May 24, 2020

Roland Garros Rewind (2016 - 2019)

So here we are on what should have been the first day of the 2020 French Open, and instead of watching magic on clay, we're on the verge of what will be the third straight month without professional tour tennis.

There are signs of hope out there, though -- this weekend, a couple ladies are taking the court in the second UTR Pro Series in Florida, and Novak Djokovic recently announced the Adria Tour, which will feature top stars in exhibition matches around the Balkans in late June and early July.

Still, with the WTA and ATP officially on hold until at least mid July, whether Roland Garros will actually kick off on the twice-rescheduled September 20th as now planned remains to be seen. I clearly can't continue with my original plan of predicting the final four for this event, at least not yet, but I can take this opportunity to look back at the action I missed in Paris the few years since I last wrote about it.

As with my lookback on Indian Wells and Miami, there were a couple things that took me by surprise, some standout performances that slipped my memory -- certainly on the women's side, but even a few on the men's, which has obviously been so dominated by one name over the past decade and a half. There were players that really made a name for themselves at the French, some of whom have lived up to that glory, others who've faded away a bit. But all of them, I'm sure, hold these courts in a special place in their hearts and are eager for the day they can get back to work on them.

The Men

Not surprisingly, the French Open remains Rafael Nadal's to lose. The twelve-time champion has a stunning 93-2 record on these courts and could be one appearance away from hitting the 100-win mark. There have been some bumps in recent years -- we all got a little nervous in 2015, when the Spaniard's game seemed to be flagging a bit, and he lost to Novak Djokovic in the quarters. A year later, a wrist injury not only forced him to pull out of the third round in Paris, but also allowed Nole to complete the task he fell just short of the season before, when he lost to Stan Wawrinka in the final -- winning the title and the career Grand Slam. But Rafa got back to top form in short order and in the last three years, has only lost three sets on his way to the titles.

That said, we know Nadal's reign will eventually come to an end, and we're getting some glimpses of who might be ready and willing to take over. Dominic Thiem has reached the finals at Roland Garros the last two years and has quickly become the second best clay court player on tour right now. He's won ten of his 16 titles on the surface and last year beat Rafa in Barcelona and Djokovic at the French. His performance in Melbourne this year further showed he's capable of capturing the biggest titles, and I expect that sometime in the not so distant future, we'll see him lifting this trophy too.

But there were some other players that lasted late into recent draws at Roland Garros that flew well below my radar. Unseeded Albert Ramos-Viñolas made a solid run to the quarters in 2016 with wins over Milos Raonic and Jack Sock. It was by far his best performance at a Major and followed four straight first round exits in Paris. And Pablo Carreno Busta got as far a year later, but ultimately pulled out in the second set against Nadal with an abdomen injury that also forced him to skip the grass court season. But he rebounded to make the semis in New York and even spent a stint in the top ten.

The real shocker at the French Open over the last few years, though, was a little-known Italian named Marco Cecchinato. Though he picked up his first career title in Budapest as a qualifier in April 2018, he was still ranked just 72nd in the world when he hit the court in Paris. But he took out in turn Carreno Busta, David Goffin, and against all odds, Novak Djokovic, who at the time was ranked all the way down at #22 after elbow surgery the year before kept him off court for six months. Cecchinato became the lowest ranked player to make the Roland Garros semis since 1999, and he eventually jumped into the top twenty, picking up trophies in Umag and Buenos Aires to boot. But last season didn't go quite so well -- he lost in 21 first rounds, putting together a string of nine straight losses over the summer, and with a 1-7 record to start 2020, he's now down at #113. Of course, he could come out of this lockdown swinging, but something tells me this Cinderella story may have come and gone.

The Women

Things have been a little less straightforward on the women's side of things, where we've seen a different champion in each of the last six years. I was closely watching in 2014 and 2015 when Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams respectively repeated their crowns, but I hadn't realized we were in for a whole new world in the women's game by the time 2016 rolled around.

It started when Garbiñe Muguruza, who'd only won two titles at that point and was ranked fourth in the world, stunned the defending Williams. who'd drubbed her in the previous Wimbledon final, for her first Grand Slam crown. Her career has been up and down since then, winning at the All England Club the next year, then struggling for most of the last before definitively reasserting herself as a force at this year's Australian Open.

Then there was Simona Halep, long held up as the star of the next generation of tennis, she came close but fell short of the biggest titles a couple times before finally breaking the seal -- she very well could have won that title against Sharapova in 2014, lost at the same spot three years later, and came in second again in Australia in 2018, this time to Caroline Wozniacki who won her first and only Major that year in Melbourne. But fourth time was a charm for Halep -- ten years after winning the Juniors title in Paris, the pint-sized Romanian -- meh, she's two inches taller than me -- finally came home a winner, beating Sloane Stephens for the 2018 title. She added a Wimbledon trophy to her collection last year and at #2 in the world seems well in place to add a couple more before all is said and done.

But maybe more significant are the slew of upstarts who've really had their break on the courts of Roland Garros. First there's defending champ Ashleigh Barty, who currently holds the #1 ranking in the world and put together a solid 11-3 record this year before play was called. Still, it remains to be seen whether she'll be more than a one-hit wonder -- the ladies' draw last year was, after all, rife with upsets, and the four semifinalists had an average rank that would barely earn a seed at a Slam. Barty's had big wins since, of coure, claiming the year-end championship for example, but she's also more than fallible and she'll need to fight to reclaim that title. As for the other three who made the semis -- finalist Marketa Vondrousova, Amanda Anisimova, and Johanna Konta -- I've put a lot of faith in their career-making runs, and I'm still waiting for a couple of them to make good on them.

The biggest outlier among the women's titleists, though, is 2017 winner Jelena Ostapenko, who started the event a teenager ranked 47th in the world and ended it a 20-year-old Grand Slam champion. She'd never won a title before that run, but beat six higher ranked players during it, including former French finalist Sam Stosur, Wozniacki, and Halep in the final. But it's been a rough road since -- the Latvian lost in the first round at the French the last two years, and while she did crack the top ten and reached the Wimbledon semis in 2018, she's had trouble making a big splash. Still, she's young -- 23 next month -- and has a lot of time to perfect her game. I'm not ready to write her off, but sure would love to see her come out of the lockdown with a little more fire in her belly.

Because, of course, we will come out of this, and there's a long list of players who not only want to add themselves to the champions' roll but will be able to do it. And like everyone of you reading this, I can't wait to get started.

May 20, 2020

The Grand (Re)Opening: Take Two

This week we were supposed to be in the final stretches of the 2020 clay court season, getting ready for the French Open, which was originally scheduled to kick off this coming Sunday. 

Things are different now, of course, with tour-level tennis now on hold until the end of July at least, even as some countries and states begin what will undoubtedly be the long and arduous process of reopening not only their courts but their entire economies.

Still there is some reprieve for those aching for some live professional sports -- South Korean baseball has resumed with fake fans filling the stadiums, Nascar held its first race over the weekend in South Carolina, and Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson won a charity Skins game benefitting COVID-19 first responders. 

And on the tennis front, this weekend we'll get the second edition of the UTR Pro Series event, with four ladies this time competing for the first title since February and a little bit of that much-needed prize money.
Danielle Collins and Amanda Anisimova, semifinalists at the Australian Open and Roland Garros respectively last year, Alison Riske, who was just off a career-high ranking at #19 in the world when play was stopped, and Ajla Tomljanovic, will compete in round robin style down in West Palm Beach, Florida, hoping to duplicate the success seen by Reilly Opelka a few weeks ago.

And while each of these players may be a little rusty after two months without true match play, some of their results pre-lockdown could give us a glimpse of what to expect now. So why not take a stab at telescoping what we might see when play gets underway.

Alison Riske is the on-paper favorite, with the highest ranking of the group and the most career titles -- two. But despite the low hardware count, she's had some solid wins over the past year, taking out Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina in Wuhan, and taking Serena to three in the Wimbledon quarters, after ousting world #1 Ashleigh Barty a round earlier. She's been a little quieter this year, losing the two matches she's played since the Australian Open and beating no one in the top twenty to date. Of course, she's got a lot of talent, but there's plenty of opportunity for someone to notch an upset here.

Anisimova too comes to this event a little vulnerable. While she remains in the top thirty, the eighteen-year-old American is still riding high on the points she earned at last year's French, where she stunned Simona Halep and took Barty the distance in the semis. But a back injury kept her off court for most of the back half of 2019 and she'd been a little slow at the start of this season too, getting demolished by Serena in Auckland and pulling out of Doha after an admittedly impressive win over Svitolina. And while she did win the U.S. Open Juniors title back in 2017 -- beating Coco Gauff, by the way -- it still feels like she might've done better had the clay season gone as scheduled. 

So it may just be that the biggest surprises come from the lower-ranked entrants. Danielle Collins came out swinging this year -- while she fell well short of defending points from her 2019 Melbourne run, she did score wins over Svitolina in Brisbane and both Sofia Kenin and Belinda Bencic in Adelaide. And Tomljanovic, the only one of these four not from the States, actually has the most match play this year -- albeit with the only losing record at 5-6. Still, with two career wins over Riske and another over Anisimova, she's had the most experience against this group, and knows how to win.

Of course, all that said, we'll certainly see a few surprises this weekend. Overall, these ladies don't have a lot of experience playing each other, and, as above, it could take some time for them to shake off the cobwebs that have collected over the last few weeks.

But if this UTR Pro event is a success, it could really help set the stage for more play this season. And after all, no matter how different it feels and looks, isn't that what we all want the most?

May 12, 2020

Trouble With the Serve

Over the weekend, Reilly Opelka won the first pro tennis event since lockdown began over two months ago, defeating Russia's Miomir Kecmanovic in three sets to claim the UTR Pro Match Series championship.

The victory didn't earn him any ranking points, but he did score some hard-to-come-by-these-days prize money -- he was quick to point out that ATP Officials have been paid their full salary since March, even as tour play has been suspended, while players themselves have had no means of truly earning their keep -- and that all-important match play during this unprecedented time.

And in watching Opelka on court, you can't help but be reminded of another American player with very similar attributes. 

At 6'11" (!!!) the 22-year-old is actually an inch taller than John Isner, and he understandably shares his compatriot's big weapon -- down 15-30 to Kecmanovic in the third set Saturday, he fired off three aces to win the game. In his two months of regular play this year, he's already hit 214 service winners, and over the past 52 weeks he trails only Isner in average aces per match.

But as we've also come to know, a serve in this sport is not everything. I've long lamented how many times Isner is forced into a tiebreak -- nearly half his sets this year have been decided in, well, deciders -- and if you can't break your opponent's serve then what good, really, is dominating yours?

Opelka is not entirely innocent of posting similar stats. He's only won 12% of his return games this year; Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, wins more than one of every three. And he's racking up as much time in tiebreak land as Isner -- every one of their ten sets against each other last year went 7-6 or 6-7.

But he is working to improve. That 12% record compares to the 10% he won on the receiving end last year, and is several times better than the 7% he notched in 2016. And he's consciously focused on fixing his weakness.

“I've spent a lot of time on my return,” he told the Tennis Channel after his win this weekend. “I returned well in Delray, and I returned well in Davis Cup. I’m much more confident in my return game. It’s so much more fun for me as a player to believe I can break serve. I’m not just focused on holding serve. It adds a whole other element to my game.”

Will that translate into more success when regular play resumes? Hopefully -- the world #39 has already had some decent results this season, taking Fabio Fognini to five sets in his Australian opener and winning that title in Delray, the second of his career, beating Milos Raonic along the way. Last year he beat Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon. 

And, since the comparison with Isner is inevitable, Opelka won all three of their matches in 2019, so at the very least he seems to be winning the battle of the big servers for now. 

Of course, I don't mean to say that Isner's career isn't something to aspire to -- we could all do a lot worse than being ranked in the top twenty for the balance of a decade -- but I would like to see Reilly do even better. We could talk for hours about how long it's been since an American played a Grand Slam final, never mind won one. Opelka may or may not be our best chance at that, but he's certainly an option.

But even beyond the hardware he could earn, for him to really thrive on tour, we need to see a more well-rounded game. I have confidence he's getting there, and can't wait to see what he does when he's truly at the top of his game.

May 1, 2020

The Grand (Re)Opening

Tennis is getting back in action -- like real, live, professional tennis.

The Tennis Channel and MyUTR today announced the launch of the UTR Pro Match Series, whose first event will take place next weekend. ATP pros Matteo Berrettini, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open last year, Reilly Opelka, Tennys Sandgren and Tommy Paul will vie on an actual court for actual prize money starting May 8 -- the women, Amanda Anisimova, who made the final four at Roland Garros in 2019, Alison Riske, Danielle Collins ('19 Melbourne SF), and Ajla Tomljanovic, hold their own event starting May 22.

The matches, to be held in Florida, come as countries around the world and about half of U.S. states begin to lift some stay-at-home restrictions, even as the threat of the coronavirus remains front and center. It won't be exactly like the tournaments we're used to -- there won't be spectators or ball kids, and players will have their own set of marked balls to serve with, so there will hopefully be minimal risk of cross-contamination, and they'll have to provide their own drinks and towels.

The format could give us a glimpse of what Tour events might look like for the next several months. As I've said before, unlike other pro sports with obvious physical contact, tennis itself is presumably more adaptable to social distancing guidelines, and with proper steps can probably be kept relatively safe. That's the good news.

Another positive -- this gives an opportunity for players to earn what could be some much-needed income. Players and pundits have been quick to point out how big an economic toll the lockdown orders are having on lower-ranked players, Opelka even calling for tour officials to take a pay cut, as we've seen happen in other professional sports leagues.

This week's virtual Mutua Madrid Open was a nice first step in providing support -- Andy Murray and Kiki Bertens donating their winnings to the players' relief fund and the UK's National Health Service -- but it certainly doesn't solve the problem entirely. And, of course, neither does hosting an event with all the entrants in the top hundred, albeit far from the big endorsement players who will no doubt be fine during the shutdown.

But hopefully this event can give us a framework that'll eventually get more athletes back in the game. The exhibition matches being played between even lower-ranked players this weekend will help as well.

Still, is now the right time to get started? I don't know. I will say I'm not surprised host state Florida is one of the first in the U.S. to loosen restrictions, and I'm not sure people, Florida or elsewhere, have enough self-control not to rush the malls, beaches, and restaurants once that happens -- Central Park whenever it goes over 60° in New York is insane. But hopefully these events will be held to a higher standard, and players, officials and anyone else involved will take the necessary precautions.

After all, I'm surprisingly heartened by the tennis community's response to the pandemic, both in donating to health programs and front-line workers, and in taking #SocialDistancing guidelines not only seriously, but to new levels -- questionable vaccine beliefs notwithstanding.

So here's hoping our first event back is not only successful, but safe. I mean, we can all kind of agree with Sandgren here.