Yeshayahu Ginsburg

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John Isner Wins Opening Match at Wimbledon But Needs a Baseline Game

John Isner_600_1

(June 24, 2013) I can’t even fathom how often these words are said. Sometimes it feels like it’s far too much and sometimes it’s nowhere near enough. But that is the way things are and it can’t be ignored any more.

John Isner could be a great tennis player. No, he will never have the movement and defensive prowess of a Nadal or the precision of a Federer. But a player doesn’t need that to be great. Isner has his own strengths and could compete at the top of the game if he could overcome his weaknesses. But we’ve been saying this for 6 years now and there has been little to no improvement.

There is nothing overly fancy to discuss here. This isn’t about utilizing a certain shot or tweaking some other aspect of his game. This is straight-up about being able to play from the baseline with other professional tennis players.

Isner’s game is his serve. Everyone knows that. He has one of the best serves in tennis. It is huge, it is fast, it is accurate, and his kicker is lethal too. He has ridden that serve to tournament victories, Davis Cup upsets, and even a Masters Series final. It has kept him in the top 20 for much of the past five years. But it is nowhere near enough if he wants to reach his full potential.

Just look at today’s first-round match at Wimbledon. Yes, Isner got through in straight sets. And he did it in his normal fashion, winning two tiebreaks. But the fact that the match had two sets go to tiebreaks in the first place means that Isner just wasn’t doing enough.

Isner was playing Evgeny Donskoy, one of the better Challenger-level players but a Challenger-level player nonetheless. Isner, as a top 20 player, should run over him. This shouldn’t be a close match. And Isner ran away with the first set in good form. But he couldn’t earn a break in the next two sets.

Isner’s problems are even more than that though. It isn’t only that he can’t break even poor servers; it’s how the rallies go along as Isner competed in them. Isner couldn’t win points from the baseline. His serve was excellent. When he could follow up a serve with a big forehand it was lethal. But otherwise, Isner was less than mediocre in rallies.

This is the fact and it must be dealt with—Isner, at his current level, cannot consistently win rallies from the baseline against even Challenger-level players, let alone better players. He needs to find some semblance of a baseline game if he wants to compete with better players. You just cannot win matches when it is a near-foregone conclusion that any rally longer than 5 shots will end with you dumping a ball into the net.

Isner needs more than just rally shots. He needs to be able to hit shots from the baseline that can allow him to win points. Then again, he can often just barely hit shots that keep him in the rally.

It is a little unfair to criticize like this as we don’t know exactly what goes on in his practices, but it is clear that if he is working on this that it’s not very effective. He needs to overhaul his game completely to be able to compete or he needs to utilize his strengths to mask his lack of a baseline game. He is very good at the net and his long wingspan is hard to pass. Maybe he can start chipping and charging on return just to help him get into those games. He is a very talented player and he has options as to how to get even better. But he has to do something because the status quo just isn’t enough for him right now.

Rafael Nadal Defeats Novak Djokovic in a Roland Garros Semifinal for the Ages

Rafael Nadal defeats Novak Djokovic in a thriller

(June 7, 2013) It was a blockbuster Roland Garros semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic that many would agree was more fitting for a Slam final. After all, Nadal and Djokovic met in last year’s final and have been the two best players in the world on clay for several years now. But Nadal’s time missed on tour last year left things up to chance and the draw had other ideas.

In his post-match press conference, Nadal reflected on what this match meant to him: “It was a really emotional match. … These kinds of matches make the sport big. I lost a similar one in Australia. Today was for me. I’m happy at the way that I played, and more than happy at the way I fighted (sic) at the fifth set after losing a big chance in the fourth.

This was expected to be a highly-physical, hard-fought match and it did not disappoint. However, neither player was at his absolute best for long periods of time, and there were far more unforced errors from both players than many would have thought possible, 119 in total. It’s not completely fair to criticize the players for this though. Neither one played poorly; the wind was wreaking havoc on both players all day, affecting all aspects of their games.

That didn’t stop this match from being exciting though. Nadal broke midway through the first set and held from there to take it 6-4. At one point, Djokovic reached for his hamstring and looked a little uncomfortable, but it didn’t really seem to affect his movement. When Nadal broke in the second set, though, it looked like it was over.  Djokovic responded as only Djokovic can, taking the next 4 games to level the match at one set a piece.

Things looked like they were over in the third set as Djokovic was clearly hampered by a groin or hamstring injury of some sort. Nadal took the set 6-1 and it was only inevitable that the fourth set would go the same way. And when Nadal broke to go up, it looked like things were done for the Serb.

“I really tried to come back,” stated Djokovic in his press conference of losing the third set and nearly the fourth. “The third set wasn’t great at all. I just dropped physically, but I managed to come back and start playing really really well as the match was going on.”

Digging deep, though, Djokovic once again found a way to fight, twice getting back a break in the fourth set before finally taking it in a tiebreaker.

The fifth set was one for the ages and lasted a grueling 82 minutes. Both players fought each other and the wind, mixing incredible winners with incomprehensible errors. Djokovic broke in the opening game of the set but couldn’t hold all the way to the finish, getting broken back for 4-all. The level of tennis then picked up tremendously and we were treated to an epic half set. Ultimately, though, Djokovic blinked and couldn’t keep it together the fourth time serving for the match. Three errors and a mental collapse meant a break at love to end the match.

Djokovic gave credit to his opponent’s level of play and reign in Paris.

“I congratulate my opponent because he showed courage in the right moments and went for his shots,” stated the Serb. “And when he was a break down in the fifth, he made some incredible shots from the baseline. … That’s why he’s a champion, ruling Roland Garros for many years.”

It’s hard to be disappointed by a match that lasted over four-and-a-half hours with two of the best clay court players tennis has seen. It was their 35th time playing each other in their professional careers, and they each seem to know the other’s game inside and out. And the match had everything: wind, drama, tweeners, complaints for both players and, of course, immense tennis.

Nadal now must leave all this behind, recover and be ready to take on a compatriot has is all too familiar with, David Ferrer, and vie for his record eighth title at a single Slam on Sunday, while Djokovic will be ruing his missed chances and moving on to Wimbledon.

David Ferrer Playing the Best Tournament of his Career; How Far Can he Go?

David Ferrer is set to take on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals.

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

David Ferrer is once again flying under the radar. He is never really considered a threat to win Major tournaments so he is never really a storyline. He is a talented player who plays a very strong defensive game and very rarely gets upset by players he is better than. He is known for being solid and consistent, strong enough to never lose to those outside the “Big 4” but never having enough to beat them.

That is why, even to those who have watched his matches so far, no one is really talking about David Ferrer. His matches are predictable. He gets just about every shot back and just wears his opponents down. He makes lots of great shots but no highlight-reel incredible ones. All in all, he’s doing what we thought he’d do.

Everyone knows that Ferrer should have won all of the matches he’s played so far. That’s what Ferrer does. He beats everyone outside the “Big 4” and even beats Murray on clay. But no one seemingly cares because when he reaches the “Big 4” in the semifinals, he fights for a while and then loses. That is the trajectory of David Ferrer’s Grand Slam career these past few years.

Well, it’s time for us to start paying attention because this is not your normal Ferrer. We’ve seen him improving all year. He won the Masters event in Bercy last year, which has really seemed to spur him on mentally. He hasn’t been dominant since then, but there has been a marked improvement in mentality. He lost to Murray in the Miami Masters final but impressed in doing so before checking out mentally in the third-set tiebreak.

Ferrer wasn’t at his best after that due to injury, but he came back with a vengeance in both clay Masters in May. He beat both Fernando Verdasco and Tommy Haas when they were playing great tennis and met Nadal in the third round of both tournaments. He won a set in each and the matches were much closer that the third-set scores indicated.

Ferrer is still outmatched when he plays the “Big 4”. They still have too much power and consistency overall for Ferrer’s game to work effectively against them. But Ferrer looks like he will no longer check out mentally. When he played Nadal those two matches he came in with a great game plan and executed to perfection. It wasn’t enough in the end either time, but that shouldn’t change the fact that Ferrer came closer to beating Nadal on clay than he had in a very long time.

And Ferrer came in to this tournament and has been lights-out since. He has broken serve a whopping 35 times. That’s an average of 7 breaks per match. In comparison, Nadal in 2008, which is widely considered his best year, broke serve 51 times in the tournament. Ferrer has not yet faced the elite competition of the final rounds, but he’s tearing through this field at a Rafa-like pace.

Ferrer was also given a gift by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who took out Roger Federer in their quarterfinal match. Ferrer has trouble with Federer but should be able to neutralize Tsonga’s massive serve. Tsonga and Ferrer are the only two players left in the tournament who have not yet dropped a set. That can’t last more than one round, but it is clear that both of them are playing at a level where whoever wins that match can challenge even Djokovic or Nadal in the final. The semifinal will be a tough match for Ferrer, but it is very clear that this is his biggest opportunity ever on a Grand Slam stage. And while nerves have been a massive problem for him in the past, it looks like Ferrer might finally be at a point where he can not buckle when push comes to shove.

Roger Federer Needs Another Level Against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the French Open

Roger Federer seeks revenge on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after 2011 Wimbledon loss.

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is responsible for one of the most shocking defeats of Roger Federer’s career. Federer was cruising towards the Wimbledon semifinals in 2011, one year after his shocking quarterfinal exit to Tomas Berdych. Federer had been dominant until that point, only losing a set when Mikhail Youzhny managed to pull out a tiebreak victory.

And this match against Tsonga was no different than the rest of the tournament. Federer earned a break in the first set and gutted out a tough tiebreak in the second. But from there, it was all Tsonga. Tsonga’s serve his a different level and Federer couldn’t match it. Tsonga did not get broken again that entire match. Meanwhile, he broke Federer once in each of the final three sets to take the match and shockingly send Federer to his first loss in a Grand Slam in which he had a 2 set lead.

Tsonga continued on a tear that summer, beating Federer in Montreal as well. He did not get broken until the second set of that match, going a stunning five entire sets against Federer without being broken.

Unfortunately for Tsonga, his serve has not been that dominant consistently after that summer and he has yet to beat Federer again since those two matches. He met Federer in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year in one of the tightest matches in that entire tournament.

Now, Tsonga has a chance at revenge. He has played better than Federer this tournament; that much is clear. His serve has been broken twice this entire tournament and never since the second round. Federer has had trouble with Tsonga’s serve in the best. He will have to figure out a way to get into Tsonga’s service games this match and quickly, otherwise he could be staring into an early hole.

Tsonga’s return has been exemplary this tournament. He has gotten himself into rallies and once he has had a chance has never hesitated to pull the trigger on huge shots. On paper, it’s entirely possible that he should be the favorite in this match. He can power the ball through the clay court in an almost Robin Soderling-like fashion and Federer will find it difficult to defend.

But we can never count Federer out. He still is the better overall player than Tsonga. Yes, he showed some weaknesses in his 5-set win over Gilles Simon. But Federer does have the ability to pick his tennis up to a level that just about no one in the world can match. After his loss to Tsonga at Wimbledon 2 years ago, he was criticized by journalists and other players for not seeming to care enough. He didn’t get energized; he didn’t look like he was fighting to find energy in that match. In his victory over Simon last round he kept trying to energize himself but really only took over the match when Simon’s level fell. He is going to need to find a different gear for this match that he had last round; otherwise, this match will entirely rest on Tsonga’s racket. And, if this tournament so far is something to judge by, Tsonga’s racket is not a good place for opponents to place their trust.

Roland Garros Rematch: Can Grigor Dimitrov Upset Novak Djokovic Again?

Novak Djokovic takes on Grigor Dimitrov in round three of Roland Garros

This two-part series will explore the third round matchups of the top two seeds from Roland Garros, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Each will be facing an opponent who has defeated them in the past 12 months, and we will highlight how these underdogs pulled off their upsets and if they could possibly do it again.

The Setting: ATP World Tour Masters Series 1000 Madrid, Indoor Clay

The Upset: Grigor Dimitrov had been slowly improving over the years. He was expected to be a teenage great but he took some time to get adjusted to playing at the highest level of the game. Dimitrov’s ranking had been steadily improving and his results kept on getting better. He would show flashes of greatness but still had not put together a “coming-out match”. Well, when he met World #1 Novak Djokovic in the second round, his chance to have a breakout match arrived.

Dimitrov did not disappoint. He came out strong, going toe-to-toe with Djokovic from the start. He stayed in points, in games, and in sets even though Djokovic had him at a disadvantage through most of the rallies. Dimitrov took his chances, hitting big shots to the open court whenever possible and just making more of those than he missed. Any opening that Djokovic left was taken advantage of. This was a match of Dimitrov waiting for his opportunities and striking.

This match was also all about Dimitrov’s inability to keep a lead. He would outplay Djokovic to gain an advantage and then falter. He broke to take a 6-5 lead in the first set but couldn’t serve it out. He came up with big shots to take the tiebreak, but that set never should have reaches that point. He broke for 4-2 in the second and needed just two holds to take the match but couldn’t do it and was broken right back.

Ultimately, though, the match hinged on Dimitrov’s ability to overcome all of this. Cramping, limping, clearly hurting, Dimitrov went for everything in the second set tiebreak. And when he couldn’t pull it out, you felt that Djokovic would run away with the third set. But Dimitrov didn’t give up, breaking in the first game of the final set and never looking back.

Can He Do it Again: Neither quite played their very best in Madrid and both were obviously not in peak physical condition. Djokovic’s ankle was clearly an issue after he rolled it in the second set and Dimitrov looked tired and beat up for the second half of the match as well. Still, each played at a high level of tennis and it was overall a pretty even match.

Djokovic looks physically better now than he did a few weeks ago and will be out for revenge.  He needs to keep balls a little deeper than he did in their last match and not leave the court as open once the rallies get long like he did too many times in Madrid. He tempted Dimitrov to go for big winners and the Bulgarian just succeeded too often.

Dimitrov, for what it’s worth, could have played a good deal better than he actually did. His first serve came in at a paltry 53% and he only won 52% of the points off his second serve. He gave up 12 break point opportunities.

What Dimitrov did very well, which is what Djokovic must rue, is that Dimitrov played better on most of the big points. He faltered when he was ahead but was solid as a rock when playing from even or behind. That is how Dimitrov stayed in it and that is how he eventually took the match. He went for big shots on big points and didn’t miss. And if he can do that again, over the course of 5 sets, then we’re in for another tight, exciting match in which a huge upset would no longer shock us.

Roland Garros Rematch: Can Julien Benneteau Upset Roger Federer Again?

Roger Federer takes on Julien Benneteau in a Roland Garros rematch

This two-part series will explore the third round matchups of the top two seeds from Roland Garros, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Each will be facing an opponent who has defeated them in the past 12 months, and we will highlight how these underdogs pulled off their upsets and if they could possibly do it again.

The Setting: ATP 500 Rotterdam, Indoor Hardcourt

The Upset: Their quarterfinal match was their second meeting since Wimbledon last year. That match was the closest Federer came to losing that tournament, as Benneteau took the first two sets in impressive fashion. Benneteau had a chance when he took the fourth set to a tiebreak, but couldn’t earn a chance at a match point.

The Frenchman got his revenge at Rotterdam, though, when he took out Federer in straight sets. Federer is widely known as the best indoor player of all time, but he wasn’t on that day in February. Federer’s first serve couldn’t be found at times and he hit a lot of bad errors throughout the match.

That should in no way detract from what Benneteau did. His game gave Federer problems even when the Swiss was at his best. Benneteau hung in a lot of points and played with a controlled level of aggression. He didn’t hit Federer off the court like Berdych, Tsonga, or Del Potro do when they beat Fed. Benneteau just played a solid game, keeping Federer off-balance and taking chances when they arose. It was grinding, it was tough, and it was finding ways to win points after most players would have given up on them.

Federer’s low first-serve percentage (56%) was definitely a factor, but what went unnoticed is that Benneteau did an incredible job of neutralizing Federer’s first serve when it went in. Federer only won 67% of his first-serve points. Benneteau also took control of Federer’s second serve, as Federer only won 33% of the points in which he hit a second ball. The Frenchman broke Federer an incredible five times on an indoor hard court. That’s Djokovic-level returning, even if Federer’s game was a bit off.

Can he do it again: Federer was clearly not at his best when Benneteau beat him. Benneteau, for whatever reason, is one of the best in the world at neutralizing Federer’s most powerful weapon—his serve. Benneteau can stay close to Federer even when Federer is at his best, as evidenced in Wimbledon last year. If Benneteau is not at his best, however, he doesn’t have much of a chance.

Federer will come out looking for revenge. The pair have never met on clay, but the change of surface certainly helps Benneteau more than it helps Federer. Federer hasn’t lost before the quarterfinals of a Slam since 2004 and it would still be a shock of Benneteau could pull this off. Federer should certainly expect a long, and tough, day at the office though and the outcome isn’t as definite as it usually is in these early-round matches for him.

Gael Monfils Overcomes Ernests Gulbis: Entertaining Tennis at its Finest

Gael Monfils stretching for a forehand against Ernests Gulbis

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

There are two types of “tennis” that invariably never fail to draw our attention. The first is just plain good tennis. Watching the best players in the world compete at a high level is just difficult to turn away from. When players like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, etc. step on to the court, you know that you will be in for a high-quality treat. No, none of them are perfect. But when their games are on — which is far more often than not — then missing out is not an option.

The second, though, is entertaining for an entirely different reason. This is what you get when players like Fabio Fognini step on the court. It is crowd-pandering, showmanship, joking around, and still good tennis while they’re at it. This keeps us ooh-ing and ahh-ing, but also laughing a bit while we watch too. So when two of the most talented showmen in tennis took the court in the second round of Roland Garros, we knew it would be a can’t-miss event.

Gael Monfils is an incredible talent. He was a top 10 player in 2011 before being sidelined with an injury for much of the past year. But he can be frustrating to watch for both fans and coaches alike. His decision-making on court can be questionable at times, to put it nicely. He is well-known for his showman-like slides and jumping backhand. He is fun to be a fan of, but you are left with disappointment more often than joy in the end of the day when he loses winnable matches. He has, not unfairly, been described as a “headcase”.

If that is the story of Gael Monfils, then Ernests Gulbis takes it to another level. Gulbis is one of the purest talents we’ve seen in a long time. And when he finds his game, it is a beauty. He burst onto the scene six years ago, challenging the top players in the world. Then he sort of stopped caring and disappeared from the stage of top-level tennis. He is now making a slow comeback and seems to be fixing his attitude, but he is very much a work in progress. And, like Monfils, his on-court decision-making can leave you scratching your head.

So tennis fans around the world set up to watch Monfils and Gulbis fight it out on Philippe Chatrier, not knowing what the outcome would be but knowing that it would be amusing getting there. And the match did not disappoint, not in the slightest.

I won’t go too much into specific points, other than noting that watching highlights of this match would be time well spent. For a while, it felt like every other point followed the same trajectory: strong baseline hitting with great defense, some crazy angle or drop shot that required lots of movement, amazing gets, only to be ended by a silly error when the court was wide open. The number of brilliant shots in this match was beyond counting. The number of terrible errors to end points was an equally astounding.

The match was entertainment at its finest. Gulbis’s offense was brilliant for long stretches of time. Monfils’s defense was impeccable, chasing down every ball and not letting up. Gulbis would have stretches of absolute offensive ineptitude, missing even the easiest of shots by wide margins. When Monfils would attack, his baseline game was strong as usual and Gulbis’s defense would be up to the task.

Both players ended up playing awkwardly around the net due to Gulbis’s penchant for well-timed but poorly-hit drop shots. Both players would scramble like crazy, making impossible returns in some of the situations set up by being at the net. Gulbis also seemed fond of hitting volleys on balls that are clearly going out. He lost half a dozen points by hitting errors on such shots or smashing them straight to Monfils.

But it’s not just the individual points that made this match so much fun to watch. The overall trajectory of the match was almost predictable in its insanity. No break could be consolidated. Monfils was serving for the third set at 5-3, had 40-0, and managed to squander 5 set points and get broken. This didn’t surprise anyone. Nothing in this match surprised anyone. It ended in four sets when Gulbis self-destructed a little, but the points were still fun then too.

And then there was the changeover prior to the fourth set. Waiting on Gulbis, Monfils whipped out his iPhone to pan the crowd doing the wave. Then, as Gulbis returned from his bathroom break, he walked past Monfils chatting and laughing with him. The friendly exchange continued as the Frenchman then walked by Gulbis on his way to the court and stopped for an extended laugh and chat. For a few moments, it felt more like a practice session between friends than the second round of a Slam.

Sometimes tennis entertains us because it’s a battle of the best in the world playing at their highest levels. And sometimes it’s just plain old fun. And Monfils against Gulbis was a bit of both.

Rafael Nadal’s Air of Invincibility No Longer Invincible

Rafeal Nadal defeats Daniel Brands in four sets at Roland Garros

By Yeshatyahu Ginsburg

Daniel Brands did not have the look of a man come to do the impossible or of someone who wanted to pull off one of the greatest upsets of all time. He did not chase down every single ball, did not get fired up often, and even gave up on a few points. And still, Brands had us thinking for a while that he could do the unthinkable.

The early part of the match went the way that most of Rafa’s matches against big servers seem to. There were lots of easy holds punctuated by a few fairly exciting moments. Everything seemed normal and no one really paid too much attention to the match. Those watching were only those interested in seeing Rafa run over an early-round opponent. No one expected the match to have any actual intrigue. It certainly wasn’t a matchup that enticed most Americans to wake up early and watch.

Then came 4-4 in the first. Rafa played a poor service game, including two double-faults, and Brands broke and held on to take the first set. All of a sudden, the world paid attention. Rafa had never lost the first set of a first-round Grand Slam match in his career. The only other players to ever take a first set from him at Roland Garros are named Soderling, Federer, and Mariano Puerta (in Rafa’s first Roland Garros final).

But this was more than just a bit of trivia. This wasn’t a blip on the radar screen. The world saw the potential for history to repeat itself. Fans on twitter, message boards, and even television commentators were suddenly drawing comparisons to Lukas Rosol and Robin Soderling. Even on court, you could see that Brands wasn’t shocked by his position of being a set up and Rafa wasn’t new to being down.

It definitely helped that Brands kept the match exciting by hitting ridiculous shots from both wings from start to finish. After all, it’s not easy to win points against Rafa without playing out of your mind tennis. And Brands was winning points. Even though he lost the last three sets, he never trailed by a double break in any set and was only broken twice in the match.

Brands played a very similar match to what Rosol did last Wimbledon. He served big every single time and just went for massive shots at every opportunity. Just about every forehand or backhand that even a bit of height on it was laced into a corner. Brands brought the game plan to beat Nadal and stuck to it. And maybe if this match had been on grass instead of clay, his result could have been a little different. It certainly was for Rosol last year.

That, really, is what we have to take out of this match. When Rosol won a set against Rafa, it was still business as usual. No one thought the unthinkable. It was just a player playing a great set. It would pass. There was no way Rosol would win. When he won the third set, everyone still thought Rafa had it in the bag. Rafa was invincible when not facing players of Djokovic caliber. When Rosol broke to start the fifth set, the world felt disbelief. And, eventually, as Rosol banged down big serve after big serve and forehand after forehand, the world backed Lukas. Fans embraced the upset possibility, finally, after hard-fought hours of nerves of steel.

Today, though, was different. This was on clay. This is a Rafa who has reached the final of every tournament since his comeback. And yet, it took one set from a big server for people to believe that Rafa could lose again. And the fact that Rafa took the next three sets without being broken once didn’t change that. That, perhaps, may be the biggest legacy of Lukas Rosol so far. Rafael Nadal losing is no longer unthinkable.

Tommy Haas: A True Feel-Good Story

Tommy Haas (Photo: Moana Bauer)

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

Not every sport needs a feel-good story, but they really help bring in fans that might otherwise not be so interested. Unfortunately for tennis, its feel-good story—especially the American ones—have fallen flat recently.

Mardy Fish lost 30 pounds and made fitness more a part of his life instead of just his tennis game a few years ago. He finally began to consistently compete in the deeper rounds of Masters and Slams. Then, just over a year ago, he discovered a heart condition and has barely competed since.

Brian Baker was everyone’s heartwarming story last year. He was a top junior player but missed almost seven years after a long string of injuries that necessitated five surgeries. He came back last year to reach the final in Nice (after coming through the qualifying) and was competitive at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He tore his meniscus in the second round of this year’s Australian Open and hasn’t competed since.

This is why Tommy Haas is such a breath of fresh air. Haas is not a traditional feel-good story. There is no massive life change. There is no adversity that has been overcome in extreme and immediate fashion. Haas is just pure grit, determination, and hard work.

Haas first debuted in the ATP rankings in October 1993, almost 20 years ago. After 10 years of play (the first few on the lower tours, like everyone does), Haas reached a career high of World No. 2 in May of 2002. There is no telling how high he could have gone had tragic circumstances, including his father being in a coma and a severe injury, taken him out of tennis for an extended period of time. During Haas’s leave, Roger Federer arose as the dominant player and Haas lost his next nine matches against the Swiss, until finally beating him in the Halle final last year.

Haas returned to the game in 2004, competing and winning titles before reaching the top 10 again in 2007. 2008, however, was marred by injuries and aside from a great run Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2009, Haas’s career was once again derailed.

This is the story of Tommy Haas’s career. He plays well, works his way into form, competes with just about anyone on tour, and then seems to be knocked off track by injuries at the worst time. If you look at a graph of his career ranking, it almost looks like a repeating curve. His ranking rises to the top of the game and then falls drastically when injury forces him to miss extended periods of time—twice missing more than 12 months and falling out of the rankings completely.

Now, at the age of 35, Haas is back once again. He beat Novak Djokovic in Miami en route to reaching his first Masters 1000 semifinal since Paris back in 2006. He is on the verge of the top 10 and has no points to defend from now until Halle. He has all but guaranteed himself a top 16 seed in Roland Garros and will most likely be able to get a favorable draw both there and in Wimbledon. A few wins at Roland Garros could very easily put Haas back in the top 10 for the first time since 2007, which would be an incredible feat.

Haas is competing at a high level past an age where most players have retired. He hasn’t done it with flash or shocking one-time runs. He has been consistently getting better after each return from injury. His feel-good story is not one of fan-rallying epic proportions. It’s the story of a player who has been dealt poor cards in his career and has made the absolute best of them time and time again. It’s the story of a man who has been on the brink of the top of the game but never quite made it—and he has still never let that get him down. Let’s hope that his current stint on tour lasts until he can leave on his own terms this time.

Grigor Dimitrov: Slow and Steady Leads to Greatness

Grigor Dimitrov earns career best win over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Madrid.

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

During Wimbledon 2011, three young players that were expected by many to someday be top tennis players were all playing their second-round matches at the same time. Two of them were competing in what many thought would be their coming-out parties. One was playing quite poorly against a middling opponent.

The names in reference are Ryan Harrison, Grigor Dimitrov and Bernard Tomic. Harrison was fighting tooth and nail in an epic clash against David Ferrer. Over the course of two days, Ferrer would win in a tough five-setter that showed that Harrison did not quite have the mentality to compete at the top levels but that he would get there someday. Dimitrov was playing top-level tennis against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and looked like he could beat just about anyone in the world. Unfortunately it was not to be his day and Tsonga and his nearly-unbreakable serve prevailed. And Tomic was down two sets to none to Igor Andreev before Andreev faltered and Tomic came back to win in five.

What happened to these players since then? Tomic went on to the quarterfinals where he took a set off of Novak Djokovic. Since then, he has done nothing really of note aside from winning his first career tournament in Sydney right before this year’s Australian Open. Harrison has also not really done much, showing flashes of brilliance amidst a lot of mediocrity and now mostly competing back on the Challenger tour. Dimitrov likewise also faded into relative anonymity, but of the three, has managed to improve with each passing tournament seeing his ranking slowly and steadily rise, week by week.

After Tuesday’s valiant display in Madrid though, Dimitrov is anonymous no more. He battled world no. 1 Novak Djokovic in what turned out to be a flawless and epic match by the Bulgarian in the second round. Dimitrov overcame a few mental hiccups, second-set cramps, and the best opponent in the world in what was without a doubt the biggest win of his young career so far.

Fans (and detractors) of Dimitrov will say that he is finally utilizing his talent. He is blessed with great abilities and has finally sustained the top level that he can play at and won a big match. And, more importantly, this will allow him to move forward and win future big matches and tournaments. The sky is the limit for young Grigor and he proved it by beating the best player in the world.

And I agree; Dimitrov has nowhere to go but up. But the notion that he could have been winning like this for two years now—since he first showed this potential in that Wimbledon match—is foolish. Maybe we have been spoiled by the great players who burst on to the scene at a young age and were there to stay. Maybe we expect the great talents to reach the top 10 as a late teenager or in their early 20s and be a top player for their career.

Not everyone can do what Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and others have done. Not everyone can immediately assert their dominance on a strong tour and do it on a consistent basis. Everyone is waiting for players like Tomic, Harrison, and Dimitrov to suddenly be in every discussion. These insane expectations do nothing but hurt these players.

Tomic and Harrison haven’t really realized this. They pick up flashes of interest by showing flashes of greatness but really don’t do anything noteworthy on a consistent enough basis. They are still young players and have incredible talent, but they are not really moving forward in their careers yet. They are stuck wherever they are, which means being decent players on average that can throw in a great match or run here and there.

Dimitrov, on the other hand, is doing things the right way. He is consistently playing well and getting better and more confident as each season moves along. He almost took a set off Djokovic in March. He came close to beating Nadal in April. And now he has beaten Djokovic in May. This victory, the biggest of his career so far, is not the culmination of many hard years of work nor the showcasing of a great hidden talent. It is just one step on a long, slow, and gradual journey that could someday lead to greatness.

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