Federer, Bouchard to hit Hopman Cup

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There’s still a long way to go in the 2017 season.

But let’s talk about the start of 2018 already, shall we?

One of the first events of the year is the Hopman Cup exhibition, a long-standing event held on the west coast of Australia in Perth.

This year’s dates are Dec. 30, 2017 to Jan. 6, 2018. There’s usually a rocking New Year’s Eve party involved, too.

The biggest thing about the 2017 edition was that it was where Roger Federer began his comeback, after six months away. 

It was a perfect choice – matches against quality opposition, but with no pressure, to gauge his form. It worked out well for him a few weeks later in Melbourne at the Australian Open.

The good news in Perth this year, as the event announced the field on Wednesday, is that Federer is back.

That was actually the event’s first official announcement, all the way back in June. And it’s a major coup with no less than three ATP Tour events – Brisbane, Doha and the Maharashtra Open in Pune, India (formerly the Chennai tournament) no doubt vying for Federer’s $ervices.

Joining Federer on Team Switzerland will be Belinda Bencic, the 20-year-old who has had injury issues of her own. So this time, it will be her comeback.

Bencic has won just one match all year on the WTA Tour. And she was sidelinedwith a wrist injury from early May, until her return at an ITF event last week.

Federer did have an epic – a 7-6 (1) 6-7 (4) 7-6 (4) loss to his occasional practice partner Alexander Zverev.

But Switzerland didn’t actually win; France (Richard Gasquet and Kristina Mladenovic) defeated them in the round-robin portion and won the whole thing.

France isn’t among the eight teams for 2018. Neither are Great Britain, the Czech Republic or Spain – all of which took part in 2017.

Joining Federer and Bencic will be Zverev and Angelique Kerber for Team Germany.

Zverev played with Andrea Petkovic last year; this will be Kerber’s first appearance in Australia.

As well, Canadians Vasek Pospisil and Genie Bouchard will team up. Bouchard played with countryman Milos Raonic back in early 2014 – shortly before Bouchard’s big breakout result at the Australian Open.

Bouchard teamed up with Pospisil the following year in 2015. She defeated Serena Wiliams there, and then reached the Australian Open quarterfinals a few weeks later.

Russia’s Karen Khachanov will team up with Svetlana Kuznetsova.

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Bouchard and Pospisil faced Serena WIlliams and John Isner at the Hopman Cup three years ago.

For Australia, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Daria Gavrilova will represent.

David Goffin and Elise Mertens will play for Belgium

For the USA, Jack Sock and Coco Vandeweghe will fly the flag.

And, last but not least, Naomi Osaka and Yuichi Sugita of Japan fill out the field.

Switzerland, USA, Russia and Japan will be in Group B. Canada, Germany, Australia and Belgium will be in Group A, for round-robin purposes. They’ve already made the schedule, so fans can pick and choose what matchups they want to see well in advance.

Canada plays during the Sunday, Wednesday and Friday day sessions.  Federer will play Saturday (vs. Japan), Tuesday (vs. Russia) and Thursday (vs. the USA) evenings. 

That means Nick Kyrgios, the top Aussie, won’t be there.

But it’s a pretty interesting field nonetheless, with plenty of high-profile players on both sides.

The format is two singles, and then mixed doubles. Last year, they used the “Fast Four” format for the mixed.

The Laver Cup: overall, a great debut

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Pretty much everything Roger Federer touches turns to gold.

So why anyone would have any doubt that the first edition of the Laver Cup would be anything but a smash?

It was, on every level, a huge success. Sellout crowds, high-quality tennis, plenty of drama and emotion, a bulletproof format … and Roger and Rafa.

It was a such a perfect storm that even the absence of many top players turned out to be a plus.

Team World (Team America, really) ended up a young squad of millennials – both real and throwback. They decided to have their own private party in front of 14,000 people inside the O2 Arena, and millions more around the world.

“They had the better chants and the better moves, but in the end, Team Europe got it done,” said Laver Cup maestro Roger Federer, who pretty much notices everything and has a uniquely passive-aggressive way of letting you know.

Team World wins the “Team Fun” award

inauguralOutmatched on the court for the most part, Team World won the fun contest

The contrast between Team World and Team Europe couldn’t have been more stark.

Obviously most of the older players were on Team Europe. At times during the weekend you almost got the sense they were exchanging stock tips while Team World recreated The Floor is Lava, this summer’s trending challenge on YouTube.

Just keeping track of Frances Tiafoe’s ever-changing head gear was a trending challenge in itself. Veterans John Isner and Sam Querrey were young again. And green rookie Denis Shapovalov got more corrupted by the day. He may never be the same.

But by the very end, the last 20 minutes of the Roger Federer match, Team World stepped it up – led by an emotional and demonstrative Rafael Nadal.

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Yes, Nadal actually did this in the heat of the Sunday drama. He got a little excited.

Superb staging

The “black” court turned out to play dark gray on television. And it immediately became a visual that will always be associated exclusively with the Laver Cup. 

The ball stood out on the stark backdrop for television viewers. But the blue and red lighting around the court and in the stands prevented it from being too drab.

As well, the stark white of the high-end sponsors also stood out. Don’t think that wasn’t a huge factor as well.

They really did think of everything. One complaint fans often have when watching tennis on television is that the radar gun that measures the serves is hard to find, and often hard to see. In this setup, the numbers were big and bright and always easy to find.

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The stage where the rest of the teammates cheered was also perfectly set up. The fans could access both teams during changeovers (and even during the matches) for autographs. But if the players wanted to leave the court – especially the losers – they could do so in a straight line towards the locker room. If they didn’t want to deal with the autograph seekers, they didn’t have to.

At the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore and to a large extent at the ATP Tour Finals in London, the fans are often in the dark as the court is lit up. It makes for a bit of an isolated atmosphere although it does hide any empty seats. At the Laver Cup, the stands were lit in a way that fit in perfectly with the court. But it also allowed you to see the fans.

It was pitch-perfect. It almost didn’t even look real.

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Next-Gen graphics, camera angles

A company based in Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles called Girraphic was the mastermind behind the graphics, which were unlike most of what you see all season long.

They were spectacular, especially the ones superimposed on the net. 

Great variety of camera angles

The camera angles were also varied. The baseline cam (affectionately referred to as the “butt cam” because they often close in on the derrière of the player returning serve) has been used before. But rarely this often.

They also had an improved version of the net cam; Bob Feller, the legendary ESPN tennis producer, says, “stay tuned”.

Federer annihilated it at one stage, which was amusing. They had a fish-eye lens at the net that showed the entire court in a new way. There were slow-motion replays of emotional moments and Team Fun routines. It was frantic, but it didn’t feel that way.

Having the coaches on court – and the players playing coaches as well – made for far more interesting cutaways than you’ll see at a regular tournament. There, the endless go-tos are countless shots of Mirka Federer biting her lip, or Jelena Djokovic looking like she might lose her stuff at any moment, get old quickly.

They had to dim the microphones at times, given some of the cussing by Team World. (There were no such issues for Team Europe; captain Bjorn Borg said more during his trophy ceremony speech than he said on court for three days).

Trying too hard

For whatever reason, the braintrust behind the Laver Cup decided that the word “exhibition” was a bad word.

It was clear that a talking point went out to everyone to emphasize that it wasn’t an exhibition. That it didn’t feel like an exhibition. And that it meant something to these guys. They were devoted in their dedication to bringing home the Laver cup to their (country? continent? world section?). And that it meant the world to them.

The thing is, why is the word “exhibition” by definition a bad word?

That’s exactly what this was. Perhaps out of this, a new category somewhere between tournament and exhibition called “special event” may be created.

But they tried so hard. Way too hard.

It’s worth remembering that every single person trying to convince you the Laver Cup “wasn’t an exhibition” had a financial stake in the event. The players received a ton of money up front (and an additional $250,000 each for winning). Federer’s management company, Team 8, for which he is the biggest earner, made a major investment.

Everyone from the chair umpire to the all-star cast of commentators and analysts took home a nice additional paycheque for their participation. It was to the point where the commentators were making excuses for some salty language on Team World’s side with platitudes like “It just absolutely shows how much these guys want to win for Europe and the world.”

Actually, it just showed that they use profanity. As many of us do on a tennis court. As they do during the regular Tour events as well. But they’re not used to being amongst a gaggle of buddies on a tennis court with the microphones on.

Giving the players (and captain) such a pass would only happen in an exhibition. In many ways, the vibe on that level was much as it was for that first, money-heavy season of IPTL. Which was, of course, much derided as “merely an exhibition.”

Format on point

The very nature of the team format was going to make for great competition.

In a standard exhibition, where two top players fly in and out of a city for a one-nighter, they’re playing for themselves and the crowd. 

Regardless of the circumstances, if you play against two of the greatest of all time, you’re going to go all out. And if you are one of the greatest of all time, you didn’t get there by not taking it seriously every time you step on the court.

The place was packed. Everyone had fun. Everyone came out a winner. The fans loved it. Everyone made lots of money.

There is no downside, and little need to preach semantics.

The stated intention to honour the champions of the past in naming the event after Rod Laver, and having Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as captains (neatly dovetailing with the opening of the movie based on their rivalry) put a nice, sincere veneer on what is very much a money-making enterprise.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

What’s ahead

The pitch-perfect execution of the inaugural edition is a double-edged sword, in a sense.

Not that this is a bad problem to have.

But it’s going to be awfully hard to duplicate – for so many reasons.

First of all, the event is going to move around. Next year, at the same time, it will take place at the United Center in Chicago.

We know this, because the Laver Cup already had a video message ready from the mayor of the city, and they had a press conference in Chicago just after noon.

The well-heeled crowd in Prague was enthusiastic but extremely civilized. It was only in the waning moments that they began to do those things the diehard fans hate, like cheering for missed first serves.

The crowd in Chicago will be quite different.

The makeup of “Team World” also will be quite different.

What a perfect world it would be if this year’s cast were playing “at home” in Chicago. Their act would play even better. And imagine, conversely, that players such as Nishikori, Murray, Raonic, Anderson and del Potro had been on “Team World” instead of Shapovalov, Kyrgios, Tiafoe, Isner and Sock.

Team Fun probably a one-off

The atmosphere would have been completely different – not nearly as lively. And John McEnroe, as captain, wouldn’t have had nearly the same positive impact. That’s going to be impossible to recreate next year.

What if, next year, Federer and Nadal aren’t blessed with the same health and good form they’ve enjoyed this year, their renaissance year? It’s inarguable that these two are definitely on a year-to-year basis, at this stage.

Without them, it’s not the same event. It’s arguably barely a top-flight event, despite the illustrious resumés of the other player options. In the special-event solar system, star power counts exponentially.

It’s also worth noting here that Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori had not committed to the Laver Cup before their injury woes. Will that change now that they’ve seen it work so amazingly well? It might. It might not.

Federer and Nadal transcend borders. The others, not nearly to the same extent. You know Federer is committed as long as he’s healthy, given his business ties. Countryman Stan Wawrinka likely would do him a solid. But did Nadal just do a one-off favour for his frenemy? We’ll find out.

They should also consider shortening the time between matches. It could run a half hour or more. We realize the need to sell merchandise and adult beverages. But with only one match to talk about, the commentators had a tough time filling. And it’s easy to lose your audience these days.

Collateral effects

Overtly or not, this event has been positioned as a potential alternative format to the century-old Davis Cup competition. That’s partly because of the weekend team format. And it’s also because of the fact that Nadal and Federer played it while skipping representing their country this year.

No doubt there are plenty of secret board meetings over at ITF headquarters. And the drama is made even more real by the fact that the USTA and Tennis Australia – two federations that run Grand Slam tournaments under the ITF umbrella – are involved in a major way. At the very least, the huge money the players were paid just to show up dwarfs the relative pittance they earn for representing their country – with far fewer weeks’ commitment.

But the effects go beyond that, right to the heart of the Tour that made all these players rich and famous.

There were two 250-level ATP Tour events the week of the Laver Cup – Metz and St. Petersburg, Russia. There are two 250-level events in faraway China this week that brush up against the end of the event, Shenzhen and Chengdu.

Stars needed at the 250s

It’s no secret that the 250-level tournaments are struggling to varying degrees. The only way they can make a good go of it is if they can attract a big name to play in the event. That draws the fans; more crucially, it also draws corporate sponsorship.

Metz and St. Petersburg were out of luck. (There was a story reporting that Djokovic had committed to the St. Petersburg tournament before he shut down his season). Tomas Berdych, who would have been the No. 3 seed in Shenzhen, pulled out before the event began. (Why he even entered it, knowing as far back as February when he was doing Laver Cup promotion in Prague with Federer that he’d likely play, is a question for him).

Shapovalov had committed to a big Challenger in Orléans this week. With his subsequent rise, he obviously was a big drawing card. He pulled out late in the game.

Tiafoe also withdrew from Shenzhen. He’s a crowd-pleaser. But it also cost him a chance to earn some ranking points which, at this stage of his career, he still needs. Denis Shapovalov had committed to a big Challenger in France this week. He only played on the Laver Cup’s opening day; he pulled out of Orléans that very day. That’s late in the game.

Tired, jet-lagged top seeds

Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, the No. 1 seeds in Shenzhen and Chengdu, respectively, remain on board so far. But they’ll arrive in Asia very late, after a very long trip. And they’ve both signed on for doubles, as well.

Alexander Zverev is the top seed in Shenzhen this week, and was likely well-paid for it. He’ll arrive pretty drained, and jet-lagged, with little rest of prep time to face Steve Darcis in the second round.

They’ll be jet-lagged – and perhaps even a little hungover from the post-victory celebrations. They won’t have given themselves the best chance to win. That does them a disservice. And it also hurts the tournaments that no doubt paid them handsome appearance fees, as top-10 players, to show up.

And who knows if any other Laver Cup participants might have considered playing?

In the end, the Laver Cup seems to be here to stay. As well it should; it was all kinds of fun and, no doubt, quite profitable for all.

It’s only an exhibition. But it combines the best elements of everything tennis has to offer right now. It needs to stay.

What remains to be worked out is how it best can fit into the overall tennis landscape. Because it needs to fit. The alphabet soup of competing tennis factions all need to figure out a way to make that happen.

(All screenshots used for this post came from the Laver Cup’s livestream)

The future of Fedal – is there one?

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Now it can be told.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal weren’t really looking forward to playing doubles together.

That much was obvious after they pulled out a narrow victory over Sam Querrey and Jack Sock Saturday.

They looked as relieved as they were happy. From their lofty perch in tennis history, they had more to lose than to gain.

And after Roger Federer pulled off the comeback win over Nick Kyrgios Sunday that decided the Laver Cup in Team Europe’s favor, they both alluded to it.

“I was ready to go. I had to be. That’s what a team member does. We knew it could change very quickly on Sunday. I was looking at getting ready for maybe a doubles at the very end here. So I’m very pleased and relieved that we got it done,” Federer said.

Nadal’s sentiments were similar.

“Of course if the captain want me there, I was ready – I didn’t want to play, but I was ready,” Nadal said. “But thanks to Roger, and the rest of the team, that we avoided that very tough situation.”

The idea of Federer and Nadal playing doubles together is a subject that comes up every so often in the media. But it had not come up between them for many years.

The idea was better than the actual reality. Although for nearly everyone who saw it, the idea was more than enough.

Seeing two of the greatest players of all time interacting for an extended period as the fans of both rarely see them do superseded any of the tennis actually played.

“It kind of felt like going into the Laver Cup, that’s what everyone wanted to see, and talked about as well. Now that it happened I think we’ll have some great footage, some great photos,” Federer said. “The two of us getting together. Our both fan groups having to get together. I think that’s slightly interesting as well.”

In reality, they don’t mesh that well. Their styles are so different. And it’s tough to play with someone you haven’t played with before – just look at the lack of chemistry between Nadal and Berdych.

There was no great debate on who would play which side, even though the tactical discussion made for a unique, if slightly stilted video. Federer said he plays the deuce side more often, Nadal said he plays both. Federer loved the idea of Nadal’s forehand on the ad side (even if their relatively weaker backhands are down the middle, which is the most crucial part of the doubles court.

But you could see that Federer made a lot of adjustments to acquiesce to what Nadal prefers on a doubles court. For example, he stayed back on both the first and second serves when Nadal was returning. 

They knew it would please the fans, of course. Which is probably a big reason why they did it. But these are two of the best players in history. They have egos. They don’t want to combine forces on the court and … lose.

“We only ever practiced once together, back at the World Tour Finals. We don’t practice a lot. We don’t show stuff to each other a lot. We’ll always forever be rivals as long as we’re active. And after this we’ll be rivals again. But this was something really special,” Federer said. “It’s been an absolutely pleasure sharing the court with Rafa on the same side of the net. Knowing you can trust him in the big moments, seeing his decision making, seeing his thought process, was very interesting.

“I knew the people, maybe the ones who don’t follow tennis all the time, they would not understand if we lost. I understand that people only expect a win from us. But it’s so complicated. We’re playing indoors against great doubles players, against big servers,” Federer added.

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Federer cracks up as Nadal gets tagged at the net during their doubles match at the Laver Cup Saturday (Screenshot: LaverCup.com)

That a pairing like Querrey and Sock – who have played together exactly once, back in 2012 in San Jose – would worry them to that extent is meaningful.

Different worlds, different people

The two are not besties. They come from different countries, different cultures. They hang out with their own people. And for much of their careers they have been fierce rivals.

They’ve known each other forever. They’re friendly, of course. Probably as friendly as anyone could be considering their professional circumstances. They have great respect for one another. 

But there’s a reason they have not ever teamed up on Tour, despite plenty of opportunities.

Federer hasn’t played much doubles in recent years. But before that, the two tended to play  for the very same reason, at the same tournaments. Most often it was when the ATP Tour changed surfaces – from indoors to Indian Wells, from the Wimbledon grass to the summer hard-court season in Canada. They had plenty of chances, but the never took advantage in all the years they’ve been out there.

Nadal sort of seems keener than Federer on the whole concept, doesn’t he?

If they save their cooperative efforts for a once-a-year reunion at the Laver Cup, that’s just fine. The scarcity of it makes it all the more anticipated.

And it’s good for business, too.

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.

Rafa brings down the house in press

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NEW YORK – The prospect of Rafael Nadal facing Roger Federer at the US Open, for the first time ever, obviously led to a host of questions from the media Wednesday.

Nadal had few issues in dispatching 19-year-old Andrey Rublev 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 as he kept his part of their long-anticipated semifinal date.

But even though Federer and Juan Martin del Potro had yet to play their own semifinal, the subject of Fedal in Ashe was front and centre.

They were one match away from meeting back in 2009. But del Potro spoiled the Fedal party with a win over Nadal – 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 – followed by a win over Federer in the final.

Nadal isn’t exactly the guy who pulls out bon mots in press conferences and gets everyone laughing. He’s a serious, earnest guy in press.

Plus, with English not being his first language, he’s not likely to tell a joke.

But at a certain point Wednesday, he got everyone laughing.

But then, a mite sheepish, he answered the question well, as he always does.

“I don’t want to look like I gonna be his boyfriend, no? (That’s where he got the laughs). We don’t want to talk these kind of things before important match.

“Well, we have a lot of respect for each other, no? We played a lot of times. I think we did important things for tennis. We appreciate that. And we always had a good relationship. We played for our foundations. I think he always have been a great ambassador for tennis and for our sport, with good image, of course, and representing, I think, good values.

“One important thing that is a great example for kids, no, after a lot of years and winning more than (anybody), he still have the passion to keep doing what he did during all his career, no? And doing unbelievable well and doing with the right attitude and with the right passion and love for the sport, no?

“So that’s something important for me and something that I admire him, and inside the court, I admire of him the same, as you can admire, because everybody knows how complete (he is), and he’s able to produce all the shots.”

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).

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

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

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

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

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

Next up, the 2009 rematch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The greatest guy on the history”

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

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

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

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

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

Federer to third round, but he’s not himself

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NEW YORK – With so many 30-somethings on the ATP Tour turning back time and playing some of their best tennis late in their careers, it was a bit of a shock to see two of them act their age Thursday.

Roger Federer, 36 and Mikhail Youzhny, 35, looked like rickety imitations of their young selves for much of Federer’s 6-1, 6-7 (3), 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 win.

At one point, when he had Federer down two sets to one, one of the Swiss star’s most dependable tomato-can opponent might have been thinking this: “NOBODY beats Mikhail Youzhny 17 times in a row!

(Click on the link if you’re too young to get the reference).

Youzhny was fighting against this: an 0-16 career record against his first-gen colleague. By the end, he also was fighting cramps. 

Federer, apparently, was fighting himself.

thirdBut at the beginning, the picture of Dorian Youzhny was nestled security in the rafters of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Meanwhile, Federer’s magic fountain of youth was running dry. In the end, Youzhny’s body let him down, while Federer remembered who he was, and who Youzhny was to him.

Had he lost, it would have gone down as arguably Federer’s biggest stinker of all time at a Slam. Somehow, with help from his ailing opponent, he pulled out a second consecutive five-set win at this US Open and is into the third round.

Federer smiles, entourage grim

The man himself seemed quite pleased when it was over. Big smile on his face. “These five-set battles are quite a lot of fun, and I quite warmed up by now,” he joked during his on-court interview.

But the true picture, perhaps, could be found in his players’ box.

The Federer guests, the ones who probably don’t know his game as intimately, were simply thrilled he won. But look at the front row – and Lynette Federer. They know.

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The faces of Mirka Federer, Lynette Federer, and Federer agent Tony Godsick tell the tale on Federer’s five-set win Thursday.

“I’m better than the first round, so I’m happy. Yeah, this match wasn’t about the back, which is good. This is more just a grind. I felt different, completely different, the way it played and everything. But I’m really, really happy I got through,” Federer said. “I think because you’re on a high, you’re thrilled that you got through, so you don’t look at the negative. Or I don’t. Yes, I might feel more tired than I normally would going into a third round, but that’s okay.

“My preparation hasn’t been good at all here. I knew I was going to maybe struggle early on. Maybe I struggled more than I would have liked to. But I’m still in the draw, which gives me a chance. I still believe I’m going to pick up my game and become just more consistent because I’m not playing all that bad. It’s just that I’m going a bit up and down in waves throughout the match,” he added. “So clearly I’m happy how I felt after the first round, because that was the scary bit. But that’s passed now. Now I can just look forward to play tennis. With a bit of fatigue, that’s okay. I’ve done that hundreds of times. That’s not something I’m too concerned about.”

Federer’s shot selection was dodgy at times. Twice, on break points, he serve-volleyed on second serves, and lost the points.

He had 68 unforced errors. In two matches – 10 sets – he has 124.

10 sets in 2 matches

Even though it went the distance, just as Federer’s first round against young American Frances Tiafoe did, it didn’t feel the same.

“Just the unknown of the (sore) back in the first round, pressure of being back on Ashe, the rust was clearly there, then not quite knowing (if I can) pick up my game,” Federer said. “Today I felt like I was going to. In some way, I knew I was going to play better than I did in that third set or fourth set. And I knew I was going to be able to pick it up. So I didn’t disappoint myself, whereas in the first round I was just not quite sure.”

In the third round, Federer will face another familiar foe in Feliciano Lopez, the No. 31 seed.

That’s a 12-0 whitewash. Lopez hasn’t even taken a set off him since 2011.

Can anybody beat Feliciano Lopez 13 times in a row?

Federer’s Central Park hit

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Roger Federer wasn’t on the practice schedule Wednesday, after his five-set win Tuesday against American Frances Tiafoe.

But while he was smart to avoid the circus on an off day, it wasn’t that he didn’t have a hit.

Federer, reportedly staying on Long Island, no doubt had any number of private courts available to him for a practice. But he went for a hit in Central Park.

From the looks of it, it was quiet and idyllic. It’s entirely possible the people biking by didn’t bat an eye or do a double-take.

Pics: Federer hits with Coric

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NEW YORK – It was Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day Saturday. So there were lots of eager beavers on hand to watch Roger Federer practice with Croatia’s Borna Coric on the Grandstand Court.

For the 20 minutes Tennis.Life was there, Coric was kind of having his way with Federer. Which is why you never put too much stock in small sample sizes or practice-set scores.

How did he look?

Well …

Federer definitely looked a lot more spry than he did during that last match in Montreal, when he tweaked his back and decided to skip Cincinnati the following week.

Did he look free, easy and 100 per cent? Federphiles who watch his every move could probably judge better than I.

But something still didn’t seem quite kosher with his serve. And Coric was having no trouble sending his groundies whizzing past the 36-year-old.

He definitely didn’t seem to be bent in his full-crouch serve receiving position. But it’s practice, so he didn’t need to.

All in all, Federer still has three more days until his debut against American Frances Tiafoe Tuesday night on Arthur Ashe Stadium. 

They had the court booked from 10 a.m. to noon. At 11:19 a.m., on a signal from Federer, they called it a morning. Also probably not too meaningful.

Tough first round

Tiafoe isn’t a cakewalk of a first-round opponent. That’s especially true as the 19-year-old will be playing in his home Slam, and he doesn’t mind the showtime.

Ranked No. 71, Tiafoe has had some very good Challenger events this season. But as he makes the full-time transition to the ATP Tour, he’s only 5-13 on the season at the top level.

It’s tough up there. Among those 13 losses are defeats at the hands of Alexander Zverev (twice), Federer in Miami (the first time they faced each other), Juan Martin del Potro, Fabio Fognini and Richard Gasquet.