Sunday, June 28, 2015

How Important is Wimbledon to Wawrinka?

After winning his second major title at this year's Roland Garros, Stan Wawrinka boosted his claim for the title of "best player of the Big Four era who isn't actually a member of the Big Four".  Ferrer may have been more consistent (along with Berdych), but in a sport that measures success in grand slams above all else, it's hard to put anyone else ahead of Wawrinka.  However, given that Wawrinka has struggled to back up big results in the past, he still has some doubters who question his up and down results.  A strong run at Wimbledon would go a long way toward silencing any critics who expect tennis' top players to show up on a consistent basis.

While Wawrinka lost in the first round of the French Open following his 2014 Australian Open title, it wasn't as bad of a loss as some made it seem.  He fell to Guilermo Garcia-Lopez, who is a very talented player and particularly dangerous on clay.   But fair or not, the perception was that Wawrinka choked, and was always going to be inconsistent.  His results have done little to change this perception, though the highs have certainly been phenomenal.

Wawrinka's draw at Wimbledon isn't too frightening, and a run to the semifinals is very manageable.  He's slotted to play Milos Raonic in the quarters, and there's no one of note who should strike much fear into Wawrinka before then.  He's in a section with a lot of clay court players, and it will take an off day by Wawrinka for him to lose before the final eight.  Moreover, with Raonic returning from minor foot surgery, it's questionable whether the Canadian will be in top form himself.  Quite simply, Stan should reach the semifinals, and doing so would send a message to the rest of the tour that he's not just going to fade away for a couple of months following every big result.

Whether Wawrinka has another upset of Djokovic in him is impossible to predict, but just making it to that point would be a big step forward in boosting his "consistency" credentials.  If he's able to take it one or two steps further and win the Wimbledon title he'll have already reached another tier completely (and would surpass Murray in the major title count), but for now many Wawrinka fans are just hoping he remembers the tour doesn't stop every time he wins a big event.  He could never win another match and can always say he's a two time major champion, but a deep run at Wimbledon can help change the perception that he's just a giant killer who only brings his best for a couple of tournaments during the year.   

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Can Federer Take Advantage of a Potentially Vulnerable Wimbledon Field?

For the last few years the tennis world has hyped Roger Federer's chances heading into nearly every major, only to see the Swiss legend fall short.  Despite Federer's all-time great career, at some point we may have to be realistic and realize his days winning majors are officially over.  While he's often in great form heading in, maybe that's just how it's going to be.  But despite recent history, it may not be wise to expect another slip up from Federer at Wimbledon, in what could be his last realistic chance to win a grand slam.

Federer came close to taking last year's Wimbledon title where he fell to Novak Djokovic in a tightly contested finals.  He knows he wasn't far away, and even at 33 must still believe he can beat anyone at the All-England Club.  The key for Federer is avoiding the "let down" match that he has become prone to in grand slams.  One bad day at the office is all it takes, and Federer has become less successful at surviving his off days since he entered his thirties.  At his best Federer can still take down anyone on the grass, but his title hopes may depend on whether he can pull out a victory or two on a day his forehand isn't in prime form.

Fortunately for Federer, several other of the top players may be vulnerable.  While Djokovic is still clearly the best player in the world, it's hard to say what mental toll his loss at Roland Garros may have taken.  Maybe he's put it behind him and will be ready to go for Wimbledon, but it's not hard to imagine Djokovic entering a brief slump (at least until the hard court season rolls around) following his devastating loss to Wawrinka.  Nadal is starting to come back around, but he's certainly not the player he used to be.  On the grass courts at Wimbledon Federer would be favored against the Spaniard, and as it stands now several other players could knock out Nadal before Federer has to play him.

Andy Murray is certainly playing well, but Federer has won their last 3 meetings.  And since the ATP bylaws apparently set forth that Stan Wawrinka isn't allowed to do well in two big tournaments in a row, he should be due for an early upset.  A host of others (i.e. Nishikori, Raonic, Berdych, etc) could all present problems, but Federer would be favored against any of them on grass.

It's certainly possible the trend continues and Federer falls short of everyone's expectations.  But Federer has to realize his time may be running low, and this could provide the urgency he's been lacking in recent years at the grand slams.  No one is as comfortable on the grass as Federer, and he may just be able to capitalize on a field that is showing some vulnerability.  If he doesn't, well then maybe it really is time to accept things as they are.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Tommy Paul (Probably) Makes Smart Decision in Turning Pro

It was just announced that 18 year old American and French Open junior champion Tommy Paul decided to forego playing college tennis and has decided to turn pro.  He had reportedly made a verbal commitment to the University of Georgia (a great tennis school), but must have changed his mind following his recent success playing Futures tournaments in Europe and in winning Roland Garros.

It's always interesting to see whether top American juniors elect to go pro or play in college, and there's clearly no one right answer that applies to everyone.  However, for someone who's been posting as good of results as Paul has lately, it seems like going straight to the pros is a wise decision.

He's currently at 451 in the world rankings, and that's without actually playing on tour as a full time professional.  It's preferable that a junior has at least some success at the pro level (even in futures) before turning pro, as opposed to merely having success against other juniors.  Paul recently won a couple of futures on clay in Europe, and reached the semis of another.  He also recently won a match against a borderline top 100 player.  Thus, it's clear Paul has done well playing low level professional tournaments, and he appears to be improving rapidly. 

This certainly doesn't mean Paul will turn into a successful ATP level player, as plenty of top juniors have failed to achieve anything on the pro tour.  However, Paul appears to have solid all around game that should translate well to the next level.  He already seems to have one of the best backhands of any American, and moves well around the court. 

More importantly he probably analyzed what college tennis could do for his game given that he wants to be a top professional, and concluded the answer was simply not enough.  While college has produced a few good professionals in the last decade or so, they are few and far between.  Further, the two most successful (Isner and Anderson) are both over 6'7'' and would probably have found success with their huge serves regardless of the route they took.  Steve Johnson was one of the best college players of all time, and it took him a few years to adjust to the ATP after spending 4 years at USC.

Recently, the results have been mixed at best for NCAA stars who have tried to transition to the pros.  NCAA champions Bradley Klahn and Blaz Rola have spent time in the top 100, but are hardly making much noise at the ATP level.  Marcos Giron turned pro after winning the 2014 NCAA title, and is outside of the top 400 in the world.  Dennis Novikov is hovering around 200 in the world after starring for UCLA a few years back.  Austin Krajicek has been a steady improver and is trying to make a run at the top 100 but unfortunately is currently stuck in a bit of a slump.

While many like to tout the advantages of playing college tennis for young Americans, for the very small number of truly elite prospects it appears the level of Division I competition simply may not be good enough to prepare them for life as a pro.  If it's still going to take a few years to adjust to the ATP Tour after spending time in college, it's fair to ask whether it's worth going to college in the first place.

Paul would have immediately been one of the best players in NCAA men's tennis (if not the best).  He's had junior/pro results that are similar to if not better than Noah Rubin, who just took 2nd in the NCAA tournament at Wake Forest after winning Wimbledon juniors the year before.  Rubin has also decided to turn pro following his Freshman year, likely realizing college tennis won't take his game any further.  Maybe Paul makes it big as a pro and maybe he doesn't, but its unlikely playing college tennis would have done much to better prepare him for the pro tour. 

He's clearly improving quickly on his own, and would be taking a risk of stunting his development by playing in college.  It's not easy out there for anyone trying to make it on the ATP tour, and Paul is part of a deep group of young Americans getting ready to make a run.  Like fellow young Americans Frances Tiafoe, Jared Donaldson and Stefan Kozlov before him, he likely realized jumping straight in gives him his best chance to succeed down the road.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

What to Expect at Queen's Club

Even when Queen's Club was just a 250 level tournament it never had trouble drawing top players, and now that it has been upgraded to the 500 level the field is particularly strong.  Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Marin Cilic and Grigor Dimitrov are all playing, and will be hoping to get some much needed matches on grass courts as they prepare for Wimbledon.

Andy Murray is the top seed and favorite to take the title.  He's been having a very successful 2015 (so long as he's not playing Novak Djokovic) and his game has always translated well to grass.  His half is the easier of the two, as it's hard to see seeds Dimitrov, Cilic or Feliciano Lopez knocking him out.  Isner can always present dangers on a quicker surface, but his return game has kept him from serious success on grass in the past.  Look for Murray to top Dimitrov in one quarter and for Isner to top Cilic in the next.  In the semis, Murray shouldn't have problems neutralizing the American's power with his excellent defense and return, and the Scott will be waiting in the finals.

The bottom half is the more interesting half, and the harder one to predict.  In a tough section including Gilles Simon, David Goffin, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Jeremy Chardy, look for the 19 year old big hitting Australian to reach the quarters.  Kokkinakis has been rocketing up the rankings, and his game should serve him well on grass.  In the quarters he'll likely run into Milos Raonic, who is back from injury and always dangerous on a fast surface.  In this matchup between two of tennis' biggest hitters, the more experienced Canadian should be able to prevail.

The bottom quarter features Roland Garros champion Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal.  Unfortunately for Wawrinka he opens with the explosive young Australian Nick Kyrgios, who reached the quarterfinals at last year's Wimbledon.  Look for Wawrinka to have a post French Open hangover and fall to Kyrgios in the first round.  Nadal should have confidence on grass after winning the 250 level title in Stuttgart, and should reach the semis without too much trouble.  In a semifinal matchup between Nadal and Raonic, look for Nadal to take advantage of Raonic's rust and escape in a tight battle.

Murray should have the edge in a finals matchup against Nadal.  He'll be confident heading in given that he recently crushed Nadal on clay, and prefers playing on grass.  This will be Nadal's second week playing in a row, and Nadal may not be completely fresh by the time the finals rolls around.  Rafa may slowly be rounding into form, but Murray should prevail in the rarest of the matchups amongst the Big Four.   

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Time for Marin Cilic to Make his Move

When Marin Cilic shocked the tennis world by winning the 2014 US Open title, the big question was whether he could continue to be a serious threat or if he simply got hot for a two week stretch.  He'd always been a talented and powerful player, but it appeared he finally put everything together.  With an improved service motion he became nearly impossible to break, and he was crushing the ball off both sides from the ground.  Unfortunately for Cilic, any momentum he would have ridden from his title was almost immediately derailed by arm and shoulder injuries. 

Cilic simply wasn't himself during the latter part of 2014, and missed much of the early part of 2015 with injuries.  The only hard court tournament he was able to play was Indian Wells, and Cilic has never been much of a threat on clay (though he did reach the 4th round at Roland Garros).  Now that we're reaching the grass and hard court portion of the season we should get a better sense of where Cilic stands in the game.

Cilic just fell in the semifinals of his first grass court tournament to Victor Troicki 7-6 in the third, so he's clearly got some work to do.  He should be a major threat on grass with his powerful game, and it will be interesting to see whether he can raise his level in time for Wimbledon.  He gave Djokovic a run for his money at last year's Wimbledon, and no one will look forward to being near him in this year's draw.  However, it may be asking too much for Cilic to make a serious run when he's barely played in a meaningful match all year. 

It's hard not to feel a bit bad for Cilic, given that he looked ready to challenge the dominance of the Big Four.  He probably wasn't going to have their consistency, but like Wawrinka would be a guy who could show up now and then and steal a big tournament.   His injuries took that opportunity away from him following his US Open win, and we're about to find out if he's ready to rejoin Wawrinka as a big hitting threat to their reign.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Reflecting Upon the French Open Men's Final

Heading into Sunday's Roland Garros men's final it appeared the story was already written.  Novak Djokovic had already knocked off the seemingly more dangerous Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, and would defeat the less accomplished Stan Wawrinka on his way to capturing the career Grand Slam.  Djokovic had barely lost all season, and Wawrinka had been up and down all year.  Instead, Wawrinka flipped the script by playing one of the best matches of his career.  Wawrinka's punishing ground strokes off both sides were in full effect, and it was the Swiss who dictated play.

There was some cause for concern heading in for the world number one, as Djokovic's semifinal match against Murray had to be continued to Saturday.  (Why the French Open doesn't have any lights is an issue for another day, but it's clearly time the this tournament joins the current century and adds lights, hawkeye replay, etc if not a roof).  Without the typical day off in between matches Djokovic was at a higher risk of becoming fatigued, but most people thought the quick 5th set meant Djokovic wouldn't suffer any lingering effects. 

Instead, Djokovic appeared a bit flat and seemed content to let Wawrinka be the aggressor.  Had Djokovic not given back the break in the 4th set this strategy may have worked, as it would have been tough for Wawrinka to sustain such a high level of play in the 5th set.  But Wawrinka rediscovered his zone just in time towards the end of the 4th set, and Djokovic was unable to extend the match. 

Following his incredible run in Paris Wawrinka is now a two-time grand slam champion, and will forever avoid the "dreaded" one-slam wonder label.  Before Sunday Wawrinka could have been lumped in with the likes of Thomas Johansson, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa and a host of other seemingly random one-time grand slam champions, but tennis has always viewed winners of multiple majors in a different light.  Wawrinka may not post the results throughout the year that one would expect of a two-time grand slam champion, but at the end of the day he'll always have (at least) two grand slam titles to his name. 

Going forward, Djokovic will likely continue to dominate the tour, and Wawrinka will most likely continue to be somewhat inconsistent.  However, for a few hours on Sunday tennis fans were once again treated to a dazzling display of tennis by the supremely talented Wawrinka.  Everyone else may have been focused on Djokovic making history, but Wawrinka ignored the distractions and simply played some of the highest quality tennis we've seen all year.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Challenges Remain, but Djokovic is Well Positioned for History

After thoroughly dismantling Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic is two matches away from the career Grand Slam.  A title here would also put him halfway to the 2015 Grand Slam, which he would have a decent (at worst) shot at winning.  Below is a look at who may present Djokovic's biggest challenge out of the remaining semifinalists.

Andy Murray:  Djokovic has beaten his semifinal opponent 7 straight times and 10 out of their last 11.  The world number one will be a heavy favorite, though this shouldn't take anything away from how great Murray has been.  Other than Murray's brief post Australian Open funk where he fell to Gilles Simon and Borna Coric, he hasn't lost to anyone but Djokovic this year.  But despite being a better overall player than Stan Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Murray may have the worst chance of the three of pulling the upset.  As has been said many times before, Murray's game is similar to Djokovic's but Djokovic does most things a little bit better.  Whereas Wawrinka or Tsonga could catch fire and hit Djokovic off the court (at least for a set or two), Murray would have to find a way to beat Djokovic while playing a more reserved style.  He'll put forth a respectable showing, but in the end it's hard to see Murray pulling the upset.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga:  Tsonga missed most of the early part of the year with injury, and didn't have a whole lot of momentum heading into Roland Garros.  However, when healthy Tsonga is always one of the most dangerous players on tour.  He's already dispatched Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori, and if he can get past Wawrinka would have a ton of confidence heading into the finals.  Further, the French crowd would be absolutely electric should Tsonga reach the finals, and Tsonga is the type of player who feeds of the crowd's energy.  But as big of a story as it would be, it's hard to see Tsonga finding a way to actually win 3 sets against Novak Djokovic.  Djokovic's defense is impenetrable, and can Tsonga really hit Djokovic off the court for 3 full sets on a clay court?  Tsonga has a ton of firepower in him, but it would take one of the best matches of his career along with a slightly off day by Djokovic to get it done. 

Stan Wawrinka:  While Wawrinka has had an up and down 2015, he may just have the best chance of the remaining semifinalists to take out Djokovic should he get past Tsonga first.  His head-to-head against Djokovic is extremely poor, but he has beaten him in a grand slam (the Aussie Open which he won) and has played him close on several other occasions.  Wawrinka has the firepower to hit anyone off the court, and has been on a tear this French Open.  Despite losing to Federer badly a couple weeks ago, he didn't even drop a set in their quarterfinal matchup.  He clearly is playing at a higher level than he has been all year, and no one looks forward to playing an in the zone Wawrinka.  This doesn't mean you should pick Wawrinka to win, but its conceivable that if Djokovic gets a bit tight with history on the line Wawrinka is ready to pounce.  Djokovic is probably going to be your 2015 French Open champion, but if anyone's going to stop him Wawrinka is the most likely candidate.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Focus on the Present, not Past in Making your Djokovic vs. Nadal Roland Garros Pick

Nearly everyone previewing the epic quarterfinal match between Djokovic and Nadal feels obliged to mention Nadal's nine previous French Open titles.  Some analysts seem to be switching their picks to Nadal based on his history and solid first week, but doing so is likely a rash decision.  There's no doubt Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player of all time, and one of the best players of all time on any surface.  However, Nadal hasn't been the player we're used to all year, and wins over a bunch of no names and Jack Sock don't mean vintage Nadal has returned. 

It's understandable why everyone is so hesitant to pick against Nadal at Roland Garros, as he simply doesn't lose there.  But at some point his results over the past few months have to count for more than what he did at the French Open in 2005.  Djokovic is number one in the world by a mile, and has already beaten Nadal convincingly on clay this year (as has Murray, Wawrinka, and Fognini).  In prior years Djokovic went into matches against Nadal at Roland Garros knowing he would have to play a perfect match to win.  Now, Djokovic knows he's the better player (even on clay), and that it won't take an otherworldly performance to get past the Spaniard.  

If anyone has earned our respect at a given tournament, it's Nadal at the French Open.  But picking Djokovic to win isn't "disrespecting" Nadal and his accomplishments, it's simply the more reasonable prediction based on the recent evidence.  Djokovic is on pace for an all-time great season, and Nadal has suffered several surprising losses in 2015, including on his beloved clay.  Instead of assuming Nadal will rediscover his top form at Roland Garros, we should realize Nadal simply isn't the player he used to be. 

During Nadal's reign over Roland Garros over the last decade, there wasn't anything "magical" about Roland Garros.  Nadal was by far the best clay court player in the world, and won nearly every clay court tournament he played no matter where it was located.  It's not like Nadal would come into the French Open struggling and would find his form once he set foot in Paris, rather he consistently came into the tournament with almost no losses in the French Open tuneups. 

It's certainly possible Djokovic's nerves are a factor and that Nadal plays closer to his level from past years.  However, fans shouldn't be surprised if the "match of the year" doesn't live up to its billing.  Their recent form and results suggest Djokovic will win rather comfortably, and we shouldn't pretend to be surprised when it happens.