Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Guillermo Coria and David Ferrer: Similar Players, Not So Similar Careers

Tennis Channel recently showed a replay of the epic 2005 Rome final between Guillermo Coria and the emerging Rafael Nadal, won by Nadal 7-6 in the fifth set.  Coria hasn't been on tennis fans' minds for quite some time, but the replay was a reminder of just how much talent he possessed.  It was a further reminder of how quickly things can fall apart.  At one point few players had more promise than Coria, yet it will be a different 5'9'' thirty-three year old (original) clay court specialist who will have left a more lasting impact on the sport. 

Coria and David Ferrer both turned pro in 2000, and it seemed pretty obvious who was going to be the bigger star.  At one point during the 2000 season Coria won four clay court challengers in a row, and cracked the top 100.   By 2001, he had reached the top 30.  Meanwhile, David Ferrer finished both years well outside the top 200. 

The pair first played in 2002 with the Spaniard getting the win, but it was the only time he would top Coria in 5 career meetings.  By 2003 Coria had turned into one of the best players in the world, particularly on clay.  He went a remarkable 60-16 that year, and finished in the top 5.  In 2004, Coria went 39-14, though he suffered one of the most painful losses in tennis history when he fell to Gaston Gaudio in the French Open finals after having held a two-set lead and match points in his favor.  However, Coria rebounded with a very solid 2005, going 55-27 (despite having his clay court thrown taken away by Nadal). 

Meanwhile, the struggling Ferrer posted below 500 records in both 2003 and 2004, before improving to 43-29 in 2005.  Things would only get better for Ferrer, as he's spent most of the last decade in the top 10.  He may be long overshadowed by the Big Four, but there's no denying he's been incredibly successful. 

As successful as Ferrer has been over the last decade, from a tennis standpoint things couldn't have gone worse for Coria.  In 2006 he went 11-14, and in 2007 he lost the only two matches he played in challenger events.  He went 2-8 in 2008 while playing a mix of challengers and ATP events, and by 2009 he was done.  He retired from the game at age 27, saying he lost his passion for the game. 

There are likely several reasons for Coria's drastic decline, including injuries, mental issues (including lingering effects of the Gaudio loss and the "yips" leading to countless double faults), and his self-described loss of desire.  Whatever the reason, Coria's fall was as swift as his rise.  No one can take away his incredible few years, but it's rare (particularly in today's game) to see such a short prime.  He inevitably would have been surpassed by the Big Four, and was already getting passed by Federer and Nadal.  However, a career similar to Ferrer's since 2006 would have been easy to foresee.  For fans of Coria's game, it's just too bad he didn't have a little more of Ferrer's resilience.      

Monday, April 27, 2015

Istanbul Open Preview

The TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Open (which really needs a simpler name) got a major boost by the addition of Roger Federer to their draw, and the Swiss legend is the heavy favorite to take home the title.  Federer doesn't play very many 250 level tournaments these days, though he's been known to play smaller tournaments for some hefty appearance fees.  It must be nice for him to play a clay court tournament without having Nadal or Djokovic to deal with, and a title in Istanbul would further boost Federer's confidence heading into the heart of the clay court season.  Other than Federer and second seeded Grigor Dimitrov, the draw is relatively lacking in terms of star power. 

Federer couldn't have asked for an easier half, as the other seeds are Mikhail Kukushkin, the struggling Santiago Giraldo and Diego Schwartzman (3-10 on the ATP Tour this year).  Other than Federer the next most intriguing player in the top half is 17 year old Andrey Rublev, who just cracked the top 300 in the world.  Rublev could give Giraldo trouble if he wins his first match, but expect Giraldo to have the honor of going down to Federer in the semifinals.

As a whole the bottom half is deeper, but Dimitrov is clearly the favorite to advance to the finals.  Thomaz Belluci already knocked out 7th seeded Mikhail Youhzny, and could face 3rd seeded Pablo Cuevas who he beat in Miami in the quarterfinals.  Cuevas should reach the semis, but he hasn't been particularly impressive in 2015 and an upset wouldn't be particularly surprising.  At the bottom of the draw, look for 19 year old qualifier (and future star) Thanasi Kokkinakis to take out 5th seeded Andreas Haider-Maurer before going down to Dimitrov in the quarters.   In the semifinals, expect Dimitrov to blow past Cuevas just like he did in their only prior meeting in Paris (indoors). 

In an intriguing finals matchup of the top two seeds, look for Federer to top Dimitrov in straights.  Dimitrov has never taken a set from Federer in three prior meetings, and doesn't appear to be getting any closer.  If Dimitrov finds his 2014 form the match should at least be competitive, but if he plays the way he has much of 2015 he could be lucky to get 3 games each set.  A win for Federer in Istanbul may not mean much for his French Open chances, but would at least make him forget his loss to Gael Monfils in Monte Carlo.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Is Nadal's Latest Loss a Big Deal?

It's no surprise that Rafael Nadal's loss to Fabio Fognini in Barcelona is getting a lot of attention.  Anytime Nadal loses on clay it's a big deal, though it's certainly not as shocking as it used to be.  In the past it never mattered what Nadal's form was heading into the clay season, as he'd always return to dominance on the dirt.  Now, it appears his mediocre early season form has carried over.  However, despite the further blow to Nadal's confidence, it's unlikely the loss will have lasting implications.

Chances are Nadal will gradually improve as the clay season goes on, and will be hitting his stride along the time the French Open rolls around.  Unfortunately for the rest of the field that tournament is still a month away, giving Nadal plenty of time to reach peak form.  Even if he struggles all the way up to Roland Garros, it's still hard to imagine him being too far behind Djokovic as the bettor's favorite.  Beating Nadal on clay in a best of five match is the hardest task in tennis, and until a current player does so it's one of those things we have to see to believe.

If the French Open were held today, Djokovic would be the pick, but even Djokovic would acknowledge how dangerous Nadal will be.  Fortunately for Djokovic, it appears he will no longer have to play a perfect match to beat Nadal at the French, as his normal A game could be enough.  Djokovic used to believe (as he should have) that nothing but his absolute best would suffice, which is a lot of pressure to deal with heading into the match.  Now that he's closed the gap with Nadal on clay, he can approach the match with a completely different and healthier mindset.  The logical signs may be pointing Djokovic's way, but don't expect the Nadal we're seeing a month from now to look anything like the Nadal we saw today.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Disappearing Ernests Gulbis

Ernests Gulbis has long been a one of the hardest players in the game to figure out.  He's  known for mixing puzzling losses with brilliant upsets, and his ranking has fluctuated accordingly.  However, it appeared that Gulbis began to figure it out and gain consistency in 2014, as he finished in the top 15 in the world.  All the signs were pointing to more success in 2015, as Gulbis was squarely in his prime and would have the luxury of being seeded fairly high at most events.  However, Gulbis' 2015 season to date has to be one of the strangest and most disappointing beginnings to a season in recent memory. 

After his loss to Benoit Paire in Barcelona, Gulbis is now 1-9 on the year, with his only win coming against Daniel Gimeno-Traver in Indian Wells.  Further, in most of his losses he hasn't even managed to take a set.  It's natural for players to have some down periods throughout their career, but its particularly unusual to see a player of Gulbis' quality completely forget how to win matches.  He never has had the focus or desire of a Nadal or Djokovic, and accordingly has always been prone to slumps, but not to this degree.  

It's possible Gulbis is simply struggling to adjust to the higher expectations based on his strong 2014, and doesn't know how to handle being the favorite.  However, the attention placed on Gulbis following his 2014 season was hardly enormous, as there are plenty of other players the tennis world focuses on before him.  If he's that flustered by the attention and expectations following a top 15 season, it's hard to imagine how he would handle even greater success should he temporarily turn his career around. 

For now Gulbis' ranking is still respectable based on last year's points still counting, but it will begin to plummet as the 2014 points gradually fade away.  At this rate, it won't be long before he's having to qualify to play challengers.  Maybe he'll go ahead and "pull a Gulbis" and do something remarkable at the French Open completely out of nowhere.  If he doesn't, we may be seeing a lot less of him on the ATP Tour in the near future.    

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Andrey Rublev: Born To Hit Ground Strokes

17 year old Russian Andrey Rublev just took out Fernando Verdasco in Barcelona, and it's looking like he's going to be a major factor in men's tennis over the next decade.  Rublev displayed some of the best and most complete groundstrokes we've seen from a young player in quite some time, and seems well on his way to becoming a top tier ATP player.  Not only does he crack the ball from both wings, but he takes the ball extremely early with great racket head speed.  Players with his quality of groundstrokes don't come around very often, and the ATP Tour is better off when they do. 

Brad Gilbert compared Rublev to the recently retired Nikolay Davydenko, and the comparison is a good one.  Davydenko was known for his incredible ability to take the ball early off both sides, and had some of the best groundstrokes in the game despite his slight frame.  Rublev has a respectable serve and appears to have decent movement (without being a freakish athlete a la Nadal or Djokovic), but possesses a forehand and backhand that many more established pros would take in a second. 

Rublev will need to become more fit, as he started to cramp in his two-set victory over Verdasco.  Nerves may have played a factor, but it's obvious that he won't hold up in grand slams unless he improves his conditioning.  However, he's hardly the first 17 year old to have issues with fitness, and the vast majority of players figure it out by the time they hit their twenties.  Rublev also displayed some strange celebrations (including the unique "full body fist-pump"), and will likely rub many players the wrong way if he continues these antics.  However, tennis fans have long complained that the Big Four is too "gentlemanly", and can't have it both ways. 

He may not end up being the best player out of the strong group of emereging teenagers, which includes Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Nick Kyrgios, Jared Donaldson, Frances Tiafoe and a host of others, but none of them have Rublev's natural ability off the ground.  If nothing else, they all better work on their fitness, because it looks like Rublev may have them on a string for the next ten years.   

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Barcelona Open Preview

As expected, this year's Barcelona Open field is full of strong clay court players.  While Rafael Nadal is the only member of the Big Four to enter the event, there should be plenty of intrigue. 

Kei Nishikori is the top seed and defending champion, and has several clay court specialists in his section.  Santiago Giraldo is the first seed he could face, followed by Pablo Cuevas or Roberto Bautista-Agut.  While these aren't easy players to get past on clay, Nishikori is quite comfortable on the clay himself and should find his way to the semifinals.

The next quarter is led by 4th seed Marin Cilic and 6th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  However, Cilic could have to deal with Dominic Thiem in the second round, and Thiem is the pick to pull the upset.  Thiem found his form in Miami, and Cilic is still new to the comeback trail despite some good play in Monte Carlo.  Thiem should also sneak past 14th seed Martin Klizan on his way to the quarters.  Expect Thiem to face Tsonga in a powerful quarterfinal match, with the more experienced Frenchman prevailing in three sets. 

The next section features David Ferrer, and Ferrer should reach the semis without much trouble.  Ernests Gulbis is still finding ways to get seeded in tournaments, but based on current form should have to get through qualifying.  If Gulbis manages to win his first match, he won't get past Philipp Kohlschreiber in the next.  Nick Kyrgios is also a seed in this section, but is returning from an ankle injury and doesn't have much experience on clay.  He could run into David Ferrer in the round of 16, and it would be a win if he could steal a set.  Ferrer will be your semifinalist without much drama along the way.

The final quarter doesn't feature anyone who should remotely trouble second seeded Rafael Nadal.  Feliaciano Lopez, Leonardo Mayer and Fabio Fognini are the other seeds, and Nadal must be pleased with his draw.  If Nadal loses a set on his way to the semifinals it will be a surprise, and Nadal should be rested once he gets to the final four. 

In the first semifinal, expect Nishikori to get past Tsonga without too much trouble.  He holds a 4-1 lead in their head-to-head (though most of their matches have been tight), and Tsonga doesn't have much match play under his belt so far this year.  Nishikori should be a little too steady for the Frenchman and will be able to withstand Tsonga's power.

In the second semifinal, Nadal should once again top Ferrer in three sets, as he did in Monte Carlo.  Nadal is rounding back into form, and it's hard to see him losing to anyone other than Djokovic on the red clay.  Ferrer will put up a good fight as he always does, but it likely won't be enough to keep Nadal from a spot in the finals.

While Nishikori was taking it to Nadal on clay last year in Madrid before he eventually had to retire with an injury, Nadal is still the pick to take the title.  Nishikori will certainly believe he can win based on their previous encounter, but that also may have served as a wake up call for Nadal.  Nadal will be extremely hungry to take the title, and should have all the confidence he needs based on his solid run in Monte Carlo.  It's a lot to ask of Nishikori for him to find the same zone he was in during last year's Madrid match, and Nadal should be able to make any necessary adjustments to get past the rock solid Nishikori.  

What If Dimitrov Had Been Declared The Next Wawrinka Instead of Federer?

For years, Grigor Dimitrov faced the burden of living up to his "Baby Federer" nickname.  The stylistic comparisons were obvious from the beginning, but Dimitrov has always lacked the precision and mental toughness of his so called "father".  As he nears his 24th birthday, it's clear Dimitrov isn't going to become the dominant player many expected.  This isn't to say he won't have a long and accomplished career with the occasional big title, but Dimitrov's fans were aiming higher.  When it's all said and done Dimitrov's career may indeed resemble that of a Swiss player who preceded him, but it's Stan Wawrinka whose footsteps he may be following.

Dimitrov got his season somewhat on track with his run to the quarters in Monte Carlo (including an easy win over Wawrinka), but looked like he could barely find the court in his lopsided loss to Monfils.  While it's encouraging that he finally pieced together some good wins, to reach the top tier he would have to drastically improve his consistency (in terms of both shot making and competing well week in and week out).   However, instead of everyone continuing to believe it's just a matter of time until he finds whatever is missing, it's quite possible this is simply who Dimitrov is.  There's only one Roger Federer for a reason, and it's much more likely Dimitrov continues on as a remarkably talented yet inconsistent player.

This doesn't mean Dimitrov won't continue to improve, just that it's not likely everything will simply click one day and he'll morph into the next Federer.  Like Wawrinka, he may not hit his peak until his late twenties.  Further, unlike Wawrinka, Dimitrov has the advantage of being several years younger than the "Big Four".  This means he may have better chances to steal some bigger titles once that elite group starts slowing down.  It's not hard to imagine Dimitrov ending up with a grand slam title or two in his pocket before he retires, a la Wawrinka, but fans certainly expected a lot more a lot sooner from the Bulgarian. 

Ultimately, judging Dimtirov's career will be all about expectations.  Loads of junior grand slam champions struggle to even establish pro careers, and most would kill to be where Dimitrov is.  Had Dimitrov's strokes not strongly resembled Federer's, he'd likely be thought of as nothing but a success.  However, Dimitrov has never had that luxury, and will continue to battle the burden of being held to a higher standard.  If only he'd been dubbed "Baby Wawrinka", everyone would say he's coming along right on schedule.  

Monday, April 13, 2015

Where Does Jack Sock Go From Here?

Jack Sock won his first ATP title last week at the US Men's Clay Court Championship in Houston, and the hype for Sock is continuing to build.  He's only 22 years old and is up to a career high 36 in the world (while having missed the early part of the season with an injury).  Sock isn't the kind of player who is likely to be bothered by the hype, as he has plenty of self confidence and seems to enjoy the attention.  The question is simply how far can Sock's skills take him?

While Sock clearly has flaws in his game that he'll need to fix, there shouldn't be any limit to how high he can rise if he's truly committed to improving.  Sock has the advantage of starting with a big serve, huge forehand, nice touch, and great athletic ability that is still somewhat underrated.  While consistency, court positioning and overall strategy can all be improved or taught, the tools he already has are harder to come by. 

When watching Sock play, it's clear he's not a finished product.  Unlike many pros, Sock didn't travel around the world playing junior tournaments and didn't train at a traditional full time tennis academy.  (He opted to play high school tennis while training at an academy in Kansas City).  Thus, it's not surprising that Sock didn't enter the tour fully polished.  He still doesn't always play the right shot, frequently gets himself out of position, hits awkward backhands, and goes for big shots too early in the point.  Despite all this, he's already a top 40 player.  It's easy to see him continuing to improve his game and strategy over the next few years, as he seems to have developed a good work ethic and is headed in the right direction.  

Even small improvements can make a drastic difference given how close the players in the top 40 are to each other.  A few minor tweaks can be the difference between the top 40 and top 15.  If Sock's backhand improves even a little, he won't have to go so far to run around it and risk opening up too much of the court.  While he's clearly got to put in the work to make these improvements, it's hard to imagine his backhand won't improve at least a little given where it's starting from. 

Whether Sock starts competing for Masters titles and Grand Slams in the next few years or remains at the 250 level will depend on how dedicated he is to improving the flaws in his technique and overall strategy.  However, he's clearly got the talent to compete for these bigger titles, and tennis fans shouldn't be surprised if he reaches that level.  The Big Four will be moving on as Sock enters his prime, and there could be openings at some bigger tournaments. 

While there's a strong generation of players emerging in the group a few years younger than Sock, it's not clear anyone out of this group is going to dominate the game and be levels above the field.  Further, he'll have the advantage of being older and more experienced than this younger group.  Sock's prime could coincide with a transitional period on tour, and if he's ready to take advantage could post some big results.  American men's tennis fans have seen too many "next big things" fail to pan out and are reluctant to get excited too early, but Sock may be giving them reasons to celebrate before too long.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters Preview

The Monte-Carlo Masters may no longer be mandatory, but players clearly love playing in the most scenic tournament on the ATP calendar.  This year's tournament is once again loaded with top players, although recently married Andy Murray is notably absent. 

At the top of the draw, Novak Djokovic couldn't have asked for a much better quarter.  The seeds in his section are Ernests Gulbis (a grand total of one win on the year), Jo- Wilfried Tsonga (played two matches so far this year) and Marin Cilic (lost the only match he has played his year).  It seems safe to say Djokovic will coast into the quarters without any trouble.  However, his joke of a draw will end in the semifinals.

The next section is led by third seed Rafael Nadal, who must be thrilled the tour has returned to his beloved red clay.  Nadal seems to be slowly rounding back into form, and clay is exactly what he needs to complete his comeback.  However, unlike Djokovic, Nadal won't have the advantage of an easy draw.  He could open against the big hitting Dominic Thiem, who seems to be moving past his early season slump.  He could then face the always dangerous John Isner, before facing David Ferrer (currently 22-3 on the year) in the quarters.  Nadal is the pick to reach the semis, but he'll have to be prepared for some tough matches along the way.

In the bottom half, the first quarter boasts big hitting Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic, both of whom are comfortable on the red clay.  This section is full of Europeans, most of whom enjoy playing on clay, but it's hard to see anyone stopping these two seeds.  Tommy Robredo and Roberto Bautista-Agut are the other seeds in this section, but neither is in particularly good form.  The power of Berdych and Raonic should be too much for everyone else in this section, and it should be an interesting quarterfinal between the two.  They have never played on clay, but Raonic has won 3 of the pair's 4 meetings.  Despite the head-to-head favoring Raonic, Berdych appears to be playing a bit better at the moment and should be able to squeak past Raonic on his way to the semis.

The bottom quarter features the Swiss stars Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, and is definitely the "flashiest" section.  While Wawrinka once again disappointed at the Indian Wells and Miami Masters, he is much more comfortable playing in Monte Carlo.  He is the defending champion, and will be hungry to defend his title.  Wawrinka could have a tough first round match against Jiri Vessely or Juan Monaco, but should be able to get past either of them.  His next match could be against either Fognini, Janowicz, Verdasco or Dimitrov (good luck predicting who will come out of that foursome). 

Assuming 9th seeded Dimitrov can make it out of that group, Wawrinka and Dimitrov would make for a round of 16 that one-handed backhand fans all around the world wouldn't want to miss.  Given Dimitrov's struggles in 2015, it's hard to pick him to go much further until he's shown he is out of his slump, and Wawrinka would have the edge in this matchup. 

On his way to Wawrinka in the quarters, Federer could have to deal with the talented Gael Monfils, Borna Coric or Alexandr Dolgopolov, but it's hard to see any of them upsetting the Swiss legend.  In the quarters, expect Federer to get revenge against Wawrinka for his loss in the 2014 finals.

In the blockbuster first semifinal, expect Djokovic to beat the King of Clay in three sets.  It's never easy to pick against Nadal on clay, but he probably isn't quite ready to beat Djokovic on any surface.  (This doesn't mean he won't be ready by the time Roland Garros rolls around).  No one is playing better than Djokovic, and he should be the fresher of the two in the semis given his easier draw.  Djokovic no longer fears Nadal like he once did, even on clay, and should be able to handle the tough challenge the Spaniard will present. 

In the second semifinal, Federer should get past Tomas Berdych in three sets.  Berdych is certainly capable of getting the win, but it's hard to pick against Federer when he only has two losses on the year, one of them against Djokovic in three sets.  Federer is also a better clay court player than Berdych, and his superior movement should carry him past the big hitting Czech. 

In the finals, Djokovic would be the fairly heavy favorite against Federer.  At this point in their careers Federer still matches up fairly well against Djokovic on a faster surface, but the slower the court the more it favors Djokovic.  On the red clay, it's hard to see Federer being able to outlast the steadier Serb.  Even if Federer comes out firing, Djokovic should be able to wear him down as the match progresses.  Federer may steal a set, particularly if Djokovic's nerves kick in, but Djokovic will be your 2015 Monte Carlo champion.  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How Should We Define Success for Martin Blackman as USTA General Manager of Player Development?

It was recently announced that former pro, coach and tennis academy owner Martin Blackman received the coveted position of USTA General Manager of Player Development.  The USTA clearly went with someone who they believe will be truly committed to the job, as opposed to picking a celebrity name.  This was probably a wise move, and Blackman seems like a good hire.  He's also taking over at the perfect time, as there are lots of talented Americans about to break through in both the men's and women's game.  As he gets ready to begin his tenure, now is a good time to wonder what will constitute success, and what Blackman should prioritize in his position. 

Despite Serena's incredible dominance over last decade, American fans are aching for more of their own to be relevant and will only be so patient.  It would be different if the cupboard was bare when Blackman was hired, but because of all the talent he inherits it's fair to expect lots of success within the next five years.  (Fair or not, Blackman will get most of the credit or blame for how the group of players between the ages of 17 and 23 turns out).
On the men's side, if at least a couple players from the talented group of teenagers including Jared Donaldson, Francis Tiafoe, Stefan Kozlov, Taylor Fritz, Michael Mmoh and Ernesto Escobedo don't become seriously good pros, it will be a major disappointment for American tennis.  Similarly, on the women's side, fans are expecting big things from the likes of Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend, Cici Bellis, Tornado Black, and a host of others.  It's probably fair to expect multiple players on both tours challenging for tennis' biggest titles within the next 5 years, and anything short of that shouldn't be deemed a success.             

To ensure this generation of Americans (and younger ones) pans out as hoped, Blackman has to ensure the USTA focuses on the right areas.  It's particularly important that the USTA prioritizes fixing the technical flaws in American players' strokes.  No matter how well someone may be doing, the USTA can't be afraid to tell them they need to fix their technique if they want to truly be great.  Different players will spend varying amounts of time with USTA coaches, but the USTA coaches have to recognize and correct serious technical problems when they see them.  This doesn't mean they have to teach everyone to play the same way (a common criticism), but they can't let talented players fail to reach their potential by letting them continue with glaring flaws. 

It's also important that Blackman focuses on developing player's point construction and fitness, which are both increasingly important in the modern game.  The plan to increase the amount of time Americans play on clay should certainly help, as will the recognition that a big serve and forehand (while certainly helpful) are no longer enough.  From a longer term perspective, it's also crucial that the USTA gets top young American athletes interested in tennis, as most of the top players in today's game are good enough athletes to play some level of professional soccer.  Without comparable athleticism to the world's top players, Americans simply won't be able to compete. 

American tennis appears to be heading in the right direction, and by all indications Martin Blackman has the tools to help it reach the next level.  Everything seems to be in place, but you'll have to forgive American fans for needing to see it to believe it. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship Preview

As usual, the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship is full of Americans, but it's a pair of Spaniards who make up the top two seeds.  There doesn't appear to be a clear favorite, and lots of players are capable of making a deep run.

Feliciano Lopez is your top seed, and should reach the quarters without much trouble.  In the quarters, expect him to run into American Donald Young.  Young has to get by fellow American Steve Johnson and then possibly Sam Querrey, but is in good form and should start improving his results on clay now that he has tightened up his game.  While Lopez is up to 12 in the world and is having a solid year, he's not a natural clay court player and Young is the pick here to pull the upset. 

In the next section, John Isner and Fernando Verdasco should meet in the quarters without much trouble getting there.  Verdasco's results on clay so far this year haven't been anything special, and Isner's confidence will be high following his great run in Miami.  Expect Isner to get past the veteran Spaniard in three sets on his way to the semis. 

The top section of the bottom half isn't particularly strong, with 7th seed Jeremy Chardy struggling and 3rd seed Kevin Anderson not being much of a threat on clay.  While Federico Delbonis has largely disappointed so far this year, the 24 year old Argentinean loves playing on clay and should be able to make it out of this section based on his clay court skills.

The bottom quarter is definitely deeper, and includes 2nd seed Roberto Bautista Agut, 5th seed Santiago Giraldo, Jack Sock and Janko Tipsarevic (returning from a long layoff).  While Sock just beat Baustista Agut on hard courts, Bautista Agut gets the edge on clay.  Giraldo posted some big results on clay last year, but fell to Bautista Agut in straight sets.  It should be a tight match, but the 15th ranked Bautista Agut should get past Giraldo in the quarters.

In the first semifinals, Isner should prove to be a little too much for Young.  He's never lost to Young in three meetings, although Donald Young in 2015 is a different player.  Regardless, Isner turned his season around in Miami and should ride the momentum into the finals.

In the second semifinals, Bautista Agut should beat Delbonis without too much trouble.  They've never played at the ATP level, though Bautista Agut did beat Delbonis the one time they've played back in 2012.  While Delbonis will be more comfortable on clay than his first few opponents, this won't be the case against Bautista Agut. 

In the finals, the Spaniard gets the slight edge given his comfort on the surface.  In their two prior matches (both on hard court) Isner won 6-4 on the third.  The change in surface should be all Bautista Agut needs to get his first win against the tall American.  Isner may be a bit drained by the finals given his long week in Miami the week before, and is likely to fall just short of the title.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Talking Two-Handed Backhands- American Men Edition

One of the hardest things for fans of American men's tennis can be watching one of their own try to hit a two-handed backhand.  It wasn't always this way, as not too long ago Andre Agassi possessed one of the best in the game.  However, while there are a few exceptions, many of the American men currently in the top 150 have serious technical flaws in this stroke.  (Notably, the problems often involve using too much wrist, swinging too far from their body, or using too extreme of a grip).  The result is a shot that merely "brushes" the ball over with little on it, allowing their opponent to tee off and immediately gain control of the point.

Given that the two-handed backhand is not the most difficult of shots, and plenty of good juniors, college players and lower level pros possess excellent ones, its puzzling why so many Americans struggle so much with this shot.  It's perhaps more puzzling why they or their coaches (either currently or when they were younger) never bother to change their form.

One reason for the flawed backhands could be that these players coasted in juniors with their big serves and forehands.  Thus, their junior coaches never bothered to drastically mess with the form of a player who was having success.  If true, this is a shortsighted way of developing players and one would think they'd see the bigger picture and value of fixing the stroke.  Furthermore, by the time these players started getting the attention of the USTA, the USTA coaches should have jumped in and help them make the necessary changes.  However, the USTA clearly missed a generation's worth of backhands.

By the time a player gets to the top 100 in the world, perhaps they figure I've made it this far, now isn't the time to change my form.  However, it's hard to understand why a player who does everything else extremely well but has one clear weakness wouldn't want to fix an obvious technical problem.  (As much as they all run around their backhands-even if it takes them into the doubles alley- they clearly realize that they have a problem).

Fortunately, the backhand problems that have plagued the current generation don't seem to be as much of an issue with the younger generation of emerging American teenagers.  Either these players realized they had to learn to hit proper backhands on their own or the USTA realized their mistakes, but the result is definitely an improvement.  It's just too bad everybody involved didn't fix this issue sooner.