Sunday, December 27, 2015

Some Predictions for the 2016 ATP Season (Part 2)

Grigor Dimitrov will be closer to his 2014 form:  In 2014 Dimitrov looked like the next big thing in men's tennis  He had his much awaited breakthrough year, spending time in the top 10 in the world and reached the semifinals at Wimbledon.  For a guy who improved every year since turning pro, the natural progression seemed to be that Dimitrov would start competing for grand slam titles in 2015.  Instead, for the first time in his career Dimitrov had a serious regression, and finished in the low-twenties in the rankings.  He was a non-factor at most big tournaments, and his backhand remained a weakness.  Some thought experimenting with a new racquet was the problem, others thought his focus was away from tennis, or that he wasn't ready to deal with the bigger spotlight 2014 brought.  But whatever the cause, 2014 was clearly a wasted year for the Bulgarian.  Most of the issues Dimitrov dealt with last season should be behind him, and he should be extremely motivated to prove 2015 was a fluke.  He's still remarkably talented, and can play with less pressure and attention in 2016.  Expect Dimitrov to finish the year a lot closer to 10 in the world than 30.

Jack Sock will end the year as the top ranked American:  John Isner has been carrying the torch for American men's tennis over the last several years, and generally maintains a ranking between 11-20 in the world.  While Isner had a strong 2015 (finishing at 11), 2016 may be the year Isner relinquishes his spot as the top ranked American.  Don't expect for Isner to have a big drop in the rankings, but it looks like Jack Sock is ready to take the next step.  Sock ended 2015 on a tear, and has fixed many of the deficiencies in his game that held him back early on.  Sock looks like he belongs on court with the top ATP players, and his game should be ready to compete with the world's best.  If he can stay healthy for the whole year (which has been a problem in the past), Sock should be able to finish just outside the top 10 in the world rankings.

Marin Cilic will be back:  2015 was a tough year for the 2014 US Open Champion, as late 2014 wrist problems hampered his preparations for the year.  Cilic never really got on track, though he still managed to reach the semis of the US Open and quarters of Wimbledon.  Now that he's had a full off-season to rest and train, Cilic should be ready to return to form in 2016.  He won't have the Big Four's consistency week in and week out, but a healthy Cilic could easily steal a Masters title or make a couple of deep runs in grand slams.  After a year in which he finished at 13 in the rankings, a final ranking in the 6-8 range is a reasonable expectation for the upcoming season.

Ernests Gulbis will return to the top 25:  There's no denying that 2015 was a disaster of a season for Gulbis.  He finished 2014 in the top 15 in the world, and at one point dropped outside of the top 100 in 2015.  There were times where it looked like he couldn't beat a club pro, and his bizarre forehand form (which appeared to help in 2014) began to look like a cheap gimmick.  While there's not much evidence to suggest Gulbis will return to form in 2016 (except a couple of decent results toward the end of the season), Gulbis generally does the opposite of what everyone expects.  If we have high expectations going in for Gulbis he generally disappoints, and when we write him off he tends to become relevant.  Now that no one is taking Gulbis seriously, things seem to be lining up exactly how Gulbis likes them. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Some Predictions for the 2016 ATP Season (part 1)

Andy Murray will win his third grand slam title:  Murray has accomplished nearly everything a tennis pro could ask for (grand slam champion, Olympic gold medal, Davis Cup title), but the knock on him is that as good as he's been he "only" has two grand slam titles.  Look for Murray to capture his third major in 2016, though he may need a slip up by Djokovic along the way to make it happen.  Murray has worked his way up to number two in the world, and will benefit from avoiding Djokovic until the finals at every big event.  While Murray will be a threat at every major he plays, Wimbledon stands out as his best bet to get it done.  Australia should also present a good opportunity if he can ride the momentum from leading Great Britain to the 2015 Davis Cup title.

Dominic Thiem will reach the next level:  Thiem has been on everyone's radar for a while now even though he's just 22.  He finished 2015 at number 20 in the world, and won multiple 250 level tournaments.  However, he wasn't much of a factor at the bigger events.  This isn't particularly unusual for a younger player, but Thiem should be ready to step up his results at Masters and grand slams in 2016.  With a powerful game that resembles Stan Wawrinka's, Thiem has the point ending power and versatility that seems necessary to challenge for slams in today's game.  With all the physical tools he needs, Thiem's mental toughness and focus will determine how far he goes in 2016.  Expect Thiem to be more comfortable on tour and in the bigger events after his experiences over the last couple years, and a spot in the top 10 seems ascertainable for the talented Austrian.

Alexander Zverev will become the game's top young player:  The 18 year old ended 2015 just outside the top 80 in the world, but he was a bit overshadowed by fellow teen Borna Coric who finished nearly 40 spots ahead of him in the rankings.  Don't be fooled by the current rankings discrepancy, as Zverev seems better suited to reach the game's top level.  While it's hard to see Coric not becoming a perennial top 10-15 player, his lack of a weapon and average forehand are potentially worrisome.  Zverev has no such weaknesses, and has world class power.  Further, he moves well for his height, and his ground strokes should only become heavier as he bulks up.  While there's several talented young players on the ATP Tour, Zverev seems like the best bet to win a grand slam title.  He may already be known by serious tennis fans, but it won't be long until he's more of a household name. 

Young American men will surge up the rankings:  2015 was a promising year for the young Americans, notably Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Jared Donaldson and Tommy Paul.  Others such as Noah Rubin, Ernesto Escobedo, Stefan Kozlov and a few others also showed some positive signs.  Now that this group has some exposure to what life is like on the pro tour, many of them should be ready to take the next step.  That will mean different things to each of them based on their varying talent levels, but Fritz, Tiafoe, Paul and Donaldson should all have their sights set on a spot in the top 100.  After a full off-season to train following a year in which many of them just turned pro, expect big things from this talented group in 2016.   

Monday, December 14, 2015

It's Time to Make Davis Cup More of a Team Competition

Every year the Davis Cup title (at least theoretically) goes to the top country in men's tennis.  But for what's supposedly a "team" event, very little emphasis is placed on the whole "team" part.  This year's champion is Great Britain, who has one superstar in Andy Murray and only one other singles player in the top 100.  It's kind of hard to take the tournament seriously when a country like Great Britain can be deemed the best in the world, when they're essentially a one-man show. 

Great Britain to no fault of it's own merely took advantage of the Davis Cup format, which basically requires no depth of talent for the participating countries.  Given that one stud singles player (i.e. any member of the "Big Four") can win 2 out of the necessary 3 points in any given tie, very little else is needed to advance.  This may be great for the countries with superstars up top, but it's hard to say this is the best way to determine which country reigns supreme in men's tennis in any given year.

The whole ATP season is designed to recognize the top individual players in the world, so it simply doesn't make sense that the premier team event in men's tennis is so "individual" based.  To truly determine which is the best country, it would make more sense if each country has to use three or four singles players, as opposed to just two.  (Perhaps keep the current format but only let singles players play once, so that a country has to us it's 4 best singles players).  

The country that would have likely benefited the most from a more "team" friendly format over the last decade would have been France.  Most tennis analysts would acknowledge France has been one of the strongest countries in men's tennis over the last decade with the likes of Tsonga, Monfils, Gasquet, Simon and a host of others, but they don't even have one Davis Cup title with this crop.  Despite all their talent and depth, their lack of a sure fire number one option has kept them from winning a title.  But does anyone really consider Great Britain "better" than France when it comes to men's tennis?  It becomes fair to ask whether the problem was France and its inability to get the job done at the biggest moments, or whether France just found themselves stuck in a format that isn't really designed to reward the best "team".    

Some might argue Davis Cup struggles with garnering ratings and support enough as it is, and throwing out the fourth best player from Canada against the fourth best player from Belgium isn't going to help in that regard.  This may be true, but there has to be a way to make the competition more about recognizing the best country, and not just the country with the best player in any given year.  As many others have suggested, making Davis Cup an every other year event may be the solution toward boosting ratings and overall interest, and if fans are more excited about the event in itself they may not care as much about seeing some lower ranked players.  One way or the other, if the event is truly supposed to recognize the country with the best team, the format should be such that actually having a good "team" is a prerequisite to wining.  

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Who Exceeded Expectations on the ATP Tour in 2015?

The following is a look at a few players on the ATP Tour who exceeded their expectations heading into the 2015 season:

Novak Djokovic:  Djokovic had ridiculously high expectations heading into the year, and he more than exceeded them.  Any questions about why he seemed to let some grand slam titles slip away were put to rest, and he continued to rocket his way up through the record books.  Winning 3 grand slams and 6 Masters titles is nearly impossible to achieve, and in doing so he destroyed any notion that the "Big Four" as we have come to know it still exists.  Djokovic came within one match of winning the 2015 Grand Slam, and would anyone really be surprised if he pulls it off in 2016?    

Benoit Paire:  Benoit Paire ended 2014 ranked around 100 in the world, and at one point early in 2015 nearly fell down to 150.  A once promising career seemed to be slipping away, in part based on injuries and a questionable mental game.  However, Paire managed to show some serious resolve and grinded his way all the up to 19 in the world at the season's end.  He showed more mental toughness along the way than most of us thought he had in him, notably fighting off match points to knock out Nishikori at the US Open, and winning 4 consecutive 3 set matches against tough competition to reach the finals of the 500 level Japan Open.  Paire put himself in a great position to take off in 2016, and will definitely be someone to watch going forward.

Hyeon Chung:  19 year old Hyeon Chung increased his ranking by over 100 spots in 2015, and finds himself just outside of the top 50 in the world.  He's part of a talented group of young teenagers getting ready to make their move on the ATP Tour, and will look to continue his rise in 2016.  Most of Chung's ranking points came in Challengers, and he didn't do much at the ATP level.  This isn't unusual or overly concerning for a teenager trying to break through, but Chung will need to fare better against ATP level competition in 2016 or he risks taking a step back.  Regardless of where he goes from here (and the bet is he'll adjust and be ready to make another jump next year), he took a major step forward this season.

Bernard Tomic:  Tomic started the year outside of the top 50 in the rankings, and quietly ends the year with a spot in the world's top 20.  Just when it seemed like the off-court drama surrounding Tomic would derail his career, he seems to have righted the ship in 2015.  While he's long been projected as a future star and it may seem strange to say a 23 year old Tomic "exceeded expectations" with a mere top 20 finish, it just shows how far he had fallen.  Tomic likely benefited from reduced attention given the emergence of other young Australian stars- notably Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, and should just be entering his prime in the next few years.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

Some Thoughts Following the ATP World Tour Finals

Djokovic continues to win when it matters:  Roger Federer may have beaten Djokovic three times during the 2015 season, but Djokovic dominated this rivalry when it mattered most.  Just as he did at the US Open and Wimbledon, Djokovic was able to top Federer in the finals here despite a loss to Federer in the round-robin stage.  Djokovic completed one of the finest seasons in recent memory (if not tennis history), and at the moment lacks a serious rival.  Maybe Nadal or Murray will make adjustments and become better equipped to deal with the world number one in 2016, but if not look for Djokovic to be almost as dominant in 2016.  If Djokovic doesn't win at least 2 majors next year it will be a pretty big surprise, and Djokovic probably thinks he has a somewhat realistic shot at wining all four. 

A disappointing showing for Murray:  Based on Murray's previous comments it's clear his end of the year priority was winning the Davis Cup title rather than the ATP World Tour Finals.  He was afraid he'd be worn down from the event, and wouldn't have enough time to practice on clay before the Davis Cup finals.  After Murray's lackluster performance in the group stage he didn't even make the semifinals, so at least he'll have plenty of time to get ready on the clay.  Murray simply got blitzed by Nadal and fell to Wawrinka in a match that decided who would reach the semis.  (He did have a win over Ferrer, who went 0-3 at the event).  Murray was consistent throughout the year and will end 2015 as the number two player in the world, but once again he got knocked out of an important tournament earlier than many expected.

Nadal continued his good form:  Nadal had been heating up heading into the ATP World Tour Finals, and should be mostly encouraged by his performance.  He swept his matches in the group stage, before falling to Djokovic in the semis.  Nadal may not believe he can compete with Djokovic at the moment, but he's got to think he can return to number two in the world in 2016.  He just beat Murray and Wawrinka indoors, Federer will be another year older, and there's not many other obvious challengers.  There were plenty of down moments during the year for Nadal, but a strong World Tour Finals should boost his confidence heading into 2016.

Ferrer's days playing this event may be over:  Ferrer is one of the best competitors in tennis, but he was clearly overmatched by the superior competition at this event.  He's been a staple in the top 8 for the last several years, but is vulnerable to sliding back next year.  He'll turn 34 during 2016, and his physical game won't get any easier to play as he gets older.  It won't be for lack of effort, but don't be surprised if Marin Cilic or Milos Raonic steals Ferrer's spot at the ATP World Tour Finals in 2016.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

ATP World Tour Finals Field Far Too Predictable

The ATP World Tour Finals is supposed to provide an exciting and conclusive end to the ATP season, but once again excitement for the event seems to be greatly lacking.  Even the players contest matches looking like they'd rather be somewhere else, i.e. Wawrinka against Nadal and Nishikori against Djokovic.  While there aren't many easy solutions, it's becoming clear that some new blood is badly needed to add intrigue to the event.  Seeing the same players compete year after year has become far too predictable, and the event takes on the exact same feel as year's past.

The average age of this year's contestants is extremely high, as Nishikori is by far the youngest player at 25.  Everyone else is at least 28, and you have to go all the way down to 14 in the world to find anyone younger than 25.  While there's a lot of young talent on the way up, the current group of teens and young twenty-somethings is still at least a few years away from challenging for spots in this prestigious event.  

It's certainly not a problem on its own that there are several veteran superstars in the top 8 in the rankings.  The "Big Four's" dominance over the last decade has clearly been good for tennis, and they're some of the most marketable athletes in the world.  But seeing the same matchups over and over again simply takes a lot of the luster away.  While it used to be must see TV whenever there was a matchup amongst members of the "Big Four", it just hasn't had that same feel in recent years. 

What tennis could use is at least one or two legitimate young challengers to the "Big Four's" dominance.  Imagine how much more exciting it would be if there was some 20 year old who was pumped about being there and could actually stand toe-to-toe with the best players in the world.  This could be Kyrgios, Coric, Zverev or whomever else in a couple years, but for tennis' sake it's a shame there isn't someone like that ready to compete at this event now.    

Maybe in 5 years when the "Big Four's" reign is officially over we'll be longing for the days when there were four global superstars to headline the event.  It's hard to imagine the tour won't suffer at least a temporary decline in popularity when they're no long around.  But that doesn't mean we can't wish there was a little more variety at the top of the men's game.  Sports are often at their best when there's a newcomer trying to challenge a veteran who's attempting to hang on to power for a little bit longer (i.e. the Federer/Nadal dynamic from several years ago).  If men's tennis is lucky, it's a dynamic we'll soon get to experience again before several "more of the same" World Tour Finals pass us by.   

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Way Too Early Predictions For the 2016 World Tour Finals

As we get ready for the 2015 ATP World Tour Finals comprised of the top 8 players in the world, here's a way too early prediction of what the 2016 field will look like (assuming everyone stays healthy- except for Juan Martin Del Potro, in which case we have to see it to believe it):

The sure things:

Novak Djokovic:  In all likelihood, Djokovic won't be as dominant in 2016 as he was in 2015.  While it's not easy to see who will challenge him, Djokovic won so many slams and Masters tournaments this year that it will be a nearly impossible task for him to have the same amount of success next year.  But unless he trots out in 2016 sporting a flashy new one-handed backhand just to make things interesting, he's finishing 2016 well inside the top 8 (and very likely once again at number one).

Andy Murray:  Murray is simply too consistent and good on every surface for this to even be a question.  He's settled in at number two in the world, and should stay in the two-three range for much of 2016.  His focus for 2016 will be on adding another major to his total, as he can't be thrilled with having the same amount as Stan Wawrinka.  With Federer and Wawrinka getting up there in age, Murray will be in a good position to pounce should Djokovic have a rare slip up along the way.

The almost sure things:

Roger Federer:  Were it just for his performance in 2015 Federer would be in the above group, but he will be turning 35 during 2016.  It's possible that whenever Federer does decline it happens swiftly, and Federer won't give himself much room for error with the limited schedule he's likely to play.  Given his incredibly high level of play over the last year or two Federer is a risk to take a slight step back in 2016.  But even if the consistency isn't what it was (losses at the end of this year to Isner and Albert Ramos-Vinolas are a bit troubling), he should post enough strong results at the big events to finish well inside the top 8. 

Rafael Nadal:  Even in a year when Nadal was widely assumed to be struggling, he still managed to finish around 5 in the world (pending the ATP World Tour Finals).  Nadal started playing well toward the end of the year at a time when he's struggled in the past, and this is encouraging for his prospects in 2016.  Even if Djokovic is in another league, Nadal should rack up plenty of points on the clay to challenge for a spot in the top 4, let alone the top 8.      

Stan Wawrinka:  Wawrinka had another strong year in 2015 and currently sits at number 4 in the world.  He's still not the most consistent guy on tour week in and week out, but shows up at enough big events to rack up significant ranking points.  Wawrinka is 30 years old, but should have at least a couple of good years left (even if there's a slight decline).  Even if he continues to have some surprising losses in 2016, it's hard to imagine he won't make enough deep runs at important tournaments to finish inside the top 8.  While it would have sounded unimaginable just a few years ago, Wawrinka is now trying to boost his resume for a bid into the tennis Hall of Fame.

Kei Nishikori:  Nishikori took a bit of a step back in 2015, but overall still had a pretty solid year.  A withdrawal at Wimbledon and first round loss to Paire at the US Open (when he may not have been 100%) hurt his ranking, but he was otherwise pretty consistent throughout the year.  Nishikori will look to improve his performances at the big events in 2016, and it won't be surprising if he does so.  He should just be entering his prime, and has some of the best ground strokes in the game.  If Nishikori fails to finish in the top 8 next year he'd consider it a major disappointment, and it would be a pretty big surprise in the tennis world.

The probables: 

Tomas Berdych:  It says a lot about Berdych that he had a somewhat up and down 2015 but still is currently 6 in the world.  He didn't do as well as he would have liked in some important tournaments, notably the US Open and Wimbledon, but always seems to pick up enough points in smaller events.  Berdych generally seems to finish in the 5-8 range, and until he fails to do so it's hard to pick against him.  Sure there's some younger talented players on the way up who will at some point take Berdych's spot, but the bet here is Berdych makes the World Tour Finals once again in 2016. 

Milos Raonic:  Raonic clearly didn't have the kind of year he was hoping for, and was hampered by a foot injury.  Given that he's not the most mobile guy to start with, any further limitations on his movement is going to cause some problems.  Assuming he's at full strength to begin next year, Raonic should be able to will himself back into the top 8.  He's still got one of the best serves in the game, and has improved his backhand in recent years.  Had he stayed healthy throughout 2015 he probably would have found himself in this year's field, and expect him to finish 2016 around 7-8 in the world.

Just missing out:  David Ferrer, Richard Gasquet, Marin Cilic

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Can Borna Coric Build on an Up and Down 2015 Season?

Borna Coric is the youngest player in the top 50, and he just concluded a solid if not spectacular 2015 season with his loss to Andy Murray in Paris.  Coric gained a lot of attention at the end of last year when he got a win over Rafael Nadal, and more attention early this year when he destroyed Murray in Dubai.  But even with these marquee victories, Coric learned wins simply aren't easy to come by on the ATP Tour no matter how much promise you have.  He ends the season on a 3 match losing streak and a 25-27 record, but will be in good position to take a step forward in 2016. 

Even though Coric struggled at times, he didn't have that many "bad" losses.  Of course he would have liked to have a better record, but how many 18 year olds are going to consistently beat Cilic, Nishikori, Nadal, Anderson, Wawrinka, Tsonga and the other top guys he ran into nearly every week.  When he finally took a break from the ATP World Tour to play a Challenger towards the end of the year (like most guys his age are doing) he won it without much trouble.  Coric probably figures if everyone has to take their lumps when they first come on tour it's better to do so when you're just 18, and now he'll be able to hit the ground running heading into next season.  

Just because Coric has a higher ranking at the moment than his fellow talented teens doesn't necessarily mean he'll end up being the best of the bunch (the pick here is Alexander Zverev).  There's lots of examples of talented young players coming up around the same time where whoever peaked first didn't end up having the better career (i.e. Hewitt and Federer).  But it's hard to imagine Coric won't at least become a perennial top 15-20 player on tour. 

The biggest thing he needs to do is add power to his forehand.  The forehand is widely considered the most important shot in today's game, and without a dominant one it's extremely difficult to grab a spot in the top ten.  Coric's average forehand tends to sit up with too much spin, and gives his opponents something to attack.  If he can turn his forehand into a weapon instead of a slight liability (and it's not crazy to think an 18 year old still has time to add power to that side), Coric could become really scary.  Don't be surprised if at this time next year Coric is sitting around 25 in the world.         

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Americans Sock, Johnson Take Big Leaps Forward in 2015

Much of the focus on American men's tennis lately (here included) has been on the promising group of American teenagers on the way up.  It's always easy to get excited about the next big thing, and the U.S. has its best crop of emerging young players in over a decade.  But in the meantime, Americans Jack Sock and Steve ("aka Stevie") Johnson have made clear they're worth our attention with their now concluded impressive 2015 seasons. 

Jack Sock had been on everyone's radar for quite some time, as he was one of America's more promising juniors in a while in his own right.  But his first few years on tour weren't much to write home about.  That's not to say they were a complete disaster, but he clearly wasn't ready for life as a top level pro.  He struggled with his fitness, had a questionable work ethic, and lacked a respectable backhand.  Sock started to finally break through in 2014, and took it to a new level in 2015.  With improved fitness, a better backhand and seemingly more comfort being on tour, Sock should finish the year around 25 in the world. 

Sock won his first ATP World Tour title in 2015, posted several top 20 wins, and now has to believe he belongs on the same court with the world's top players.  Whether he can make the jump to the top 10 in the next couple of years will probably depend on how much he improves his backhand, as there's not much else that should hold him back.  Given that he made significant strides with his backhand already, it finally looks like he's made this a priority.  If he continues to do so throughout the off-season and comes into 2016 even stronger off that side, it's reasonable to foresee Sock finishing next year somewhere in the 10-15 range in the rankings.   

For Johnson, it wasn't that long ago he was hanging around 150 in the world.  As good as he was in college, people started wondering if he had the game to make in on the ATP Tour.  Johnson answered all such questions in 2015, and should finish around 30 in the world.  He ended the year on a strong note, and will enter 2016 with tons of confidence.  Johnson's upside probably isn't quite as high as Sock's, but he can certainly become a top 20 player in 2016. 

Johnson's backhand hasn't come as far as Sock's, and he seems to have resigned himself to becoming a "slicer" off that side a la Feliciano Lopez.  This can work to a point, but it's hard to reach a truly elite level without at least a solid two-handed backhand.  Hopefully for his fans Johnson spends his off-season practicing cross-court topspin backhands for about three hours a day.  If he enters 2016 with an improved backhand stroke (even if it's just by a little), he'll certainly be no fun for the rest of the tour to play against in 2016. 

Sock and Johnson may no longer be the shiny new objects in American men's tennis, but it looks like they'll be more than capable of holding the fort down until help arrives.  Seeing the teenagers quickly rise through the ranks also may have pushed them both to improve, as they realized they could soon get passed by if they don't.  With Sock, Johnson and lots of young talent on the way, landing a spot on the U.S. Davis Cup team looks to be a difficult proposition throughout much of the next decade.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Watch Out for Nadal in 2016

For most professional tennis players, a 56-18 record, 3 titles and over $3 million in prize money is a pretty good year.  If you're name is Rafael Nadal, such a year causes people to panic and wonder if your career is beginning to wind down.  Obviously Nadal's year hasn't been what we've come to expect from the 14 time grand slam champion, but it's hardly been the train wreck some people have made it out to be.  More importantly, Nadal is playing some of his best tennis as the year winds down, and this bodes well for the Spaniard in 2016. 

Nadal clearly struggled with his confidence as he returned to the tour at the beginning of the year.  Injuries slowed him down at the end of 2014, and he didn't begin 2015 in his usual form.  He got rolled by Berdych at the Australian Open, lost to Fognini multiple times, and got beaten handily by Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka at different times during the clay court season. 

More concerning than the results themselves was that he simply didn't look like Nadal.  His timing on his usually devastating forehand was off, and it looked like he mis-hit more forehands this year than he had in the previous 10 years combined.  As his confidence faded he stopped hitting out on a lot of forehands, and at times appeared to merely be guiding the ball through the court.

Even without his confidence Nadal managed to grind out what may end up being a top 5 season (he just moved up to fifth in the points race).  While it wasn't what we're used to, he did make the semis of Monte Carlo, finals of Madrid, won Hamburg (a 500 level event), finals of Beijing, semis of Shanghai and finals of Basel.  Nadal traditionally struggles in the post- US Open Asian and European indoor swing, but has been solid over the last few tournaments.  His forehand looked to be returning to form, and this should be worrisome for the rest of the tour. 

Nadal has always rebounded strong from injuries, layoffs and slumps.  He probably won't do so to the same extent as before (don't expect him to win 3 slams in 2016).  But it's hard to rule out the possibility that Nadal returns to number two or three in the world.  Djokovic has clearly passed him by, but with a good training block in the off-season there's no reason Nadal can't rejoin the likes of Murray and Federer.  At some point his body probably will break down, and it's hard to see him going strong into his mid-thirties like Federer.  However, that doesn't mean he doesn't have a couple of great years left.  If he can continue to end his year on a high note, a confident and healthy Nadal heading into 2016 could be a scary proposition for the rest of the tour.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Taylor Fritz Surges to the Top of a Deep American Teenage Class

It's no secret that serious help is on the way for American men's tennis.  The timing couldn't be better, given that we've seen the headline: "No American Man Makes it Past Third Round at Major" more times than fans of American men's tennis care to count over the past decade.  But now it appears there may be something special brewing with the likes of Taylor Fritz, Jared Donaldson, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Michael Mmoh, Reilly Opelka, and Stefan Kozlov amongst a few others.  All have impressive accomplishments to their name, including Fritz's junior US Open title, Paul's junior French Open title, Opelka's junior Wimbledon title, Tiafoe's Kalamazoo title, and Donaldson's status as a top 150 pro.

While several members of this emerging group have taken turns at the forefront over the last year or so, at the moment Fritz has sprinted to the front of the pack.  He recently won the US Open junior title and became the number one junior in the world.  Then, the newly turned pro just won two Challengers in extremely impressive fashion.  He beat Donaldson in the finals of the first Challenger in a tight three setter, and beat the talented Dustin Brown twice along the way.  Most everyone else struggled to even get a set off him, as he simply rolled through several talented opponents.  He's now up to 232 in the world, and he spent most of the last year playing junior tournaments. 

Some American fans will continue to be cynical and feel like they've been let down by too many hyped up American prospects. This may be true, but with Fritz and other members of this group there's substance to back up the hype.  Any 17 year old who wins multiple Challenger titles right after turning pro is clearly a serious talent.  The fact other Americans before him have fallen short shouldn't keep them from getting excited about Fritz's prospects as a top level pro.  He's clearly not there yet and will have to continue to push himself, but it looks like he'll soon belong in the same conversation with the world's other top teenagers such as Zverev, Kokkinakis, Coric, Rublev, Chung and a couple others. 

There's no need for Fritz to rush things, as he'll need to build up his fitness so he can withstand the rigors of the ATP Tour.  The other international teens may be ranked higher at the moment, but that doesn't mean they're all better long term prospects than Fritz (though many of them are quite good prospects themselves).  However, given how they've all raised their rankings, if Fritz wants to keep pace he probably should have his sight set on a spot in the top 50-80 in the world a year from now.

Other members of the American contingent are obviously aware of Fritz's success, and won't want to fall too far behind.  Even if Fritz stays in front of the pack, the fact that Donaldson, Tiafoe, Paul and others are all making moves of their own should help create a positive competitive environment within the group.  For fans of American men's tennis who just want to see someone succeed at the game's highest level, well it may just be time to get your hopes up once again.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Some Thoughts on Bouchard's Lawsuit Against the USTA

Like many expected, Eugenie Bouchard has filed a lawsuit against the USTA stemming from her fall in the locker room during the US Open which purportedly gave her a concussion and forced her to withdraw from the tournament.  As with most lawsuits there's a good chance it settles, but should it go to trial the issue of determining damages could be quite interesting. 

In addition to damages for pain and suffering and whatever else she is claiming, Bouchard will presumably be seeking damages based on the lost earnings the injury has cost her.  Given that tennis players have no guaranteed income and their earnings depend on them winning matches, Bouchard would be trying to convince a jury that because of the fall she has lost out on a significant amount of money that she otherwise would have won had she been playing. 

This could put Bouchard in a somewhat awkward position, given that the defense attorneys would be arguing the damages she suffered as a result of her injury were minimal.  Essentially, they would try to establish that based on her form throughout 2015, it's unlikely she would have earned much money had she been playing.  It could be a bit embarrassing for Bouchard if Exhibit A is a screenshot of her poor 2015 results from the WTA's website. 

It's hard to believe Bouchard wouldn't get a bit frustrated when the defense attorney asks her "Isn't it true that you lost to Ying-Ying Duan in the first round at Wimbledon? ...." ... "And, she's not ranked in the top 100 in the world, is she?" (as he proceeds to go down the list).  Bouchard's attorneys would presumably introduce evidence of her strong results and earnings in 2014 and argue she was moving in the right direction based on a strong US Open pre-slip, and then it would be up to the jury to award whatever amount of damages they think is appropriate.  Moreover, Bouchard claiming that her ranking is falling because of the injury could seemingly get picked apart, given that it was plummeting pre-injury based on all the points she failed to defend from 2014 throughout the year.

It probably won't make it to that point, but it's hard not to be intrigued by the potential battle at trial over the earnings she lost as a result of the USTA's alleged negligence.  

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Beijing and Tokyo Review

Following the conclusion of the 500 level tournaments in Beijing and Tokyo, here are some thoughts before the tour turns to the Shanghai Masters 1000.

Djokovic was scary good:  That Djokovic won Beijing wasn't a surprise by any means.  He was the heavy favorite, and hadn't lost a match in Beijing since 1974.  But anytime you roll through Isner 6-2 6-2, Ferrer 6-2 6-3 and Nadal 6-2 6-2, it's hard not to be impressed.  The only question heading in was whether Djokovic was due for a mental letdown after not playing since his US Open win, and he sent a message that he's once again ready to dominate the end of the year.

Nadal took a step in the right direction:  In years past Nadal would have considered a tournament in which he got destroyed by Djokovic in the finals a failure.  Based on how his 2015 has gone, he can't be too disappointed given that he actually made a hard court final.  He had some decent if not spectacular wins along the way (Pospisil, Sock and his nemesis Fognini), and if nothing else it should help his confidence.  Nadal clearly has a ways to go before he's ready to start challenging for grand slams again, but it's not like the wheels are completely falling off either.  We'll soon find out if he can keep up his solid form against the tougher competition in Shanghai.

Tokyo was an important win for Wawrinka:  Wawrinka has developed a reputation as being the guy who always shows up in grand slams, but isn't always ready for the lower level events.  This is certainly better than the alternative, but given that there's only 4 slams during the year it's important to play your best tennis elsewhere as well.  Wawrinka's draw ended up being pretty tame, but it was still a big win for the world number four.  He simply did what he was supposed to do, which is something the top champions routinely pull off.

Lots of big names disappointed:  Several big name players blew good opportunities in Beijing and Tokyo, and have to be disappointed with their weeks.  Nishikori once again fell to Paire, and thus was unable to avenge his US Open loss in his home country.  But at least he had a better week than Gasquet, Berdych, Raonic, Tsonga and Dimitrov, who all failed to win a match.  There's no shortage of talent amongst this group, but the week to week consistency is clearly missing.  Gasquet needed a big week to put some pressure on Ferrer as he tries to make a run at the year end championships in London, but now it looks like Ferrer should have the eighth and final spot wrapped up.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Benoit Paire Is Proving He's No Joke

A few years ago Eurosport predicted which ATP players would be in the top 10 in the world in 2018.  While long range predictions in tennis are always risky (and who knows how serious it was intended to be), it was a fun exercise in imagining who may be at the top of the game down the road.  One of the beneficiaries of the projected rankings was Frenchman Benoit Paire in the number two spot, who at the time was coming into his own as a talented shot-maker with major upside. 

Despite his talent, Paire has hardly been a hallmark of consistency.  Granted he's had some injuries that have slowed his progress, but as with Fognini, Gulbis and a host of others, his own head has probably kept him from serious success more than anything.  The high projected ranking has been somewhat of a joke in tennis circles for the last couple years, as Paire didn't even enter 2015 in the top 100.

But based on the way Paire has been playing lately, the 26 year old Frenchman may be the one with the last laugh.  Paire began the year playing mostly Challengers, qualifying events, and even a Futures, but after reaching the finals in Tokyo he shouldn't be far from reaching the top 20 in the world (a win in the finals over Wawrinka might get him there).  Along the way, Paire has knocked off Dimitrov, Baghdatis, Kyrgios and Nishikori (all in three sets), who he also beat during his US Open run to the Round of 16 after saving match points.  What's particularly impressive isn't just that Paire is getting quality wins, but how tough of a competitor he's been in doing so.    

It's hard to say where Paire will go from here.  As well as he's been playing, his lack of a dominant forehand (seemingly a necessity in the modern game) could hold him back.  Maybe he'll pull a Gulbis and follow his strong 2015 by falling completely off the map in 2016.  Or maybe he'll build on his momentum, take advantage of being seeded in most tournaments he plays and make a run towards the top of the game.  Number 2 in the world may still seem a bit out of reach, but it no longer seems so crazy to imagine Paire with a spot in the top 10 by 2018.  

Saturday, October 3, 2015

What to Look for in Beijing and Tokyo

After a bit of a down period following the US Open, the stars return to action this week in Beijing and Tokyo.  Djokovic, Nadal and other big names headline the Beijing field, and Wawrinka and Nishikori are the top seeds competing for the Tokyo title.  As the end of the season stretch run begins, here's some things to look for during the week ahead.

Will Djokovic pick up where he left off?  Djokovic has been brilliant throughout 2015, and is the heavy favorite to take home the Beijing title.  He should be well rested after taking a post-US Open break, so the only real risk is that he has a bit of a mental letdown.  Assuming he comes ready to play, the defending champion should be just about unbeatable.  As good as he always is throughout the year, he's even better after the US Open.  He lost a grand total of 1 match following the US Open in 2013 and 2014, and don't be surprised if he goes on a similar run in 2015. 

Who can build some needed momentum?  Lots of talented players in both draws could use some momentum as they aim for a strong end to their season.  Milos Raonic has been up and down since his foot surgery earlier this year, but his game should be suited to the faster courts in Asia and Europe during the rest of the year. A run to the semis in Beijing (where he'd face Djokovic) could give him some confidence as he prepares to return to the top of the game in 2016.  Jack Sock has had a decent 2015 and established himself as a top 30 player, but it still seems like he should win more than he does with all his talent.  He's got a tricky draw in Beijing with Tsonga and Nadal nearby, but the American may be getting ready to make his move into the next tier of the ATP Tour.  A strong run in Beijing to kick of the end of the season may be just what Sock needs.  In Tokyo, it will be important for Kei Nishikori to regain the momentum he had earlier in the summer.  He was on a tear after winning Washington D.C. and making the semis of Montreal, but then fell meekly to Murray, missed Cincinnati with an injury and lost first round in New York.  A strong run on his home turf could quickly establish that he's ready to return to being a top 5 player.

Will Cilic, Fognini and Paire build on their US Open success?  It will be important for Marin Cilic to back up his run to the US Open semis and establish he really is back to elite form.  A deep run in Tokyo could send notice to the tour that he's ready to become a threat week in and week out, and that his early season struggles were simply lingering effects from his 2014 wrist injury.  If he falls early, tennis fans will be left wondering when Cilic will show he's more than just a threat at the occasional big event.  Meanwhile, Fabio Fognini and Benoit Paire have long been two of the tour's more enigmatic players, but appear to be trending in the right direction after impressive US Opens.  They have loads of talent, and will be looking to show their US Open runs were a sign of things to come.  Beijing and Tokyo will be good places to start, but don't be surprised with anything these two do.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Some Thoughts Following the US Open

Serena's upset for the ages:  No matter how good you are it's natural to have a bad day here or there. Serena did a great job of overcoming some bad days on her way to the US Open, but eventually having so many close calls is going to catch up to you.  Losing to Roberta Vinci may be shocking on its own, but every great player loses the occasional match to a solid if not spectacular pro.  That said, Serena sure let an incredible opportunity slip away.  None of the other top seeds remained by the tournaments latter stages, and she wasn't able to capitalize.  Maybe nerves got to her, maybe she had a mental let down following a dramatic win over her sister, or maybe it was just one of those days where she was a bit off and ran into a tricky opponent.  Serena's year is still phenomenal despite the loss, but it will be hard for her not to think about what could have been when she looks back on her 2015. 

Djokovic confirms what we all knew:  Heading into the US Open Roger Federer may not have technically been the favorite, but he was the popular pick to steal the title from the world number one.  Federer had just beaten Djokovic and Murray in Cincinnati, and undeniably was in great form.  Everyone seemed to forget that Federer had also been in great form heading into nearly every grand slam for the last few years yet failed to capture the title every time  (This isn't meant to knock Federer, who at 34 is still playing at an unbelievably high level, but at some point tennis fans and analysts have to wake up and realize we've seen this show before).  Djokovic is number one in the world for a reason, and a loss to Federer in Cincinatti when he was fatigued from Canada should have never been given so much emphasis.  Djokovic's defense and depth made Federer force the issue a bit more than he wanted, and it was clear from the beginning that we weren't seeing the same Federer we had seen during his previous 6 matches.  Djokovic now has 10 grand slams and counting, and what was once a Big Four appears to have dwindled to a Big One. 

Flavia Pennetta's stunning victory:  Heading into the US Open Flavia Pennetta was 2-5 in her last 7 matches.  Naturally, she left New York holding one of the most prestigious trophies in the sport.  There have been plenty of surprise major winners before, but Pennetta's US Open title is right up there with the best of them.  She's had a long and relatively successful career, but there was simply no indication this was coming.  Regardless, Pennetta picked the best possible time to go on a hot streak, and because of it she completely changed how her career will be remembered. 

Who's satisfied, and who's kicking themselves:  They may not have won the tournament, but Donald Young, Benoit Paire, Kevin Anderson, Roberta Vinci, and Venus Williams all have to be feeling pretty good about their runs in New York.  Vinci scored one of the biggest upsets in recent memory in her take down of Serena, and Venus looked good during her run to the quarters.  Young and Paire each showed more mental and physical toughness than we've come to expect from them, and Anderson managed to knock out Murray with his overwhelming power.  On the other hand, Azarenka and Halep must be furious about losing before the finals given that Serena didn't end up being there.  On the men's side, while it never would have been easy for Murray to beat Federer and Djokovic back to back, he has to feel like he blew another opportunity at a slam.  He had just beaten Djokovic in Canada, and must have thought he had a chance to take the title heading in.  Instead, Murray remains stuck on two major titles while all the other members of the Big Four are now in double digits.   

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Early US Open Reflections

The first round is just about complete, so here are some early thoughts from the US Open:

Benoit Paire and Donald Young came to play:  26 year olds Paire and Young have received plenty of hype over the years, and neither is lacking for talent.  What they lack is consistency, as they're two of the more up and down players on tour.  However, both knocked out seeds in extremely impressive fashion in round one.  Paire took down the 4th seed Kei Nishikori in five sets (who in fairness was coming off a leg injury), and Young came from two sets down to defeat 11th seeded Gilles Simon.  Both have good draws going forward, and could be around through the middle of the tournament.

Serena's draw opened up:  Serena's draw could have been brutal, but it didn't take long for things to open up.  Sharapova withdrew before the tournament started, and Sloane Stephens and 8th seeded Karolina Pliskova fell in round one.  This isn't to say it will be easy going forward, but it looks like some of her rounds may not be as difficult as they could have been.  A Serena vs. Madison Keys match up would be an enticing fourth rounder, and could be her first real test. 

Men's tennis is still an old man's game:  A few youngsters did get nice wins, as Hyeon Chung and Yoshihito Nishioka both made it through to round two against manageable opponents.  Most of the other youngsters on the men's side fell, as Coric, Zverev, Rublev, Kokkinakis, Tiafoe, Donaldson and Paul were unable to make it out of the first round.  Many of them received tough draws, but tennis fans looking forward to seeing the next generation break through were hoping some of them could pull an upset.  Ultimately, their losses will have little effect on their extremely bright futures, though it takes some excitement out of the men's tournament.  If nothing else, they got a taste of the fitness that's required to compete at the top level, and should all be back better next year. 

A mixed bag for Americans:  Overall, it looks like the American women performed a bit better than their male counterparts, but there were some disappointing (and pleasantly surprising) results on both sides.  Lots of American women won in the top half, including Anna Tatishvili who knocked out the 8th seed.  However, Alison Riske can't be happy about losing to a struggling Eugenie Bouchard, and local favorite Christina McHale also fell.  On the men's side Mardy Fish showed he's still got something left in his last tournament, and Donald Young was the first round's big winner.  Austin Krajicek also had a nice win, as he battled past Santiago Giraldo.  However, Steve Johnson couldn't get past Fognini, Denis Kudla lost a winnable match to Jurgen Melzer and Sam Querrey fell in straights to Nicolas Mahut.  Most of the others did what they were supposed to do, and it will be interesting to see who besides Serena may be in for a deep run. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Winners and Losers from the US Open Draw

It may be fun to talk US Open predictions as soon as Cincinnati is over, but the reality is that until the draws are released any prediction is largely meaningless.  Now that the US Open draws are out and we know what the players are dealing with, here's a look at some winners and losers.


Novak Djokovic: Djokovic simply has to be thrilled with his draw.  In years past this would seem hard to believe, given that he could play Nadal in the quarters.  But the 2015 version of Nadal seems highly unlikely to even take a set off Djokovic, and this match simply won't live up to any hype it's given by the media.  The other high seeds in his half (Nishikori and Ferrer) have injury issues, and seem unlikely to trouble the world number one.  More importantly, Federer, Murray and Wawrinka are all in the other half.  They're the players most likely to trouble Djokovic at the moment, and he'll only have to face one of them in the finals.  Djokovic was the favorite going in regardless of his draw, and is an even heavier favorite now.

Grigor Dimitrov:  Dimitrov may be having a down year, but his draw gives him the chance to have a big US Open.  After an easy couple of opening rounds he could face defending champion Marin Cilic in the third round.  But Cilic hasn't been himself this year, and Dimitrov would have a good opportunity to knock him out.  Ferrer, who hasn't played in forever and is battling injuries would be next.  Nishikori, who missed Cincinnati with a hip injury could be waiting in the quarters.  This doesn't mean you should necessarily pick Dimitrov to make the semis in your bracket, but his draw was as friendly as it could have been.

Victoria Azarenka:  Azarenka had to run into Serena earlier than she would have liked at the French Open and Wimbledon, and fell to Serena in tight three setters at both events.  She won't have to worry about Serena until the very end this time, and if she's recovered from her leg injury that forced her to withdraw in Cincinnati she'll be a threat to make the finals.  She beat Kvitova easily in Toronto (a potential semifinal opponent), and the former two-time finalist is definitely a contender given her manageable draw.


Serena Williams:  No one said trying to win the calendar Grand Slam should be easy.  Serena could have to get through dangerous young Americans Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys in rounds three and four.  Belinda Bencic, who she lost to in Canada could be waiting in the quarters, and Maria Sharapova could be Serena's semifinals opponent.  In the finals, she could have to deal with Kvitova, Halep, or Azerenka.  Sure Serena will be heavily favored against each of these opponents, but that doesn't mean it will be easy to run through all of them if they each make it to play Serena.  Serena remains the fairly heavy favorite to take the title, but if she starts feeling the pressure of going for the Grand Slam or simply comes out flat one day, she could be vulnerable to an upset given her extremely rough draw.  She's had plenty of close calls in Grand Slams this year, and it looks like the US Open could be more of the same.

Young Guys:  Several of the ATP's brightest young stars may just have to wait a little bit longer to break through in New York given their brutal draws.  18 year old Borna Coric just missed being seeded, and has to play Nadal in round one.  (Not a good draw for Nadal either, as the youngster did manage to beat Nadal at the end of 2014).  19 year old Thanasi Kokkinakis has a great future on tour, but opens with Richard Gasquet who just took him out in Cincinnati.  And in the blockbuster match of round one, 20 year old Nick Kyrgios (who just received a strangely "delayed" suspension) opens with third seed Andy Murray.  These young guys will likely make several deep runs at the US Open down the road, just don't expect it to happen in 2015.    

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Some Thoughts Following the Cincinnati Masters

Federer showed he's a contender in New York, but...:  Roger Federer once again showed he's ageless in taking the title in impressive fashion.  He dispatched of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic without too much trouble, and clearly is in great form.  However, while a good argument can be made he's the second favorite heading into the US Open (yes, Djokovic is still the heavy favorite), Federer has often looked great heading into slams in recent years without taking the title.  It certainly won't be a shock if he does pull it off, but it's also getting tough to ignore recent history.  Unlike in Cincinnati where Murray and Djokovic were worn down from a very draining week in Canada, both will be fresh in New York.  Federer knows he may not have many more chances to steal a final grand slam and will be extremely confident, but it's still more likely Djokovic or Murray will be holding the US Open trophy. 

Alexandr Dolgopolov knows how to take advantage of an opportunity:  During qualifying in Cincinnati it became clear that Kei Nishikori was probably going to withdraw after his injury in Canada, so the big question was who was going to take the fourth seed's coveted place in the draw (and accompanying bye into the second round).  Benoit Paire may have thought it was going to be him as a lucky loser following his spot as the top seed in qualifying, but Dolgopolov was awarded the spot.  He certainly benefited by the draw to some degree, but Dolgopolov played some great tennis on his way to the semifinals where he nearly took down Djokovic.  Dolgopolov hadn't been in great form heading in, but posted solid wins over Tomic, Janowicz, and Berdych.  This should give him some much needed ranking points, and he'll clearly be a player seeds will want to avoid early in New York.   

The "Next" Generation is progressing nicely, but still a year or two away:  Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Jared Donaldson were all in the Cincinnati main draw and played like they all belonged. Donaldson and Kokkinakis each won their first round matches, and Coric took down Zverev 7-6 in the third in a very high quality match.  Ultimately, Coric went down to Wawrinka in respectable fashion, Donaldson fell to Janowicz in a tight two setter, and Kokkinakis fell to Gasquet.  They might not be quite ready to compete with the world's best on a consistent basis, but it's looking like it won't be long.  Sure they need a bit more seasoning, but multiple members of this group could hold this trophy at some point down the road. 

Nadal and Cilic still can't gain much needed traction:  Rafael Nadal and Marin Cilic both fell in the Round of 16 at Cincinnati and thus were unable to build momentum for their US Open campaigns.  Cilic may be the defending champion, but he's certainly vulnerable to an early exit based on his current form.  He'll have a lot of pressure to make a deep run giving all the ranking points he's got to defend, but it's hard to see him going past the quarters if he even makes it that far.  Similarly, it's hard to imagine Nadal being confident about his US Open chances given his losses to Nishikori and Lopez at the Montreal and Cincinnati Masters.  Beating Nadal in a three out of five set match is never easy, but Nadal has played himself out of the top set of contenders in New York.  

Expect More Controversy in Tennis' Future

For most of the last decade during tennis' "golden age" on the men's tour, the sport has mostly steered clear of major controversies.  The Big Four clearly reigned supreme, and everyone else seemed to know their place.  There may have been some minor dustups between members of the Big Four (notably Federer and Djokovic), but they've largely gotten along given how often they run up against each other.  They all seemed to realize they're more marketable if they "keep it classy", and have taken steps to maintain pristine images.

It looked like the next generation was going to follow in the Big Four's footsteps in terms of their images.  Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Grigor Dimitrov all seem to be liked by other players and fans, and minus a few harsh words by Serena aimed at Dimitrov there hasn't been much controversy following this group.  However, they've also failed to take the next step to consistently challenge the Big Four on the court (or are at least taking their sweet time in doing so). 

Just when the ATP Tour thought it was safe and that juniors would learn from the Big Four, along came the even younger and more talented group of players such as Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev.  This group has gotten a lot of attention following Kyrgios' recent controversy, and people seem to be realizing what the tour could be in for as the Big Four begins to wind down.  (Though at this rate it seems like Federer will still be firmly entrenched in the top ten when he's 47).  All of the above players are extremely talented and should be some of the tour's best over the next decade, but are widely considered to be varying degrees of temperamental or controversial. 

Everyone has their opinion about whether the tour is better or worse with some controversial players at the top, and it's hard to reach a definitive answer.  Some tennis purists will hate it, others will enjoy the added intrigue, and the rest will find some controversy entertaining so long as it doesn't go past a certain point.  Regardless of one's opinion on the issue, it's looking like it won't be long until we once again find out what it's like to have controversial figures ruling the sport. 

There's a chance they'll tone it down as they get older and realize they're losing potential endorsements.  Djokovic and Murray were considered controversial to some extent when they were newer on tour, but now both are incredibly well respected.  However, at this point it's hard to see all (or even most) of this younger group making such a transition.  Assuming they don't, tennis fans may soon feel like they're stepping back into the McEnroe and Connors years of the 70s and 80s, as opposed to following the "golden age" of the Big Four.    

Monday, August 10, 2015

Some Thoughts Early In the Week At The Montreal Masters

Roger Federer may be resting, but most everyone else will be trying to get some valuable ranking points and momentum for the US Open at this week's Montreal Masters.  Below are some thoughts as the top players return to action at the biggest tournament since Wimbledon.

Djokovic will be looking to send a message:  Just like in 2014 Novak Djokovic enters Canada as the Wimbledon champion, but he'll be looking to avoid a repeat of the slip up he suffered last year in Canada and Cincinnati.  It's impossible to tell what effect if any his early losses last year had on his US Open semifinals defeat, but it may have given the rest of the field the belief that he was beatable.  Djokovic will be looking to remind the field that he's simply a level above everyone else, and he'll have his guard up after what happened last year.  His 2015 has been nearly flawless, and barring another in the zone performance by Wawrinka it's hard to see anyone stopping him in Montreal

Will any Americans make some noise?  John Isner has been the leading American man so far this summer, but it's not likely he'll have much left in Montreal after deep runs in Atlanta and Washington D.C.  Isner's draw isn't bad if he's able to give it a go, but three weeks in a row is probably too much for the big man.  Jack Sock has had a somewhat disappointing summer, and has a chance to win a few matches before facing Djokovic in the Round of 16.  Donald Young already has beaten Denis Kudla, but has to face Tomas Berdych in his next match.  Sam Querrey also already won his first round match, and could play Steve Johnson next if Johnson is able to upset David Goffin.  Johnson had a nice run in Washington D.C., and could put a scare into the world number 14.  The best bet to make the quarters is probably Johnson or Querrey, on the hope that Nishikori is a bit worn down from winning the title in D.C. last week.     

Can Thiem carry his momentum to North America?  One of the most exciting players of the summer has been 21 year old Dominic Thiem, who won two 250s on the European clay and made the semis of another.  He's up to 18 in the world, and is at 14 in the points race.  He's clearly supremely talented, but the next question is whether he's ready to become a contender at the big events.  Montreal is as good of a place to start as any, and a quarterfinal matchup against Djokovic would be a great test to see where he stands against the world's best. 

If Djokovic slips up, who will be ready to take advantage?  Djokovic is certainly the favorite, but if he doesn't come to Montreal ready to play there are a handful of others who could be ready to step up.  Murray is the second seed, but lost early in Washington D.C.  He should be more prepared for Montreal, and will be looking for momentum to jump start his summer.  Wawrinka and Raonic haven't played since Wimbledon and could be dealing with rust, but are always some of the most dangerous players on tour.  Nadal will be hoping his good form in Hamburg carries over to hard courts, but he's still a bit of a question mark.  If Nishikori has enough left after a tiring week in Washington he'll be a threat as well.  But if Djokovic does somehow fall early like last year, Murray is clearly the next best bet to win the title in Montreal

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Is Dominic Thiem Ready To Make His Move?

Dominic Thiem is a name tennis fans have been familiar with for a few years now, and he became one of the games' brightest young prospects based on his success early in 2014.  He's still just 21, but a somewhat poor end to 2014 and beginning to 2015 saw Thiem get passed in the hype machine by even younger and supposedly brighter prospects (i.e. Coric, Kyrgios, Zverev, etc).  It's too soon to tell which of these prospects will become the best player, but it's now clear Thiem is back in good form and ready to make a run towards challenging the elite.  He just won back to back 250 level tournaments, and it won't be long before he sets his sights on bigger prizes. 

Winning 250 level tournaments and challenging for Masters and grand slam titles are clearly two different ball games, but Thiem doesn't seem like the type of player who will top out at the 250s.  Regardless of the level of the tournament it's important that Thiem is learning how to win titles, as these experiences should help him in bigger stages.  It's clear Thiem is an ultra-talented player, but lots of players struggle to turn their talent into victories.  The fact that Thiem already has 3 titles at age 21 is a promising sign, as it shows he's got substance to go with his talent.  No young player bursts onto the scene anymore and starts competing for major titles, and Thiem seems to be poised to work his way to the top one level at a time. 

With a powerful baseline game that resembles Stan Wawrinka, Thiem appears to have all the tools required to be successful in today's game.  He hit's heavy and powerful shots off both wings, and possesses an extremely deadly one-handed backhand.  He's got a good serve, moves well and also has good hands.  Seeing Wawrinka have so much success has to give Thiem confidence, as he sees how much trouble his style of play can give the best players in the world.

Realistically, Thiem probably isn't going to start winning Masters and Grand Slams within the next year or two, but there's no reason he shouldn't make a run at the top 10.  He's already in the top 25, and a lot of players ahead of him are getting up there in age and seem very vulnerable to getting passed by Thiem.  By the time he's 23 or 24 much of the current top 10 will likely be winding down their careers, and there's no reason Thiem can't make the jump to becoming one of the top players in the world.

Tennis has been in great hands for the last decade, but it's about time there are some fresh faces playing in the semis and finals of the biggest tournaments.  There's no shortage of young talent at the moment, but Thiem once again has to be considered one of the more likely prospects to excel over the next decade.  Everything seems to be setting up nicely for him, and we shouldn't be surprised if Thiem is at the forefront of the "next generation" when the Big Four's run finally comes to an end. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

What to Expect at the BB&T Atlanta Open?

The BB&T Atlanta Open, aka "grown ups Kalamazoo", may be lacking the world's best players, but has more than enough Americans to draw in the Atlanta fans.  Lots of young Americans were in qualifying, and the main draw has a collection of Americans young and old.  Mardy Fish is making an appearance as he goes on his farewell tour this summer, and is also teaming with Andy Roddick in the men's doubles.   

In the top half it's hard to see anyone stopping John Isner and Jack Sock from meeting in the semifinals.  Steve Johnson could give Isner some trouble in the quarters, but this is practically Isner's home tournament and he always bring his best game to Atlanta.  Jack Sock's section includes Denis Kudla and Ryan Harrison, and it's hard to find anyone who 3 years ago would have picked Harrison as the one from this group to be outside of the top 100 in 2015.  Fish is also in this part of the draw, and may have a shot to win his first round match against Dudi Sela.  Look for Sock to reach the semifinals without dropping a set. 

In the semifinals, Isner should be able to squeak past Sock for the third time in his career in Atlanta, after previously knocking him out of the event in 2012 and 2014.  Sock's a much better player than in year's past, but picking against Isner in Atlanta is like picking against Federer at Wimbledon or Nadal at the French Open (maybe a slight exaggeration). 

The bottom half should be a little more open. Canadian Vasek Pospisil is the number two seed, and is looking to back up his run to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.  However, outside of Wimbledon he hasn't done much of note all year, and is hardly a sure thing to make a deep run.  Emerging young American Jared Donaldson had an impressive run through qualifying, and opens up against former NCAA champion Somdev Devvarman in a match that could go either way. 

Fourth seeded Frenchman Adrian Mannarino just reached the finals of a 250 event in Bogota last week, and look for him to take out seventh seed Gilles Muller on his way to the semis.  Muller already destroyed Donald Young in his first round match, who has once again forgotten how to win matches at the ATP level after a promising start to the year. 

In the bottom section 17 year old American Frances Tiafoe is in with a wild card, and opens against big hitting Australian Sam Groth.  Tiafoe could have a bright future down the road, but it's hard to see him being competitive in this match given that he's been struggling at the Challenger level over the last couple of months.  Expect Pospisil to get past Marcos Baghdatis on his way to the semis, before knocking out Mannarino in the pair's first career meeting in the final four. 

In the finals, Pospisil may have a 2-1 head-to-head edge over Isner, but beating Isner in Atlanta and anywhere else in the world are two different stories.  It should be a big hitting and entertaining match up to watch, with the American prevailing in a third-set tiebreak to capture his third straight Atlanta title.   

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Next (And Better) John Isner?

17 year old American Reilly Opelka just won the junior Wimbledon boys title, and one thing is clear: he better get used to being compared to fellow American John Isner.  Like Isner, Opelka is over 6'9" and possesses an extremely powerful (and high bouncing) serve.  But where Isner has been limited by deficiencies in other areas of his game, it looks like Opelka may be the player we hoped Isner could develop into.

As was evident during the Wimbledon boys final, Opelka has much more than just a big serve to offer.  The junior world number four's backhand is surprisingly good, though it shouldn't be such a surprise anytime an American has a decent and technically sound backhand.  He doesn't seem to have any trouble hitting strong rally shots off that side, and seems comfortable going for backhand winners as well.  And while it's less of a surprise, he's certainly no slouch off the forehand side either.  It's unlikely movement will be the strength of anyone as tall as Opelka, but he seemed to move pretty well for someone his height.

As has been said many times before, it's always risky to predict pro success based on a player's junior career.  The vast majority of junior grand slam champions find little success in the pros, and only a select few make it big at the next level.  But given all the free points Opelka should win from his serve combined with a solid ground game, it looks like he's a much safer bet than many other junior prospects.  Sure he'll have his growing pains as he transitions to the pro tour, but in this day and age that's inevitable.  More importantly, he has a game that should translate well at the next level even if the results don't really show for a couple more years.  He also should be able to avoid much of the pressure that comes with being the next big thing in American men's tennis, as he's got about 6 other fellow American prospects to share the attention with.

When watching Isner play, it's easy to imagine how much success he'd be having if he were only slightly better in other areas of his game.  He's improved since he first came on tour, but not to the degree many fans of American tennis had hoped.  In a sport where the margins are so small, if Isner's backhand, movement, hands, etc were just a few percentages better, maybe he'd be a staple in the top 10 instead of the top 20.  With the emergence of Opelka, we may not have to wonder any longer.  We may finally get to see just how far a 6'10" serving machine can go when he's got the rest of the game to back it up.  

Monday, July 13, 2015

How High Can Djokovic Climb on the Grand Slam Title List?

With his Wimbledon title Novak Djokovic now has nine grand slam singles titles to his name, and there's no reason to believe he can't add several more to his total.  He'll be the heavy favorite to get his tenth at the US Open, and should have a good chance at further adding to his total in Australia after that.  While it's risky to predict that anyone will win five more grand slam titles, it doesn't seem crazy to think Djokovic could make a run at Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras' total of 14. 

While Djokovic just turned 28, he appears to have at least a few years remaining in which he can rack up multiple grand slams per year.  The rest of the Big Four isn't nearly as much of threat to his slam chances as they used to be, and it's not clear who else is going to stop him.  Federer is nearly 34, and if he didn't beat Djokovic at Wimbledon it's hard to see where he's going to beat him.  Djokovic has solved the Nadal riddle as well, as he dispatched him easily at Roland Garros and has beaten him 6 out of the last 7 times.  He also has been dominant against Murray, having beaten him 8 straight times.  Wawrinka has given him trouble as of late (most notably denying him the career grand slam at the French Open), but Wawrinka is inconsistent and often loses earlier in tournaments. 

It's true things can change quickly in tennis, as a player can be on top of the world one moment and then quickly fall down a few pegs without much warning.  Nadal's decline has been pretty drastic, and he's only one year older than Djokovic.  However, Djokovic isn't showing any signs of slowing down, and it's hard to see his level of play dropping much in the next two years.  

Fortunately for Djokovic, there's not a particularly strong group of younger players ready to knock him off his perch either.  There's simply not many players in the 23-26 age group who look like they're ready to become a serious challenger to the world number one.  Cilic, Nishikori, Raonic and Dimitrov are all very good players, but they're up and down, injury prone and simply not at Djokovic's level.  While there's a more talented group of younger players on their way up (i.e. Kyrgios, Thiem, Coric, Kokkinakis, etc), they're probably a couple years away from hitting their peaks and won't be much of a threat to Djokovic anytime soon. 

Even if Djokovic doesn't age as gracefully as Federer, if he can remain at this level until he's 30 we may be viewing him in an entirely different light at the end of his career.  It always seemed like Djokovic was going to end up in the same conversation with the likes of Agassi, Lendl, Connors, Borg, and a few others who are considered legends but not quite in league with Federer, Sampras, Nadal, Laver and Emerson.  He's still got some work to do, but it looks like he may get a lot closer to joining that latter quintet than many of us thought.          

Sunday, July 12, 2015

What to Expect at the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport?

The casual tennis fan may think the grass court season ends after Wimbledon, but the hardcore fan knows the tour turns to the grass at Newport for the Hall of Fame Championships.  Newport may not be a particularly menacing field even for a 250 level tournament, but there should still be plenty of intrigue.  The draw is led by the tour's two best servers and tallest players- John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, and the rest of the field will have to hope they bring their best return games to Newport.

The seeds in the top half are Isner, Adrian Mannarino, Bernard Tomic and Steve Johnson.  37 year old wild card Tommy Haas may have a shot to upset Mannarino, but he's playing just his third tournament back since coming back from a long injury layoff.  Otherwise, it's a fairly weak half and hard to see the seeds having much trouble.  Look for Isner to reach the semis, as he should get past the winner of the Mannarino/Haas match without too much trouble.  

Waiting for Isner will be American Steve Johnson, who will be looking to get his season going with a strong run.  Johnson's quarterfinal opponent Tomic may be the higher ranked player, but Johnson just beat Tomic in straight sets on grass a couple of weeks ago.  He should be confident heading into the rematch, and will be comfortable now that he's back playing in the United States.  In the semis, the big serving Isner should be too much for Johnson.  Isner leads the head to head 3-1, and Johnson has only taken one set in their last three meetings.  Also of interest for fans of American tennis- 18 year old up and comer Jared Donaldson faces off against American Austin Krajicek in the first round, and newly turned pro/NCAA runner up Noah Rubin opens up against Tatsuma Ito of Japan.

The seeds in the bottom half are Karlovic, Jack Sock, Tim Smyczek and Sam Querrey.  In the first quarterfinal on this half, look for Sock to power past fellow American Smyczek without too much trouble.  In the bottom quarter, Querrey will likely half to take on Rafael Nadal conqueror Dustin Brown in the second round.  Querrey's beaten Brown the last two times, and should be able to squeak past the entertaining Brown once again.  In the quarters, look for Querrey to top the second seeded Karlovic, against whom he has a surprising 5-1 career record.  In an all-American semifinals matchup, the more talented Sock should be able to overcome his older countryman. 

In the finals, expect Isner to get revenge for his loss to Sock at last year's Hall of Fame Championships.  That was the only time Sock has beaten Isner, although Sock has recently raised his level of play a good amount.  Still, Sock will struggle to make inroads on Isner's serve, and may still be suffering some effects from an apparent knee injury that hampered him at Wimbledon.  Isner generally has a busy and fairly productive run in the U.S. during the summer months, and he should be able to start things off on the right note in Newport.   

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Previewing the Wimbledon Men's Final

In a rematch of their classic 2014 men's final, Novak Djokovic will look to beat Roger Federer in the finals of Wimbledon for the second straight year.  Djokovic eased past Richard Gasquet in the first semifinals, and Roger Federer surprisingly did the same against Andy Murray in the second.  Federer looked to be the sharper of the two, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's the favorite heading into the finals. 

Federer dictated play against Murray, and he'll look to take control of points early against Djokovic as well.  Djokovic may think he can beat Federer by playing great defense and relying on deep, steady groundstrokes, and maybe he can if Federer isn't at his best.  But as sharp as Federer has looked, Djokovic may need to be a little more aggressive than normal off the ground.  Djokovic often leaves a little something in reserve, as he doesn't like to go for riskier shots than he has to in order to win.  Against most players this isn't a problem, but an in-form Federer may require Djokovic to come out firing. 

Djokovic seems to have the most pressure heading in.  He's the world number one, is still in his prime, and just let a massive opportunity slip away by falling to Wawrinka in last month's French Open final.  If he loses another grand slam final he's supposed to win, the critics will get a little louder.  Fair or not, some will wonder why he gives away so many major titles when he's clearly the best player in the world.  Even though Federer is at the point of his career where anything else he accomplishes is just a bonus, he does have some pressure knowing this may be his last realistic shot to win a major.  However, no one's going to knock Federer for falling to the world number one in the Wimbledon finals when he's nearly 34 years old. 

It's hard to see either player running away with this match, and fans will be hoping for another five set battle.  Djokovic managed to avoid a letdown after his failure to capture the career grand slam in Paris, and he'll be extremely motivated to get a nice "consolation" prize by winning the most prestigious tournament in the world.  He knows losing to a 33 year old Federer won't look good, nor will losing in the finals of back to back grand slams on the European swing.  Djokovic knows the crowd will be pro-Federer, but he won't be happy about it.  All this should give Djokovic enough motivation where he's simply going to refuse to lose.  The tennis world may have been buzzing after Federer's phenomenal performance against Murray, but Djokovic will remind everyone on Sunday that he's pretty good at this tennis thing too. 

Prediction: Djokovic d. Federer: 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6.    

What (or who) Could Keep Serena From Winning the Grand Slam?

Nerves:  If the end of her Wimbledon finals match is any indication, Serena will be nervous in New York.  She looked to be running away with the second set, but a patch of nervous play allowed Muguruza to get back in the match (albeit briefly).  If she got tight at this stage, it's possible she gets even more nervous when faced with the pressure of completing the calendar grand slam.  (She also tightened up in the French Open final against Safarova).  It didn't end up costing her at Wimbledon, as Muguruza was just as nervous as she was.  But if she's playing a more experienced player in the later stages of the US Open and succumbs to her nerves, she might not get off so easy.

A top player who finds "the zone":  Serena's usually so much better than everyone else that it doesn't matter if her opponent is having a particularly good day.  But there are a couple of players who could trouble her if they get in the zone for a day.  World number two Petra Kvitova has already beaten Serena this year in straight sets on her worst surface, and may finally believe she has what it takes to beat Serena.  Victoria Azarenka has been slowly rounding back into form after missing much of 2014 with injuries.  She's already taken Serena to three sets three times in 2015, and may be fully back in shape by the time the end of the hard court season rolls around.  If Azarenka keeps gaining momentum throughout the next month or two, she could be a very dangerous opponent.  It would certainly take an excellent performance by Kvitova or Azarenka to actually pull the upset.  But it's conceivable that if Serena comes out flat and they find the zone for a long enough stretch, they just might be able to get it done.

A dangerous early or mid round opponent:  When Serena loses in a grand slam, it's usually before the semifinals.  In 2013 her grand slam losses came to Sloane Stephens (Australian Open quarters) and Sabine Lisicki (Wimbledon Round of 16).  In 2014 she lost to Ana Ivanovic (Australian Open Round of 16), Garbine Muguruza (French Open second round) and Alize Cornet (Wimbledon third round).  Thus, if she's going to lose in New York, it looks like it's as likely to happen in the early to mid rounds as it is in the semifinals or finals.  It's hard to say why she loses more in early rounds than late, but maybe her focus isn't always as good against lower ranked opponents early on.  With so much on the line it's unlikely she'll overlook anyone, but if history is any guide surviving week one will be the key or Serena. 

Injury/playing with wooden racquet/ giving opponents the doubles alleys:  Maybe Serena rolls an ankle Sloan Stephens style and isn't able to play at full strength.  Or maybe she comes into New York playing with a wooden racquet because she decides she needs a real challenge.  If the US Open decides to give Serena's opponents the doubles alleys to make matches more competitive...well that still probably wouldn't matter.  But seriously, there is always a risk of some fluke injury slowing her down, and nothing should be taken for granted. 

Prediction:  It won't come without drama, but expect Serena to capture the Grand Slam.  She'll likely drop some sets along the way as she did at the French Open and Wimbledon, but should be able to manage her nerves just enough to avoid an upset.  Let's just hope the rest of the field rises up and doesn't let her coast to the title, as it would be great TV if she's in a tight third set battle in the semis or finals.