LYON – Benoit Paire said that he’d tried “eight or nine” times to play the week before the French Open, but had never managed to win a match.
The Frenchman, who turned 30 two weeks ago, was exaggerating only a little. This looks like his sixth try, between the tournament in Nice and this new one in Lyon, which is in its third incarnation.
But he’s having a run. The unseeded Pair was a few points from elimination in the first round against American Mackenzie McDonald.
He beat Pablo Cuevas with surprisingly little difficulty, And then, against Denis Shapovalov in the quarterfinals Thursday, he was down 0-3 in the third-set tiebreak before pulling off another solid win, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (4).
The win over Shapovalov (at No. 23) is the best win, by ranking, for Paire since he defeated Diego Schwartzman a year ago in Rome.
Here’s what it looked like.
Paire vs. Fritz – two in-form players
In Saturday’s semis, Paire will meet young American Taylor Fritz, who has been on the clay-court circuit since the very first week and can move into the top 40, and to a career high, if he can defeat Paire.
Paire said he’d have to pull out the drop shot, and make Fritz do what he “doesn’t like to do” – move.
The two have played twice. Fritz won on hard court at Indian Wells – almost Fritz’s home turf. Paire beat him on grass last year in Stuttgart.
For Fritz, the decision to play a full-out clay-court season wasn’t a tough one. He told Tennis.Life that he’s a player who likes to play. And he couldn’t imagine just taking a two-month break in the heart of the season.
Lyon is his 14th event of 2019. He qualified in both Rome and Madrid and has posted some impressive wins. More crucially, given he might have a dozen more European clay-court seasons ahead of him, he’s setting down some building blocks to make the most of this part of the season going forward.
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 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.