Ons!

By Hanya El Ghetany

In a region where athletes don’t particularly perform well in tennis, a young lady from a small town in Tunisia just won the 1000-level Madrid tournament! Many Arabs are talented athletes, but often lack the financial resources to support training, sponsorships, and participation in higher levels of competition. Some countries are simply unconcerned especially when the sport is not considered a national sport, or when they don’t have enough experience handling it. As a result, you’ll witness some Arab athletes play for other nations. However, when a winner from the Arab world, a WOMAN, overcomes all of these challenges, carrying the Tunisian flag, and never giving up on her all-Tunisian team despite criticism, expect nothing less than a celebration that hails from Morocco to Oman. Hang on, a celebration across the entire African continent!

Ons Jabeur, a 27-years old Tunisian tennis star, had never reached a WTA 1000 final before this tournament. Her first history-making impact on tour was becoming the first Arab male or female player to reach the top ten singles rankings. She’s made noise at the majors as well, reaching the quarter finals in Australia 2020 and Wimbledon 2021. Last year, she reached the semifinals of Indian Wells. Here, she was able to extend her best form all the way to the final, defeating Ekaterina Alexandrova in the semis and became the first Arab and African player to do make a final at a 1000-level event. Jabeur went on to beat Jessica Pegula in the final and won her first WTA 1000!! 

When Jabeur is full on Jabeur, she’s such a joy to watch. On the court, she shows a lot of innovation (along with an incredible amount of talent), and I consider her an “all-court” player. She is the queen of dropshots. Jabeur is not hesitant to approach the net, despite the fact that this exposes her to passing shots. She plays with such devotion, giving a special focus to angles and spins. That’s why seeing Jabeur play is so inspiring: it’s like witnessing a performance by someone who is completely dedicated to what they do.

Jabeur’s run to the final wasn’t quite straightforward, but she pulled through to the final despite not being a favourite. Her matches were all ups and downs. She played Jasmine Paolini in the first round (7-6, 6-1).  She then faced Varvara Gracheva and got bageled in the second set, but rebounded strongly to take the third (7-5, 0-6, 6-4). Her third round was against Bencic (6-2, 3-6, 6-2). Jabeur faced Halep in the quarterfinals, surprisingly and soundly beating her 6-3, 6-2 in about an hour. I lost count of the number of brilliant drop shots by Jabeur in that match, many of which were at critical times. She maintained her brilliant run of form by beating Ekaterina Alexandrova in the semifinals (6-2, 6-3). 

Finals bring a new kind of pressure, and Pegula led 4-1 in the first set only for Jabeur to make a great comeback and win the opener 7-5. Again, Jabeur survived the disappointment of getting bageled in the second set, taking the third 6-2 and plenty of history along with it.

People don’t quite realise the impact the success of an Arab player, especially a woman, in any given sport can have on the rest of the region. Their success gives us hope. When their accomplishments are recognised by the world and highlighted by big names in the industry, it just tells us “Hey, we can do it too, we just have to believe in ourselves and work hard”. It’s kind of our assurance that despite the many sad instances in the region, we are not at a disadvantage in the world of sport. In a part of the world where we’re still trying to normalise gender equality, many young Arab ladies are now motivated by this amazing win, and many minds have been transformed. 

Don’t get me wrong, this win is for Jabeur and Jabeur only. She is the one who overcame all the challenges to reach where she is now. She is the one who trained and financed her way to her first final. That win, however, is a win that we’re all proud of and that will challenge and change a generation to come. 

Every now and then, we get an Arab who changes the interest of a sport in the region. When you listen to Tsitsipas or Ruud talk about this matter, they always acknowledge that they want to change how tennis is looked at in their country. That is what Ons is doing. However, when you’re an Arab, you don’t only do it for one country, you do it for 22. When you’re North African, you’re doing it for the entirety of the continent of Africa. In this region of the world, it’s past time to advocate for women’s empowerment. It’s pretty amazing that cultural growth is taking place in a sport that isn’t particularly well-watched in the region.

In the world of football, you will find names like Mo Salah, Riyad Mahrez and Achraf Hakimi who had a big impact in the western world. It’s time tennis had a star from the region to continue with the positive change, and that star is none other than our very own Tunisian Ons Jabeur. No Arab man or woman has ever won a tennis major, and it’s about damn time we had one. Jabeur may well chase down one of those titles as well.

The moment! Screenshot: Tennis Channel

Marveling at Djokovic’s Movement

There’s a point here from the 2018 World Tour Finals round robin match between Djokovic and Marin Čilić. It starts at 14:29 in the video below. They’ve just played a tiebreak to decide the first set and this is the first point of the second, so you’re not expecting anything too remarkable. Djokovic hits a good return that pushes Čilić out to his forehand side. Now, when you’ve put your opponent on the defensive like this, you can reasonably expect a safe crosscourt reply, which Djokovic anticipates, parking himself a step to the right of the centerline. Well, Čilić decides to blast a forehand down the line that clips the outside of the sideline. Djokovic, visibly taken aback, can’t really sprint to the ball — so he takes one huge step, then launches himself into the air to take an even bigger stride. As he makes contact with the ball, his left foot screeches into a wicked slide (remember, this is a cement court). He’s doing a half-split as he strikes the backhand, which is so violent that Djokovic’s racket bangs into the court surface after his abbreviated follow-through. Somehow, he gets the ball crosscourt with decent depth.

Čilić keeps Djokovic under pressure with a really deep crosscourt backhand that Djokovic has to take early after the bounce. Novak’s subsequent reply is a bit shorter and more central than is ideal (but is by no means a bad shot considering the depth of Čilić’s backhand). Čilić murders this quasi-short ball with an inside-in forehand that lands close to the sideline, moving Djokovic from well behind the baseline on the ad side to even deeper water in his forehand corner. When the world number one ends his slide after returning Čilić’s forehand with a squash shot, he’s at least fifteen feet behind the baseline and is also outside the doubles alley. Look for yourself:

Court position does not get much more unfavorable than this, and Čilić senses his opportunity. He comes to net and dinks a half-volley short on the ad-side. The rationale here is obvious: he’s forcing Djokovic to cover the most distance possible, what with Novak halfway across the world in his deuce corner. With Djokovic so far out at sea, the gambit is high-percentage, and Čilić hits a good half-volley. (I wouldn’t call it great, but with your opponent way behind the baseline and way outside the sideline, you shouldn’t have to hit a great half-volley drop shot.) However, Djokovic anticipates Čilić’s shot, and he starts to sprint across the long diagonal before his opponent has even made contact with the ball. In seven massive, lightning-quick strides, Djokovic gets inside the service line. He launches himself into the air again and backhands the ball past Čilić, then lands with another shrieking slide.

This is my all-time favorite Djokovic point because of the incredibly lengthy sprint at the end, but the reason I write this is that I didn’t notice how amazing the initial backhand and movement were until I rewatched the point for the nth time (for no particular reason besides procrastinating on some work). Just listen to the crowd — there’s basically no oohs or aahs as Djokovic goes into Gumby mode for that first stretch backhand. At the risk of repeating myself, Djokovic’s style can take some getting used to before it can be totally understood. At least it does for me. I found myself wondering how many other backhands like the first one after the return he’s hit that practically defied the laws of physics but that I skimmed over upon first viewing. I’ll be going back down the rabbit hole.

ATP Madrid Predictions

By Siddhant Guru and Nick Carter

The following is a transcript of a conversation held at Popcorn Tennis HQ between Nick and Siddhant.

Nick: So, Siddhant, I thought it might be fun to talk about our predictions for what’s going to happen at the Madrid Masters this week.

Siddhant: I agree. I have some… ideas on how I think this is going to turn out.

Nick: I think we both do. Let’s start with the obvious question, is Rafa really the favourite? It’s clay but Madrid conditions aren’t ideal for him.

Rafa after beating Djokovic in an iconic Madrid semifinal way back in 2009. Screenshot: Tennis TV

Siddhant: I fully agree on that. He hasn’t won Madrid since 2017. Plus, he had that rib injury recently. His pre tournament presser… he didn’t sound very confident about his chances.

Nick: True,, but whenever he says stuff like that he usually ends up winning. That being said, if he’s vulnerable, who do you think might take him down? I have him making at least the quarters.

Siddhant: Yeah, I also have him in the quarterfinals. There’s a new Spaniard in town who’s raising all the eyebrows these days.

Nick: Yeah I think this could be a passing of the torch moment, although I don’t think Rafa is done if he doesn’t win Madrid. That’s a match I’m looking forward to!

Siddhant: Yeah, same here. Rafa being Rafa, he’s always going to be one to watch out for. What do you think about Novak’s chances? It will only be the fourth tournament of the year for him and he has lost early in the first two.

Nick: Not sure if I’d call losing in a final early (laughs) but I am concerned he’s not fully fit. I don’t think his draw is too bad but I think he’ll run out of gas again. It’s possible he’ll still win but I don’t think he’s ready yet. 

Siddhant: I agree with all that, although I meant Dubai and Monte Carlo as the first two tournaments (laughs). But yeah, he’s looked tired in most of his matches. If not Novak and Rafa, who do you think is winning this tournament then?

Nick: I keep forgetting about Dubai! I have clay brain! I’d say the new Spaniard is the favourite, I think Alcaraz is playing well enough that I’m not sure who can beat him. Especially in Madrid which plays a bit quicker.

Siddhant: Hmmm, you really like putting pressure on a teenager like that. What about the bottom half of the draw? No real hope from Tsitsipas/Zverev?

Nick: Hey, I’m a British Emma Raducanu fan so I’m used to expecting big things from teenagers. As for the bottom half of the draw, Tsitsipas is a clay contender wherever he goes but again I don’t think these conditions are as favourable for him and he’s probably still stinging from the Barcelona loss. I still think he could be in the final though, it’s between him and a couple of others for me. Not Zverev though, he’s not in good form right now so I’m not confident he’ll get far. 

Siddhant: I mostly agree with all that (also booo for supporting Emma!). I agree with Tsitsipas but I don’t think he’s making the final. His form and level isn’t quite the same as last year’s. Zverev is a known Madrid specialist though. Even in 2019, when he was quite woeful, he still made the quarterfinals. So, with the relatively kind draw he has gotten, I won’t be surprised if he serves his way to the later stages.

Nick: He could do, I think he’ll get upset by a new generation player though. Most likely Sinner, I’m confident he’s looking good (Ed. note: this conversation took place before his match against Paul).

Siddhant: Yeah, Sinner is one of my picks for this tournament if he’s fit. He tends to take his time early on though. That Paul match could be tricky but otherwise, he should be one of the favorites. I think Sebi Korda also might have a shot vs Zverev.

Nick: Surprisingly, you and I are on the same wavelength. I’ve marked Korda as a potential upset for Zverev. So you say Sinner is one of your picks, is he the guy you think might win this then? Bold if so.

Siddhant: Okay. Here’s the thing. Sinner isn’t winning in my brackets. Uhhh…. It’s… Ugo Humbert.

(Silence)

Nick: I’m sorry? 

Siddhant: You heard me. I have Ugo Humbert winning the Madrid Masters.

Nick: The grass court specialist Ugo Humbert?

Siddhant: The very same!

Nick: You are aware he needs to beat Shapovalov, Thiem or Murray, Djokovic, Ruud and then Nadal or Alcaraz just to reach the final right?

Siddhant: Yup. I realize all that. But here me out on my explanation.

Nick: Go on…

Siddhant: First round vs Shapovalov – realize that this is Shapo’s first tournament on clay this season. He does hold a 2-0 H2H on Clay vs Humbert but it’s not quite representative given both those matches went to deciding sets. I think Humbert might nick that match in three sets.

(Siddhant pauses for breath.)

Siddhant: Second round vs. Thiem/Murray – Whoever wins in the Thiem-Murray match, I don’t think they would be fit enough in the next round. This is Andy’s first tournament on clay in a year and a half. Thiem has looked out of touch. He isn’t quite there physically or game-wise. Plus, the traditional lefty angle to Thiem’s backhand on serve could be a winning tactic for Ugo.

Siddhant: Now for the fun part. I don’t think Djokovic is winning the first match…

Nick: He’s not??? Who’s he losing to?

Siddhant: He’s playing Monfils in the first match (assuming Gael wins). First, nobody beats Gael Monfils 18 times in a row. Secondly, I think Monfils can really grind Novak down, especially with Novak’s recent physical issues. I think Monfils can win the match in three sets, with Novak gassing out in the third again.

Siddhant: So anyway, I think Monfils vs Humbert is the pre-quarterfinals in that section, which Humbert can win. In the Quarterfinals, it’s either Ruud or Fokina, going by the draw. Fokina is in good touch while Ruud isn’t. But I think Ruud’s problems in this clay season are more about him rushing his strokes rather than anything fundamental. He can beat Fokina but regardless, I think Humbert can outlast them in a long drawn out battle. (1) Humbert’s CCFH to their obviously weak BHs could be the money play (Humbert averages 2500+ RPMs on his FH, which is slightly above average on the ATP Tour).

(Siddhant once again takes a long breath.)

Siddhant: Now, I agree that Alcaraz can beat Nadal. In fact, I think he will beat Rafa. Madrid’s HC-like conditions are suitable for his game. However, like we saw vs De Minaur in Barcelona, he doesn’t quite enjoy playing against players who redirect linear pace relatively well – something Humbert does well on a grass court, and which he can do on the relatively quicker courts of Madrid.

Siddhant: It’s a tough ask but I think Carlos will have an off day in that semifinal. In the final, I think Humbert can beat Tsitsipas or Sinner. He has a very good record vs Stefanos. Jannik would be tougher but once again, I think he can force Sinner to overhit enough to make the difference. That’s my logic for going with Humbert. I just think the two titans are not reliable enough for this tournament. I think a new winner is not entirely unexpected. Fokina made the final in Monte Carlo, after all!!

Nick: Ummm…. OK! I… don’t know what to say to that! Your logic is sound I suppose… (It sounds like he’s just utterly confused)

Siddhant: I will also point out that even in his loss in Monte Carlo, Humbert won more points in the four-plus shot rallies. He only struggled in the shorter rallies, which I think will be ironed out in the Madrid HC-like conditions. The same was true against De Minaur but to a lesser extent.

Nick: Siddhant, you have inspired me. We need to take the depth of talent in the men’s field more seriously. I’m changing my pick now.

(Chair squeaks)

Nick: But not to Humbert. I could see him making a deep run now you’ve explained it, but there’s one other name on my mind.

Siddhant: Who’s that?

Nick: Andrey Rublev. 

Siddhant: Ho ho ho! I need to see his draw again. I vaguely remember he’s in the Tsitsipas quarter?

Nick: Yeah. All this talk of Madrid basically playing like a hard-court makes me think he’ll beat Tsitsipas. 

Siddhant: Hmm, it’s not outside the realm of possibility, you know. If he beats Tsitsipas, it’s Zverev or Sinner in the semis. Hmm. Andrey is in good form too…

Nick: He’d definitely beat Zverev, Sinner might be close but I think he could win it. Then he could out-rally Alcaraz in a battle of big forehands. Or, if it is Humbert in the final, it might be too much for the Frenchman to handle. 

Siddhant: It could be too much but I trust in my pick!

Nick: To be honest, I’m just glad we didn’t try to predict the WTA, not sure my brain could handle that!

Siddhant: WTA, for me, is just hoping that the chaos falls in your lap, or in this case, doesn’t interfere with your pick, haha.

Nick: Dare I ask, how are your predictions working out for that? Is your pick still in?

Siddhant: I can tell you my finalist is Sara Sorribes Tormo, who is in the 4th Round. Sadly, my winner is out.

(There is a crashing sound, as if a table is being flipped)

Nick: Sorry, I don’t know what came over me. I’m fine now. Just goes to show that nothing is very predictable right now.

Siddhant: If you thought the WTA without Iga Świątek is even remotely predictable… I don’t know what you expect.

Nick: Yes… well… This was fun Siddhant. I look forward to seeing how things play out in Madrid.

Siddhant: Cheers Nick! It’s going to be a great watch!

(Siddhant stands up and stumbles out in a zigzag manner. Nick was later found sitting silently in the same spot many hours later by Owen.)

Screenshots from the TNNS Live App later confirmed that Siddhant was sticking to his picks.

The Challenger

There is a deep-seated trend in tennis, and sports in general, that aesthetic beauty is somehow a sign of merit. You need look no further than the reverence for Roger Federer’s one-handed backhand despite it being his worst shot. The best sign for merit is constantly staring us in the face — does a shot work? Does it win many points and lose few points? — but we have a strange tendency to avoid using this painfully obvious criteria.

It feels like no one has lost out more from this line of thinking than Novak Djokovic. His backhand, which is one of the very best shots to come out of this glorious era, is constantly underappreciated (at the very least, it’s not revered) because a lot of people decided it’s prettier to watch someone take a hand off the racket as they hit through a backhand than it is to watch someone keep the second hand on the stick. Not only that, but Djokovic is often described as a difficult player to appreciate visually. In some cases, this is true — it takes some time to understand exactly why he’s so freaking good — but come on, watch him sprint from corner to corner to paste a backhand down the line while practically doing a full split and tell me that’s not astonishing to watch.

I used to hate Djokovic. Mostly because he threw tantrums on court and broke rackets. In my early days as a tennis fan, I didn’t know enough about tactics to understand what made a player good, so I picked favorites based on players’ temperament on court. I didn’t like Djokovic’s, so I didn’t like Djokovic. It got to the point where I would enjoy rooting against him, because every point he lost gave me a little hit of dopamine.

As you can probably guess, this chapter didn’t end well. When you don’t like a player, you don’t just want them to lose, you want them to lose the big matches. You want them to lose the close matches. You want them to lose from advantageous positions. After a while, I found out that Djokovic just doesn’t do that. He doesn’t do any of those things. He might tap out of an inconsequential match, or he might even get rolled in a final. But he doesn’t lose the close matches. He shows up, unfailingly, in those fifth sets. He saves those match points. He never loses the way you want him to lose. He always feels dangerous, even when he’s borderline tanking. It feels like anyone who manages to beat him should be relieved as much as elated. He’s probably the worst possible player to root against if satisfaction is what you’re after.

My dislike of Djokovic was probably accentuated by the fact that it took me a long time to understand his game. I was clueless, but it didn’t help that his biggest assets were the most underemphasized by mainstream tennis media, and the toughest to appreciate via the immediate eye test: the return of serve, the high-margin aggression, the general lack of a weakness. The sheer brilliance of his return of serve — one of the most devastating skills of the entire era — isn’t the most visually gratifying if you want to see winners, for instance. To be clear, this doesn’t matter at all — Djokovic’s incredibly deep returns are way more reliable than Agassi-esque return winners — but as an entry-level tennis fan, it was hard to appreciate. Say a player hits a huge serve and Djokovic reflexes it back onto the baseline, forcing an error. I didn’t see Djokovic pulling off a belief-defying retrieval, I saw the other player rushing and missing their first shot after the serve. Even when Djokovic was taking players apart, crushing them while barely losing a game, I didn’t really pick up on what he was doing well. Maybe because I didn’t want to.

Somewhere along the way, I watched highlights of the 2012 Australian Open final and picked up a new appreciation for what a beast Djokovic is. Shortly after I learned about that iconic marathon, Djokovic beat Nadal in one of the greatest matches of this era, the 2018 Wimbledon semifinal. I watched the whole match on replay, at which point I realized that Djokovic’s serve and forehand might not be the best ever, but they’re damn good, and his return of serve and defense are even better.

In 2015, Brian Phillips wrote this about Djokovic: “One of the fascinating paradoxes of Djokovic is that he seems to crave the crowd’s affection while producing tennis brilliantly calculated to take the crowd out of a match.”

He’s right — while some players (Nadal, for instance) are magnets for fantastic matches, drawing a high level from their opponent as well as themselves — Djokovic often does the opposite. He stifles. There have been a few times when he’s thrashed Nadal, absolutely demolished him, and those matches are are dazzling for the level Djokovic brings, but as a match, they’re boring; he simply doesn’t let Nadal do any of the things he does well, and the product is reminiscent of a pro beating up on a club player.

At the U.S. Open in 2011, Djokovic was crashing through Nadal, having won the first two sets 6-2, 6-4. He went up a break in the third, at which point Nadal started to come back at him. With Djokovic serving at 2-1 and deuce, he pressed a little too far forward after hitting a backhand down the middle. Nadal hit deep, forcing Djokovic to put extra air under his next shot, and Nadal murdered it with an inside-out forehand, forcing the error. Luke Jensen, who was calling the match, exclaimed “where has that been?!”

This bit of commentary actually did a disservice to Djokovic. Nadal’s forehand is an obviously fearsome weapon, but it requires time to fire the missiles it is capable of, and Djokovic had become a master at starving Nadal of time. He hit so deep so consistently that Nadal’s forehand could be reduced to a mere rally shot a lot of the time. Not only that, but Djokovic was targeting Nadal’s backhand with unheard-of patience and relentlessness. Nadal simply wasn’t getting chances to hit forehands like the aforementioned inside-out bomb. And this is what Djokovic does: he makes his opponents look ordinary. He takes their biggest weapons and makes them appear irrelevant, either by avoiding them or rushing them. He gets back crazy serves, gets a racket on unreachable shots. It’s a slight pressure, but it quickly becomes overwhelming because Djokovic applies it constantly. You might not see it if you aren’t looking, but in practically all of Djokovic’s matches, his opponent will mess up in a weird way — maybe they’ll miss a smash, or aim for the line on a simple putaway, or miss a seemingly random rally shot. It’s not them, it’s him. Trust me.

This relentless pressure is one of the great assets ever developed by a tennis player, but it often goes underappreciated, maybe because it can actually lower the quality of a match. His best matches with Nadal usually require Djokovic to be off in some form or another, because when he is on, he tends to cruise, at least on grass and hard courts. Nadal hasn’t beaten him on a hard court, or even taken a set, since 2013. Thus, it’s easy to say the blame lies with Nadal for not finding a way into the matchup, but the reality is that there may not be a way in. He’s a tactical genius, but Djokovic is the one puzzle he’s never been able to solve consistently. Djokovic has beaten him in 26 out of their last 40 matches.

*****

Djokovic’s game has never been an issue. You remember that story from way back in 2005 when Toni Nadal watched a 17-year-old Djokovic practice at Wimbledon for five minutes and went sprinting to his nephew to tell him that they had a problem. Sure, Djokovic has struggled with his serve and fitness in the past, but there was always a sense about him that when he got it together, the sky was the limit. Hell, Peter Bodo wrote a piece deeming him “The Perfect Player” in 2007, and he was right. (Side note: it’s hilarious to see how the tennis landscape has shifted since then, starting with the reference to Richard Gasquet as “Baby Federer” in the first line of the piece.)

It’s funny, then, that it still feels like some of the tennis world is trying to figure out who Novak Djokovic is. As a player and a person. There have been some pretty shocking misconceptions — he’s been called a pusher despite easily having a top-ten-level serve and forehand. He’s been called lucky despite being perhaps the most clutch player of all time.

These misconceptions all started with the nature of Djokovic’s rise: namely, that he broke through the Federer-Nadal duopoly to become better than both of them in 2011. The way that Djokovic did this, winning an astonishing 10 of 11 matches against those two in that glorious breakout year, threw off a lot of people. First of all, someone other than Nadal had started to beat Federer consistently. That was weird. But Djokovic was also beating Nadal constantly, in an eerily similar way to how Nadal had dominated Federer — torturing the backhand, running everything down to neutralize the huge forehand — and that was weird. Federer and Nadal had ruled tennis for a good six or seven years at that point, and did so in a feel-good way — there was no animosity in their rivalry. People seemed to like both of them. Djokovic’s rise, if he had merely become an equal part with them, might have been more widely accepted.

Djokovic beats Nadal in ways no one else can an astonishing number of times in this video alone. He wins rallies of over 25 shots. He returns snarling Nadal forehands from all corners of the court and goes on to take the offensive. He wins ad-court rallies. After 2010, Nadal had been the toughest puzzle in men’s tennis for some time, yet Djokovic completely solved him in 2011.

Problem was, Djokovic didn’t become an equal part. He became the main part, shoving the other two out of the way. Federer won just one major in six years from 2011 to 2016, a period that lined up exactly with Djokovic’s rise. The Swiss could beat Djokovic at times, but never from a set down (the only exception being Dubai in 2014), and never at a major after Wimbledon in 2012. Nadal was able to continue ruling Roland-Garros and even grabbed the 2013 U.S. Open, but it felt like everything off of clay was on Djokovic’s racket. He would have very good years like 2012, 2013, and 2014 in which he won one major, the World Tour Finals, and several Masters 1000s, and it would still feel like he was underachieving.

Djokovic’s dominance in 2011 just jolted people. It wasn’t as if Federer and Nadal started playing worse that year, it was that Djokovic had improved. All of a sudden, he was better than them, despite them having far more major titles. It created an uncomfortable dichotomy. Djokovic wasn’t widely included in the GOAT debate until around 2019, but the reality is that he’s probably been a contender since well before that. The greatest ever has to be the greatest of their generation, and Djokovic has compiled epic records against Federer and Nadal since the start of his prime.

His rise in 2011 is also, I think, the source of the bizarre fascination with Djokovic’s desire to be liked. The reason why he isn’t as roundly loved as Federer and Nadal starts with the nature of his ascension — when he reached #1, there were already two all-time greats firmly entrenched in the elite, each with massive fanbases. Djokovic wanting fans to cheer for him more readily is relatable, but more than that it’s easily explained: he’s as good as Federer and Nadal, so why isn’t he appreciated equally? It’s down to the circumstances at least as much as it’s down to Djokovic himself, and that’s a very easy thing to get frustrated about.

Pundits and fans alike have turned this simple phenomenon into an obsession. It gets talked about virtually every time Djokovic plays. This takes even more of the focus away from Djokovic’s tennis, which accentuates the lack of understanding around his game. Last year, I was watching Djokovic destroy Tallon Griekspoor at the U.S. Open without playing anything resembling his best tennis. Jimmy Arias, who was calling the match, kept saying Griekspoor needed to get the crowd behind him to throw Djokovic off balance.

Let’s think about this for a second. Has Djokovic ever lost a match because the crowd cheered hard for his opponent? Most of the man’s big wins have been in situations like that! There was the 2015 U.S. Open final, where the already extremely pro-Federer crowd was hopped up on alcohol and raring to go after the match got delayed for a few hours. There was the 2019 Wimbledon final, where the crowd screamed themselves hoarse in hopes that Federer would win one more major title. Djokovic won both matches.

I understand why Arias was reaching for that narrative — it’s because to acknowledge that Djokovic is impervious to such intangibles is to acknowledge that far lesser opponents have absolutely no chance of beating him. Since we watch sports for the drama, that’s not a particularly pleasing thing to talk about, but its unsexiness doesn’t make it any less true. So here it is, in plain terms: Djokovic has no major weaknesses. If he is fit and engaged, a player with a notable weakness — be it fitness, their backhand, a lack of firepower, or anything else — is not going to beat him in a major. It’s just not going to happen. And trying to create suspense out of nothing does a disservice to the most complete male player to ever pick up a racket.

It’s for this reason, I think, that his game is so widely hated on. “He’s a pusher,” people have said. “He wins by making opponents miss.” What? This is a guy who has sometimes traded forehands with Federer and come out on top. Juan José Vallejo has highlighted Federer-Djokovic matches in the past in which Djokovic has made Federer run more than the reverse, exposing that Djokovic is very offensive, it’s just our choice to ignore it.

As complete and clutch as Djokovic is, he has a tendency to make things harder for himself. At the U.S. Open last year, he won from a set down so many times that people suggested he was falling behind on purpose. Often, he’ll choke on a pretty big point — in the 2019 Wimbledon final, he double faulted up 4-2, 30-all in the fifth, then got broken, then got broken again at 7-all, only to recover by saving two match points and winning the match in a 12-all tiebreak — then rebound by playing incredible tennis on an even bigger point. Calling him a machine seems almost as lazy as saying he’s not a fun player to watch. He has plenty of blips. He once made 100 unforced errors against Gilles Simon at the 2016 Australian Open. Remember, this is a guy who people say never makes unforced errors. He’s incredibly fit, but it’s never been uncommon to see him hunched over in exhaustion after a long rally. (He almost always recovers quickly.) He’s not a robot, he’s not perfect. But he seems like he could be when you watch him play the big points.

*****

Djokovic’s strengths are somewhat untraditional. For years, the archetype was big serve, big forehand, everything else decent enough not to crumble. In a way, Djokovic emerged as the perfect foil to that archetype. He mastered the return of serve instead of the serve itself (though his serve turned out to be pretty damn good). He developed a stunningly versatile and consistent backhand instead of a nuclear forehand. That other stuff, the stuff that tennis had come to see as most important — serve, forehand, net play — Djokovic did well too, but you wouldn’t call them his biggest strengths.

Djokovic turned out to be as great a player as anyone, but maybe the atypical nature of his game created the mistaken impression that deep down, he wasn’t as good as Federer or Nadal, who are more fanatic in their desperation to set themselves up for serve-forehand one-two punches. Djokovic challenged the norm, challenged the existing champions, and he came out on top.

“Challenger” might be the best word to describe Djokovic (no, not referring to the Challenger Tour). The most brutal manifestation of the lack of appreciation for his game has come when large portions of the crowd refuse to cheer for him in big matches despite the stunning tennis he plays. Djokovic is made to challenge them as well as his opponents. He challenged his rivals before overcoming them, and even after reaching #1, he continued to challenge expectations. It feels like a section of the tennis world is telling him you can win as much as you want in whatever way you want, but we still won’t give you credit for it. You can sometimes even see Djokovic himself laughing at the absurdity of it all. After hitting a return winner to save match point against Federer at the U.S. Open in 2011 — not just a history-altering shot, a shot whose historical implications were clear almost immediately — Djokovic had to urge the crowd to applaud because they weren’t initially enthusiastic enough.

This is probably the signature moment of Djokovic’s career. With one shot, he sent who was then universally considered the male GOAT into a tailspin. Federer won all of four points for the rest of the match. Djokovic, meanwhile, amped up the speed on his forehand, winning a pair of lungbusting rallies with winners to break Federer again for 6-5. When Djokovic served for the match and went up 40-15, everyone in the world knew that a second miraculous escape from match point down was impossible. It just wasn’t happening, no chance Djokovic was going to allow it. He powered a first serve to Federer’s backhand, the return floated long, and that was it.

*****

The most fascinating thing about Djokovic’s relationship with the crowd to me isn’t his desire to be liked but the lack of appreciation he sometimes gets for his outrageous tennis. I was rewatching highlights from last year’s U.S. Open recently, and it hit me just how insane Djokovic’s run there was, the final loss notwithstanding. From the third round to the final, he soaked up his opponents’ best tennis, with the opponents getting progressively tougher: Nishikori, Brooksby, Berrettini, Zverev, Medvedev. In retrospect, it’s a testament to Djokovic that most still considered him the favorite going into that last match. In the final, it quickly became evident that something was off — namely, that Djokovic had emptied the tank physically and emotionally — and Medvedev didn’t help matters by playing near-perfect tennis.

Tragically, only when Djokovic fell way behind in the final did the crowd really throw their support behind him. After falling down two sets and two breaks, the deficit was clearly too big to overcome. Djokovic took advantage of some nervy play from Medvedev to snag one break back, then solidly held serve to get back to 4-5. The crowd went nuts. Djokovic grinned a little. He pumped his fist gently. It was badass — like he was reminding everyone watching I might lose this match, but don’t forget the amazing things I can do — but moments later, with the crowd still losing their shit, Djokovic started to sob.

It’s not that the sobbing was any kind of weakness on Djokovic’s part. It was that he had deserved to hear that kind of ovation from the Flushing Meadows crowd when he hit that return winner against Federer in 2011, and when he beat Nadal one round later in a war of long rallies, and when he had beaten Federer in the final in 2015, plus about a dozen more times. But he hadn’t gotten it. When he finally did at the tail end of the 2021 U.S. Open final, it was nice, because that kind of rapturous cheer was long fucking overdue, but there was also an air of melancholy to it all, because Djokovic had been playing such great tennis for such a long time, and this ovation came during an achy loss.

Anyway, it was when rewatching this that I felt really bad for Djokovic. I remembered everything that had led him to that point — winning the Australian Open while working around an ab tear, surviving despite playing terrible tennis by his standards before the semifinals; winning Roland-Garros for just the second time in his career, beating Nadal in a four-hour pulverizing rollercoaster along the way (you should really watch this break point he saved in the third set), then having enough left in the tank to break Tsitsipas’s heart from two sets down in the final; winning Wimbledon without coming close to losing despite playing nowhere near his best; then slogging through the U.S. Open as opponent after opponent threw the kitchen sink at him until he finally wore down. It was a heroic effort, that whole year. Had it been Federer, tennis fans and media alike wouldn’t have stopped drooling until the offseason. Djokovic, though, had to wait until the 28th match of his unbeaten run to get that earth-shaking cheer. Of course he cried; who wouldn’t have cried in that position? Anyone’s desire to be liked becomes painfully apparent when enough people refuse to like them. Djokovic might play tennis like a god, but he feels emotions like a person. It’s merely noticeable because of the way the fans react to him, not the other way around.

*****

Djokovic is, really, the ideal figure to emerge as the GOAT as far as tennis is concerned. Not only is his game without a major weakness, but he is the most clutch of the Big Three. He unfailingly produces his best tennis in the moments in which history swings. He leads his head-to-heads with Federer and Nadal. Since 2011, he’s dominated them. Djokovic has both the tenacity of Nadal and Federer’s ability to thrash the competition for an entire year. He’s figured tennis out in practically every way possible.

The problem with the guy is that he has become one of his own rivals. His self-sabotaging antics have been a thing for a while, but only recently have they started to actively interfere with his tennis. There was the reckless smacking of a ball at the 2020 U.S. Open that hit a lineswoman in the throat. Djokovic had started the year on a monster winning streak. Much was made of the fact that neither Federer nor Nadal was playing at that U.S. Open, but the reality was that Djokovic would have dispatched either one of them easily. He was a huge favorite to win the title, but a reckless act of frustration during a match he was sure to win despite being down a break late in the first set cost him dearly.

Then there was this year’s Australian Open debacle. Djokovic was eventually deported after a legal battle, the unfortunate victim of an attempt to curry political favor, but the fact remains that had he chosen to get vaccinated — and there’s no evidence he had any legitimate reason not to — he would have avoided the entire mess. That Australian Open went to Nadal, who got to claim the glory of breaking Federer’s ATP record of 20 major titles. It could and probably should have been Djokovic, who had gone 27-1 at the majors in 2021 and had won the Australian Open nine times, but he played a part in taking himself out of the running.

To me, Djokovic vs. himself is a far more telling battle than Djokovic vs. the crowd. He is liked by plenty, and if he isn’t liked enough to please some people, who cares? Greatness isn’t a popularity contest. (A popularity contest is, well, a popularity contest.) Look at Djokovic’s numbers: 20 majors, 37 Masters 1000s, 367 weeks at #1 and counting, a 27-23 record against Federer and a 30-28 record against Nadal (both records get better in finals), two or more titles at each of the majors and Masters 1000s, five ATP finals titles… it doesn’t matter if you like him or not. He is great.

All that said, he could be even greater. He’s essentially robbed himself of two golden opportunities at major titles in the last year and a half. With Nadal looking to extend his lead to 22-20 at Roland-Garros, the major title race is far from over. Djokovic doesn’t need that record for his GOAT case — unless Nadal ends with two or three more than him, I think the Serb’s many other records are easily decisive — but it’s a record Djokovic can definitely achieve and probably should have claimed by now. I hope he lets himself reach the heights he’s capable of.

Mike Cation on Why Challenger Tennis Matters

By Scott Barclay and Owen Lewis

“Nick Kyrgios always used to say to me ‘I miss those days,’ referring to when he did a couple Challengers with us in the States in Sarasota and Savannah back in 2014. And I never really understood what he meant. For many years, I would just be like ‘come on.’ What do you mean, you miss those days?’ And the more and more I’ve done Grand Slams, the more and more I’ve done ATP events…I understand it now. 

It [Challenger tennis] is tennis at its base level. It is two players — or four — a chair umpire, some linespeople, sometimes there are fans in the crowd, sometimes there’s not, but you don’t have a big circus around it. It is just tennis, man. That is where I want to be. I don’t need all the hoopla…I don’t need it. Give me tennis. Let me watch it. Two players who are very damn good — I mean, if you are 120 in the world, Jesus, do you realize how good these players are? Holy hell. That is pure. That is pure tennis and I think it’s just much better than all of that other stuff that goes along [with the main tour].”

That’s Mike Cation talking about Challenger Tour events. The passion he feels for these events is obvious, but there’s also some frustration in his voice. He knows that these events aren’t getting the attention they richly deserve. 

The Challenger Tour is the highest level of men’s tennis below the ATP Tour itself. It’s made up of young players trying to kickstart a pro career, aging players trying to make it back to the ATP, and those who fail to qualify for the biggest events. Challengers are much more than a collection of has-beens and players who aren’t quite good enough, though. At the Challenger level, storylines are fascinating and motivations are high. 

Also, cool stuff like this happens.

Cation frequently uses the phrase “tennis ecosystem” rather than “tennis world” or “tennis landscape.” He sees the sport as a symbiotic environment, where one organization can help another. Cation aims to help others understand that Challengers are a valuable part of that ecosystem. 

*****

Cation had a rather stop-start relationship with tennis in his teenage years. He relays memories of his high school playing career, describing himself as “very average” to begin with before picking up some traction and getting noticed by somewhat prominent Division III schools. Unfortunately, that momentum turned out to be fleeting. “By the time I played my last tournament, when I was 17, I had already blown out my shoulder twice and decided I didn’t want to play anymore,” he says. “It was too painful.”

So ended any hopes of ever seeing Mike Cation, professional tennis player. In its place, however, were the early burgeoning signs of Mike Cation, Challenger commentator extraordinaire. “I went to college and I knew I wanted to be in broadcasting, so I did a broadcast degree — literally zero having to do with sports while I was in college — but then my first job out of school was in Champaign, Illinois, which is where I’m from.”

The man himself. Photo via Mike Cation

One of Cation’s first proper interviews was with a man that many tennis fans know and… erm… love (?!): the current Australian Open tournament director, Craig Tiley. Back then, Tiley was the head coach at the University of Illinois. “I had taken lessons with him at times, while I was doing my junior career — both group lessons and individual lessons,” Cation recalls. “So we were doing an interview promoting the upcoming season, and he said ‘hey, we’re looking for a new public address announcer, would you be interested?’ I said sure, and that was 2001.”

From there, Cation got involved with the tennis programs for Illinois while also managing to land a position working at the Champaign Challenger event. He worked as the PR guy for the tournament for about nine years before being asked to cover the Challenger circuit in the US. The rest, as they say, is history. “It was really just a lot of connections and happening to be in the right place at the right time and surrounded by the right people.”

A lot of luck, perhaps. A lot of skill, knowledge and willingness to work, for sure.

*****

Broadcasting is a complex field, with some of the most prominent jobs being awarded to former players without much regard for their actual tennis expertise. (Owen abhors Jimmy Arias and John McEnroe’s commentary in particular.) Cation stresses that his own favorites are subjective, but having been in the field for so long, his recommendations carry some extra weight. “I think Nick Lester is phenomenally good as a tennis play-by-play broadcaster,” he says. “When I started trying to watch more and more, he was that gold standard for me. He was funny and could provide insight, but also has a great balance of when to sit out.”

Cation’s eyes light up as he remembers a moment last year when he had the opportunity to listen in on two of his favorite commentators working together at the U.S. Open. “It was a first-time broadcast pairing of Nick Lester and Mary Carillo,” Cation reminisces. “I love Mary Carillo for how brave she continues to be. She stands up for what she believes in, and she’s a fantastic broadcaster as well. Has done it for 30 years. God, she’s so good. They hadn’t met, didn’t know each other. But I had such incredible respect for the both of them that I went up to Nick and asked ‘do you mind if I just sit in for a little bit?’ I fanboyed out for a little bit.”

And what was he able to take away from that experience? “It was just two incredible broadcasters at the peak of their craft, just sitting there figuring out the match, figuring out each other, but not overdoing it. None of that was audible to the viewer, the listener. None of it was. They’re so good at understanding each other’s role and letting the tennis happen. And that’s ultimately what it’s really all about.” 

He’s right. In Cation’s view, the biggest flaw in commentary is a broadcaster’s ego getting out of hand. “Egos in commentary and broadcasting in general are massive,” Cation explains. “So one of the biggest flaws — again, my opinion only — is people thinking they are what’s causing an average viewer to tune in, when the average viewer is tuning in to watch the dang sport.”

*****

So generally speaking, what’s stopping people from tuning in to watch at the Challenger level? Is it a simple case of tennis fans wrongly assuming that the second tier of men’s professional tennis can only ever provide a second-rate level of play? Well, not exactly. It actually comes down to — amongst other things — scheduling. “If you’re looking at an average tennis fan as opposed to a more invested one, you’re just not going to get them to turn down Rafa [Nadal] or Iga [Świątek] to watch, even, say, Liam Broady vs. Gastão Elias. That’s a fun matchup, but the average tennis fan…you’re not going to get them to switch over.” 

So how can we go about growing an audience for something like Challenger tennis? “I think globally, tennis needs to do a better job of making it so that these players matter. Make it feel like they matter.” Cation’s words are weary. He knows the things he’s talking about would require a massive overhaul of how these players are paid and how advertisers market Challenger tennis. None of this is new to him; he describes it as “bigger picture issues that we’ve been talking about for many years.”

Something, clearly, needs to change.

Key figures in the sport are not helping. In December of last year, Andrea Gaudenzi, the head of the ATP, jumped into headlines with comments that suggested that Challenger tennis could never realistically present players with a comfortable living. “I don’t think it will ever be possible to have a sustainable tour at that level [the Challenger Tour] simply because it lacks the interest of the fans and the engagement of the sponsors, broadcasters and ticket revenues.” He went on to compare the Challenger tour to university, suggesting that the ATP Tour was the real world beyond the graduation ceremony.

It’s safe to say that many Challenger tour players were less than impressed with these comments, something Cation is all too happy to confirm. More pressingly, though, players were wounded by the comments. “It was heartbreaking, to be honest,” Cation says. “There are so many incredibly talented players who are really hurt by that. I don’t know how else to say it. They were just crushed to think that they weren’t valuable members of this tennis ecosystem.”

All of this comes back to Cation’s earlier point on what it would take to overhaul the Challenger circuit to help bring in viewers and in turn, present a more fruitful playing environment for players. Cation knows it’s a lot to expect but doesn’t think it has to be a hopeless pipe-dream. “I do continue to disagree with the idea that it’s not marketable, that we can’t have more financial success at that level,” he says. “I think it needs to be a bit more of a trickle-down-type of system financially.”

It could probably do without any further disparaging remarks from those in positions of power as well.

*****

Cation, despite being part of the tennis world for over two decades already — and he is regarded as one of the hardest workers in tennis — has gas left in the tank. “If I could just be a part of this tennis ecosystem for another ten years,” he says, “that would be ideal.” In fact, he could be working more than he already is. “I think one thing fans don’t always appreciate is that I could probably work 30 to 35 weeks a year in tennis if I really wanted to,” continues Cation. Instead, he is limiting himself to 15 to 18 weeks a year on the road. 

What’s stopping him from doing more? His love for his seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “I’m doing something I really love, but god, I’d much rather be at home with my kid!” Cation exclaims. “She’s awesome.”

On-site Thoughts From the Serbian Open

By Mateja Vidakovic

From one of the nicer moments of weather. Photo: Mateja Vidakovic

I had the privilege of attending the Serbian Open this year – I went on day 1 and then for the quarters and the semis. Here are some of my thoughts:

The weather stole the show (not in a good way)

What was, in a way, the maiden Serbian Open — last year’s featured no crowds — was unfortunately mired by horrible, mercurial weather. I started watching Gasquet, on day one, and it was 12 degrees Celsius. By the time the next match rolled in, it was all of 1 degree Celsius, with the wind making it feel like it was even colder. The constantly shifting weather and persistent winds continued to plague most of the tournament: you could start the match in the wind, have the middle be in the strong sunshine, then have some rain and back to wind again… Fabio Fognini apologized after his match with Otte, saying “I am sorry, but what you saw was not tennis.”

It didn’t help that organizational issues led to incidents such as members of the crowd and press who were hoping to see Djokovic depart blocking the only entrance (and exit!) to the court. This prevented people from exiting, but more importantly, it prevented ticket holders from entering to see the next match on court. The crowd still lacks certain tennis etiquette and habits – and it showed, sometimes to entertaining results: sometimes the crowd would cheer at angry outbursts from players, other times they would leave the court at inopportune times. The announcer hilariously spoke to the crowd after the Djokovic semi to say “Fabio Fognini was asking if the crowd will stay for his match” – and then when they did, Fognini proceeded to get dismantled by Rublev.

All in all, the organization could have been better, sure, but the weather was something not even the younger Djokovic could control.

The twilight of Gasquet

Much is being said about the excessive praise Gasquet’s backhand and overall talent gets – yet seeing the Frenchman live I can sort of see it. Even when he is obviously deflated and uninspired, Gasquet has a characteristic game style – it might not be very effective, nor does he have a plan B… but it is definitely unique and pleasant to watch. Unfortunately, the Frenchman looked out of sorts and like he wanted to be outta there as soon as possible. I have a feeling we won’t be seeing many great runs from the original Baby Fed in the future…

The rise… and stumble… of Kecmanović

With Novak out of form and struggling to slowly build it during the tournament, and Kecmanović most definitely the in form player – I was convinced Kecmanović was going to beat him. Novak has a ‘soft spot’ for Serbian players in the sense that (I think) he doesn’t mind so much losing to them – and Kecmanović was hungry for a big scalp to highlight the tear he is on at the moment. Unfortunately, it was not to be – Kecmanović, like so many before him, eventually wilted psychologically under the Novak onslaught. Say what you will about losing some of that “invulnerability” in the locker room, but the Big 3 still hold their throne as mental behemoths compared to the rest of the tour… especially when playing against players of the same nationality.

A level above

A couple of notes on watching the greatest player of all time, Novak Djokovic:

  • In the flesh, Novak doesn’t seem at all frail and skinny, and even less so when he is on court. Just the opposite – he exudes a kind of power only the supremely confident do. It affects one’s perception of his build and stature, making him look bigger and stronger.
  • Novak’s backhand is truly something else. While his forehand is his more underrated weapon, with all the focus on his backhand, watching the other players revealed to me just how different that backhand stroke is for Djokovic compared to the rest. Players like Khachanov, Rublev and even Kecmanović have a very utilitarian-looking backhand. Even when they are blasting winners from that wing, it looks more laborious than the resulting winner… it’s a necessity, a weapon to be used at the opportune moment. Novak’s backhand, however, looks like second nature, and it’s clean to the point of seeming effortless. Paradoxically, it reminded me of Federer’s game in full flight, where Federer masks the actual difficulty of the strokes and the movement with his grace, making it look easy. Novak makes other backhands look like they are a chore. His own is as inevitable and natural as breathing.
Just look at those backhands. Look at them.
  • Novak’s now infamous momentum shifts (people are even saying he loses the first set on purpose) are almost palpable when experienced live. The crowd is with him every step of the way, so it’s not like it’s the crowd that lifts him up when he needs a boost. During the first set against Khachanov it looked as if Novak was out of gas and done for… I knew what to watch out for, so it was almost like a light in a theater slowly getting brighter: Novak started playing cleaner, and cleaner, and cleaner, and then… pop! It was like another level was unlocked. The whole thing was predictable, yet no less intimidating and interesting to behold – what do you do when someone can just press the ON button and finish it in one fell swoop? Djokovic beat Khachanov like he was a junior in the last two sets.

Khachanov and Rublev

Khachanov also looks way more imposing on court than on TV. Moreover, his game is very aesthetically pleasing; his forehand – with his extreme grip – is actually a thing of beauty. He moves quite well for his size, and hits the above-mentioned utilitarian backhand with gusto. One wonders why his game is not appreciated more; perhaps it’s the lack of Gasquet-like visual flair? All I know is I wanted to see more of Khachanov live, “artistic backhand” or not.

Here he is, winding up for a forehand. Photo: Mateja Vidakovic

Rublev, on the other hand, actually seems less imposing in person than on the screen. His famous BWEH! is not amplified by the mics surrounding him, his eyes look haunted even when he is winning, and – somehow – he looks more slightly built than Djokovic even though he is taller. What is not the least bit questionable is his fighting spirit – Rublev seems to put himself fully into every point and, as a consequence, is bitterly disappointed when it doesn’t work out. When it does, though, he is a sight to behold – like Khachanov, his wicked forehead weapon is complemented by a forceful, albeit workman-like, backhand… and his intentions turned into reality eventually become overbearing to a large group of players. It is seriously hard to bagel Djokovic, even when he’s struggling physically — I’m not sure it would have been possible without Rublev’s perfectionist mindset. Bonus points go to Andrey for two more things:

  • After winning in the semis, Rublev stayed on court for a full half hour more, signing balls and taking selfies with fans, even though most of the stadium was cleared by then. It was a genuine, and very cool move from the Russian, especially since most of the people there were cheering for his opponent (Fognini).
  • He likes Iron Maiden.

Fabulous Fabio

If the weather was the star of the show, Fabio was certainly the marketing team of this movie. Supported vociferously during every match, Fabio somehow managed to autopilot his way all the way to the semis (where he was unceremoniously dismissed by Rublev) – ranting and raving all the way through, having fun and not-so-much fun, entertaining himself and others. 

Out of everyone mentioned here, Fabio’s game is the one most closely and accurately transposed from the screen onto court – he plays almost exactly as you’d think he would. The ‘casual’ attitude towards on-court movement, the almost off-handed way he can blast winners, the errors that suddenly bubble forward from nowhere, and the quippy rants and speeches he gives himself and his team. What was highlighted yet again, for me, was something you get a sense of while watching the man play on TV: when he is on, his strokes are surgically clean and almost impossible to play against. He feels unplayable in a similar way to a peaking Nishikori or Davydenko, but even more so because of the blasé way he pulls some of these shots off – it really looks like he’s doing it without any effort at all, like he he’s playing a game.

Then he complained about the weather (rightly), asked for the crowd to stay and support him (they did) and then promptly laid an egg against Rublev.

In a way, Fabio was a microcosm of the whole tournament – Entertaining, erratic, and eventually deflating. I hope he comes back next year.

This Is Not About Tennis

By Nick Carter

This is not about tennis.

These are my thoughts in the aftermath of Wimbledon’s decision not to allow Russian and Belarusian players to take part in the tournament. You almost don’t need to read the rest of this piece to be honest, but I hope you do.

The reaction could not have been more polarised. Many tennis fans feel this is unfair because these individual players have nothing to do with the actions of their governments. Others feel that this move is absolutely necessary, at minimum to show support for Ukraine, at most to find other ways to punish Russia for the actions its government has taken and the regime in Belarus for supporting them.

I ran some polls across my social media. On Twitter, it was clear most of my fellow tennis fans disagreed with Wimbledon’s decision. This was reflected by similar polls run by David Law and Ben Rothenberg, among others. On my Facebook and Instagram, which I mostly use to keep in touch with family and friends, most of whom are not tennis fans, the gap was much narrower, but still overall disagreeing with the decision. However, I then saw a YouGov poll of over 3000 people, of whom 69% supported the move to some extent. 

Tennis has a huge following, but we’re still a minority of people trying to convince the rest of the world that this is the greatest sport on the planet. For those of us who understand tennis, and how it works, this decision seems unfair. To be honest, it is unfair. I’ve thought about this a lot and I am still of the opinion that the citizens of any country should not be held accountable for the actions of their government. These are people trying to make a living, they aren’t interested in politics. Isn’t this the case for most of us? I do not agree with the idea that any small injustice is needed in the battle against a bigger one, but then I’ve never had to deal with such an ethical dilemma before.

Photo: AELTC/Thomas Lovelock via wimbledon.com

Sadly, this is about politics now. Every country in the world is trying to work out how to respond to the crisis in Ukraine. Most Western countries have taken a clear stance, condemning and sanctioning Russia, even though it has resulted in great cost to themselves. However, this hasn’t stopped the war. The Ukrainians have fought hard, and the Russian military has changed tactics for now. But the shells are still falling, soldiers are still fighting, people are still dying. That is a bigger injustice than some people not being able to play in a tennis event. 

Of course, if you frame it as a country preventing people from working there based on their nationality, it comes across very differently. There is no hiding from this, it is the definition of discrimination. That’s the battleground of justice we’re fighting in the UK, as well as in the US and across Europe. We see this as people crying out against misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and racism. For years we’ve seen social and economic inequality become entrenched as whole communities are passed over. I’m trying not to be too UK-centric with this, but it is my home and it is the centre of the tennis storm.

The tennis storm is merely a gust of wind compared to the hurricane in Ukraine. For them, justice begins when the fighting stops. When the Russian troops arrived on a mission to take control from a people who had chosen their own government and wanted to live in peace, it broke the laws of how humans should live. Everyone watching has been trying to work out how to make sense of this whole situation. None of it makes any sense to the people of Ukraine. The only thing that matters to them is survival, not just of their own individual lives; their very culture and identity are at stake.

The ATP and WTA are staying within their remit, focusing on sport and, rightly, standing up for the players they represent. They may not be able to do much, as the war drags on and governments try to find more ways to make Russia uncomfortable enough that its rulers finally agree to stop the violence. In this case, governments are trying to find a way to stop them finding small victories on an international platform, such as a sporting event, and set the terms of doing business in the West.

Wimbledon did not make this decision in a vacuum, they and the LTA (who also banned Russian and Belarusian players from its events) consulted with the UK government. Given how other national sporting bodies have responded towards Russian athletes, it is clear that the UK government very likely heavily influenced the final decision. At time of writing, there’s already talk of the Italian and French governments looking to direct their tennis authorities to follow suit. I would not be surprised if the U.S. does the same thing. This may take the wind out of the sails of any attempts by the tour to sanction Wimbledon and the LTA for going against the rules of open tennis.

Let’s be clear, this is not a good situation. There was no good option for Wimbledon. The choice was to allow for the distinct possibility of a Russian or Belarussian player winning the tournament, whose success could then be used for political gain by Putin, or to engage in open discrimination and break the Grand Slam rules. I would not want to be in their place making that call. I think the situation in tennis as a result of this decision is wrong, but the war is even worse. I hope most people agree with me there. The whole situation is just a mess.

I, like most of the people reading this, have probably sunk too much time into this sport. That’s not a problem, it makes me happy. I’m sorry if Wimbledon will be ruined for some of you now, but many people I’ve spoken to, even recently, are still excited to watch and even visit the event. I’m one of those people. I use it to escape reality, I admit it. I’m not sure that’s a good thing but that’s for me to work through. I don’t think I’m the only one though. So, of course we’re upset when one of reality’s biggest monsters comes crashing through the walls to spoil everything.

We get that luxury because we’re not the ones being shelled, shot at and brutalised. To repeat, this is the bigger injustice. Tennis can’t solve this. I am literally hoping and praying that the situation is resolved and the violence ends. Because it’s too big for me to think about. 

This is not about tennis. This is about people, about life, about justice, about peace, about hope. As is everything really.

Surface Fracture

Watching a drop shot flutter over the net and bounce twice on your side of the court is one of the most frustrating feelings in tennis. Some droppers are reachable and attackable, and others are reachable, but some are just impossible to get. Stefanos Tsitsipas found himself on the receiving end of a drop shot from the latter category at 4-all and break point down late in the first set of his Barcelona quarterfinal against Carlos Alcaraz. He sprinted towards the ball; he didn’t get that close to getting there. He was visibly frustrated, but also appeared to understand that he couldn’t have run any faster, so settled on tapping the ball gently towards the back of the court.

Alcaraz served out the first set easily, but the match’s flow seemed to have leveled early in the second. Tsitsipas began a streak of six consecutive points won on serve, holding at love and then going up 30-love at 1-all. Alcaraz then randomly caught fire. He blasted a return winner to get to 30-15. After a Tsitsipas error, Alcaraz belted a deep return that Tsitsipas half-volleyed down the line with pace and weight. It was a stunning shot. Alcaraz ran it down and slid into a backhand winner down the same line. On break point, he obliterated a backhand return winner down the line.

“He [Tsitsipas] was up 30-love!” cried a Tennis TV commentator in awe. “And he did nothing wrong!” This isn’t entirely true, considering Tsitsipas’s unforced error at 30-15, but Alcaraz’s best level is nothing short of awe-inducing. It’s like every groundstroke he hits has the weight of a boulder. He won’t miss. His opponent gets reduced to a bystander. “Blowing away the world #5 on a clay court,” echoed another commentator.

This, I think, is the scariest thing about Alcaraz in the context of the matchup: when he peaks, there seems to be little Tsitsipas can do. In this match, Alcaraz didn’t cool off until he led 4-1 with a double break in the second set, and though Tsitsipas came back to win that set in an incredible turnaround, Alcaraz ran off four more games in a row during the third set. Given that Alcaraz won seven games in a row against Tsitsipas in Miami, this is now an alarming trend. Tsitsipas has had a couple similar streaks, though those have had more to do with Alcaraz’s misfires — when the Spaniard peaks, his opponent’s level becomes almost irrelevant.

Alcaraz can still lose his peak level as easily as he finds it, but he has so many weapons that he tends to play himself out of slumps quickly. (In this match, a lengthy bathroom break after the second set may have helped him regain some momentum.) He is still not yet 19 years old. He will be in the top ten after Barcelona ends.

*****

Tsitsipas loves clay. He’s amazing at playing on it. He gets time to load up on his forehand, though that stroke is fantastic on all surfaces. More importantly, he gets time to take big swings on the return of serve. When he tries that on hard court, shanks and bad misses are frequent, but on clay, his returns are more often than not heavy or deep. From the baseline, he can either wind up on his backhand or hit forehands from the ad side, and either way, he ends up pushing his opponents back. Clay amplifies his strengths and papers over his weaknesses. It’s a match made in heaven. Tsitsipas has just become the first man to defend the Monte-Carlo title since Rafael Nadal in 2018.

Tsitsipas has a matchup problem against Carlos Alcaraz, though they had only played twice before today’s clash in Barcelona. Alcaraz is maniacally fast, so he can neutralize Tsitsipas’s offensive capabilities better than most. Worse, Alcaraz has plenty of firepower of his own, from both wings — not only can he pummel Tsitsipas’s weaker backhand side, he breaks even or better in the forehand-to-forehand exchanges. He hit 27 forehand winners today. Tsitsipas had seven. Alcaraz, despite still being shy of his 19th birthday while Tsitsipas has been in the top ten for two and a half years at this point, now leads the head-to-head 3-0. The first match was a brutally close five-setter at the U.S. Open, but the second match, in Miami, seemed more telling. Tsitsipas played incredible tennis for several games, taking a 5-2 lead, but Alcaraz had another blistering streak and didn’t cool off until he led 7-5, 2-0. He went on to win in straight sets.

While Tsitsipas is significantly better on clay than hard courts, Alcaraz has no such disparity in aptitude between the surfaces. He just won a Masters 1000 on hard court, something Tsitsipas has never done (though he did win the more prestigious World Tour Finals in 2019). Thus, Tsitsipas had quite a bit at stake in the third edition of the rivalry. If he had won, he could have reaffirmed himself as the third favorite for Roland-Garros and established superiority over the increasingly dangerous Alcaraz on at least one surface. Marking his territory, so to speak.

But with this loss? Alcaraz moves to 3-0 in the head-to-head, now with a win on Tsitsipas’s best surface despite being almost four full years younger and probably further away from his peak. (It’s tough to see this rivalry being more favorable to Tsitsipas when he is 27 and Alcaraz is 22.) Tsitsipas, to me, has no clear golden opportunity to break the ice, what with Alcaraz also being great on clay and having demonstrated the ability to play five-setters. The comparison to the early days of the Federer-Nadal rivalry is lazy, but one player clearly has a solid edge tactically and mentally, and it’s Alcaraz. Tsitsipas is obviously going to remain a top-tier contender on clay, and a second-tier contender on hard. Alcaraz being around is far from the end of the world for him, but it’s never ideal to have one player on tour who you can’t beat, and that player being younger than you makes it all the more difficult. This is Nadal talking about Djokovic in his autobiography:

“Everybody still had their eyes on Federer and me, but we both knew Djokovic was the up-and-coming star and that our dual dominance was going to be more at risk from him than from any other player. Disconcertingly, he was also younger than me… This younger guy was now beating me, and even when I won, he was giving me very tough games. Federer would presumably retire before I did, assuming injury didn’t do me in. Djokovic would be dogging me right to the end of my career, trying everything to jump ahead of me in the rankings.”

Rafael Nadal, Rafa

Though this was written over a decade ago, it’s turned out to be true to this day. Djokovic has constantly tormented Nadal since the time of that writing, beating him a couple dozen times and staying above him in the rankings with only a few lulls. It looks like Djokovic has the longevity edge as well. A younger rival is rarely a good thing. If you beat them, you’re merely doing your job, while they get to ride the adoration of upset-hungry crowds and play relatively without pressure.

*****

Surfaces play a huge role in rivalries. Tsitsipas faced a similarly pressured match to today’s when he played Daniil Medvedev at Roland-Garros last year — Medvedev was beating him consistently on hard — and Tsitsipas destroyed him, not even conceding a set. Nadal is 19-8 against Djokovic on clay but 7-20 against him on hard courts. Surfaces can change everything; they shake time, ball bounce, and confidence. Despite the 0-2 record against Alcaraz and the fact that Tsitsipas could well have been tired from his recent title run in Monte-Carlo, I had him as the favorite to win this match.

That Alcaraz was able to take Tsitsipas down on clay as well as hard is so impressive, and while the lull late in the second set was worrisome, I’m starting to think that it didn’t matter so much. Had it not happened, Alcaraz would have won 6-2 in the second set instead of 6-2 in the third set; either way, he was nowhere close to losing. By the end of the match, though he again got nervy at 4-1 in the decider, Alcaraz looked calm. He loosed a drop shot winner to set up match point that was brutally casual. He didn’t even celebrate after it. His backhand did heavy damage, a couple unreal ones helping him to 5-1 in the third, and he outhit Tsitsipas from the forehand side. Alcaraz did have more unforced errors, but the 17-13 tally was easily close enough for the young Spaniard’s offense to lift him into the ascendancy.

If playing on the clay isn’t a big enough leg up for Tsitsipas to beat Alcaraz, what will be? It isn’t as if Tsitsipas played badly in any of their three matches so far, yet Alcaraz has won the last two comfortably. The matches have all been extremely entertaining, with no shortage of tension, but they’ve had the same winner. Tsitsipas has played very well at times in the last six months — the Australian Open quarterfinal against Sinner, the Monte-Carlo semifinal against Zverev — but he hasn’t shown anything we didn’t already know he was capable of. Alcaraz is improving at a fierce rate. There’s no reason to think this will stop after Barcelona, and Alcaraz, right now, is already too much for Tsitsipas.

Tsitsipas is a good problem solver. He had a matchup issue with Felix Auger-Aliassime a couple years back, and Tsitsipas has now won five of their last six meetings. Alcaraz is a different beast, though. He’s lost all of three matches this year, two of them against top players, and he seems to be getting better every tournament. Tsitsipas is going to be just fine — it’s probably the players below him in the top ten who should be more worried about Alcaraz — but he now has a tormentor on tour, and that tormentor is probably going to be around for a long time. Tsitsipas is way too good of a player for this not to happen soon, but I am not sure how or when Tsitsipas he will beat Alcaraz. Something big needs to change.

The Return of Bianca Andreescu

By Nick Carter

Recently, Owen talked about the comeback of Dominic Thiem, who was playing on the ATP Tour for the first time in over a year. It was an encouraging performance from the 2020 U.S. Open champion in Belgrade, despite his loss to John Millman. He wasn’t at his best but he was competitive. In Owen’s piece, he talked about how comebacks take time.

There was another former U.S. Open champion beginning their return to the tour today, although they were out for very different reasons. Bianca Andreescu returned in Stuttgart. Whilst Thiem did struggle for motivation in 2021, he was kept out of the game because of physical injury. Andreescu, by contrast, had a much more dramatic loss of motivation, which she recently talked about in an interview with Catherine Whittaker on The Tennis Podcast. It was a powerful listen and worth checking out for yourself. The short version is that Andreescu didn’t want to even think about tennis for four months, and she’s been out for six.

The Canadian is not the only top women’s player to struggle with her mental health in the last year or so. Naomi Osaka famously opened up about her issues midway through 2021, but made headlines in the way that she did it. Andreescu was still trying to battle her mental health on the court, and it was showing to those who were paying attention. She had a decent start to 2021, fighting her way to the Miami final only for her body to cry “enough!” when trying to compete with Ash Barty. Up to then her win-loss record for the season was 9-3. After Miami, her record was 8-9, which falls to 5-8 if you don’t include her fourth round run at the US Open, where she was the closest to her best self. This was the stark contrast to her breakout 2019 season, where if she didn’t win it was usually due to injury. In 2021, most of her wins were in three set scraps (11/17), and when she lost they were generally in straight sets (7/12). In total, over half her matches that year went to 3 sets (15/29), which gets worse when you consider two of them ended in a retirement either by her or the opponent. Now, she did get herself into scraps in 2019 as well, but she was winning those matches. In 2021, not only was she losing but she was visibly unhappy. This could probably be discerned by watching her on court, particularly during the grass court season, but she’s confirmed as much since then. She was attaching her self-worth to her results, which sounds like a really tough place to be in mentally and something a lot of us can relate to in our own lives.

During this time, it was clear Andreescu was not enjoying herself. Now, she says she’s excited to be playing again and has rediscovered her love for tennis. She’s clearly benefited from her break and getting the most out of life again, spending it with friends and family. She even had a children’s book published. However, was a more balanced Andreescu going to be competitive from the off? History would suggest not. At the 2021 Australian Open, she was coming back having not played for the entirety of 2020 due to a combination of injury and dealing with the pandemic. She lost in the second round having battled through a rusty performance in her previous match. Like Owen has said, comebacks take time. Yes, she hasn’t dealt with physical injury but match fitness is more than just being physically able to play your best. And I think most of us can confirm it takes time to recover when your mental health is at a low point. So we need to be patient with Bianca, as I hope and assume she is being with herself. Her return, however she does, is a massive inspiration for those of us who are moving forward after similar struggles, even if they are unique to us. Osaka is as well, especially in the way she’s been open about seeking therapy. From what she has said, like Andreescu she let her results affect her mental health way too much.

*****

In her match against Julie Niemeier, Andreescu actually settled in pretty quickly, which was encouraging. Then she tried to press for an early break in the German’s opening service game, only to then go a break down when her opponent played a really strong series of points on the return. Andreescu was able to find her range, but not consistently. Whilst I will put some of this down to match rustiness, she was also having to fend off some big hitting from Niemeier, who was looking for any opportunity to put the Canadian off balance. However, Andreescu’s competitive edge was still clearly there, keeping the home player from breaking her again in the first set and continuing to put pressure on in her return games. Taking advantage of Niemeier’s tightness when trying to serve out the set, Andreescu went on the attack and levelled at 5-5, having saved set point two games previously. Suddenly, things were a lot more balanced but Bianca continued to tip things in her favour, finally striking to earn her own set point and seeing it out in the tie-break. It was then that we heard her first really audible “come on!”

It had been another great fighting performance by Andreescu up to this point, but now she was taking control. She really put pressure on Niemeier and forced more errors from the German to break early in the second set. She had fully found her range at this point; this was a far more confident Bianca Andreescu than we had seen for some time. Niemeier was having to hit bigger to try and keep up and began overhitting, then her serve deserted her in the final game. It was a great performance by Andreescu overall given how long she’s been out and how well her opponent was playing. It was better than so many tennis fans could have hoped.

Andreescu seems to play her best when she’s on North American turf, having won in Indian Wells, Toronto and New York. There are reasons to hope she can find her best form ahead of her return to the U.S. hard courts, as she performed well on the clay overall last year. She lost only marginally in the first round of Roland Garros to eventual semi-finalist Tamara Zidansek, and won her other two matches played on the surface. The fast indoor clay courts of Stuttgart should make her feel comfortable. It will be interesting to see how she does against Aryna Sabalenka in the next round, but I’m not going to pile expectations on her. It was a good win today, but it’s the start of the journey. For now, it’s good to see her happy, healthy and already playing tennis at a high level.

A Fan’s Guide to the Monte-Carlo Masters

By James Steel

The Monte-Carlo Masters is something all tennis fans should experience if they can at some point on their tennis journey. The beautiful scenery encompasses the start of the European clay court swing with bright deep orange clay to rich green flora. The show courts provide a rich stream of entertainment with close up interactions with the players providing the celebration and the tragedy. I got the chance to go to this year’s event, so here are some details and advice for prospective future visitors.

One of the several courts at the Monte-Carlo Country Club. Photo courtesy of the author

Transport and Accommodation

Myself and many other fans elected to fly in and stay in the striking city of Nice. The main reason for this was down to the price you’d pay for accommodation, and food and drink is noticeably more reasonably priced in Nice than it is in Monaco itself. You can have access to a range of budget hotel chains in Nice, with myself using the IBIS budget on the shorefront. There is a very good tram system that runs throughout the port town with the key lines taking us to the train station to access the tennis venue.

Travel to the venue is key. There was a specially laid on train service connected to a pre-existing train route which stopped off at the Monte-Carlo Country Club. It may surprise you to hear but the Monte-Carlo Country Club isn’t actually in Monte-Carlo, nor indeed Monaco. The club lies to the east of the microstate in what is technically eastern France. So, this train service provides vital for the ease of accessing the venue. The trains there and back again were very busy with tennis goers but also regular workers in Monaco who disembarked the stop before. My one issue with the service was that the last train to leave the Country Club was around 7.25, which meant that we had to miss some of the later matches which went on past this time.

The courts

There are 5 main courts in play at the country club. They are Rainier III, Des Princes, Court 2, Court 9 and Court 11. Rainier III is of course the biggest show court in the club, this is where we spent the first day watching the likes of Dan Evans, Benoit Paire and Novak Djokovic play their matches. The stadium’s atmosphere was excellent and there was plenty of space for myself with my ‘Daddy Long Legs’ to sit comfortably without feeling crushed. There was a slightly confusing row system with numbers on the floor instead of the side of the stand to indicate which row was which. Do note that there is no shade on this court, so bring a hat and plenty of sunscreen.

The one and only Novak Djokovic. Photo courtesy of the author

The best way to describe the Des Princes court is like a mini Rainier III, with the long swooping sides and one baseline stand. I sat on the baseline stand and was able to see very clearly where the balls were bouncing and during the Norrie match. The neat novelty about this court is that it’s nestled next to the player’s lounge. This meant we could look at the balcony next to the court and see the likes of Rublev, Salisbury and Rune sit and eat dinner as they watched the action on Des Princes. 

You also have Court 2 which is available to all with a grounds pass. This court was usually full, and you could hear the celebrations and groans from that court from all over the site. The stands only sit on one side of the court so if you prefer a baseline view this court could be a struggle for you. Court 9 and 11 finish off the site. Both are effectively 5-6 seating rows tagged onto the slide on the practice courts with the view to courts 9 and 11 being mildly obstructed by the fencing of the stranded club.

Food and Drink 

This is where your wallet will feel very empty by the end of your stay. The main takeaway food offerings were baguettes filled with cheese and ham, popcorn, sweet treats, and a few pasta options. The food itself was excellent. There was good flavour to everything we ate and there was always plenty of it available. I had a Bolognese on day one and it was delightful. However, you’ll be paying quite a bit for the food. The baguettes were over 10 Euros and the Bolognese was around 16 Euros. France is a very expensive place to eat usually but their prices were even higher than the amount you pay for a Fish and Chips at Wimbledon. Be warned, if you plan to eat out at the Country Club ensure you’ve plenty of Euros at hand. 

Pasta! Photo courtesy of the author

On-site Facilities

With this your commercial areas cover a lot of tennis rackets, strings and sportswear. If you’re in the market to improve any of these areas for your own game, you’ll be in luck. There are plenty of gift shops dotted around the site with Country Club and Rolex Monte-Carlo logo shirts, hats, and accessories available. Like the food, don’t expect this to come cheap. There are also bathrooms dotted around the site, they are clean and don’t feel or look horrible to be in. My one gripe was the signage to find them being unhelpful at times (one bathroom under the stadium has its sign completely covered by scaffolding).

I would go to Monte-Carlo again in a heartbeat. At the heart of the event is a fan centred approach which allows all the attendees to enjoy their time watching the sport whilst the Mediterranean Sea plays host to a stunning backdrop. If you get the time and the chance, go and experience this jewel of the ATP crown.