a whole lot of fun.

Here are some highlights of that doubles match (screenshots from the Laver Cup livestream).

The comedy duo of Jack Sock and Nick Kyrgios took on the pickup team of Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych Friday night, and took it to them.

For Nadal and Berdych (who didn’t play well in front of his home crowd), there was basically no chemistry. For Sock and Kyrgios, simpatico friends off the court who often practice together, it was business as usual.

Fire and Ice in Prague

The contrast between corporate button-down Team Europe and loosey-goosey, young, energetic Team World probably will go down as a highlight in a competition that has not been competitive so far.

The purists (perhaps buying the talking point that this is “not an exhibition”) may be offended by the tons of fun the non-playing members are having at the side of the court. 

The kids probably don’t care.

If you can’t win, at least you can have a good time.

France, Belgium, to battle for Davis Cup

You want drama?

French tennis will always oblige.

It seems the country’s celebrated tennis landscape has rarely been more dysfunctional. And yet, France’s Davis Cup squad has earned its best and perhaps final legitimate chance going forward to raise the Davis Cup.

Despite producing generation after generation of talent, France last won the Davis Cup in 2001. It last won it on home soil in … 1931.

But this year, it will have a chance to do it at home, against the plucky but undermanned Belgium in late November.

The French squad defeated a depleted Serbian team 3-1 in Lille, France over the weekend to earn its spot.

Click above to read about how the French federation has already secured a venue for the final.

It began slowly, as No. 2 Lucas Pouille went down to Dusan Lajovic in four sets to open the tie on Friday.

“I have a lot to do with Lucas’s loss. At a certain point, we weren’t really communication any more. I felt, in the end, I was hurting him. That’s not a good feeling,” Noah told l’Équipe afterwards. “I have a lot influence on this group, and when I get it wrong, everyone gets it wrong. So much talk about how difficult the match was going to be; I may have soaked too much of that in. I passed on my stress to Lucas.”

But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (in his first Davis Cup appearance in 14 months) didn’t drop a set against Laslo Djere. (Noah said he spent most of the first two sets not saying a word, just thinking). The doubles team of Nicholas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert won in straight sets,. And then Tsonga came back to win in four against Lajovic to clinch it.

Just 70 miles down the road in Brussels, Belgium, the team of underdogs led by David Goffin was advancing to its second Davis Cup final in three years.

Veteran Darcis the difference

Goffin did his job; he won his singles matches against Jordan Thompson Friday and Nick Kyrgios Sunday in four sets. But it was Steve Darcis, a 33-year-old who reached a career high in singles (No. 38) this past May but has dealt with hamstring and lower back issues the last few months, who was the difference.

Darcis didn’t win on Friday. But he pushed Kyrgios to five sets. And given the top Aussie isn’t in the best of health, no doubt it had an effect on the fifth and deciding rubber Sunday.

Kyrgios took on Goffin – and lost in four. Darcis then took care of Thompson to clinch the tie.

So much goes into making a Davis Cup final these days. And the result is that the best, deepest tennis nation isn’t winning all that often.

You wouldn’t think a one-man team like Belgium could do it twice in three years. But with so many top players taking a pass, if the draw breaks right, an upstart team can take advantage.

Even France, a loaded team, defeated Japan (no Nishikori), Great Britain (no Andy Murray) and Serbia (no Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic or Viktor Troicki) to reach the final this year.

Snakebitten French

France generally has all its top players available – and a deep pool to choose from. But it’s been a tough go despite the fact that the current generation – Tsonga, Gaël Monfils, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet – all have been in the top 10.

France last reached the Davis Cup final in 2014. But that happened to be the year Switzerland had both Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka on board – at the same time – to try to add the silver chalice to their resumés.

Monfils defeated Federer in straight sets on the first day, which game them hope. But they lost the key doubles rubber. And then Federer clinched it on Sunday against Gasquet.

The 2010 final, played in Belgrade with the Serbs featuring full-form Djokovic, Tipsarevic and Troicki, was a drama all to itself.

As both squads decided who to suit up for the fifth and deciding rubber, captain Guy Forget got played a little. They were all certain Serbia would bring back Tipsarevic. Instead, they got Troicki (who had disappeared off the bench to go warm up seemingly without France’s knowledge, while Serbia was well aware that Gilles Simon remained on the French bench).

Forget was debating whether to put out Simon (who was 4-0 against Troicki) or Michaël Llodra. He chose fellow lefty serve-volleyer Llodra, who got trounced. And there were French tears all around.

Will this be the time they finally do it?

Internal drama starts at top

A long-awaited title this year might be even more sweet to the players, since French tennis is an internal hot mess right now.

By tennis standards, the infighting might even be at West Wing level.

It all seemed to go downhill after a quarterfinal loss to Great Britain in 2015.

Captain Arnaud Clément, who played with many of the current veteran crop, was summarily sacked. And the imposition of rock star captain Yannick Noah (it appeared Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the strongest voice in his favor) did nothing for team unity.

Rather removed from the day-to-day tennis scene in France, and the instigator of an inconvenient, expensive relocation to Guadeloupe for the first round against Canada a year ago, Noah has come under criticism for being a negligible source of support to the players except for the week they come under his tutelage.

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Monfils and Tsonga aren’t getting any younger – or healthier. So the window to win a Davis Cup has shrunk to a mere sliver of time in 2017.

His relationship with Monfils reportedly is fairly non-existent. His relationship with Tsonga, once thought to be solid, wavered when Noah called him out during the quarterfinal tie in Rouen back in April.

As for this semifinal against Serbia, L’Équipe reported the players feel Noah didn’t prepare. They never even saw him at the US Open just weeks ago; Noah’s only involvement was two phone calls to his assistant captain.

To be so out of the loop on the players’ current forms and states of mind so close to the crucial tie didn’t go over well. He would also have no first-hand assessment of the players who might dress for Serbie.

And, L’Équipe writes, that may well have shown in the Pouille defeat. The future of French tennis preferred to listen to his own coach’s tactical advice rather than that of Noah.

“We felt he was stressed, negative,” Nicolas Mahut told the media.

Pouille the “GOAT”, then the goat

When he was first elected president, Giudicelli often lauded Pouille for his grit. He even invented a new verb, “to Pouille“, which meant, “Facing and conquering one’s fear to impose one’s game, while drawing energy from the public’s support.”

But when the 23-year-old lost in the third round of the French Open and said that the inability to handle his nerves had led to cramping, Giudicelli turned on both Pouille and his coach.

He said in a radio interview that Pouille’s fitness wasn’t up to snuff and what the French (male) players were missing was “la grinta, an Italian word that encompasses daring, determination, purpose, resolve and everything in between.

Giudicelli said he couldn’t revolutionize French tennis after just 108 days in office. And in the first French Open under his leadership, no French male player reached the quarterfinals. Overall, it was the poorest showing since 2000. Hence the attack on his players’ grit.

But on the women’s side (so often ignored by French Federation suits unless it suits them), two made the singles quarterfinals. That, of course, was due to Giucidelli’s leadership and involvement leading to their increased motivation – despite only being in office 108 days. 

Noah and Giudicelli

As this tie against Serbia neared, Noah admitted there were tensions between the federation and his players and he sided with his players; the message was relayed to Giudicelli that he wouldn’t tolerate the president’s comments “polluting” the players. 

There was some backstory to that, too. Noah’s lifelong friend Gilles Moretton (a former French player) was suing Giudicelli for defamation, after Giudicelli refused Moretton’s candidacy for president of a French league because, he said, Moretton had been one of those involved in the 2011 ticket reselling scheme that eventually doomed Giudicelli’s predecessor, Jean Gachassin.

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Giudicelli, who never played tennis competitively, has taken his mandate as president to mean he needs to practice “tough love” on the French players to whip them into shape. Or something.

(Giudicelli, a high-level French Federation official, had previously been accused of putting the cone of silence on Gachassin’s alleged involvement, perhaps in the hope that it would help his presidential campaign. That accusation is contained in a report on the scandal by a government body called “The Inspector General for Youth and Sports”. Gachassin is accused of selling some 250-700 French Open tickets – for years – at cost to a travel agent friend who then resold them at up to five times their face value. The tribunal’s decision on this case was postponed, and due to be announced on Tuesday).

His lawyer, speaking in his defense, said Giudicelli was responsible for ending the scam.

OMG, awkward!

 

L’Équipe chronicled an awkward moment Thursday when Giudicelli tried to say hello to Lucas Pouille three separate times, only to be dissed and dismissed.

“Hello, Lucas,” the president said to Pouille – on three occasions.

No answer.

Giudicelli pushed it even further. “So, we don’t say ‘Hello’ any more, Lucas?” 

Pouille, who had been talking to someone else, turned around. “Sure, we say hello. And goodbye.”

Ouch. 

Belgians go quietly along

Among the many things Noah said over the weekend was that he fully expected France to have to travel to Australia for the final. That would have been a rematch of the 2001 final, that was won by the French in Melbourne. And so, full circle.

That, of course, surely sat well with the Belgians, who spoiled that particular party.

As it happens, the last time France played Belgium in Davis Cup was in the first round of that 2001 championship year. France shut them out 5-0.

Où, la finale?

The question now, of course, is where France will host the tie.

The stadium in Lille is huge. And the crowds are nuts. But it’s barely 20 miles from the Belgian border. You’d have to count on a huge Belgian presence to support their underdog team in the big upset.

There’s a bigger problem. The French rugby team has already booked the stadium to play a friendly against Japan on Nov. 25, the Saturday of the tie. 

How about Bercy, which will be the site of the Paris Masters event just a few weeks before? According to BFM.TV, the rap group IAM are booked there that weekend.  

BFM.TV says the French federation has already been in contact with the brand new U Arena in Nanterre, in the French suburbs – finally completed after the usual French bureaucratic delays and set to open next month with three concerts by the Rolling Stones. 

Wherever it is, there’s a great dynamic brewing between France’s Goliath and Belgium’s David – literally.

BelgiumFor all the news about this weekend’s Davis Cup ties (and more great pics like the one above, go to their website.

Raonic out, Kyrgios in at Laver Cup

The ink isn’t even dry on the lineup for next month’s Laver Cup exhibition event in Prague.

And already there is a substitution.

It’s not a shocker. But Canadian Milos Raonic, who had a procedure done Thursday to relieve the pain in his left wrist, is out.

And Aussie Nick Kyrgios – perhaps the only (knock wood) healthy marquee player left eligible for the “rest of the world” team, will step in.

The event announced it Friday.

You have to think they made it well worth his while.

It seems unlikely that they didn’t already know on Wednesday, when they made the big, splashy announcement, that Raonic wasn’t going to participate. But why spoil a good party.

It seems impossible that Raonic will play Davis Cup for Canada against India, in a key World Group playoff tie next month. The tie takes place in Edmonton the weekend before the Laver Cup. 

Decimated “World” team

You would think that Kyrgios would be at the top of the Laver Cup list for the “World” team, which beyond Raonic had three Americans – Jack Sock, Sam Querrey and John Isner – as the team.

John McEnroe chose Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina and tennis’s new “it guy” Denis Shapovalov of Canada as his captain’s picks. Europe captain Bjorn Borg had a no-brainer in selecting Alexander Zverev.

Kei Nishikori, who never signed on for the Laver Cup, is out for the year anyway. 

What a shame that this event kicks off in a season when so many top players have pulled the plug. Add Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Nishikori (and Andy Murray, who has never seemed particularly intereste) to the other top players, and you have a pretty star-studded event.

As it is, as long as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer stay healthy, they’ll have enough star power. But it’s definitely not what it could have been.