Federer meets the future – and gets through

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Roger Federer’s record in first career meetings against the future stars of the game is impressive.

There’s a particular challenge he sets for himself, against a rare opponent he hasn’t faced, one who comes in with “Next-Gen” hype. He gets up for it, and admits that. After all these years, something new will always get your attention.

The 35-year-old’s 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory over 21-year-old Russian Karen Khachanov Saturday in Halle was no different than most of them. But it wasn’t without its rough spots.

Khachanov, coached by Spaniard Galo Blanco, has come on in the last couple of months to such an extent, he’ll find himself seeded at Wimbledon the very first time he ever plays in the main draw there.

He’ll be at No. 34 on Monday, a career-best ranking. But with the injury absences of David Goffin and Pablo Carreño Busta, he’ll move into the top 32.

So his grass-court experience and expertise is limited. But he still gave Federer everything he could handle.

Federer’s first Next-Gen matches

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Federer chose to receive to start the match. And after three straight breaks to begin the first set, the rest went at warp-Federer speed. It took 33 minutes, but it probably felt like 33 seconds to Khachanov.

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The first set sent by fairly quickly, but Khachanov dug in during the second set and nearly forced a third. (TennisTV)

As with very opponent who squares off with Federer for the first time – especially on grass – the speed at which he plays, the mere moments between points, and the efficiency with which the points are terminated takes some adjusting to.

The Swiss star was somewhere at times – it’s not clear quite where.

After the first game of the second set he actually sat down on the changeover, which isn’t done. Chair umpire Damien Dumusois was laughing; Federer gave him a wry smirk. 

Maybe he was just in the zone.

From six unforced errors in the first set, Federer clearly felt the pressure in the second. He had to go for more, because his opponent was playing better. And he was missing more.

But they remained on serve.

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How many pics has Federer posed for at the net like this, against youngsters he has never played before? Dozens. He usually wins. (TennisTV)

It was rolling along until crunch time, 4-4 in the second set. At 15-30, Federer gave Khachanov a chance to sink himself by firing a passing shot right at him, as hard as he could. The Russian butchered the forehand volley and after he was broken, bemoaned both the missed volley and the dodgy bounce that led to Federer taking control of the point.

But … when Federer served for the match, looking for his ninth Halle title and his 11th final, he played a poor game. And Khachanov, as big a hitter as you’ll find, played some admirable defence on the break point and took it.

From serving primarily to the corners, Federer began mixing up his serve a little. His opponent, who moves very well for a big man, had been reading it. But when Federer got out of that rhythm, he began missing his spots a little more.

Khachanov had two set points in the 5-6 game, but couldn’t make them. 

Khachanov and 19-year-old Andrey Rublev, whom he defeated in the quarters, both train at the 4Slam Academy. Blanco is in the middle; Rublev’s coach Fernando Vicente on the right. (TennisTV)

Again, at crunch time in the tiebreak, Federer challenged his younger rival.

A serve-volley at 3-3, going toe-to-toe with him on the forehand side at 4-5 and then – a changeup. Federer called on the body serve, followed by a sweet volley.

Khachanov nearly made a desperate one-handed passing shot. But it didn’t quite find the mark.

Close one, but onto the final

And that was it. Federer escaped although he could see as clearly as anyone why Khachanov has enjoyed such a rapid rise.

From losing in the first round in Stuttgart, the Swiss (who secured a top-four seed at Wimbledon) will aim for the title on Sunday.

He will face either another rising star in Alexander Zverev, or older rival Richard Gasquet.

As it happens, Gasquet was one of only two young, rising players to defeat Federer in their first career meeting.

Federer’s road in Halle has always been smooth. He has not faced many top players at all in rolling to eight titles. PeRFect preparation. 🙂

Roger Federer posts win No. 1,100 in Halle

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Most – perhaps even Roger Federer himself – expected him to reach ATP Tour victory No. 1,100 last week in Stuttgart.

Instead, the 18-time Grand Slam champion got to that nice round number Tuesday in Halle, Germany, in the first round of the Gerry Weber Open.

Perhaps it was appropriate; Federer has won the tournament eight times.

He defeated a game but overmatched Yuichi Sugita of Japan 6-3, 6-1 in just 52 minutes. And about the only teeny fly in the Fed ointment was the fact that Federer was broken in the second set after leading 5-0, 40-love and having three match points.

No matter; Federer broke Sugita in the next game to close out the win.

He now trails all-time leader Jimmy Connors by 156 career match victories.

One of the TennisTV commentators, perhaps a little overexcited, proclaimed that Federer could beat that mark. But that would be out of the realm of realistic, especially with Federer unlikely to play anything near a “full” schedule of events going forward in his career.

Even if he duplicated his 20-2 record so far in in the second half of 2017, Federer would still have to post two healthy, full seasons somewhere near 70 match victories per season. That’s a threshold he has reached only twice (and barely) since his all-world 92-5 campaign back in 2006. He would then approach the record somewhere just before his 39th birthday.

Never say never. But the math is difficult.

Team Federer looked slightly concerned towards the end of the match. But the 5-0 game on Federer’s serve was a mere blip, it turned out.

Federer hit 27 winners and made just 12 unforced errors in beating Sugita. And probably four of those errors came in that 5-0 game. With this second official match on the grass, even if the opponent didn’t quite have the level last week’s victor, Tommy Haas, was able to produce on the day, he seemed to work out some kinks.

Federer over-relied on his topspin backhand in that match against Haas, especially at the beginning. It was what propelled him to his titles on the hard courts in the first part of the season after a six-month layoff. And he clearly has all the confidence in the world in it now. But on the grass, the slice will need to come back into play.

He began using it more late in the Haas match. And he seemed to get the mix just right against Sugita.

The opponent was a last-minute surprise. Federer was due to play Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei in the first round. But Lu withdrew and Federer found himself against the lucky loser.

A career first for Sugita

Imagine it from Sugita’s point of view. 

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It was the first Sugita had ever faced a member of the Big Four in his career. And as a lucky loser, he didn’t have much time to wrap his head around it.

The Japanese veteran reached a career high of No. 66 last week. At 28, he’s playing the best of tennis of his career after qualifying, defeating Pablo Carreño Busta, Richard Gasquet and Tommy Robredo and reaching the quarter-finals of the main draw in Barcelona last month.  He won a big Challenger on grass in Surbiton two weeks ago.

And yet, he has never faced either Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or Stan Wawrinka during a career that began in 2006. The highest-ranked player he had ever played was Canadian Milos Raonic, and he took a set off him twice.

Suddenly, Sugita found himself in the main draw. That wass the good news. The bad news is that he had to face arguably the greatest grass-court player ever, on grass.

Sugita didn’t give up. And he hit his fair share of impressive shots. But 2017 grass-court Federer landed in Halle Tuesday. And there wasn’t much Sugita could do.

Zverev next up

Federer’s second-round opponent will be Germany’s Mischa Zverev. And that promises an entirely different dynamic, as the older brother of Alexander is a relentless old-school serve-volleyer – even on surfaces other than grass.

The two played in the Halle quarterfinals four years ago, when Zverev was going through a difficult period. And it was a tough day for Zverev, who didn’t get a game.

Their much-anticipated quarter-final match at the Australian Open this year went a little better. Still, Federer won in straight sets – 6-1, 7-5, 6-2 – in a match that may well look very much like this one, stylistically. Federer came to net just 15 times against Sugita; there’s a good chance that number goes up in the next round.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

ATP preview – Week of June 19

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What used to be the first official week of grass-court play, with the longstanding ATP events in Halle, Germany and at Queen’s Club in London, is now the second week. So grass is in full swing.

And except for the players who are nursing injuries, all of the top 20 are in action with the notable exceptions of French Open champion Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

No wonder. Each tournament offers nearly 2 million Euros in prize money, and both venues are lovely. The Halle tournament features a retractable roof atop Gerry Weber Stadium. So it’s rather more weather-proof.

The forecast is for temporatures in the 80s and very little rain in the forecast in London, which is welcome news. Conditions will be similar in Halle although the chances of rain increase next weekend. By then, with the roof, it will no longer be a factor.

Here’s a look at who’s playing where, who’s not playing, and how the draws may shake out.

Aegon Championships

Place: London, England
Dates: June 19-25, 2017
Prize money: €1,966,095
Category: ATP 500
Draw sizes: S32 – D16
Surface: Grass

American Jack Sock, who was the No. 8 seed, was a late scratch with a knee injury. So his good pal Nick Kyrgios (who was sporting a sleeve on his knee in practice) became the No. 9 seed.

The early rounds feature a few country vs. country clashes: Janko Tipsarevic vs. Viktor Troicki, No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Adrian Mannarino and, notably, No. 1 seed and defending champion Andy Murray vs. Aljaz Bedene.

Bedene appeared to be planning to play the Halle tournament. But having received direct entry into Queen’s Club because of some withdrawals there, he made the switch to his home turf.

From the very first round, in addition to the matches mentioned above, there are some high-level clashes.

No. 2 seed Stan Wawrinka, trying to build towards a first Wimbledon title, drew Feliciano Lopez of Spain in the first round. Always tough on grass, Lopez is in the final Sunday in Stuttgart.

Milos Raonic, a finalist in 2016, will play Aussie wild card Thanasi Kokkinakis. The Murray-Raonic final was, it turned out, a perfect preview for the Wimbledon final three weeks later.

No. 4 seed Marin Cilic will play big-serving John Isner, having just lost in ‘s-Hertogenbosch to big-serving Ivo Karlovic. And No. 6 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who is no kind of form, gets feisty American Ryan Harrison in the first round.

The tournament will heat up from the very first balls struck.

Queen’s Club has undergone some renovations this year, adding some 2,000 seats to the stadium court. Given it’s in a very residential area, the improvements there have been impressive.

However, they may well have weather-jinxed themselves with this Tweet.

Projected quarterfinal matches:

[1] Murray vs. [5] Tsonga
[4] Cilic vs. [9] Kyrgios
[3] Raonic vs. [6] Dimitrov
[2] Wawrinka vs. [7] Berdych

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Gerry Weber Open

HallecourtPlace: Halle, Germany
Dates: June 19-25, 2017
Prize money: €1,966,095
Category: ATP 500
Draw sizes: S32 – D16
Surface: Grass

The true grass-court home of Roger Federer will see the Wimbledon maestro try to get more matches in. He lost his first grass match to old friend Tommy Haas in Stuttgart, Germany last week.

Some of the more dangerous opponents – young guns Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, shotmakers Gaël Monfils and Dustin Brown, are in the other half of the draw.

(A hopeful sign that Monfils is healthy: he just entered the final grass tuneup in Eastbourne next week).

The strength of field isn’t what it is at Queen’s, although the prize money is the same.

Draw quirk: Kei Nishikori and Fernando Verdasco, a random pairing in the doubles, were drawn to meet each other in the first round of singles. To add insult to (draw) injury, they drew the No. 1 seeds in doubles in the team of Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo.

First-round matches to watch: [5] Gaël Monfils vs. countryman Richard Gasquet, and wild-card Tommy Haas vs. Bernard Tomic. 

Projected quarterfinal matches:

[1] Federer vs. [6] Pouille (in the Stuttgart final Sunday)
[3] Nishikori vs. [8] Ramos-Viñolas
[4] A. Zverev vs. [7] Bautista-Agut
[2] Thiem vs. [5] Monfils

Federer shocked by Haas in Stuttgart

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It was a shocker. Then again, on a few levels, it wasn’t.

After 10 weeks off the court, Roger Federer was beaten at the Mercedes Open in Stuttgart, Germany by longtime friend Tommy Haas 2-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 in his first match back. It was his first on the grass courts, as well.

The author of the upset was as shocked as anyone, although perhaps less surprised than his friend Federer.

“Mainly pretty speechless of course. Playing Roger is always very special, especially on grass, especially here in Germany. Lot of emotions, never easy to play a close friend either. I think you could see both of our nerves playing a bit of a role,” Haas said during an on-court interview after the win.

It was the second straight year Federer had match point in Stuttgart, only to lose. The same thing happened in 2016 against Alexander Zverev.

“I thought it was a typical grass-court match today. Rallies weren’t very long and it was decided on a serve there or a return here. If you don’t take your chances like I didn’t, leading a set and a break, you really only have yourself to blame at the end. You have to acknowledge the fact that he was a bit better. It’s quite frustrating, but that’s the way it goes sometimes,” Federer told the media in Stuttgart. “I definitely was not as sharp as I was hoping to be in maybe the big moments, or the moment when I had the lead and where I feel I should have been cruising from that moment on.”

Memories of Phau

At No. 302, Haas is the lowest-ranked player to beat Federer since another German, Bjorn Phau, defeated him at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. all the way back in 1999. Phau was then ranked No. 407. 

Haas said there are a lot of factors that come into play in a match like this one that “only the insiders really know.”

“He hasn’t played a match in 10 weeks, and the first match is always the toughest. Deep within myself I thought I had a small chance. Normally I (wouldn’t) kind of really believe it,” Haas said. “To be honest, just coming out here playing great tennis, playing in front of my daughter. That’s really what it’s all about right now.”

Haas is playing Stuttgart for the last time. In on a wild card, he had already impressed in a first-round, three-set win over 26-year-old Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert.

Good start goes bad for Federer

The draw was a rough one for both. But Federer began as if he had been on the match court just last week. He cruised through the first set and broke Haas in the third game of the second set.

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Haas’ daughter Valentina was ALL over Daddy’s win in Stuttgart Wednesday.

Through his career, Federer has always played these types of occasions like a Stradivarius.

He always knows exactly what city he’s in, and who he’s playing.

When he can, he’ll give it just enough against an inferior opponent to get the win. At the same time, he’ll always give the home crowd something to cheer about.

Federer didn’t have that kind of margin in this one.

Whether he took his foot off the gas after such a solid start is hard to know. Certainly he wouldn’t do it on purpose. But Haas put together a brilliant second set. He made very few errors, and he kept Federer pinned back in the court for a large part of it.

As well, Haas was unusually calm, cool and collected. Always a hothead, perhaps the presence of daughter Valentina made him resist the temptation to amp up the drama.

Still, Federer had a match point in the second-set tiebreak. He saved three set points against his serve – then coughed up his first double fault of the match on the fourth.

Weird things happening

Federer caught his toss before that second serve. That’s not something that happens every day. He also was successful on three Hawkeye challenges – also not an everyday occurrence.

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After Haas broke to lead 3-2 in the third set, Federer looked rather annoyed. In the next game, after Haas went up 40-0, he turned on the machine a little bit and earned four break points. Haas saved all of them.

By 3-5, serving to stay in the match, Federer sort of threw the kitchen sink out onto the stadium court to see how it would work out. He serve-volleyed on a second serve on the first point. He serve-volleyed again at 15-all, on the first serve, but was easily passed by Haas’s cross-court forehand winner.

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The shot selection by Federer on match point was emblematic of the need for more matches to sort out his grass-court game. (TennisTV)

The final point of the match was a perfect representation of the way Federer played this first grass-court effort of 2017.

Fielding a short ball on the backhand – a mishit from Haas – the right play call would have been to hit a short little slice crosscourt. Haas would have been nowhere near it.

Instead, Federer wound up and tried to hit a huge topspin backhand crosscourt for a winner. He missed by quite a bit, and the match went to Haas.

Grass tactics not quite on point

The takeaway from this first match is that the ultra-aggressive style Federer returned to the Tour with in January in Australia might not be quite as effective on the grass.

He came back from a six-month layoff hitting his topspin backhand as well as he ever has – and as often as he has, arguably, in his entire career.

But his slice remains a great shot when he uses it on offense. It’s particularly great on the grass, where it stays low, skids, and forces his opponent to hit up.

Until the third set Wednesday, the Swiss star wasn’t using it nearly as often as he probably should have. He might have been out of practice. Add in the first-match nerves Haas referenced, and Federer’s thinking might not have been as clear as it could have been.

Unfortunately, he won’t get any more practice this week in Stuttgart. Federer will have to wait until next week in Halle, Germany to get more match play. By that time, he’ll have huddled with his coaches and probably figured all that out.

At 39, Haas is the oldest ATP Tour quarter-finalist since Jimmy Connors accomplished that feat back in 1995. As it happens, it also happened in Germany, and on grass – in Halle. Connors was 42.

(Screenshots from TennisTV.com)

Haas to play BFF Federer in Stuttgart

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The Stuttgart draw gods were both kind, and unkind, to 39-year-old Tommy Haas.

The German veteran, playing his final season on circuit after a star-crossed, injury-marred career, is saying goodbye to Stuttgart this week.

And his (possible) finale will come in his next match.

This one should fill the seats in Stuttgart, for sure.

Haas will play his very good friend Roger Federer, who returns to action this week and as the top seed, received a bye in the first round.

Haas pulled out a really tight one against talented grass-courter Pierre-Hugues Herbert 6-3 4-6, 7-5 Tuesday to advance.

The Frenchman is ranked No. 75 in singles, near his best. But as a doubles player on grass, he’s superb. He is the defending champion at Wimbledon with Nicolas Mahut. And Herbert and Mahut also are the two-time defending champions at Queen’s Club.

That was a tough first round. The next one will be even tougher. But these are the moments Haas (whose actual current ranking is No. 302, and therefore needs wild cards) is playing for.

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The feisty Valentina Haas, 6 1/2, is all over her daddy getting through his first-round match in Stuttgart. (TennisTV screenshot)

“To play the next match against one of my closest friends, Roger, will be phenomenal. We’ve had a lot of great battles over the past. He’s always found over time just a few percentages here and there. He’s probably the best grass court player that we’ve ever seen and that I’ve ever played against,” Haas said in his on-court interview after the match. 

“Just going to try to play at our best. I’m certainly going to have to try to take it up one notch to have a chance tomorrow, but I’m looking forward to it and you never know what’s going to happen.”

Father-daughter moments to cherish

Haas’ daughter, Valentina, arrived from Los Angeles Tuesday and was on hand to see the victory. That makes it all even sweeter. She’ll get an extra treat with the match against Federer.

Haas

Valentina is 6 1/2. Haas and wife Sara Foster also have daughter Josephine, who is 1 1/2.

With two such feisty parents, it’s no surprise Valentina was right in there as daddy closed out the win with a second serve that caused, as the saying goes, the chalk to fly up.

HaasHaas has beaten Federer three times in their 16 meetings. It’s a lopsided number, as most head-to-heads are with Federer. But the vast majority of them have been close.

His last victory over Federer cam in the final of the Halle grass-court event in 2012 – a dream final for the organizers, for sure. The next year in Halle, they played in the semi-finals and Federer pulled off a three-set comeback win.

The two have played a pair of five-setters at the Australian Open. In the first one – all the way back in 2002 – Haas overcame a two-sets-to-one deficit to win 8-6 in the fifth. In the second, in 2006, Federer was up two sets to none before Haas pushed it to a fifth. Federer won that one.

They also went five sets in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open. There, Federer came back from a 0-2 sets deficit to win in five sets. He went on to take his only French Open title.

Great Stuttgart moment to come

So while it’s not been a hugely hyped rivalry, it’s been a good one whenever Haas has been healthy enough to play. With Federer in peak form this year, and Haas closing out his final chapter, it might not be the best tennis they’ve ever played. But there certainly will be a poignancy to it beyond the average second-round match at an ATP Tour event.

(Screenshots from TennisTV.com; Federer-Haas pic from the Stuttgart tournament Instagram)

No more breaks, Roger Federer says

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“I’m a practice world champion,” Roger Federer joked during an interview in Stuttgart Monday.

The 35-year-old says he won’t take any more breaks, and will play a regular schedule for the rest of the 2017 season.

That’s great news for Montreal, Cincinnati and some of the tournaments in Asia as well.

Here’s what he said.

Meanwhile – what do we think about Federer’s new ‘do?

No Federer at the French

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It didn’t seem like the most logical thing to do, given he is skipping the entire spring clay-court season. But all indications were that Roger Federer was planning to play the French Open later this month.

On Monday, the 35-year-old Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami champion announced a change of heart.

No Federer at the French.

“Regrettably, I’ve decided not to participate in the French Open. I’ve been working really hard, both on and off the court, during the last month but in order to try and play on the ATP World Tour for many years to come, I feel it’s best to skip the clay court season this year and prepare for the grass and hard court seasons,” he said.

It’s a surprise – but only because Federer seemed fairly certain he would play. Even a couple of weeks ago during his Match for Africa exhibition in Seattle, he reiterated that was the plan.

On the other hand, it’s not really a surprise. 

Four days ago, Federer was still on a hard court. In retrospect, was that a hint?

The 35-year-old’s 2017 renaissance after missing half the season last year has been a surprise to everyone, including himself. And so you know he had to be tempted to head to Paris and give it a go – just as he did at the Australian Open – and see what happened.

That the top two players in the world, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, are struggling with form as they turn 30 could only have been more of an inducement. There likely has never been a better time in recent years to try to sneak away with another French Open title.

Suddenly, though, Federer’s longtime rival Rafael Nadal is playing like vintage Nadal. The Mallorcan moved ahead of Federer in the ATP Tour rankings Monday, dropping Federer to No. 5 and ensuring he could get no further than the quarter-finals before having to meet one of the top four.

Whether that was a factor or not is unknown.

One-shot deal on clay a risk

What is known are the challenges red clay poses to the body – especially with no tournament prep and with the best-of-five set Grand Slam format. That was a factor the always-analytical Federer ultimately decided was too big to ignore.

He knows he stands a much better chance at Wimbledon and even at the US Open. And so he is scheduling accordingly. He is entered in a two grass-court prep tournaments before the big one at the All-England Club.

“The start to the year has been magical for me but I need to recognize that scheduling will be the key to my longevity moving forward. Thus, my team and I concluded today that playing just one event on clay was not in the best interest of my tennis and physical preparation for the remainder of the season,” he said.  “I will miss the French fans, who have always been so supportive and I look forward to seeing them at Roland Garros next year.”

There’s a positive note – Federer plans to be there in 2018.

Rafael Nadal makes it cinco in Madrid

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As Rafael Nadal tried for número cinco in Madrid Sunday, solving Dominic Thiem proved a far more daunting task than it had been in Barcelona.

Two weeks ago, after a close start, the clay maestro took care of the 23-year-old Austrian 6-4, 6-1. This time, on the bigger stage of a Masters 1000-level event, Nadal had his hands full in what turned out to be a hard-fought, high quality 7-6 (8), 6-4 victory.

This is the fifth title for Nadal in Madrid, a place he has never truly embraced. That’s mostly because of the big variance in conditions with Roland Garros caused by the altitude. And Nadal is a stickler for the details. 

But given the wave he’s riding, any nitpicks the Spaniard may have with the conditions could quickly be cast aside.

No. 4 secure – should he pass on Rome?

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Nadal will now move up to No. 4 in the rankings, a spot that is secure for the French Open. (TennisTV.com)

Nadal will slide past Roger Federer and into the No. 4 spot in the rankings on Monday. That spot looks secure until the French Open; the ranking points from this week’s Masters 1000 tournament in Rome already have been deducted.

Federer isn’t playing Rome. The challengers behind Nadal, including Canadian Milos Raonic, can’t catch up.

The No. 4 seeding is a key slot. At No. 5, a player is guaranteed to meet one of the top four as early as the quarterfinals – assuming both players get there. At No. 4, there is an extra round’s grace.

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Thiem pushed Nadal to the limit during much of a straight-sets win that was far more of a battle than even the tight scoreline indicated. (TennisTV.com)

A perfect 15-0 on the European clay, there therefore isn’t much incentive for Nadal to play Rome. He certainly doesn’t need more matches. The way he is playing, and moving, he might well go deep into the week.

Beyond seeking to add another title to his already illustrious resumé – and, let’s face it, playing tennis is really fun when you’re winning – he may well consider he’s had enough preparation and skip it. But that’s to be determined.

Unlike Federer, Nadal has never made a major priority to schedule rest when appropriate. He only knows one speed. He hasn’t yet made the transition to the “I’m 30 now, I can’t quite do what I used to do” club.

Still, after the match, Nadal declared his intention to play Rome. He said it was a very important event, and he would have a few days to rest before taking the court again.

Masters still a virtual monopoly

If Nadal does pull out, the player who would most benefit would be … Thiem. The No. 8 seed is in the same quarter of the Rome draw with Nadal.

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Dominic Thiem’s clay-court season has proven he will be a major contender at Roland Garros. (TennisTV.com)

For Thiem, who defeated Nadal on clay in Buenos Aires last year after the Spaniard had match points, it was another breakout effort. He stacked up extremely favorably with the finest dirtballer of all time on his home soil. The Austrian stayed with Nadal for so much of the match, needing to go for more risk with his shots and making plenty of them.

When the rallies were nine shots or less, the two were virtually even. Thiem even had a slight lead. Once the rallies hit 10 strokes, Nadal had a 20-8 edge. That, essentially, was the difference in the match.

Thiem is just the latest young gun to try valiantly but fail to win a Masters 1000 title. The “Big Four” of Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have won 24 of the last 25. They’ve won 37-of-40 since 2013, and 75-of-85 since 2008.

All eyes on the draw

On Monday, Thiem be No. 7 in the ATP Tour rankings. That means that unless something cataclysmic happens in Rome, the Austrian will be the so-called “player to avoid” in the upper reaches of the men’s singles draw.

Nadal at the 2015 French Open draw: (Please don’t pick Nole. PLEASE don’t pick Nole!) (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Two years ago, Nadal was seeded No. 6 at the French Open and not at the top of his game. He still was the man the top four seeds wanted to avoid. The draw ceremony, which Nadal attended as defending champion, was as tense as could be. Everyone wondered if Novak Djokovic could possibly be the one to draw him as a potential quarter-final opponent in the year that was, to that point, the Serb’s best chance to win his first French Open title.

That’s exactly what happened. And both did get there. Djokovic won that match in straight sets, but Stan Wawrinka snuck through from the bottom half of the draw and won the tournament.

Thiem has company this time around. If Federer plays – his fans still breathlessly await confirmation – he, too, will be one to watch as the No. 5 seed.

Draw ceremonies are typically pretty dry stuff. This year, there will be even more suspense.

Another ATP team event in the works?

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The first edition of the Laver Cup hasn’t even been played, and already there may be another men’s team event in the works.

The Daily Mail is reporting that a group led by Spanish soccer star Gerald Piqué is one of several expressing interest in backing a team competition the ATP Tour is considering.

Piqué, a tennis fan who regularly attends the Madrid Open anyway, was spotted in discussions with ATP executives on several occasions this week.

The Daily Mail said the format could be a week-long event with 16 nations participating. It takes some of the concessions the International Tennis Federation is considering making to the longstanding Davis Cup format and runs with them.

Just a coincidence, right? Riiight.

Been there, done that

There once was a tournament similar to this, on a smaller scale. It was called the World Team Cup. If you never heard of it, you’re not alone. Held in Düsseldorf, Germany on clay the week before the French Open, it essentially was an exhibition event by the end – a way to get in some preparation matches without stressing about results.

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The World Team Cup was a great idea at the wrong time of the year and without ranking points. Ultimately, it couldn’t survive. (Pic: Wikipedia)

From 1975 until its demise in 2012, The World Team Cup went through various sponsors. Ultimately, it failed to attract the marquee players – and thus the sponsors. Most top players don’t play a tournament the week before a Slam.

They converted it into an ATP 250 event, but after failing to secure a sponsor in only the second year, its license was transferred to the Geneva Open for 2015.

The problem, of course, would be to find a date – and a consensus location – on the already-crowded ATP Tour calendar. But being an ATP-backed tournament, it would run into fewer roadblocks than the ITF encounters with Davis Cup.

Alphabet soup tug of war

And that’s the crux of this whole thing: the eternal tug of war within the alphabet soup of the tennis establishment. With no overarching authority to incentivize all to work together for the benefit of the game, each side is trying to get an edge over the other.

The ATP is looking for additional revenue streams and to expand its brand – and break the ITF’s current monopoly on team events, as a bonus. The ITF, theoretically, is supposed to look out for the sport. But Davis Cup is a major revenue generator – and its biggest chip to play in that ongoing card game.

With the century-old Davis Cup format under various forms of attack from all sides, there’s an opening there the ATP wants to drive through.

Grand Slam Cup, RIP

It has happened before – except the situation was reversed.

The ITF decided it wanted to take on the ATP World Championships, and came up with a concept called the “Grand Slam Cup.”

The players qualified strictly on their results in the four Grand Slam events – all run by the ITF, of course. For a couple of years late in the 1990-1999 lifespan of the tournament, they added the women. For many years, the prize money was huge – and the only reason many players showed up.

The Grand Slam Cup tried a few dates: first in December and then in September, around the time the new Laver Cup is planned. Of course, the participants earned no ATP Tour points (just as the Davis Cup awards no ATP points now. Fed Cup players earn no WTA Tour ranking points).

It died in 1999. Posthumously, the ATP decided to soften its stand and factor in the results after all. (Insert your skeptical Rafa one-eyebrow raise here). Officially, it was merged with the ATP Tour Finals, which also were held in Germany at the time. 

Laver Cup player issues

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail also reports the Laver Cup is having some challenges.

On the ticket-buying side, all is well. The event, to be held in Prague, sold out quickly. The venture is supported by both the Australian Open and the US Open, which are putting their marketing acumen behind it.

You know Roger Federer is all in; he and his management company are putting it on. Obviously his renaissance this season can only help the cause. But convincing five other top players to take part isn’t proving quite as simple.

Japanese star Kei Nishikori all but confirmed to the Daily Mail he’s likely to pass. “Maybe I try to play, but mostly no,” he told the newspaper. The dates come just before the fall Asian hard-court swing. That’s Nishikori’s toughest, busiest part of the season, right at the time when the body is least durable.

The Daily Mail also reports Federer’s countryman Stan Wawrinka, as well as Novak Djokovic, have yet to confirm. 

With the “Europe vs. the Rest of the World” format, the scales tip heavily towards Europe for alternatives. On the “rest of the world” side, they have to hope Canadian Milos Raonic, Argentine Juan Martin del Potro or Aussie Nick Kyrgios is keen.

How this reported new event fits in – and where it might fit in – is the next question to be answered.

Federer reiterates “plan” to play French

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Roger Federer hit Seattle this weekend, giving more than 16,000 fans at the Key Arena Saturday night a dose of his magic and re-iterating his plan to play the French Open.

He also raised $2 million for his foundation, which has given more than 600,000 kids in Africa the opportunity to get an education.

During an interview with the Tennis Channel, which broadcast the event and also streamed it live on its affiliated Tennis.com website, Federer re-iterated his intention to play the French Open. The declaration came without some the caveats he’d included when discussing it in Miami.

Of course, back then he had just going through back-to-back Masters 1000 tournaments, and won them both. The body and mind were exhausted.

“Yes, I’m entered in the French (Open), and my plan is to play the French. I knew I needed to pace myself at some stage. Last year the clay-court season was a difficult one for me and my knee,” Federer said. “I thought about that one long and hard, and just came to the conclusion to skip it (the clay-court season) entirely and just play the French, I would have time to do everything I wanted to do – as a dad, as a husband, as a tennis player, for my foundation…”

Federer said he was “eager to achieve something over there, and not just show up and make people happy.”

Mid-season exhibition time

While the 35-year-old has officially been off the court since winning the Miami Open nearly a month ago, he has kept in shape enough to play two Match For Africa exhibitions. The first came in Zurich, Switzerland against Andy Murray April 10.

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It’s arguably the dorkiest laugh in pro tennis. But it reminds you that Federer, like us, is just a big kid at heart. Of course, he also has a lot more reasons to laugh than most of us.

In this one, Federer’s straight man was John Isner, who played despite having had some health issues in the last few weeks. The American was a respectful foil who got into the spirit of the thing admirably. He reportedly got sick in the quick turnaround from the U.S. to Australia for Davis Cup, and straight back to the U.S. for the clay-court tournament in Houston, and lost more than 10 pounds in the process.

Federer spent a lot of time over the two days gladhanding VIPs and fulfilling all of the various duties connected with these types of things. But his tennis, as it has been all year, was off the charts at times.

One particular combo stood out. First came the tweener, hit hard right at Isner at the net. He followed it up with a running one-handed backhand passing-shot, flicked at last minute, that would make any highlight reel.

Click here to see some of the interviews and hot shots on Tennis Channel’s Facebook Page.

It’s astonishing to think that most in the sellout crowd, which was right into it, likely have never seen Federer play live. And even though he’ll be 36 in a few months, it’s hard to argue that they’re not seeing vintage Federer. He’s done so many of these that he knows exactly how to play them – and the crowd – by now. And his level is crazy good.

Theoretically, whenever he’s done, he could probably play these one-nighters for many more years to come and rake in more millions for his foundation. The whole idea came together in less than two months, after he met with Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates at Indian Wells. These are guys who can make things happen in a hurry.

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                                   How good is it to be Roger Federer right now? Pretty good.

As a bonus, Gates got to play a doubles exhibition with Federer, against Isner and Pearl Jam lead guitarist Mike McCready. It took place before the main event; Gates and Federer won 6-4.

The two amateurs acquitted themselves well. The furthest thing from a natural athlete that you’ll ever see, the 61-year-old Gates got the ball in court and didn’t hesitate for a second to try to lob Isner. McCready showed surprisingly good hands at the net. Everyone was very nice to each other.

Quiet Bill, chatty Roger

Gates might have said 10 words the entire time. It was hilarious to see Federer try to engage him in conversation, and just have him stand there and smile. But you know he had the best time.

Federer had a good time, too. As serious as he is on the match court, when he’s playing these things, “Giddy Fed” comes out. The dorky laugh, so unexpected when it erupts, humanizes the superstar perhaps more than anything else he does.

At the end, though, he got a little emotional. “I flew around the world for this, so it means a lot. I left my kids at home,” he said. “So thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Federer told Tennis Channel’s Mary Carillo that he’s been practicing on hard courts … with Wimbledon balls. Cheeky answer, but he only plans to hit the clay courts two weeks before Paris. That means about two weeks from now. It will be during that training block that he’ll make his final decision.

(Oh: Federer won the match against Isner, 6-4, 7-6 after coming back from 2-4 down in the second-set tiebreaker).