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.