Saturday, September 30, 2017

Three Who Need a Big End to the Season on the ATP World Tour

Jack Sock: Sock started off the year better than he could have hoped, but since the clay season started his results have been worse than anyone could have predicted. He lost in the first round at the US Open, Cincinnati, and French Open, and second round in Montreal and Wimbledon. This was supposed be the year Sock took a big step forward, as he’s well-adjusted to life on tour and he seemed to be coming into his own. Instead, he’s taken a surprising step back, and is about to get passed by the younger generation of Americans if he doesn’t turn it around soon. It’s possible the rest of the tour has simply figured out how to play Sock and take full advantage of his backhand, which he has to go to great lengths to avoid being exposed. But despite all his struggles, the talent and athleticism remain. Sock is more than capable of posting some good results anytime he sets foot on a quick hard court, and he needs them about as much as anyone on tour.

Dominic Thiem: Thiem may have cemented himself as a fixture in the top ten, but it’s time he make some noise on surfaces other than clay. He’s got an explosive game that can translate well to all surfaces, but it’s well known that he likes the extra time clay gives him for his long strokes to develop. If he can have a few big results on the quicker surfaces common during the Asia and European swing this fall, his confidence should be high heading into next year. His loss to Del Potro in the US Open after having a two-set lead and match points was as devastating as it gets, and a strong fall season would help Thiem put it behind him. His fall didn’t start out well, losing to Guido Pella in the second round of a 250 in Chengdu, China. But if there’s one thing we know about Thiem it’s that he’ll enter more tournaments than anyone else on tour, meaning another opportunity is rarely more than a week away.

Grigor Dimitrov: Dimitrov is the master at disappointing when faced with big expectations, but stepping up just when you’re ready to give up on him for good. After his strong start to the year, including his run to the semifinals in Australia, it looked like Dimitrov was ready to play with the best of them in 2017. Then, just as we thought he’d realize his vast potential, Dimitrov hit a long stretch in the season where he could barely win a match. But before we could give up on him again, he goes and wins his first career Masters title in Cincinnati. In classic Dimitrov form, he followed that up by losing to Andrey Rublev in straight sets in the second round of the US Open. He's currently sixth in the race to London, and looks likely to make it (in large part to several others being injured or having shut it down for the year). If he can get back to his Australian Open and Cincinnati form this fall, Dimitrov can move past his US Open disappointment and become a threat to do some damage at the ATP World Tour finals.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

As the Inaugural Laver Cup Approaches, The World is Catching Up to Europe Fast

It’s no secret that Europeans have dominated men’s tennis for well over a decade now. Nearly every big tournament since 2003 has been won by a member of the all European “Big Five”, which means few big titles have been left for the rest of the world. While the inaugural Laver Cup, a competition pitting Europe versus the rest of the world, may have been a massive mismatch had it started ten years ago, it appears that it will be a much more even matchup going forward than many may have thought.

When Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka fade out over the next few years, much of the emerging talent in men’s tennis looks to be coming from outside of Europe. The US and Canada alone have loads of young talent who should be able to compete with Europe’s best. Canada can offer new sensation Denis Shapovalov, who has shot up the rankings faster than anyone expected. The scary thing is he may not even be Canada’s best young prospect. Felix Auger-Aliassime, now 17, just won another Challenger title and is moving into the top 200 in the world. Auger-Aliassime is considered by many to be one of the best prospects to come around in years, and with Shapovalov will make sure Canadian men’s tennis builds on Raonic’s success for over a decade.

The U.S. has several good prospects of their own, as Frances Tiafoe, Jared Donaldson, Taylor Fritz, Ernesto Escobedo, Tommy Paul and others have been making solid progress. None have risen quite as quickly as Shapovalov this summer, but there’s still a lot to like amongst this group. And if he can stay healthy and motivated, Australia’s Nick Kyrgios could very well be the “world’s” best player for the next five years.

Even as the “Big Five” eventually stops being dominant, Europe should have plenty of new talent of their own. Alexander Zverev is already one of the best players in the world and should only keep getting better. Dominic Thiem is becoming a fixture in the top ten, and young Russians Karen Khachanov, Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev have all made good strides this year. Borna Coric is still just 20, and after beating Zverev at the US Open, may be ready to make a run at the top 20.

There’s too much young talent starting to emerge for anyone to know for sure who will dominate in the years to come, but it’s hard to imagine the “world” not putting up a better fight against Europe over the next decade. Fortunately for the Laver Cup, it may have come into existence at just the right time.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Is Kevin Anderson’s Apperance in the US Open Finals a Fluke or a Sign of Things to Come?

With Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori and Raonic all missing the US Open with injuries, and Nadal and Federer in the same half, it’s not surprising that there’s only one superstar playing in the US Open men’s final. Kevin Anderson managed to take advantage of an open draw and blast his way into the finals, but the real question is if we’re headed for an era of the Kevin Anderson’s of the world making more major finals, continued Big-Four/Five dominance, or the “next gen” finally stepping up where it counts.

Even if Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka come back strong in 2018 and Federer continues to play at a high level, it’s looking more and more likely that they won’t maintain a stranglehold on grand slam finals spots going forward. Counting them out is rarely wise, and they may all win more majors. But with more early losses likely to happen as they enter or proceed through their thirties, more opportunities should arise for the rest of the tour.

The governing bodies of men’s tennis surely hope it’s the “next gen” who steps up and fills the void, but it seems just as likely we could be headed for a few years of less marketable middle-upper aged veterans like Kevin Anderson, Sam Querrey, Pablo Carreno-Busta, David Goffin and others going deep into the big events. This may not be good for tv ratings, but it’s something fans and the tour itself should prepare for before the next gen is truly ready to push everyone else out.

Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem and others have all made good progress in the last couple of years, but with only two grand slam semifinals between them in their careers (Thiem at the French) it might be too soon to pencil them into multiple grand slam finals in 2018. And while the “generation” below them may be every bit as good down the road (i.e. Shapavalov, Auger-Alliassime, Tiafoe, Rublev amongst other talented teenagers), don’t expect them to consistently go deep at majors for 3-4 more years.

Many tennis fans may not be happy, but there very well may be more “Kevin Andersons” popping up in grand slam finals over the next couple of years. While it will certainly take some getting used to, after being spoiled for so long with only legends fighting for grand slam titles, it might even start to feel a bit refreshing to have the occasional mere mortal to root for. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Nadal Makes Big Statement With Monte Carlo Title

Based on Rafael Nadal's form over the last couple of years, most of the phrases used to describe him went something like "past his prime", "his best days are behind him" or "he'll never win a major tournament again."  But after his Monte Carlo title, it looks like Nadal will once again be a serious threat at Roland Garros.  Sure he didn't beat Djokovic along the way, but his wins over Thiem, Wawrinka, Murray and Monfils were extremely impressive. 

Djokovic is still likely to go into the French Open as the heavy favorite (though another early loss in the Madrid or Rome Masters may raise further questions).  But Nadal's game has always gone up and down depending on his confidence level, and a strong clay court season leading up to the French would have Nadal feeling better than he has in two years.  He may not be able to beat Djokovic head to head, but could certainly be the guy to capitalize if Djokovic somehow slips up along the way.

Perhaps more important than the fact Nadal won the tournament was the improved quality of his play.  Nadal's shots seemed to be jumping off the court more than they have in the last couple of years.  His depth of shot was also improved, as Nadal left fewer shots short in the court where opponents could take the offensive.  If Nadal can continue to keep his high bouncing shots deep in the court, it's hard not to see him having a very successful clay court season.

Tennis fans and analysts have a tendency to write off stars a bit too early, such as when a late-twenties Federer was considered almost done following a couple of losses to Guillermo Canas at Indian Wells and Miami.  No one expects Nadal to be as excellent in his thirties as Federer has been, but he may not go out as quietly as some thought he might.  For now, a confident Nadal on clay is a dangerous proposition for the rest of the tour, and the remainder of the clay-court season suddenly has a very different feel. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Djokovic Once Again On Track For All-Time Great Season

It seemed hard to imagine that Djokovic could be more dominant in 2016 than he was in his remarkable 2015 season.  Last year Djokovic had one of the best seasons we've seen in the modern era, winning three out of four slams and a record six Masters titles.  This will still be hard for Djokovic to replicate, but he's on the right track after winning the Australian Open and the Indian Wells/Miami double to start the year.  He's so far ahead of the pack that it's conceivable he wins all four grand slams and six or seven Masters titles.

Djokovic's closest challengers over the last few years in terms of the rankings have been Murray and Federer, but both seem further away from Djokovic now than they have been in a while.  Murray is once again in an early season funk, and Federer has barely played due to injury and illness.  Moreover, Nadal is no longer a serious challenger to Djokovic, and Wawrinka's days of giving Djokovic a run for his money seem to be behind him.  Other talented youngish players such as David Goffin, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic are all having very good seasons, but simply aren't in Djokovic's league.

Unless something's wrong with him or he wears down later on in the year, it's simply hard to see anyone beating Djokovic at an important tournament.  No style of play phases him, as he's dispatching the big hitters and baseline grinders with similar ease.  (Yes Simon gave him fits for one match by not giving him pace and getting a lot of balls back in play, but if that was really the strategy to beat him with Murray would surely have a better head-to-head against the Serb).  While Djokovic could potentially be vulnerable against Dominic Thiem on clay, it will probably be at least another year before Thiem's truly ready to knock him out at a big tournament.

If Djokovic is able to win the French Open for the first time it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of going for the 2016 Grand Slam.  It's possible that could make him tight as the year progresses (i.e. Serena at the US Open), or he may relax after having finally completed the career grand slam.  Regardless, at this rate he's so far ahead of the field it might not matter much either way.  Not only does Djokovic seem likely to avoid any seemingly inevitable decline after his epic 2015 season, but it looks like he might even improve upon one of the greatest seasons of all-time. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Is There a New "Big Four" Brewing on the ATP Tour?

Within the last few years there has been an influx of young talent on the ATP Tour, but no one seemed truly ready to challenge the game's best.  The likes of Kyrgios, Kokkinakis, Zverev, Coric, Thiem, Tomic and others all posted some good results, but many tennis fans wanted more than they were giving.  It finally appears that fans who have been hoping to see some fresh faces at the top may be getting their wish before long.  Since the Australian Open several young players have made serious strides, and they appear closer to reaching the games elite.

20 year old Nick Kyrgios has made waves based on winning a 250 level title in Marseille (which included several quality wins), and following it up with a run to the Dubai semifinals before retiring against Wawrinka.  22 year old Dominic Thiem has been on a tear of late as well.  He won a 250 on clay while beating Nadal along the way, reached a semis the next week which included a win over Ferrer, and is currently in the finals of the 500 level tournament in Acapulco.  Thiem is clearly headed toward the top 10, and will enter the top 5 in the points race for the year after this week.

18 year old Alexander Zverev has been in good form as well, and has cracked the top 60 in the world.  Another 18 year old, American Taylor Fritz, has been rolling in 2016.  He fell to Sam Querrey in the quarters of Acapulco after coming through qualifying, and earlier made the finals of the 250 level tournament in Memphis.  Fritz's goal for the year was reportedly to crack the top 100, but has already done so just a couple months into the year.  His should now have his sights set on a spot in the top 40 by the end of 2016.

While there's a handful of other talented young players, Kyrgios, Thiem, Zverev and Fritz all seem to have grand slam champion level talent.  Someone will have to win slams after the "Big Four" move on in a few years, and these guys seem to be as likely of bets as anyone.  Kyrgios, Zverev and Fritz all have natural "point ending" power that lends itself to grand slam titles, and Thiem should be a dark horse threat at the French Open as early as this year. The slightly older Kyrgios and Thiem already seem to be on their way to passing the "second tier" top ten guys, i.e. Ferrer, Berdych, Gasquet, Nishikori, etc, and at this rate Zverev and Fritz may just be a couple of years behind.

Lots of things can change over the next few years, but if the last month is any indication this group of young stars isn't going to waste much time in making their moves.  It may be a bit early to start calling them the next Big Four, but their future and the future of the ATP Tour appears to be extremely bright.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Thoughts on the Return of Juan Martin Del Potro

Juan Martin Del Potro made his long awaited return to the ATP Tour this week in Delray Beach, where he ultimately fell to Sam Querrey in the semifinals.  The big question was not how he would do, but rather how would he look after having missed so much time due to surgeries on his left wrist.  The initial reaction is that he looked pretty good all things considered, but there are still plenty of questions about his future after seeing him struggle to hit two-handed backhands.

It's hard to say at this point whether Del Potro was simply holding back on the two-hander because he's not mentally ready to let it go full speed, or if it's still bothering him in some capacity.  He sliced a good percentage of backhands, and when he used the two-hander he seemed afraid to truly accelerate through the stroke.  He also ran around as many backhands as possible, though with his forehand it's hard to blame him for that strategy.

If Del Potro continues to improve and gain confidence in his backhand he looks good enough to make a return to the top ten.  But while he can hide his current backhand against lower ranked players, the best of the best will expose that side.  Simply put, unless his backhand improves significantly it's hard to see him challenging the very best in the world for grand slam titles.  There's no reason to believe it won't keep getting better (unless for some reason he can't bend his wrist like he used to or has pain when he snaps through the shot), but at this point it's clearly not where it needs to be.

Del Potro's return to the tour comes at a great time, as men's tennis needs some "new" names who can potentially challenge Djokovic, Murray and Federer.  He's a fan favorite, plays an exciting game (at least when he's unloading on forehands), and has the talent to beat anyone when he's on.  Let's just hope his backhand returns to form, so that we can get the full Del Potro experience we've been missing for the last few years.