Berdych, Kyrgios end their seasons

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It became a trend some time ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berdych

Berdych’s back woes

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

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

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

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

Early-birds club membership full

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

Berdych

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

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

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

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

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

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)

US Open pics: Nadal looking good

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NEW YORK – If it weren’t for the fact that Roger Federer landed in Rafael Nadal’s half of the draw, he’d likely draw more respect as the top seed.

That’s especially true given that five of the top 11 players in the world are missing this US Open because of injury.

Then again, the Mallorcan’s defeats at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and the following week in Cincinnati didn’t offer a ton of optimism about his prospects at the final Grand Slam of the season.

Nadal is looking beastly – tan burnished, muscles fine-tuned.

But will this superb opportunity to add the 2017 US Open to his Grand Slam total pass him by?

Or will he rise to the big occasion and make a big move?

Nadal didn’t look particularly good here a few days ago in practice, seemingly an issue with his right knee out of nowhere.

Pain Thursday, all good Saturday

But on Saturday, all looked fine. Nadal was practicing with Tomas Berdych, who could be his round-of-16 opponent.

Apparently neither had an issue with that, even though the draw was already out. Th

Nadal wouldn’t seem to have to many opponents who can trouble him in that section.

Here are a few pics.

 

Berdych is wearing Djokovic’s shoes!!!!

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The Djokovic model of adidas tennis shoes is nothing new for Tomas Berdych. 

He wears them all the time.

But the Internet and the tabloids discovered it during his Wimbledon semifinal against Roger Federer on Friday.

And so it became a pretty big deal for a few hours.

The tabloid headline writers clearly didn’t quite grasp how low the odds were that Berdych would be paying tribute to another tennis player who had not, to our knowledge, passed away or otherwise suffered great trauma.

It was definitely not a Jack Sock – Bethanie Mattek-Sands situation.

The Telegraph blared:

“Tomas Berdych pays classy trainer tribute to injured Novak Djokovic”.

The Express yelled:

“TOMAS BERDYCH wore a bizarre tribute to Novak Djokovic against Roger Federer!”

When you think about it, it was pretty ironic.

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Berdych wore Djoko shoes in Indian Wells and Miami, too. They didn’t have a Djoko-face. But they did sport the Djoko-logo.

Novak Djokovic was the man who theoretically should have been standing across the net from Federer in this semifinal. 

But the three-time champion retired after a set and two games against Berdych in the quarterfinals with a chronic elbow issue.

And so, the Czech, who reached the singles final here in 2010, benefited from a somewhat free pass.

Shoes are a tough fit

The Czech player has the same issue many players have when switching clothing brands. In his case, from Nike to H&M to adidas in a short period of time.

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Djoko shoes, as worn by the real Djoko.

Djokovic wears the adidas shoes (the company he used to endorse) for a reason.

For one thing, when you find a comfortable pair of shoes, you stick with them. Blistered feet are painful, loser’s feet.

The Serb’s subsequent sponsors, Sergio Tacchini and Uniqlo, didn’t make shoes. And most of the players who wear clothes made by his new clothing sponsor, Lacoste, wear other brands of shoes.

(Tacchini used to be in the tennis shoe business. But there were always complaints about their footwear. Pete Sampras, who represented the Italian company back in the day, used to suffer from shin splints and was concerned the shoes didn’t do enough to protect his feet. So he had to negotiate his way out of his deal. Martina Hingis, back in the day, filed a lawsuit against them.)

Officially, Berdych endorses the adidas Barricade model. But he said in the press conference after his loss to Federer that he has to wear the Djoko-sneaks, the “Novak Pro” model.

“I’m wearing Novak shoes because the other shoes just doesn’t fit well to me, so that’s why I have to play in the shoes that they are fitting well and doesn’t hurt my feet,” he said.

If Djokovic couldn’t be there, at least he was representing. Which probably brought him no comfort at all.

Wimbledon Day 11 – What to Watch

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WIMBLEDON – As the days wind down, the Wimbledon schedule gets lighter.

But each match becomes a must-watch. And the stakes get higher. 

The departure of defending champion and world No. 1 Andy Murray and three-time champion Novak Djokovic has left a big hole in the men’s singles draw. It also has created great opportunity.

There is no player ranked in the top four among the final four. It is not a long-awaited changing of the guard Nothing close to that. You have to ascribe the relatively early exits of both Djokovic and Murray to ongoing injuries that, at this point, seem to require more severe measures.

But it’s true nonetheless.

The last time this happened at a Grand Slam tournament was at 2003 Wimbledon. 

No. 5 Federer (who is No. 5 right now, 14 years later) met No. 6 Andy Roddick. And No. 14 Sébastian Grosjean of France met No. 48 Mark Philippoussis of Australia.

Nice road, but no guarantee

As well as Federer has been playing, it would be an insult to say that the three notable absences (add Rafael Nadal to that list) among the final four should make it a breeze for him to romp to his eighth Wimbledon title.

First of all, there’s no way to say, on current form, that he might not have been able to beat them regardless. 

But having to face No. 11 seed Tomas Berdych in Friday’s semifinal, rather than Djokovic, does have to make Federer’s eyes light up.

These two seem to meet on big occasions on a regular basis. Those occasions include Davis Cup, and the Olympics in both 2004 and 2008. They have met at the Australian Open the last two years (both straight-sets wins by Federer). Of their 24 meetings, eight have come in Slams.

Their last meeting was among their best; Berdych should have won it. He had two match points in the third-set tiebreak in Miami last March. Perhaps if his belief level against Federer were a little higher, he might have.

Shocking Berdych win

But of the six victories Berdych has in 24 attempts against Federer, one stands out: a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 win in the 2010 Wimbledon quarter-finals.

We remember that one well – especially how absolutely chapped Federer was to lose as he made his way to the press conference room almost immediately after coming off the court.

It probably would have been a better idea to cool his jets in the locker room for 10 or 15 minutes before coming out.

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Cilic and Querrey went overtime back in 2012.

Federer didn’t have his usual wits about him for the first part of the press conference – the English part, so the part most of the planet saw.

He was definitely lacking in graciousness on that day, a surprising lapse in the Federer cool.

By the time he got to the French and German portions of the conference he had calmed down, and said more of the expected, “right” things.

Berdych went on to defeat No. 3 seed Djokovic in straight sets in the semifinals, before losing to Nadal in the final. That set of three matches and three incredibly difficult opponents in the late stages of a Grand Slam is a perfect illustration of why it has been so difficult for players outside the top four to win a big one in recent years.  

That win came in the middle of a nice little run for the Czech against Federer. He had nearly beaten him at the 2009 Australian Open; he was up two sets to none before Federer came back to take it in five. And he had beaten him in 8-6 in a third-set tiebreak in Miami. A few weeks after that Wimbledon win, he lost another third-set tiebreak against Federer in Toronto.

Federer, though, has won their last seven meetings. And as well as Berdych has played this Wimbledon – rather under the radar – the belief will all be on the other side of the court.

Battle of the giants

As for the other semifinal, it will be contested between two gentle giants who are figuring out the beast mode thing in the latter stages of their careers.

Then again, Marin Cilic is 28. American Sam Querrey is 29. Both are listed at 6-foot-6. These days, in men’s tennis, that’s barely middle age, and that’s only a few inches about the Tour’s average height. With Berdych at 6-foot-5, the 6-foot-1 Federer must feel like the little brother of the gang.

Querrey will likely match his career-high ranking of No. 17 if he wins this one. That came all the way back in 2011; it has taken him this long to approach that territory again. 

These two have a fascinating history, on some levels. They have only met four times on the ATP Tour. But three of those have come on grass. And two of those have come at Wimbledon.

Cilic has won all of them. But it couldn’t have been much closer.

Their meeting in the third round in 2009 went 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-3 6-7 (4), 6-4. Their meeting in the third round in 2012 went 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-7 (3), 17-15.

Wimbledon resumé solid

Querrey’s Wimbledon resumé is underrated. He plays well here, and he usually only loses to good players. In 2011, he lost to Murray in the fourth round. In 2012, before losing to Cilic, he beat Vasek Pospisil (the 2014 doubles champion) and Milos Raonic (last year’s finalist) back to back. He lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 14-12 in the fifth set in 2013, to Federer in 2015 and to eventual finalist Raonic last year.

After some early stumbles on the grass, Cilic lost to Djokovic in 2014 and 2016, and in five sets to Federer last year in the quarter-finals.

He also is the only semi-finalist, except for Federer, who has a Grand Slam title.

All of which to say, that first semi-final may take awhile. So Federer and Berdych may have to be prepared for a wait.

Also on the schedule Friday are the semi-finals in both the mixed doubles and women’s doubles.