Grigor Dimitrov

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Citi Open Saturday Gallery: Isner and Del Potro to Meet in Final

DSC_07840001John Isner Saturday-2

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Super Saturday at the Citi Open saw John Isner and Juan Martin del Potro defeat their respective opponents, Dmitry Tursunov and Tommy Haas to reach the men’s singles final. Andrea Petkovic also defeated Alize Cornet and will meet Magdalena Rybarikova in the women’s final.

Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.

Insider’s Look at Super Saturday at the Citi Open with Del Potro, Dimitrov, Petkovic

DSC_06910001Grigor Dimitrov practice-2

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Set against the backdrop of downtown Washington, D.C., this week’s Citi Open has brought some of tennis’ most recognizable names to the tournament, including Juan Martin del Potro, Tommy Haas and the youngest player in the women’s draw, 17-year-old newcomer and American Taylor Townsend.

It was a full schedule on tap with both men’s singles semifinals set on stadium court, along with one women’s semifinal and one men’s doubles semifinal. The rest, including the women’s doubles final, was scheduled on the first grandstand court.

There has been some discussion in player press conferences this week regarding scheduling differences between the men’s and women’s draws, and how the women are not being scheduled as equally on stadium court. It seems though that most players understand why. The men’s event is a 500-level while the women’s is a lower-tiered International-level, and several players — including females — commented that men tend to bring a bigger draw and whoever the tournament believes would be a bigger draw will be the match scheduled on stadium court. Logical enough but still questionable reasoning on some level.

That being said, the men’s doubles semifinal between the pairing of Julien Benneteau and Nenad Zimonjic against University of Virginia alumni and Citi Open defending champions Treat Huey and Dominic Inglot, took precedence over the women’s doubles final between 2012 Junior Wimbledon Girls’ Doubles champions Eugenie Bouchard and Taylor Townsend and Shuko Aoyama and Vera Dushevina.

In front of a decent-sized crowd, the first-time partnering of Aoyama and Dushevina were crowned champions in women’s doubles.

After the match, the only ones called into press were the runners-up, Bouchard and Townsend, as the media room was mostly empty and at the men’s doubles match. The winners gave no press conference.

With her longer history on tour than her counterpart, Bouchard was visibly disappointed in the presser but still sincere in answering questions. Townsend, on the other hand, looked as if she was on cloud nine. She seemed to have just been excited to reach a pro final and was relishing the moment despite the quick loss. I asked her about the contrast in the presence of young players on tour between the men’s and women’s side and she gave an insightful and rather mature answer.

“I think it’s a lot different for the men than the women,” Townsend replied.”The men mature at an older age and we mature younger. So I think it’s a lot easier for us — at a young age — to hang with the older players because our bodies mature faster. The men are so strong and it takes them a few more years to get caught up to that level, especially to get into that top shape.”

As the first men’s doubles semifinal started between top American John Isner and a newly-resurgent Dmitry Tursunov on stadium court at 3:00pm to looming clouds, doubles partners Grigor Dimitrov and Michael Llodra (and his youngest son, Teo!) took to the practice courts.

As the Bulgarian stretched, a shirtless Llodra kicked a soccer ball around with his 6-year-old son. All week, the youngster could be spotted on the tennis court hitting some impressive shots and his soccer head-butting and kicking skills didn’t disappoint. After Dimitrov finished his stretching, he jumped into the mini-soccer game and ended up losing — happily obliging to do push-ups on court as the loser.

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Heading onto stadium court for Isner-Tursunov, the first set was dead even, and ended up going to a tiebreak. Four exchanges of serve and some patience by the Russian and he got the unexpected upper hand, taking the first set. Tursunov diminished his double faults count from his matches earlier this week, and ran Isner laterally until the American hit long or into the net. On several occasions, Tursunov bullied the American’s backhand before pulling the trigger forcing Isner into an error with a running forehand.

During the changeover, sprinkles began falling but the players decided to continue on without any exchanges with chair umpire Magdi Somat. As the drops increased in intensity during the first game, Isner had a break point on Tursunov’s serve and slipped, slamming a forehand into the net. Instinctively, Isner yelled in the umpire’s general direction and Tursunov had also already began walking towards the chair. Play was called and the players taken inside as the 80-minute rain delay began.

At around 5:00pm, Juan Martin del Potro made an appearance on the practice courts to packed stands on court one. As play was suspended, fans still had the opportunity to enjoy a light hit by the Argentine for about 30 minutes.

Play shortly resumed on stadium court and after breaking Tursunov to go up 4-1, the American took the second set 6-3. The baseline play among both players was incredible to watch. After so many matches between Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, you forget how powerful (and consistent and precise) other men on tour can hit, and the two held some extended jaw-dropping rallies. In the end, the American broke Tursunov again to take the final set, 6-4.

DSC_07870001Isner GSM saturday

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Walking back to the media center, I heard loud cheers coming from grandstand court and realized that the other men’s doubles semifinal went on at the same time as the singles match on stadium. That’s one of the problems with a rain delay — you don’t quite always get to watch everything you hope to. Mardy Fish and Radek Stepanek took out fan favorites, Grigor Dimitrov and Michael Llodra, and with that, the Citi Open crowds will have American men in both the men’s singles and doubles finals. On the opposite side of the grounds on grandstand court two, women’s semifinalist Andrea Petkovic was practicing in front of a small group of fans.

At 7:20pm, Isner walked into press with ice on both knees for precautionary reasons. He’s one of the few to constantly have ice on some joint on his body so it’s not so much a surprise anymore.

Ten minutes later, the Isner presser was completed, and as we looked to the TV in the media center, we saw that Tommy Haas had just broken Juan Martin del Potro to go up 3-1 – a bit of early trouble for the two-time tournament champion.

Without much of a breather, Tursunov commenced his low-key presser, where he analyzed his loss but felt there really weren’t any holes in his game. A pretty fair analysis as he never once held break point, but stayed in the match much of the time.

As I prepared to go out and finally watch the Del Potro – Haas match, I realized the score was frozen at 4-1. Of course, another rain delay.

I looked at the live scoreboard and noticed that the women’s semifinal between Magdalena Rybarikova and Ekaterina Makarova was still going on though, and questioned what was going on. Rybarikova went on to win three games in a matter of minutes before play was finally suspended. But I guess the weather can be funny sometimes!

During the nearly three hour rain delay, the illustrious third edition of the “Citi Open Rain Delay Media Spelling Bee” commenced, where contestants had to correctly spell various ATP and WTA player names within the top 200. What started out with eight people in the first few minutes grew to nearly 20 and included photographers, bloggers, long-time wire writers, event staff and even Tour staff. Thanks to gracious contestant Lindsay Gibbs of The Changeover, we have footage of Ben Rothenberg’s winning moment, having successfully defended his title from 2012.

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The tournament media staff had some fun and sweetly made the winner his own notable trophy. How thoughtful!

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The Del Potro – Haas match continued with the Argentine quickly picking up momentum, and later in press admitting that the rain delay helped him. Haas, conversely, came into press and was quite short, stating he was “aggravated and annoyed” during the rain delay and it reflected in his straight set loss, 7-6(4), 6-3.

Despite the lateness of the hour — the men’s semi had finished at 12:15AM — there had been no earlier talk of opening up play of the second women’s semifinal on a third court. Instead, Alize Cornet and Andrea Petkovic were set to follow on whichever court had finished first. Inevitably, organizers seemed to have waited to see if the men’s semi would finish shortly after the first women’s semi would, and they were lucky.

At 12:35AM, the second women’s semi finally took place to a crowd of still several hundred people. The sheer match ups of Cornet and Petkovic’s style could have made this match the highlight of the women’s draw so far, but the lateness of the hour prevented it from reaching grand proportions. However, both ladies impressed with full court-coverage, suspenseful rallies and looked — incredibly enough — quite fresh.

After being down 3-0, then getting broken twice while serving for the set, Petkovic finally took the first set, 7-5. She then made quick work of the French woman, taking it 6-3 in the second and delighting the crowd with her famous “Petko Dance.”

Petko dancing

The evening finally ended at an “early” 2:15AM, with the women’s singles final scheduled for exactly 15 hours later. Talk about a quick recovery for both ladies!

Isner, Petkovic, Fish Comment on Current State of Doping in Tennis

DSC_90500001Petko presser

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Andrea Petkovic believes that doping cases should be somewhat personalized. John Isner backs the implementation of a biological passport in tennis. Grigor Dimitrov comments that players have the resources to ask questions any time of day regarding supplements. Mardy Fish insists on checking every substance that goes into his body with his trainer for approval beforehand.

No matter what player you ask on tour, it seems everyone has an opinion about the

anti-doping system and the recent doping allegations surrounding tennis players Viktor Troicki and Marin Cilic, the first who was suspended for 18-months on a negative test, whereas the latter was suspended for three months on a positive test.

This week during the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., doping and player education of doping policies were a popular topic in various player press conferences.

American John Isner commented that although he has not spoken with either player, he has read about what happened.

“Those situations are unfortunate,” commented Isner. “I don’t know really what to think of it. You hear [in the media] that the ATP or [World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA] don’t educate us [players] enough – I don’t think that’s the case. For me, in particular, anytime I take something, I do check it out. I don’t try to buy any supplements outside of that. So I think the ATP actually does a good job with informing us about what we can and cannot take.”

Despite having been some 15 years since Mardy Fish’s original training regarding matters like doping as part of the ATP University, he says that there is a continual stream of updates to ensure players are aware of changes and expectations.

“We do get updates, we get notifications,” he states. “There are things constantly coming through in your email about updates on player regulations … or prohibited [substance] lists. We have updated versions at all times.”

Grigor Dimitrov also echoes both American’s words, stating that he feels players are educated about the policies, procedures, and rules surrounding several “important things such as doping … There is actually a 24-hour [hotline] that you can call about doping” and inquire about any supplements or substances.

For Fish, he ultimately decided to be directly involved in what goes into his body in terms of supplements and other players might be wise to take heed amid recent allegations.

“In my experience, my trainer and I took [doping] very seriously. I ask him about every single thing [whether] it’s in pill form, or cream form that we’re using, to make sure that something like that would never ever happen [to me].”

As an added measure, Isner also believes the implementation of a biological passport in tennis would be beneficial to discourage doping as it has in other sports. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, “the fundamental principle of the Athlete Biological Passport is based on the monitoring of selected biological parameters over time that will indirectly reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping substance itself.” Thus, it would use baseline physiological levels for each athlete to compare all past, present or future samples to.

“I’m a huge fan of the biological passport,” commented Isner. “I just know from the Lance Armstrong case that he sort of got in trouble because of that. I think that if the testing can improve and you still have those [past] samples, absolutely go back and test that out.”

Despite the surge in recent doping cases though, Fish feels that players have very little wiggle room due to the doping whereabouts program.

“Our doping system is extremely tough, I know that,” he commented. “I have to give an hour every single day of my life to doping.”

Isner agreed, citing his own experiences as evidence of how strict the doping system could be.

“I really do think tennis compared to other sports – other team sports really – we get tested quite a bit,” the American continued. “We get tested a lot during competition, and I know I’ve in particular gotten tested a lot out-of-competition, and that’s not just urine. That’s blood as well. I even one time got tested twice in one morning, within 30 minutes of each other.”

Although Andrea Petkovic agrees “that the rules are strict because obviously we all want to fight doping,” she believes that doping really wouldn’t improve a tennis player’s performance.

“I’m also one that says doping doesn’t really help you in tennis,” the German commented. “You can be the fittest guy in the world and lift 200 kilos in weightlifting, but it doesn’t make you a better tennis player. It doesn’t give you the feeling of the court, the placement.

But the 25-year-old, who has battled back from multiple injuries in her career, also believes that doping decisions like the one with Troicki should be somewhat personalized. She cited that she has known the Serbian since they were kids and is aware of his fainting spells due to needles.

“I think it’s good that the rules are strict, but in cases like Viktor, you have to be able to look past the rules and you have to be able to make decisions that are personally indicated on that person,” she concluded.

The recent increase in doping cases in tennis makes one wonder whether more athletes are doping, unknowingly ingesting prohibited substances, or simply that there are more resources now available to more seriously crack down on doping abuse.

One thing is for sure. Wayne Odesnik’s case in 2010 seemed to have opened a pandora’s box of sorts for the sport.

Citi Open Wednesday Gallery: Isner, Haas, Stephens and More

DSC_97390001John Isner-3

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Play was derailed by play Wednesday evening, but not before plenty of action took place including Andrea Petkovic, John Isner, Tommy Haas, Grigor Dimitrov, Sorana Cirstea, Yanina Wickmayer, Marinko Matosevic, Jack Sock, Alex Kuznetsov, and even Sloane Stephens hit the practice courts.

Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.

Grigor Dimitrov Q&A: Fun Fan Encounters, Ultimate Dinner Guests, and Maria Sharapova

DSC_94010001citi practise wednesday

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Twenty-two-year-old Grigor Dimitrov has much to be happy about.

He kicked off his 2013 season by reaching his first ATP final in Brisbane, pushing Andy Murray in a tight two set match. He continued his good performance making two more semifinals and one quarterfinal on the year, while taking tennis’ top men to their limits on court.

In Monte Carlo in April, Dimitrov took Rafael Nadal to three sets, and a few weeks later, he stunned world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Madrid.  Directly following his win over the Serbian, tears welled up in the young Dimitrov’s eyes, and it was clear how much the win meant to him. His ranking also catapulted to a career-high of 26 in the world.

After his successful clay court campaign, the focused Bulgarian now shifts gears to the U.S. hard courts and hopes to build on his great season.

“The clay season was a lot of fun this year for me,” commented Dimitrov following his first round win over Xavier Malisse at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. “I would like to do even better on the hard court … I love playing in the States. It’s a place where I always feel comfortable.”

Charismatic and approachable, Dimitrov has also gotten plenty of buzz surrounding his off court relationship with WTA player, Maria Sharapova. Though he prefers his privacy about his personal life, he realizes it is an inevitable popular topic with the press and fans.

“Of course, there is a lot of talk off the court, and in the end, I think that’s part of the game … In England (during Wimbledon), in general, there were a lot of these questions. But what can I do?” stated Dimitrov, still smiling.

On Tuesday in Washington, D.C., I had a chance to sit down with the enchanting Dimitrov for a few minutes as he talked memorable moments, crazy fan encounters and who his ultimate dinner guests would be. After the interview, he extended his hand as I stepped off a rather tall stage that a three-year-old would probably enjoy jumping off of. What a perfect gentleman.

What is your most memorable moment on court?
I think definitely there are many, and one of them was when I played Novak Djokovic this year. I think that’s one of the most memorable matches for me. Of course, can’t forget the match against Rafa (Nadal). I’m trying to make every moment to stay with me and keep it in a special way.

If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be doing?
I would be definitely into sports. My mom is a former volleyball player. I like playing soccer, volleyball, basketball – any sports. I’m pretty active when I have my time off, so I would definitely try to be sport-oriented but I don’t think there’s one sport in particular over the others.

If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be and why?
Johnny Depp, for sure. This is my number one pick of all-time. Other two … my girlfriend, but I’m having dinner with her every night. (Laughs)

Hmm. Two people … I would go with … Monica Bellucci. And then … it has to be a musician, but I cannot name one. Any musician that I like nowadays that would be it probably.

What is the funniest or craziest encounter you’ve had with a fan?
I must say there are lot of these, because I always do some things with the fans whether it’s going to be practice or when I come out to sign autographs. I always do something – whether I’m going to give a t-shirt or wristband. The fans always have some funny gifts. Once I got one crazy gift, I received a little (stuffed) bear and there were sentences in Bulgarian on it. I don’t know how long that took, but I think it was an extremely big effort for someone to do it. I remembered that for quite a bit; I was in Asia then. In Asia, I think I had one of the biggest supporters out there. One year, it was just crazy; everyone had their t-shirt with my sign, and they made a special t-shirt for the matches. So I think that was kind of cool.

From Continent to Continent: ATP Washington and Kitzbuhel Previews

Juan Martin Del Potro looks to recapture his brilliant Wimbledon form.

While the WTA divides its action between two coasts this week, the ATP spans the Atlantic Ocean with events on two different continents and surfaces.  The 500 tournament in Washington, part of the US Open Series, takes center stage.

Washington:

Top half:  A champion in Washington four years ago, Juan Martin Del Potro holds the top seed at the 2013 edition.  The Wimbledon semifinalist hopes to rediscover his torrid form against one of two men who shone in Atlanta.  Producing semifinal runs there last week, Lleyton Hewitt and Ryan Harrison will square off in one of the most intriguing first-round matches.  Nor can Del Potro relax if he survives the winner.  A strong grass season, highlighted by a second-week appearance at Wimbledon, will have restored Bernard Tomic’s confidence.  Although he continues to cope with controversy surrounding his father, Tomic has plenty of ways to disrupt Del Potro’s rhythm if the Argentine returns rusty from a leg injury.  A more straightforward test awaits from Kevin Anderson, seeking his third semifinal in three weeks.  Before he meets Del Potro in the quarterfinals, Anderson may find the returning Mardy Fish an opponent worthy of his steel.

If power dominates the top quarter, flair defines much of the second quarter.  The flamboyant shot-making of Tommy Haas favors precision over physicality, while the graceful one-handed backhand of Grigor Dimitrov has a vintage appeal.  Haas reached the final in Washington last year, perhaps using his training at the Bolletieri Academy in Florida as experience for coping with the humidity.  But power never lags far behind in a draw filled with Americans.  Sam Querrey will face one of two Atlanta quarterfinalists, Denis Istomin or Santiago Giraldo, in the second round.   A contrast of styles would await if Querrey advances to face Dimitrov and then Haas, although a 5-8 record since April leaves a deep run far from guaranteed.

Semifinal:  Del Potro vs. Haas

Bottom half:  Filled with question marks, the third quarter could produce a surprise semifinalist.  The favorite at first glance would seem Milos Raonic, by far the most powerful of the seeds.  Raonic’s massive serve could sizzle on a hot hard court, but he has accomplished little since winning yet another San Jose title in February.  Neither has fellow seed Nikolay Davydenko, who has struggled historically against possible second-round opponent James Blake.  Some of Gilles Simon’s best results have come in North America, including a Miami quarterfinal this spring, and the fifth seed’s steadiness might suffice to ease him past the erratic men around him.  Among them is former champion Radek Stepanek, who looks forward to American collegiate star Steve Johnson in his opener.

One might lose sight of defending champion Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth quarter.  Not a threat for most of 2013, Dolgopolov faces an arduous route towards a title defense.  Home hope John Isner looms in the third round if he can revive his energy after a draining title run in Atlanta.  An easier route to the quarterfinals beckons for Kei Nishikori, who won a North American 500 tournament at Memphis this year.  Bogota runner-up Alejandro Falla faded quickly in Atlanta, as did American teenage sensation Jack Sock.  The clean, balanced baseline game of Nishikori should carry him past either of those opponents, after which a first meeting with Isner could await.

Semifinal:  Simon vs. Isner

Final:  Del Potro vs. Isner

Kitzbuhel:

Top half:  An assortment of Europeans and clay specialists have headed to this Austrian event before venturing into the steamy American summer.  German top seed Philipp Kohlschreiber aims to move one round further than he did at another clay 250 event.  The finalist in Stuttgart a few weeks ago, Kohlschreiber can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Spanish dirt devil Marcel Granollers.  This Rome quarterfinalist will welcome the opportunity to erase memories of an epic loss in Gstaad last week.  Between them stand Horacio Zeballos of Nadal-defeating fame and Wimbledon surprise Kenny de Schepper, who reached the second week there.

A greater Wimbledon surprise than de Schepper came from Fernando Verdasco, who would not hold the third seed here if not for his quarterfinal appearance at the last major.  To his credit, Verdasco parlayed that breakthrough into a strong July, highlighted by victories over Nicolas Almagro, Grigor Dimitrov, and Jerzy Janowicz.  An all-lefty matchup against Brazilian clay specialist Thomaz Bellucci should not detain him for long en route to a rematch of the Bastad final.  At that Swedish tournament, Verdasco fell to Carlos Berlocq, who faces an extremely challenging assignment as the fifth seed.  Days after defeating Federer, the ominous Daniel Brands sets his sights on the Bastad champion.  Also in this deep section is Robin Haase, arriving from a series of morale-boosting wins in Gstaad.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Verdasco

Bottom half:   A week of mixed omens for Albert Montanes in Umag included an upset over world No. 9 Richard Gasquet and a tight loss to Gasquet’s compatriot Gael Monfils.  Twice a semifinalist on clay already this summer, Victor Hanescu finds himself on a collision course with Montanes, who won a clay title in Nice just before Roland Garros.  The winner should feel confident heading into the quarterfinals, although home hope Jurgen Melzer will have most of the audience behind him.  Melzer reached the second week of Wimbledon but has lost five consecutive clay matches dating back to Monte Carlo.

Arguably the softest section, the base of the Kitzbuhel draw lies at the mercy of second seed Juan Monaco.  This recent member of the top 10 has shown altogether too much mercy in 2013, helplessly watching his ranking decline.  All the same, Monaco has produced at least somewhat respectable tennis this summer on clay, his best surface.  Three qualifiers and a wildcard offer little competition, so any challenge would need to come from one of two Spaniards.  While Daniel Gimeno-Traver has struggled on clay this year, Roberto Bautista-Agut retired last week in Gstaad.  Monaco thus looks safe unless he implodes, admittedly not unthinkable.

Semifinal:  Montanes vs. Monaco

Final:  Verdasco vs. Montanes

Stephens, Townsend Play Tennis on National Mall; Players Hit the DC Practice Courts

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(July 26, 2013) Prior to the official draw ceremony for the Citi Open in Washington, DC with Marcos Baghdatis and DC Mayor Vincent Gray, WTA players Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend hit the National Mall.

The duo took part in a mini-tennis exhibition with some of DC’s youth set against the incredible backdrop of the US Capitol.

Earlier in the day, several players took advantage of the quiet surroundings and practice courts, including Grigor Dimitrov, Alison Riske, Mitchell Frank, Mona Barthel and more.

Qualifying play begins Saturday at 10am at the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center. Stay tuned all week for full coverage direct from the grounds!

Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Christopher Levy.

Plotlines to Ponder: US Open Series Edition

Murrray fired a warning shot at Wimbledon.  Now can Djokovic reply?

The Emirates Airlines US Open Series begins next week with tournaments at Atlanta (ATP) and Stanford (WTA).  More events on both Tours follow during each of the five weeks between now and the US Open, including consecutive Masters 1000/Premier Five tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati.  As the action accelerates toward the final major of 2013, here are seven key narratives to follow.

1.      Will Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray seize the upper hand?

The top two men in the world have contested the finals at the last three non-clay majors and enter the summer hard courts as co-favorites for the US Open.  Fittingly, Djokovic and Murray each have won once in New York, although the Serb has reached four finals there to the Scot’s two.  While Murray has won multiple titles at both Masters 1000 tournaments this summer, Djokovic never has conquered Cincinnati despite winning three times in Canada.  A victory for either man over the other at one of those events would earn that player an edge heading into New York.  So would a Canada/Cincinnati sweep, a feat that has occurred only three times on the men’s side in the Open era.  Back on their best surface for the rest of 2013, Djokovic and Murray have an opportunity to take their rivalry another step forward.  Abrupt shifts have defined it so far, so predict at your peril.

2.      Will Serena Williams restore order in the WTA?

The world No. 1 has compiled a somewhat strange season, dominating Roland Garros and racing undefeated through the clay season but losing by the quarterfinals at the two non-clay majors.  Serena usually responds with courage to adversity such as her stunning loss to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon.  One need think back barely a year to the second-half surge that she reeled off after a much more disheartening setback against Virginie Razzano.  The dominance of the top three women since the start of 2012 prepared few viewers for the implosion at Wimbledon.  That fortnight echoed the chaotic period in the WTA that preceded the current Serena/Maria/Vika Rule of Three.  For reasons developed further below, the top-ranked woman and defending US Open champion stands the best positioned of that trio to curb her inferiors.  Even as she approaches 32, her aura still intimidates.

3.      Will Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal pose the greater challenge to the top two?

On the surface, literally and figuratively, this question seems easy.  Federer has compiled the superior record of the two in the US Open Series and at the US Open.  For most of their careers, he has been the better man on hard courts and the better man in the second half, when his rival’s energy wanes.  That said, Nadal has surpassed Federer in recent years at the US Open, notching consecutive finals in 2010-11.  He also has produced the stronger season of the two by far, reaching the final at every tournament except Wimbledon, claiming a key hard-court title at Indian Wells, and overcoming Djokovic at Roland Garros.  Federer has won just one title in 2013 and has not defeated a top-five opponent.  The two superstars never have met in the US Open Series or at the US Open.  They responded in contrasting ways to early Wimbledon losses, Nadal resting his ever-fragile knees and Federer entering two clay tournaments in July.

4.      Can the Wimbledon women’s finalists consolidate their breakthroughs?

Hovering over Murray’s quest to defend his US Open title is the question of how he will respond to his Wimbledon feat.  The women’s champion there also faces the task of overcoming the inevitable post-breakthrough hangover.  Like Murray, however, Marion Bartoli may have the maturity to avoid that lull.  She has earned some of her finest successes on North American hard courts, including a Stanford title won from Venus Williams, finals at Indian Wells and San Diego, and semifinals at Miami and the Rogers Cup.  Bartoli might return at Stanford next week.

Much more a grass specialist than Bartoli, the woman whom she defeated in the Wimbledon final has reached four quarterfinals there but none at any other major.  Sabine Lisicki still looks to build on her victories over two top-four opponents at Wimbledon, and there is no reason why her massive serve cannot shine on fast hard courts.  Her main challenge has consisted of staying healthy long enough to build momentum, so her ranking could climb if she does.

5.      What to expect from Wimbledon’s walking wounded?

About five top-eight players limped out of the grass season with injuries that may linger.  On the men’s side, Juan Martin Del Potro should recover quickly from a minor sprain caused by hyper-extending his left knee.  The Wimbledon semifinalist and former US Open champion should prove the most compelling threat in New York outside the Big Four.  World No. 3 David Ferrer may need more time to recover from his ankle injury, while Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has voiced uncertainty over whether he will return from a knee injury by the Open.

Eager to ignite her partnership with Jimmy Connors, Maria Sharapova withdrew from Stanford next week to rest a hip injury incurred at Wimbledon.  Sharapova posted playful photos of her rehab work, not sounding overly concerned.  Still, both Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka may need to brush off some rust early in the US Open Series.  Limited to one match since Roland Garros, Azarenka has played only five tournaments in the last five months.  Her coach, Sam Sumyk, reported that her knee incurred no structural damage, though.

6.      Will home soil inspire the American men?

At the US Open last year and at Wimbledon this summer, nobody in this group reached the second week, something once taken for granted.  With Andy Roddick retired and Mardy Fish chronically ill, American men’s tennis has plunged down an elevator shaft with embarrassing velocity.  Not much light shines into the bottom of the shaft from former phenom Ryan Harrison, who has developed into an uninspired journeyman.  The more explosive Jack Sock may evolve into a future star, as French sports magazine L’Equipe thinks, but his time will not come for at least a few years.  Until then, the two lethargic giants John Isner and Sam Querrey remain the only real hopes for the US.  The good news is that they have played their best tennis on home soil, winning 10 of 13 career titles there.  The bad news is that neither has done anything meaningful on hard courts this year.

7.      Which rising stars on each Tour will shine?

In the wake of a Wimbledon semifinal appearance, many eyes will focus on Jerzy Janowicz over the summer.  The boyish, lanky Pole has virtually nothing to defend during the US Open Series as he aims to rise toward the top 10.  Grigor Dimitrov has drawn attention mostly on account of his resemblance to Federer and his relationship with Sharapova, but he impressed at both Indian Wells and Miami this year.  And the deeply talented, deeply enigmatic Bernard Tomic could build on a promising Wimbledon if he finds more discipline on the court and stability off the court.

The women’s game features some youngsters who have advanced faster than their male counterparts.  One of three women to reach the second week at every major in 2013, the 20-year-old Sloane Stephens offers the home nation its most genuine threat outside Serena.  Stephens needs to transfer some of her feistiness from verbal barbs to her game, not an obstacle confronted by the powerful Madison Keys.  American fans should relish the sight of Keys this summer, showcasing a serve reminiscent of the Williams sisters and the penetrating groundstrokes designed for WTA success.  Reaching the second week at Wimbledon and at last year’s US Open, meanwhile, British teenager Laura Robson has shown the power and belief to strike down the elite.

 

The Magnificent Seven: Memorable Men’s Matches from the First Half of 2013

Made for this sport, and for each other.

Just past its halfway point, the year 2013 has featured twists and turns, tastes of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and plenty of memorable matches to recall.  This first of two articles counts down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half.  Not necessarily the longest, the closest, or those that featured the best tennis, each of them connected to narratives broader than their specific outcomes.

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7) Grigor Dimitrov d. Novak Djokovic, Madrid 2R, 7-6(6) 6-7(8) 6-3

During the first few months of 2013, Dimitrov progressed slowly but surely in his ability to challenge the ATP elite.  First, he served for the first set against Djokovic and Murray in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively.   Then, he won a set from Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo.  Dimitrov’s true breakthrough came at the next Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid, where he withstood an extremely tense encounter against the world No. 1.  When Djokovic escaped the marathon second-set tiebreak, the underdog could have crumbled.  Instead, Dimitrov rallied to claim an early third-set lead that he never relinquished.  Having won the Monte Carlo title from Nadal in his previous match, Djokovic showed unexpected emotional frailty here that undercut his contender’s credentials in Paris.  (He did, however, avenge this loss to Dimitrov when they met at Roland Garros.)

Stakhovsky

6) Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2R, 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5)

Ten years before, almost to the day, a youthful Roger Federer had burst onto the tennis scene by upsetting seven-time champion Pete Sampras at the All England Club.  An aura of invincibility had cloaked Federer at majors for much of the ensuing decade, contributing to a record-breaking streak of 36 major quarterfinals.  That streak forms a key cornerstone of his legacy, but it ended at the hands of a man outside the top 100 who never had defeated anyone in the top 10.  Federer did not play poorly for much of this match, a symbol of the astonishing upsets that rippled across Wimbledon on the first Wednesday.  Rare is the occasion when he does not play big points well, and even rarer is the occasion when an unheralded opponent of his plays them better.  Stakhovsky needed the fourth-set tiebreak almost as much as Federer did, and he struck just the right balance of boldness and patience to prevail.

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5) Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, Australian Open SF, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2

Murray ended the first half of 2013 by thrusting not a monkey but a King Kong-sized gorilla off its back.  He rid himself of another onerous burden when the year began, nearly as meaningful if less publicized.  Never had Murray defeated Federer at a major before, losing all three of their major finals while winning one total set.  A comfortable win seemed within his grasp when he served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only to see a vintage spurt of inspiration from the Swiss star force a fifth.  All the pressure rested on Murray in the deciding set after that opportunity slipped away, and yet he composed himself to smother Federer efficiently.  Murray’s third consecutive appearance in a major final illustrated his improving consistency, a theme of 2013.  Meanwhile, his opponent’s sagging energy in the fifth set revealed another theme of a season in which Federer has showed his age more than ever before.

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4) Rafael Nadal d. Ernests Gulbis, Indian Wells 4R, 4-6 6-4 7-5

Although South American clay had hinted at the successes ahead, neither Nadal nor his fans knew what to expect when he played his first marquee tournament since Wimbledon 2012.  Even the most ambitious among them could not have foreseen the Spaniard winning his first hard-court tournament since 2010 and first hard-court Masters 1000 tournament in four years.  Nadal would finish his title run by defeating three straight top-eight opponents, but the decisive turning point of his tournament came earlier.After falling behind the dangerous Ernests Gulbis, he dug into the trenches with his familiar appetite for competition.  To his credit, Gulbis departed from his usual insouciance and stood toe to toe with Nadal until the end, even hovering within two points of the upset.  But Nadal’s explosive athleticism allowed him to halt the Latvian’s 13-match winning streak in a series of pulsating exchanges.  He ended the match with his confidence far higher than when it began.

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3) Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin Del Potro, Wimbledon SF, 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3

Here is a match that does belong on this list simply because of its extraordinary length, tension, and quality, even if it ultimately lacks broader implications.  Neither man had lost a set en route to this semifinal, and its 283 blistering, sprawling minutes showed why.  Refusing to give an inch from the baseline, Djokovic and Del Potro blasted ferocious serves and groundstrokes while tracking down far more balls than one would have thought possible on grass. The drama raced to its climax late in the fourth set, when the Argentine saved two match points with bravery that recalled his Indian Wells victories over Murray and Djokovic.  Triumphant at last a set later, the Serb emitted a series of howls that exuded relief as much as exultation.  We will not know for the next several weeks what, if anything, will come from this match for Del Potro, but it marked by far his best effort against the Big Four at a major since he won the US Open.

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2) Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka, Australian Open 4R, 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10

Just halfway into the first major of 2013, everyone concurred that we already had found a strong candidate for the match of the year.  The second-ranked Swiss man lit up the Melbourne night for a set and a half as Djokovic slipped, scowled, and stared in disbelief at his unexpectedly feisty opponent.  Once Wawrinka faltered in his attempt to serve for a two-set lead, though, an irreversible comeback began.  Or so we thought.  A dazzling sequence of shot-making from Djokovic defined proceedings until midway through the fourth set, when Wawrinka reignited at an ideal moment.  Two of the ATP’s most glorious backhands then dueled through a 22-game final set, which also pitted Wawrinka’s formidable serve against Djokovic’s pinpoint return.  The underdog held serve six times to stay in the match, forcing the favorite to deploy every defensive and offensive weapon in his arsenal to convert the seventh attempt.  Fittingly, both of these worthy adversaries marched onward to impressive accomplishments.  Djokovic would secure a record three-peat in Melbourne, and Wawrinka would launch the best season of his career with victories over half of the top eight and a top-10 ranking.

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1) Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros SF, 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7

The stakes on each side loomed a little less large than in the 2012 final, perhaps, with neither a Nole Slam nor Nadal’s record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title on the line.  One would not have known it from watching a sequel much more compelling than the original, and one of the finest matches that this rivalry has produced.  Somewhat a mirror image of their final last year at the Australian Open, it featured a comeback by one man from the brink of defeat in the fourth set and a comeback by the other from the brink of defeat in the fifth.  Nadal led by a set and a break and later served for the match before Djokovic marched within six points of victory, but one last desperate display of will edged the Spaniard across the finish line.  Few champions throughout the sport’s history can match the resilience of these two champions, so the winner of their matches can exult in a hard-earned triumph.  While Djokovic proved how far he had progressed in one year as a Roland Garros contender, Nadal validated his comeback with his most fearless effort yet against the mature version of the Serb.  Only time will tell whether it marks the start of a new chapter in their rivalry, or a glittering coda that illustrates what might have been.

***

Check back in a day or two for a companion article on the seven most memorable women’s matches.

What to Watch in the ATP This Week: Bastad, Stuttgart, Newport Draw Previews

Returning to home soil should raise Sam Querrey

A day after the dust settled on the Wimbledon final, several notable men launch back into action at tournaments on clay and grass.

Bastad:

Top half:  The apparently indefatigable Tomas Berdych surges into Sweden just days after his appearance in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.  This spring, Berdych complained of fatigue caused by an overstuffed schedule, but a substantial appearance fee probably persuaded him to enter this small clay tournament.  Not at his best on clay this year, the top seed should cruise to the quarterfinals with no surface specialist in his area.  Viktor Troicki, his projected quarterfinal opponent, produced some encouraging results at Wimbledon but lacks meaningful clay credentials.

Much more compelling is the section from which Berdych’s semifinal opponent will emerge.  The fourth-seeded Tommy Robredo, a surprise quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, will hope to repeat his victory over the Czech in Barcelona.  On the other hand, Robredo cannot afford to dig the same early holes for himself in a best-of-three format that he did in Paris.  A first-round skirmish between fellow Argentines Carlos Berlocq and Horacio Zeballos features two thorns in Rafael Nadal’s side this year.  While Zeballos defeated the Spaniard to win Vina del Mar in February, Berlocq extended him deep into a third set soon afterward in Sao Paulo.

Bottom half:  The most famous tennis player to visit Stockholm this month will not appear in the Swedish Open.  Following her second-round exit at Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova accompanied boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov on a brief summer vacation before his appearance here.  Dimitrov holds the fifth seed in a wide-open quarter as he aims to thrust an epic Wimbledon loss behind him.  The man who stunned Novak Djokovic on Madrid clay this year has receded in recent weeks, and dirt devil Juan Monaco may test his questionable stamina in the quarterfinals.  Two Italian journeymen, Filippo Volandri and Paolo Lorenzi, look to squeeze out all that they can from their best surface.

Probably the most compelling quarterfinal would emerge in the lowest section of the draw between Spaniards Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco.  Like Berdych, Verdasco travels to Sweden on short rest after reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals.  Unlike Berdych, his result there astonished as he suddenly rediscovered his form in a dismal 2013, even extending Andy Murray to five sets.  Verdasco can resuscitate his ranking during the weeks ahead if he builds on that breakthrough, and he has won five of seven meetings from Almagro on clay.  Slumping recently after a fine start to the year, Almagro faces a potential early challenge against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.

Final: Robredo vs. Verdasco

Stuttgart:

Top half:  Often at his best on home soil, the top-seeded Tommy Haas eyes a rematch of his meeting in Munich this spring with Ernests Gulbis.  The veteran needed three sets to halt the Latvian firecracker that time.  But Marcel Granollers might intercept Gulbis in the first round, relying on his superior clay prowess.  In fact, plenty of quality clay tennis could await in a section that includes Monte Carlo semifinalist Fabio Fognini and Madrid semifinalist Pablo Andujar.  All of these men will have felt grateful to leave the brief grass season behind them as they return to the foundation of their success.

Much less deep in surface skills is the second quarter, headlined by Jeremy Chardy and Martin Klizan.  Despite his Australian Open quarterfinal when the season started, Chardy continues to languish below the elite level, which leaves this section ripe for surprises.  Granted, Klizan took a set from Nadal at Roland Garros, an achievement impressive under any circumstances.  He opens against Nice champion Albert Montanes, who once defeated Roger Federer on clay with a quintessential grinder’s game.  Perhaps Roberto Bautista-Agut will have gained confidence from his four-set tussle with David Ferrer at Wimbledon, or Daniel Gimeno-Traver from his upset of Richard Gasquet in Madrid.

Bottom half:   Never a threat at Wimbledon, Nikolay Davydenko chose to skip the third major this year to preserve his energy for more profitable surfaces.  Davydenko will begin to find out whether that decision made sense in Stuttgart, where he could face fourth seed Benoit Paire in the second round.  Both Paire and the other seed in this quarter, Lukas Rosol, seek to make amends for disappointing efforts at Wimbledon.  Each of them failed to capitalize on the Federer-Nadal quarter that imploded around them.  Another Russian seeking to make a comeback this year, Dmitry Tursunov, hopes to prove that February was no fluke.  Surprising successes at small tournaments that month have not led to anything greater for Tursunov so far, other than an odd upset of Ferrer.

Another player who skipped Wimbledon, Gael Monfils looks to extend a clay resurgence from his Nice final and a five-set thriller at Roland Garros against Berdych.  Two enigmatic Germans surround the even more enigmatic Frenchman, creating a section of unpredictability.  Philipp Kohlschreiber returns to action soon after he retired from a Wimbledon fifth set with alleged fatigue.  While compatriot Florian Mayer also fell in the first round, he had the much sturdier alibi of drawing Novak Djokovic.

Final:  Haas vs. Paire

Newport:

Top half:  Not part of the US Open Series, this cozy grass event at the Tennis Hall of Fame gives grass specialists one last opportunity to collect some victories.  Wildcard Nicolas Mahut could meet top seed Sam Querrey in round two, hoping that the American continues to stumble after an opening-round loss at Wimbledon.  But Querrey usually shines much more brightly on home soil, winning all but one of his career titles there.  A rising American star, Rhyne Williams, and doubles specialist Rajeev Ram look to pose his main pre-semifinal tests.  Ram has shone in Newport before, defeating Querrey in the 2009 final and reaching the semifinals last year with a victory over Kei Nishikori.

Among the most surprising names to reach the second week of Wimbledon was Kenny De Schepper, who outlasted fellow Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet.  De Schepper will try to exploit a section without any man in the top 50, but Igor Sijsling has played better than his ranking recently.  The Australian Open doubles finalist defeated Milos Raonic and won a set from Tsonga on grass this year, while extending Robredo to five sets at Roland Garros.  But Sijsling retired from Wimbledon with the flu, leaving his fitness in doubt.

Bottom half: Currently more dangerous on grass than anywhere else, Lleyton Hewitt reached the Newport final in his first appearance at the tournament last year.  The former Wimbledon champion more recently upset No. 11 seed Stanislas Wawrinka at Wimbledon after defeating Querrey, Dimitrov, and Juan Martin Del Potro at Queen’s Club.  Hewitt holds the fourth seed in Newport, where an all-Australian quarterfinal against Marinko Matosevic could unfold.   A former Newport runner-up in Prakash Amritraj and yet another Aussie in Matthew Ebden add their serve-volley repertoire to a section of contrasting playing styles.

Meeting for the fourth time this year are two struggling Americans, Ryan Harrison and the second-seeded John Isner.  The latter man aims to defend his Newport title as he regroups from a knee injury at the All England Club, but fellow giant Ivo Karlovic could loom in the quarterfinals.  Just back from a serious medical issue, Karlovic opens against Wimbledon doubles semifinalist Edouard Roger-Vasselin.  Potential talents Denis Kudla and Vasek Pospisil also square off, while Adrian Mannarino looks to recapture the form that took him to the brink of a Wimbledon quarterfinal.

Final:  Querrey vs. Hewitt

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