The Fragility of the One-Handed Backhand

Gasquet strikes an instant-YouTube backhand winner off a Roger Federer smash at Wimbledon in 2021. Screenshot: Wimbledon

It’s difficult to watch Richard Gasquet play Rafael Nadal and not feel bad for the former. Such is the blend of their playing styles that Gasquet is regularly forced to hit his one-handed backhand at chest height, or at neck height, or while making an extreme stretch to his left. It must be like going about a regular day with one arm tied behind your back. Nadal gets to do what he likes: he can hit forehands without too much risk or pace and Gasquet will still be made deeply uncomfortable. Nadal has other advantages — he is better on both forehand and backhand (even ignoring his affinity for forcing Gasquet to hit high backhands), he is a better defender and returner, and he has mastered all the little intangibles of tennis in a way Gasquet can’t touch — but the meat of the matchup is decided by that Nadal forehand/Gasquet backhand pattern. It’s how Nadal has built a terrifying 18-0 record in their head-to-head.

Throughout edition 18 of the matchup, commentators danced right up to the line of saying it was impossible for Gasquet to win. He had a few early break points, but within an hour, he was down 0-6, 0-2, the result already sealed in several layers of stone. This was where the pity hit hardest for me — Gasquet knew he had lost as well as anyone else, but he had to play out the superfluous last few games. He was like the sacrificial movie good guy who gets their ass thoroughly kicked by the villain, showing the audience that the villain isn’t screwing around. “This would be a nice moment,” a commentator said when Gasquet had a game point at 0-3 in the second set. “Come on, Richard.” The crowd went wild when Gasquet at last broke the ice. He celebrated ironically, lifting his arms to heaven.

Gasquet takes pride in his backhand. He gave a list of his top five one-handed backhands in his autobiography and put his own second, behind Stan Wawrinka’s. Yet against Nadal, it spells his doom, time and again, because it can’t survive the topspin barrage. He hit one winner with it in the entire match tonight. Before the match, Brad Gilbert asked Nadal what he needed to do to beat Gasquet. Nadal said he had to play great, better than in previous rounds, which was a lie, because all Nadal ever needs to do to beat Gasquet is hit crosscourt forehands.

Nadal is a seasoned tormentor of one-handers, but unfortunately for Gasquet and others, Nadal is merely an extreme manifestation of the challenges their style poses, not an anomaly. Indeed, one-handed backhands are about as noticeable as a tennis Achilles’ heel can get. Nowadays, most top players have massive serves (those who don’t can usually hit pinpoint targets at slower speeds), and one-handed backhands can’t handle the heat. Every ATP player in the top 30 with a one-handed backhand — Stefanos Tsitsipas (5), Grigor Dimitrov (19), Denis Shapovalov (21), Dan Evans (23), and Lorenzo Musetti (30) — is a subpar returner of serve. In the past 52 weeks, each of these players’ return performance lags well behind their ranking. Dimitrov is the least problematic at 28th, but each of the others suffer a gap of at least ten spots: Tsitsipas is 32nd, Evans is 37th, Musetti is 46th, and Shapovalov is a dire 69th.

Though forehand returns are also relevant, this is a damning trend. Even Federer, who is probably the best ever at blocking back massive first serves with a one-hander, has historically struggled to convert break points and punish second serves. With the return of serve being an increasingly necessary part of the game to excel at — it’s no coincidence that Djokovic and Nadal are two of the best returners of all time — you have to wonder why anyone would play with a one-handed backhand in today’s landscape. Even imagining trying to return serve with a one-hander is hell: you’re gripping a heavy stick with one hand, motioning across the torso rather than parallel to it, attempting to parry a 135 mph rocket. The timing required to get a clean hit on the ball, much less punch it back deep in the court, is not something I’d ever want to pursue, because I know I’d never find it. (Not that I would have a chance with two hands either, but at least my despairing arms would have each other.)

Users of the one-handed backhand themselves agree. Roger Federer has openly said he’d teach the two-handed backhand nowadays. Dominic Thiem has said the same. In 2014, Roberta Vinci told Michael Steinberger of the New York Times, “the one-hander is so hard; they play so strong now.”

And yet, there’s a palpable thirst for one-handed backhands in tennis, from fans to commentators. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for a pundit to remark on how nice it is to see a player with a one-handed backhand take the court. People invoke words like “elastic,” “elegant,” or “stylish” to describe one-handers. Later in Steinberger’s Times piece, he wrote, “the one-hander has become the last redoubt of artistry in tennis, a final vestige of the sport as it was traditionally played.” The latter point here is true, tennis today is vastly different from its original version, but the mention of artistry is symptomatic of much of the tennis world’s misunderstanding of one-handed backhands. Artistry, literally, means “creative skill or ability.” Isn’t the two-hander, which was widely taken up to adapt to the increasing stress on baselining in tennis, more representative of creativity than the more historic one-handed backhand?

Much of the demand for one-handed backhands is driven by nostalgia, which I fully understand. (I visit Grantland.com on the daily.) As Dwight Schrute once said, “people underestimate the power of nostalgia. It is one of the great human weaknesses, second only to the neck.” Something about the motion resonates with people; maybe the casual look of the follow-through in contrast with a powerful shot or the pronounced arc of the one arm carving up the ball is what makes the heart sing. But hungering for more one-handed backhands on tour while neglecting to observe the very good reasons that they’re dying out won’t help tennis. It’s like obsessing over how prettily a mediocre artist signs their name. Considering how the sport looks today, with serves only getting bigger and topspin heavier, it makes very little practical sense for anyone to play with a one-handed backhand anymore. What you might gain in slice potency or angle production you’d lose many times over in the return of serve alone. It’s possible to be a great player with a one-handed backhand, of course, but it’s extraordinarily rare if not impossible in today’s game to be a great player because of a one-handed backhand.

At the end of the day, tennis is a competition, not an art form. It’s more than fair to love a player for their visual style, and even for a pundit to appreciate a particularly gorgeous winner. But lamenting the scarcity of one-handed backhands — when the reason for their disappearance is that players are trying to be better at modern tennis — only interferes with fans’ understanding of the sport.

After losing the first two sets to Nadal 6-0, 6-1, Gasquet made a push in the third, striking the ball more cleanly and moving forward to slam-dunk finishing volleys. The crowd cheered lustily, having been starved of the emotional oxygen of a mildly close match all night. There was a sense throughout the stretch that Gasquet’s form wasn’t sustainable, that his low-margin aggression would inevitably lapse as Nadal steadier tennis remained statically reliable, and at 5-all, that was what happened. Nadal closed out the match from there, not looking back. Gasquet’s push was fun while it lasted.

The Door Has Closed On Stefanos Tsitsipas

By James Steel

Two nights ago, Stefanos Tsitsipas crashed out in the first round of the U.S. Open and this, I think, is cause for concern for the Greek tennis star. The question that has hung over Tsitsipas’s (and other high-ranked young ATP players) head for a while is ‘will he win a Grand Slam title?’. Now, if someone had asked this question three years ago, the answers would’ve been ‘yes’ and ‘of course’ and ‘it’s a matter of when, not if’. However, skip to the present and Stef is still without a Grand Slam title to his name, not to mention the author of a host of questionable recent performances. With Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic still firmly atop the men’s tennis mountain and a series of ‘Next Next Gen’ stars ready to break through, I think that Tsitsipas will end his career without a major title.

Tsitsipas shakes hands with Daniel Elahi Galán. Screenshot: U.S. Open

Looking at this year, an objective argument could be made that Stef’s had a good season. Highlights include defending his Masters 1000 title in Monte-Carlo and reaching two other Masters 1000 finals in Rome and Cincinnati, plus winning his first grass court title in Mallorca. He even made the semifinals of the Australian Open. However, alongside the highs have been some deep lows: a fourth Round exit in Roland Garros and Miami and 2nd round exits at Indian Wells, Montreal, Halle, and Stuttgart. 

The results above show the hard data of the highs and lows in current form, but there is more to form than just results. Tsitsipas’s overall game hasn’t shown much improvement in the past season and a half. During many of his matches, his forehand can be either a gift from God and that paints more lines than highway maintenance or a wild thing spraying long and wide with a public health notice associated with it. This studden switching on and off can occur not only mid tournament but mid match. 

Then there’s the backhand. The one-hander looks very pleasing on the eye, especially on a clay court. However, put pressure on that backhand (especially on hard and grass courts) and it breaks down very easily, something Stef’s opponents are very accustomed to doing. The lack of a slice in his game doesn’t help either, especially on a grass court. His return of serve is also a major weakness, and not one that has become less of an issue over time.

But the major thing plaguing Tsitsipas’s form is his ability to handle the pressure. In Rome, the pressure of playing Djokovic (think of the Roland-Garros final last year) caused him to effectively give the first set to Novak and in the second-set tiebreak, the strain of the situation caused a series of damning unforced errors. In Cincinnati, it was telling how being the favorite against a dangerous opponent made Tsitsipas incredibly tight – he gave back an early break to Borna in the first set before going on a six-game losing streak. In the second set tiebreak, a litany of unforced errors gifted the tiebreak and the championship to Coric, 7-0.

Whether or not Tsitsipas wins a major depends on the field as well as the man himself. Rafa and Novak, two of the greatest ever, are still head and shoulders above the rest of the field despite being past the peak of their powers. Their longevity continues to vacuum up the major titles – they’ve combined to win 36 of the last 50 – leaving their younger rivals high and dry. Over time, this can create some scar tissue in the NextGen. (Will it ever be my time?) Medvedev is the only one to break through from his generation so far; many of the others may well be on track to form a second LostGen. 

The NextGen players are causing concern for Tsitsipas. Medvedev has a winning record against him and when he is playing well can beat Stef fairly convincingly. However the major threat and the reason I think Tsitsipas won’t win a major in the future is the new stars of tomorrow. Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Holger Rune and Jack Draper are all showing a strong mentality and have all beaten Tsitsipas. (Alcaraz is even 3-0 against him.) They will only improve more with time and at this rate will quickly overtake Tsitsipas in ability and ranking.

I have to conclude that Stefanos Tsitsipas will not be lifting any of the four major trophies by the time his career is out. He had a golden opportunity at Roland-Garros in 2021 to break the ice, being two sets up in the final against Novak Djokovic, but that will be the closest he will get to being a champion. He may get to another final (draws can and have opened up) but given the challengers above him and below him coupled with the mentality and inconsistent game, I’ve come to think he won’t get over the line.

Roundtable ATP Predictions for the 2022 U.S. Open

The 2022 U.S. Open is very interestingly poised on the men’s side. There are two obvious favorites but they have question marks around mentality (Medvedev) and injury (Nadal). Then there are other dark horses who could win their first major but lack experience, form, or even the ceiling required. So, the Popcorn team sat down and shared who we thought would win the title. As expected, most went for Medvedev or Nadal, but there were a few surprise names thrown out there. Here, a few of us share why we’ve made the title picks that we have.

Rafael Nadal

This is probably the safest pick given Novak Djokovic’s withdrawal. However, I think Rafael Nadal has the draw to work his way into some form. The biggest obstacle between him and a 5th US Open title is his own body. Returning from an abdominal injury is not easy, especially for someone like Rafa who has spent time beefing up his serve. Rafa isn’t in the best form. He just suffered a loss to the eventual Cincinnati masters champion Borna Ćorić. But he wasn’t in spectacular form in 2017, and he won the title that year. Plus, none of his fellow top-10 seeds are in the best form either. Rafa has perfected the craft of using his B or C game until he needs to raise his level. I think this can be another one of those instances. –Ashlee Woods (@ashleemwoods)

Nadal with the U.S. Open trophy in 2019. Screenshot: U.S. Open

Daniil Medvedev

The defending champion. The world number one. A player who loves the summer North American hard court swing more than any other. In my mind, Daniil Medvedev cannot be favored enough. He’s coming in with a title, a loss to Kyrgios (who can beat anyone on the rare day he’s on) and Tsitsipas, who is proving to be his closest rival. The conditions suit his powerful serve and baseline game, and as he has proven best of five gives him the time to adapt to any opponent who initially takes the lead. His draw is decent, he should beat any player until the quarters, where he faces a tough test in Felix Auger-Aliassime (who had match point against him in Melbourne). But this is New York, and Daniil prevailed easily against him last year. His next projected opponents Tsitsipas (never made it past the third round in New York) and Nadal (questions over his fitness) may not get there, and if they do, I’d still pick Medvedev to win. Finally, I believe the title in Los Cabos fixed something for him. It broke a run of five final losses, including the agony of his Australian Open defeat. Back in his favourite part of the year, the little kid may start dreaming again. –Danny Richardson (@Emmagoatcanu)

Cameron Norrie

Just to shake things up a little, I’m going with Cameron Norrie to win this year’s U.S. Open, even though he’s never gone beyond the third round since his debut in 2017. A bold prediction governed by my heart rather than my head, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Since winning his first ATP title in Los Cabos in July last year, Norrie has gone from strength to strength. He has a huge amount of self-belief, is physically one of the fittest players on the tour and has the ability to grind his opponents down with his unorthodox groundstrokes and dogged determination. He’s having the season of his life, among other things making his top 10 debut and the second week of a grand slam (semi-finals of Wimbledon this summer, no less) for the first time and is constantly knocking on the door in the latter stages of tournaments. Indeed, I would expect him to ease through the opening rounds of his draw in New York before facing a sterner test from the likes of Rune and Rublev, both of whom Norrie has beaten in their last encounter on outdoor hard courts. Things will obviously get considerably tougher in the quarter-finals where he is likely to run into Rafael Nadal and despite having lost to Nadal four times previously I believe that this time Norrie will break through and prevail. Of course with two opponents still to conquer to lift the trophy, it won’t be easy, but with his confidence running high, a little (or lot of) luck and the hunger for a new milestone and maiden grand slam title spurring Norrie on, anything is possible! –Brenda Parry (@BrenParry71)

Carlos Alcaraz

Carlos Alcaraz seems a risky choice given that he is in the same half of the draw as Rafael Nadal. However, there are a few reasons why we should believe in the younger Spaniard. First, the U.S. Open conditions are now super quick, certainly some of the quickest hard courts on tour. Carlos’ ever-aggressive style could benefit from this. He’s been struggling to adjust on his forehand for the past few weeks but maybe on a quicker court he won’t be as inclined to put too much on it because what could be a neutral forehand on clay could still do damage in a rally. Another reason is more intangible: the New York crowd worships Alcaraz, and this is an atmosphere he can thrive in. He’ll still need lots of things to go right for him to take it all the way. He needs to be less erratic on the forehand, serve well and loosen up in the key moments. Alcaraz is potentially more likely to be fitter than Nadal as well and this could give him the edge if they meet in the semi-finals. It’s definitely not too soon to say he could win a major. –Sam (@sogsupreme)

Jannik Sinner

My pick for winning the U.S. Open is Jannik Sinner. He has a difficult path, with the main challenges expected to come from Hubert Hurkacz in the Round of 16 and possibly Carlos Alcaraz in the quarterfinals. However, I think Hurkacz has a tougher set of early round opponents that could see him lose before the Round of 16. Sinner, on the other hand, has won against Alcaraz on both grass and clay this season. He didn’t look great in Canada or Cincinnati but even in the past couple of years, he has looked markedly better in Grand Slams than in best-of-three tournaments. With Darren Cahill now watching over him and a clear improvement in aggression with his forehand since the start of the year, Sinner has all the tools he needs to take that step from a contender to a champion. –Siddhant Guru (@mindsid99)

Stefanos Tsitsipas

So I’m going for Stefanos Tsitsipas to win this year’s U.S. Open. I know it’s a little bit of a left-field pick given the 16 months he’s had since reaching the French Open final but I just have a funny feeling it might be his time. He’s been threatening to win a major for almost four years, since his breakthrough win against Roger Federer at the Australian Open, and has often flattered to deceive. However, I think the time for him to step up is now, and I have a feeling he will do just that. The draw hasn’t been too bad for him, particularly until a possible Fritz quarter-final, and I think his form in the last few weeks has picked up enough to give him an excellent chance should he play Medvedev in the semis, who of course he has just beaten in Cincinnati. Finally, maybe he can even take advantage of the now permitted on-court coaching. So, yes, I’m going for Stefanos Tsitsipas to win this year’s US Open. –John Silk (@TalkingTennisTT)

Ed. note: John made his pick before Tsitsipas’ first-round loss to Daniel Elahi Galán.

Roundtable WTA Predictions for the 2022 U.S. Open

It takes a brave person to predict the winner of the women’s U.S. Open. Or a foolish one. Fortunately we at Popcorn are up for the challenge. Here are the players some of us think could be holding the trophy on September 10th: 

Simona Halep

Simona Halep seems to be the player most of us have as the marginal U.S. Open title favorite. She’s not that out there as an option, given she is a former semi-finalist from 2015. Halep will also like the quick conditions, being a Wimbledon champion. Her run to the fourth round last year despite still recovering from injury was highly impressive so with a better buildup this year, she is in prime position to go further. What gives her the edge over the field for me, though, is her recent form, winning in Toronto despite not being at her best at points. Traditionally, the U.S. Open women’s champion has at least reached the final of an American hard court event during the season, and Halep’s Toronto title definitely puts her in the mix. She does have a tough section, having to come through Madison Keys and Caroline Garcia most likely, but she has a favorable head to head against both. I can definitely see her winning the title, which would give her a major on all three surfaces. –Nick Carter (@nick_bcarter)

Simona Halep lacks a major title on hard court, but has a strong CV on the surface. Screenshot: Australian Open

Iga Świątek

Iga Świątek is the obvious choice. She’s the world number one and the dominant force in women’s tennis right now. She’s won at least one match in every tournament she’s played bar one and when she has lost, it’s usually been to an eventual finalist. Świątek has an alright draw, so she could well go deep. While her recent form has been more patchy since the famous winning streak, she has got a couple of things in her favor. First, she is the Indian Wells champion, and the last two times the event was held in March (2018 and 2019), the eventual winner went on to lift the U.S. Open trophy as well (Osaka and Andreescu). Secondly, despite quicker conditions not suiting Świątek on paper, she was pretty strong on the New York courts last year when she reached the fourth round, in what was a strong performance overall. She’s very much still in the mix. –Nick Carter (@nick_bcarter)

Naomi Osaka

It’s easy to forget that Osaka – when she’s fit and in the right mindset – is still the best hard court player in the world. She has one of the best serves of all time which goes a long way. Her angles, power off the ground, movement on a hard court, and her resume so far must not be underestimated. She also doesn’t mind playing big hitters, because they give her rhythm, and she is comfortable absorbing their pace and turning it back onto them. 

Osaka is a four-time major champion who has won a hard court major every year since 2018. Additionally, she’s won the US Open every even year, which bodes well for 2022.

There are a couple of other points to consider with Osaka. Last year at the U.S. Open, she was really struggling with her mental health & her happiness on court. Yet, even so, she was still good enough to serve for a straight-set win against the eventual runner-up Leylah Annie Fernandez in the third round. Secondly, Osaka is not being talked about as much as usual and isn’t really a contender according to analysts. The attention and spotlight is placed on Serena’s final chapter, Raducanu’s title defense, Nadal’s health & chances. This means she can go under the radar a bit, which might allow her to play without pressure. In terms of her form coming into the U.S. Open, specifically on hard courts, Osaka has been looking pretty decent. Since losing a tight 3 setter to Anisimova (had 2 match points) at the Australian Open this year, she made the Miami final a few months ago. More recently, she beat Qinwen Zheng in San Jose, and lost a tight straight-setter to an opponent in Cincinnati (Shuai Zhang) who played extremely well and has always caused her trouble. She was injured in Canada and retired with a back problem vs Kanepi, but this doesn’t seem to be an issue now. Looking at her draw, she does have a seemingly tough opener against Danielle Collins. However, Collins hasn’t played for six weeks due to a neck injury and Osaka has a 3-0 head-to-head against her, including an easy victory in Miami this year. After that, the draw will get better up to the quarter-finals, and once Osaka has got to that stage historically, she’s never lost! All to say, her level is still there. She just has to believe! –Vansh Vermani (@vanshv2k)

Caroline Garcia

Garcia is having the season of her life. With titles on the grass in Bad Homburg, the clay in Warsaw and the major WTA 1000 title last week in Cincinnati. Garcia has shown major consistency in her game this year. The wild hitting off the backboard, beyond the sidelines and the net have been non-existent over the past three months and this has shown with some big wins. Now is the time for Caroline to take her form to the next level and win a singles Grand Slam title, with Flushing Meadows being the perfect place given the conditions and court speed. James Steel (@Tennisranter)

Ons Jabeur

Despite the women’s draw being wide open, this might seem like a bold prediction: Jabeur has never made it past the round of 32 in all her previous outings at the U.S. Open. She went out in the first round at Roland-Garros. She didn’t even get her Australian Open campaign off the ground, withdrawing with a back injury before the first ball was played. But she did have an incredible run at Wimbledon this summer and I think she’ll be keen to wipe the disappointment of that final loss from her mind and go for the top prize in New York. Her win/loss ratio this year is 38/13 – I’m placing my bets on that figure changing to 45/13 by September 13th. She’s won two tour-level titles this year, and I think this is her time to add a slam to her tally. –Claire Stanley (@brooksybradshaw)

Paula Badosa

This was a spur of the moment pick whilst doing a draw preview on Talking Tennis, but I’m sticking with it. When Paula Badosa is playing her best, it is breathtaking. Thinking about her 2021 Indian Wells run, her level was incredible. She played so well, with some insane ballstriking from the baseline, producing one of the best matches of the year against Victoria Azarenka in the final. She can clearly produce her best on a U.S. hard court, so if she hits form in New York then she’ll be super dangerous. And while her level this season has been patchy, she’s had some good performances recently. Her match at Wimbledon against Petra Kvitová, who seems to be finding her mojo again, was a particular highlight. It’s a long shot, but I’ve got a good feeling about Badosa this U.S. Open. –Jethro Broughton (@Jethro_sb)

Jessica Pegula

If you were to ask the casual tennis watcher who is the top-ranked American woman on the WTA tour, few might be able to muster up the name of Buffalo, New York native Jessica Pegula. However, that’s the exact status she brings into this year’s U.S. Open. 2022 has out and out been the most consistently impressive season the 28-year-old has strung together. She broke into the top 10 early this summer off the back of impressive runs to the semifinals of Miami and finals of Madrid. Although she’s seen respectable amounts of success outside of the hard courts, they are still where she has proven to shine the brightest. That was even more evident as she took her consistent and no-nonsense game into the semifinals of a WTA 1000 tournament yet again just a few weeks ago in Toronto. With the U.S. Open producing some of the most unlikely winners over the past several years, this home state favorite may be riding just enough under the radar to lift her first major title when all of the dust settles. –Myles David (@missingpointpod)

Amanda Anisimova

The U.S. Open on the WTA side is as open this year as I can remember it being. It feels like it’s set up for a surprise winner. Prior to Wimbledon, it seemed as if Świątek would simply keep on winning, but as we all know tennis never works like this. A few defeats later, she’s not looking anywhere near as invincible as she was. As it so happens, when I was making my predictions for the tournament, I had her losing to Amanda Anisimova in the last 16. Now I can’t say I’d given the American too much thought before this, but she has shown signs this year (albeit not very recently) of really putting a strong run together. Were she to beat Świątek, the draw could open up for and with the added bonus of being a home favorite, she could be primed for a real breakout run all the way to the final. I actually have her beating compatriot Coco Gauff in the final, simply because as the older of the two, she may deal with the pressure of the occasion slightly better. –Owais Majid (@Owais_LTU)

Sky Has Big Shoes to Fill as Amazon’s U.S. Open Coverage Ends

By Lee Stanley

When Amazon announced it had won the rights to show the U.S. Open on Prime Video, British tennis fans were nervous. They had a right to be, and expectations were confirmed when Prime Video’s 2018 U.S. Open coverage was marred by technical issues and did not include coverage of all courts. The qualifying rounds were ignored completely, and replays and highlights weren’t available until many, many hours after the matches. Sky and BT Sport still held the rights to the ATP and WTA tours respectively, so the additional subscription for two weeks at the end of August alone was also a frustration.

Fast forward to the start of 2020 and almost all of the full tennis calendar was now on Prime Video, the service having secured the rights to show the ATP through to 2023, and WTA to 2024. They’d ironed out technical problems and made replays available within 15 minutes of the end of matches. Behind the scenes they added additional commentary boxes and built a new studio, which they really got their money’s worth out of when COVID put a stop to presenting on site. Eurosport, meanwhile, had cut costs and their grand slam coverage looked amateur in comparison (though it did get better post-COVID).

You’d struggle to find fault with Prime Video’s tennis coverage now. Overall, watching tennis in the UK is much cheaper than it was five years ago, and most of it can be found in one place. With the addition of the British grass court season in 2022, and the introduction of new, younger commentators among the experienced pundits, viewers in the UK have never had it better. Channel 4 paid a seven-figure sum to simulcast the 2021 U.S. Open final, which became instantly famous for Emma Raducanu’s historic victory. Amazon exploited the opportunity to run a three-hour long advert for itself — primetime on Saturday night — and pledged to reinvest the fee into British tennis. The accessibility of coverage and success of Raducanu combined have helped to bring new fans to tennis in the UK. More people are watching, more people are playing, and more talent is emerging.

This week it was confirmed that the U.S. Open will be returning to Sky in 2023, and the concerns of five years ago are back in the minds of tennis fans. It had been reported earlier in the year that Raducanu’s popularity has reignited Sky’s interest in tennis, and they are rumoured to be looking at the WTA and ATP when they come up for renewal too. It makes sense. With the careers of the Williams sisters and the Big Four coming to an end, there are new superstars emerging on the tours and dozens of British players finding success week-in-week-out on the Challenger and ITF circuits.

Photo: Wikipedia

Sky offers its sports channels through several means including its own satellite system, via cable, IPTV through Sky Glass and streaming on Now TV. A lot has changed since Sky last covered a grand slam and, while they have invested in new technology, there will need to be further improvements needed on all platforms to enable Sky to offer the same level of multi-court coverage that others do now.

There hasn’t been an official announcement yet, so we have no details on what Sky’s U.S. Open coverage will look like, including who will present it and who will commentate on it. The majority of people working in tennis do so on a freelance basis. Many of those currently at Prime Video worked for Sky’s tennis coverage in the past and it should be expected that Sky’s coverage will include familiar faces and voices.

We also don’t yet know the pricing structure, and this will be the biggest issue for fans. The increasing cost of living is showing no sign of slowing ahead of next year, and it will be no comfort for fans to pay for yet another subscription next summer. Price it too high or offer an inferior product, and viewers who only want the tennis will look elsewhere for streams that are dodgy at best. Some will try to follow on the radio — there is some fantastic radio coverage, by the way, from the tournament’s own station and the BBC — and some won’t bother at all.

There are a lot of questions that can only be answered with time, but Sky has a hard act to follow. They’ve got a year to work on getting this right. If they don’t, they could undo all the good work that its predecessor has done in making tennis and its coverage more accessible in the UK than it ever has been.

Andy Murray’s U.S. Open Title, 10 Years Later

By André Rolemberg

When things are really huge, humans have a hard time perceiving them. 

We can’t tell the difference between one million and one billion in our heads. 

We have no idea what the speed of light actually is, aside from the theory.

Most of us can’t fathom what it feels like to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament — the work needed to get there, the mental effort, the fitness, the pressure, the level of the players we’d have to face.

According to Wikipedia, 56 men have won a Grand Slam event since the Open Era started in 1968. 56 people is a simple party that can be fed with a bunch of pizzas and six-packs of beer, and it wouldn’t even be that expensive for a middle-class group of university students.

As of 2020 there were 7.97 billion people in world.

A maximum total of four men a year can win a Grand Slam title. There are 3.97 billion males in the world (assigned male at birth), which means at least roughly one man out of one billion will win one of the available titles each year, under normal circumstances.

If it were a million, we would pretend we know the difference but we don’t. It’s absolutely huge. Winning a Grand Slam event is something so rare we can’t even properly think about it.

And if you’re Andy Murray in the first years of his career as a top player, you had to factor in that that Roger Federer was the most decorated major champion in the world in 2012 with 17 titles (he’d just won Wimbledon that year), while Rafael Nadal had 11 and Novak Djokovic had five. Murray had lost exclusively to Federer (three times) and Djokovic (once) in his previous four major finals.

But it was never quite enough for Andy Murray, was it? On top of all this pressure, Murray was, as many put it, carrying the weight of a nation, with the last British male Grand Slam champion being Fred Perry in 1936 — in 2012 a 76-year wait for a new champion from the nation that developed tennis into the modern version we know today.

This time, getting to the U.S. Open final after being defeated in four sets by Roger Federer at Wimbledon, a familiar foe: Novak Djokovic.

Murray had lost to Djokovic twice in Grand Slam matches by then: in straight sets at the 2011 Australian Open final, and in an absolute epic in five sets at the same tournament in 2012.

The same year, in a final this time, they played another hard court match at the U.S. Open, and Djokovic was once again the defending champion.

With what seemed to be the weight of space and time on his shoulders, Andy still managed to inch closer and closer to his goal: winning a Grand Slam title.

Of course, we all know the real goal was Wimbledon, but beating one of your main rivals in any Grand Slam final would be another big step towards the ultimate objective, possibly even bigger than reaching the Wimbledon final earlier that year. The U.S. Open would do just fine.

It is not surprising that no one could understand the pressure Andy Murray was under.

It is not farfetched to think that not even Murray himself could imagine what would mean to win a Grand Slam. It is a feat too immense to comprehend, to wrap his head around.

And so, at that fateful U.S. Open, he just played.

Seemingly encouraged by his results in the summer — including a dominant win against Roger Federer to win the first of two Olympic gold medals — Murray played aggressively in the windy conditions inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The mindset, along with Murray’s trademark speed and consistency that allows him to stay in points for way longer than a normal human being should (and win them too, often), could probably be explained by a new strategy born from Murray’s previous losses in major finals: play one set, one game, one point at a time.

Djokovic was visibly the one most bothered by the windy conditions that day, but that didn’t impede the rallies from reaching ridiculous lengths (an early one went 54 shots) — a feat even more so impressive in the conditions, where most would be mentally defeated by the invisible opponent within the first 20 minutes. Murray started a little shy, rolling forehands and using his counterpunching skills to hold serve and stay in the match, allowing him an early break.

Djokovic surged back, as he so often does, and the tiebreak followed. It was a mammoth 22-point tie breaker where both had chances, but where Murray seemed just that more extra-motivated. 

As he won the opener: a classic Murray celebration. The strategy continued, this was just a tennis match, forget about everything else.

In the second set, it seemed like a new Murray was born: perfect from everywhere on court, completely unfazed by the wind against a struggling Djokovic, the Brit went on to take a 4–0 lead.

Today it seems obvious, but back in 2012, Djokovic was just starting to cement his reputation: that of a player who is nearly impossible to beat, no matter how great your lead. And when he had his back against the wall, he started firing. From 0–4 down, Djokovic got one of the breaks back. 

As Murray tried to serve for a two-sets-to-love lead, could the pressure have finally pushed it too hard against the door of Murray’s psyche? Djokovic’s efforts certainly started to pay off, with far more aggressive shots starting from the return, but Murray started missing regular shots into the net and well out. 

76 years. One in a billion. The final piece needed to form the most exclusive club in tennis, the Big Three, right in front of him — again.

Maybe Murray thought about it, for long enough to remember what he was about to do. And that had a price, almost too costly at that crucial moment in his match — in his career.

But the then best-player-on-tour-without-a-grand-slam forced himself back into the strategy, and it was his turn to do what Andy Murray does best, and not miss again until the set was over. 

7–5. The world #4 muscled it out, first being rewarded with a “Djokosmash,” then watching an unforced error from the Serb’s forehand which came with the break, the set, and a crucial two-sets-to-love lead over the defending champion.

It must have taken its toll mentally. With a much more muted celebration — a mere look to his box — Andy just didn’t seem the same player that won the first set like it was just another day of competition. At that point, he seemed like someone who knew exactly what he was doing. And that was not good for him.

Suddenly, it was Djokovic who forgot what the situation was. His incredible attacking game that saw him take over the tennis world in 2011 came to life, especially after an epic rally at 0–1, 40–30 where he ended with a phenomenal volley, followed by a fierce celebration. Then, it seemed as if this would be a one-way traffic, to the horror of Murray fans.

Engaging the packed Arthur Ashe Stadium with his famous roaring celebrations, Novak Djokovic was more akin to the protagonist role, as Andy Murray seemed to battle against himself to once again play just to win the next point and not to put to rest a lengthy Grand Slam drought for British men’s tennis.

The match remained of fine quality, but the mental battle had a clear winner in the third and fourth sets. Something needed to change for Murray. He needed to reset. He needed to forget.

This isn’t Novak Djokovic. This isn’t Arthur Ashe Stadium. This isn’t a Grand Slam. This isn’t the US Open. This isn’t for history.

It’s a tennis match. It’s for competition. It’s for Andy Murray and the thrill of winning a great tennis rally.

Right at the start of the fifth and final set, already something felt different for Andy. Deep breath, stretching, speaking his usual “come on!” to himself as he waited to return serve. Perhaps serving second in the fifth helped him. As a player who has been always behind the Big Three, Murray came to love the challenge. To be the underdog. Returning serve can feel this way sometimes, especially at the start of a set.

Showing signs that he was not done yet (words he would famously say himself, coincidentally in that same stadium, years later), Murray broke right away in the fifth. Every point he won, he gave a small–but clear–fist pump to show everyone watching that he was still very much in contention. It didn’t matter that he had yet to beat Djokovic at a major, it didn’t matter that he himself had yet to win one while Novak had five. All that mattered was to win the next point.

Even his classic negativity was making a comeback when he lost points. And he was getting louder. 

He was back. Just another tennis match.

While Djokovic did recover one of the breaks down 0–3 in the fifth, the damage was already done by a short lackluster period. Trying to get back into the final, the then five-time major champion went on the attack again, hitting hard and producing some of the mesmerizingly effortless groundstrokes only he is capable of. He managed to hold his serve in a tough game to narrow Murray’s lead to 3–2. He roared, and celebrated the micro-achievement in the scope of the match, not knowing this would be the last game he would win at that year’s U.S. Open.

In the blink of an eye, it was 4–2 to Murray. In what was possibly the worst return game of the match for the all-time great Serb, all the effort and momentum from the previous game was completely nullified. In contrast, Andy Murray raced through the game with four speedy and well placed first serves — three of them drawing return errors, and an ace on game point.

The match clock was now at four hours and 45 minutes.

Now, as tends to be the case when these two face each other, the match was as physical as it gets. Rallies averaged 6.9 shots at this point late in the match, and the longest one was a grueling, high-quality 54-shot point. Surprisingly, but comprehensibly, Djokovic started feeling some discomfort in his right leg. Perhaps this time it was too much, a reminder that he’s only human after all.

Yet-to-become Sir Andy Murray, on the other hand, was very much in the ascendancy. With Djokovic shooting for the fences, even though he was already well on the way to become one of tennis’ greatest players, his situation could not look any worse. Already down a break, now a double break in the deciding set, a loss looked inevitable against a fresh and motivated Murray — one of the fittest, fastest players on tour, and arguably one of the best defenders of all time.

“I am getting closer.”

After suffering a loss to Roger Federer at the Wimbledon final only a couple months earlier, Andy Murray said those words, trying to lighten the mood after certainly the most painful loss of his career. He surely meant he was getting closer to a title at his home slam, in front of his home crowd.

Here he was, now at 5–2 in the final set of the final Grand Slam tournament of the year. He had never been that close now at the US Open.

He looked as fierce as ever after getting the break and a chance to serve for his maiden major trophy. Fist pumping, shouting “let’s go, come on” to himself, putting on his well-known, mean-looking game face, showing his teeth and angry eyes, like an animal in defiance of his challenger.

A medical time-out ensued for Novak Djokovic. His legs were finally giving in. Andy was up and ready to serve quite some time before the break would be over. Hitting the ball against the tarp in the back of the court, he looked almost like an eager kid just waiting on his coach so he could start practice.

He didn’t look like he was ready to get it over with. He seemed to want to play for the next point, to compete. He looked impatient, not to get to the trophy and out of there, off with the pressure, but to get into a rally. To play tennis.

It would seem that he did not have his mind anywhere near the occasion. The situation he was in did not correspond to his attitude. The years, the players before him, the history, even his own failed attempts seemed forgotten, like it was someone else’s problem altogether.

The game starts. Rally, 15–0.

First serve, called out. Challenged, overruled. 30–0.

The US Open crowd goes wilder now. It’s no use trying to control them.

Another rally. Another challenge. Djokovic hits a forehand which Hawkeye shows sailed long.

40–0.

Missed first serve. Djokovic forces Murray into the net with a defensive forehand slice, then hits a lob which Murray can’t control, leaving it sitting up for the Serb to punch a winner. One match point saved, two to go.

40–15.

First serve, down the middle. Out. 

Second serve, in the middle of the box. Djokovic hits a flat forehand down the line…

Long. 

Game, set, and match, Andy Murray: 7–6 (10), 7–5, 2–6, 3–6, 6–2.

And at that historical moment, Andy Murray, now a Grand Slam champion, fist pumped like it was a normal point. He looked at his box, game face still on.

It looked almost funny for that moment.

But, half a second later, he started walking, like he had just woken up. Looking to his left and right, now walking towards the net for the handshake, he threw his racket, put his hands over his face. He stopped walking. Now crouching he was, in clear disbelief.

The moment. Screenshot: U.S. Open

All this time trying to forget, fighting against the pressure, playing a tennis match like any other.

Now he remembered.

The weight of his achievement dawned on him. All of Britain’s waiting. All the expectation. All the failures. All the people watching him, he could see it all, he just could not react in any other way except like a young boy who got a dog for his birthday and was so happy he froze. You could still tell he was happy, but he didn’t really understand that yet.

It looked like he had forgotten for a second. Now, he remembered. 

And now he’ll be remembered forever.

Monday, September 10, 2012. The U.S. Open Championships. 

Andy Murray, Great Britain’s first male Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry at Wimbledon, 1936.

As Expected

The last time we learned something new about Novak Djokovic was when he told Amol Rajan of the BBC that he was prepared to give up a chance at the GOAT crown so that he could stick by his beliefs. (These beliefs were that he didn’t want to put the COVID vaccine, which has produced mild side effects in all but a tiny percentage of those who have taken it, into his body.) The fact that he didn’t take the vaccine wasn’t that surprising; the pseudoscientific beliefs had always been there. Coming back to win Wimbledon after a hellish first half of the year marked by absences at big tournaments and a brutal loss to Nadal at Roland-Garros? By this point, everyone knows Djokovic’s resilience knows no bounds. He has overcome virtually every kind of deficit and disappointment on the tennis court; he wasn’t going to fall short here.

The moment of truth comes at 33:53.

But saying he was prepared to set aside his life goal — the pursuit of big tennis trophies — to stick by this opinion on the vaccine? That was new. We’ve gotten to know many Novak Djokovics over the years: the legend, the Djoker, the nice guy, the rage monster, the steely-eyed dream-crusher who hit winners when down match point, the guy who wanted to please the crowd, the challenger, the perfect player, and the detached. This is a different version of Djokovic, one whose most defining characteristics are thousands of miles away from the biggest tennis courts. His other controversies — the Adria Tour, the disqualification from the 2020 U.S. Open — were a product of carelessness. In this case, he might be mistaken, but he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s clearly okay enough with the consequences not to switch course.

Djokovic prepares to vaporize a backhand winner down the line at the 2021 U.S. Open. He will not play the tournament again for at least another year. Screenshot: U.S. Open

Djokovic’s omission from the Australian Open was shocking. He was going to play and he was in the country, then in a matter of days, he couldn’t and he wasn’t. Aside from the good-and-evil of it all, his saga Down Under was like the Republic’s in the Star Wars prequels: they committed themselves utterly to taking out minor obstacles in Darth Maul and General Grievous, only to find that Palpatine was pulling the strings the entire time and nothing they had done actually mattered. Djokovic seemed to score a minor victory when he was released from detention — he even practiced on Rod Laver Arena — then he was deported anyway through the use of Alex Hawke’s special powers.

This, Djokovic’s withdrawal from the U.S. Open due to his continued unvaccinated status, is the opposite. There has been no talk of medical exemptions in the leadup to the U.S. Open, no debate over fanning the flames of anti-vaccine spirit. (There is so much of that in the U.S. already it barely makes me blink anymore.) The United States’ COVID policies with respect to unvaccinated visitors haven’t changed in a long time. There was talk over the past couple weeks that the policy might change, but the CDC’s updated website maintained that non-U.S. citizens and immigrants had to be vaccinated to earn entry into the country. Despite many clamoring for Djokovic to be admitted into the country and the tournament — some semi-prominent alt-right-wingers got behind him — everyone knew they had no real power over the decision.

You can draw all kinds of conclusions from this expected withdrawal, even from a neutral perspective. Djokovic’s continued refusal to get jabbed is frustrating. A 21-time major champion’s presence in the tennis world being reduced to a social media announcement as the rest of the field prepares to do battle on one of the biggest stages of the world beggars belief. That all of this is happening as Djokovic and his greatest rival in Nadal surge to unseen heights in men’s tennis is tragic, that tennis is making headlines in big news outlets because of this is embarrassing.

And yet, these emotions are dulled, because in knowing what was to come for the past several months, we’ve had a while to sit with them. Djokovic has been a prominent figure on tour for 16 years now. There are no secrets with him anymore. Presumably, he will come back strong at the majors (the ones he plays, anyway) in 2023, because coming back strong is what he does, but we’ve got a while to wait before then. In the meantime, his withdrawal from the U.S. Open will generate a massive reaction. His fans will be pissed. His haters will be happy. Neutrals will be disappointed. No one should be surprised.

Emma Raducanu, One Year Later

By Nick Carter

As the 2022 U.S. Open approaches, it seems appropriate to look back on Emma Raducanu’s title run last year. The teenage British player became the story of the tournament, eclipsing the similarly impressive run of fellow young talent Leylah Annie Fernandez, as well as Daniil Medvedev’s first major title and even Novak Djokovic’s quest for the Calendar Grand Slam.

It was a Hollywood story (I fully expect a movie to be made one day): a rookie winning one of the biggest trophies in their sport. Winning on debut at a specific major isn’t unheard of in tennis; Bianca Andreescu had done the same thing in New York in 2019. But they are still rare, the only other examples in the women’s game in the professional era being Barbara Jordan at the 1979 Australian Open and Evonne Goolagong at Roland-Garros in 1971. In the men’s game, Rafael Nadal famously won Roland-Garros in 2005 on debut, turning 19 just before the final. The only other example on the ATP was Johan Kriek’s 1980 Australian Open title, although his and Jordan’s carry asterisks due to top players not traveling to Australia that often during the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

I’ve probably annoyed a lot of people by daring to suggest Raducanu is in the same category as Evonne Goolagong, let alone Rafael Nadal! And it should be said that since the 2021 U.S. Open, Raducanu has not lived up to the hype that was built around her after that fairytale run. After all, if someone is that good as soon as they turn professional, they’re probably a GOAT in the making, sure to continually put in strong results and win tournaments, right? That’s what happened in the Nadal case. In the 12 months between his first and second Roland Garros trophies, he won nine titles, including four Masters events (‘only’ two of which were on clay!) and managed to beat Roger Federer on a hard court for the second time in their rivalry. 

I must admit I was tempted to think that way in the immediate aftermath of Raducanu’s U.S. Open title. But there is a key difference between Raducanu and Nadal: the Spaniard had been on the professional tour for two years when he won his first title, he’d had time to adjust to the challenges and fully build his game as he more or less skipped the juniors and played against the adults from the age of 15. The only reason he hadn’t played Roland Garros before 2005 was that he was injured at that point in the calendar in 2003 and 2004. Raducanu had played some low-level ITFs and won a couple of titles, but this was her debut year on the main WTA Tour. If you wanted to continue the comparison between Nadal and Raducanu, imagine the former winning Roland-Garros in 2003 or 2004. It’s not reasonable to expect someone to have consistent success at this point in their career, let alone win anything as high profile as a major. 

Screenshot: U.S. Open

So, how did Emma Raducanu win the U.S. Open in 2021 with a game that wasn’t fully developed? Some say it was luck, a sign of how ‘weak’ the WTA Tour is at a time where there isn’t a dominant group of players and first-time major winners are a frequent occurrence. There was indeed a sense of the stars aligning for Raducanu as she reached the second week; she didn’t face a seeded player until the quarterfinals. However, she still had the talent, the mentality and the shots to pull it off as things got tougher deeper into the tournament. She legitimately outplayed the opposition that she faced. Plus, it isn’t uncommon for WTA major winners to not face top 10 opposition during a title run. Ash Barty didn’t beat any higher ranked players than Raducanu in any of her three major titles. 

Fortunately, you can watch the full matches of Raducanu’s run on YouTube from the third round onwards. So, I went back, rewatched and made some notes. I’ll link to the playlist for anyone who wants to do the same and draw their own conclusions.

Let’s start with that third round match against Sara Sorribes Tormo, which is the ultimate comfort match for Raducanu fans. I remember seeing that match with my jaw on the floor with how good she was, winning 6-0, 6-1 in just over an hour. I wasn’t expecting it to be easy; I thought Sorribes Tormo would make it a grind as she always does. But Raducanu completely outhit her, breaking her down with relentless deep hitting and pace to place the ball in awkward places. The Brit was constantly hitting winners, recording at least one in 12 of 13 games played. Nothing Sorribes Tormo tried disrupted Raducanu, be it the slice or bringing her into the net, where Emma is actually pretty comfortable. Everything just worked.  

This was Raducanu’s second major appearance and her second run to the fourth round (unfortunately she has yet to repeat a run like this since). The Shelby Rogers match was where fate intervened in Raducanu’s favour. First of all, the opponent was not Ash Barty, who was beaten by Rogers in the previous round after the American completely changed her game plan midway through the final set and befuddled the then-world number one. However, against Raducanu, Rogers went back to her usual big-hitting style and it was misfiring, particularly off the backhand side. In the early stages of the match, Raducanu was able to compete at times, but often she was misfiring as there was too much pace for her to redirect. However, as the hitting contest continued it was Rogers who was more likely to break down. By contrast, Raducanu hardly missed between the first three games and the final two. Yet again, the serve kept her on track, winning her plenty of free points. Rogers did up her game towards the very end of the match, but Raducanu just upped the pace on her own shots to finish on her terms. Up until then, she wasn’t hitting that many outright winners, partly because of Rogers’ pace but also because she didn’t need to. Rogers wasn’t on her game, but Raducanu was exceptional in navigating a potentially tricky match.

Emma’s weakest performance was actually in her quarter-final against Belinda Bencic. The two players are from the same mold, they are good at match management, have deep shots and can redirect pace very well but aren’t the biggest hitters on tour. Even their relative strengths and weaknesses are similar, with more solid backhands from both (though Bencic hits more winners from that side) and a forehand that can break down (though Raducanu is probably more dangerous with hers when it is working). The match was pretty tight, the margins slim between them and by set two it felt like a battle between two top-class players. The start was scrappy, the turning point coming with Bencic up 3-1 in the second set, as she got distracted by someone calling out during the point at 30-0 on Raducanu’s serve. Raducanu held and took advantage of a loose service game by Bencic to level the set. She then became more solid and consistent, cutting the errors and suddenly her aggressive shots were going past the Swiss, wrestling control to break for 5-3. Cool as ice, Raducanu served out the match from there. Critically, whilst Bencic could get Raducanu on the defence, the teenager’s retrieving skills enabled her to take control of points where she was initially on the back foot. The longer the rallies got, the more likely Raducanu was to win them. Given this was the hardest she’d been pushed, Raducanu impressed with strong serving when she needed it and excellent aggressive play to grab any opportunity that presented itself. Her error count was considerably higher than her other matches, but Raducanu navigated her patches of inaccuracy with aplomb.

By contrast, I was very impressed by her performance against Maria Sakkari in the semi-final. Sakkari likes to pummel her opponents off the court, and was looking for a slug-fest straight out of the gate. However, Raducanu was up for this, coming out swinging and beating Sakkari at her own game by being marginally more consistent. Despite playing one of the most intense players on tour, Raducanu’s aggression was yielding fewer unforced errors than her opponent across the whole match. They were pretty much even on firepower, an impressive feat from Raducanu considering her muscular opponent. Raducanu exceeded Sakkari in the winners count, and in addition to her consistency, good serve, excellent returning, fantastic net play, and strong defence, Raducanu had the edge all around. Sakkari wasn’t having a good serving day, particularly in the first set, and her backhand was ineffective, frequently failing to match Raducanu’s for pace and weight. The second set had its moments, with Sakkari avoiding a double-break deficit with some incredible shots, and had Raducanu dropped her level there was every chance Sakkari could have gotten back in the match. However, Raducanu went for finishing blows to close out her first night match on Arthur Ashe Stadium. On the biggest stage in tennis against one of the best players of the 2021 season, Emma Raducanu looked like she belonged there. She looked like a champion.

So, we come to the legendary final, and on rewatching it I found it was a far better match than the scoreline suggests. Both Raducanu and Leylah Annie Fernandez were just going for it, showing the aggression that got each of them to the final. This was by far Raducanu’s toughest test; even though she was up a break in both sets, it was never a comfortable advantage. Fernandez was still producing the intensity that saw her save match point against Elina Svitolina, break Naomi Osaka when the defending champion served for the match, outlast fellow counter-puncher Angelique Kerber, and frustrate Aryna Sabalenka. (For the record, while I consider myself an Emma Raducanu fan, I am a bigger Fernandez fan.) Fernandez was a match for Raducanu in terms of having a great weapon in the forehand (even if both could misfire), which gave a fun lefty-righty dynamic, as both players’ big (if unreliable weapon) was playing into their opponent’s most reliable (but rarely point-ending) shot. Fernandez also provided a unique challenge because she could match Raducanu’s defensive skills, meaning that she could absorb and counter her opponent’s aggressive play far better than other opponents. The two also countered each other by both returning at a high level and while neither serve began the match at its best, both improved over the course of the match. Points were more often won with winners or great shots than unforced errors. There were very few easy holds for either player. At four games all in the first set, we were shown that both players had won 33 points each, highlighting how dead-even the match was.

Let’s look at how Raducanu won the match and the championship given how difficult the occasion was. For a start, Raducanu showed she was just as able to emotionally fire up herself and the crowd as Fernandez was, which had been critical in the latter’s progression to this final. One edge she had was that whilst her forehand could occasionally be erratic, Fernandez was slightly more vulnerable on hers.

However, in the big moments Raducanu was able to penetrate with her shots better than Fernandez, still being able to up the aggression on the forehand to take control. When she was firing, she hit through Fernandez. The Canadian tried to counter with a similar tactic but it wasn’t as effective. In addition, she managed to reduce her error count slightly more than her opponent could. It was definitely fine margins that made the difference, but that’s how it always is in the latter stages of a major, even in straight-set matches. Of course, everyone remembers how tight the end was, as Raducanu tried to go big to finish it off but started missing. Fernandez, ever a fantastic pressure player, upped her own aggression, fueled by the crowd. In that tight final service game, briefly interrupted by needing treatment for a cut knee (which arguably disrupted Fernandez’s momentum more), Raducanu produced clutch winners to seal it, including that famous out-wide ace on championship point. There was no luck here, it was her being the strongest one in that fight on that day.

Raducanu’s victory wasn’t just about the final match. There were clear positive patterns across all of Raducanu’s matches that meant she earned the title. The biggest thing was a lack of unforced errors despite her aggressive play, staying solid and forcing her opponent to beat her if they could stay consistent enough. Not only could they not do that, but they had to deal with deep, awkwardly placed balls to try and retrieve back into play. Raducanu was always looking to take control of points, but was patient enough to work her way into a rally if needed and likes to play with plenty of margin if possible. The Raducanu serve was so good throughout, usually getting her at least one free point a service game. The backhand was really solid, and while she doesn’t hit that many winners from that side she proved perfectly capable of doing so in the clutch. The state of the Raducanu backhand is the barometer to measure how well she is playing, if it’s not breaking down much then she’s playing well. Additionally, Emma’s aggressive strategy played dividends not only because she executed it well, but she was able to adapt it to the situation and the different sort of players she faced. Be it a match she was dominating (vs Sorribes Tormo), needing to stay solid (vs Rogers), maintaining a slim advantage (vs Bencic), taking it to her opponent (vs Sakkari) or needing to edge a close contest (vs Fernandez), her match management skills were excellent.

Finally, Raducanu just seemed to be having fun on court, smiling and enjoying the tennis and the moment and feeding off the energy of the crowd. Everything was going right, which gives us an idea of why she may have struggled to build on her success. It’s hard to sustain your peak level! Raducanu’s U.S. Open tournament featured far fewer unforced errors from her racquet compared to pretty much any other she’s played, including her Wimbledon run. She doesn’t seem to have found that zone where she can play her best and minimise her errors outside of New York. This is an issue most young players have to work out, which seems to confirm the U.S. Open title was down to her hitting an unexpected purple patch at the perfect time, super early in her career. You could say the same thing about her serve and backhand consistency. For me though, it seems the errors are bothering her more, as if she can’t understand why the shots that were landing in the New York courts aren’t any more. This may contribute to her seeming to enjoy things slightly less (only slightly). She’s a major champion now, and although a lot of the pressure on her now is being manufactured by the media and fans, now she knows what she can produce it must be frustrating not being able to find it again. How she manages this is up to her, but it’s something she needs to look at if she’s to fully enjoy herself again, which is the most important thing. The top two in the WTA Race are actively using a sports psychologist.

While the 2021 U.S. Open was a dream run for Raducanu, there were still some weaknesses highlighted. Her forehand is a great weapon, her biggest, but she has a tendency to overhit it. When she can’t reign in the consistency, that’s the first shot to go. She can be vulnerable to getting tight when closing out, which wasn’t the case in all her matches. She’s right to stay aggressive in the killer moments, but this is where over-hitting can hurt her. All these have been highlighted in matches she’s lost from being a break up in the decider, or even match point up! The Shelby Rogers match also highlighted the challenges Raducanu has against big-hitting players, as she struggled more to redirect the pace and hit with her opponent. Maria Sakkari is also a big hitter but doesn’t have as much pace as someone like Rogers (or Camila Giorgi thinking back to Raducanu’s match in Canada a couple of weeks ago). It’s understandable then why Raducanu has been talking about getting used to the pace of the tour. She probably needs to learn to counter-punch, much like Fernandez can.

Her time with Torben Beltz looked to address some of these issues. However, in retrospect he took her game in the wrong direction as she became much more about grinding out points, reigning in the aggression out of an attempt to make her more consistent. You can see why this would work to minimise errors and deal with the pace better, but it also neutralised a lot of Raducanu’s strengths. When Raducanu parted ways with Beltz during the clay season, she immediately looked freer, but then injuries set in and affected the next couple of months. 

Her new partnership with Dmitry Tursunov shows promise, and may set her in the direction of learning how to harness her aggression effectively again. Her matches against Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in Cincinnati last week showed very positive signs – her form was reminiscent of what she produced in New York. She also showed excellent match management skills, dealing well with her opponent when they were playing well and not allowing her own level to drop to let them back in. Jessica Pegula was more of a challenge as she started that match far better and was able to stay strong on serve and outhit Raducanu in most of the rallies. However, even though Raducanu lost that Round of 16 match in Cincinnati, she maintained her aggression to stay competitive for the whole match. There were unforced errors and maybe a little too much margin on her shots, but it was still one of the more positive runs for the Brit this season. If you look at Raducanu’s 2022 as a whole, it’s actually not that bad when you compare her to her peers. She’s the fourth highest ranked teenager in the WTA Race (with only five in the top 100!) and the eighth highest ranked player aged under 22. If there was a Next Gen WTA Finals she would be almost dead set to qualify. She’s ahead of the vast majority of her age group and those ahead of her are having exceptional seasons.

Looking back on Emma Raducanu’s US Open title one year on, though some external factors meant some things fell her way, she still earned that trophy. She had to contend with very different opponents, on different days and adapt to circumstances as they changed. Each match seemed to be on the Raducanu racquet, as she ended up being the one who dictated how things progressed and had the ability to take control and have the final say. She found a way to play aggressively yet consistently and stay mentally strong. It was one of the great moments in sport and an impressive achievement regardless of the circumstances. She hasn’t been able to perform to that same standard since, but recent form suggests she can do so and her overall season still shows she will be a contender for majors for years to come. It all comes down to whether she can harness her aggression and reign back the unforced errors.

Turning the Tables

How must Stefanos Tsitsipas have felt stepping on the Cincinnati hard court against Daniil Medvedev yesterday? They had played seven times before on hard court. Tsitsipas had lost six of them. The last match was in the Australian Open semifinals, a 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 win for Medvedev that began as high-octane push and pull and ended as a drubbing. Tsitsipas played well for the most part, not losing his serve until late in the second set, but he was never close to the finish line. Worse, the match came directly after Tsitsipas had thrashed Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinals, which had been the best match he’d played in the previous few months. Medvedev had been pushed to five sets and nearly five hours by Felix Auger-Aliassime in the previous round, yet still appeared to have more gas in the tank.

You can get a pretty good sense of what makes Medvedev such a hard court demon at 2:03. Tsitsipas rips a great backhand down the line at the end of a long rally, but Medvedev gets it back really deep to the forehand, then immediately yanks Tsitsipas off the court with a sharp angle and finishes with an easy winner.

It’s hard enough to play someone whose strengths either offset your own or are tailored to pick your weaknesses apart, but pair that with a surface that favors your opponent and the challenge multiplies. Hard court diminishes many of Tsitsipas’ strengths while enhancing Medvedev’s — Tsitsipas, whose return of serve is suspect, struggles for time when returning a huge serve like Medvedev’s on a quicker surface. (Medvedev, meanwhile, can camp out deep and return massive serves successfully on any surface.) While clay allows Tsitsipas the requisite time to take big swings on his backhand or run around to hit inside-out forehands, imbuing the ball with weight and spin, hard court rushes him, sometimes forcing him into subpar slices. Medvedev’s groundstrokes, while they can lack some offensive power, can be hit deep even from way behind the baseline. Medvedev feels at home on a hard court; he’s won the U.S. Open, managed to beat Nadal, Djokovic, and Thiem en route to the 2020 World Tour Finals title, made two Australian Open finals, and won a bucket of Masters 1000s. Tsitsipas struggles considerably more — he’s also won the World Tour Finals, but he lacks a Masters 1000 title and a major final appearance on hard.

Winning this matchup on hard court, then, is incredibly difficult for Tsitsipas. Tactical patterns aside, he knows when he takes the court with Medvedev that he’s playing someone better and more comfortable on cement than him. He knows that his best shots will have to hold up and his worst shots will have to punch above their weight. Tsitsipas also knows that Medvedev can play his regular game and it will still be enough to make him deeply uncomfortable.

All that creates pressure. There are times when a player goes into a matchup and can play with house money — take a wild card against a top seed in an early round — but this isn’t really one of those instances, because any further loss to Medvedev will deepen the hole Tsitsipas is in. With a much older rival, you can outlast them, waiting for their muscles to turn to jelly as you laugh from your twenties. But with someone around your own age (Medvedev is 26, Tsitsipas is 24) or younger, you can’t exactly run out the clock. Federer had to play Nadal 16 times on clay from 2005 to 2019, and he only bagged two wins for his troubles. It’s not that Medvedev doesn’t face any pressure, he’s expected to win this matchup so a loss might well sting more than usual, but the confidence from the history of the rivalry on hard court provides considerable help in that respect.

So, how must Tsitsipas have felt going in? My guess: somewhere between cautiously optimistic and dread-filled, probably closer to the former. He is too good not to have opportunities in every match he plays, such is the strength of his serve, forehand, and movement. But in a Medvedev match on hard court the opportunities are minute. A random miss at love-15 might be fatal. Break points simply have to be converted. The margin of error shrinks to zero, which magnifies the pressure whenever a decisive moment does come up. Every miss, every short return, every mediocre second serve could prove crippling.

Yet Tsitsipas managed the challenge with aplomb yesterday, claiming a potentially pivotal 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-3 win to advance to the final of the Western & Southern Open. He served and volleyed well throughout the first set. This can be a phenomenal tactic against someone with a deep return position — when your touch is on song, you get to stand at net and laugh as the opponent fruitlessly tries to run fast enough from way behind the baseline to get to your drop volleys. There’s a low margin for error, though, with the movement masters of the modern game being quick enough to claw back a volley that hangs up for even a second too long. And serving at 5-3 in the tiebreak, Tsitsipas hit a forehand volley with just a bit too much air under it, allowing Medvedev to whip a backhand past him.

When Medvedev held his two service points to go up 6-5, I thought the 5-3 point would prove decisive. The pattern was similar to the first set of their previous match in Australia, where Tsitsipas had a 5-4 lead in the first-set tiebreak, but Medvedev grabbed the next two points for 6-5, then Tsitsipas missed a forehand by an inch on set point. Here, though, Tsitsipas nailed a big serve to level at 6-all. At 7-6, he played some great early defense in a tough rally, forcing Medvedev into a tricky short forehand at net that the world number one slammed into the net.

There was more adversity to overcome — Medvedev took the second set, holding from love-40 to win it 6-3 after Tsitsipas had mounted a comeback from 5-0 down. Early in the third, he hit a forehand-down-the-line passing shot off a Tsitsipas volley that was practically scraping the ground. It was the definition of a highlight reel shot in a week full of them. Unbothered, Tsitsipas held serve comfortably that game. At 3-2 (and on Medvedev’s serve), he won the best rally of the match, an extended point that was right in his opponent’s comfort zone, managing to outlast Medvedev’s smothering squidlike defense. When it came time to serve for the match, Tsitsipas didn’t blink, firing unreturnable serves and flicking forehands past the world number one. He reeled off four straight points to win that final game.

This is a milestone win for Tsitsipas: his first win over Medvedev on hard court since 2019, his first win in a Masters 1000 semifinal on hard court since 2018. It couldn’t have come at a better time. By all reasonable standards, Tsitsipas has had a great year: Australian Open semifinalist, Monte-Carlo champion, #2 in the race. But it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s been underachieving a bit, especially compared to last year. Even some of the matches he’s won have been mildly concerning, like the needlessly extended struggles against Schwartzman in Monte-Carlo and Dimitrov in Rome. He made the final at Roland-Garros last year and lost in the fourth round this year. He hasn’t had a terrible year, not by any means, but considering all his skill, he’s had a mediocre one.

This match changes all that. It’s dangerous to read too far into any individual win — and there’s a persuasive argument that Medvedev won’t serve nearly as badly as he did next time these two play on hard; he made 49% of his first serves and double faulted 11 times. But this is the first time in 2022 that Tsitsipas has won a match few expected him to beforehand. His commitment to the serve-and-volley tactic was fantastic. His return of serve more than held up — he won more return points than Medvedev, 40 to 30. (In Australia, Medvedev won this battle 41-18.) He was cool under pressure, and it’s hard to overstate how impressive that is in an unfavorable matchup. Since Roland-Garros last year, Tsitsipas has been searching for a win that broke new ground, that restored his momentum. This could be it.

All It Takes Is A Week…

By Miguel Guerra

Bia Haddad was suspended in 2019. She spent 10 months away from tennis, after which she proved her innocence. The ITF released her and she began the toughest journey yet: Regain her ranking as she was, at the end of 2020, the #1342 in the world. The toughest blow a tennis player can ever receive. 

Imagine practicing and playing every day only to hear you have to spend 10 months away from the only thing you’re great at. Bia herself said in an interview she couldn’t even finish reading the ITF letter, she just cried like a baby. 

I get that. 

I wasn’t suspended but I was quarantined. We all were, actually, I know. Every single country has suffered for the last couple of years and Brazil was in a midst of despair and chaos, with our leadership being less than satisfactory. Being a pro musician in the middle of all of this was… the worst. I didn’t know what to do with myself since mostly I can’t work from home. I thought about changing careers, driving cars, restaurants, whatever. I couldn’t deal with the thought that, for now, I was useless.

Instead, I studied. I practiced. I learned a LOT. They say that some things are blessings in disguise. I can’t look back at the pandemic with the feeling of ‘’that was nice’’. It wasn’t. It was awful. I was a shell of a man, of who I once was. Even now, I’m different from Mike pre-pandemic. But from all of this chaos, I grew a whole lot. I’m a much better professional than I ever was. I’ve improved.

So did Bia.

Ever watched Bia playing in 2020, in her ITFs? I know you didn’t, but I did. Wow, what a ride that was. The streaming was crap and the scenarios were underwhelming. There are no ball boys or line judges. All in the capable eyes of the chair umpire. It wasn’t easy for a fan, imagine for the player. From beating Muguruza at Wimbledon to playing the W25 Montemor-O-Novo. But hey, she won that tournament!

In fact, from 2020 to 2021, Bia Haddad won NINE ITF titles across clay and hard courts. 

If you play tennis, I think you’ll agree that even one single win can do WONDERS for confidence. It’s important to keep pushing, no pun intended! Imagine winning nine titles out of 10 finals in less than a year. You’d think you’re Serena Williams herself. That kind of mentality can only work in your favour.

Sadly I lost my 2020 messages with a close friend of mine. We would send each other ranking updates on a monthly basis of Bia’s run. This is me saying, in 2021: ‘’She’s serving much better. Forehand is much better too. BH winner on a TB, what is this. Bia has improved a LOT, my god!’’

Fast forward. Everyone in tennis twitter is talking about Bia. Good or bad, they are. She’s that girl, she’s relevant, she’s important and she’s a winner. 12 match winning streak, back to back titles on grass, masters final, doubles grand slam final, BEATING THE WORLD #1, all in 8 months. From sending prints of her ranked #200 saying ‘’she’s getting there’’, to seeing her #16 in the world…

I wasn’t banned, but I was restrained. I came back and conquered my space. I am now working every week, playing, recording, writing, having fun and making money. Bia came back and conquered her space, playing every week, winning titles and making rivers of money. Ironically, since I’ve been working much more, I missed almost all of her matches in Toronto, but who cares. The important thing is that she did it.

People call her a servebot. BIA! She had NO SERVE in 2020, for a player of her height. This friend of mine and I would constantly complain that she should do better on that shot and how her physique was underwhelming. But we were still rooting and waiting patiently for the days of wine and roses

All it takes is a week, or a couple of them. Maybe even a few months or a year. It takes hard work and patience especially coming from South America and Brazil.

 Well, open the wine and buy her some roses. It’s been one hell of a journey.