Bresnik steps back from Team Thiem

A LOT of coaching news as the 2019 clay-court season dawns.

Top-20 Canadian Denis Shapovalov has parted ways with Rob Steckley and is back with former coach Adriano Furorivia, .

Also, in the last week, Dominic Thiem has confirmed some big moves.

There’s a certain commonality between the two bits of news.

Both are coming off a spectacular result during the Sunshine Double.

Shapovalov reached the semifinals in Miami. Thiem shocked Roger Federer in the final (after beating Milos Raonic in a marathon in the semis) and won Indian Wells

Both have made coaching changes going into the clay season, as Nicolas Massu will become the main coach as Thiem’s lifelong coach Günter Bresnik takes a step back.

As it happens, back in late 2016 when “new” Shapovalov Adriano Fuorivia was still on board, Shapovalov went to Tenerife, Spain and did a trial with Bresnik during the off-season.

It was a short-lived one, as Shapovalov injured his ankle. And Bresnik already had his hands full.

Like a parent, raise them to leave the nest

Bresnik speaks (a bit cryptically) about the change to the Austrian Press Association (all quotes directly through Google Translate as our German isn’t up to snuff).

“Dominic is 26 this year and is still partially perceived in public as if he were a small child,” Bresnik said in an Austria Presse Agentur interview published in Der Standard. “I’ve always said my ultimate goal as a coach is that Dominic is independent and completely independent.”

The Indian Wells was an unexpectedly great result after a slow start to the 2019 season, notably the lack of wins on Thiem’s bread-and-butter South American clay-court circuit.

Thiem had a lingering illness, never fully disclosed but that had as one consequence overall body pain. He even skipped Austria’s Davis Cup qualifier in February.

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Massu remains as Chile’s Davis Cup captain. His team reached the finals by defeating Austria in February – a win, ironically, that might not have happened had Austria had Thiem on the roster. Immediately after that, Massu joined the team in South America.

Massu to the fore for clay

Massu, who began helping Thiem during that South American swing and also accompanied him on on the U.S. swing, will be there as the main coach for the European clay-court season.

Except, the Bresnik APA interview indicated, in Barcelona, because of a previous commitment. Thiem’s father will be there with him.

“What’s in two months, I do not know, but the Dominic is good with Nicolas Massu. It is crucial that he plays successfully tennis,” Bresnik said in an APA interview last week. “I’ve been looking for a touring coach for Dominic for two years, this time we’ve tried Nicolas Massu and it works.”

Bresnik still coaches Ernests Gulbis. So he would likely still be in Paris for the French Open.

Plus, he remains Thiem’s manager. So he’s far from out of the picture.

Another piece on SPOX.com after a Thiem media availability last week indicated that Thiem has added fitness coach Duglas Cordero for some 15 weeks during the season, to join physio Alex Stober.

Cordero, who has worked with Fabio Fognini and Francesca Schiavone among other players, is based in Miami.

So from the looks of it, Thiem is not subtracting or changing – he’s adding.

At 25, ranked No. 5, he’s approaching his peak. And with so many young kids coming up these days, it’s time to stake his claim and make the big move.

A lifelong coach

In some ways, it’s a surprising development. In most ways, not so much.

When Bresnik began coaching Thiem, he was a boy. Now he’s a 26-year-old man. 

Think about how your relationship with your father would have changed over all that time. It is a hard transition to make from guru and all-knowing coach to mere employee, in a sense.

The way Bresnik put it: in the early part of a career, the coach is everything. During that transition to the pro tour, they are more or less equals. But after that, it’s all about the player and not the coach.

“It’s clear after 15 or 16 years that we spent more time together than I did with my parents and he probably with his children, it’s like being in a marriage, there are good and bad times,” Thiem said. “It is, I think, now good that Massu extends the team and everything. We’ll see more later.”

Fuorivia in, Steckley out on Team Shapo

Nadal headlines TBTs at IW

The BNP Paribas Open announced Monday that Rafael Nadal will headline a Tie Break Tens event ahead of the main Indian Wells Masters 1000 / Premier Mandatory tournament.

It’s a winner-take-all event, with $150,000 US going to the winner.

Also confirmed are Dominic Thiem, Gaël Monfils and Milos Raonic. Two spots remain in the six-man field.

(We say “six-man field”, of course, because it’s a men-only event).

The Eisenhower Cup

It will be called the “Eisenhower Cup presented by Masimo”, and held on Tuesday, March 5 at 7 p.m. during the Indian Wells qualifying. They’ll use fabulous Stadium 2 to play it.

The format is two pools of three players, playing a first-to-10 match tiebreak. The winners of the two pools will square off in the final.

It’s a great addition to the first couple of days of the event.

The tickets, which go on sale Tuesday at 1 p.m. EST on the BNP Paribas Open website, will be $25. Proceeds from the event will go to four local charities: Masimo’s Patient Safety Movement, Eisenhower Health, Bighorn Golf Club Charities; and Family YMCA of the Desert.

Who will the final two be? Do you think they can convince Djokovic, Federer or del Potro to sign on? Tune in.

Speaking of Tie Break Tens, wasn’t there supposed to be a similar event at the Australian Open during the qualifying week? Whatever happened with that? It just … disappeared.

Nadal outlasts Thiem in US Open epic

NEW YORK – Arthur Ashe Stadium is probably still buzzing Wednesday morning  after Rafael Nadal and his natural-born successor, Dominic Thiem, played to a 2:02 a.m. finish.

And, after the 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (5), four hour and 49-minute marathon won by the world No. 1 and defending US Open champion, you could clearly see why teenagers and young 20-somethings are having so much time breaking through on the Grand Slam stage.

The sustained level of virtuosity in this one, and the sheer physicality, were off the charts. It’s just not a job for teenaged prodigies any more.

Even as the match approached five hours and neared 2 a.m. on another unbearably humid night in New York, the level was sustained.

The racket-head speed, the scrambling, the sheer will and effort produced by the two players seven years apart in age, never wavered. Never.

These two had met 10 times over the last five years – all on their preferred clay. This one, on a hard court in the city that never sleeps, was their best.

Nadal to himself: “Wake up!”

Nadal won just seven points in the first set as a blinding, brilliant start by Thiem squared off with a nervous one by Nadal.

“When these things happens, normally I am not the guy that look at the string or look at the box or look at the racket. I am the guy to look at myself. Nothing about the string. Nothing about the tension. Just about my negative level in the beginning of the match. I needed to move forward, to change that dynamic, and I did. But the first step to change that dynamic is not find an excuse on the racquet or on the string or on something that is not the true,” Nadal said. 

“The only true is that you have to do things better to be able to fight for the point and fight for the match, no? I am critic with myself. That’s all. I did a very bad set. He played well. When was 4-0, the only thing that was in my mind was, ‘Okay, finish that set and just try to be ready for the beginning of the next.”

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The two combatants despaired at times. But they never gave up.

If those two forces had continued to butt heads, it would have been over quickly. But this is Nadal, who will spill every last drop of sweat he can manufacture on the court before he heads out the door.

Thiem served to take a 2-1 set lead. But he couldn’t close the deal, and Nadal snuck out a set he perhaps shouldn’t have won.

In the fourth set, the Spaniard had love-40 on Thiem’s serve at 5-5 – and couldn’t convert. Somehow, Thiem held. And then Nadal played an incredibly poor tiebreak to push the match the distance.

“That love 40 in the 5-4 breaked my heart. But I just keep going,” Nadal said.

It was time for the (relative) youngster to waver.

Drama goes the distance

outlasts
Thiem had his chances to go up two sets to one. But as the match went the distance, he held firm – until the final point.

But Thiem, who turned 25 the previous day, is no longer a kid who can’t stand up to the challenge. He’s a workhorse, so much stronger than he was a few years ago with the resultant effect on the power in his strokes. He’s a brilliant clay-court talent who emerged during this US Open as an exciting hard-court player as well, after a rather quiet summer.

He gave Nadal everything he could handle – until it all ended, suddenly, dramatically, on an overhead the Austrian missed so badly, no one could truly believe it happened.

“It’s going to be stuck in my mind forever. Forever I’m going to remember this match, for sure. But, I mean, it’s cruel sometimes tennis, you know, because I think this match didn’t really deserve a loser. But there has to be one,” Thiem said. “I mean, I would say the first really epic match I played. I played some good ones before, but not that long, not that long against the great guys on the Grand Slam stage.”

On the biggest stage, not on clay, Thiem shines

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The New York crowd was introduced to Thiem as well, in a formal way.

He’s a top 10 player with 10 career titles, and a French Open finalist this year. But this was his first time past the fourth round, in his fifth attempt in New York. They might have remembered him from a year ago, when he was up two sets to none against Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round, only to lose in five sets. But the 2018 edition of Thiem is one who is ready to win majors, even on a hard court.

As much as it was a pro-Nadal crowd, there’s no doubt the fans were absolutely wowed by some of the virtuoso winners hit by the Austrian, when he seemed he had no time at all to even load up and fire. He charmed them, completely.

Thiem also gets the seal of approval from Nadal, who recognizes in Thiem some of the qualities that he values in a fellow competitor and, indeed, in himself. He had just the right words as the two enjoyed a touching moment at the met.

“You are good. Keep going,” Nadal said he told Thiem. “Because he’s young, he has plenty of time to win big tournaments. And he has everything. He’s a fighter. He has a great attitude, that’s the most important thing.”

Best-ever efforts on the hard courts

The 11-time French Open champion has become a complete player on the hard courts now. And you wonder how many more hard-court Slams he might have won had he figured out the formula a little sooner.

There was that one year, in 2010, when he appeared in New York and started serving 130 mph. But that was a mere blip. It has taken these intervening years to get the recipe right.

outlasts
On another humid night – tough, but not impossible, Nadal said – he pretty much was his own laundry-generating service.

On clay, he knows exactly what to do. And on grass, he long ago shortened his swings and looked to move forward – as if he understood that this was a completely different surface, and he just had to do things differently.

Perhaps, because it was so different, the polar opposite of his beloved clay, it was almost easier to think differently.

The hard courts have been a bigger challenge for him. Part of it is physical, as the surface is tough on his knees. But much of it is metaphysical. Instead of bring his grass-court game onto the hard courts, he spent many years trying to make his clay-court game work on them instead. 

Now, with the hard courts slowed down to a crawl (that’s especially true in New York this year, a surface that had always been quicker in the past), and with the wisdom of experience, he’s figuring it out. 

Net-rushing Nadal

Nadal came to the net over 50 times against Thiem. And he’s no longer reluctantr to hit his backhand down the line when he needs to. It wasn’t so many years ago that he could barely pass the service line with that shot – especially in tight moments.

On Friday, Nadal will have a Slam rematch with del Potro, a Flushing semifinal bookend to the five-set thriller they played in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in July.

They will now have met in four of the last five Grand Slams (Australia this year being the exception). Nadal has won them all. 

Back in 2009, del Potro gave Nadal just six games as he won his first and only Grand Slam title. A year ago in New York, Nadal won in four sets in the semifinals.

“Always the passion to keep going, to play one more point, to save one more ball. And alway the same history: point by point, game by game, set by set and match by match.  Keep going always,” Nadal said during an on-court interview that had him looking distinctly uncomfortable, perhaps on the edge of cramping, but buzzed beyond belief. 

Always, one more,  you can – a little bit more. That’s the only way that I am able to be where I am today,” he said.

Report: Milos Raonic’s agent fired, still managing him

TORONTO – As Milos Raonic prepares for a challenging first-round match against David Goffin of Belgium Monday night at his hometown Rogers Cup, word is out that his longtime agent at CAA was terminated last fall.

But Amit Naor remains the 27-year-old Canadian’s manager.

Rumours about this had been circulating for awhile. But Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal, an excellent journalist, was able to nail it all down in a story published Monday.

Kaplan has broken the news that Naor was fired last Oct. 23, after a 2 1/2-month investigation into workplace harassment.

CAA made no official announcement of any kind about the matter.

Out of respect for the extensive work Kaplan did over a significant period of time in breaking this story, we won’t cut and paste it here. Click here to read the piece.

Here is a brief summary.

“Verbal, emotional and sexual harassment”

According to Kaplan, tennis manager Stephanie Lopez, now 28, went to the head of CAA’s tennis division, Steven Heumann last fall alleging that Naor, 51, subjected her to “verbal, emotional and sexual harassment”.

She is currently on leave.

Kaplan also reports that Lopez filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the spring. Lopez said she “endured multiple incidents of retaliation” from Heumann after the firing.

A CAA spokesperson told Kaplan their investigation determined there was no retaliation.

Kaplan reports that even after he was fired, Naor remained a manager for three CAA clients. And, in that capacity has communication with the company’s agents.

agent
Raonic, Berdych and Dominic Thiem are reportedly still being managed by Naor, even though CAA terminated his employment.

In addition to Raonic, those two other clients also are high profile:  Dominic Thiem and Tomas Berdych.

As of last fall, on the official ATP list (likely not exhaustive or 100 per cent accurate), Thiem was listed officially as being represented by his coach, Gunther Bresnik although Kaplan reports that both Bresnik and Naor manage Thiem’s affairs.

Fadi Shalabi of Sporting Advantage Monaco was listed for Berdych.  Naor is listed for Raonic.

Also on Naor’s client list as of last fall were Ernests Gulbis, Taylor Fritz, Bradley Klahn and Bernard Tomic.

Naor represented Jack Sock early in his career. He also handled Novak Djokovic’s business affairs very early on – a decade ago – before Djokovic signed with CAA and Naor also joined the company. Djokovic left CAA in 2012.

He also coached Marat Safin.

agent
Naor with Raonic’s father, Dusan, supporting Raonic at Wimbledon.

The Israel-born Naor played professionally from 1985 to 1991. He reached a career high in singles of No. 245 in 1987 although he won just three matches at the ATP Tour level. Five of his six ATP Tournament appearances came at the now-defunct ATP event in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The CAA tennis division is small, and Naor’s clients reportedly make up the bulk of its revenue.

Raonic’s countrywoman, Genie Bouchard, also joined the CAA stable this spring, after stints with Lagardère, IMG and other agencies. She is represented by Matthew Fawcett.

Rogers Cup pics: Friday, Aug. 3, 2018

TORONTO – Some of the players were preparing for the qualifying. But most of the players practicing in the late afternoon on Friday were still a few days away from their first-round matches in the main draw.

Diego Schwartzman (The No. 11 seed, who plays unseeded Kyle Edmund) and David Ferrer (who plays a qualifier or special exempt) took the court together.

Dominic Thiem (Bye, then Tsitsipas or Dzumhur) was on the stadium court. While Pierre-Hugues Herbert (the No. 7 seed in the qualifying, vs. Hubert Hurkacz) practiced with doubles partner Nicolas Mahut (No. 12 Tim Smyczek).

Félix Auger-Aliassime had a hit with Grigor Dimitrov, then stayed behind to hit some more serves.

Also on court was Marco Cecchinato, who will face Frances Tiafoe in the first round of the main draw.

Vasek Pospisil practiced with coach Rainer Schuettler. The Canadian wild card drew Borna Coric in the first round. Not an easy task under any circumstances. But Coric has already been here so long, he practically has stock in the place.

Here are a few pics.

Thiem puts a little “extra” on the volley (photos)

TORONTO – It’s pretty much a trademark of a Dominic Thiem stroke to have his tongue come out before he hits a shot – and then have it disappear as he makes contact.

You wonder if he even notices it, or has a clue how this actually came to be over the years.

Because it happens 99 per cent of the time.

But when the Austrian does it on the volley, it’s especially funny.

Does it give him more punch?

Direction?

Balance?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Here are a few different looks at Thiem’s extra volley sauce.

With No. 11, Nadal finally feels the French love

PARIS – The applause kept coming for Rafael Nadal, on the occasion of his unthinkable 11th French Open title Sunday.

It came in waves. And it wouldn’t stop.

The man himself stood on the court he has made his own. And he didn’t know what else to do but nod, and wave, and smile.

And then the tears came.

“For me, I don’t have words to describe the motions I felt at that moment. Something exceptional for me to find myself on that court,” Nadal said later, in one of his endless television interviews. “Nowhere else do I feel this.”

The accolades and the banners held aloft in the crowd and the commemorative merchandise came with the 10th title a year ago – La Décima.

But perhaps the love of the French partisans finally came with this one – La Undécima.

The Austrian Dominic Thiem was vanquished, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. And as he put it, winning at Roland Garros 11 times is one of the most outstanding things that has ever been achieved in sport.

And yet, if Nadal had conquered the tournament, he had never quite conquered the French.

love

The French stingy with the love

It has always been somewhat surprising, because the Mallorcan has been unwavering in his devotion to the city, its fans, the tournament and everyone associated with it.

“Since the first time that I came here until today is a love story with this event, not only with the victories, but this is all about the people who is working the event, too. I feel very close to all of them,” Nadal said in his press conference later in the evening.

With the passing of time, he even has spoken more and more in la langue de Molière in post-match interviews.

lovePerhaps it was because he kept winning it, taking much of the suspense out of the fortnight.

Perhaps Paris is more Roger Federer territory, a place reluctant to embrace a kid from a small town on a small Spanish island.

We certainly know they prefer their tennis more … artistic? Although art is in the eye of the beholder.

Nadal won’t have forgotten the emotions he felt back in 2009, when Robin Soderling defeated him and the crowd was firmly on the Swede’s side.

“They say it themselves and it’s true, the Parisian crowd is pretty stupid. I think the French don’t like it when a Spaniard wins,” Nadal’s uncle and former coach Toni Nadal said at the time. “Wanting someone to lose is a slightly conceited way of amusing yourself. They show the stupidity of people who think themselves superior.”

loveNadal has never actively sought their love, but he has unequivocally deserved it.

On Sunday, he felt it – maybe really and truly for the first time.

Perhaps that’s why he hugged the Coupe des Mousquetaires a little more tightly this time, as if he never wanted to let it go.

He did say later that the emotions weren’t necessarily stronger than they were a year ago.

Just different.

“Last year was very, very important. It had been awhile I hadn’t been winning when I got here last year,” Nadal said. “I feel like each year, it’s tougher to win it. Because the years are passing. I’m 32 now.”

Suspense – but not about the outcome

This was the first time Nadal had met a much-younger opponent in the French Open final.

And Thiem was a worthy foil, arguably the second-best clay-court player on the planet. It’s clear Nadal sees him as his successor, and considers him a good friend as well.

loveSo there was a different dynamic to the quest for undécima, a faint hope for a changing of the guard – or at the very least, a compelling final.

Thiem, after all, had beaten Nadal three of the seven times they had played somewhere other than Paris.

But in Paris, in two attempts, he had failed to win a set.

In this third attempt, Thiem also failed to win a set.

Lucky with the weather

The biggest suspense on the day concerned whether the weather would cooperate. Rain and a thunderstorm were nearly guaranteed to hit the 16th arrondissement somewhere in the late afternoon or evening.

For nearly three weeks, through the qualifying and the main draw, this had been a possibility. But somehow, with only a couple of exceptions, the showers circumnavigated Roland Garros and allowed the tournament to proceed more or less on schedule.

Not 45 minutes after all the festivities were concluded, the wind picked up. And the thunder bellowed. And then the rain fell.

A worrisome moment

loveAs Nadal was serving up a break in the third set at 2-1, at 30-love on his serve, he suddenly bolted to his chair after missing his first serve.

He was grabbing the middle finger on his left hand. And he looked really concerned.

The doctor and trainer immediately came out, as Nadal ripped off the tight wrap around his wrist that he said was to keep the sweat away from his racket hand. (He had it on the right wrist as well).

loveHe stretched out the finger. And the physio massaged his forearm arm, up past the wrist, to get some blood flowing back into the finger.

Nadal finally returned to the service line for his second serve – and double-faulted.

But if the finger bothered him, it didn’t show.

Thiem didn’t win another game.

“Sort of a cramp”

“I had sort of cramp in the finger, and I couldn’t move it, and I was worried. I told myself I could have wasted all that energy if I couldn’t continue,” Nadal said to FranceTV. “The finger wouldn’t move. I couldn’t hold the racquet. So of course I was worried.”

Until then – and even after that – Nadal was in pure beast mode.

As much time as Nadal was taking between points, Thiem probably wasn’t objecting. So many of the points ended up with the Austrian fighting for oxygen.

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If the point was short, Thiem was there with Nadal. If the point was very long, he stood his ground. But on the points between four and nine shots, Nadal was the master.

loveThe Austrian hit the ball as hard as he possibly could. But it still came back. And the moment he didn’t, Nadal finished it off.

“I did the best that I could, but there’s a reason why Rafa won here 11 times. He’s obviously the toughest challenge in tennis, and he showed it once again. I didn’t play that bad. I was fighting for every ball, but he was just too good. So I have to accept it,” Thiem said.

“To me, it’s still been two great weeks. I still remember when you won here for the first time in 2005 I was 11 years old, watching on the TV. And honestly I never expected one day that I would play the finals here, so I’m really happy,” he said to Nadal during the trophy ceremony.

“I lost the final in the in the juniors seven years ago, and I lost the final today, I hope I will have another chance, maybe against you, that would be a dream.”

Win for Thiem, but positives for Djokovic

For Dominic Thiem, it was a superb victory to kickstart his all-important clay-court campaign.

For Novak Djokovic, it was – even in defeat – a building block in his renaissance.

Thiem prevailed 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-3 in a third-round match in Monte Carlo Thursday that ran a few seconds short of 2 1/2 hours. It provided moments of great (and some no-so-great) tennis, and plenty of competitive tension and emotion.

Thiem was off for five weeks tending to a bone bruise in his foot. For a player often accused of playing far too much tennis as it is, it was an unusual layoff.

The break may serve him well in the late stages of the season. But it created some ring rust for this clay-court opener.

It took the 24-year-old two hours, 40 minutes to squeak past Russia’s Andrey Rublev in his first match. But he played a far, far better match against Djokovic, who won their first career five meetings before losing their most recent clash, a year ago at the French Open. 

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The reward for getting through this one is a date with No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals Friday.

Thiem’s tactics effective

Thiem’s serving patterns Thursday were designed to pull Djokovic out wide, on both sides of the court. Along with the changes in spin and velocity, they proved effective. The Austrian won 75 per cent of points of his first serves. He won 52 per cent of them on his second delivery. And he faced only three break points.

Again, he drew Djokovic into the backhand cross-court pattern that often proved a winning formula for Borna Coric in the previous round. The difference was that Coric is not as good a player, and he couldn’t do it often enough – or at the crucial moments late in the sets – to have a better outcome.

It’s a pattern that isn’t working as well for Djokovic these days because he isn’t confident enough in his ball striking to include the element that so often turns those exchanges in his favour. The ability to change the direction of the ball almost on command and fire his backhand down the line, thus gaining the advantage in the rally at any moment – is a cornerstone of his ground game.

In this one, while the two were close to even in the short rallies (under five shots), Thiem was well ahead between 5-9 shots (37-31) and longer than nine shots (17-10).

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Djokovic had some vintage moments over the last two days (and nearly five on-court hours) in Monte Carlo. Next step is to have even more of them – and clean up the backhand side. (TennisTV.com)

The Serb’s backhand is producing an alarmingly high number of errors at the moment (the majority of them going into the net on Thrusday). It was flagrant during his matches at Indian Wells and Miami, and it was just as apparent on Thursday. Of his 40 unforced errors (to only 20 winners), 26 came on the backhand side.

And when he did go down the line, he did so with such safety that, on the slower surface, Thiem was generally able to track it down.

Building blocks in Monte Carlo

Djokovic’s first match was an ideal matchup for him, against a countryman who was unlikely to mount enough resistance either mentally or with his game. He couldn’t have asked for better.

The match against Coric was a sterner test against a stronger opponent. It could have turned differently, had the 21-year-old Croat been able to push through on some of his opportunities. But that’s only one side of the net. On his side, Djokovic was faced with multiple challenges. And he resisted in a way he hadn’t during the American hard-court swing.

He needed more than 27 minutes, from his first match point through to his 10th and final match point, to close it out against Coric. Had the match gone to a third set – and it well could have – there’s no telling what the outcome might have been.

But it didn’t. And that experienced served him well, at times, on Friday.

And the fact that Djokovic was able to come back from 2-5, and three set points, to eke out the first set in a tiebreak was a huge positive.

Against Thiem, he defended the corners of the court a whole lot more effectively than he had the previous day. The uptick in his anticipation and side-to-side movement was noticeable.

“A lot of positives in this tournament. Three matches played. The last two matches have been almost two and a half hours, today three sets obviously against one of the best players in the world, especially on clay,” Djokovic told the media in Monte Carlo afterwards.

“I’ve played some great tennis… Still some ups and downs. But every match here in Monte-Carlo had some periods of brilliance and the tennis that I really enjoyed, I wanted to play. That obviously gives me a lot of positive energy for what’s coming up.”

 

Soft warning a turning point

Djokovic was visibly annoyed, at 3-2 in the third set, when chair umpire Carlos Bernardes gave him a soft warning, telling him to watch the time between points.

ThiemIt was hardly an unusual occurrence in a Djokovic match.

And it came as the two players were on serve in the third set. It didn’t come just before Djokovic was about to serve. And Bernardes didn’t even issue a warning or a code violation.

Djokovic responded by taking an average of 16 seconds between points in his next game – down a full nine seconds from his 25-second average through the match to that point. And he was broken. 

In his next service game, at 3-5 and working to stay in the match, Djokovic was still rushing. On one point, at 15-30, he fired his first serve as Bernardes was still addressing the crowd, asking them to quiet down.

Djokovic missed by several feet. He only salvaged that point with an off-the-charts difficult backhand volley on a rare (and curiously-timed) serve-and-volley on his second serve. It was not lucid thinking.

A few points later, it was over.

Djokovic declined to shake Bernardes’s hand even though, in truth,  he had only himself to blame for failing to handle the fairly benign situation with his typical, experienced calm.

Back-to-back tough ones

But those are things that happen when your confidence is down.

There were long stretches of the match when Djokovic played with the fire and emotion that he needs to play his best.

ThiemBut in those last three games, after that initial break of serve, the emotional energy seemed to drain out of him even though the match was by no means over. 

The combination of that, and the back-to-back long, physical matches after a long spell without much match play, may have done him in a little.

But getting those matches – and some victories – will only serve him well going forward.

More clay next week

After the match, Djokovic told the media in Monte Carlo that he plans to add a tournament next week. He also said that he would continue to work with longtime coach Marian Vadja through the clay-court season.

Vadja left as part of a purge of the entirety of Team Djokovic before last year’s French Open. But he returned to help Djokovic through his clay-court preparation period in Spain.

“I’m lacking matches. That’s why we all agreed that it’s quite important for me to play, try to use every opportunity possible,” Djokovic said. “We’ll continue working hard in this process, trying to build up… I look forward to building more confidence on the court, to get my game on a desired level.” 

The options are the 500-level event in Barcelona and a smaller, 250-level event in Budapest.

No doubt either would happily offer a wild card.

But his best play would be the smaller event.

(UPDATE: Djokovic chose Barcelona)

Budapest the better bet

Five of the eight Monte Carlo quarterfinalists – including Nadal and Thiem – are in the Barcelona draw. Lucas Pouille (at No. 11) is the only top-25 player in the Budapest draw barring last-minute surprises.

Budapest offers a first-round bye in a 28-player draw, compared to a first-round bye in a 56-player draw, with an extra round. That means an extra day or two of practice. It could also mean a better opportunity to continue to build on the groundwork laid in Monte Carlo – perhaps even the opportunity to hold up a trophy for the first time since Eastbourne last summer. 

(Not to mention, it would be a welcome boost for a 250-level tournament, something the smaller events desperately need in the top-heavy world of men’s tennis).

With two more Masters 1000 tournaments in Madrid and Rome before the French Open, there remain plenty of opportunities to face the top guns. The more matches under the belt when that happens, the better.

The Laver Cup: overall, a great debut

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.

inaugural
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.

inaugural

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.

inaugural

 

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)

Improbable comeback puts del Potro in QFs

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).

del Potro
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.”