MELBOURNE, Australia – Stefanos Tsitsipas has played Rafael Nadal – twice in 2018 – and lost to him twice.
He has played Novak Djokovic – once, at the Rogers Cup in Toronto – and defeated him.
But he had never faced Roger Federer, the player he most resembles stylistically. At least not officially, since the Hopman Cup is an exhibition event.
Until Sunday night at the Australian Open.
This will be the premiere for the 20-year-old rising Greek star, and the 37-year-old legend.
“I’m happy I played against him at the Hopman Cup. I think he played really well there. I actually did too. I thought it was really high quality tennis. This is obviously a different type of match, it being best of five, it being a fourth round of a slam, you know, where we know now how we feel on this court,” Federer said.
“I’m happy for him. He’s playing so well, and I’m looking forward to the matchup with him. I think it’s going to be a good one. I like how he mixes up his game and also comes to the net. So will I. I think we will see some athletic attacking tennis being played.”
When the two met at the Hopman Cup in Perth a few weeks ago, Federer defeated Tsitsipas in two tiebreaks.
But this is a completely different deal. This will be only the second time Tsitsipas has played in the second week of a major. And it is only the second time he has passed the second round. As well, this is the first time Tsitsipas has even won a main-draw match in Australia.
“I learned a lot since my last match with him. I know the patterns that he’s using a bit better now. He’s serving really well, so I’m going to have to utilize his, and take advantage of my returns as much as possible. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be serving well, so, yeah, return games need to be aggressive and pressing a lot,” Tsisipas said.
“Yeah, he’s a legend of our sport. It will be a great day facing him in one of the best arenas, Rod Laver. I’m really excited for that match.”
Tsitsipas dropped a set in each of his first three matches, all against quality opponents: Matteo Berrettini, the veteran Viktor Trocki, and the high-regarded Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili.
Here’s what he looked like on the practice court Saturday, one court over from where Federer arrived to hit – but before a far less reverent crowd.
For Federer, the crowd gathered well ahead of time just to get a glimpse of him walking to the court.
They were watching from up above, in the fan walkway – even from further away, outside Rod Laver Arena. They climbed trees. They stood on garbage cans.
It’s a familiar sight at tournaments.
Maybe someday, Tsitsipas will practice before those kinds of crowds. In Australia, he has gotten a taste of it, with the large and enthusiastic Greek contingent supporting both him and Maria Sakkari.
For the Next-Gen Finals to truly be what they were designed to be, they ideally would feature all of the best 21-and-under players in the world.
But two of the marquee players are not there.
For the second straight season, the best of the bunch has understandably opted for the ATP Tour Finals next week.
Alexander Zverev came to Milan last year, for the inaugural edition, and played an exhibition to give the new exhibition a boost. But that seems to not have been in the plans this year.
And arguably the most entertaining and popular of the rest, Canadian Denis Shapovalov, begged off after a fall season during which he essentially played every single week.
That the 19-year-old was on fumes was fairly evident in those final weeks.
Shapovalov, incredibly, still has two years of eligibility left. But you know he’s hoping to be in the same boat as Zverev is sooner, rather than later.
Tsitsipas the biggest star
One player who had a monster season on the ATP Tour is in Milan. But as with Shapovalov, you could sense over the last few weeks – after he won his first career ATP Tour title in Stockholm, that Stefanos Tsitsipas also is a little wrung out.
Hopefully he will be able to muster a final reserve of energy and quickly adjust to the radically different match experience and scoring system.
On the plus side, there was no sign of the “models” who joined the young fellows on stage for last year’s draw ceremony. That didn’t go over too well, and the ATP later apologized.
Rather, they gave us … this!
Hurkacz, Munar and .. Caruana
The final group of eight features some appealing talent – notably Americans Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe.
Tiafoe’s irrepressible personality is already evident in the leadup to the event. His smile is contagious, and his game style is a crowd-pleaser.
The rest are not nearly as well-known. So the fans in Milan and watching at home will get to discover them, much the way they did a year ago.
Spain’s Jaume Munar has the full sport of the Rafael Nadal Academy behind him. And even though he arrived on the ATP Tour with everyone assuming he would be a clay-court player, he has proven more than adept on the other surfaces.
When we watched him play another Next-Gen player, Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, in the French Open qualifying, he was even serve-volleying on clay.
As for Hubert Hurkacz, he’s tall – 6-foot-5 – and reached his career best ranking of No. 79 last week before dropping six spots with the new rankings Monday.
He qualified for the last three Slams this season, losing to Marin Cilic in the second round both in Paris and at the US Open. In New York, he got just two games in three sets against the Croat.
Hurkacz retired due to “fatigue”, down in the first set of his second-round match at the Eckental Challenger last week.
He has faced the other three players in his pool group a total of once – a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Tiafoe in Washington, D.C. this summer. He has two losses on clay to Munar in the juniors.
Group A: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Jaume Munar, Frances Tiafoe, Hubert Kurkacz
Group B: Alex de Minaur, Andrey Rublev, Taylor Fritz, Liam Caruana
It’s hard to pick the stronger one. But you’d have to go with the superior top-level experience of Tsitsipas and Tiafoe in Group A.
Caruana, 20, is ranked No. 622 on the ATP Tour (down from a career high of No. 375 back in February). He won three matches in an all-Italian playoff for the local wild card – the final in five (short-version) sets.
If the experience of Quinzi a year ago is any indicator, he’ll arrive game, but a little short on legs after the hard work involved getting here.
Caruana peaked at No. 22 in the junior rankings, fully 18 years old with a January birthday (and therefore one of the oldest kids playing at the ITF level). He never did particularly well at the junior majors, but he did play most of the other players once each. He suffered a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Tsitsipas in the third round of the 2016 Australian Open juniors. a 6-1, 6-3 loss to de Minaur on clay in 2015, a three-set loss to Rublev on clay in 2014 and losses in doubles to both Fritz and Tiafoe on separate occasions.
In other words, he doesn’t come in with the same credentials as Quinzi did. So he’ll have to play above his level to surprise.
NOTE: Southern California native Tracy Austin notes that Caruana, while Italian, is very much a SoCal kid. She writes that he and Fritz grew up 20 minutes apart (Fritz in Rancho Santa Fe and Caruana in La Jolla, outside San Diego) and played many times in the juniors. She adds that Caruana moved to Texas as a young teenager.
The day session on Tuesday features Tsitsipas vs. Munar, then Fritz vs Rublev.
The night session kicks off with Tiafoe vs. Hurkacz, followed by de Minaur vs. Caruana.
The ATP has put out a couple of videos explaining the unique rules attached to this event.
One features the players.
The other features the neat graphics they’ve come up with for this year’s edition.
As well, the automatic Hawkeye line-calling system used last year will be expanded to adjudicate a host of other on-court situations.
Last year’s final featured Hyeon Chung vs. Andrey Rublev
’17 ranking: 54
Current ranking: 25
’17 ranking: 51
Current ranking: 27
’17 ranking: 37
Current ranking: 68
’17 ranking: 306
Current ranking: 149
’17 ranking: 48
Current ranking: 12
’17 ranking: 45
Current ranking: 11
’17 ranking: 65
Current ranking: 16
’17 ranking: 55
Current ranking: 109
Notable that three of the Group B players (none of whom made the 2017 final), are now in the top 16. Shapovalov and Chung have improved their rankings as well (Chung, even with much time missed due to injury).
Jared Donaldson hasn’t played since the Rogers Cup in Toronto due to knee tendonitis, which affected him long before that. Rublev missed three months, after Monte Carlo and through Wimbledon, with back issues.
The Next-Gen Finals are going full-out on the video review this year.
The ATP announced on Friday that the exhibition event for 21-and-under players will use expanded video review for this year’s second annual event in Milan.
We’re not talking about line calls. We’re talking about not-ups, racket touches and reaching over the net to hit a ball. All those little borderline nuances that are in the rule book and tough for the chair umpire to call are covered.
You just hope that they happen, so we can see the technology at work.
“Controversy with these types of decisions are rare but when they do occur they can be particularly unsettling for players. We do not expect a lot of challenges, but should any instances arise, this technology will ensure the correct decision is reached,” was the statement from Gayle Bradshaw, ATP executive vice-president of rules and competition.
The video review operator off the court will search the footage from all the cameras to find the best angles. It’s somewhat like the video review officials in the National Hockey League searching for decisive footage when a goal is reviewed.
They’ll send it to the chair umpire’s tablet (not his fancy watch?) to review. the umpire will make a determination on whatever the infraction was. The fans in the arena and watching at home also will be able to see that footage.
Did you know? If a player’s racket, or clothing “touches the other side of the court” while the ball is in play, it’s called an “invasion”.
That notably occurs when a player’s racket crosses the plane of the net, trying to handle a ball with backspin, unable to stop on the dead run or trying to put away a very slow ball on the volley.
(Djokovic conceded later that he thought his racket might have crossed over the net. He also conveyed that to Murray at the time. Djokovic also said he was unsure if the rules prohibited it (!). But he added he would have conceded the point had that been made clear to him. It was definitely not on Djokovic to do that; the umpire, having to make the decision in real time, blew the call).
The technology also will reportedly be able to call “foul shots”.
Those include “deliberate” double hits, or carrying the ball rather than striking it. You have to think the chair umpire will remain in charge of deciding whether it was deliberate or inadvertent.
No more touches
If the ball hits a permanent fixture before it bounces, they’ll know. If the racket is no longer in the player’s hand when it makes contact with the ball, they can see it. And if the ball skims the racquet, or a player’s clothing – or even their hair, they’ll be busted.
Finally, if any part of the player’s body or equipment touches the net, net posts or singles sticks while the ball is in play, they’ll see it.
Given they don’t expect too many, there’s no limit on the number of challenges of this type that a player can make.
You just hope the players don’t figure out how to use it as a tactic to catch their breath, or slow up the play. Because there’s no mention of any penalty against the inquiring player, if he’s wrong.
On the plus side, fans won’t get on their non-favorite player to “‘fess up” or give away a point on the “honor system” – even though it’s not their responsibility.
One capability of the technology would be to be able to determine whether the point should be given, or replayed on a line call overrule.
You see this happen – although not that often – because it’s a judgment call by the umpire as to whether the player was impacted on the timing of the call, and might have put the ball over the net otherwise.
Sometimes it’s pretty contentious, too. And often it puts pressure on the player who benefits from an umpire’s judgment to call something against themselves of their own volition (which you’re *supposed* to do in unofficiated matches, but which is not in the least your responsibility when there are officials).
(That won’t happen at the Next-Gen Finals, because Hawk-Eye live makes all the calls, and they’re not subject to appeal).
Other changes will be to lop yet another minute off the player warmup. It will be down to … four minutes. (No idea why tennis is so focused on this issue – it’s far and away not a major time vampire).
Final field determined
As of Thursday, the eight players who have qualified for the Next-Gen finals were determined.
Well, actually seven players, as the eighth is an Italian wild card that will be determined by a playoff. Gianluigi Quinzi won it last year. He aged out of the competition this year.
Spain’s Jaume Munar was the last to qualify.
So the field will be as follows, as the No. 1 Next Gen contender, Alexander Zverev, will take a pass for the second straight year as he qualified for the “big boys” final in London.
For Khachanov, who won in Marseille early this year as well as Chengdu in 2016, the thrill wasn’t the novelty of it all. It wasn’t that first one that you will never forget.
He is now 3-for-3 in finals after dispatching Adrian Mannarino of France 6-2, 6-2 in Moscow Sunday.
Mannarino, 30, was playing in his sixth Tour final, and was looking for his own “first time”
But for Khachanov, in his hometown, it was an especially sweet victory.
In the first 20 incarnations of the Kremlin Cup, a Russian won 14 times. But Khachanov is the first to take the title since 2009, when the recently-retired Mikhail Youzhny raised the trophy.
“It was one of the dreams I had when I was a kid. Coming here I was asking top Russian players for autographs and dreaming one day to become a champion here,” Khachanov said, per the ATP Tour’s website. “Today is the day and I am really happy. These are memories I will always keep in my head.”
Edmund, Tsitsipas and Khachanov came into their respective weeks ranked No. 15, No. 16 and No. 26.
The first two won’t move much; Edmund jumps one spot, Tsitsipas stays the same.
But Khachanov will move inside the top 20 for the first time, up seven places to No. 19.
So all three have rankings that are less than their respective ages. And all are in the top 20.
The landscape is changing, if slowly. But knocking off titles at the 250 level is a great first step for the next generation.
And now that Edmund and Tsitsipas have – as Edmund put it about himself – gotten the “monkey” off their backs, it’s onwards and upwards.
“It’s just great that I’ve been able to have this experience and come through it, and it just gives you so much belief and confidence for the next time that happens,” he said.
But the launch of the 2019 Hopman Cup already has targeted the big day: New Year’s Day 2019.
That’s when Team Switzerland takes on Team USA.
And that means that two of the best of all time, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, will square off on court in mixed doubles.
Those are two pretty big gets for the exhibition event, which could well be in its final edition if the new ATP team event starts up, as planned, in 2020.
So if this is the finale, that’s quite a way to go.
Federer will again team up with Belinda Bencic to defend their 2018 title. Williams will pair with young countryman Frances Tiafoe, making his first appearance.
Young, attractive field
If the field appears, at first glance, to lack a little star power (having those two legends is already enough), tournament director Paul Kilderry did point out that it includes four Grand Slam singles champions (Angelique Kerber and Garbiñe Muguruza are the others), three top-10 players (Federer, Zverev, Kerber) and eight top-20 players.
Already announced was the new “it” tennis couple from Greece, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari.
From Great Britain, no Andy Murray or Johanna Konta. Instead, they’ll have the duo of Cameron Norrie and Katie Boulte – an impossibly good-looking combo.
With Muguruza will be … David Ferrer. And you thought the 36-year-old, currently ranked No. 147 and playing a Challenger in Monterrey, was done? Apparently not.
You’d have to think, if he’s going all the way Down Under, that Ferrer plans to play one more Australian Open as well. Perhaps that’s why he’s still out there on the Challenger circuit this week, trying to squeeze into the Melbourne main draw.
Barty and Ebden for Australia
Our thinking was that the most glam matchup for the home team would have been the off-field couple, Nick Kyrgios and Ajla Tomljanovic.
It’s always an extra bit of fun when real-life couples play mixed doubles together.
Absent that, they’ve come up with top Aussie woman Ashleigh Barty and 30-year-old Matthew Ebden, who’s ranked fourth in the country behind Kyrgios, young Alex de Minaur and John Millman.
The French team of Lucas Pouille and Alizé Cornet, who won the event in 2014 with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, are in the field.
Kerber and Zverev, last year’s finalists, also team up again and have by far the best combined ranking in the field.
Draws already done
To be able to start promoting Serena vs. the Fed, you had to have the round-robin draw done.
And so it is. Looks like Group B is the tougher group. But only one of those tandems can make the final.
Dec. 29 kickoff with the Greeks
The schedule is here. The proceedings kick off with Great Britain vs. Greece on Saturday, Dec. 29 (coming up before you know it).
There is no session on New Year’s Eve evening or on New Year’s Day. The event always has a pretty fantastic New Year’s Eve party – and they definitely have the field to gussy it up. (Remember when Marat Safin showed up after a rough night back home in Moscow, his face all bruised up?)
The USA vs. Switzerland tussle will be New Year’s night.
New this year at the event, it’s free kids’ ticket day for all day sessions.
You hope this isn’t really, truly the last-ever Hopman Cup. The event has been around since 1989, when Czechoslovakia’s (!!!) Helena Sukova and Miloslav Mecir defeated Australia’s (!!) … Hana Mandlikova and Pat Cash in the final.
(Mandlikova’s Aussie citizenship didn’t last nearly as long as the event).
It’s built up a lovely tradition. And the players seem to have a blast playing it. No doubt this year they’ll have a lovely tribute to Lucy Hopman, the wife of the legendary Aussie coach for whom the event is named. Hopman passed away during the US Open, at the age of 98.
A Florida resident, she made it to Perth every year until 2018, when she was 94.
If you wanted to hear from ITF president David Haggerty – the Hopman Cup is under the ITF umbrella – here is his requisite press release quote.
“We are delighted once again to see such a strong entry for the 2019 Mastercard Hopman Cup, the ITF’s mixed team competition, at the start of the new tennis season. The ITF team competitions, which also include Davis Cup by BNP Paribas and Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, give players a special opportunity to represent their countries, one that they value long after their playing days are over,” Haggerty said.
“Hopman Cup also offers fans a unique chance to see some of the game’s biggest names team up to play mixed doubles, which remain some of the most popular matches of the week. I would like to recognize our title sponsor Mastercard, and all the other sponsors and partners who continue to support the Hopman Cup.”
Looks like he got ALL the sponsors covered there. As one does.
For the second consecutive year at the Rogers Cup, a teenager with a one-handed backhand is the surprise of the tournament.
Last year in Montreal, it was 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who upset Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal on his way to a shocker of a run to the semis.
This year in Toronto, it is Stefanos Tsitsipas’s turn to shine.
The 19-year-old from Greece (he turns 20 on Sunday, the day of the Rogers Cup final) has now upset three consecutive top-10 players in his own run to the semis.
Tsitsipas is youngest to defeat three top-10 players in a single tournament since Rafael Nadal at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2006.
First came No. 8 Dominic Thiem, who didn’t look either fresh nor ready for the hard courts. On Thursday, Tsitsipas upset No. 10 Novak Djokovic in their first career meeting.
And on Friday, he pulled victory out of the jaws of near-certain defeat in upsetting 21-year-old Alexander Zverev, the world No. 3 who routined Tsitsipas in straight sets last week on his way to the title at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C.
Zverev seemed ready to do it again. He led 6-3, 5-2, and served for the match at 5-3 in that second set.
And then, it all unraveled. The end result was a 3-6, 7-6 (11), 6-4 win for the younger man.
“I was just walking the ball back and making him play every single ball. And at that moment, he wasn’t into it. He starts missing. And he got tighter, I think. He understood that’s his chance to close the match,” Tsitsipas said. “And I just did things right and, yeah, I broke him. That’s how you break, if you play things right and you play clever. And I did that, and I was back in the match again.”
As he played with house money, Tsitsipas just hung around until it was definitely, indubitably over and the two shook hands. His more-accomplished opponent did not.
Hang in, and good things can happen
The world No. 2 from Germany had two match points in the second-set tiebreak. And he was up a break in the third set, as well. And after he coughed that up, it was as though his mind just left the court. Beyond one angry firing of the racquet that was betraying him, it was almost as though he was merely a bystander observing his own demise.
He went 1-for-9 on break points in that third set, after going 4-for-5 in the first two.
Notably, Tsitsipas earned just four break points over nearly 2 1/2 hours. But he made good on all of them even if his own first-serve percentage never went over 50 per cent in any of the three sets.
A Challenge left undone
A case in point: as Zverev served to stay in the match at 4-5, leading the game 30-15, he crushed an inside-out forehand that landed plumb on the sideline.
Except the linesperson called it out. And Zverev didn’t even question it. He barely even reacted.
Within a matter of moments, he tried a best-left-undone serve and volley. And then on match point, Zverev double-faulted. Badly. You could see that coming a mile away.
Tsitsipas also had his spidey senses tingling.
“Well, yeah, to be honest with you, I kind of suspected before he even start his motion that there’s going to be a chance for me to close it straight away. And I was not expecting a double fault, but I was at least expecting something more in my terms, let’s say,” he said.
Tsitsipas appeared stunned with it was over, and with good reason. He was absolutely down and out. And suddenly he was holding his arms up in the air in victory, and looking ahead to his first Masters 1000-level semifinal against No. 4 seed Kevin Anderson on Saturday.
“Pathetic”, said Zverev
Zverev may have come into the press conference room a little too hastily, because he’ll probably get some heat for his … honesty.
He thought they were both horsebleep.
“I don’t think today he played that well. I think the match was absolutely pathetic on all levels. You know, returning, he started to return. I mean, he was serving 125 (mph) to my backhand, and I was missing them. That does not happen,” Zverev said. “I mean, I’m very honest with you guys. I always say when the opponent play(s) better. I’m probably one of the most honest guys on tour. Today was a pathetic match from -– I don’t even think he played well.
“He started putting some balls into the court. I think before he was playing really bad. And I actually thought I was playing bad the whole match,” Zverev added. “So I lost a little bit of concentration. I lost a little bit of rhythm, but it wasn’t – I mean, even if I would have won, it wasn’t a good match.”
Zverev wasn’t necessarily wrong, even if the delivery left a little to be desired.
Tsitsipas had clearly been tipped off about that comment before coming into press nearly 90 minutes later. So he had his response ready.
“I’m working with a sports psychologist that’s really good. And he told me something, and I remember it since like four or five years. That a good player can be seen in his bad day. And I completely agree with that. The level of tennis today, in my opinion, was not the highest. It was all right. People seemed to love it, love the show and everything,” Tsitsipas said.
But I played – I would say I played okay. He seemed … I don’t know. The conditions are different here. So it’s really tough for me to compare with Washington. Because Washington, you know, with the conditions and everything was completely different. Speed, surface, it was slightly faster there,” he added. “So I would say I played more clever this time. I kind of fooled him when I was on the court and did some things that he didn’t expect me to do. And I changed my plan since last week. And as I said, I got lots of experience last week and managed to pull it out today in the match.”
It was a dramatic match because of the turnaround in fortunes. And it was an attractive matchup because it involved two of the best young talents in the game. But from a tennis perspective, it left a lot on the table.
The Geman felt he should have won it 6-3, 6-3. And he also felt that the third set should probably also have been 6-3.
Except, it wasn’t. And Tsitsipas, who began the 2018 season ranked No. 91, will jump into the top 20 on Monday for the first time. If he can beat Anderson on Saturday, he would jump into the top 15.
On to Cincinnati
By failing to defend the title he earned last year in Montreal, Zverev will drop a spot in the rankings, to No. 4.
And that will allow del Potro, who did come to Toronto but withdrew before the event started with pain in right wrist – a worrisome development, given his history – will move to No. 3 for the first time in his star-crossed career.
The lanky Zverev, who doesn’t yet have the physical maturity he’ll enjoy a few years down the road, has played a lot of tennis over the last week. The run to the D.C. title was five singles wins plus a doubles match. The conditions were brutal, and he also had to play his big brother Mischa for the first time in what was an emotional affair for the entire family.
In Toronto, more heat, rain, humidity and late nights, and three more singles matches. So the defeat, as tough as it might be to swallow, might have a silver lining.
“Look, at the end of the day, I played a lot of matches and physically I’m quite tired,” he said. “So I’m actually quite happy to have few days off before another Masters (in Cincinnati, another event where heat and humidity are on the order of play) and then a Grand Slam (at the US Open).”
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.
Asked Andy Murray if he had made a decision on his Wimbledon participation: "I think most likely, yeah. I'll chat to my team this afternoon and also see a bit how the next couple of days go. But most likely, yeah, I will be playing."
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.
Other first-round matches to watch
 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.
Sandgren 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.
 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.
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.
 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.
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
 Roger Federer (SUI) vs.  Borna Coric (CRO)
 Kevin Anderson (RSA) vs.  Sam Querrey (USA)
 Marin Cilic (CRO) vs.  Milos Raonic (CAN)
 Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs.  John Isner (USA)
 Dominic Thiem (AUT) vs.  Novak Djokovic (SRB)
 Alexander Zverev (GER) vs.  Nick Kyrgios (AUS)
 Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) vs.  David Goffin (BEL)
 Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs.  Diego Schwartzman (ARG)
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.
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.
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.
The Next Gen Finals are held in Milan – and, indeed, the second-largest court at the Rome tournament is called the “Next Gen Arena”.
So it made sense to have a press conference Tuesday in Rome to preview the second edition of the event, which returns basically with the same format.
On the realistic side, the photo with the press release did not feature the far-and-away leader in the road to Milan, Alexander Zverev.
The 21-year-old did leave an opening in 2017, saying around this time of the year that he hadn’t ruled out trying to play both events. The Next-Gen Finals take place the week before the ATP Tour Finals in London.
This year, the Madrid Open champion, the world No. 3 right behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, will have ideas of perhaps winning in London. So there will be no fake news in that regard.
Zverev currently has more than triple the number of points earned by the next on the list, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Tsitsipas will be the marquee name, along with Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, 19. Shapovalov, who made his Milan debut last year, vaulted into third place in the race to Milan with his semifinal effort in Madrid last week and is now in the top-30 in the regular ATP Tour rankings.
He’s just four points behind Tsitsipas, with four fewer tournaments on his resumé.
A year ago, Tsitsipas slotted into 10th spot in the Milan race, just missing the cut.
Hyeong Chung, the 2017 champion, also attended the press conference, even if he had pulled out of the Rome tournament. He turns 22 on Saturday, and so no longer is eligible for the event.
Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Jared Donaldson and Borna Coric also have aged out.
The Next Gen of the Next Gen is probably not quite as advanced as that inaugural crop, in terms of the level they’re playing at the moment.
While Tsitsipas Shapovalov, Andrey Rublev and Frances Tiafoe are now established at the ATP Tour level, the rest of the field isn’t quite there yet.
Taylor Fritz, currently ranked No. 68, has made a couple of good runs at the ATP level this year – notably a fourth round at Indian Wells. But he hasn’t quite turned the corner – at least, not yet.
Alex de Minaur is at a career high. But despite his great effort in the Australian Open warmup events to start the season, he’s still outside the top 100. In two clay-court Challengers in Portugal the last two weeks, de Minaur lost to Casper Ruud of Norway and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain – two young players around his age, but ranked much lower.
Another Aussie, 21-year-old Marc Polmans, has moved his ranking up at the lower levels. He went 19-1 during a series of four Futures events in Australia over the winter, and his only match above the Challenger level this season was a first-round qualifying loss at the Australian Open.
Auger-Aliassime, at the top of the alphabetical list, is the only 17-year-old in the top-60 in the Milan race. But he currently sits at No. 27, a long way back even if he is arguably far more talented than many of the players ahead of him.
But it’s early, yet.
Innovative rules remain
An interesting number the tournament put out was that despite the “shortened” format – first to four games, up to five “mini sets”, the average match was just three minutes shorter than the ATP Tour average in the regular best-of-three format.
The range was more limited, though. In part, that’s because the tournament is played on an indoor fast surface. The ATP Tour year-long average also includes a significant number of clay-court events.
For the Next-Gen, match times ranged from 60 minutes to two hours, six minutes.
ATP Tour, matches ranged from 39 minutes to three hours, 12 minutes.
On the downside, the pre-match warmup will be shortened even more.
In 2017, it had been five minutes from the time of the second player walk-on. That’s already significantly shorter than most warmups during the ATP Tour season, where the umpires are rather generous with the three- and two-minute warnings, and the time limits are often swayed by the length of the player introductions.
In 2018, they will shorten that to four minutes. That’s ranging into a territory where the warmup is so brief, the players will still be a little cold when they start the matches. And that can mean more muscle pulls.
Towel racks on court
Finally, someone has addressed the issue of the ballkids handling sweaty towels, offering personal service to the players between points.
There will be towel racks at the back of the court. And the players will be told to use them “to remove the onus on ball kids to handle towels.”
Given that will take a few seconds longer, either the players will go to the “rack” less often. Or they will complain about running out of time although the Next-Gen play at a far less pokey pace than some of the grownups.
There was no word about the opening ceremony, and whether the ladies hired to … spice up the proceedings will be back.
You’d think … not. But it’s in Italy, so you never know.
MELBOURNE, Australia – One of the finest junior matches in recent memory came at Wimbledon in 2016, when 17-year-olds Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas battled in the semifinals.
Two one-handed backhands. Both serve-volleying, chip-charging and using the entire court like a couple of savvy veterans.
Shapovalov, younger by eight months, won that one and defeated Aussie Alex de Minaur to win the title.
A year and a half later, the two met for the first time as pros.
And Shapovalov proved to still be a little ahead of the curve.
The 18-year-old handled the occasion – and the swirly, difficult winds – with more aplomb in a 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory that puts him in the second round against No. 15 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
“We’re going to play so many times in the future, I’m going to win some, I’m going to lose some. I think he’s developed quite a lot as well. I just managed to play better today,” said Shapovalov, who was stronger on every level and hit 33 winners to Tsitsipas’s 11.
“Bringing back the match in juniors, it was a hell of a match, I think we’ve both improved quite a bit from back then. But just today I was able to play better than he did.”
Slice return proved effective
Shapovalov added a slice backand return in the offseason. And he used it well on Monday. It was a necessary response to the opponents already having picked up on his tendancy to hit full-out topspin backhands on most returns, and trying to rush him out wide – especially on the deuce side.
“It’s definitely one area I’ve focused on in the offseason along with coming to the net more, stuff like this. I feel it’s a variety that I’ve added to my game that’s definitely helped me these few matches. Hopefully I can keep improving it, and have a good slice like Roger (Federer) one day,” Shapovalov said.
“It’s a combination of getting more returns in and staying inside the points. Sometimes when I go for the topspin it takes me too much out of the court positioning, With the slice I feel I can recover faster, and get in the point.”
Tsitsipas was clearly tight to start the match. He qualified for the main draw at both the French Open and Wimbledon last year, but lost in the first round. It was the first Australian Open for both, but Shapovalov had more experience.
“I went a little bit deeper in the Grand Slam in New York. I was bringing back a couple of old memories playing the few Grand Slams that I have,” he said. “But definitely I felt from the beginning I would be a bit more comfortable, and that’s what happened. He was a little more tight to start, and I just used that advantage.”
By the third set, Tsitsipas appeared to be struggling with the conditions even though it was not a hot day at all. The swirly wind was definitely strength-sapping. Shapovalov is more compact and muscular; Tsitsipas, who hasn’t finished filling out his long, lanky body (he’s built something like Alexander Zverev), was more affected.
By the very end, he appeared to be starting to cramp – first in the leg, and then in the stomach area. No doubt nerves played a part.
“I remember staying on one side and I felt like the wind was against me, I felt like I was forcing all my shots. So then I thought, the following game, when I went to the other side, I would be with the wind. But I got to the other side, and it felt even heavier,” Shapovalov said, laughing. “It was really swirly for both guys. We had a couple of weird points. It was tricky, but it’s part of the game, just something we had to deal with.”
Tsonga next – again
Shapovalov finished up before knowing the identity of his next opponent, whose match was played late night.
It turned out to be Tsonga, the player he defeated in the second round of the US Open on his way to the round of 16.
“I had really good feelings playing him last year, an unbelievable match from my side. It would be an honour to play him again. Another matchup that I would like, and I’m excited for the match,” he said.