John Isner

Back Into the Top 50: The Resurgence of Dmitry Tursunov

DSC_01470001Dimitry Tursnov fridayWASHINGTON, D.C. – Nearly twenty years ago, Dmitry Tursunov stepped off the plane from Russia, ready to take on the tennis world at the tender age of twelve. His father was determined to make a tennis champion in the family and the talented Tursunov obliged with a move to the United States.

Despite rising to a career-high ranking of world No. 20 in 2006, it wasn’t always an easy road for the Russian as he was forced off tour multiple times with injuries and surgeries, and a strained relationship with his father did not help his confidence.

Tursunov himself calls his career a bit of a “rollercoaster,” but his most memorable win came against an American great in 2006, as he won 17-15 in a fifth set.

“Most people might say that the highlight of my career was beating Andy Roddick on clay during Davis Cup — on a surface he doesn’t really like,” joked Tursunov exclusively to Tennis Grandstand. “But it was a good match for the fans and it had a lot of suspense.”

After breaking into the top 100 exactly ten years ago, it was another three years before the Russian’s ranking steadied within the top 40. Over the next three years, he won six tournaments and defeated a top 10 opponent on seven occasions. At about this time, injuries started to creep in and they took him out of the game as he fell outside of the top 500.

“With every injury, you also have doubts, and the last couple of injuries have been probably more difficult than the first ones,” admitted Tursunov. “They always give you a scare and you’re never sure if you’re going to be or not going to be playing again. But for some reason the last couple [of injuries] were kind of hard to get through.”

The expectation with injury recovery among athletes is that once your body has healed, you will be able to return to your previous prime quite quickly. But that is rarely the case and often times you begin to question your game.

“When you’re coming back [from injury], that’s the hardest thing,” Tursunov continued. “Because when you’re coming back, you don’t have much confidence in anything. You’re constantly in doubt and you’re taking bad results closer to the heart … When you’re taking hits and you’re down, it’s a lot harder to get through those. You just suck it up or call it quits.

Despite his rocky time with the sport, the Russian who now trains in California never doubted his place in tennis.

“I felt there is not much I could do outside of tennis … As much as I sometimes hate being on court when I’m not playing well, I understand that it’s much better than being in the ‘real world’ and having a 9-to-5 job … I would rather be a player on tour than even a coach.”

Tursunov got his start on a tennis court at a very early age, under the careful tutelage of his father.

“[My father] had a tremendous belief in me from the very beginning,” stated Tursunov. “He put 150% of his energy into my tennis. Any money he had was not going to the family, it was going to my tennis. He essentially gambled quite a lot on my tennis.”

With a father so involved with his budding career, it was only inevitable that this strained their own relationship off the court.

“I had a difficult relationship with my dad because of tennis,” commented Tursunov. “Tennis was basically the link that bonded us together. And for a very long time, when I was practicing – when I was little – I didn’t see myself as anything other than a tennis player because it was so engrained into my lifestyle. There was no speculation about what I would become when I’m older. Everything was around tennis.”

If this story sounds familiar, you might be right.

Andre Agassi, in his book “Open,” also heavily commented on the difficult relationship he had with his own father on the tennis court, and many aspects of his and Tursunov’s relationships run in parallel.

“Some people might say that he vicariously lived through me, but as a parent, I don’t really believe you think of it this way. You always want your child to succeed,” stated Tursunov. “I also don’t believe my dad abused our relationship and dynamics, like some press have said.”

He continued: “Yes, he was fanatical about it. … If anything, I wish that we had found a common ground earlier. … The last few years, he finally started asking me about life outside of tennis and how I’m doing.”

With his father’s passing last year, Tursunov is playing with a renewed determination. Though he admits to “wearing [his] emotion on [his] sleeve” on court and often being quite negative, his new coach repeatedly reminds him to be more optimistic and positive, and it seems to be resulting in some good wins.

This year already, Tursunov has defeated two top-10 opponents, including David Ferrer and Janko Tipsarevic, and just this week at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. he ousted 2011 champion Radek Stepanek and tournament fifth seed Gilles Simon. His ascension back to world No. 61 has been a sweet affair, and his semifinal appearance this week will propel him back up to at least No. 43 in the rankings.

At thirty years old, Tursunov is now near the twilight of his tennis career, but he finds inspiration in a fellow ATP player who has defied age stereotypes.

“Tommy Haas is giving a lot of hope to all of us to play far into our thirties,” stated Tursunov. “I think in general you can see the trend of older players playing longer into their careers … I’d like for the last two to three years of my career – whenever that may be – to really make it count. Not just win one, two rounds but win tournaments.”

With his semifinal against John Isner at the Citi Open on Saturday, there may be no better time than now to announce his comeback.

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

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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

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.

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From Continent to Continent: ATP Washington and Kitzbuhel Previews

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

Christian Harrison Making a Name for Himself on the ATP Tour

WASHINGTON, D.C. — If you’ve ever watched Ryan Harrison play tennis with his booming serve and forehand, you may be surprised to learn that his brother Christian’s style is vastly different. The younger Harrison’s game is founded on court coverage and speed, and he is quickly making a name for himself on the ATP Tour.  (Christian Harrison gallery at bottom)

The Louisiana native won his first ATP-level match in Atlanta last week as he defeated Alejandro Falla before falling to world No. 22 John Isner in three close sets.

This week, Harrison found himself in the qualifying draw of the Citi Open in Washington, DC and turned out a stellar performance in the opening round against Iliya Marchenko, before going down to former world No. 62 Somdev Devvarman.

Harrison’s biggest claim to fame is perhaps his surprise run at last year’s US Open where he reached the men’s doubles quarterfinal with his brother, en route taking out the No. 4 seeded team in the first round. The plan for the duo is to team up again at this year’s edition in New York City next month.

Slighter and quicker on court than his older brother, Christian covers the court like a top 100 player already, and shows glimpses of his developing tennis genius in other aspects of his game. With his father Pat serving as his coach at the IMG Academy in Florida, Christian is in good hands to soon vie for main draw spots at tournaments.

I sat down with the focused, thoughtful and friendly Harrison as he talked about his memorable career moments, his game and goals, and what skill he would like to learn after tennis.

What is your most memorable moment on court?
So far, the thing that is pretty cool was the US Open last year when (brother Ryan and I) made the quarterfinals (in doubles). And now, also last week, I picked up my first ATP win, that was pretty cool for me.

What is your greatest strength on court?
Probably my consistency and movement right now. But I’m trying to work on building a bigger weapon.

What is a weakness in your game that you’re working on?
I don’t really feel like I have a weakness that can get picked on. But one of the things that I’m trying to work on is putting away short balls, and trying to get comfortable attacking them.

If you weren’t a tennis player, what would you be doing?
(Laughs) I would probably be trying to play some other sport – probably football or something. I like to throw the ball around for warmup.

If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
That’s a good question. I am having to think really hard right now. (Laughs) People say surfing is pretty cool, but I’ve always been somebody that’s scared of sharks. But if I could get over that fear, then it would probably be cool to learn to surf … Maybe after tennis when I can afford to give up a leg or an arm. (Laughs)

If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be?
I like Pete Sampras – I idolized him growing up.  So that would probably be one because when I was younger I looked up to him a lot. The second, I would have to say – I gotta dig deep for another sports guy – Drew Brees. I like him a lot from the Saints. And the third one, maybe, like Jessica Alba. (Laughs)

What are your goals for the year in terms of progress or ranking?
At the beginning of the year, I wanted to get to top 150. But now, I’m really not trying to look at rankings because it kind of messes with you a little bit. So I’m just trying to look at each tournament and focus on winning matches and picking up points that week. I feel like if I’m doing everything right, then my game will get to where it needs to.

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To Each Their Own: Previews of ATP Atlanta, Gstaad, and Umag

The US Open Series kicks off this week in the sweltering summer heat of Atlanta.  Perhaps uninspired by those conditions, most of the leading ATP stars have spurned that stop on the road to New York.  But Atlanta still offers glimpses of rising stars, distinctive characters, and diverse playing styles.  For those who prefer familiar names, two tournaments on European clay offer more tantalizing fare.

Atlanta:

Top half:  The march toward the final major of the year starts with a whimper more than a roar, featuring only two men on track for a US Open seed and none in the top 20.  Fresh from his exploits at home in Bogota, Alejandro Falla travels north for a meeting with Ryan Harrison’s younger brother, Christian Harrison.  The winner of that match would face top seed John Isner, a former finalist in Atlanta.  Isner, who once spearheaded the University of Georgia tennis team, can expect fervent support as he attempts to master the conditions.  He towers over a section where the long goodbye of James Blake and the rise of Russian hope Evgeny Donskoy might collide.

Atlanta features plenty of young talent up and down its draw, not all of it American.  Two wildcards from the host nation will vie for a berth in the second round, both Denis Kudla and Rhyne Williams having shown flashes of promise.  On the other hand, Ricardas Berankis has shown more than just flashes of promise.  Destined for a clash with third seed Ivan Dodig, the compact Latvian combines a deceptively powerful serve with smooth touch and a pinpoint two-handed backhand.  His best result so far came on American soil last year, a runner-up appearance in Los Angeles.  Berankis will struggle to echo that feat in a section that includes Lleyton Hewitt.  A strong summer on grass, including a recent final in Newport, has infused the former US Open champion with plenty of momentum.

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

Bottom half:  The older and more famous Harrison finds himself in a relatively soft section, important for a player who has reached just one quarterfinal in the last twelve months.  Ryan Harrison’s disturbingly long slump included a first-round loss in Atlanta last year, something that he will look to avoid against Australian No. 3 Marinko Matosevic.  Nearby looms Nebraska native Jack Sock, more explosive but also less reliable.  The draw has placed Sock on a collision course with returning veteran Mardy Fish, the sixth seed and twice an Atlanta champion.  Fish has played just one ATP tournament this year, Indian Wells, as he copes with physical issues.  Less intriguing is fourth seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon but has not sustained consistency long enough to impress.

Bombing their way through the Bogota draw last week, Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson enjoyed that tournament’s altitude.  They squared off in a three-set semifinal on Saturday but would meet as early as the second round in Atlanta.  Few of the other names in this section jump out at first glance, so one of the Americans in the section above might need to cope with not just the mind-melting heat but a mind-melting serve.

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

Top half:  As fellow blogger Josh Meiseles (@TheSixthSet) observed, Roger Federer should feel grateful to see neither Sergei Stakhovsky nor Federico Delbonis in his half of the draw.  Those last two nemeses of his will inspire other underdogs against the Swiss star in the weeks ahead, though.  Second-round opponent Daniel Brands needs little inspiration from others, for he won the first set from Federer in Hamburg last week.  Adjusting to his new racket, Federer will fancy his chances against the slow-footed Victor Hanescu if they meet in a quarterfinal.  But Roberto Bautista Agut has played some eye-opening tennis recently, including a strong effort against David Ferrer at Wimbledon.

A season of disappointments continued for fourth seed Juan Monaco last week when he fell well short of defending his Hamburg title.  The path looks a little easier for him at this lesser tournament, where relatively few clay specialists lurk in his half.  Madrid surprise semifinalist Pablo Andujar has not accomplished much of note since then, and sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny lost his first match in Hamburg.  Youzhny also lost his only previous meeting with Monaco, who may have more to fear from Bucharest finalist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the second round.

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

Bottom half:  Welcome to the land of the giant-killers, spearheaded by seventh seed Lukas Rosol.  Gone early in Hamburg, Rosol did win the first title of his career on clay this spring.  But the surface seems poorly suited to his all-or-nothing style, and Marcel Granollers should have the patience to outlast him.  The aforementioned Federico Delbonis faces an intriguing start against Thomaz Bellucci, a lefty who can shine on clay when healthy (not recently true) and disciplined (rarely true).  Two of the ATP’s more notable headcases could collide as well.  The reeling Janko Tipsarevic seeks to regain a modicum of confidence against Robin Haase, who set the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost this year.

That other Federer-killer, Sergiy Stakhovsky, can look forward to a battle of similar styles against fellow serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez.  Neither man thrives on clay, so second seed Stanislas Wawrinka should advance comfortably through this section.  Unexpectedly reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Kenny de Schepper looks to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder.  Other than Wawrinka, the strongest clay credentials in this section belong to Daniel Gimeno-Traver.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

Top half:  Historically less than imposing in the role of the favorite, Richard Gasquet holds that role as the only top-20 man in the draw.  He cannot count on too easy a route despite his ranking, for Nice champion Albert Montanes could await in his opener and resurgent compatriot Gael Monfils a round later.  Gasquet has not played a single clay tournament this year below the Masters 1000 level, so his entry in Umag surprises.  The presence of those players makes more sense, considering the clay expertise of Montanes and the cheap points available for Monfils to rebuild his ranking.  Nearly able to upset Federer in Hamburg last week, seventh seed Florian Mayer will hope to make those points less cheap than Monfils expects.

In pursuit of his third straight title, Fabio Fognini sweeps from Stuttgart and Hamburg south to Gstaad.  This surprise story of the month will write its next chapter against men less dangerous on clay, such as  recent Berdych nemesis Thiemo de Bakker.  An exception to that trend, Albert Ramos has reached two clay quarterfinals this year.  Martin Klizan, Fognini’s main threat, prefers hard courts despite winning a set from Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

Bottom half:  Although he shone on clay at Roland Garros, Tommy Robredo could not recapture his mastery on the surface when he returned there after Wimbledon.  Early exits in each of the last two weeks leave him searching for answers as the fifth seed in Bastad.  A clash of steadiness against stylishness awaits in the quarterfinals if Robredo meets Alexandr Dolgopolov there.  The mercurial Dolgopolov has regressed this year from a breakthrough season in 2012.

The surprise champion in Bastad, Carlos Berlocq, may regret a draw that places him near compatriot Horacio Zeballos.  While he defeated Berlocq in Vina del Mar this February, Zeballos has won only a handful of matches since upsetting Nadal there.  Neither Argentine bore heavy expectations to start the season, unlike second seed Andreas Seppi.  On his best surface, Seppi has a losing record this year with first-round losses at six of eight clay tournaments.

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

Plotlines to Ponder: US Open Series Edition

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.

 

Agnieszka Radwanska, John Isner Bare All for ESPN’s Body Issue 2013

American tennis player John Isner and Polish women’s star Agnieszka Radwanska are two of the 21 athletes chosen to pose in this year’s ESPN Body Issue, which celebrates the athletic human form.

Below are snippets from their ESPN articles, which hits stands on July 12th.

John Isner

John Isner_800

What do you like about your body?
I’m a tall guy; I’m 6’10”. I’ve done a good job putting some meat on my bones since my freshman year of college. It’s taken a lot of work. I was just under 200 pounds my freshman year; I was 6’8″ and 198 pounds. Now I’m 6’10”, 238 … [B]ack in college, I was a tall, goofy, underdeveloped kid. At 19, I didn’t have a hair on my face. When I was 20, I looked 14. I feel I’ve grown out of that stage. I just turned 28, and, luckily for me, I look like a 28-year-old.

If you could change something about your body, what would it be?
I would like to have a bigger chest, but right now, when I’m playing tennis, is not the time.

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
As a kid, I was a little self-conscious because I was so much taller than everyone … I’ve certainly turned it into a positive, because without my height I probably wouldn’t be as good of a tennis player. It’s a gift, and I’ve made something of it.

Agnieszka Radwanska

Agnieszka Radwanska ESPN Body Issue

If you could change something about your body, what would it be?
My serving shoulder is quite susceptible to injury, so probably that. A bionic arm would be great for tennis!

What is the one workout or exercise you can’t live without?
Sit-ups, for sure. I like to do more than 300 in a single session … But when I do them, I’m thinking, “I wish this were over” or “Now I can eat more chocolate.”

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
I’ve always been much smaller and slighter than my peers. When I played junior tournaments in Poland, I was always playing up an age group, so I was much younger and much smaller than the other kids. The joke used to be that if the wind blew too hard it would blow me away!

What is your one must-have junk food?
You can’t beat a nice, home-cooked Polish meal. But also McDonald’s cheeseburgers or cheesecakes from The Cheesecake Factory. I am proud to say I have tried every single one!

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

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

Jerzy Janowicz Ready to Rise Above the Rest

(June 30, 2013) Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, and Bernard Tomic have been commonly touted as being the next generation of great champions. If the ATP World Tour was a movie, these three men are believed to be its future leads.

While I do agree these three players have voluminous potential, I believe one young man—Jerzy Janowicz—is ready to rise above them all.

Let’s take a closer look at the 22-year-old Pole’s game to see what separates him not only from the young stars of the ATP World Tour but also from the other giants of tennis.

The most glaring aspect of Janowicz’s game is his imposing serve, which he unloads with herculean strikes and in the process prevents his opponents from grasping even the slightest glimpse of the ball. Janowicz delivers his devastating, heat-sinking missile of a serve from a soaring height. At 6”8’, the Pole is not only one of the tallest players on tour but is actually one of the few players that is able to look over the net and see his opponent’s baseline (you must be 6”7’ to do so).

Janowicz’s serve of course comes with much power but it also possesses ample variation. On the deuce side, as was demonstrated in the Paris Indoor Masters last fall, Janowicz is able to slide his racket head across the outside-edge of the ball producing a side-spin serve that not only moves out and away from his opponents but also lands short in the box making it nearly unreturnable. In terms of his second-serve, Janowicz is able to torpedo up the back of the ball and produce uncanny amounts of topspin making it more of a weapon than a starting shot.

Many big men on tour such as John Isner, Milos Raonic, and Kevin Anderson can absolutely crank their serves and are able to hold quickly and often. This is all fine and dandy until you realize that winning every set in a tiebreaker is not only an unrealistic expectation but really the last thing anybody wants to be doing. Unfortunately enough, this is what a lot of tall guys on tour end up having to do because they simply cannot break serve.

No shortage of individuals have correctly pointed out that big men on tour often find themselves retreating and backtracking on second serves to give themselves more time to set up and execute the return. This puts them into highly defensive positions and exploits their poor movement.

The explanation I find more revealing of the poor returning of big men is much grimmer: These guys have inadequate reactionary prowess and will probably never be anything more than average returners because they need more time than is allotted to hit meaningful returns. If you examine a player like John Isner, you’ll find out quickly that he loves running around his backhand and taking massive cuts on his forehands—granted he has time. Milos Raonic is much the same in that while he may be a big ball striker, he thrives when given time and often crumbles when rushed. This necessity for time during rallies extends to the return of serve.

Janowicz, unlike several of his towering contemporaries, takes a fearless and aggressive stance when returning serve. Against Andy Murray in Paris last year, Janowicz was almost standing on top of the baseline for first serve returns and was inside the baseline on countless second serve returns. Needless to say, Andy Murray’s serve is no pushover. Janowicz is able to establish such a proactive return stance for multiple reasons. One, Janowicz has speedy reactions and is able to anticipate and pick up on where his opponents are serving. Secondly, Janowicz’s forehand and backhand do not have protracted swing paths thus when returning, he is used to producing the abbreviated swings needed to deflect back powerful serves.

Speaking of Janowicz groundstrokes, the Pole’s forehand and backhand are undoubtedly some of the flattest strokes on tour. Janowicz drives through the ball with low-margin, enterprising and authoritative linear strikes. Janowicz’s forehand grip is also one of the most extreme on tour. He uses a full eastern grip approaching a continental grip which helps to explain the flat nature of his groundstrokes. Despite Janowicz’s groundstrokes being very high-risk, he is able to stay in elongated rallies because his swings are short and simple thus he is not going to be breaking down mechanically when under pressure.

The commanding power Janowicz possesses is beautifully contrasted by his out of world feel. The tennis world was shocked when the big man started pulling out the most deft and well-timed of drop shots in Paris last fall. This feel is translated to his net play which is assisted by his extremely long wingspan.

I would also be remiss to exclude the fact that Janowicz possesses absolutely shocking movement for a guy of his height. His court coverage and all-around speed are unbelievable and frankly unprecedented for a guy of his stature.

Ultimately, if you compare Janowicz’s game to the other young phenoms on tour, it becomes evident the Pole’s game has more dimensions. He has more weapons on court than any of the other young talents and certainly can do more than almost all of the big guys. I could go on and on praising the ability of this guy, but I think he’d prefer to prove how good he is on court.

As we head into the second week of Wimbledon, Janowicz is two matches away from a likely semifinal encounter with Andy Murray. If Janowicz does end up facing Murray, expect the Pole to display his full repertoire of shot making backed by a supreme level of confidence for Centre Court on Friday.

Don’t look now, but a week from today, we could very well be watching Jerzy Janowicz step on to Centre Court as a Wimbledon finalist.