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

assignment
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.

assignment
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.

Roger Federer finds another No. 1

WIMBLEDON – When you’re facing a lefthander for the first time in the tournament, it’s always a good idea to go out and find one to practice with.

And so, as No. 1 seed Roger Federer prepared to face No. 22 seed Adrian Mannarino of France later on Manic Monday, there weren’t a ton of options.

The only two remaining lefties in the men’s singles draw, as it happens, are playing each other: Jiri Vesely and Rafael Nadal.

Nadal wasn’t warming up until noon, and Vesely planned to get on the practice court at 1 p.m.

So that wouldn’t do – even in the unlikely event that Federer and Nadal would practice together during a tournament anyway.

The other option is one of the doubles players. Federer hit up with Philipp Petzschner before his first round match. And it seems to have been a good luck charm for the German, who is into the third round with partner Tim (Golden Set) Puetz.

No. 1 hits up with No. 1 

On Monday, Federer found Mate Pavic, part of the No. 1 seeded pair in the gentlemen’s doubles along with Oliver Marach.

The Croatian lefty and his partner were ousted in five sets in the first round of the men’s doubles. But Pavic is the top seed in the mixed with Canadian Gabriela Dabrowski.

That duo only plays its first match of the tournament late Monday. So Pavic has some free time. Why not help a fellow No. 1 out?

Nike era over as Federer debuts UNIQLO

WIMBLEDON – Roger Federer has made some notable sartorially-splendid entrances on Wimbledon’s famed Centre Court.

There was the cardigan. The jacket with a crest. And the gold lamé bag. And various other statement pieces by his clothing sponsor, Nike.

As of Day 1 at Wimbledon 2018, make that former clothing sponsor.

Confirming weeks of rumours that Federer was going to move to the Japanese company Uniqlo after spending basically his entire like wearing the Swoosh, he walked onto centre court all in white, with some rather discreet red Uniqlo logos.

And so the rumours became reality, with a new deal that various reports have pegged at 10 years and $300 million.

Uniqlo
Mr. Uniqlo (Photo: Ella Ling)

“I’m happy to be back at Wimbledon. I was really able to enjoy the match out there because I got off to a good start. When you get off to a good start in set one and two, you’re able to just enjoy the moment more than when you’re struggling early on, especially at the tournament like I explained yesterday. There is always pressure and nerves when you go into a first round,” Federer said after dismantling Dusan Lajovic of Serbia 6-1, 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 19 minutes.

“Also I was excited to wear Uniqlo today. I must tell you, it’s been a long time coming. I felt very good out there. It’s also crucial to play well, so it was helpful,” he added.

A switch of this magnitude does not just materialize overnight. As Federer walked onto Centre Court to officially opening that legendary venue, an e-mail went out to tennis journalists at 1:01 p.m. announcing the 36-year-old Swiss had joined the Uniqlo family.

Uniqlo

The press release made no mention of the outsized remuneration, of course. It focused on the intentions from both sides to do good for humanity.

Said Tadashi Yanai, UNIQLO Founder and Chairman, President & CEO of Fast Retailing,:

“Our partnership will be about innovation on and off court. We share a goal of making positive change in the world, and I hope together we can bring the highest quality of life to the greatest number of people. UNIQLO will help Mr. Federer continue taking tennis to new places, while exploring innovations in a number of areas including technology and design with him.”

Said Federer:

“I am deeply committed to tennis and to winning championships. But like UNIQLO, I also have great love for life, culture and humanity. We share a strong passion to have a positive impact on the world around us and look forward to combining our creative endeavors.”

It’s the same sort of philanthropic strategy his Nike predecessor, Andre Agassi, and adidas used when the American made that switch years ago, after becoming synonymous with the Swoosh.

Suspense until the last moment

As Federer warmed up on Court 15 from 10:30 – 11 a.m. Monday morning, in the shadow of Centre Court, there was deliberately no hint of what was to come.

No point in revealing the big surprise during the dress rehearsal.

The rules about the limited amount of trim on the match courts – even during practice – worked in his favour. There were a few discreet Nike logos, along with the RF logo on his ballcap and his new Nike Wimbledon shoes with the “8” on them.

The members of his team also wore their Nike kits.

Two hours later, the secret was out.

Uniqlo – not a sports company

“UNIQLO describes itself as a life company that creates LifeWear, thoughtful everyday apparel with a practical sense of beauty, and constantly improved through craftsmanship and technology. With today’s announcement, LifeWear has a new champion,” the press release stated.

Along with Federer, Uniqlo also has as brand ambassadors Kei Nishikori, who is a rock star in his native Japan, as well as Aussie golfer Adam Scott.

The company just extended Nishikori’s contract through the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, which will obviously  be a huge focus for them.

The deal with Federer, you have to assume, implies that he, too, intends to play at least that long.

But there are obviously no guarantees. At any rate, it’s unfathomable that Federer will still be playing tennis at the conclusion of this contract. So down the road, we might well see multiple fashion shoots involving the tennis legend posing in economically-priced separates.

Many loose ends to tie up

Federer said Monday the Federer line isn’t close to being available to the public.  

“All this has just gotten underway. We’re hopeful the beginning of next year people can also start buying my stuff. For the moment, as fast at retailing as they are, as great as they are, it just needs a bit of time,” he said.

The lead time required to manufacture clothing that can be sold at retail is significant – at least a year, often 18 months. Of course, unless they have already been working diligently for months on the assumption that this was a done deal, that seems ambitious.

The other issue is Federer’s “RF” logo – which is on so many ball caps at a tennis tournament you hope he got a cut from each one.

Uniqlo
The massive “RF” logo has been very much in evidence the last few weeks.

At the moment, Nike owns the trademark on that. Federer said Monday that it would revert to him “at some point.”

And he entreated his longtime sponsor to be “nice and helpful in the process to bring it over to me.”

(If they do, that will be rather a benevolent gesture, since they no doubt have already manufactured, for example, his US Open kits and now, there will be no Federer to model them).

“It’s also something that was very important for me, for the fans really,” he said.  “Look, it’s the process. But the good news is that it will come with me at one point. They are my initials. They are mine. The good thing is it’s not theirs forever. In a short period of time, it will come to me.”

“Obviously we also need to figure out with Uniqlo when at one point we can start selling clothes for the public as well. All this has just gotten underway. We’re hopeful the beginning of next year people can also start buying my stuff. For the moment, as fast at retailing as they are, as great as they are, it just needs a bit of time.”

Federer had his white Uniqlo bag on court with him, although they would already have that item.

You wonder what all the folks wearing that RF during his warmup session Monday morning think.

UNIQLO
Will all the RF gear become obsolete, or collectors’ items? Too soon to tell for these fans gathered to watch Federer warm up Monday morning at Wimbledon. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Patch deals, shoe opportunities

With a few notable exceptions in Asia (including the now-retired Li Na), Nike’s deal with its players is that they cannot wear patch sponsorship logos on their clothes. Their deals are exclusive.

That even applies to Federer, and Rafael Nadal, and Maria Sharapova.

Now, obviously, Federer won’t have to deal with those constraints, and he may be able to fill his coffers even more with that type of deal. He could probably also wear a “Laver Cup” patch on his gear.

Beyond that, Federer also needs some shoes, as Uniqlo can’t provide those.

It seems, again, he’s opening this up for bids while hoping Nike will agree to a shoes-only deal. As a comparison, Novak Djokovic signed a similar agreement with Asics when he moved from Uniqlo to Lacoste last year.

“I don’t have a shoe deal. I’m looking forward to see what shoes I will be wearing in the near future. For now, I will be wearing Nike. They have shown interest to have a shoe deal with me, as well,” Federer said. “Ties are not broken there. I have deep roots with Nike. I’ve had a great relationship over the last 20 years. But everything is open. Yeah, it’s very exciting also again to see what’s out there, who wants to do something with me.”

Was it a move he wanted to make?

The omnipresence of Federer commercial logos has been especially present over the last few weeks, it seems.

The man himself has often worn T-shirts emblazoned with a giant-sized version of his RF logo. There also have been a lot of Laver Cup logo sightings. At times, his agent Tony Godsick has sported both – just to have his bases covered.

UNIQLO
There could not have been more RFing in Stuttgart, when Federer won his first tournament back. Between Monday’s warmup and the match, Team Fed had quickly become Team Uniqlo.

The sense you got from his early comments on the potential move, upon his return to the game in Stuttgart a few weeks ago, was that he didn’t want to leave.

If UNIQLO can put its signature athlete, Nishikori, in this, what have they got up their sleeve for Federer?

He didn’t even really want to talk about it, other than to say it was one of those situations he wishes had been resolved a long time ago.

Federer’s Nike contract expired on March 1. No doubt his agent would have started negotiations to extend it long before that. And to get to the point where a rival offer is leaked – hopefully to move the process along – there had to be a huge divide between what Nike thought he was worth going forward, and what Federer and his agency, Team8, perceived his value to be

In the end, they found a company that agreed with them.

It’s going to be very strange to see Federer without the swoosh, without the “RF” logo.

While it’s not so jarring at Wimbledon, with the all-white rule, things will change quickly.

When you look at the color scheme Kei Nishikori sported in Paris, it’s hard to fathom Federer in anything close to that.

Federer prepares to open Centre Court

WIMBLEDON – There were still plenty of Nike logos in evidence – and of course the eponymous “RF”.

In case you were on “Roger Federer apparel sponsor watch”.

The defending champion warmed up with Germany’s Philipp Petzschner on Court 15 Monday morning, in preparation for his first-round match.

And although it was fairly quiet when he began at 10:30 a.m., the crowd was already flowing in to the All England Club. And the Federer fans, knowing their man is a creature of habit, knew exactly where to go.

Here’s what it looked like.

Quiet as a church

There was almost no chatter around the Court, only the bobbing up and down of RF hats. It was as if the fans took that iconic “Quiet! Genius at work” banner that pops up wherever banners are allowed all too literally.

More impressive with Monday morning’s crew was the large percentage of fans who were actually watching as opposed to staring through their phones, as they took video to impress their social-media friends with the fact that they were there.

They were kicking it old school. Of course, their favorite is undoubtedly old school.

Federer opens at 1 p.m. against Dusan Lajovic of Serbia.

And as he takes to Centre Court, it will be just as quiet, before the most respectful applause.

Wimbledon has begun.

 

Wimbledon ’18: Men’s singles draw analysis

WIMBLEDON – The pre-draw speculation on the men’s side of the game these days is big business.

With so many players who were at the summit not long ago having dropped in the rankings because of injuries, the early-round traps have increased exponentially.

Those traps are more than somewhat in theory, because those injured players who have taken a long time to return to form are not yet at their peak levels. At the same time, you know what they’re capable of on any given day – especially on the big stages.

Among the dangerous floaters of interest for this year’s Wimbledon were Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Gaël Monfils.

And the draw gods were not kind.

Murray vs. Paire

Murray, who as of Friday wasn’t 100 per cent decided if his surgically repaired hip was up to the rigours of best-of-five set tennis, drew the dangerous if mercurial Benoit Paire.

It seems, though, that he’ll give it a go.

Paire, silver hair and all, should have beaten Roger Federer in the first round in Stuttgart with a smidgen more belief and focus. That one could be enthralling.

Wawrinka vs. Dimitrov

As for Wawrinka, his return from knee surgeries has taken a whole lot longer than he would have hoped. His true ranking at the moment is a shocking No. 225.

And his draws so far during the grass-court season have not helped: Sam Querrey in the second round at Queen’s, and … Murray in the first round of Eastbourne after both took wild cards to get in more match play.

Wawrinka has been a Wimbledon quarterfinalist twice. And in 2015, he was unlucky not to go further as he lost 11-9 in the fifth set to Richard Gasquet.

His luck didn’t get better Friday,.

The draw gods decreed that he play 6 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the first round.

Not only is he 2-4 against Dimitrov in his career, he’s 0-4 in their last four meetings.

As for Monfils .. same story. The flashy Frenchman will square off with countryman Richard Gasquet in the first round. He leads that longtime rivalry 9-7.

The last two times they met came on grass, in Halle and at Eastbourne last year. They split the matches, and both were very close.

Monfils played just three non-clay tournaments this season, until he finally surfaced on grass in Antalya, Turkey this week as a wild card.

He pulled off two tough wins, and was only a few points away from a straight-sets win over No. 1 seed Adrian Mannarino before finally ceding 6-4 in the third set in the semifinals.

But … he tweaked his knee. Monfils’s knees are not great under ideal circumstances. So we’ll see what the next few days bring.

draw
No, Gaël Monfils wasn’t taking a nap early in the third set in Antalya Friday. He slid and messed up his left knee, although it may not have been quite as bad as first appeared. (TennisTV.com)

Other first-round matches to watch

[12] Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs. Tennys Sandgren (USA)

Whither Sandgren, who seems to have fallen off the face of the earth in recent weeks?

The American, who was a surprise quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, lost in the second round of qualifying at Wimbledon a year ago.

His fortunes have changed, as he broke into the top 50 in April. 

analysisSandgren lost in the first round of five of the six clay-court tournaments he played this spring.

The exception was Geneva, where he posted two victories. But he hasn’t been seen since. 

He had entered some events, but he hasn’t played a single point on grass while Djokovic found some of his trademark swagger – and game – as he reached the final at Queen’s Club.

The Serb couldn’t ask for a better opener. And his section of the draw is inviting, with Dominic Thiem potentially looming in the fourth round.

[26] Denis Shapovalov (CAN) vs. Jérémy Chardy (FRA)

For Shapovalov, the 2016 junior Wimbledon singles champion, this second grass-court season is proving a challenge.

He lost in the first round of Stuttgart to Prajnesh Gunneswaran of India, ranked No. 169. And he lost in the first round of Queen’s Club in two tiebreaks to big lefty-serving Gilles Muller.

That’s one tough little section.

Finally, as the No. 3 seed, he posted up a three-set victory in Eastbourne over American Jared Donaldson, only to lose to Mischa Zverev in straight sets in his next match.

His opponent, Chardy, is playing the best tennis of his life at age 31.

He’s 12-2 on grass this season with a win at the Surbiton Challenger, a loss to Gasquet in the ‘s-Hertogenbosch final and a loss to Djokovic in the Queen’s semi.

It is going to be a big challenge for Shapovalov. And he’s in an absolutely loaded little section of the draw, too.

[24] Kei Nishikori (JPN) vs. [Q] Christian Harrison (USA)

The former top-five player still isn’t close to the form he displayed before a wrist injury took him out for the latter part of 2018.

And what of Harrison, whose story we chronicled on tennis.life

This will be his Wimbledon debut and while it wasn’t an ideal draw, it will at least be a matchup in which he can use his speed, and not be served off the court.

He’ll have a lot of folks rooting for him, too.

Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA) vs. Mischa Zverev (GER)

This one will be as close to old-school grass-court tennis as you’re likely to get, with both players willing and keen to serve-and-volley and move forward.

Potential round-of-16 matchups

[1] Roger Federer (SUI) vs. [16] Borna Coric (CRO)
[8] Kevin Anderson (RSA) vs. [11] Sam Querrey (USA)
[3] Marin Cilic (CRO) vs. [13] Milos Raonic (CAN)
[6] Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs. [9] John Isner (USA)

[7] Dominic Thiem (AUT) vs. [12] Novak Djokovic (SRB)
[4] Alexander Zverev (GER) vs. [15] Nick Kyrgios (AUS)
[5] Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) vs. [10] David Goffin (BEL)
[2] Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs. [14] Diego Schwartzman (ARG)

Potential quarterfinals

Roger Federer vs. Anderson/Querrey
Cilic /Raonic vs. Isner/Dimitrov
Zverev /Kyrgios vs. Djokovic
Nadal vs. Del Potro

Upsets and revivals

There are some highly-ranked players who have made surprisingly little noise in recent month. And you’d think some of them will not make their seeding.

Then again, when it comes Slam time, so many players will rise to the occasion.

analysis

Jack Sock, the No. 18 seed, is in the throes of a mighty slump in 2018. While you wouldn’t expect him to lose to Matteo Berrettini in the first round, this might be the tournament where he can start getting on a roll.

He has a friendly section where his power will be a plus. The highest seed in it is No. 10 David Goffin, who similarly has been rather quiet of late and played just one grass-court match coming in.

No. 28 seed Filip Krajinovic of Serbia has not played since Miami – that’s more than three months now. He has entered a lot of tournaments, and pulled out of every one and were it not Wimbledon, you probably wouldn’t expect to even see him here.

He’ll have to be careful, though. If Krajinovic is not fully fit, he could end up with a “Mischa Zverev” fine for failing to take the late withdrawal money and remaining in the draw.

No. 17 seed Lucas Pouille also is struggling this season. And in wild card Denis Kudla, he faces a player in the first round fully in form on the grass and one who loves playing on it.

Top half on Monday

As it’s tradition for the defending champion to be the first to walk out on famed Centre Court, Monday at 1 p.m., so will the rest of the top of the draw follow suit along with Federer.

Among the Monday matches to keep an eye on: Federer vs. Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic, whom he defeated in straight sets in the second round a year ago.

Monfils vs. Gasquet will be another one, along with Dimitrov vs. Wawrinka. 

Stefanos Tsitsipas, the 20-year-old Greek player, is seeded at a major for the first time at No. 31 – in only his fifth career Grand Slam main draw. So far, he has one victory at this level, at the French Open last month against Carlos Taberner.

analysis

Two years ago, he was fighting Shapovalov for a spot in the junior boys’ final in one of the best junior boys’ matches we’ve ever seen on grass – if not the best. He was just a couple of points away from winning it, and went on to take the junior boys’ doubles title with Kenneth Raisma of Estonia, over Shapovalov and countryman Félix Auger-Aliassime in the final.

And look at them now.

Tsitsipas gets French qualifier Grégoire Barrere in the first round, and he’s in Dimitrov’s section of the draw.

Federer to Stuttgart final – and back to No. 1

On a day when three top players returning from long absences played quality tennis on the lawns of Stuttgart, Roger Federer came out a double winner.

Not only did he come out on top in his semifinal match against Nick Kyrgios, he also guaranteed a return to the top of the rankings on Monday.

Federer got past Nick Kyrgios 6-7 (2), 6-2, 7-6 (5) in Saturday’s second semifinal.

“I’m very happy, very relieved, I thought it was the tough match I expected. We’ve played so many breakers already I’ve stopped counting,” Federer said during his on-court interview. “I lost the last couple of matches with match points so (I thought) maybe it’s going to happen again.”

On Sunday, he will play former world No. 3 and Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic.

Raonic defeated No. 2 seed Lucas Pouille 6-4, 7-6 (3) in the first semifinal.

He’s No. 1

The victory ensured that Federer will return to the No. 1 ranking when the new list comes out on Monday.

Stuttgart
A match played in good spirits, with Kyrgios’s respect for Federer showing in everything he did. (TennisTV)

But, if he wants to stay at the top of the heap for Wimbledon, he will have to win the tournament in Halle, Germany next week. Otherwise, Rafael Nadal will take it back.

(Federer will still be the No. 1 seed, because of the grass-court seeding formula used for the men).

“It was close. Could have gone either way, naturally. I’m happy I got it and got back to world No. 1 next Monday, so it’s very exciting. And I got another final, so it’s great news,” Federer said.

This is Federer’s first tournament since Miami in late March, where he lost to Thanasi Kokkinakis in the first round, in a third-set tiebreak. In his previous match, he had lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the Indian Wells final – in a third-set tiebreak.

For Kyrgios, Stuttgart was a return to singles for the first time since the Houston clay-court event in early April.

He played the doubles in Lyon, on clay, the week before the French Open and won it with his friend Jack Sock. He also played doubles at the Surbiton Challenger last week, losing in the first round.

Stuttgart

Raonic back and looking for a title

For Raonic, Stuttgart is a return after he missed Rome and the French Open with a knee issue that began during the 2017 offseason. He spent six weeks unable to train full out, or even serve. And that compromised the beginning of his 2018 season.

His fitness went up several notches during the American hard-court swing through Indian Wells and Miami. He reached the semis in the desert and the quarters in Florida, losing to del Potro on both occasions.

But after giving a walkover to Marin Cilic in the third round in Monte Carlo, and losing to young countryman Denis Shapovalov in the same round in Madrid, the 27-year-old crossed off the clay-court season and began to prepare for the grass.

The Stuttgart final is his first since Istanbul a year ago, on clay.

He will be looking for his first title in 2 1/2 years – since Brisbane to start the 2016 season.

There, he defeated Federer in the final.

Stuttgart
“Really excited to play Milos. He’s in great shape again. it’s nice for him. And I hope we can play another great match.”

Federer is 10-3 against Raonic. He lost to him in five sets in the 2016 Wimbledon semifinals, and defeated him in straight sets in the 2017 quarterfinals.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

Roger Federer is back, and in the news

After two and a half months away from the match court, Roger Federer is back.

He’ll hit the grass in Stuttgart for his first match on Wednesday, against veteran lefty Mischa Zverev, a familiar opponent on grass.

Of the five times they’ve met (Federer has yet to lose a set), three have been on grass. Two of them came a year ago, in Halle and in the third round at Wimbledon.

But before the 36-year-old even serves, he has already made plenty of news.

The most amusing part was the officially-scheduled Federer practice on Sunday on the centre court in Stuttgart.

A telling sign of just exactly how much a player of Federer’s pedigree means to a 250-level tournament like Stuttgart was that his hit was announced for 5 p.m. on the official order of play.

That was – of course – right in the middle of the French Open in Paris between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem.

Federer seemed rather in good spirits for the practice with Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber.

But the focus was partly on what Federer was wearing.

The answer: Nike, of course. At least for now.

Rumours of a move to Uniqlo

Fact: Federer’s 10-year deal with Nike expired March 1.

And, as with any contract renewal negotiation, discussions would have begun long before that expiry date.

But there is no deal yet.

And, in the interim, a trial balloon was floated that the Japanese company Uniqlo has weighed in with a massive offer.

It appears that Vince Martucci at Sportsenators.it was the first in the non-Asian markets to put this out there.

Uniqlo, which sponsors Japanese superstar Kei Nishikori (and just re-upped with him in a $50 million deal that takes both sides through the market-crucial Tokyo Olympics in 2020), freed up some cash after Novak Djokovic went to Lacoste.

But … $30 million US a year, for 10 years? That would take it well beyond Federer’s playing days, and well into his retirement. Well, one would assume, anyway.

Federer acknowledged that the Nike deal (which was a reported $100 million for 10 years, and probably undervalued in the market by this point, given Federer’s resurgence) had expired, and that he’d heard the rumours.

“These rumors are known to me. (Not a) rumor is that my Nike contract expired in March. There are negotiations going on, there’s nothing more to say. You are certainly the first to know when something is going in that direction,” Federer said during a press conference in Stuttgart Monday.

A lot of outlets are reporting this as a done deal. It’s unlikely that’s true. But the gloves are off.

Looking for lifetime deal?

It’s hard to imagine that Team Federer would want to leave Nike. It’s an association that has been ongoing since 1994. And Federer’s RF Nike logo is iconic.

And it’s hard to imagine that Nike would want to leave Federer. The Swiss star is, by a wide margin, the player who moves the most tennis merchandise for them – for any tennis manufacturer, actually.

But at what price?

That obviously is the rub.

If it has taken this long to come to an agreement, there are two factors to be looked at. The first is the actual dollars. The second is the length of the agreement, with Federer’s playing days counting down.

From the Team Federer perspective, you could speculate realistically that they’re looking for a lifetime deal. He has become, through the years, a sporting icon who transcends tennis.

But the Nike business revolves around the shoe.

Basketball superstar LeBron James signed a lifetime deal with the company in 2015. He’s 33..

Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who also is 33, signed a lifetime deal of his own in November, 2016.

Nike icon Michael Jordan hangs with Federer’s wife Mirka at the 2014 US Open.

Michael Jordan, who has been retired 15 years, is estimated to have earned $473 million from his Nike association since 1993. And only the first 10 years of that came while he was an active player.

Federer’s name recognition is up there with those athletes, on some levels. But the sport he plays does not bring Nike nearly the same level of revenue. And so a “lifetime” deal wouldn’t come with nearly the same number of dollars.

The Agassi comparison

In July, 2005, lifelong Nike wearer Andre Agassi switched to adidas, which had long sponsored his wife, Steffi Graf.

For a long period of time, the American was as identified with the “swoosh” as Federer is now. Maybe even more – on the North American scene, especially. And the association revolutionized the marketing of tennis.

It seemed unthinkable at the time that he would leave. But Agassi spun it well; the deal with adidas had huge philanthropic element, a financial commitment to his foundation.

But in 2013, Agassi returned to Nike, emphasizing that the association would help promote the company’s “Designed to Move” campaign.

JuJu

Money, or image?

Nike is Nike, the standard-bearer for sports merchandise.

Will Federer leave Nike and take the Uniqlo money? It feels like there are still a few chapters to be written in this story.

Uniqlo, which is rapidly expanding (although doesn’t yet have stores in Federer’s homeland), is far more of a sportswear company than a tennis concern.

Its clothes are reasonably priced and fairly bland, sort of on par with The Gap and Old Navy in the U.S.

The company has repeatedly tried to crack the American market, but seems to not yet have found the winning formula to compete with the other chain stores in its market segment.

Would Federer be a difference-maker worldwide? Certainly they seem to think so, especially if Federer plays on and competes in the 2020 Olympics on Uniqlo’s home turf.

But what we really don’t know is how legitimate those alleged numbers are.

Make no mistake, the news of this sudden  “competitor” for Federer’s allegiance was strategically leaked.

And those numbers are perhaps an inadvertent clue into what Team Federer believes its man is worth to Nike.

Perhaps, with negotiations not progressing after all these months, it was time to try to put pressure on Nike. The rumours are undoubtedly a move to put Federer in what’s always the best negotiation position: creating a bidding war and letting Nike know that what they’ve come up with so far isn’t nearly enough. And that if they don’t up the ante, someone else is ready to take it on.

Public-relations repercussions

The delicate balance here is the potential harm it could do to Federer’s “peRFect” image.

Forbes’ estimate of Federer’s career earnings (and this was a few years ago) came in at about $600 million.

So – and this is an understatement – the Swiss star has earned more than he and generations of his descendants could ever possibly spend.

Federer has a number of high-profile sponsorship deals, most recently a $40 million contract with the pasta-maker Barilla. The company’s Federer commercials regularly ran on French television during the French Open, despite his absence.

And early in the event, he was even in town for a Moët champagne event celebrating his 20 years on tour. A special bottle priced at $19,998 was announced, with the profits going to his foundation.

The Nike-Federer relationship is firmly anchored. And a lot fans can’t imagine one without the other.

If it’s perceived that Federer left merely because of big stacks of money, the average fan making a working salary will resent it.

So if it happens, that’s going to require some deft public relations.

There’s always a “respect” component to these things – a “scoreboard” where success is measured not so much by the actual dollars (especially when the athlete concerned is beyond worrying about the dollars). It’s about “did he get what he’s worth, relative to other athletes at his level?”

In the end, it’s a chase for one dollar more than the other guy got. That means a “win”.

The 2018 season was always going to be a fascinating one, from this perspective. Because Rafael Nadal’s long-term deal with Nike also is expiring this year.

So what happens with Federer is something Team Nadal no doubt will keep a close eye on.

But back to tennis …

Federer

ATP Tour Rankings – May 14, 2018

While Roger Federer is living the life of Riley in Dubai, preparing for the grass-court season as the rest of the Tour toils on the dirt, he got a rankings gift on Monday.

The 36-year-old is back in the No. 1 spot.

It was always likely to happen during the clay-court season, as rival Rafael Nadal had such a high standard to defend from a year ago.

And so when Nadal was beaten by Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of Madrid – after winning the tournament in 2017 – the deed was done.

Federer is now 720 points ahead.

Nadal, the top seed in Rome, was a quarterfinalist there last year, out of gas after Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. 

He’s dropping 180 points. To get the No. 1 spot back, he would have to win Rome and earn those 1,000 points. He would then squeeze past Federer and back into the No. 1 spot in the rankings by 100 points going into Paris.

ON THE UPSWING

rankingsKevin Anderson (RSA): No. 8 ———-> No. 7 (Career high for the 31-year-old transplanted South African).

Lucas Pouille (FRA): No. 18———-> No. 16 (The French No. 1 has hardly won a match for awhile, but he moves up two because of the struggles of Djokovic and Berdych).

Kyle Edmund (GBR): No. 22 ———-> No. 19 (The British No. 1 joins the top 20 after his Madrid semifinal).

Denis Shapovalov (CAN): No. 43———> No. 29 (Welcome to the top 30, and a seeded spot in Paris).

Steve Johnson (USA): No. 55 ———-> No. 48 (Back into the top 50 without doing a single thing).

John Millman (AUS): No. 70———-> No. 58 (The unsung Aussie is at a career high after beating more highly-touted countryman Bernard Tomic in the Aix-en-Provence final).

Dusan Lajovic (SRB): No. 95 ———-> No. 66 (The 27-year-old Serb is close to a career high reached 3 1/2 years ago, after going from the qualifying to the quarters in Madrid and beating the likes of Richard Gasquet and Juan Martin del Potro along the way).

Vasek Pospisil (CAN): No. 88 ———> No. 78 (The Canadian is holding his own, working for points on the Asian Challenger circuit).

Bernard Tomic (AUS): No. 243 ———-> No. 191 (Has the resurrection begun? Tomic reaches the Aix-en-Provence Challenger final).

Yoshihito Nishioka (JPN): No. 362——–> No. 262 (From the qualifying to the title at the Gimcheon Challenger, the 22-year-old lefty was ranked No. 58 a year ago before tearing his ACL and is on the comeback trail).

 

ON THE DOWNSWING

rankingsNovak Djokovic (SRB): No. 12 ———-> No. 18 (The drop is going to hurt Djokovic’s seeding in Paris, although if he can raise his level somewhere close to its best, that won’t matter).

Kei Nishikori (JPN): No. 20 ———-> No. 24

Borna Coric (CRO): No. 35———-> No. 40

Andy Murray (GBR): No. 39———-> No. 45 (When’s he coming back? Still a question mark).

Frances Tiafoe (USA): No. 56 ———-> No. 63

Pablo Cuevas (URU): No. 57 ———-> No. 71 (The 32-year-old was a semifinalist in Madrid a  year ago).

Jeremy Chardy (FRA): No. 74———> No. 89

Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA): No. 76 ———-> No. 90

Ernesto Escobedo (USA): No. 151 ———-> No. 162

Reilly Opelka (USA): No. 169 ———-> No. 206

Thomaz Bellucci (BRA): No. 221 ———> No. 249

For the full ATP Tour rankings picture, including the race to London, click here).

Federer upset by Kokkinakis in Miami opener

MIAMI, Fla. – Winning Indian Wells and Miami back to back, as Roger Federer did a year ago in his return from a six-month absence, was always going to be a challenging proposition to repeat.

But between that, and being out of the Miami Open in his first match, there’s a chasm few could have predicted would open up.

But Federer is out in the second round, defeated 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) by Australian qualifier Thanasi Kokkinakis.

In the process, Federer also lost the No. 1 spot in the rankings.

Rafael Nadal, who has played just one tournament this year because of injury but had fewer points to defend as the 2017 Miami finalist rather than champion, will take it back April 2.

Whether he can hold onto it, with all the points he must defend during the clay-court season, is to be determined.

“I deserve it after this match. That’s how I feel. Just so bad,” said Federer, who said he spent the entire match searching for solutions, and never really finding them. Still, he was just a few points away from making a great escape.

“I feel like I wasn’t feeling good. The ball, I wasn’t feeling. With my movement, things weren’t absolutely working. I felt like the third (set) could be a tricky one, of course. I feel like every time I had chances, something bad happened for me, wrong decision making by me, good decision making by him. Who knows what happened. It just felt like I could be paying the price for opportunities missed,” Federer said.

At No. 175, Kokkinakis is the lowest-ranked player to defeat a sitting No. 1 since Spanish lefty Francisco Clavet (No. 178) defeat Lleyton Hewitt at this same tournament 15 years ago.

Kokkinakis

Kokkinakis a promising teen

As a teenager, the 21-year-old was in the same conversation as other up-and-comers including his friend and countryman Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric. So for him, this was a breakthrough victory as he makes his way back after numerous injuries the last two years.

The biggest one was the shoulder surgery he had in Dec. 2015. He missed nine months. But it’s a surgery that many tennis players don’t fully come back from, especially on the serve. It was going to take more time than that to return to full strength again.

“At the start I was rushing a little bit. Obviously he puts a lot of pressure on you, doesn’t really play like many players. Obviously he’s a lot better than a lot of players. But game style-wise, he’s a lot different. Took a little bit of time to adjust,” Kokkinakis said. “Then when the game kind of slowed down to me, I started being able to execute and do what I needed to. I thought I was in control of more baseline rallies, for sure.”

Funnily enough, the numbers don’t really bear out their assessments. in the medium-range rallies (five to nine shots), Federer won 31-of-45.

Kokkinakis

Kokkinakis needed a wild card just to get into the qualifying here. He defeated No. 16 seed Thiago Monteiro of Brazil and No. 8 seed Taro Daniel (who defeated Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells) to make the main draw. In the first round of the main draw, he easily rolled past fellow qualifier Calvin Hemery.

This was other level, compared to those wins.

Kokkinakis
Federer is passed at the net by Thanasi Kokkinakis during his three-set loss to the young Aussie Saturday.

As with any upset where the rankings disparity is so great, it took some great play from the Aussie, and some poorer play from the No. 1 to even the playing field.

“I feel like it already started beginning of the second set, when I had break points first game, and he almost wanted to give me that game, and I couldn’t take it. … From that moment on, I played maybe a bad 10 minutes, which cost me the second set, maybe the match,” Federer said. “Look, it’s disappointing. Don’t know why I could never get to any level that I was happy with today. Sometimes you have these matches. Sometimes you find a way through. I just couldn’t get it done today.”

Kokkinakis felt the shifts in Federer tactics as he pushed back after the first set.

“He puts a lot of pressure on you with the way he plays. He shrinks the court, so it’s tough. When the game slowed down a little bit, I started controlling the points with my forehand. I think he felt it, too, that I was winning a lot of the baseline rallies. He started to come into net a lot,” Kokkinakis said. “The third set, I was holding on a lot of moments, tight moments, where he was in control of the third set. Played big when it mattered. I thought I played a really solid mental tiebreak, and, yeah, got it done.

“I said, If he beats me by hitting winners, too good. But he didn’t,” he added.

These are the types of matches an older player will tend to have more often as he ages. But Federer has had surprisingly few of them in the 15 months since he returned to action. 

Dubai guest beats the master

And he lost to one of his young protégés, in a manner of speaking – one of the young up-and-comers he has invited to Dubai to train with him in the off-season.

(The most recent of those was 17-year-old Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime).

Those coveted invitations can, in some cases, be intimidating for the young prospects. In this case, Kokkinakis took everything he could from them and came out realizing that Federer was still only human.

Kokkinakis
Federer searched for solutions the entire match, but says nothing felt right on the day.

“He’s been real supportive. Anything he thinks in my game, how it should operate, I’ve been all ears listening to him. To share the court, have such a big win on a big court against the world No. 1, it’s pretty crazy. Pretty happy about it,” Kokkinakis said. “Yeah, I mean, everyone is human. He just plays tennis a lot better than a lot of people.” 

For Federer, a longer-than-expected break looms.

With the big red line struck through the clay-court season, he wouldn’t be expected to return until Stuttgart, the grass-court tuneup for Wimbledon that is played the week of June 11.

That’s more than two and a half months away.

“I’m a positive thinker. I feel like every match is an another opportunity. Especially after losing one, clearly I’m down right now. I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated a little bit that I couldn’t find a way. It’s unfortunate how it goes,” Federer said.

“Yeah, it’s pretty simple at the end of the day. You go back to the practice court or go on vacation, you really take a break, get away from it all. When you come back to the practice court to work, whatever it is, you do it at 100 per cent.”

Kokkinakis will play No. 31 seed Fernando Verdasco in the third round. He’ll be facing him, as he did Federer, for the first time.

He will be inside the top 150 with what he has done so far in Miami, inside the top 130 if he can beat the veteran Spanish lefty.

The entry deadline for the main draw at the French Open is in just over three weeks. Kokkinakis would need to win two more matches to be on the bubble to get straight in to a Grand Slam on his own ranking.

Since the last time that happened, at the 2015 US Open, he has either been absent or needed a wild card to play. 

Roger Federer to skip the clay-court season again

MIAMI, Fla. – Roger Federer lost his opening match in Miami Saturday to qualifier Thanasi Kokkinakis. So there will be no Sunshine Double.

(But more on that here).

The bigger-picture news from the No. 1 (for now) is that once again, he has decided to pass on the entire clay-court season, which begins in two weeks in Monte Carlo and runs through the French Open.

Federer had said he would decide after Miami whether or not he would play on the terre battue.

But the 36-year-old Swiss announced after the 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) defeat to Kokkinakis Saturday that the decision had already been made.

It was short and sweet. He has decided not to play. 

Last year, Federer had toyed with the notion of skipping all the warmup events and playing the main event, at Roland Garros.

Ultimately, he decided not to play anything. 

This year, he has already decided. He won’t play the French Open, either.