Djokovic finally gets his Cincy

The tacky-looking flower pot from your grandmother’s Cincy parlor, known officially as the Rookwood Cup, features tennis balls nested in acanthus leaves.

It is arguably one of the least attractive trophies in tennis.

And yet, for Novak Djokovic on Sunday afternoon in Cincy, it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Finally, in his sixth attempt in the final, the 31-year-old Serb won the Western & Southern Open.

It had long been the only one of the nine Masters 1000 titles to elude him, making his Hall-of-Fame set of hardware short that final piece.

But after a 6-4, 6-4 win over seven-time champion Roger Federer, it was his.

Djokovic’s 31st overall Masters 1000 series title means that he is the only player to own all nine of the current Masters 1000 titles.

(Federer is short Monte Carlo and Rome. And since he has now habitually skipped the clay-court season, it likely will be ever thus. Rafael Nadal has yet to win Miami and the Paris Indoor (as well as Shanghai; but he won the fall indoor event in Madrid that preceded Shanghai in that Masters 1000 slot).

The Serb had waited five long years, since he won the Monte Carlo Masters for the first time in 2013, to take No. 9.

Even through the most dominant stretch tennis the game has ever seen, when Djokovic won just about everything there was to win and was, at one time, the holder of all four Grand Slam titles concurrently, that flower pot had cruelly eluded him.

Nine is nice

If you’ve been watching Djokovic play through the last couple of months, the increasing levels of his form, fire and confidence have been evident from week to week.

Cincy
Djokovic won the eighth of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments in 2013. He had to wait five long years to complete the set.

That he won Wimbledon wasn’t just up to him, of course. But the way he won it was very much up to him, as close to vintage Djokovic as he has been in a couple of years.

And perhaps that big, unexpected title allowed him to fly.

He’s had his tetchy moments. And while he probably shouldn’t be crushing his trusty rackets with impressionable young children watching from just a few feet away, that tetchiness comes with the complete top-shelf Djokovic package.

And this week, he seemed on a mission as he returned to Cincinnati for the first time since 2015.

He knows, from his experiences the last two years, that you can never assume you’ll have four or five more kicks at the can. His goal was clear.

“I was saying previously that during this week this trophy has been … a big motivation for me. But at the same time I tried not to think about the pressure of really making history too much, because I have had already some failed attempts,” Djokovic said during his press conference.

“Coming into today’s match, it wasn’t easy psychologically because I knew I lost to him every time I played him on this court. But at the same time, I liked my chances because I felt better and better as the tournament was progressing. It was by far the best performance of the week.”

Tough draw – and an extra match

Djokovic caught a break as he was in the same half as No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal. But Nadal pulled out of the tournament after winning the Rogers Cup in Toronto.

And it was the first time since 2006 that he didn’t benefit from a first-round bye in the 64-player draw because of his ranking. So if it was going to win it, he was going to have to win six matches.

Djokovic had his ups and downs through victories over Steve Johnson, Adrian Mannarino (coming back after losing the first set), No. 5 seed Grigor Dimitrov (rain-delayed overnight), Milos Raonic (another comeback three-setter) and No. 7 Marin Cilic (another three-setter) before he even got to Federer.

Cincy
Yep, he was pretty happy. (TennisTV.com)

Federer had beaten Djokovic in three of those five previous Cincy finals, all in straight sets.

(Andy Murray beat Djokovic in the other two, one on an injury retirement. In five finals, Djokovic had lost 10 sets and won none).

Very good Djokovic, sub-par Federer

Cincy
Djokovic’s eyes were as big as saucers as he zoned in on winning the last Masters 1000 event missing from his collection. (TennisTV)

It was the 46th meeting of their careers, but the first between Djokovic and Federer since the 2016 Australian Open.

They had been like two superstar ships passing in the night.

As Federer returned from a knee issue and started piling up more history, Djokovic was dealing with his elbow injury and, perhaps, a little bit of lassitude after that ridiculous stretch of brilliance between 2014 and 2016.

Right now, it is Djokovic who is rounding into form beautifully for the US Open. Federer, who skipped the clay-court season and had a good – not great – grass-court season before skipping Toronto last week, doesn’t appear to be in particularly good nick. It was still good enough to make the final. But the US Open is another level.

And the Swiss star definitely won the cranky contest on court Sunday.

Federer even received a code violation for an audible obscenity after a double fault and a forehand shank led to Djokovic breaking him, in the seventh game of the first set.

Cincy
Federer was peeved pretty much throughout the straight-sets loss to Djokovic in Cincinnati on Sunday – more at himself than anything else. (TennisTV.com)

Roger Federror

The break came after Federer had held serve precisely 100 consecutive times in Cincinnati, where the stadium court he is always scheduled on plays much quicker than the other courts, and where the conditions are optimal for him to hold serve.

Federer looked slow to get to some balls. He didn’t seem to react to some as quickly as you would expect. He missed too many returns.

And it was clear that he hadn’t found confidence in a forehand that had been erratic much of the week. In the end, he posted 39 unforced errors.

Late in the second set, with an open court in which to hit a winning forehand, Federer tried a crosscourt forehand drop shot. It was a shot he hit precisely because he didn’t have enough trust in his forehand at that moment. And he missed it wide. A game Federer had led 40-love ended up as the deciding break.

He was pretty mad at himself a lot of the time, as well as at some of the Djokovic fans sitting up in the bleachers who were, well, enthusiastically supporting their man.

(Fair’s fair. Usually Federer’s fans are the ones dispensing that treatment to his opponents nearly everywhere he goes. But even if the Federer fans far outnumbered the Djokovic supporters on this day, it was at least a fair fight).

For his part, Djokovic played solidly. It was enough. He didn’t play his best tennis all week either, but he fought at an all-star level. 

When the two arrived at the net, Federer was gracious, as he was during his runner-up speech and in press later.

Making history in Cincy

“Congratulations, Novak, on writing history today. Amazing effort, not just this week, not just today, but your whole career to get to this point. It’s an amazing achievement,” he said.

Cincy

“All these records that a player creates, at the end you’re going to all judge it all together, bundle it up and say, ‘Okay, what was the coolest thing you ever did?’ “This might be it for Novak besides winning all the Slams and all the other things he’s done already,” Federer said during his press conference.

“I think it’s extremely difficult to win a Masters 1000. These tournaments don’t come easy. You saw my performance today. It’s just a long week. It’s tough, gruelling. The best players are playing. You play against tough guys early on in the draw, so you don’t have much time to find your rhythm and actually almost work on your game throughout the week,” he added. “He’s done that maybe better than anybody. So it’s a great credit to him. I think it’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Djokovic acknowledged that Federer “probably didn’t feel his best.” But after losing to him three times on that very court, he was happy to take it.

“It’s obviously a very special moment, it’s the first time that I get to stand here wth the winning trophy in Cincinnati. I played five finals before, and most of those finals I lost to this great man,” he said. And then he joked. “Roger, thanks for your kind words, and thank you for letting me win once here in Cincinnati.”

Djokovic’s ranking stood at No. 22 at the French Open, just a little over two months ago. He was No. 25 in the race to the year-end finals in London.

On Monday, he’ll be No. 6 in the regular rankings and No. 3 in the race.

Not a shock, but Federer out of Toronto

You always got the sense that Roger Federer was going to choose either Toronto or Cincinnati – but not both – as hard-court prep leading into the US Open.

Given Cincinnati is closer to the main event, a week later than the Rogers Cup, it seemed to have the edge.

And so it is, as Rogers Cup tournament director Karl Hale announced Monday that the world No. 2 won’t be hitting Toronto this summer. And that also means that Federer won’t, as he has some years, be celebrating his birthday in Canada.

Federer reached the final in Montreal last year, losing to Alexander Zverev. He then skipped the other Masters 1000 summer event in Cincinnati, as it was clear in Montreal that his back was acting up on him.

Here’s the official press-release quote from Federer.

“I’m so disappointed not to play at the Rogers Cup this summer. I had a fantastic time in Montreal last year and always enjoy playing in front of the Canadian fans, but unfortunately with scheduling being the key to my longevity moving forward, I have regrettably decided to withdraw from Toronto this year. I wish the tournament every success and am sorry to miss it.”

Federer was a faithful visitor to Canada earlier in his career. From 2002 through 2011, he played 10 out of 11 times.

But in recent years, not so much. Since then, he played in Toronto in 2014 and last year in Montreal, losing in the final both times. He has won the tournament just twice – both times in Toronto – in 2004 and 2006.

He played Cincinnati every single year from 2002 through 2015. But he hasn’t been back since.

Everyone else on board so far

So far, Federer is the only top-20 player who won’t make the date for the tournament, which takes place Aug. 4-12.

As well, the tournament confirmed that top Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who reached the semifinals a year ago in Montreal, will headline the Tuesday night session.

No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal, who is still on board to play, will make his debut Wednesday night.

With Federer’s withdrawal, his friend Jérémy Chardy will get a spot in the main draw.

The draw will be made in downtown Toronto on Friday. Aug. 3.

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).