Djokovic, del Potro survive to reach US Open final

NEW YORK – After five matches under Grand Slam stress and through some of the toughest playing conditions in recent memory, four were left on Friday at the US Open.

Given what had come before, it probably wasn’t a shock that the best tennis in the men’s event this year may have already been played.

But maybe not. 

There’s one more to go.

Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro will meet in Sunday’s men’s singles final. And you can only hope that it will be a compelling, close contest after the semifinals were anything but.

The first to fall was the eldest of the quartet, 32-year-old Rafael Nadal.

The defending champion retired after del Potro won the first two sets, as his right knee again prevented him from showing his best.

He first felt it at 2-2 in the first set.

Tendonitis, Chapter 15

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“The pain on the knee is always very similar … The problem is this time was something little bit more aggressive because was in one movement. Was not something progressive,” he said.

Nadal had it flare up in the early rounds, even having the knee wrapped during his third-round match. But it responded to treatment – until it didn’t.

It’s still the same patellar tendinitis. And Nadal, who is scheduled to play the Davis Cup semifinals next weekend, said it’s not a matter of three weeks – or six months. It’s about judging how much pain he’s willing to play with, as the tendonitis eventually responds to treatment.

Let’s just say, he knows the drill by now.

Del Potro is into his first US Open final since he won it all the way back in 2009. It is the biggest gap between Slam finals in the Open era. And the shortened match was a blessing in the sense that he won’t be going into it having had to survive a marathon in the semis.

“I cannot believe that I will have a chance to play another Grand Slam finals in here, which is my favorite tournament. So it would be special to me. Would be a big challenge, as well, because I’ve been fighting with many, many problems to get in this moment,” del Potro said.

“It will be a difficult match, of course. But anyway, I think I’ve been doing a good tournament. And in the finals, anything can happen. If I win, great. If not, I been playing a great tournament and I will be happy anyways.”

Tired Nishikori no match

Djokovic dropped a set in each of his first two rounds and was one of the players who struggled with the unbreathable conditions inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. But he has been on a major roll since then.

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He defeated No. 26 Richard Gasquet, unseeded Joao Sousa and John Millman and No. 21 Nishikori in straight sets through his next four rounds.

The matchup with Nishikori has always been a favorable one for him. Whatever Nishikori does well, Djokovic does more of, and better.

The Serb now has won their last 14 completed meetings, including a four-setter in the quarterfinals on his way to the Wimbledon title in July.

“I knew that coming into the match if I managed to sustain that speed of his shots, so to say, the game style, that I’ll have my chance kind of to break through and to make him feel uncomfortable and start making errors. That’s what happened,” said Djokovic, who called the match “really, really good” from his side. 

“I thought in the important moments I came up with some good second serves, some good first serves. And I was returning well. I was putting constantly pressure on him, trying to move him around the court, take away the rhythm from him, not give him the same look always.”

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It didn’t help Nishikori that he appeared to tweak his leg or knee early on, on a fairly harmless looking trip to the net. Nishikori attributed that misstep to cumulative fatigue. The 28-year-old also had a draining five-set win over Marin Cilic in the previous round to recover from.

But when Djokovic is playing as well as he has been in New York since those early minor bumps, there isn’t much anyone can do to derail him. The 31-year-old was literally firing on every single cylinder he had on Friday night.

“He was playing very solid everything: serve, return, groundstrokes. He was playing aggressive. Yeah, I didn’t have (a lot of) energy to stay with him. He was hitting, you know, side to side. Yeah, wasn’t easy to stay with him tonight,” Nishikori said. 

“I think I was just tired from last couple matches. I was try to give 100 per cent, but he was playing very solid. Maybe if he wasn’t Novak, I might have chance to play little better. But he was, you know, playing great tennis today. Yeah, very credit to him.”

Djokovic in rare US Open territory

With the win, Djokovic jumps into a tie with Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl as he prepares to play his eighth US Open men’s singles final. Eight is tops in the open era; Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer have made seven finals.

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He also officially qualified for the ATP Tour Finals. Federer also qualified; the two join Nadal.

Djokovic stood at No. 76 in the race to London before Indian Wells, No. 25 before the French Open. If he wins on Sunday, he’ll be No. 2 behind Nadal. if he loses, he’ll be No. 3, just 65 points behind del Potro.

“Probably seeing the results, consistency of the results I’ve had here, probably has been my most successful Grand Slam. Of course, I won the Australian Open six times, never lost finals there. But I think I’ve played more than 10 semifinals here. It’s definitely one of my favorite tournaments to play because of the conditions and because of the fact that I’ve played so well in each year that I keep on coming back,” Djokovic said.

“I know that I feel very comfortable here. It just allows me to feel more comfortable playing, starting the tournament and going through it. Yeah, I mean, I think I have two finals won and five losses. But, you know, hopefully I can get one better in few days.”

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

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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.

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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.

Photos: A … warm Rafa warmup

TORONTO – It’s been the summer of the hot and sweaty.

And it continues in Toronto this week, where the humidity has made the players – and the courts – a drippy mess.

Even on Wednesday, a long period of rain did nothing to drop the humidity level.

And so as Rafael Nadal finally got on the practice court to warm up for his Rogers Cup opening match against Benoit Paire, it got a little … clingy.

Nadal’s a heavy sweater at the best of times. But on days like these, you wonder how he doesn’t jump out of his skin after 20 minutes in a shirt like that.

He managed to finish his warmup before another wave of rain came, while opponent Benoit Paire’s warmup was cut short by the steady downpour.

Here’s what Nadal looked like.

 

Not pretty, but straight sets

On the court, despite a few moments on his own serve, Nadal wasn’t particularly troubled by the mercurial (but less liquidy) Paire. Paire could break him, but he couldn’t hold his own serve to consolidate it.

The 6-2, 6-3 score made it seem a little more routine than it actually was.

The red shirt was probably just as soaked. But it didn’t show up as much.

Warm

He was surprisingly pumped after that victory, even though he was 3-0 against him and hadn’t lost a set. All of those matches were on clay, though.

Frantic Friday at Wimbledon – Choices, Choices, Choices

It was Friday the 13th. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that a few wacky events took place at Wimbledon.

But what transpired, from 1 p.m. when John Isner and Kevin Anderson walked onto Centre Court until 11:05 p.m., when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic walked off with unfinished business, was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Chapter 5 is called Choices, Choices, Choices

WIMBLEDON – We’ll have to assume, for the sake of argument, that there was no way for the All England Club to get special dispensation from the Merton Borough Council to break curfew – just this once.

Because a 1 a.m. finish for Djokovic vs. Nadal Friday night into Saturday would have been a better solution for all concerned.

The winner of the match could have slept in Saturday, perhaps had a light hit, a lot of treatment. And then, on Sunday, play the final.

As it is, one of them had to play late Friday, relatively early Saturday – and again on Sunday, where he will face the equally exhausted Kevin Anderson.

Anderson spent over 11 hours on court from Wednesday through Friday, just in two extra-time matches against John Isner and Roger Federer.

11:03 p.m.: the end

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If the All England Club had the option somehow, and didn’t exercise it, it did two of its illustrious former champions a disservice.

As it was, they returned to the court just 14 hours later to finish where they left off Friday night, when Djokovic squeezed out the third-set tiebreak to lead two sets to one.

The decision to start their semifinal – which kicked off around 8 p.m. because of the length of the Anderson-Isner marathon – under the roof was up to the referee, Andrew Jarrett.

It made sense, because there wasn’t going to be much daylight left, and better to take the time to close the roof and get the air-conditioning systems adjusted during the break after the first match.

It was going to have to happen anyway at some point, and time was precious.

The decision to resume on a beautiful, sunny Saturday with the roof closed was also Jarrett’s. Except, if both players agreed to play “outdoors”, with the roof open, at what is an outdoor tournament, it could have been changed even if it wasn’t a hard and fast rule.

One wanted to, one did not, is the general consensus although there’s no official confirmation from any of the parties involved at this point. 

No. 1 Court option not an option

There certainly is precedent at Wimbledon for a men’s semifinal to be played on No. 1 Court.

We tend to forget all the years when rain played havoc with the schedule, often threatening to prevent the tournament from finishing on time. And a couple of times, it actually did.

But as former finalist Andy Roddick pointed out Friday night on Twitter, he’s been there.

Once he was moved over to finish. On the second occasion, he played the entire match there.

Roddick celebrates after beating Mario Ancic on No. 1 Court on the second Friday of Wimbledon 2004.

Both times, he won, and ended up losing to Roger Federer in the final.

But Djokovic vs. Nadal in 2018 is not Roddick vs. Ancic, or Roddick vs. Johansson a dozen years ago.

No offense to those two fine players.

There was virtually no chance in Hades the tournament would move Nadal and Djokovic to No. 1 Court to finish their match.

Beyond the television considerations, the players likely would have both raised a ruckus.

It would have eliminated the roof-or-no-roof choice, though.

Had the second semifinal featured, say, Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov, you can speculate it might have been a different story. Had the women’s final not featured Williams, it might have been another story again.

Maybe.

The women pay the price – again

The way the schedule panned out, part of it no one’s fault, is a tough one for the men.

But it’s an even tougher one for the women.

Seven-time champion Serena Williams and two-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber will reprise their 2016 final.

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Serena Williams beat Angelique Kerber in a final women’s final in 2016, the last time Williams played. They started on time.

Except they had no clue when they would play. They couldn’t be sure when to eat, when to warm up, when to do anything.

And that was especially key because of the lack of a fifth-set tiebreak for the men.

At precisely 1 p.m. Saturday, when they were due to walk on Centre Court with their flower bouquets, Nadal was just wrapping up the fourth set against Djokovic.

Didn’t it seem as though we were beyond this back in the 1990s, when they finally did away with the facetiously-named Super Saturday at the US Open?

For a couple of decades, the women were an afterthought. They were the white creme between the two Oreo cookies as CBS dictated they be scheduled between the two men’s semifinals on the second Saturday.

Mercifully, that finally ended.

Serena and her sister Venus had everything to do with this when, back in 2001, it was decided that they could headline a night session with their significant star power.

The end of CBS’s longstanding contract as the event’s main broadcaster also allowed for more flexibility.

And then, the fact that someone finally decided that having the men play best-of-five sets on the Saturday, and come right back on the Sunday afternoon and play another best-of-five sets for a major title didn’t make for optimal tennis.

Well, maybe they considered that. Maybe.

Super Saturday to the max

The epic moment in Super Saturday history came on Sept. 8, 1984. Every match went the distance and every player on court that day was a champion.

First off was a legends’ match that began at 11 a.m. when Stan Smith defeated John Newcombe. Ironically, CBS had requested that extra match because the previous year’s Super Saturday had featured three blowouts.

Then came the first men’s semi: Ivan Lendl defeated Pat Cash 3–6, 6–3, 6–4, 6–7 (5–7), 7–6 (7–4). (Thank goodness for the fifth-set tiebreak).

Then, finally, the legendary Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova came on to play the women’s singles final.

Navratilova won that one, 4–6, 6–4, 6–4.

Then, closing in on 7:30 p.m., bitter rivals John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors finally took the court for the second men’s semi.

McEnroe won that one, 6–4, 4–6, 7–5, 4–6, 6–3. It all ended at 11:16 p.m.

Women’s doubles also a casualty

With Nadal and Djokovic taking priority on Centre Court, one of the other finals was bumped off.

Of course, it was the women’s doubles final between Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova and Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke.

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They had been scheduled after the women’s singles final and the best-of-five sets men’s doubles final.

That’s long enough to wait (and with the men’s doubles also not having a deciding-set tiebreak, who knows how long).

But with the change, they have been relegated to “Court to be determined – not before 5 p.m.” status along with the far less consequential legends match featuring Thomas Enqvist, Thomas Johansson, Tommy Haas and Mark Philippoussis.

So they don’t know when they’re going to play. And they don’t know where.

It’s thin soup. Even given the extraordinary circumstances, you feel somehow that the tournament could have made better choices.

Frantic Friday at Wimbledon: The Sportsmen

It was Friday the 13th. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that a few wacky events took place at Wimbledon.

But what transpired, from 1 p.m. when John Isner and Kevin Anderson walked onto Centre Court until 11:05 p.m., when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic walked off with unfinished business, was beyond anyone’s imagination.

Chapter 2 is called The Sportsmen.

WIMBLEDON – When it was over, and the South African Kevin Anderson became the first from his country to reach a Wimbledon men’s singles final in nearly a century, so many of his thoughts were for his opponent.

His muted reaction after the marathon six-hour, 36 minute, 7-6(6) 6-7(5) 6-7(9) 6-4 26-24 was surely, in large part, sheer exhaustion and disbelief.

But it was also a respectful and remarkable show of respect towards Isner.

“Just playing like that, really tough on both of us. At the end, you feel like this is a draw between the two of us, but somebody has to win,” Anderson said during a thoughtful interview right after he came off the court.

“John is a great guy and I really feel for him because if I was on the opposite side, I don’t know how I could take playing for that long.”

Anderson apologized for not “seeming more excited”, which under the circumstances was completely unnecessary.

“To be honest, he’s really pushed me throughout my career as well. He’s had such a great career. I’ve pushed myself harder because of some of the successes he’s had,” Anderson added.

Isner a gracious loser

After it was over, and Isner saluted the crowd, he did what only a few runners-up do. He went over to the stands, to the fans who eventually filed in to fill the Centre Court by the end, and signed autographs.

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“I competed hard. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what I have to be proud of. It stinks to lose, but I gave it everything I had out there. I just lost to someone who is just a little bit better at the end,” Isner said.

Just as Anderson credited Isner for pushing him, Isner did the same.

“Obviously a very good player, a contemporary of mine. We’ve been playing together for the longest time now. He’s someone that I have so much respect for because he works very hard at what he does. He’s someone that pushes me, I think. Maybe he’d say the same about myself. I mean, we’re about the same age. We’ve been doing this together for a long time,” Isner said.

“I see how professional he is. When I see him doing all the things that he’s doing, I think that’s a very good thing for me. It allows me to look at that and keep going, try to even work harder than he does, so… He’s one of the most professional players on tour. There’s a reason why he’s playing so well right now, because he does all the right things.”

(BBC screenshot)

Nadal and Djokovic: fan appreciation

The second semifinal got under way shortly after 8 p.m.

And despite the test of will and endurance of the first semifinal, Centre Court was all but full for the start.

Part of it may have been due to Wimbledon’s ticket resale system. And some of it was surely due to the fact that Nadal vs. Djokovic was the most anticipated matchup on the day.

Anticipating there might be some spots available for the second men’s semifinal, the lineup at the resale queue snaked along during the latter part of the Isner-Anderson match. (BBC screenshot)

If the fans who just couldn’t take any more sitting decided to leave, they could scan out at the exit and the ticket could be resold to a fan with a grounds pass or No. 1 Court ticket for just 15 pounds.

The lineup stretched and wiggled a long distance, during the latter stages of the Anderson-Isner match. And no doubt some of the patrons got a bonus trip to Centre Court they couldn’t have imagined when they entered the club many, many hours before.

But those fans – unless they have a Centre Court ticket for the women’s final on Saturday, won’t be able to see the dénouement.

And whether Djokovic and Nadal were aware of this, when they walked off the court for good shortly after 11 p.m. Friday night as play was suspended, they acknowledged the perseverance of the fans who stood by them until the very end.

First Nadal walked off, applauding the fans as he left. Given he’d just dropped a crucial set he had every shot at winning, that was extra.

Then Djokovic gave them the thumbs up, and went over to sign some autographs.

The circumstances were extreme for all parties involved in this crazy, insane day.

How great that it brought out the sportsmen in all of them.

 

 

Men’s quarters spark court assignment debate

WIMBLEDON – It wouldn’t be a Grand Slam without a good, old-fashioned debate about court assignments and scheduling and who’s being snubbed and who’s being given preferential treatment.

And so, as we arrive at the second Wednesday of Wimbledon and the men’s quarterfinals, we see three-time champion Novak Djokovic on Centre Court.

With that, we also see seven-time champion Roger Federer “relegated” to No. 1 Court for the first time in the tournament.

Actually, for the first time in three  years.

(Relegated is such a relative term here, as it is at Roland Garros where Court Philippe Chatrier and Court Suzanne Lenglen are considered virtual co-equals. Still, it’s a status thing that seems to mean a lot to some people).

Second trip to Centre Court for Djokovic

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Djokovic has definitely been hard done by at times with the scheduling. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The way people have been whinging, you’d think Djokovic had been turned away at the door to the celebrated Wimbledon Centre Court for failing to bring a jacket and tie.

That said, it’s fairly evident over the last few years that despite his sterling resumé, he’s rarely gotten the top-two treatment accorded here to Federer and, less defendably, to Nadal.

The Serb was on Centre Court on Saturday for his third-round match against Brit Kyle Edmund, after being relegated to No. 2 Court for his second round.

Until Manic Monday, there was never a choice to be made between Federer and Djokovic in terms of courts assignments. In opposite sections of the draw, they were playing on different days.

The choice, then, has been between Djokovic and Nadal – currently the No. 1 ranked player in the world, even if he is the No. 2 seed here because of the weighted grass-court seedings.

Djokovic is currently ranked No. 21 and seeded No. 12.

Nadal on Centre every match

Nadal has won out each time there was a choice to be made between the two. The Spaniard’s match against Juan Martin del Potro will be the fifth straight time he has been on Centre Court.

And the quarterfinals are the last opportunity to play anywhere else but Centre Court.

Nadal warms up on Court 15 Wednesday morning, ahead of his match later in the day against Juan Martin del Potro. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Djokovic said, after he squeezed his Monday victory over Khachanov in under the wire, that he had heard his last-on match was likely to be cancelled had the prior match between Kevin Anderson and Gaël Monfils had gone to a fifth set.

Meanwhile, a mixed doubles match involving Brit Jamie Murray and his partner Victoria Azarenka was played on Centre Court, with the roof closed and the lights switched to finish the third set.

It could all have been even worse. The absence of Andy Murray, who is pretty much an automatic (perhaps even more than Federer) to get a Centre Court slot made life a little easier this year for a lot of people.

Mid-match relocation rare

Djokovic dealt with that last year as well. The tournament wouldn’t move his Monday match, delayed by rain under the Centre Court roof to finish it.

(Tournaments rarely relocate a match that’s already in progress to another court. But it does happen. Notably in 2014 here, Genie Bouchard’s first-round match against Magdalena Rybarikova on Court 12 was moved to Centre Court, under the roof, on a day where just about everything was wiped out by rain.

There was a specific scenario involved there. The winner was to play Brit Johanna Konta. And they needed a Centre Court slot for her. And that was going to be difficult to manage had the second-round match been delayed a day, because of the other high-profile matches that needed to be scheduled. So yes, it’s pretty much all about television).

Last year’s stubbornness about not moving Djokovic’s match meant he had to finish up Tuesday. And on Wednesday, he had to retire in his quarterfinal match against Tomas Berdych. He didn’t play the rest of the season because of his elbow injury.

Luckily, that repeat scenario was avoided. Because Djokovic would have been right to raise a huge stink if it did.

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The three kings of tennis practiced side by side by side on Sunday at Aorangi Park. But for the actual match scheduling, Djokovic is often the odd man out.

Federer to No. 1 Court, TV follows

So the seven-time champion Federer therefore led things off on No. 1 Court Wednesday for the first time in the tournament, facing No. 8 seed Anderson of South Africa.

Generally, the BBC’s main station is the spot for Centre Court action, while BBC2 has No. 1 Court.

Except … as Wednesday’s coverage began, Djokovic and Nishikori were nowhere to be seen on BBC1. The BBC lunchtime news was all over its coverage of U.S. president Donald Trump and other world leaders in Brussels, and didn’t switch back to the tennis until about 1:50 p.m., when they showed the two players walking onto court (50 minutes earlier)

After that, Federer’s match was switched to BBC1, while Nishikori and Djokovic was being shown on BBC2. 

It was all a very delicate dance.

The last time Federer played on No. 1 Court was against Gilles Simon of France the same round  – the quarterfinals – three years ago. Djokovic beat Federer in that 2015 final. 

Switching the matchups

Nadal vs. del Potro is the “fan favorite” match of the day, with both players having huge followings. So Federer was moved, risking the wrath of the all-powerful Centre Court debenture holders.

It also led to some scrambling as Federer fans who had tickets for Centre Court assuming their favorite would be there, trying to swap them out for No. 1 Court.

Meanwhile, the generally accepted scheduling plan that the two players who meet in the next round should play at approximately the same time wherever possible, was turned upside down to make this change.

The winner of Federer-Anderson will play the winner of the match between Milos Raonic and John Isner. But they play one after the other on Court 1.

Same scenario on Centre Court, where the winner of Djokovic-Nishikori will play the winner of Nadal-del Potro. And yet, they follow each other.

In this configuration, Federer or Anderson, and Djokovic or Nishikori will both benefit from some extra down time before Friday’s semifinals.  

The later the better for the Americas

The later time slots are more coveted by television in North and South America – which applies to Raonic, Isner and del Potro.

1 p.m. is 8 a.m. in New York and Toronto, 9 a.m. in Buenos Aires and 5 a.m. in Los Angeles. So the later the better, as far as the television rights holders in those countries. But the same is somewhat true in Europe, where the early evening match can spill over into prime-time blocks.

So there are no correct answers to this puzzle. Even though it’s typically not about the “best tennis matchup” or about fairness to all players.

But in the end, everyone will play and win, somewhere. Someone’s nose will always be put out of joint. and Isner and Raonic are probably happy just to still be playing on the second Wednesday of Wimbledon.

They’d probably play on the Centre Court roof, if they were asked to.

Rafael Nadal withdraws from Queen’s Club

It used to be that the iconic photo during the first week of the grass-court season, was Rafael Nadal going almost directly from the winner’s circle in Paris to the practice courts of Queen’s Club in London.

But the 11-time French Open champion is 32 now, and his body has spoken.

Nadal will pass on playing the Queen’s Club tournament. And barring a last-minute entry into Eastbourne, he will head to Wimbledon without having played a tuneup event.

“Queen’s is a great event, I have happy memories of winning the title in 2008 and I wanted to come back this year,” said Nadal, in a statement released by the tournament. “But it has been a very long clay court season for me with great results. I would like to say sorry to the tournament organizers and most of all to the fans that were hoping to see me play, but I have spoken to my doctors and I need to listen to what my body is telling me.”

Still a stellar field

withdraws
On Tuesday, June 10, 2008, Nadal arrived at Queen’s Club on the heels of his French Open title, to start his grass-court prep immediately. Back then, the grass-court prep season was just two weeks, and the London event began immediately after the end of Roland Garros.

The entry list, even without Nadal, remains stellar – especially with the addition of Novak Djokovic this week.

The next question mark will be whether home-country hero Andy Murray will play.

Murray has not played a competitive match since losing in the Wimbledon quarterfinals last July, He had hip surgery during the Australian Open in January.

And the Scot pulled out of planned participation in a grass-court tournament this week in the Netherlands.

As well, Diego Schwartzman of Argentina has also pulled out of Queen’s, with an abdominal injury.

In other news, American John Isner has withdrawn from a competing event in Halle, Germany.

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.

love

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.”

Scheduling leaves Nadal fans crushed

PARIS – If the practice-court schedulers had seen the mass of humanity that gathered in and outside Court No. 1 Saturday to watch Rafael Nadal practice with Lucas Pouille, they might have known better.

The 10-time champion booked a two-hour block for practice Sunday with countryman Pablo Andujar.

And they ended up on … Court 17.

That’s not Court 17: 2017-and-earlier edition. That was one of the show courts even if it was all the way at the end of the site.

This was Court 17: new edition. It’s probably the only court on the entire site that doesn’t have a single seat around it. As in, zero. It’s tucked into a small area and, during the qualifying, was used mostly for the half-hour warmup slots for the players ahead of their matches. 

There isn’t even any space around that court for fans to stand to watch. There is a tiny area at one corner that might, at best, fit 15 people if you cram them in who might actually get a clear view.

So, predictably, it was utter chaos in that area of the Roland Garros site for nearly two hours Sunday.

Here’s what it looked like.

No access to Court 18

Meanwhile, there was a young French player on new Court 18, the replacement for the old Court 17 and a permanent, sunken court all the way at the back of the site.

So there was going to be demand for seating on that court – even more as Grégoire Barrere took an early two-sets-to-none lead on Radu Albot of Moldova.

But there was basically no way to get through, short of finding an exit, going all the way around the outside of the site, and re-entering through the gate next to that court.

There were people crammed in everywhere trying to get a look. They were even looking down from the elevated walk on Court 18.

There was a an abject lack of security around – save for one officious fellow whose job was to shoo the folks standing up in the last row of Court 15 right next to it.

It’s pretty hot out today. And add that to the humidity and the crush of mankind, it looked like a potential disaster waiting to happen. 

In the end, it seemed there was no harm done, other than most of the people out there never did catch a glimpse of their idol.

Hopefully they’ll figure out a better alternative next time.

Rafael Nadal hits the court in Paris (video)

PARIS – Rafael Nadal hit the practice court at the French Open for the first time Thursday, with a two-hour session on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

He had two more court times booked – two hours each – on Friday.

Nadal’s opponent on Thursday was quality clay-courter Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay.

The Mallorcan is obviously the prohibitive favorite at Roland Garros once again this year, as he seeks his 11th career title and comes into it in redoubtable form, based on his efforts during the clay-court season so far.

He also returns as the No. 1 player in the world, flipping with Roger Federer yet again as of Monday.

That wouldn’t change his seeding in Paris, obviously, with Federer once again skipping it this year.

First up is Dolgopolov

Nadal’s first-round opponent is Alexander Dolgopolov, who has been a bit of a ghost this spring as he returns from injury. 

The Ukrainian had been out since the Australian Open when he lost in the first round of Marrakech to No. 221 Andrea Arnaboldi last month. And he didn’t return until a month later, when he won just four games against Novak Djokovic in the first round of Rome.

So he wouldn’t be expected to put up much opposition.

There are some quality players through his first couple of rounds. But the first seed Nadal would be expected to face is No. 27 Richard Gasquet.

Unfortunately for Gasquet, he’s 0-15 against Nadal, even though he hasn’t played him on clay since 2011. He also hasn’t taken a set off Nadal in nearly 10 years.

After that, it could be Jack Sock, or Denis Shapovalov.

Here are some pics from the Thursday practice.