Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

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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.

 

Why I Am Not Yet Sold on Jerzy Janowicz

Jerzy Janowicz

Jerzy Janowicz(July 11, 2013) Jerzy Janowicz just played the best tournament of his career. He reached the semifinals of Wimbledon, the best result of his career. He reached a career-high ranking of World No. 17. He has a massive serve, good ground game, and already moves well enough to be a top player. The whole tennis world is expecting great things from Janowicz in the near future.

But I’m not ready to expect much from him just yet.

Am I being unfair? Am I being ridiculous? After all, the entire tennis world just saw him take Wimbledon by storm. We saw him produce tennis on a high level. Why wouldn’t I expect us to see it on a consistent basis?

The answer lies in that very question. Janowicz has developed the game to be a great player. He has the talent to be a great player? So why is he only now breaking in to the top 20?

Yes, every player has to start from somewhere. Every player gets better and better until he can reach the top of the game. But Janowicz has had this talent and ability for more than just two weeks. He played this well in reaching the final of the Masters tournament in Paris last November. So why was Janowicz not able to reach a single semifinal in the 7 months between those two tournaments?

I will be fair. Janowicz also played very well in the Masters tournament in Rome, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet before falling to Roger Federer. Even that doesn’t change the point I am trying to make.

Janowicz is a top 20 player right now, but he has done that by playing great tennis for three weeks out of the past year. He currently has 2,154 ATP ranking points. A combined 1,345 of those came from Paris and Wimbledon. He would not even be in the top 50 without those. If you ignore Rome as well he would fall out of the top 100 at the end of this week.

So what is my point? Paris, Rome, and Wimbledon did happen. You can’t just ignore them. But the fact is that they say something. Janowicz made himself from a fringe top 100 player into a top 20 player in 4 weeks. But if Janowicz is going to reach the top 10 or top 5, or even No. 1 someday like people are expecting of him, he will have to compete at his best level for more than 4 weeks out of the year.

He has shown us that he has that level. He has shown us that he can sustain it for most of a tournament. But he is going to have to do it for a much larger chunk of the season. Otherwise, where he is now may very well be the highest he can get.

Adidas Men’s Fall Preview: Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Fernando Verdasco

Barricade and Adizero 2013 US Open Murray Tsonga

Adidas has released its men’s fall preview outfits, complete with more vibrant colors for the Adizero line as well as newly-refined colorblocking for the Barricade line, and athletes such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Andy Murray, and Marcos Baghdatis will be wearing these kits throughout the fall and US Open series.

Andy Murray: The Scot keeps it simple once again in this adidas Men’s Barricade Murray US Open Crew, fully equipped with a “Band-of-Power” across the chest and rubberized stripes on the sleeves. It comes in Hi-Res Red (left), Blue Beauty (middle), Black (right), as well as two version of White.

Andy Murray Fall 2013 adidas

Marcos Baghdatis, Gilles Simon, Mikhail Youzhny: The polo version of the Barricade crew takes on a bit of a soccer or polo club feel with the partial “Band-of-Power” across the chest, and is simple yet inventive. It comes in White with Black, or Black with Hi-Res Red.

All of the men wearing the Barricade line will also be sporting the adidas Men’s Fall Barricade Woven 9.5″ Short in Black, White or Blue Beauty, as well as the adidas Barricade 8 White/Silver/Blue Men’s Shoe.

Baghdatis, Simon, Youzhny adidas Fall 2013

 

Andy Murray Fall 2013 adidas Barricade 8 shoes

 

Novak Djokovic: The Serb recently signed with adidas for a footwear deal (as his clothing sponsor Uniqlo does not make tennis shoes), and he’ll be exclusively sporting the adidas Barricade 7 Novak Men’s Shoe in Red/White for the US Open series.

Novak Djokovic Barricade 7 US Open men's shoe

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Monaco: The Frenchman and Argentine are slated to wear the adidas Men’s Fall Adizero Polo in either Hi-Res Red w/Hero Ink and Orange (top, below), Hero Ink with Hi-Res Red and Orange (second below, left) White with Hero Ink (second below, right).

The blue as well as the vibrant colors and lines are an extension of adidas’ spring/summer line seen most recently at the French Open, except that this time, the designs are more contained to the upper chest and back.

Tsonga and Juan Monaco Fall 2013 adidas
Tsonga and Juan Monaco Fall 2013 adidas 2

Fernando Verdasco, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Jurgen Melzer: Most of the other adidas athletes will be sporting the adidas Men’s Fall Adizero Crew in various colors. The bold styling of the tee once again matches today’s aggressive game, with the graphics only on the chest and upper back.

All of the athletes wearing the adizero tops will also be donning the adidas Men’s Fall Adizero Bermuda Short as well as two color combinations of the adidas adizero CC Feather II Men’s Shoe in Red/Blue (left, bottom) or White/Blue/Red (right, bottom).

Verdasco, Dolgopolov, Melzer adidas Fall 2013

Verdasco, Dolgopolov, Melzer adidas Fall 2013 2

 

Adizero 2013 Fall Men's Shoe

 

What do you think of the adidas men’s fall and US Open styles?

Wimbledon Rewind: How the Mighty Have Fallen (And Who Might Reap the Rewards)

Maria Sharapova Wimbledon

A wild Wednesday swept through the All England Club.  We glance back through the avalanche of upsets that rendered some sections of both draws almost unrecognizable as a major.

Roger rolled:  36 straight quarterfinals at majors.  Seven Wimbledon titles in the last ten years.  None of his legendary opponent’s credentials mattered to the 116th-ranked Sergei Stakhovsky, who became the lowest-ranked man to defeat Roger Federer in a decade.  His moment of truth came in the fourth-set tiebreak, as crucial for the underdog as it was for the favorite considering the momentum that Stakhovsky had built by winning the second and third sets.  Federer had started to reassert himself late in the fourth, and he surely would have secured the fifth set if he had reached it.

Unlike Alejandro Falla in 2010, and Julien Benneteau in 2012, Stakhovsky made sure that the Swiss did not survive the crossroads.  A barrage of unreturnable serves early in the tiebreak, a clutch backhand down the line, and a sequence of magnificent lunging volleys brought him to match point on his serve.  Sure enough, Federer saved it with a pinpoint passing shot.  But Stakhovsky kept his composure through what felt like an interminable rally with the champion serving at 5-6 in the tiebreak.  Finally, a Federer backhand floated aimlessly wide as time seemed to stand still on Centre Court, where things like these never happen.

Maria mastered:  Off the WTA radar for years, former prodigy Michelle Larcher de Brito had gained most of her publicity from distinctively elongated yodels.  She entered the main draw as a qualifier, though, which meant that she had accumulated more grass matches than her heralded opponent.  Former Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova has stumbled early in the draw there more often than not in recent years.  Slipping and skidding around the site of her first major breakthrough, she never found her rhythm or range from the baseline in a loss that recalled previous Wimbledon setbacks to Alla Kudryavtseva and Gisela Dulko.

The finish did not come easily for de Brito, as it never does against Sharapova.  The girl who long has struggled with her serve deserves full credit for standing firm through deuce after deuce as five match points slipped past until the sixth proved the charm.

Vika victimized:  Injuring her leg during her first-round victory, world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka never reached her scheduled Centre Court rendezvous with Flavia Pennetta on Wednesday.  Azarenka withdrew from Wimbledon while blasting the All England Club for creating unsafe playing conditions.  She now needs only a retirement or walkover at Roland Garros to complete a career injury Slam, and she will hand the No. 2 ranking back to Sharapova after the tournament.

Jo-Wilfried jolted:  Also on the retirement list in a day filled with injuries, world No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga handed Ernests Gulbis a ticket to the third round after losing two of the first three sets.  A semifinalist at Roland Garros and at Queen’s Club, Tsonga had seemed one of the tournament’s leading dark horses at the outset.  But Gulbis, the most dangerous unseeded man in the draw, eyes an open route to a quarterfinal against Andy Murray.

Caro curbed:  An Eastbourne semifinal aside, Caroline Wozniacki has struggled without respite since reaching the Indian Wells final in March.  Another early loss thus comes as no great surprise for someone who lost in the first round of Wimbledon last year.  Wozniacki secured just four games from Petra Cetkovska, not the first upset that the Czech has notched on grass.

Tall men toppled:  Their opponents had nothing to do with it, but the tenth-seeded Marin Cilic and American No. 2 John Isner added themselves to the exodus of retirements.  While Isner did not harbor real hopes for a deep run, Cilic reached the final at Queen’s Club barely a week ago and had reached the second week of Wimbledon last year.  Of the top-16 seeds in the bottom half of the men’s draw, only Murray and Nicolas Almagro remain.

Serbs swiped:  More comfortable on slower surfaces, former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic departed in straight sets on Wednesday.  Ivanovic’s loss came at the hands of rising Canadian star Eugenie Bouchard, who may rival Laura Robson (or Larcher de Brito?) for the breakout story of the women’s tournament.  The proudly patriotic Jankovic may take some comfort in the fact that her misfortune came at the hands of a fellow Serb.  Her conqueror, Vesna Dolonc, is the only Serb left in the women’s draw.

Hewitt halted:  The 2002 champion soared to a straight-sets victory over the 11th-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in the first round, only to tumble back to earth against flashy Jamaican-turned-German journeyman Dustin Brown.  Lleyton Hewitt’s defeat leaves Novak Djokovic as the only former champion and only No. 1 in the Wimbledon men’s draw.

And more…:  The seeded casualties did not stop there.  Fernando Verdasco bounced No. 31 Julien Benneteau in straight sets, No. 22 Sorana Cirstea lost two tiebreaks to Camila Giorgi, and No. 27 Lucie Safarova let a one-set lead get away against another Italian in Karin Knapp.  Nadal’s nemesis, Steve Darcis, also withdrew from Wimbledon with a shoulder injury.

Hanging on tight:  In the women’s match of the day, No. 17 Sloane Stephens narrowly kept her tournament alive against Andrea Petkovic by surviving an 8-6 third set.  Stephens will have a real chance to reach her second semifinal in three 2013 majors with both top-eight seeds gone from her quarter.  Also extended to a third set were No. 19 Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 25 Ekaterina Makarova, the latter of whom overcame rising Spanish star Garbine Muguruza.  Meanwhile, men’s 20th seed Mikhail Youzhny needed five sets to survive Canadian youngster Vasek Pospisil as hardly anyone escaped at least a nibble from the upset bug.

Rising above the rubble:  But a few contenders did.  Extending his winning streak to seven, second seed Andy Murray notched another routine victory as he becomes the overwhelming favorite to reach a second straight Wimbledon final.  Murray’s pre-final draw might pit him against a succession of Tommy Robredo, Youzhny, Gulbis, and Benoit Paire or Jerzy Janowicz—hardly a murderer’s row, although the Gulbis matchup might intrigue.

In the wake of a difficult first-round victory, 2011 champion Petra Kvitova caught a break today when Yaroslava Shvedova withdrew.  Kvitova becomes the only top-eight seed to reach the third round in the bottom half of the women’s draw.  She could face a compelling test from Makarova on Friday, but her most significant competition might come from Stephens or Marion Bartoli in the semifinals.  Struggling mightily for most of the spring amid coaching turmoil, 2007 finalist Bartoli has picked an ideal time to find some form again.  She ousted Christina McHale in straight sets today and has become the highest-ranked woman remaining in her quarter.

Live Updates: Sharapova, Isner, Azarenka Lead Player Injuries on an Unprecedented Day 3 at Wimbledon

Julien Benneteau injury_600

(June 26, 2013) Players, fans, media members, Wimbledon trainers, and even my goldfish are all scratching their heads on this unprecedented injury-filled Wednesday.

Within the first 90 minutes of play, five players had already been forced to withdraw due to injuries sustained on the slippery grass, and more continue throughout the day. As Darren Cahill states, the grass is typically more slippery in the first four days while the back court gets worn down, but the rainy days prior to the start of the tournament haven’t helped the already wet conditions.

Players such as Maria Sharapova are calling the courts “dangerous,” while the All England Club told ESPN this afternoon that the grounds are in “excellent condition.” Clearly, all the injuries, slips and retirements have infiltrated the players’ mindset and many would be wise to be cautious in their movement. Not surprisingly, the conditions have balanced the competition and no top player is safe as seen by Sharapova’s early exit.

Friend of Tennis Grandstand, @MariyaKTennis, tweeted the following:According to @ITF_Tennis, this is believed to be the most singles retirements/walkovers on a single day at a Slam in the Open Era.” So, there we go.

Here is a run down of the player walkovers, as well as various other injuries sustained throughout day three of play.

Retirements

John Isner: In the opening game of his match against Adrian Mannarino, Isner was serving and came down hard, tweaking his left knee. After getting it taped up, Isner tried to continue but ended up retiring only points later.

John Isner
John Isner 2
John Isner 3
Victoria Azarenka: Nobody’s day one tumble looked worse than Azarenka’s against Maria Joao Koehler, where she slipped and twisted her right knee. Despite an MRI showing no structural damage, Azarenka pulled out prior to her match, giving opponent Flavia Pennetta a walkover to the third round.

Victoria Azarenka

Radek Stepanek: A mere six games into his match against Jerzy Janowicz, Stepanek received a medical timeout and heavy strapping on his left thigh. He continued but was forced to retire down 6-2, 5-3.

Radek Stepanek

Marin Cilic: The No. 10 men’s seed pulled out prior to his match against Kenny de Schepper due to a lingering left knee injury which was worsened during his win over Marcos Baghdatis in the opening round.
“I started to have difficulties with my knees during Queen’s. During last week I was feeling it already in practice. Then on Sunday I felt it really bad in my serve … Yesterday it felt it much, much worse. It was difficult for me to put weight on left leg which is where the pain is.”

Steve Darcis: Rafael’s Nadal conquestor also pulled out prior to stepping on court for his second round match. The Belgian said he had hurt his right shoulder when he fell during the first set against Nadal on Monday.

The 29-year-old posted on Twitter: “Had to withdrawn after a win like this!?THE most difficult thing i had to do!!!#triedeverythingtoplaybutdidntwork!!!!”

Yaroslava Shvedova: The Russian-born Kazak was added to the withdrawal list as she pulled out with an arm injury before her match against No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: After losing the second set to Ernests Gulbis, Tsonga got his left knee taped despite there being no clear indication of when the injury happened. His movement seems to be severely hampered and he retired after losing the third set.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Ernests Gulbis

Injuries and Other Tumbles

Maria Sharapova: After taking a pretty bad tumble during her warm-up, Sharapova slipped an additional three times during her match, the last of which required an injury timeout to her left hip. Sharapova repeatedly told the chair umpire that the conditions on court were “dangerous” and these tumbles seemed to have affected her focus and play. Her opponent Michelle Larcher de Brito ended up pulling off the ultimate upset, and in straight sets no less, 6-3, 6-4.

Embedly Powered

Caroline Wozniacki: Despite having taped her right ankle, the 9th seed slipped on the grass twisting her left ankle. She was able to finish out the match but lost to Petra Cetkovska in just over an hour, 6-2, 6-2.

Caroline Wozniacki
Caroline Wozniacki 2

 

Footage of some of the tumbles that Wozniacki, Eugenie Bouchard, Julien Benneteau, Mikhail Youzhny and Ernests Gulbis took.

Embedly Powered

Julien Benneteau: The Frenchman took his own slip against Fernando Verdasco that required a trainer examining his right leg. The 31 seed eventually lost 7-6, 7-6, 6-4.

Julien Benneteau 3

Julien Benneteau
Julien Benneteau 2

Can Ernests Gulbis Stop Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the Wimbledon Grass?

No. 6 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga takes on Ernests Gulbis in Wimbledon round two

(June 25, 2013) Ernests Gulbis’ best performance at Wimbledon has been reaching the second round on four separate occasions, including already this year. Unfortunately for Gulbis, his draws have been anything but strawberries and cream. The first three of these contests have all ended in defeat for the Latvian, and it has come at the hands of Rafael Nadal in 2008, Andy Murray in 2009, and Jerzy Janowicz in 2012. Can Gulbis turn around his luck this year?

Despite Gulbis’ stellar 2013, he enters unseeded and Wimbledon still isn’t doing him any favors as his draw pits him against the No. 6 seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, in the second round.

On paper, Tsonga is the overwhelming pick to win in this match. Tsonga not only leads the head to head 3-0, but he also has reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in 2011 and 2012 whereas Gulbis is 7-12 in his career on the grass.

While their grass court resumes may be abundantly different, the ever-confident Latvian will certainly believe he has a fighting chance in this match. He should draw inspiration from the fact that Steve Darcis had an 11-11 record on grass before his match against Rafael Nadal and had only made it past the opening round once.

From a tactical perspective, Gulbis will be looking to maximize the amount of backhand-to-backhand rallies as this specific pattern of play matches up Gulbis’ strongest wing against the infamously frail Tsonga backhand.

Tsonga’s premier strategy will be to throw the kitchen sink at Gulbis’ protracted and wrist reliant forehand. The Frenchman’s ammunition off the forehand side in particular should allow him to rush and pressure Gulbis into an array of forehand errors. In addition, Tsonga’s slice backhand should make it increasingly difficult for Gulbis to set up and take the powerful cuts he is used to taking.

Both guys possess tons of power from the ground and off the serve. When this type of matchup arises, the player who is better able to maintain depth and pace and not allow their opponents to take huge swipes at the ball will have the best opportunity to win.

Ultimately, Tsonga should come away with the victory as he possesses an all-court style of play which provides him with a great number of options by which to win and close out points. Not only can he power down aces and crush winners from the baseline but he has the unique and ostensibly archaic capacity to move forward and end points at the net.

However this match ends up, if you’re going to Wimbledon on Wednesday and have the ability to see this match, it definitely is a must-see blockbuster as far as a second round match goes.

Prediction: Tsonga in 4 sets 

The Fab Five: Previewing the Wimbledon Men’s Contenders

Roger Federer hopes to keep a step ahead of his rivals again.

At the Australian Open and Roland Garros this year, one man entered the tournament as a clear favorite to extend his mastery over it.  Wimbledon presents a much blurrier and thus more intriguing picture, for any of the top four men will have a real chance to win.  Here is my best shot at an early ranking of contenders ahead before the draw.

1) Roger Federer:  The man who has won seven of the last ten men’s titles at Wimbledon probably enters as a slight favorite because of those credentials alone.  While Federer has not defeated nemesis Rafael Nadal there (or at any major) in six years, he claimed consecutive victories over his other two rivals en route to the 2012 title.  Defeating both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, he showed how the best serve and best forecourt skills of the Big Four can trump the superior physicality and consistency of the others on grass.  Federer recaptured the Halle title last week despite some concerning stretches of fallibility against opponents whom he would have dominated in his prime.  He still owns just one victory over a top-10 opponent this year, and he will need to win efficiently in the earlier rounds to conserve energy for more demanding competition.

2) Rafael Nadal:  A two-time Wimbledon champion, Nadal did not lose before the final there between 2006 and 2011.  When Lukas Rosol snapped that streak last year, he continued a trend in which unheralded men with massive serves have troubled the Spaniard in the first week.  Take a careful look at his early draw, then, but prepare for him to raise his level several notches if he survives any early tests.  The grass slows during the course of the fortnight, especially behind the baseline where Nadal prefers to play, and that factor should aid him in the second week.  No questions remain about his ability to recapture championship form in his comeback, including on surfaces other than clay.  Nadal’s Indian Wells title, built upon victories over three top-eight opponents, proved the latter point.  Dominant at Wimbledon against Andy Murray, he holds the momentum in key rivalries against Djokovic and Federer.

3) Novak Djokovic:   The world No. 1 may attract the least scrutiny of the Big Four heading into the season’s third major.  Federer defends the title, Nadal seeks to complete a third Channel Slam, and Murray bears the hopes of the host nation on his shoulders.  A Wimbledon champion two years ago, Djokovic will finish the tournament in the top spot regardless of his result and may arrive at the All England Club in an emotional lull.  Revenge on Nadal for his heartbreaking loss to the Spaniard at Roland Garros might offer the Serb some motivation, or he may need time to regroup emotionally.  His reliance on extended baseline rallies and vulnerability at the net may hamper him on grass, although Djokovic acted wisely to choose rest rather than preparation ahead of Wimbledon.  Strangely, he has played only three matches against the rest of the Big Four on grass, winning just one.

4) Andy Murray:  And so it begins, the quest to become the first British man since the Second World War to win Wimbledon.  For the first time, though, Murray plunges into the cauldron of scrutiny as a proven major champion, which might relieve the pressure on him even as it may raise expectations.  He arrives at Wimbledon fresher than the other contenders, having cut short his clay season after a back injury in Rome.  Murray reaped the rewards of that decision immediately when he reclaimed the Queen’s Club title that he won in 2011.  He defeated both Djokovic and Federer at the All England Club last year when it hosted the Olympics, another experience that should help settle his nerves, and he also now knows the feeling of playing the Wimbledon final.  Murray will hope to avoid Nadal, from whom he has won one set in three Wimbledon meetings.

5) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga:  Realistically, one struggles to imagine anyone other than the Big Four lifting the Wimbledon trophy.  Extending beyond that group, 2010 runner-up Tomas Berdych might seem the most logical contender as the only active man other than the four above to reach the Wimbledon final in the last decade.  But Berdych has disappointed for most of the last few months, outside a victory over Djokovic in Rome, and he has only one quarterfinal in eight other Wimbledon appearances.  A more plausible threat could come from a man whose explosive serving and deft touch at the net positions him for success on grass.  Tsonga defeated Federer at Wimbledon two years ago, an upset that he repeated at Roland Garros last month, and he has won sets from Murray and Djokovic there.  The short points on this surface reward his shot-making talents while camouflaging his impatience and lapses in focus.

***

In a day or two, I will return with a similar article on the women’s contenders.  Constructing the hierarchy of their title chances oddly came more easily than it did for the men.

When the Red Dust Settles: Favorite Memories of Roland Garros 2013

We have reached the end of the red brick road for another year.

Matches and events fly past in the fortnight of a major too quickly to absorb everything that happens.  But, now that the red dust has settled, here are the memories that I will take from Roland Garros 2013.

Gael Monfils and the Paris crowd making each other believe that he could accomplish the impossible, and then Monfils accomplishing it.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands looking completely lost at the start of her match against Li Na and then gradually finding her baseline range, one rain delay at a time.

The courteous handshake and smile that Li gave her conqueror despite the bitter defeat.

Shelby Rogers justifying her USTA wildcard by winning a main-draw match and a set from a seed.

Grigor Dimitrov learning how to reach the third round of a major, and learning that what happens in Madrid stays in Madrid.

Bojana Jovanovski teaching Caroline Wozniacki that what happens in Rome doesn’t stay in Rome.

Ernests Gulbis calling the Big Four boring, and former top-four man Nikolay Davydenko calling him back into line.

Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur settling their features into resigned masks they underachieved yet again at a major.

John Isner winning 8-6 in the fifth and then coming back the next day to save 12 match points before losing 10-8 in the fifth.

Virginie Razzano winning twice as many matches as she did here last year.

Tommy Haas dominating a man fourteen years his junior and then coming back the next day to save a match point and outlast Isner when the thirteenth time proved the charm.

Benoit Paire losing his mind after a code violation cost him a set point, and Kei Nishikori quietly going about his business afterwards.

Ana Ivanovic telling journalists that “ajde” is her favorite word, and sympathizing with Nadal for the scheduling woes.

Tommy Robredo crumpling to the terre battue in ecstasy after a third consecutive comeback from losing the first two sets carried him to a major quarterfinal.

Sloane Stephens calling herself one of the world’s most interesting 20-year-olds.

Nicolas Almagro swallowing the bitter taste of a second straight collapse when opportunity knocked to go deep in a major.

Victoria Azarenka reminding us that it is, after all, rather impressive to win a match when your serve completely fails to show up.

Fernando Verdasco clawing back from the brink of defeat against Janko Tipsarevic to the brink of an upset that would have cracked his draw open—only to lose anyway.

Alize Cornet pumping her fist manically in one game and sobbing in despair the next.

Mikhail Youzhny remembering to bang a racket against his chair instead of his head.

Francesca Schiavone catching lightning in a bottle one more time in Paris, just when everyone thought that she no longer could.

Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet putting on a master class of the one-handed backhand.

Svetlana Kuznetsova walking onto Chatrier to face Angelique Kerber and playing like she belonged there as a contender of the present, not a champion of the past.

Roger Federer joining alter ego @PseudoFed on Twitter, and fledgling tweeter Tomas Berdych telling one of his followers that his most challenging opponent is…Tomas Berdych.

Agnieszka Radwanska proving that her newly blonde hair wasn’t a jinx, but that major quarterfinals still might be.

Jo-Wifried Tsonga showing us his best and worst in the course of two matches, illustrating why he could win a major and why he has not.

Sara Errani looking the part of last year’s finalist while tying much bigger, stronger women up in knots.

Novak Djokovic overcoming a significant personal loss midway through the tournament and standing taller than ever before at the one major that still eludes him.

Jelena Jankovic completing a dramatic come-from-behind win and a dramatic come-from-ahead loss against two top-ten women in the same tournament.

David Ferrer, the forgotten man, reaching his first major final at age 31 in a reward for all of those years toiling away from the spotlight.

Maria Sharapova staying true to her uncompromising self and ending a match in which she hit 11 double faults with—an ace.

Serena Williams consigning her last trip here to the dustbin of history.

Rafael Nadal collapsing on the Chatrier clay just as ecstatically the eighth time as he did the first.

Staying up until 5 AM to watch a certain match, and wanting to stay up longer for one more game or one more point.

Looking forward to jumping back on the rollercoaster at the All England Club.

History Beckons at Roland Garros, Fairytale Run by David Ferrer — The Friday Four

David Ferrer

By Maud Watson

Vying for No. 2

On Saturday, the top two women’s seeds will be battling each other to try and claim a second title at Roland Garros. Serena’s first title came over ten years ago in 2002, while Sharapova tasted sweet success last year. Serena has a lot more going for her heading into this final. She’s yet to lose on the clay this season, and with the exception of her quarterfinal match against Kuznetsova, she’s reached the final with minimal fuss. Then there’s that dominating head-to-head record she owns against Sharapova. That record alone makes Saturday’s match an uphill battle for Sharapova. But the Russian is a fierce competitor who lets very little faze her, as evidenced by the way she fought through both her quarterfinal and semifinal matches. Sharapova has also been the second best player on the dirt in 2013, so she shouldn’t be too far behind Serena in the confidence department as far as her clay-court game goes. In short, the blatant favorite in this final is Serena, but she can’t psyche herself out like she very nearly did during a brilliant patch of play from Kuznetsova in the quarters. For her own part, Sharapova has to believe and work hard to keep things close early if she’s to stand a prayer. It’s a big match for both, and it will ultimately come down to who’s stronger mentally.

History Beckons

Two intriguing men’s semifinals are set to be contested, and the blockbuster matchup in the eyes of many will pit Novak Djokovic against Rafael Nadal. It’s another classic case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and a win in Paris for either one would be of great historical significance. Nadal is going for an astonishing record eighth title in the French capital. He has managed to overcome a rocky start to the tournament but now appears to be firing on all cylinders. His form has been stellar virtually all season, making the finals of every tournament he has entered and winning all but two of them. He went on his usual tear through the clay court season, and capping off his comeback with yet another French Open title looks almost inevitable. But one of the men to have defeated Nadal this season is Novak Djokovic. Djokovic’s victory put a blemish on Nadal’s clay court season as he earned a key victory over the Spaniard in Monte-Carlo. Many feel he’s the one guy who has the necessary tools to defeat Nadal at his best, but Djokovic will have to work hard to keep the nerves in check. He’s never won the French, but if he were to do so, he would complete the career Grand Slam. He’s also likely to want it more for his first coach, Jelena Gencic, who passed away earlier this week. It’s a match that has instant classic written all over it and will likely be decided by only a few points, but edge to the Spaniard.

Fairytale Run

Though it isn’t receiving nearly the same amount of promotion, the other men’s semi is intriguing in its own right. It features two players who couldn’t be more opposite. On one side there is Ferrer. He’s tennis’ ultimate warrior. Nobody works harder. He’s not flashy, but he’s a dogged competitor who is as steady as they come. He might just feel that Lady Luck is sitting in his corner as he’ll find Tsonga, not Federer, on the other side of the net as he competes to book his first major final berth. Of course, Tsonga has plenty of reason to feel good about his own chances of going all the way, too. He’s a flashy, charismatic competitor embraced by the French crowd. Like Ferrer, he has moved through the tournament without the loss of a set, which includes blitzing Federer in the quarters. He’s been to a major final before, and he’ll have an entire nation behind him as he aims to become the first native son since Yannick Noah to lift the trophy. The fact that he’s playing a guy who has admitted he doesn’t think he can win a slam could also work in his favor. If it were on any other clay court, or even earlier in this event, Ferrer’s consistency might edge out Tsonga. But in the semis with virtually all of France behind him, you have to like Tsonga’s chances to reach his second major final.

Ups and Downs

It’s never too soon to be looking forward to the grass court season, which kicks off with Queen’s next week. The Brits will be happy that Andy Murray, who pulled out of Roland Garros with a bad back, is planning to test the waters at the Wimbledon tune-up. He’s always enjoyed plenty of the success there, so hopefully he’ll be able to get his grass court season off on a good note. Unfortunately, that’s not a possibility for Mardy Fish. The American is suffering from the flu and has already announced he won’t be in Queen’s. He’s also doubtful for Wimbledon and will be making a decision on his participation in that event next week. At least Brian Baker, who won’t be competing at all on the grass this year, has set a return date of July 22. With the results he was pulling last year, he deserves another crack at it.

Roland Garros Fast Forward: Previewing the Men’s Semifinals

See you again here next year.

When the Roland Garros draw first appeared, all of us felt virtually certain that we would see Roger Federer on the second Sunday.  His greatest obstacle, fourth-seeded David Ferrer, never had defeated him in 14 attempts, while Federer’s early rounds looked especially forgiving.  Things did not turn out that way when an especially unforgiving Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hammered the Swiss star into straight-sets submission to reach his first Roland Garros semifinal.

As ecstatic as he must have felt to achieve that breakthrough, Tsonga cannot bask in its glow too long.  He may have reached the semifinals without losing a set, but so has his opponent.  Handed less daunting opposition than Tsonga, Ferrer has shown even greater efficiency in hurling four breadsticks at his last two opponents.  At age 31, he will not see many more opportunities to reach his first major final without defeating any of his elite nemeses.  That pressure on Ferrer may counterbalance the pressure on Tsonga as he aims to move onto the threshold of becoming the first French champion at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah thirty years ago.

While this match lacks star power compared to the other semifinal, it will present a more intriguing contrast of styles and greater uncertainty about how the matchup will unfold.  Tsonga certainly will need to impose himself behind an excellent first-serve percentage, an area where he always has shone at his best.  Looking to pin Ferrer behind the baseline, he will seek to capitalize on short balls by showing off his crisp forecourt skills.  Directly pitted against the Frenchman’s greatest weapons are the Spaniard’s sharpest tools, however.  For every massive serve that Tsonga strikes, Ferrer can reply with a pinpoint return.  For every delicately carved drop volley that delights the French crowd, a scorching passing shot can silence them.

These two semifinalists from opposite sides of the Pyrenees have met only once on clay, three years ago in Rome.  Ferrer won routinely, as he did again last fall in Paris, while Tsonga won their only meeting at a major.  The Spaniard has gained repeated success in their matches by pounding his inside-out forehand into Tsonga’s vulnerable backhand, but that weakness has held firm so far this tournament.  During the course of five sets, the home hope should produce just enough bursts of explosive shot-making to preserve his dream at the cost of another.

***

That dream could turn into a nightmare, though, against the man who has annexed this tournament for nearly a decade with the exception of a brief insurrection in 2009.  Or against the man who defeated Tsonga in his only major final to date, at the 2008 Australian Open.  Pick your poison.

Starkly divergent from the other semifinal, whose protagonists have met only three times, is the latest collision between two men on track to meet more than any other pair of champions in history.  Djokovic and Nadal already have shared the court a staggering 34 times, 11 of those in a 15-month span from Indian Wells 2011 to Roland Garros 2012.  But they have not met before a final since 2009, the year-end championships aside, so Rafole XXXV will end without the usual fanfare of a championship celebration and a dual trip to the podium.

Not that it could end much more limply than the 2012 Roland Garros final, the latest notch in Nadal’s perfect record here against both of his archrivals.  With a double fault down championship point, Djokovic showed his unreadiness to handle the pressure of the circumstances.  At stake was only a first title in Paris but a career Grand Slam and the rare feat of holding all four major titles simultaneously.  All of that history created a burden too onerous even for the valiant Serb when combined with Nadal’s career-long mastery over this surface.

Hearkening back to his 2011 clay success, Djokovic snapped his archrival’s winning streak earlier this year in Monte Carlo.  Nadal had grasped that tournament in a record-breaking stranglehold even more oppressive than his dominance in Paris.  A runner-up to Rafa there last year, Djokovic avenged that loss by controlling this year’s final nearly from start to finish.  When Nadal threatened to turn the match around, the world No. 1 responded vigorously to adversity.  He will need to bring that attitude from Monte Carlo to Paris, where he should know that he will face repeated spans of adversity.  After his first-week struggles, Nadal has rounded into his usual impressive Roland Garros form during the last two rounds.  Djokovic can expect to face a more confident version of his rival than he did in Monte Carlo, for the Spaniard’s confidence has mounted following subsequent titles in Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome.

The two men hold no secrets from each other, their games having crystallized into essentially fixed cores.  As he usually does, Djokovic will look to drive his two-handed backhand toward Nadal’s forehand corner before pouncing on opportunities to rip his signature shot up the line.  Nadal will look to neutralize his rival’s dangerous return by varying the placement on his serve and directing it into the body at times, while he will try to keep Djokovic honest by mixing flat down-the-line forehands with his usual topspin cross-court forehand.  The unprecedented and unparalleled levels of fitness and mobility on both sides will encourage the two men to settle into long, grinding rallies rather than pulling the trigger early.  Whoever does find the courage to seize opportunity when it knocks, however, will strike the latest blow in the game’s greatest rivalry.

 

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