clay court tennis

A Different Kind of Match: Tennis Bundesliga in Europe

Welcome to the Tennis-Point Bundesliga, an annual team competition in Germany which is played in a round-robin format during the summer months of July and August. For the players on the ATP Tour staying in central Europe during this time, it is a great opportunity to get some practice and match play in the weekends in addition to their regular tournaments and, of course, to earn some money as well.

Centre Court

Every year ten teams participate in this competition. This season’s favourite is again the champion of the last two years, TK Kurhaus Lambertz Aachen.

Most of the German top-players like Philipp Kohlschreiber, Florian Mayer and Daniel Brands get on court for this team. Fourteen top-50 players are named by the team captains in this season. Janko Tipsarevic and Tommy Haas are in the squad of TK Grün-Weiß Mannheim, Marcel Granollers and Marcos Baghdatis play for TC Blau-Weiß Halle, two other teams which have to be considered as contenders for the title.

“Every match is played with teams consisting of four players each and due to the match tie-break rule in the final set, upsets are always possible,” says Gerald Marzenell, team manager in Mannheim.

Today it was match day five, where the teams of Rochusclub Düsseldorf and SV Wacker Burghausen faced each other at the same venue where the ATP 250 Power Horse Cup was held a couple of weeks ago.

Düsseldorf is ranked in fourth position, the Bavarian team on position six. With a victory today, the Rochusclub wants to seal the team’s disposition in the league for another year.

“It won’t be easy but we have four great single players and one doubles specialist on board today,” said Düsseldorf’s team captain, Detlev Irmler.

Pablo Andújar (ATP No. 50), Pere Riba (ATP No. 201), Jesse Huta-Galung (ATP No. 134), Jozef Kovalik (ATP No. 246) and Martin Emmrich (ATP doubles No. 42) were named for today’s encounter. The Spaniard Albert Montaῆés (ATP No. 53), who is also member of Düsseldorf’s squad, did not play.

“He turned me down,” a disappointed Irmler said yesterday. “It is important that the players put their heart and soul into the matches like Pablo Andújar and Pere Riba do. Both have been playing for several years at the Rochusclub and they have a great attitude,” Düsseldorf’s team captain added.

Wacker Burghausen, on the other hand arrived without their top six players. Aljaz Bedene, Carlos Berlocq, Guillermo García-López Joao Sousa, Kenny de Schepper and Andreas Haider-Maurer were absent. So the Bavarian squad consisted of Blaz Rola (ATP No. 302), Philipp Oswald (ATP No. 554), Jeremy Jahn (ATP No. 620) and Johannes Ager (unranked).

The matches took place in sunny 30 degree conditions and the top players of the home team fulfilled their role as favorites, with Pablo Andújar defeating Blaz Rola in straight sets. The Spaniard broke his opponent’s service twice in the opening set to serve out in the eighth game. Andújar, who was supported on the bench by his teammate Oscar Sabate-Bretos, played solid baseline shots and returned pretty well. It was no surprise that the 27-year-old from Cuenca was in total command in this encounter. Consequently he closed the match out after about 80 minutes by winning 6-2, 6-3 to give the Rochusclub a 1-0 lead.

Andújar

“I played a good and solid match today. This made the difference between (Rola) and me,” a satisfied Andújar told us after the match. “I’ve already played for seven years here in Düsseldorf and I’m a friend of Detlev Irmler. There is a good spirit in the team, which makes me happy to return and to join the team,” the Spaniard explained his motivation to play in the Bundesliga.

For the next ATP tournaments in Gstaad and Kitzbühel he added: “I was a bit unlucky the last two tournaments in Stuttgart and Hamburg, where I lost a match having already match point. So I will try to keep my level of today for the next challenges.”

In the second singles match Jesse Huta-Galung faced a difficult task against Jeremy Jahn. Although the German is ranked about 500 places below the Dutchman, Jahn played more aggressively and just made less unforced errors than his opponent. The 23-year-old German eventually took the match in three sets by 3-6, 6-4, 10-8.

Huta Galung

Back on centre court Pere Riba met Philipp Oswald. The Austrian is better known as a doubles player on the ATP Tour but has some solid groundstrokes and a big service, which makes him also a decent competitor in singles competitions. Nonetheless it was Riba, who recently won the ATP Challenger in Todi, to be the more consistent player of the two. The Spaniard won the first set by serving it out in the tenth game and eventually closed the match winning 6-4, 6-4.

Riba

“I’m very happy with this win today. Philipp serves very well, which is difficult to return. I was very concentrated in particular on my own service games. I was also able to break him at least once in every set, which made me win the match,” Riba analysed afterwards. “It’s always a motivation to be here. I’ve been playing here in Düsseldorf for five years now and when you’re at a club for such a long time you identify with the club and you feel the colours of it, you know. It’s also a very competitive league and our team captain has always confidence in me. That’s a nice feeling,” he told us about playing the Bundesliga in Germany.

Concerning his recent injury the Spaniard added: “I have had to stop playing tennis for eleven months due to my injury and I’ve only played twelve tournaments so far this year. It’s great to compete again as it wasn’t sure if I was able to return to the courts at all.”

The last singles rubber of the day was an even affair. Jozef Kovalik, who hasn’t been able to win a match so far this Bundesliga season, couldn’t gain victory again. The unranked Austrian Johannes Ager, who faced some problems in his lower back during the match and even received some treatment, overcame the Slovakian by going the distance winning 1-6, 6-3, 13-11 and therewith evened the tie 2-2 after the singles.

Ager

Two doubles rubbers had to decide the tie and again the Spaniards didn’t disappoint. Pablo Andújar and Pere Riba defeated Blaz Rola and Jeremy Jahn 6-4, 7-6.

Andújar & Riba

The Rochusclub could still count on Martin Emmrich. The German doubles specialist, who is currently ranked on 42nd  position, claimed his first ATP 250 doubles title at this year’s edition of the Power Horse Cup right here in Düsseldorf a couple of weeks ago. Today he teamed up with Jesse Huta-Galung to eventually seal victory for the Rochusclub winning the last encounter of the day against Philipp Oswald and Johannes Ager 7-5, 7-6.

With today’s win, Rochusclub Düsseldorf climbed up the ranking to third position and Wacker Burghause remains in sixth position. After match day five, Kurhaus Aachen and Blau-Weiß Halle remain the only two undefeated teams in the Bundesliga and represent the two contenders for this year’s championship. Both teams will face each other on Sunday August 4th.

WTA Nürnberg Photo Gallery: Practice Sessions, Press Conference

(June 9, 2013) The WTA International event in Nürnberg continued its qualifying action today, as several main draw ladies hit the practice courts. No. 8 seed Annika Beck and wildcard Dinah Pfizenmaier held a joint press conference prior to the start of main draw play scheduled on Monday.

As Nürnberg celebrates its inaugural year young German Beck had nothing but praise for the event.

“The facility is super nice,” she said with a smile. “The courts are great. I cannot complain.”

Given the rarity of German WTA players being able to play at a home tournaments, Pfizenmaier commented on the positive effect this has.

“The fact that there is a second German tournament in addition to Stuttgart is great,” she stated. “The support of the spectators is much larger which gives more energy to the players.”

The final round of qualifying kicks off tomorrow, as well as the first round of main draw play, which will see Beck, Alize Cornet, Lucie Safarova and Julia Goerges among others.

Today’s gallery also includes Arantxa Rus, Olga Savchuk, Grace Min, Simona Halep and more.

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The Three Tiers of Triumph at Roland Garros

At the start of every major tournament, a draw of 128 randomly placed names can be daunting to even the most experienced of tennis fans. It helps to know how to separate the melting pot of names into three categories, thereby organizing them by expectation.

The favorites and the also-rans make up the extreme ends of this three-tiered cake gauging Slam success. The favorites, small in number, backload the pressure they might feel if they enter the event with sufficient confidence in the belief that they will have to eventually defeat a co-favorite for the title.

The also-rans make up the majority of the draw, though most will be gone within the first few days of any given event. Free from expectation of any kind, winning seven matches in two weeks is rarely on the menu for this kind of player, but that freedom can catalyze a good story and an even better run if things go right early on.

As in tennis draws as in families, the middle tier is where a tournament experiences most of its angst. Occupying a space just above the also-rans (but significantly below the favorites) the darkhorses arguably have the most pressure from the get-go, as by definition these are the players tagged to do that which often contradicts their ranking or prior results. However, if they can get on a roll, that seemingly insurmountable weight of expectation lifts with each match won, and finds itself more and more on the favorites’ shoulders, whose mettle will finally be tested after a week-long warm-up.

The best part about the early rounds of a Slam, then, is getting to see all three kinds of player compete not only at once, but against one another, and how each deal with the presence (or lack) of expectation.

One potential darkhorse who appeared not ready for primetime in Paris was German sensation Julia Goerges. The former Stuttgart champion, tapped by many as a legitimate contender for the title in 2011, has been struggling with bouts of dizziness and a GI illness, both of which hampered her progress throughout the clay court season. Faced with the opportunity to play an unranked veteran in the first round, Goerges must have liked her chances despite the cloud of misfortune that had followed her into the event.

But Zuzana Kucova had other ideas. Playing Roland Garros as a way of saying goodbye to tennis (the 30-year-old Slovak plans to retire by tournament’s end), Kucova played inspired tennis, first to out-gut Goerges in an extended first set tiebreak, then to bagel the German, who failed to find much of a rhythm on her extreme-gripped forehand. In her last tournament, Kucova finds herself in the second round of a Slam main draw for the first time, and while the win hardly elevates her to “darkhorse,” it makes for a great story, and what makes the Grand Slams so special.

Another player exhibiting few signs of pressure was defending champion and second-favorite to repeat (behind nemesis Serena Williams) was Maria Sharapova. Playing a similar warm-up schedule to last year, the Russian has felt at home on the terre battue in the last few years in a way that feels both shocking and refreshing. Once a “cow on ice,” Sharapova has conquered a surface that once gave her fits. If the draw suddenly lacked Williams, she would be the overwhelming favorite to defend the title that earned her the career Slam a year ago.

The American’s presence in the draw serves two purposes for Sharapova. While it decreases her eventual odds of winning, the accompanying decrease in expectation frees her up to play (dare I say it?) Kucova-like tennis. Against a familiar opponent in Hsieh Su-Wei, Sharapova played a perfect match, holding serve throughout, cracking more winners than errors, and led the star from Chinese Taipei in all stats except double faults; in what was the biggest upset of the day, Sharapova served none.

For all of the “feel good” stories a Slam brings, however, there must always be some element of tragedy. Such was the case for two darkhorses, Carla Suarez Navarro and Simona Halep. Both had fantastic results coming into Paris, the former with a run to the finals of Oeiras and the quarterfinals in Rome. By contrast, Halep had saved all of her magic for the Foro Italico where, as a qualifier, she stunned three current and former top 2 players (Kuznetsova, Radwanska, Jankovic) to reach the semifinals. Both were expected to do big things at the second Slam of the year provided, of course, one defeated the other in their first round match.

In what was ultimately the bad luck of the draw, the two darkhorses came out on a non-televised court, played three sets of high quality tennis (both hit more than 20 and less than 30 errors over three sets), only for Halep to find herself on the losing end of the tussle. Suarez Navarro evidently played stunningly perfect clay court tennis, but sympathy must lie with the Romanian who, on Day 2 of Roland Garros, is out of a tournament where she was expected to do well with nothing tangible to show for it.

This dynamic of favorites, darkhorses and also-rans may seem complicated, but how all three forces come together over a two week span is what gives a Grand Slam tournament much of its “epic” qualities. While the field may decrease with each passing day, the three tiers of triumph help serve both dramatic tennis and compelling stories.

Nicolas Almagro So Close to Stepping Up, But Still So Far

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

Unfortunately for Nicolas Almagro, his last match against Rafael Nadal feels like it went pretty much the same way all of his other matches have. Almagro is very good against most players on tour, especially on clay. He has improved on all surfaces over the past few years and now consistently goes deep in a lot of tournaments. However, he also consistent loses to just about every top player on tour.

Almagro is a combined 1-21 against the “Big 4”, with that one win coming against Andy Murray at the French Open in 2008. Almagro is also 0-13 against David Ferrer, 3-9 against Tomas Berdych, and 0-6 versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With records like that, it’s easy to see why Almagro likes to play a lot of 250-level tournaments and why it’s incredible that he manages to stay as close to the top 10 as consistently as he does.

It is often said that consistency is what separates the Big 4 from the rest of the tennis world. Most of these top players can win any given point against anyone else. But when it comes to the Big 4, they play at or near their top level for just about every point of a match. Thus, to beat them, any other top player would have to play at that level for an entire match as well.

Watching Almagro’s matches against the top players, it is easy to see why this rule is mostly true. Almagro always seems to start out strong, especially against Nadal. He plays a power game on clay and keeps the ball deep, pinning his opponents back until they finally can’t defend anymore. This works well, especially against Nadal, and Almagro often keeps things close or even jumps out to a lead. In Barcelona on Sunday, Almagro won the first three games of the match, going up a double break to start.

What Almagro cannot seem to do is to keep at this level for an entire match. Once Nadal gets back into things, Almagro crumbles. This was epitomized in the 4-4 game of the first set on Sunday, when Almagro was up 0-30 on Nadal’s serve. Nadal won an incredible point that Almagro must have felt should have been his (I’m sure that everyone has seen the video of that tweener by now), followed up by a massive Nadal forehand right down the line the next point. Almagro just couldn’t shake those points off. Nadal went on to win that game, broke to take the first set the very next game, and then picked up an early break in the second set with which he could cruise towards the win.

This was not an aberration or a one-match phenomenon. This seems to be how the majority of Almagro’s matches against the top players go. I honestly don’t know what Almagro has to do to get over that hump. He needs to find a way to put previous points out of his mind and to just play every point with the same level of consistency, just like the top players do. What I do know is that it is not for lack of talent that Almagro can’t beat these guys. And that, in my mind, is quite a shame.

Americans Nowhere to be Found on European Clay

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

It sometimes feels like there is a long-standing tradition of Americans skipping the European clay court season. Oh, everyone will play Roland Garros because even a first-round loss at a Slam is too much money to pass up and the Slams are prestigious enough to merit playing on an uncomfortable surface. But no American since Agassi really seems to expect to win more than a few matches in Paris. The evidence is in the fact that no American ever really seems to take the clay preludes to Roland Garros seriously.

John Isner looks like he wants to buck the trend. Even though it ended disastrously for him, he took a late wild card to play Monte Carlo and really looked like he wanted to get more match play in on the dirt. Of all the Americans, he has the best chance to do well on clay and appears to have finally decided to try and pick up his results in Europe—which have not been good in his career, to say the least. Isner will also play Nice the week before Roland Garros. And while it is often debated whether or not playing the week before a Slam is a good idea, it clearly shows that Isner is in the right frame of mind here.

Sam Querrey seems to have gone the standard American route and will only play Madrid and Rome before the French Open. And, while we should not conjecture anything bad here, Americans since Andy Roddick have often found ways to avoid playing one or two of those Masters events each year.

After those two, it’s not only in Europe where Americans can’t be found. It’s really anywhere. Mardy Fish is still in the top 50 on the back of a good summer last year, but he has only played 1 tournament in the last 6 months and a heart condition isn’t always something that you can heal or fix. He is playing in the Savannah Challenger this week, but you have to begin to wonder how much longer he can physically play tennis.

Brian Baker, last year’s amazing comeback story, is still out with a torn meniscus suffered at the Australian Open. Ryan Harrison and Donald Young, both of whom have been in the top 50 within the past year, have dropped considerably. James Blake and Mike Russell are consistently in the tail end of the top 100, which seems to have been their constant place in the last 5 years.

The most spirited American tennis during the clay season always seems to come on the Challenger tour. This is because the USTA gives their wild card for the French Open to the player who earns the most total points in the Sarasota, Savannah, and Tallahassee Challengers. These players mostly know that their chances of getting through qualifiers and actually playing in a Slam, especially on clay, aren’t so high. Thus, we often see these 100+ ranked players giving everything they can and more in these tournaments.

Of the Americans outside the top 100, Rhyne Williams is rising. He began really improve last season and this looks to be his breakout year. He gained over 300 rankings spots in 2012, from 510 up to 191 and is currently ranked #119 in the world. Jack Sock and Steve Johnson, two talented youngsters, are still looking for their first breakthroughs on the professional tour. And Alex Kuznetsov, a once-hyped player who hasn’t been able to do that much with his career won the Sarasota Challenger and has the inside track for that wild card and his first-ever French Open Main Draw.

Despite Monte Carlo Loss, Isner Picking Up Speed on Clay

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

A few months ago, we looked at John Isner and his apparent distance away from the red clay. We went through his good match history on clay and how, when he played up to his potential, he could challenge just about anyone in the world. It was also puzzling, though, why Isner wouldn’t take opportunities to play more on clay and further that aspect of his game.

Well, it looks like Isner has finally decided to go for it. He played in Houston, the only clay court tournament in the United States. This isn’t really surprising, though. Many Americans come to this tournament as a matter both of pride and collecting a bit of money. Also, it is a good introduction to the clay season and often has a relatively weak field, allowing decent players to get more match play on the dirt (when Andy Roddick has won a clay tournament three times, you know the fields can’t be that strong).

Isner started off this year in a bit of a slump, to put things mildly. He reached a few semifinals of 250-level tournaments but has some bad losses and hasn’t really looked good all year. He was forced to skip the Australian Open with a fluke knee injury and hasn’t been able to find much of a rhythm this season. In Indian Wells, where he was defending a semifinal showing, Isner lost his first match to Lleyton Hewitt. He managed to win one match in Miami before being beaten by Marin Cilic without much trouble. And Isner was easily handled by Djokovic in Davis Cup, but there is no shame in that.

Now, though, is where Isner is getting smart. He won the tournament in Houston, beating some good clay-courters along the way. You could see his confidence increase in each successive match. He was playing attacking tennis, taking everything in his hitting zone and absolutely blasting it.

Isner is not the most precise baseline player and having to hit low, awkward balls is a problem for him. But on clay, everything bounces up. He keeps enough spin on the ball to keep it coming back where he can just tee off on it. I’ve joked before that Isner doesn’t need to ever hit anything other than his massively high-bouncing kick serves. And while that is obviously an exaggeration, the point behind it stands. Isner was made to play on high-bouncing clay.

Isner took a very late wild card to come and play Monte Carlo, the optional Masters 1000 event on the tour. He had a very short turnaround from Houston (he played his first Monte Carlo match less than 48 hours after the Houston final and over a quarter of that gap was spent travelling across the Atlantic, time difference included), something he probably didn’t expect when he got the wild card. He played well against Gulbis before succumbing to fatigue and an injury, but the match did show that he kept to his strategy of attacking everything in his hitting zone. He now has 3 weeks to heal and rest up as he will not play between Monte Carlo and the two Masters events in May.

Isner seems to have realized that clay is the surface that he can really hit his stride on. Deciding to play Monte Carlo is a great sign from him, regardless of how it turned out. At 27, Isner is not one of the younger guys on tour anymore. You almost get the feeling that if he wants to have a breakthrough stretch of his career, it has to come during this year’s clay season. And, well, at least he’s giving himself a chance to do that.

Why Won’t John Isner Play on Clay?

By Yeshayahu Ginsburg

John Isner is honestly baffling as a player. He has probably the best serve in the world. It is certainly one of the biggest, it is quite accurate, and his height allows him to do things with it that most others can’t. Even when compared to similar players like Milos Raonic or Kevin Anderson, Isner’s serve just seems more effective. So it would stand to reason that, like other powerful servers and big hitters, Isner’s best bet at being a top-level player is to play as much on hard courts as possible and to try and just power his way through as many matches as he can.

This theory has worked for him and brought him into the top 20 in the early years of his career. Unfortunately, it is the wrong outlook. Because if there is one surface that can put Isner over the top—if there is one area in which he can truly become a top player in the world—it is the red clay courts of Europe. Does this sound strange? After all, Americans and big servers are not known for their prowess on this surface. So why would Isner be at his best on clay? Let’s look at Isner’s history.

Isner has played several memorable and historic matches, the highlight obviously being his record-shattering marathon against Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010. But, if I was forced to judge, the best match that Isner has played in his career was actually one that he lost. After a poor 2010, Isner’s ranking had fallen into the 50s. As such, he was unseeded at the 2011 French Open. Unluckily for him, he drew Rafael Nadal in the first round.

It was a match that was expected to be potentially troublesome for Nadal but no one had thought for a second that Isner could win. Isner played the match of his life, serving well and really hanging with Nadal on clay. He managed to break Rafa once and took two tiebreaks to really give him a chance to win the match. No one else took two sets off Rafa that entire tournament. What doesn’t often get mentioned, however, is that Isner could have played that match even better.

Isner’s forehand on any ball sitting up in the middle of the court is lethal. Isner’s kick serve on the high-bouncing clay is nearly unreturnable, and certainly cannot be kept low if put back in play. This is a combination that Isner used during that match, but not nearly enough. He had serves that would bounce over Rafa’s head. Rafa would sometimes stand as far as 15 feet back to return Isner’s second serves. This is a potent weapon that Isner for some reason just doesn’t use.

Isner’s clay skills were not only shown once, though. If he has had one match in his career as impressive as that Roland Garros match against Rafa, it was his first-round Davis Cup rubber against Roger Federer last year. Isner used his variety of serves and massive forehand to really just beat Federer off of the high-bouncing clay court. Isner has these skills and has shown that they are not only flukes, the only real question is why isn’t he embracing his clay court potential. Not to mention, of course, that Isner also took Djokovic to 5 sets on clay in a Davis Cup match back in 2010 and really could have won that match. Now, 2010 Djokovic is not quite the Djokovic of today, but he was still a top 3 player in the world and was one of the best on clay. That match showed us the beginning of Isner’s potential on clay. The Nadal and Federer matches cemented it.

Isner is playing at least five tournaments in a row at this point in the year. Last week he played in San Jose, losing in the semifinals to Tommy Haas. He is currently playing the 500-level tournament in Memphis and will follow with Delray Beach, Indian Wells, Miami, and then probably Davis Cup. These are all on hard courts. I can understand why he wants to stay in the United States and that he might not want to go to clay before coming back to the two hard court Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami. But this is his chance. He could be playing in the South American clay court swing instead, which in turn would prepare him well for the European clay court swing in a few months and Roland Garros at the end of May.

Isner is a very good player. His lack of a real baseline game is a major inhibition, but it certainly isn’t so prohibitively bad that he can’t compete with the top players. He needs to embrace who he is, though, and realize what surface and style will best suit his game. He is muddling around in the top 10-20 right now, which isn’t bad. But he could definitely do better. He needs to work on his baseline game (obviously). Most of all, though, he just needs to play on clay, utilize his lethal high-bouncing serves and shots, and attack at every opportunity he gets. Doing that almost earned him an epic upset over the best clay-courter of all time. Doing that did earn him an upset over arguably the greatest player of all time. If he can finally realize that and consistently utilize his game in that fashion, there really is no telling how much he can achieve.