nishikori

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic Win Easily To Set Up Classic Semifinal Down Under

by Kevin Craig

@KCraig_Tennis

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic cruised through their Australian Open quarterfinal matches on Tuesday to set up a classic semifinal matchup. The current head-to-head record between Federer and Djokovic is even at 22, and each player will look to take the advantage in that record as well as earn a spot in the Australian Open final.

Federer was able to defeat Tomas Berdych in the last match of the of the day session on Rod Laver Arena with a 7-6, 6-2 6-4 score line. Berdych started off strong as he was able to break Federer early in the set, but was unable to consolidate the advantage as Federer broke straight back. The two played a lot of hard hitting extended rallies throughout the entire first set, but just a couple poor points for Berdych handed the first set to Federer in the tiebreak.

Berdych appeared to lose all the confidence he had in the first set as he was quickly broken in the first game of the second set. Federer lost only five points on serve in that set and went on to get another break late to close it out with a double break advantage.

Berdych appeared as if he was going to turn things around in the third set as he grabbed an early break to take a 2-0 lead. Federer would have none of that, though, as he quickly broke right back and controlled his serve throughout the rest of the set. Just like in the second, Federer grabbed a break late and was able to easily serve it out for the straight sets win.

Djokovic looked to join Federer in the semifinals as he had to play Kei Nishikori in the night session. The No. 1 player in the world was able to bounce back from his poor, 100-unforced error performance against Gilles Simon in the fourth round to beat Nishikori handily, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. Djokovic started off the match in a dominant manner, having little trouble on his serve and applying pressure on Nishikori’s service games. A break to go up 4-2 was all Djokovic needed as he would lose only two points in his next two service games to close out the set.

Nishikori began to make Djokovic work a lot harder on serve in the second set, but just was not able to defend his own serve and win the big points. Despite winning the same number of return points as Djokovic in the second set, Nishikori played two poor service games, allowing the defending Australian Open champion to pounce on the opportunity. The two service games combined with a 0-5 conversion rate on break points led to an easy two sets lead for Djokovic.

The level of play dropped drastically in the third set from both players as there were four breaks in a row early on. After breaking to get back on serve for the second time in the set, Djokovic settled down and broke Nishikori for the third straight time to take a 4-3 lead. Once again, the Serb cruised in his last two service games to close out the set and win the match.

Both Djokovic and Federer played clean tennis in their easy quarterfinal wins. The two combined to hit only 53 unforced errors and get broken only four times as they both cruised to the matchup that many fans around the world have been waiting for.

With a win in the semifinal, either player would take the 23-22 lead in their head-to-head record, but each player has a little more to play for than that. This match is coming down to a battle of legacies. Federer is hoping to get one more grand slam title and separate himself that much more from Djokovic, who is quickly approaching many of Federer’s records. Another win at the Australian Open for Djokovic would be his 11th slam title with a few years still left in his prime, only six away from what Federer currently has. Federer will be well aware of this when they take the court on Friday night in Melbourne, and the warriors will be ready to provide a match for the ages.

Dolgopolov, Nishikori Among Players Looking for Top 10 Debut in 2012

The top 10 of the ATP World Tour rankings might not be as rarefied air as one might think. Of the top 50 players on tour, 26 have spent time among the elite at some point in their careers. There is a mix of veterans and young players still trying to join that crowd. Here’s a look at five of them that could be well-poised to make their debuts along the Federers and Nadals of the world in 2012:

Alexandr Dolgopolov

Career-High Ranking: 15

The young Ukrainian had a breakout season in 2011, first making his presence felt by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. On the way to his best result at a Major, he defeated perennial top-tenners Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling. As his nickname suggests, the “Dog” had solid results throughout the year—including winning his first career singles title in Umag and making the fourth round of the U.S. Open—but endured some struggles during the fall indoor stretch. Provided he notches more impressive wins in Masters 1000 Series play and navigates his way through any slumps, he can sneak up on the top 10: much like one of his backhand winners after his fourth or fifth slice in a row.

John Isner

Career-High Ranking: 18

The American also had a career year in ’11, and was one of the hottest players on tour after Wimbledon—winning two titles and making the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. Isner has shown he can play well on all surfaces; he even has a European clay-court final appearance on his resume. Probably the main thing that slowed one of the game’s biggest servers from reaching even higher in the rankings was his performance at crucial stages, particularly in tiebreaks. Shoring up his record in that situation could be beneficial. Likewise, Jim Courier recently called Isner “the most disruptive force in the men’s game” and believes his current dedication to working out in the off-season is “gearing [him] up to start bashing balls and really get a running start into [the upcoming] season.”

Kei Nishikori

Career-High Ranking: 24

A couple of years ago, it seemed that Nishikori was ready to have a single digit ranking beside his name: In 2008, at the age of 18, he won his first career title in Delray Beach, Fla., then advanced to the fourth round of the U.S. Open later in the year, beating Juan Monaco and David Ferrer along the way. However, injuries have slowed his ascent up to this point. In 2011, though, when he was able to log a lot of court time, Nishikori showed what he was capable of. He became the highest-ranking Japanese man ever and advanced to two singles finals. Nishikori also beat none other than Novak Djokovic over the course of his dream indoor stretch of tournaments. Health will be the main factor in determining how high he can go.

Juan Monaco

Career-High Ranking: 14

The Argentine had been on somewhat of a tear in the latter half of 2011, reaching the round of 16 at the U.S. Open; the finals in Valencia, Spain; and the quarterfinals of the Masters Series 1000 tournament in Paris. His season didn’t exactly end on a high note as Rafael Nadal throttled him in the opening rubber of the Davis Cup finals. Still, the veteran should be emboldened by his run of good form on a surface that’s not exactly his best. He’s made 10 career finals on clay, winning three titles, and solid results on the dirt could propel him past his career-high 14 ranking.

Pablo Andujar

Career-High Ranking: 43

The Spaniard is another player that does most of his damage on the dirt: In 2011, he won his first career singles title in Casablanca, and made the finals in Stuttgart and Bucharest. That follows a year in which he notched impressive results on the Challenger circuit, going 1-3 in finals. He also made his first ATP-level final in Bucharest in 2010. In other words, Andujar has been in ascent mode the past two years to earn a place in the top 50. The fact that he won’t have to play as many qualifying matches to get into main draws now should prove beneficial to his top 10 hopes.

Henin to return this weekend, Murray to continue with Corretja, Gilbert to Help Nishikori

*Justine Henin is to return to action this weekend at the Hopman Cup in Australia having been kept out since Wimbledon with an elbow injury. The former world No. 1 hopes to be able to compete in the Australian Open but fears it may take her up to six months to regain full fitness. “There were concerns about the future of my career,” the 28-year-old Belgian said. “I hope I can build my condition by playing tournaments this year and hope to be really ready around June-July.” 2010 was the seven-time Grand Slam winner’s return from an 18-month retirement and she will hope to add that elusive Wimbledon title to her CV before giving up permanently.

*British No. 1 Andy Murray has confirmed that Spaniard Alex Corretja will remain as his coach for at least the first half of 2011. Corretja, a former world No. 2, took over the role after Murray split with Miles Maclagan back in July. “Andy has taken time out from his busy pre-season fitness training to confirm that the current coaching set-up, with both Alex Corretja and Dani Vallverdu, will continue into the first half of next year,” read a statement on Murray’s official website.

*Brad Gilbert has confirmed that he will work as a consultant to Japanese star Kei Nishikori at fifteen tournaments throughout 2011. Gilbert retired from the tour in 1994 and his since coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray on a permanent basis. “I have been working at the IMG Bollettieri Academy for a few years now, helping out Kei and other players,” Gilbert told ATPWorldTour.com.

“I decided to expand my role with Kei to 15 tournaments, but TV work with ESPN will remain my first priority.”

*World No. 8 Jelena Jankovic has begun working with former Romanian world No. 13 Andrei Pavel on a trial basis after lifting only one title in 2010 at Indian Wells. She was being handled by Ricardo Sanchez but they have now parted ways.

*American Wayne Odesnik has had his two-year doping ban overturned after 12 months. He is now free to return to competitive matches from December 29. Whilst entering Australia for last year’s Brisbane International he was stopped by customs and eight vials of the growth hormone HGH were found in his luggage, although Odesnik never tested positive for taking the substance. Whilst at one time being ranked as high as No. 77 in the world, Odesnik was ranked No. 111 when the incident occurred and has now slipped off the rankings altogether.

*Maria Sharapova has reserved a wildcard entry in to the Sydney tournament for if she falls early on in the previous week’s festivities at Auckland. The former world No. 1 is usually pretty lax in her preparations for Melbourne Park but has opted for a more strenuous approach after losing in the first round in 2010.

*Alona Bondarenko has announced she will miss the Australian Open after undergoing the second knee surgery of her career. 2010 semifinalist Jie Zheng will also miss the competition after failing to recover from the wrist surgery she underwent in September. In the men’s draw, Robby Ginepri is set to miss out after he set March as his benchmark to return to the tour after suffering a motorbike accident in November whilst swerving to avoid a squirrel.

*The GB Fed Cup team have announced that teen starlets Heather Watson and Laura Robson are set to compete in next month’s Europe/Africa Zone Group 1 tie in Israel. Watson, 18, was the 2009 US Open junior champion while Robson, 16, won the Wimbledon junior title in 2008 aged just 14. Watson said: “I’m absolutely thrilled to have been selected. It’s a dream come true as I’ve grown up watching the competition. I can’t wait to head out to Israel with the girls and give it our all.” Captain Nigel Sears added: “It is the right time for Heather and Laura to try and make it a successful week.”

*Teens the world over were celebrating early Christmas presents after receiving wildcards in to the 2011 Australian Open main draw. Australia’s No. 11 Olivia Rogowska was celebrating after defeating former world No. 4 Jelena Dokic 1-6, 7-6(3), 6-3 in the final of the Australian Open Wildcard Playoffs. Dokic, though, has since been handed a discretionary wildcard by the Aussie tennis authorities. Marinko Matosevic overcame Peter Luczak in five sets in the men’s final to earn his place and Luczak has also been handed an entry card. Tennis Australia have also handed discretionary wildcards to Matt Ebden and Alicia Molik. In the American equivalent, played at the Racquet Club of the South, Georgia, world No. 444 Lauren Davis, 17, upset No. 113 Coco Vandeweghe, 19, in their final 6-2, 6-2. Ryan Harrison won the male playoffs after overcoming Jack Sock. The French Tennis Federation have awarded their discretionary pass in to the main draw to Virginie Razzano.

*Latest Career Grand Slam achiever Rafa Nadal was voted the 2010 BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year. “For me it’s an honour, thank you very much to the BBC for giving me this award,” said the 24-year-old. “It’s just a dream being in the list of great champions to receive this award.” For reaction and to see the Spaniard collect the trophy visit the BBC Tennis website. Marca.com also named him ‘Spanish Athlete of the Decade’ while elpais.es readers voted him the ‘Spanish Athlete of the Year.’

*The ATP website has interviews with a host of top stars available to read at your leisure including how Andy Roddick and Marcos Baghdathis have prepared themselves for the 2011 season and whether Novak Djokovic can keep up his impressive end to 2010.

*You have until midnight on December 31 to cast your votes in the TennisReporters.net 2010 Tennis Awards so get over there now before it’s too late to have your say on who were the players of the year, which matches really set your fires alight and which stars provide the greatest eye candy.

US Open: Why Top Players Lose

At the start of every tournament, a player’s slate is cleaned. Whether they’ve won the previous week’s tournament or failed to even qualify, in tennis, everything can change in a week. Player’s go on hot-streaks as well as cold-runs, losing to lower-ranked opponents who simply took advantage of the opportunity to play a big name in a big stadium at a big tournament. And this was the case in the opening rounds at this year’s US Open, where several seeds took early surprise exits.

On this big of a world stage, anything can happen: youngsters take out veterans and darkhorses, players finally fulfill their potential and take out higher-ranked opponents, and heat favors the mentally strong ones. But why do the game’s elite succumb to players sometimes ranked 200 spots below them? It is simply nerves? Yes and no.

After a loss, we sometimes hear the top-seeded players give the easy answer: blaming the wind and crowd, grasping at any phantom injury they could think of, and overall citing their games’ weaknesses instead of their opponents’ clear strengths as the deciding factor. What they fail to mention, is the state of their psyche. For a sport so dependent on mental strength, it seems strange that players don’t talk about that more often. Mental fortitude was clearly the culprit that kept Tomas Berdych from breaking through until earlier this year in Miami. Like him, many players have the talent, the tennis I.Q., the physical strength, yet simply lack the stability in the mind to come back from 0-5, 0-40 down. After all, tennis players are still human, though as fans, we tend to build them into superheroes. But, as evident by Roger Federer’s struggles this year claiming only two titles, even superheroes can falter.

Kei Nishikori of Japan. September 2, 2010

Take, for example, Kei Nishikori’s second round defeat of #11 Marin Cilic yesterday. Not only did the match almost break the record for the longest match at the US Open at a whopping 4 hours and 59 minutes, but Nishikori handed Cilic a breadstick in the fifth set, 6-1. Cilic is no slacker however. He overtook both Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick at the year’s first slam, the Australian Open, to reach the semis, beat Rafael Nadal in Beijing last October, took out Andy Murray in straight sets at last year’s US Open, and has been firmly planted in the top 20 since January of 2009. Nishikori, on the other hand, is ranked #147 in the world and even fell out of the rankings earlier this year due to an elbow injury sustained last year. He’s on a comeback trail and clearly using his experiences away from tennis to fire himself up in his game. After the 3-hour mark of a match, fitness can no longer be cited as the culprit for a player’s loss, as clearly both are fit to last the scorching New York sun. After 4 hours, it’s all about mental strength and who can stay focused and ‘win ugly’ better. With the first four sets being marginally close, the 6-1 score in the fifth set is pretty telling of who lasted longer mentally.

Americans Ryan Harrison and Beatrice Capra

Then, there are those youngsters who have absolutely nothing to prove and walk away with a great victory over a top player. Ryan Harrison’s defeat of #15 Ivan Ljubicic in the first round, or Beatrice Capra’s advancement to the second round including a win over #18 Arvane Rezai shows another side to why seemingly great and capable players lose to relative nobodys. After having lost her chance to get a wildcard into the US Open by losing in the Girls’ 18 national tournament, Capra went home to Ellicott City, MD to “chill.” She then received a call from the USTA to play in their wildcard playoff tournament and voila, she got into the main draw as a wildcard after all. Harrison, on the other hand, went through the qualifying tournament and had match-play under his belt when he took on Ljubicic. With both Rezai and Ljubicic, you could say the heat and nerves were a factor as neither had played a match in days and perhaps weren’t acclimated. But with their gutsy defeats, Harrison and Capra say the rest is “just bonus.” The youngsters had more time on court, nothing to lose, and increased confidence in their game. Their competitors simply weren’t prepared and couldn’t study their opponents in time.

World #214, Andreas Haider-Maurer. August 30, 2010

And that brings up another reason why top players struggle in the opening rounds: the relative lack of knowledge about their lower-ranked opponents’ game. The elite play each other week-in and week-out, and know what to expect in another’s shots, playing style and strategy. Journeymen, however, travel the futures and challengers circuits struggling to win but tend to have a strange familiarity with the top players’ games when they are slated against each other. The journeymen already know the ins and outs of the top opponent’s play, as they’ve either watched them live, on tv, or perhaps even grown up admiring them. The top dog, on the other hand, may never have even heard of his opponent. Now, how do you study and learn someone’s game who you’ve never even heard of? Well, if you have a smart enough coach, you would scope out the player’s previous match. This can be time-consuming and even often prove unreliable since players at that level are inconsistent and may simply win by default because of their opponent’s more aggressive, but error-filled, play. All in all, if you’re a ‘Djokovic’ taking on a ‘Jesse Witten’ like in last year’s third round at the US Open, you may become easily frustrated when your 276-ranked opponent is blowing you off the court with his forehand and unexpected lateral speed. Four days ago, we saw a similar pattern in Robin Soderling’s opening match against 23-year-old Austrian Andreas Haider-Maurer. Haider-Maurer, currently ranked 214, not only won the third set tiebreak but also won the fourth set, forcing a fifth. He barely lost 6-4 in the fifth to a man who has commandingly beaten both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in recent times. It’s interesting watching Haider-Maurer stay cool and collected while Soderling scrambled to figure out his opponent.

Another factor during a match also includes the high heat and humidity, but which player does this favor, the journeyman or top dog? In short, neither. While it’s easy to think that the top players have gotten to the top precisely because their fitness overcame the heat, in reality, fitness almost becomes null at this level of the game. It’s a strange concept to analyze, but it makes more sense when you realize that the scorching heat envelopes everyone’s lungs, legs and head in the same way. Rarely do players have the upper hand when play gets heavy, dragged out, sloppy and almost slow-motion. The big guys, like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling seem to be exceptions and all have speed, strength and stamina. But how do players like Michael Llodra outplay and outwit ones like #7 Tomas Berdych in the first round? Or how Robert Kendrick was able to take Gael Monfils to 6-4 in the fifth set, or Viktor Troicki take Novak Djokovic to 6-3 in the fifth as well? Or even how newly-fit Mardy Fish was forced to five sets against Jan Hajek, even while winning three of them 6-0, 6-0, 6-1? Tennis is a strange sport and it is hard enough picking winners on any given day when the weather is mild. Throw in 140-degree temperatures on-court with not a single cloud in the sky, and you have the recipe for any top player’s nightmare. At these temperatures it’s hard to argue that a win comes about because of fitness or physical capabilities when neither player retires from the match. Instead it seems to favor the one who is able to squeak by with a few more winners and more playing experience on a big stage. Both players are battling the same demon and this is when mental toughness sets the two players apart.

Tomas Berdych. September 1, 2010

The first three days at the US Open were filled with storylines about cinderella stories and other notable exits by top players, such as Andy Roddick going out to Janko Tipsarevic in surprising fashion. But as tennis fans we expect this sort of drama to happen. In fact, it’s almost a pre-requisite to viewer involvement; it’s what makes tennis so exciting and unpredictable. But then one question still remains for me: why do we insist on calling all of these losses ‘surprise exits’ if we expect them to inevitably happen? What’s your take?