US Open to use serve clock in main draw

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The US Open was the first to experiment with strict limits on the warmup period and time between points in its qualifying and junior events last year. This year, the last Grand Slam tournament of the season is taking it one step further.

According to a story from the New York Times, warmup limits and 25-second  “shot clock” will be used in the main draw events as well this year.

“Pace of play is a major issue in sports today. We recognize that and we want to be ahead of it,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier told the Times.

Were there any concrete science concluding the time-conservation rules resulted in an actual shortening of matches, no doubt someone (the Australian Open used the same rules in its own qualifying in January) would have produced it.

If matches are going longer these days, it more likely due to the fact that points are being shortened at the net a lot less frequently than in past eras. As a result, long rally after long rally means many matches can average an hour a set.

Qualifying experiment drama-free

Anecdotally, from walking around the courts all day at the qualifying both in New York last summer and Melbourne in January, there were very few instances where the players went over the 25-second limit between points. 

The serve clock did highlight players who were especially quick, though. There were many who typically took 15 seconds or less. But at least at the qualies level, the vast majority of the players just get on with it.

Sometimes, the conversation between the chair umpire and the two players at the net had to be extended. The umpires had to explain the changes. And it seemed that some players actually hadn’t gotten the memo.

Some were worried about being penalized for not being ready to serve at the start of matches. So they shortened their five-minute warmup period.

In the feature pic at the top, Canadian Françoise Abanda is heading back to the baseline to serve – with time left in the regular warmup period. The one-minute period between the end of the warmup and when the first serve must be struck hadn’t even begun.

Rafael Nadal will be pleased – not

At the main draw level – especially in its upper reaches – the proportion of time-wasters seems bigger. 

With all his rituals, Rafael Nadal is the most-mentioned offender. But he’s not alone. In recent months, Novak Djokovic has returned to his endless ball-bouncing ways. And Marin Cilic, out of nowhere, also has added a ball-bouncing ritual that takes up a lot of time.

(And yes, the perpetrators most often are on the men’s side – especially now that the human rain delay, Russia’s Maria Kirilenko, is retired).

(Note that the commentators – especially the former players, are absolutely no help in enforcing the rules).

Djokovic and Nadal probably set off all this focus on time with their five hour, 53-minute marathon at the Australian Open in 2012.

By the next year, the umpires were given directives to strictly enforce the existing rule. It was on the books, but they’d been notoriously lax with it. Many also are loath to be the bad guys and gals with players, by coming down on them about it.

Hot weather, longer breaks

According to a USA Today story, there were 36 time violations in the first five days of the Qatar Open, during the first week of that 2013 season. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Gaël Monfils in Doha, Marcos Baghdatis and Andy Murray in Brisbane, and Tomas Berdych in Chennai were among the perps.

By 2015, it came to a head in Rio de Janeiro between Nadal and longtime chair umpire Carlos Bernardes.

It doesn’t appear that Nadal has received significantly more time violation warning and sanctions than before. He also doesn’t seem to have speeded up very much.

But with the evidence right there on the serve clock for everyone in the stadium and at home to see, it’s going to create a very interesting dynamic for the time-wasters on the circuit.

The umpires themselves, and when they actually start the 25-second serve clock after points, will be under the microscope. They are allowed leeway after long points, on hot days and if there are crowd disturbances.

(Note Tommy Haas getting into trouble – at what is now his own tournament at Indian Wells).

No more lollygagging at the chair

But it’s more than just the 25 seconds.

Nadal also is one of the bigger lollygaggers after he arrives on court for a match.

How many times do you see the opponent, the umpire and whoever is out there to perform a coin toss standing at the net making awkward conversation for what seems an eternity? Meanwhile, Nadal arranges his bags, his drinks, sits down, has a little snack and only then finally gets to the net.

Now, the Mallorcan will have exactly one minute. The times we’ve put the clock on him, he’s typically taken three times that. He’ll have to snack in the locker room.

In one sense, it’s unfair to spring this on players in the middle of the season. They will not have had to deal with restrictions like this for a full eight months only to suddenly find themselves at a Grand Slam with additional elements to focus on.

The tennis authorities should really do it at the big tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati that lead up to the US Open. That would give the players a chance to practice it, get used to it, and not be distracted by it in New York.

Of course, that would require cooperation between the ATP, WTA and ITF. And we know how rarely that happens in tennis.

At any rate, it’s done. 

We await Nadal’s reaction next week, when he arrives in Monte Carlo.

Spain to Davis Cup semis in dramatic finale

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The best thing about Davis Cup is that its rich history is so full of career-making moments.

It can be a relatively obscure bench player who does something spectacular, as Germany’s Tim Puetz did Saturday in the doubles tie against Spain.

Or it can be a player who’s had a fine career , but never ever quite had that moment to shine.

For David Ferrer, in his Valencia home, charged with winning a fifth and decisive rubber for the first time in his career, this was such a moment.

Ferrer, who turned 36 last week, was playing in his 24th career Davis Cup tie. And as sterling as his 27-5 record was, he had never carried the entire tennis nation on his shoulders.

Magic moment, at home, when it counts

But on Sunday, before a faithful home-city crowd, after the return of Rafael Nadal to the competition put the first two points up on the board but the French Open-champion pairing of Feliciano Lopez and Marc Lopez were shocked the day before, Ferrer seized the day.

Overmatched in his first match Friday against world No. 4 Alexander Zverev, Ferrer finally put away a valiant Philipp Kohlschreiber, 7-6 (1), 3-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-5 Sunday in four hours and 51 minutes.

The victory puts Spain in the September World Group semifinals against France.

The moment put Ferrer in the pantheon of his country’s sporting heroes.

“Very emotional, this competition. I have my best emotions in my career. So I’m really happy,” Ferrer said during an on-court interview after the match. “It’s really difficult to describe the feeling in this moment. Difference was in the final set. I played better than him. I was very focused, and the first set (which Ferrer won) was the key. In the first set maybe he was better than me, and after that it was very very close.

“For me its a dream, playing at home, here in Valencia, have the support of al the people, my family, my team. We’re in the semifinals, so it’s one of the best days in my career, for sure,” he added.

The day began with Ferrer’s teammate Rafael Nadal taking world No. 4 Alexander Zverev to school in a clinical 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 win. It evened the tie at 2-2 in the wake of Saturday’s doubles defeat, and gave Ferrer his opportunity to shine.

Tough conditions in the bullring

And it was a day that had everything. Rain. Cool temperatures. Blustery winds that blew the red clay into the eyeballs of players and fans alike. But as the big crowd approached its seventh hour in the Valencia bullring, not many had left.

Kohlschreiber was up 3-0 in the fourth set tiebreak. But he lost it. Ferrer was up a break in the fifth set. But Kohschreiber won three straight games to go ahead again. 

Germany had two break points at 3-4 to have an opportunity to serve for the tie. But two Kohlschreiber backhands – one topspin, one careful slice – flew over Ferrer’s baseline as the wind carried them a little too far.

At 5-5, 30-all, Kohlschreiber got an awkward bounce on the clay-deprived court, missed a forehand, and gave Ferrer an opportunity to break. 

And then, on an epic point that sums up Ferrer’s career and heart, he ran down at least three near-winners, one after another. After more than 4 1/2 hours on court, he made Kohlschreiber hit just one more ball.

It was a backhand volley, near the net. And Kohschreiber couldn’t make it.

After that, with Nadal still frantically cheering from the sidelines, Ferrer was able to close it out. He fell to the court in exhausted ecstasy.

Ultimate sportsmanship

dramatic
Before even celebrating with his teammates, Ferrer was over on the German side consoling opponent Philipp Kohlschreiber and his teammates.

And then, to no one’s surprise, after shaking the chair umpire’s hand and hugging his captain briefly, he immediately headed over to his vanquished opponent, as Kohlschreiber sat disconsolate on the German bench.

A consoling moment with him, hugs and handshakes for the German squad. And only then did he head over to get mobbed by his teammates.

“I feel so emotional because … the match the both played was unbelievable. Also very special for David, that we love, one of the greatest person on the circuit. I think he deserves a match like this one, Davis Cup, in front of this crowd,” captain Sergi Bruguera said in an on-court interview.

“Philipp, he played an unbelievable match, one of the best matches I ever saw him play. … All the match was an incredible level of tennis, incredible intensity, for five hours.”

Ferrer didn’t even want to think about France, about September, about anything but the moment.

For me it’s one of the best days of my life, and I want to enjoy it,” he said. “Maybe one glass of red wine.”

Davis Cup quarterfinal primer (Final results)

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You can tell the 2020 Summer Games are coming up sooner than we realize.

Because some of the big players are looking to get their Olympic criteria met by playing Davis Cup (and Fed Cup, in a few weeks).

One interesting thing that is going to come out of this weekend is that there is going to be a LOT of public comment about the proposed major changes ITF president Dave Haggerty floated in February.

Some of the intrigue in terms of nominations and lineups has gone, with the change to a five-man roster.

But the surprise after the draw ceremonies Thursday is that Rafael Nadal, who hasn’t played since the Australian Open, is on tap to play No. 1 singles Friday in Valencia against Germany. That’s best-of-five, on clay.

Here are the details on the four World Group quarterfinals going on over the next three days.

[1] France 3, [8] Italy 1 (final)

Venue: Valletta Cambiaso ASD, Genoa, Italy
Surface: Clay – Red Clay, Outdoor
Ball: Dunlop Fort Clay Court

Nominations:

France: Lucas Pouille, Adrian Mannarino, Nicholas Mahut, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Jérémy Chardy.

Italy: Fabio Fognini, Paolo Lorenzi, Andreas Seppi, Matteo Berrettini, Simone Bolelli.

Missing: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gaël Monfils, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon (FRA).

quarterfinal

Friday final results

#1 Lucas Pouille (FRA) def #2 Andreas Seppi (ITA) 63 62 46 36 61
#1 Fabio Fognini (ITA) def. #2 Jérémy Chardy (FRA) 67 (6) 62 62 63

Saturday final results

Pierre-Hugues Herbert / Nicolas Mahut (FRA) def Simone Bolelli / Paolo Lorenzi Fabio Fognini (ITA) 64 63 61

Sunday final results

#1 Lucas Pouille (FRA) def #1 Fabio Fognini (ITA) 26 61 76 (3) 63
#2 Andreas Seppi (ITA) vs. #2 Jérémy Chardy (FRA) – not played

*********************************************

Spain 3, Germany 2 (complete)

Venue: Plaza de Toros de Valencia, Valencia, Spain
Surface: Red Clay, Outdoor
Ball:Head Davis Cup

Nominations:

Spain: Rafael Nadal, Roberto Bautista Agut, Feliciano Lopez, David Ferrer, Marc Lopez

Germany: Alexander Zverev, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Jan-Lennard Struff, Maximilian Marterer, Tim Puetz

Missing: Albert Ramos-Viñolas, Pablo Carreño Busta (late scratch) (ESP). Mischa Zverev, Peter Gojowczyk (GER).

quarterfinal

Friday final results

#1 Alexander Zverev (GER) def #2 David Ferrer (ESP) 64 62 62
#1 Rafael Nadal (ESP) def #2 Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) 62 62 63

Saturday final results

Tim Puetz / Jan-Lennard Struff (GER) def Feliciano Lopez / Marc Lopez (ESP) 63 63 36 67 (4) 75 

Sunday results

#1 Rafael Nadal (ESP) def #1 Alexander Zverev (GER) 61 64 64
#2 David Ferrer (ESP) def #2 Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER)  76 (1) 36 76 (4) 46 75

*********************************************

[4] Croatia 3, Kazakhstan 1 (final)

Venue: Varazdin Arena, Varazdin, Croatia
Surface: Clay – Red Clay, Indoor
Ball: Dunlop Fort Clay Court

Nominations:

Croatia: Marin Cilic, Borna Coric, Viktor Galovic, Ivan Dodig, Nikola Mektic

Kazakhstan: Mikhail Kukushkin, Aleksandr Nedovyesov, Dmitry Popko, Denis Yevseyev, Timur Khabibulin

Missing: Ivo Karlovic (CRO)

quarterfinal

Friday final results

#1 Marin Cilic (CRO) def. #2 Dmitry Popko (KAZ) 62 61 62
#1 Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ) def #2 Borna Coric (CRO) 36 76 (5) 64 62

Saturday final results

Ivan Dodig / Nikola Mektic (CRO) def Aleksandr Nedovyesov / Timur Khabibulin (KAZ) 67 (2) 64 64 62

Sunday results

#1 Marin Cilic (CRO) def #1 Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ) 61 61 61
#2 Borna Coric (CRO) vs. #2 Dmitry Popko (KAZ)

*********************************************

USA 4, [2] Belgium 0 (complete)

Venue: Curb Event Center, Nashville, USA
Surface: Hard – Premier, Indoor
Court Pace Rating: Medium
Ball: Wilson US Open Extra Duty

Nominations:

USA: John Isner, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Ryan Harrison

Belgium: Rubel Bemelmans, Joris de Loore, Sander Gille, Joran Vliegen

Missing: David Goffin, Steve Darcis (BEL). Bob and Mike Bryan (USA)   

quarterfinal

Friday final results

#1 John Isner (USA) def #2 Joris de Loore (BEL) 63 67 (4) 76 (8) 64
#2 Sam Querrey (USA) def #1 Ruben Bemelmans (BEL) 61 76 (5) 75

Saturday final results

Ryan Harrison / Jack Sock (USA) def. Sander Gille / Joran Vliegen (BEL) 57 76 (1) 76 (3) 64

Sunday final results

#1 John Isner (USA) Ryan Harrison (USA) def  #1 Ruben Bemelmans (BEL) 63 64 (Dead rubber)
#2 Sam Querrey (USA) vs. #2 Joris de Loore (BEL) (not played)

Zonal action around the globe

There also are second-round ties in the Americas, Europe/Africa and Asia/Oceania zonal groups.

Among the ones to watch are Argentina vs. Chile (they don’t like each other too much in the sporting sphere). Austria v Russia, and the Czech Republic vs. Sweden feature two former Davis Cup powerhouses, now relegated to the zonals and trying to climb back up.

There are Group II ties as well in those regions. Group III round-robin ties in Asia/Oceania and Europe are also going on all this week.

Rafael Nadal returns for Davis Cup

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MIAMI, Fla. – Great news for tennis – and Spanish tennis – as Rafael Nadal will be back in action in 10 days.

Nadal, who will become the No. 1-ranked player in the world again on Monday after Roger Federer’s early exit in Miami, has been named to the Spanish Davis Cup squad that will face Germany April 6-8.

The tie will be held on clay, in Valencia.

Captain Sergi Bruguera will call upon Nadal,  Pablo Carreño Busta, Roberto Bautista Agut, David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez in the five-man format now in vogue.

Despite the expansion of the roster, none are considered doubles specialists although Lopez and, to a certain extent, Carreño Busta, have had success.

Given the best-of-five format, it’s entirely possible that Nadal may only play doubles. He hasn’t played since retiring at the Australian Open in the fifth set of his quarterfinal against Marin Cilic.

So, it will have been nearly three months since he has played a match.

Powerhouse Spanish Davis Cup squad

Nadal hasn’t competed in Davis Cup since a playoff tie against India in Sept. 2016.

In that tie, he played only doubles, teaming up with his lifelong friend Marc Lopez. But of course, they didn’t really need him. Bruguera did not name Lopez to the squad this time.

All five Spanish players nominated are currently ranked in the top 35 in singles. Notably, the average age is 32 years three months. Ferrer turns 36 on Monday and Bautista Agut turns 30 in two weeks.

At 26, Carreño Busta brings that average down big-time.

Germany will bring Alexander Zverev (but not his brother Mischa), Philipp Kohlschreiber, Jan-Lennard Struff, Maximilian Marterer and Tim (Golden Set) Puetz.

Other nominations

In another quarterfinal (the winner will play the winner of Spain vs. Germany), France will travel to Genoa to meet the Italians.

Notably, not a single member of the new “Quatre Mousquetaires” generation – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gaël Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon – is on the squad. And still, you give them a very good chance to win.

France: Lucas Pouille, Adrian Mannarino, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Jérémy Chardy, Nicolas Mahut

Italy: Fabio Fognini, Paolo Lorenzi, Andreas Seppi, Matteo Berrettini, Simone Bolelli

The other half of the World Group draw has Croatia vs. Kazakhstan. And that one looks like a bit of a mismatch unless one of the top two Croatians begs off after Miami.

Croatia, with home court, will bring Marin Cilic and Borna Coric. Coric is still alive at the Miami Open. But John Isner eliminated Cilic in the fourth round by John Isner Tuesday. Joining them are Ivan Dodig, Viktor Galovic and Nikola Mektic.

Kazakhstan will have Mikhail Kukushkin, Aleksandr Nedovyesov, Dmitry Popko, Denis Yevtseyev and Timur Khabibulin.

Americans heavy favorites

The final quarterfinal has the US hosting Belgium in Nashville.

Davis
Without David Goffin, the 2017 Davis Cup finalists will be up against it.

And without top-10 player David Goffin, who begged off early after the freak incident in which he was hit in the eye by a tennis ball in the Rotterdam semifinals, the Belgians (former finalists) will have a tough time.

They’ll be led by veteran lefty Ruben Bemelmans. Joris de Loore, Joran Vliegen and Sander Gille (who just qualified at a Challenger in Guadeloupe) will join him. The Belgians don’t even have a fifth player.

The US team will have Jack Sock, John Isner, Sam Querrey, Ryan Harrison and Steve Johnson. All are ranked in the top 55. Jared Donaldson is actually higher-ranked than Harrison or Johnson. But those two have had much more success in doubles.

The players starting to think about ensuring their eligibility for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. So we might well start seeing the big guns show up to represent their country.

Nadal returns to Queen’s Club

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Rafael Nadal’s relationship with the Queen’s Club tournament has been, well, full of twists and turns.

And now, for 2018, he’s back.

Nadal played the grass-court event, which formerly took place two weeks before Wimbledon and now is three weeks before, five times in the six years between 2006 and 2011. Coincidence or not, he reached the Wimbledon final each time he played it.

After losing to Robin Soderling early at the French Open in 2009, he pulled out of the entire grass-court season because of his knee issues and so, missed that edition.

At Queen’s Club, he made the quarterfinals four times. But in 2008, he won it beating Andy Roddick in the semifinals and Novak Djokovic in the final. A few weeks later, he won his first Wimbledon title in that epic day-night encounter against Roger Federer.

Two years later, after losing to Feliciano Lopez in the quarters at Queen’s Club, he won Wimbledon again.

Every year, there was an iconic photo on the London club’s lawns on the Tuesday after the French Open final. After taking one day off, Nadal would immediately hit the grass at Queen’s Club to work on the grass transition, no matter how tired he might have been from the fortnight in Paris. 

But then … the money gremlins kicked in.

Too much taxation sends Nadal to Germany

By 2011, Nadal had eschewed his traditional (and very successful) preparation as he railed against the system that taxed athletes in Great Britain. It was a system that also went after their endorsement income. And after all those years, Nadal had enough.

He decamped for the competing tournament in Halle, Germany that already had a longstanding deal with his rival Roger Federer – not incidentally, for the not-insignificant appearance fee of about $1 million and a two-year commitment. Although he said the cash played no part in his decision.

His Wimbledon record since then doesn’t have the same luster. And his fate in Halle seemed rather star-crossed.

Nadal lost to Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany in his second match at Halle in 2012, playing despite knee issues.

In 2013, he didn’t play it, pointing to the physical grind of the clay-court season. He lost in the first round of Wimbledon to Steve Darcis.

In 2014, making good on the missing year, he lost to another German, Dustin Brown, in his first match of the tournament.

In 2015, the taxation situation having been relaxed somewhat, he returned to Queen’s to try to recapture that Queen’s-Wimbledon karma. But he lost in the first round to Alexandr Dolgopolov, and in the second round of Wimbledon to Brown.

In 2016, he skipped the grass-court season entirely after injuring his left wrist in Paris. He returned despite not being 100 per cent physically only for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Last summer, he didn’t play any tuneup events. The long, successful clay-court season culminated in Nadal’s 10th French Open title, and he needed some down time. He lost narrowly, 15-13 in the fifth set, to Gilles Muller in the round of 16 at Wimbledon.

Getting that Queen’s Club karma back

Queen's
Nadal made his first visit to Queen’s Club in 2006 (when it was the Stella Artois). It was very good to him in his early years.

Is Nadal a superstitious sort? You could make that argument, given his rituals.

In his early career, the Queen’s Club – Wimbledon double clearly was extremely successful for him.

To tally it up: Nadal made the Wimbledon final the first five times he played Queen’s Club. Since the taxation issue chased him off, his sum total at Wimbledon has been two fourth rounds, two second rounds and a first round.  

With this return, perhaps he’s trying to put all the karma on his side.

(And yes, no doubt there was a pretty big cheque attached as well).

Three weeks expected absence for Nadal

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MELBOURNE, Australia – In the wake of Rafael Nadal’s retirement in the fifth set of his Australian Open quarter-final match Tuesday night, the world No. 1 had an MRI in Melbourne Wednesday.

The diagnosis is a Grade 1 strain of the illiopsoas muscle on his right leg.

He’ll return to Spain and after a few days’ rest. After that, he will start on anti-inflammatories, according to his PR representative Benito Perez-Barbadillo.

Nadal will start rehabbing and getting back on court gradually in two weeks. Perez-Barbadillo stated the normal recovery time for this type of injury is three weeks.

And he expects Nadal’s planned schedule – Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami, all on hard courts – won’t be affected.

A Grade 1 strain is at the bottom of the seriousness scale. Nadal was clearly in a lot of pain Tuesday night, when it first occurred.

Per that reliable medical resource Wikipedia, The iliopsoas is formed when the Iliacus and psoas muscles, separate in the abdomen, merge in the thigh area.

Nadal’s Aussie bad luck continues as he retires vs. Cilic

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Whatever the injury to Rafael Nadal’s upper right leg is – he’ll know more on Wednesday – it was painful enough that he had to walk away.

And so, a great opportunity to reach another Grand Slam semifinal – and perhaps win the whole tournament – is gone in Australia, where the world No. 1 has had so much bum luck in the past.

Nadal shook No. 6 seed Marin Cilic’s hand down 0-2 in the fifth set, and down two sets to one, as his 2018 Australian Open campaign ended in the quarter-finals Tuesday night.

He went further than any of the other wounded veterans who began the season at less than 100 per cent. But not nearly as far as he wanted to, or could have.

“Start to feel the muscle little bit tired in the third, but playing normal, no limits, no limitations. Then in the fourth (set) at one movement, one drop shot I think, I felt something. At that moment I thought something happened, but I didn’t realize how bad, how bad was what’s going on in that moment,” the downcast Spaniard said during his press conference. “Just happened, and accept the situation. That’s all.”

Painful end to the tournament

Nadal was wincing in pain at the beginning of that fourth set, and limping. He sat down at his press conference in very slow and measured fashion. But although he ruled out a possible hip injury, he wasn’t prepared to diagnose it himself and will wait for more official word from the doctors.

But he was disappointed. In Australia. Again.

On his way out, Nadal made another pointed statement about how the ATP Tour needs to take better care of its players’ health.

It’s an ongoing concern, taken perhaps less seriously than it should by people who believe it is a self-serving exercise, that Nadal’s issue with all the play on hard courts is intimately linked to his superiority on the clay courts. And thus, to play more on softer surfaces would only be to his advantage.

But when you look at where the top five players at the end of 2016 are at the moment, it’s definitely not just about Nadal.

“Somebody who is running the tour should think little bit about what’s going on. Too many people getting injured. I don’t know if they have to think a little bit about the health of the players,” he said. “Not for now that we are playing, but there is life after tennis. I don’t know if we keep playing in this very, very hard surfaces what’s going to happen in the future with our lives.”

Underprepared and undertrained

Nadal came into this Australian Open underdone. He played no warmup tournaments. But that’s something he said had little bearing on his current physical condition. Of more importance was the fact that because of his knee issue at the end of 2017, his preseason preparation was limited.

“Maybe if I had the chance to work as hard as I worked last year, maybe will not happen. But was not the case. I had the knee, and I had to go slower, step by step,” he said. “We worked as much as we could to be ready. We (thought) we were ready. At least we were in quarterfinals only losing a set.”

Cilic will now be an Australian Open semifinalist. And he will play the unseeded Kyle Edmund for the privilege of making his first Australian Open final.

The Croat hasn’t made much noise during this tournament. But he’s now at the business end of what is a tremendous opportunity.

Surprise semifinal in the top half

Cilic knows what it’s like to be physically diminished on a great occasion. He had a similar experience last summer in the Wimbledon final against Roger Federer. But he didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with Nadal, in terms of the health concerns.

“The calendar is there for so many years. Just in this last year, obviously beginning of this one, we see a lot of top guys that are injured. In the end it’s on all of us to try to take care of our bodies, to try to pick the right schedule, to listen to our body, how it feels.  I completely understand there are a lot of tournaments that we play, mandatory tournaments. In my own perspective, we are all picking our own schedule,” he said. 

“It’s tough to say, ‘Okay, we going to take out two months of the season, cut that many tournaments’, because tennis is such a global sport. Everywhere we play, people enjoy it. I think tennis is getting more and more popular, which we really want also.”

The ragged five – all gone

Nadal follows Novak Djokovic out the main gate of Melbourne Park with an injury, although Djokovic did finish his match against Hyeon Chung on Monday.

Andy Murray is home after having hip surgery in Melbourne. Kei Nishikori skipped the entire Australian summer and is scheduled to return to action this week at a Challenger in California. And Milos Raonic went out meekly in the first round to Lukas Lacko.

Raonic is not on the roster Tennis Canada named for Davis Cup against Croatia in a couple of weeks.

“Yeah, I worked hard to be here. We did all the things that we believed were the right things to do to be ready. I think I was ready. I was playing okay.,” Nadal said. “Yeah, I was playing a match that anything could happen: could win, could lose. I’m being honest. He was playing good, too. That’s the real thing.”

Golden opportunities

The gaping holes at the top of the game will continue for at least awhile longer. And that has allowed the likes of Edmund, Chung and American Tennys Sandgren to reach the final eight. 

The next move for Nadal will be to find out exactly what his issue is, with an MRI on Wednesday. 

Just when he likely wanted to get back to training hard, with the two big American hard-court events coming up in about six weeks, he may be sidelined again.

Meanwhile, 36-year-old Roger Federer is strolling through the Australian Open draw, with Cilic the highest remaining seed standing in the way of his title defence.

“Is not the first time an opportunity that is gone for me. I am a positive person, and I can be positive, but today is an opportunity lost to be in the semifinals of a Grand Slam and fight for an important title for me, no? … In this tournament already happened a couple of times in my life, so it’s really I don’t want to say frustration, but is really tough to accept,” Nadal said. 

Rafael Nadal arrives in Melbourne

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As he intended, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal arrived in Melbourne well ahead of the Australian Open.

He has a full 10 days to acclimate, practice and hope that the state of his right knee is such that he can compete.

The Mallorcan has signed on to play the Tie Break Tens event at Margaret Court Arena next Wednesday, along with a lot of the top players.

He won’t be the only one trying to gauge some health and form at that event; Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka also are scheduled to play.

But that will be all he has to go on when he makes the call to potentially play seven best-of-five set matches at the first Grand Slam tournament of the 2018 season.

Nadal’s history is that if he doesn’t think he has a good chance to win, he won’t compete.

At this stage of his career, with a long season ahead, it’s also the wisest course even if it would mean he and his team made the long trip to Australia for naught.

No sooner had he arrived, but he hit the court for some practice.

Here’s what it looked like.

(Video courtesy of Tennis Australia/The Australian Open)

Murray, Nishikori out. The rest? Maybes

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In the “not very surprising” department, the first two of the ATP Tour’s walking wounded have officially abandoned their quests to be healthy enough to compete in the first Grand Slam of the season.

First came Japanese star Kei Nishikori, who is recovering from a wrist issue. The 28-year-old had already pulled out of two planned warmup events.

Nishikori now is out of the Australian Open. He never even made the long trip Down Under.

Second up is Andy Murray, who has been trying so hard to be back on the court as he deals with what’s becoming a chronic hip injury.

Murray went to Abu Dhabi, even though he didn’t play in the exhibition there. He played a fun set against Roberto Bautista-Agut after Novak Djokovic pulled out. And he didn’t look very good.

The Brit then traveled to Brisbane, Australia to try to make his date there.

Murray played some practice sets against top opponents, but felt he wasn’t competitive enough, or pain-free enough, to play that event.

The rest of the crew – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka – all former Australian Open champions – are still question marks.

(Also announced Friday in Australia was that defending women’s champion Serena Williams also won’t be on hand. For a very different reason, though).

Murray headed home to assess options

Now that he’s out of the Australian Open, as well, a long trip to Australia for naught, Murray will head back to Great Britain to assess his situation.

After diligently working on rehab to try to avoid hip surgery, the Brit intimated earlier this week that the surgery option can no longer be completely off the table.

And that’s a sad state of affairs.

Nishikori in Newport Beach

Nishikori has taken a wild card into the Newport Beach Challenger, one of two new events sponsored by Oracle (whose owner, Larry Ellison, owns the Indian Wells event).

It will be Nishikori’s first appearance at the Challenger level since he lost to Amer Delic in the second round of the Champaign Challenger in Nov. 2010.

That’s a huge boost for the inaugural edition of the event, which takes place the second week of the Australian Open.

For Nishikori, the appearance in a Challenger is a savvy move, assuming he has progressed as expected from the wrist issue. He, too, wanted nothing more than to avoid surgery. He has seen how so many talented players have struggled to return after being operated on their wrists.

This way, he will be able to ease back into tennis slowly, after being out since losing in the first round of the Rogers Cup in Montreal to Gaël Monfils in early August.

He also can return playing best-of-three sets, rather than the best-of-five Grand Slam format.

Tennis.Life also is told that Nishikori has accepted a wild card into the $125,000 Dallas Challenger the week after Newport Beach. If true, that’s even better. He also is scheduled to play the inaugural New York Open in mid-February.

Nadal in the house

On the positive side, Rafael Nadal has arrived in Melbourne.

(Photo: Australian Open Twitter)

The world No. 1 played just one match before withdrawing from the ATP Tour Finals in London in November, with his right knee giving him trouble again. 

Before that, he had pulled out of the Basel tournament, and gave opponent Filip Krajinovic a walkover in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters.

Nada withdrew from Abu Dhabi and from the Brisbane warmup event.

Along with Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, Nadal is scheduled to test out the knee in the Tie Break Tens exhibition next Wednesday in Margaret Court Arena.

He is arriving a good 10 days before the Australian Open starts.

Where is Wawrinka? On the plane!

Nishikori
Wawrinka’s Snapchat is good news – he’s on his way Down Under.

The Swiss No. 2 has been very low-profile on social media for a month. But he has been on Snapchat. And today’s posting was the best-news snap for his fans.

Wawrinka left Geneva for Abu Dhabi Thursday night. There’s a direct flight to Melbourne from there, leaving some three hours later, on Friday morning.

So it appears he will give it a go at the Tie Break Tens, and go from there.

Expectations, after knee surgery, with no matches and the best-of-five format, will no doubt be rock-bottom.

But with the loss of Murray and Nishikori, that’s at least two of the top guns who are at least going to try.

As for Milos Raonic, he lost his first match in Brisbane to young Australian wild card Alex de Minaur, 6-4, 6-4. But at least he’s back.

Whither Djoker?

The former No. 1 withdrew from the Abu Dhabi exhibition when he experienced pain in his elbow during practice before his first match. 

A day later, Djokovic pulled out of this week’s ATP Tour event in Doha.

He will be in Australia. Djokovic has signed on for Tie Break Tens event, as well as the Kooyong Classic that takes place a 10-minute drive away from Melbourne Park. It’s not known how many matches Djokovic will actually play there.

The Serb hasn’t played since retiring in the second set of his quarterfinal match at Wimbledon against Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic.

Osuigwe among ITF 2017 world champions

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Florida’s Whitney Osuigwe, the 15-year-old who won the French Open junior girls’ title and has posted up an impressive number of wins this season, is the ITF junior world champion for 2017 on the girls’ side.

Osuigwe had just cracked the top 100 in the ITF junior girls’ rankings when the 2017 season began. She ends it at No. 1 and is still alive in singles and doubles at this week’s Orange Bowl in Florida.

She won both the 18s girls singles and doubles titles last week at the Eddie Herr tournament. That’s a home event for her as it’s held at the IMG Academy where she trains.

Countrywoman Catherine Bellis won the award in 2014 and Taylor Townsend in 2012. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Zina Garrison and Gretchen Rush in 1981 and 1982.

On the boys’ side, Axel Geller becomes first junior from Argentina to be named ITF world champion in 22 years. (Mariano Zabaleta and Federico Browne won the award back-to-back in 1994 and 1995).

He reached the singles final at both the French and US Opens, and took the doubles title in Paris.

Recent winners have included Taylor Fritz (2015), Andrey Rublev (2014) and Alexander Zverev (2013). Good crop.

All-Spain on the pro side 

Osuigwe
The all-Spanish double honor as ITF World Champions for 2017 is the first since Americans Davenport and Sampras both won in 1998.

On the pro side, ATP No. 1 Rafael Nadal and WTA No. 2 Garbiñe Muguruza have been named world champions for 2017.

Muguruza is just 40 points out of the No. 1 spot in the WTA Tour rankings, just behind Simona Halep. But unlike Halep, Muguruza is a Slam champion, having won Wimbledon this year. The ITF awards weight the Slams (which it has jurisdiction over) more than other tournaments.

According to the ITF, it’s the first time both winners have come from the same country since Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras were named ITF world champions in 1998.

It’s the third time Nadal has been so honored. Time flies: he’s the oldest-ever to be honored, at age 31.

“Becoming ITF World Champion in such a competitive year is amazing for me and is even more special because Rafa has also been awarded on the men’s side. He is a great role model for all of us, so it is a great moment for tennis in Spain,” Muguruza said in a statement.

“I knew that putting in the hard work would pay off eventually and it made winning Wimbledon and achieving the No. 1 ranking so special. I’m motivated to take everything I’ve learned this year and apply it to my work next season.”

Final accolade for Hingis

The doubles champions are Marcelo Melo (Brazil) and Lukasz Kubot (Poland) on the men’s side, and Yung-Jan Chan (Taipei) and Martina Hingis (Switzerland) on the women’s side.

Osuigwe

Melo and Kubot won the ATP Tour Finals last month, one of six titles that included Wimbledon, in their first season together.

Hingis, who retired at the end of the season, gets one more accolade.

She and Chan made nine finals – and won all of them. 

David Wagner, 43, was named the first-ever ITF Quad Wheelchair World Champion, a long overdue accolade after he finished No. 1 in the year-end rankings for the eighth time.  Gustavo Fernandez, 23 is the ITF Wheelchair champion on the men’s side and Yui Kamiji – also 23 – was honored on the women’s side. 

Kamiji won three of the four major titles in 2017, all but Wimbledon. 

The awards will be handed out at the French Open next June.