Spin Theory

Iga Świątek winds up for a spin-loaded forehand against Elena Rybakina at the Australian Open.

By Oscar Wood

Throughout her rise to the top of the sport in the last three years, there have perhaps been two elements of Iga Świątek’s game that have stood out. Things that have separated her from the rest of the field. 

The first is her movement. Her natural rapid foot speed is bolstered with brilliant anticipation skills. This was best showcased in last year’s Rome final, where Ons Jabeur hit multiple drop shots that would’ve been effective shots against the majority of the WTA field, only to see Świątek react early and chase them down for easy winners.

Then there’s the sliding. Her ability to slide into shots allows her not only to reach shots others can’t, but to do more with them — her open stance backhand on the slide is Djokovician — and to recover her court position for the next ball more quickly.

The second differentiator between Świątek and the field is the spin she hits with. While women’s tennis has had players whose average ground strokes can match the speed of many top male players for decades now, it has usually come at the compromise of spin generation. Świątek is one of the first on the WTA who can rival ATP players for heaviness: the combination of speed and topspin that determines how any given shot feels on the opponent’s racket at the point of contact. Such spin generation has two benefits. The weight of shot impacts the ability of the opponent to return and redirect shots in a similar way to how speed does; the heavier the shot, the harder the return. And the loop caused by the Magnus effect allows for more net clearance on shots hit with heavy topspin, allowing for a higher margin of error than flatter shots hit at the same speed.  

It is this spin generation that has made Świątek essentially “upset proof,” at least on tennis’ two most prominent surfaces. The margin for error on her aggressive ground strokes means her attacking game is the most reliable on tour. Any player who can’t match or surpass her own considerable firepower and put her on the back-foot is left hoping for a bad day that won’t come. Świątek lost just a combined eight times on clay and hard courts last season, and while the list of names to beat her isn’t exclusively the game’s best players, it does include the sport’s most aggressive and powerful hitters. Players who could prevent her playing on her own terms.

While this spin attack has been prevalent on the ATP since at least the days of Björn Borg, it is less common on the WTA Tour, where flat hitting has ruled since the power hitting revolution of the 1990s. Of course, there have always been dominant women that were known for their power hitting. In the 1920s and 30s, Helen Wills was considered the most powerful women’s baseliner ever, and she carried that power to 19 major singles titles. In the 1940s, sportswriters described Alice Marble as ‘playing like a man’ because of her heavy serve and forehand. It arguably wasn’t until the arrival of Monica Seles, however, that women’s tennis became known as a world of flat, power hitters. 

Seles, hitting both her forehands and backhands with two hands, dominated the early 1990s with Steffi Graf until her stabbing in 1993. She was followed by the likes of Lindsay Davenport, the Williams sisters, Amelie Mauresmo, Petra Kvitová and more recently Naomi Osaka. At the moment, the torch is being carried by the likes of Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina, Jelena Ostapenko, Caroline Garcia, Liudmila Samsonova and Madison Keys. While these players have their differences, they all share at least two of the following three things; powerful, flat groundstrokes, a big serve, and an aggressive first strike game. 

While Świątek is herself a powerful player, her brand of aggression is built much more around rhythm and point construction, compared to the first strike tennis of the aforementioned names. Unlike many of the true power hitters, she doesn’t have a big serve that will constantly allow her to start points on the front foot, and she’s less willing to hit low percentage winners from neutral or defensive positions. 

In the context of recent WTA history, this group of first-strike players can be seen as reflecting the heritage of women’s tennis, while Świątek could be viewed as its potential evolution. What makes this truly interesting, however, is that those flat hitters also represent the biggest challenge Świątek can face at the moment, almost like the history of women’s tennis is reluctant to give way to its future. As we’ve established, no one compares to Iga when it comes to high margin aggression built around top spin, and that quality makes it extremely difficult for counter punchers to live with her game. Which means this group of power hitters is essentially the only one that can reliably challenge her. 

Any player who plays at the limits of power and aggression has the ability to, as the cliché goes, take the racket out of their opponent’s hand. But for Świątek it possesses specific match up issues. Because her serve isn’t an area of strength, she will always be prone to a poor service game or an aggressive player catching fire on a few consecutive returns. As a result, dominant servers like Rybakina, Garcia and Samsonova, who are difficult to break even for a returner as good as Świątek, will always pose a potential problem. And because her offensive game is reliant on building her way into points, she can struggle to truly implement her game against the most aggressive players — if you’re never given the opportunity to wind up for a huge groundstroke, you won’t end up bossing many rallies.

For most of the 2022 season, of course, it seemed clear that this was a battle Świątek could clearly win. Her high margin aggression had proven to be superior to the more streaky power of her rivals, even if they could occasionally beat her on their day (Ostapenko in Dubai and Garcia in Warsaw) or be the biggest test for her during her winning streaks (Samsonova in Stuttgart). 

But something happened during Świątek’s loss to Sabalenka at the WTA Finals. Then at the Australian Open she lost to Rybakina, who was vanquished in the final by Sabalenka. Now the last four slams have been split between the spin game of Świątek and the flat hitting of Rybakina and Sabalenka. Suddenly, what was beginning to look like a clear new world for the WTA has gotten murkier again. Clearly there is still a story, and a rivalry of styles, to be told.

In many ways, what happened in Australia was the ideal result for the WTA. The dominant number one was stopped by a player only two years her senior, and someone who looks ready to regularly contend for the biggest titles. The title winner, meanwhile, had recently rediscovered her best game, and overcame past heartbreak and trauma to achieve the biggest breakthrough a tennis player can have. 

As a result, it’s reasonable to assume both Sabalenka and Rybakina, particularly the former, have what it takes to maintain the challenge long term. While Świątek’s position atop the rankings is still undisputed, it’s not ridiculous to think that the level of play Sabalenka has achieved this season could be the best in the game, and therefore capable of knocking the Pole off her perch if sustained.

Should such a battle for the top spot arise, the battle between Sabalenka and Świątek could be one for the ages. With both representing the best their genre of tennis has to offer at the moment, it could be seen as something of a battle for stylistic supremacy, a fight for the long-term future of the women’s game. Which will win out; the prominent style of the last three decades, or the potential new era?

Most signs still point in favour of Iga. Her dominant title run in Doha was a reminder of her unique brilliance. As alluded to earlier, her movement is an equally important asset she has over her competition. While most of her rivals have a bigger serve, they can’t scramble behind the baseline the way she can. That gives her the potential to also win while being the more defensive player in a match up, and by definition these opponents play a lower margin game that is more likely to fail on any given day. She also has already proven she can sustain championship-winning tennis for multiple tournaments in a row and avoid early round exits to an extent none of her rivals have been able to. It’s possible that even in a world where she struggles in specific matchups, that those players don’t reach the final rounds regularly enough to inhibit her dominance. Plus, Świątek is still just 21, and with a ruthless competitive spirit and a desire to improve, she still has a lot of room to grow, most notably in her serve and ability in the forecourt.  

But most importantly the challenge has been raised. For much of last year she had no true rival. While the likes of Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula did well to put themselves in positions to play her multiple times in latter stages, it was always clear they lacked the firepower to test her unless she was considerably below her best. On the basis of the last four months, Świątek’s 2023 could be far less straightforward. 

Whatever the outcome, it will be fun to see it unfold. 

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The Man Who Made Tennis Cööl

By Nigel Graber

As ’76 breaks, British life means three TV channels as grisly-grey as the sky. They carry fuzzy dispatches about rampant inflation, the Grunwick dispute, and billion-dollar bailouts from international banks. Meanwhile, the Sex Pistols spit in our faces and hairy footballers hoof heavy balls through cloying English mud. 

But in June, my world explodes. The gods bring sunshine that suggests a scorched-earth policy. The country is staggering into a fabled summer. Colour, light and life flood my dishcloth-drab world. 

Every day tops 30 degrees. The grass browns and earth cracks. It’s the summer of hosepipe bans, rampant ladybirds, and doomed fish.

Up on the usually frozen North-East coast, I know this is exceptional. This is a place where the North Wind routinely whips icy sea-spray against crumbling Marsden Rock and the lonesome Groyne Pier. 

I’m 13 and I’m posted to my gran’s for the summer with my uber-cool Adidas bag. Heatwave aside, though, my enthusiasm for the annual arrangement hasn’t troubled the Richter scale. ‘I think someone thinks he might be getting too old for this,’ she says. 

Yes, I’ve outgrown my Batman outfit and rummaging through rockpools no longer rivets. The beams from Souter Lighthouse that sweep my room at night and the clanks from the shipyard by day secretly make me sad. But I’m a sensitive kid and I cry privately at the idea of upsetting my gran like this. 

I search for something to hold my faltering attention. Then, something finds me. Something electric, something resolutely alive, something poundingly unreal. 

My experience of tennis to this point has been limited and unsatisfactory. Burly Australians and Americans welt unreturnable serves. If the point doesn’t die with a swiftly dispatched volley, then it takes a thousand very slow cuts all wrapped around the movement, footwork and poise of bad ballet.

No, the ‘artistic’ era of tennis wasn’t for me. Happily, on my grandparents’ 20-inch monochrome TV set, something altogether different is unfolding. 

A Viking has invaded Centre Court. He’s not charging the net as his contemporaries are wont to do. Instead, he hugs the baseline, commands it. 

His groundstrokes are loose buggy whips, an extension of the thin and linear force that begins in his deep-bent legs, gathers momentum throughout a lithe body, and explodes into the ball with a controlled yet violent twist of a toned torso. He dances on the balls of his feet, sharp shoulder blades like the wings of a diving eagle. 

This, I learn, is Björn Borg. He’s from Sweden, but he could be from Neptune. The American guy gets to net, but he might as well have been in it, like a fish, for all the good it does him. Borg uncoils his backhand and a mortar strike, almost invisible on the blurry screens of the day, smacks home.

There’s precious little slicing and dicing on view. Borg is hitting over the ball with an open stance. The spin is torrid, yet logical. There’s a net out there. To counteract it, a groundstroke should be like that looping mortar shot, not a bullet.

And what’s this? The Swede has two hands on that backhand, right up until the point of impact, the racket a continuation of his tanned arms, in a smart adaptation of a hockey slapshot. 

This isn’t the death-grip two-fisters we’d see in later years from Mats Wilander and Anders Jarryd. It’s languid, almost liquid, with a deep coil. In 1976, where others chopped at the ball, Borg flowed it over the net like water.

I’m 13, I’m impressionable, and I’ve never seen tennis played like this. Beyond Borg’s unique game, though, is something else. Something I’d come to know as an aura.

Some human beings live among us, yet they’re above us. They’re the eye at the centre of the cyclone, the silk against rough-hewn cotton. So it was with Borg. He was a fighter pilot, high above earthly concerns, aloft of the dirty business of trench warfare, fighting a clean battle way above the clouds.

In 1980, the year of Borg’s final triumph at Wimbledon, I’d visit Sweden and Norway, experience the stillness and silence of the Arctic tundra and understand a little of Björn’s serenity. His friend, the late Vitas Gerulaitis, told it best: ‘He simply doesn’t speak if there’s no need to say anything.’

And there’s another aspect to all of this. I’m a straight guy, not naturally attracted to other men. But there are men I’d like to look like. And this man… this man. Oh Lord. 

The sweep of blond hair tamed by the iconic headband. The cobalt eyes and Viking beard. The sinewed limbs. All wrapped up in THAT Fila gear and a cool mystique that would shame a misty millpond. One fan at Wimbledon danced her delight through each of his matches one year while twirling her bra above her head.

Borg gives the camera a slight smile following his iconic 1980 Wimbledon final victory.

In the late 70s, Borg advanced both the physicality and the mentality of tennis, outpacing rivals with iron discipline, drills, and dietary application. Marty Riessen, one of three Americans he would brush aside on the way to that ‘76 Wimbledon title, played with Borg for the Cleveland Nets in the World Team Tennis League. 

He said, ‘At Cleveland, the three guys were Björn, myself, and Bob Giltinan from Australia, and my abiding memory is Björn wanting to practise four hours straight – and Bob and I had to split that time to keep up with him, two hours each, back-to-back.’

Borg had a heartbeat as low as his string tension was high. His volleys on the Wimbledon grass – and he volleyed often – were low, flat and deep. On the way to five straight Wimbledon titles, he whipped Connors and McEnroe, players whose games were born for fast grass. And he lifted the French Open trophy six times.

Björn Borg showed me what tennis could be. But he also opened my eyes to another world. Life until then had been an insular British one of fish and chips, Dickie Davies teleprinter football on dismal winter afternoons, hooligan rebellion, and grey people doing grey things under grey skies. 

Borg carried the continental scent of Euro-chic. Even if I could follow it at the time largely only through the tennis press, the circuit followed the sun. Players touched down in glamorous spots: Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Sydney, California, Rome and Paris. And images of Björn captured him wherever life was coolest. Borg with Bianca Jagger at Studio 54 in New York. Borg and Johnny Mac playing the Classic Tour in St Tropez. Borg with Vitas under a cerulean sky on the marble terraces of the Monte Carlo Country Club. On the cover of Sports Illustrated. Running his sports outlet on the Avenue Princess Grace that winds around the Corniche Riviera.

Borg left tennis far too early, burned out and bothered. His legacy, though, includes a Wimbledon final for the ages from 1980 that features the classic 18-16 fourth-set tiebreak against Johnny Mac.

The event is encapsulated stirringly in the documentary ‘McEnroe/Borg: Fire and Ice’. The two friends reunite on Centre Court, staring wistfully across the game’s holiest patch, haunting violins in full flow. Borg turns to Mac and says, ‘You know, if you had broken me in the first game of the fifth set, then you would probably have won the match.’ He leaves it a beat or two as Mac smiles, then snaps his fingers, grins and adds in his broken Swedish-English… ‘BUT YOU DEEDN’T.’

Borg was an exotic god, larger than life, like a great movie or a favourite pop song heard leaping from the airwaves for the first time. His life within tennis was one of taut control, yet it began to unravel after he retired aged 26. 

The media carried reports of his business insolvency, his two divorces, a child-custody battle, and a Milan sleeping-pill overdose he insists was an accident. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to believe he could be mortal, as flawed and flimsy as the rest of us.

Today, life is happier. According to Mac, Borg is ‘somewhat at peace’. In Fire and Ice, John recalls Borg on the phone saying he loved him, and getting reprimanded by his wife for not responding in kind. Finally, John admits, ‘I’ve managed to get to the point where I can say it back.’

Borg was an enigma, but the third time he plays McEnroe, in New Orleans, is instructive about the Swede’s mentality. John’s acting up. Borg summons him to the net. ‘Oh my God, he’s gonna tell me I’m the biggest asshole that ever lived.’ Instead, Borg says, ‘Listen, John, this is just a game. Relax, take it easy.’ 

It was just a game. But Borg played it in a new way. A way that transcended ordinary experience, with unfaltering focus and pounding athletic violence. I’ll remember a rare fire that burned brightly and too briefly, and a legacy forever intertwined with that steaming summer of ’76.

Björn Borg didn’t just usher in the new, power era in men’s tennis. He was the new era. He ignited a love of the modern game in me, steering a misfit teenager into an adulthood I could almost be proud of. I’ll always be grateful.

Missing Roger Federer Hours…

I used to fucking hate Roger Federer.

…alright, maybe hate’s a strong word but I used to really dislike the guy. I found him to be built around a PR manager’s wet dream. He was idealistic in behaviour on the surface, puffed-up and preen on screen, crisp and ironed flat in outfit, prepared and at ease even in rare defeat. Like, if you’re going to lose, at least have the good grace to look angry at the universe while doing so. At least call someone a prick or something. Insult an umpire. Swear. Smash a racket. Do SOMETHING. And he had the audacity to win all the damn time which made it all the more annoying to those sorry few of us who couldn’t stand him.

He didn’t act how I wanted him to and he had enough love from everywhere else that I felt justified in my unwillingness to bend to the pressure to indulge in his worship. Was it childish? Absolutely but I make no apologies for that. Be a child about things. It makes life more exciting, I promise.

***

My feelings on Federer only really began to change as his injuries flared up and his game rusted through. His appearances on court became events, rare occurrences to be tuned into because who knew how many more times we’d see this? It was amusing though because as much as we all knew he’d retire soon, would he really though? Maybe he wouldn’t? Maybe he’d just keep going until the sky exploded and the world ended and even then, maybe he’d keep playing on the remains of this planet as it all fell away through space into dust?

He lost more towards the end. Opponents knew they could take him. They smelled his blood, this monster of the game wrinkled just a little more every time they saw him. He was less fluid and more clunky, only able to produce his usual stuff fewer and further between points, games, matches. He came down from the heavens to walk amongst mortals and found himself coming up short a great deal. This underbelly section of Federer’s career was fascinating because it showed signs from him that were likely always there, that his fans will undoubtedly tell me they saw all along, but that I’d always struggled to see and that was his fight, his sweat, his dirt, his difficulty. This wasn’t all glittery rainbows for him and perhaps it had never been but now it was clear and painted on his game that this sport was really fucking hard at times, even for those few that had spent decades making it look easy. Stripped away and laid bare outwith the armour that he’d built around himself, I saw Federer as a human clinging on to what he’d worked so hard to craft, that game of his that once came natural, now out of reach again and again and yes, one final time again. And I found myself liking him for his desperation. I found myself rooting for him, actively hoping for him, wanting, no, NEEDING him to stop time yet again for just a moment and have us staring upon all we knew or had at least once known him to be capable of. I wanted him to keep chasing the sun long after it had set.

I’ll add here that there was a point at the pinnacle of Federer’s career when many – including myself! – thought that it would never be seen again. This level, these records, this way of controlling all facets of a tennis match to such minuscule precision that it meant that his numbers could never be beaten, surely. We all watched though as these expectations were shredded evenly between his two biggest rivals. As his records got check-marked off one-by-one, I found it far easier to finally sympathise with the guy who once had it all and now merely had a lot.

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Rarely do people get perfection endings but I think most of us believed Roger Federer to be an exception, that he’d turn up in a cape with a trophy and superhero the moment like he had so many others. He’d whisper a thank you to us all as he took one final title and finish it all with a dad joke designed to make us laugh through the tears. He’d smile as the moon came out and the planets sparkled and it would all finish with a shooting star above his head, a last wish for his fans that this would not be a final goodbye but only a promise to see them around.

As it was, it ended how it ended, not with magic but with a final singles match we did not know to be final followed by an event of Federer’s own creation, his most notable career rivals crying over his shoulders in support of a man who had broken their hearts on so many occasions and had broken his on so many more. It wasn’t the oil painting many had wished for him but it is what Federer himself was clearly at ease with. Indeed, even impossible people have to accept limits and Federer – with his trophies, his millions and his family – seemed all too happy to finally embrace his.

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***

So do I now classify myself as a Roger Federer fan?! Now, half a year on from his retirement, when most have moved on and are comfortable with his absence from the professional tennis tour, am I now ready to say that I liked watching him play? That I wanted him to win sometimes?! That I was unfair in my feelings towards him in his prime?!

In short, I… don’t know?! Maybe?! I feel like I’d be doing a disservice to fans that followed him all the way if I now tried to count myself amongst their numbers. Maybe they’d come after me with pitchforks and flaming torches and maybe they’d be justified in doing so as well. But in all honesty, I don’t think that matters. I think you can miss someone even if you never really even liked them. Federer got on just fine without my adoration and while I perhaps wasted one too many an hour arguing with my friends about why I couldn’t bring myself to support him, I think that’s OK too.

But even though it barely makes sense to me, I do actually miss him. I used to fucking hate Roger Federer. And now I fucking miss him.

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Hamburg: A Fallen Giant on the Tennis Tour

By James Steel

When flicking through the ATP and WTA schedule it’s hard not to notice the tournament in Hamburg sticking out in the post-Wimbledon clay season. The tournament is sandwiched between the likes of Palermo and Bastad in a part of the season that most big names sit out. The tournament has had greater times and was once the lynchpin of the main clay season tour before Roland-Garros. While the tournament might now lack the relevance of a 1000-level event before a major, Hamburg had its heyday. Could it breathe a new lease of life into the tour even after its downfall? 

The site

The tournament is located in the Am Rothenbaum arena in the central northern area of Hamburg. The main centre court was completely redesigned in the latter part of the 2010’s and was reopened in 2020 with a reduced capacity of 10,000 (down from 13,200) with revamped seats to boost spectator comfort. A pixelated colour scheme was used around all four areas of the stadium and the entrance plaza was redesigned to make it more spacious and easier for fans to navigate around the site. Also in the main stadium, a retractable roof was fitted with the refurbishment to allow matches during rain (a frequent occurrence in northern Germany). It’s also a unique design with a main centre point where the roof material is stored – the material spreads out like a spider’s web to protect the court from the rain. (It also leads to an interesting shadow on the court when it’s very sunny.) The site also holds three seated outdoor courts, though they haven’t received the same levels of investment as the main centre court and thus are starting to show their age. If you were a player, you’d be praying for a centre court scheduling at the event. 

The high point

The tournament has been running in many forms since 1892 and at its current site since 1924. It received ATP Masters 1000 status at the start of the Masters Series era in 1990 until it was removed in 2008. During this time Hamburg occupied the third and final masters 1000 slot in the build up to Roland-Garros. Due to this the vast majority of the top 50 players in the world attended the event, including the majority of the world’s top ten. This was most apparent in the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal finals in the 2000s, whetting the fans’ appetite for rematches at Roland-Garros. Hamburg was the only big clay event where Federer had the edge against Nadal, with Roger picking up four titles –the most in the Open Era – to Rafa’s two. Other notable winners include Stefan Edberg, Andrei Medvedev and Guillermo Coria. 

The downfall

Though Hamburg lost its Masters 1000 status in 2008, the event’s downfall began three years earlier. In 2005, the Qizhong Forest Sports City Arena in Shanghai hosted the Masters Cup for the first time (they would then host it again in 2006, 2007 and 2008). The event was a huge success and really placed Shanghai on the sporting map. But with only a four-year contract, the venue wanted a more permanent arrangement with the ATP that would see big names flying into Shanghai for many a year into the future. This was intensified when the O2 Arena in London was given the rights to the renamed World Tour Finals. 

Because of this and serious financial backing from Chinese investors, the ATP struck a deal with the venue to host a Masters 1000 after the U.S. Open along with a revamped September schedule that included two ATP 500s in Beijing and Tokyo and two ATP 250s in Thailand and Malaysia. This, however, created an imbalance on the ATP circuit: There were already two indoor Masters 1000 events post U.S. Open. Adding a third Masters event plus an Eastern swing would overload the schedule. Something needed to go.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic shake hands following their insane 2008 Hamburg semifinal. You’ll scarcely see matches like that at the Hamburg tournament today, and not just because the legends are getting old. Screenshot: Tennis TV

So it was a toss up between Madrid and Paris for the tournament that was going to lose its Masters 1000 status. In the end it was decided that Madrid was the tournament that would need to go, but the Madrid organisers came back to the ATP with a counteroffer. The venue would change, not the status of the event. It would move from being an indoor hard court event in the autumn to becoming an outdoor clay court event in the spring. This was amenable to the ATP as tennis was a huge market in Spain and losing the only 1000-level event in the region could have consequences to the sport’s popularity. Another change would be the introduction of a WTA 1000 series event to be played the same week. Given that the ATP and WTA aims were for more mixed venue events, this helped seal the deal. 

The move to add Madrid into the main clay court swing held the same issues that Shanghai had with coming into the Autumn part of the season: event congestion. As such, the ATP needed to remove one of Monte-Carlo, Rome and Hamburg from the schedule. All events submitted reasons as to why they should remain on the calendar and the financial contributions they could offer and Hamburg came out with the worst offer. It was removed and Rome took its spot in the calendar with Madrid taking Rome’s spot, Monte-Carlo remaining unaffected in its slot at the start of the clay season.

Hamburg was allowed to remain an ATP sanctioned event, however. They were downgraded from the Masters 1000 status to the ATP 500 status. This could’ve saved the event from losing too much appeal to big name stars as Barcelona was an ATP 500 event and regularly attracted many top ten players, but the ATP also took the opportunity to move the event from the main clay court season in April/May to the post-Wimbledon clay season in July. This was the major hammer blow for the event’s appeal: This time of year rarely saw top 10 players playing on the post-Wimbledon clay. The main players who played these events were clay court specialists who were rarely ranked inside the world’s top 10. Rafa vs. Roger became a distant memory for the event. 

This is where the event has stayed since 2009. There was a brief Rafael Nadal reappearance in 2015, but barring that it’s been the same clay court specialists using the event to boost their ranking before hitting the North American hard court swing. In 2021, a WTA 250 event was brought to the same venue, but the problem of its spot in the calendar remains. The event was also used in 2020 as a pre-October Roland-Garros build up tournament and had a major uptick in top quality players to the event, but barring future pandemics and/or massive rescheduling shifts, this was a one-off. 

The future

Looking ahead, there may be a slight revival to Hamburg’s prestige. Roland-Garros will host the tennis in the 2024 Olympic Games. The August Olympics fall perfectly in the schedule for the post-Wimbledon clay tournaments to function as warm-ups. So expect an ATP 500/WTA 250 like Hamburg to attract many 10 ten players looking to get matches on the clay before going for Gold in Paris. However, post-2024, it doesn’t look like much will change for the event in terms of growth. The same clay court specialists will grace the July clay in northern Germany and it will be difficult to attract top 10 players to the event.

Is Andy Murray the Fourth-Best Male Player of All Time?

By Nigel Graber

At the age of 55, it suddenly hit me that ‘The Beatles’ was a play on the word ‘beat’. Yeah, I’m perceptive like that. It’s one of those game-changing, lightbulb revelations that fells you like a girder. Like discovering an 18-inch pizza has more pizza than two twelve-inchers.

A recent tweet by US tennis pro Reilly Opelka belongs squarely in this round hole. Let’s wind back to January’s Aussie Open. I’m watching Andy Murray’s frankly ludicrous five-set victory over Thanasi Kokkinakis, a couple of days after his frankly ludicrous five-set victory over Matteo Berrettini.

Shortly after the frank ludicrousness stopped, Opelka tweeted something about Murray being all-time number four. I blinked hard. Bloody hard.

Yeah, all-time number four in men’s tennis. Ahead of Lendl, Connors, Rosewall. Ahead of Borg and Mac. Ahead of Laver and Sampras, for Gawd’s sake.

Now, history’s weapon of choice in deciding greatness is slam titles. And Murray has only three of those, against Sampras’ 14 and Laver’s 11. In this metric, Andy’s 21st in the Open era. The ATP site’s Performance Zone has him at 14th overall on win-loss. (But given that Kent Carlsson is 16th, you might want to sprinkle that with salt.)

And yet, and yet… Reilly, mate, I’m kinda with you. Even with your post-match ultra-recency bias.

All right, all right. I should show my hand. From the moment a gawky Scottish kid who looked like the dweeb from Gregory’s Girl lifted the US boys’ title in 2004, I was in Andy’s corner.

For a decade, I wrote match reports on a well-known fan site. I penned an April Fools piece that drew a retaliatory press conference from the man himself and a comment from Petch on Sky Sports. And another that caused the entire Spanish-speaking press to believe he was playing Rome for the ladies’ prize money.

I was there in Ghent when he lifted that lob in the Flanders Expo and rolled in the dirt in ecstatic abandon. I stole a selfie in the Monte Carlo sunshine and grinned like a Lotto winner. I followed Andy to Wimbledon, Queen’s, and Glasgow. I was a mini-roadshow.

So I declare an interest. Hey, if they sold shares in the guy, I’d have played FTSE right from when he was a startup.

In the Big Four era – and it was, prior to The Metal Hip – Andy was a standout number four. And yes, sure, I know the drill. He was d’Artagnan, Ringo Starr, Donatello. But he scratched his way to three slams, two Olympic gold medals, 14 Masters 1000 titles, the ATP Finals trophy and a Davis Cup win from under the noses of the three finest players of all time. So who’s laughing now?

But all-time number four? All-time?

This is where you expect me to apply an algorithm to each specific era of men’s tennis to establish base-level probability from which we can safely draw mathematical conclusions.

That’s not happening, for reasons of personal idiocy. But what we can do is examine the eras in which his rivals for that fourth spot competed. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll look at the highest scorers. 

Sampras (14 major titles)

One man’s weak era is another’s mega-strong-across-the-board talent, but Sampras went years without being challenged by a consistent number two. Agassi? In between his wigs, his fluffy pandas, his star-crossed dalliance with Brooke Shields, and his alleged hatred of the sport, Andre dipped in and out.

Beyond that, Pete caught the fading tail-lights of the Becker, Edberg, Wilander, Johnny Mac era, challenged intermittently only by a bunch of what we’d call regular top-tenners: Rafter, Goran, Stich.

Aside from all that, there’s not a pundit alive who would say Pete had a complete game. His lack of a world-class backhand glowed in the dark and deprived him of anything beyond a semi at Roland-Garros. 

No. 4 credentials: 7/10

Borg (11 majors)

Swede Bjorn Borg’s 11 slams have to come with an Abba-sized asterisk – in his favor. At the time, the Australian Open was reserved for marsupials. A guy would go down there only if he’d won the other three and was chasing a grand slam. And Borg never troubled Qantas. 

Borg also retired at 26, an age when today’s Big Three were barely hitting their stride. His career is as unfathomable, unknowable and unimaginable as the enigma himself. But in another golden era, when McEnroe and Connors hunted him to the ends of the Earth, he arguably, marginally, edges Sampras.

No. 4 credentials: 8/10

Emerson (12 majors)

Aussie Roy Emerson pulled 12 slams but nobody, nobody anywhere, considers him an all-time great. But hey, the guy has 28 slams, singles and doubles. Emerson was quick, fit and tall for his time. But his record was heavily skewed by vulturing six Aussie Opens, at the time by far the weakest of the four slams. 

Emerson also stuck to his guns as an amateur when rivals such as Laver turned pro and forfeited slams. For the record, Roy’s head-to-head against Rocket Rod was 3-22. I rest my case.

No. 4 credentials: 6/10

Laver (11 majors)

Another coulda, shoulda, woulda. The Rockhampton Rocket won 11 slams and two calendar grand slams. For the five years that preceded the Open era (aged 25-30), Laver was banned from playing slams. How much damage could he have done?

In an era of Rosewall, Hoad, Emerson, Roche, Newcombe, Santana and Ashe, the competition wasn’t too shabby. Laver has a strong case.

No. 4 credentials: 8/10.

Which brings us to Andy. 

Andy, Andy, Andy… what are we going to do with you?

Did Murray mix it in the toughest era of all time? Inarguably. Did he make it to world number one in this era of all eras? Yes, for 41 weeks. Did he make the final of every slam event? Yes. Who did he face in his 11 finals? Djokovic or Federer in all but one (and Nadal in a bunch of semis). Does he have an impressive Masters record? Fifth of all time, ahead of Pete.

On the ATP site’s Performance Zone and on Tennis Abstract, Murray sits at the top table for every stat. He’s fifth all-time after winning the first set. He’s converted 43.15% of all of his break points (Novak clocks in at 44.31%). He’s seventh on the all-time Returns in Play stat (way ahead of Djokovic).

From 2008 to 2016, the final pre-metal hip year, Murray finished year-end top four in all but one year (2014, when he was once more returning from rehab). As one of the Big Four, he was one quarter of an elite club that occupied all four semi-final spots at majors four times and three of the four spaces on nine other occasions. 

In 2011, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray hijacked 14 out of the 16 slam semi spots and 13 out of 16 the following year. Murray is the only player, male or female, to have won two Olympic golds in singles tennis. At the end of 2016, Andy put together a senseless run that included two Masters titles and the year-end ATP Finals.

It’s perhaps at Masters level that Murray’s at his most gobsmacking. Fourteen titles, with only Monte Carlo and Indian Wells of the nine missing from his résumé, is far from shabby in any era. 

And there’s the rub. We can pore over stats from dawn to dusk, but everything we look at has to be through a prism of three small words. In. This. Era. In this era where three men combined to win an insane 64-majors-and-counting and Murray managed to win as much as he did anyway. What would Murray have achieved had he been born ten years earlier? Or later?

Unquestionably, if we accept there was indeed a Big Four era, it was one of three kings and a prince. But it was at the high court of the most imposing empire in tennis history.

We can’t compare generations. Laver can’t play Murray at their respective peaks. You can simply look at the evidence and make a best guess. Or just defer to a seven-foot, bearded American pro for jolting your consciousness a degree or two and forcing you to examine history a little more forensically.

Thanks, Reilly. 

Pete Bodo on Tennis Media

Pete Bodo (pictured on the right) knows tennis. In 2007, he penned a piece called “The Perfect Player” about one Novak Djokovic, highlighting the remarkable balance in the then-19-year-old’s game. Such a take seems obvious in retrospect now that Djokovic has won 22 majors, more than any other man sans his longtime rival Rafael Nadal, but 2007 was 16 long years ago, the days of Richard Gasquet being known as the original “Baby Federer,” (!!) and Federer himself enjoying the thick of his peak years. Back then, Djokovic was known for his frequent physical frailty, not just the seamless balance in his game.

“Jeez, you saw that?” Bodo, 73, laughed on Zoom when I brought up the piece. His career, spanning an incredible 50 years, includes dizzying highs like winning the WTA Tour award for “Best Writer of the Year” twice and ghostwriting Pete Sampras’s autobiography. But even he couldn’t entirely foresee the scale of Djokovic’s dominance. “I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted this level of achievement,” he said. “So many things can go wrong — anything from physical problems to family-related stuff to people getting satisfied. They hit a certain level and all of a sudden they don’t train as hard, they’re not motivated, they’re happy in the slot they’re in.”

“When you think about it,” Bodo continued, “this is going to sound insulting, but by the clinical definition it’s not — [tennis players] are kind of like idiot savants. I mean, can you imagine going out and hitting, like, 3,000 forehands every day of your life? It’s a very, very curious thing to me that these players can really keep the degree of focus and discipline and enthusiasm in what they do.” Thinking about it from this angle, maybe an event like Dominic Thiem’s dip in motivation following his victory at the 2020 U.S. Open or even Ash Barty’s sudden retirement should be greeted with, “but of course,” rather than shock. Endless careers at the highest level like Serena and Venus Williams’ as well as the Big Four’s are very much the exception, not the rule. “That degree of fidelity to your ambitions, your talent, your dreams, the game, the discipline,” Bodo marveled, “in some ways, that’s the rarest thing in this period of tennis history.”

From Bodo’s fascination with what drives players, it’s easy to glean why he entered the world of tennis media in 1973 and hasn’t left since. But telling good stories about the sport isn’t easy. Successful execution requires riding a fine line between earning a player’s trust to be able to speak with them and expressing enough of an opinion to make a piece interesting. “I had a reputation for being a players’ person,” Bodo told me. “Because for the longest period of my career, when I was writing magazine profiles and covering tournaments, I really felt that my job was to be the conduit from the players to the public. My job was to really bring them to life – who they are. Not necessarily to pass judgments on them, or to have opinions about them, other than the kind of stuff that makes for interesting reading.” To do that, keeping the players happy was key.

Writing a story that criticizes a player (shockingly) isn’t always compatible with that player’s satisfaction. “You’re really beholden to your subjects,” Bodo explained. A journalist can’t always go after someone who might deserve to be ripped, as that might kill the odds of the subject cooperating for future projects. Just look at the way some of the White House media would cozy up to Trump — anyone who didn’t might see their ability to ask him questions taken away.

I suggested that access could even be a drawback in terms of writing an interesting piece — many tennis players are media-trained to within an inch of their lives. Ask Djokovic what he was thinking during a vital moment of a major final and he’ll begin his answer by thanking the fans or praising his opponent. If you write a piece channeled mainly by what a player says, there might not be much to work with. “It’s very interesting that you say that, because I have actually preached this, and I’ve preached this in my attempts to get interviews,” Bodo responded. While many may think of interviews as an opportunity for the journalist, really, it’s an opportunity for a player to set the record straight on a given topic. Bodo once tried to set up an interview with Stefanie Graf during a tense point in her career. Graf declined. “I was like, ‘you’re freeing me up to write what I think,'” Bodo told me. “If you talk to me — look, I consider myself a reasonable human being. If somebody does me the courtesy of actually talking to me and explaining their position, they’re gonna come out looking a lot better!” This kind of exchange, Bodo said, is pretty standard in journalism.

Bodo clarified that he never writes vindictively, but by declining an interview, someone loses the possibility of having their personal perspective baked into a piece. “I believe, in some ways, you actually have a better story if you don’t talk to these people, but you have really done your homework on their careers and the issues at play.” That last clause is key — speculation is only valuable if it’s educated. Few would want to read an uninformed writer’s musings on a given player. “Not getting the interview is often a real plus — if you can convince whoever’s gonna run your material that they still want it.”

But Bodo didn’t spend the first phase of his career in accordance with that principle. To adequately fill the responsibility of player-public conduit, he was friendly with players, to the point that he was sometimes criticized for it. It was a thoroughly successful way to get access to them. Though it made negative assessment of players much more difficult –“You can’t really go after some people who maybe need going after in your eyes, because you’ll shut the door on them cooperating in the future,” — Bodo made connections with many players on tour, allowing him to report about them to the public. A line from the Amazon description of his book The Courts of Babylon: Dispatches from the Golden Age of Tennis reads as follows:

THE COURTS OF BABYLON is more than a collection of essays, most of them growing out of a deep familiarity and, often, relationship with subjects that include Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Evonne Goolagong, Jimmy Connors, Tracy Austin, Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova.

Speaks for itself, doesn’t it? But Bodo also wanted to write about his own opinions on tennis, not just its players. He developed an interest in the blogging revolution, growing intrigued by the idea of simply saying what he thought. In the early 2000s, he was a senior writer at TENNIS magazine. He posed the idea of a blog to the higher-ups. “Frankly, TENNIS magazine was struggling, so we had a couple changes in leadership,” Bodo told me. (The magazine survived those struggles, but folded last October.) Perhaps swayed by the burgeoning shift from print to online, TENNIS allowed him to create a blog under their digital umbrella.

The blog was called TennisWorld, and it featured all manner of opinions. “I liked the personal touch you could take with it, the freedom you had to essentially say what you were thinking,” Bodo said. At TennisWorld, Bodo did not have to worry about access. He could focus on starting interesting dialogues, either by writing or responding to commenters. Scroll down to the comment section on the Djokovic piece and you’ll quickly see how rich it is. You have your fair share of tweet-sized contributions, but also longish personal anecdotes, deep comparisons between various players, and one gigantic block of stats from the Agassi-Sampras rivalry. Journalists Miguel Seabra and David Law (now the co-host of the wildly successful Tennis Podcast) even showed face under that post. Read through the comments and you’ll probably either remember something from 2007 that you had forgotten or learn something new about tennis, period.

“We had an unbelievable community,” Bodo remembered. People became friends (or more) with each other. Some would hang out on the site on holidays; Bodo fondly mentioned virtual “Christmas parties” in which people would just drop in and chat with each other. TennisWorld alumni can be found all over Twitter, many of whom have gone on to write at prestigious publications — Courtney Nguyen, Juan José Vallejo, and Lindsay Gibbs among them. Some of them did their first tennis writing on TennisWorld, where Bodo would sometimes cede the floor to guest contributors. Vallejo once wrote a comment on Nadal so extensive that it was reposted on fan websites and later posted on his Medium page. He and Gibbs even partnered with Amy Fetherolf to start their own tennis website, The Changeover, in late 2012.

“All kinds of friendships were made,” Bodo recalled fondly, naming various commenters, contributors, and moderators — Rosangel Valenti, Skip Schwarzman, Andrew Burton, Asad Raza, Andrew Friedman. I imagine he could have named dozens of others. Bodo would go out of his way to respond to comments, whether they asked questions, disagreed with him, or merely were interesting. The commenters’ familiarity with Bodo helped build the community. “It became like this one big family,” he said. Burton has even uploaded a few YouTube videos in which he spends time with other TennisWorld contributors at tournaments.

Lots of TennisWorld pieces have fallen to link rot, but if you look hard enough, you can still find plenty of articles on the site, both by Bodo and other contributors. They often bear little similarity to typical tennis coverage. There’s a kind of happy irreverence to many of them, some of which I imagine came from the writers not being under pressure to be entirely objective, depend on player access, or even hide the naked enthusiasm of being a fan.

After a few years, posts upon posts, and over a million and a half comments, further changes in ownership at TENNIS and changes to contracts within the site’s structure made it less appealing for Bodo to continue updating TennisWorld, which had become a daily project. “It’s kind of sad that it all went to hell because we had a heck of a community there, with hundreds of people posting every time I wrote anything,” he reminisced. Bodo does not seem to be a sentimental man — he was even surprised at how little memorabilia he had from his career when I asked him for a thumbnail photo for this article — but he expressed some disappointment that TENNIS didn’t seem to want to pursue the blog route long-term, and happiness at the memories of the TennisWorld community, some of whom he remains in touch with or meets up with occasionally. With no character caps on the comments and a group of eager tennis fans, the sky was the limit.

Tennis Twitter it was not. For all the virtues of quick communication on the popular social media app, having to craft an argument in three or four-sentence chunks does not lend itself well to debate, tennis or political. Bodo recently criticized Victoria Azarenka in a tweet for clapping back at the press when asked about Djokovic’s father posing (Srjdan is not pro-war, he recently clarified in a statement) with pro-Putin Australian Open attendees. The tweet, the last line of which is probably excessive no matter how you feel about the rest of it, was lit up by a number of people. Over a call, Bodo had more time and space to explain his line of thinking — he said the point of such a question, which Azarenka was wondering, was, “to address a very important geopolitical situation as we head for World War III.”

“You can’t tell me it’s not a new story in tennis,” Bodo continued, “because half the people are complaining about Wimbledon having no points. It’s a legitimate story in tennis.” He expressed frustration at journalists being criticized for looking for stories — are the press looking for a story? Sure! The mission of the press, he said, is to write stories, which was why Azarenka’s irritation at the press specifically irked him. He’d prefer athletes to say “no comment” in such situations — they still don’t have to answer the question, but they wouldn’t shame the press. Condensing all that into a tweet is hard enough, though, and having a nuanced conversation about a sensitive subject on Twitter is borderline impossible, especially when thirty people are screaming at you in your mentions.

The tweet in question.

During that same press conference, Azarenka mentioned a concern that whatever she said would be twisted into a clickbaity headline. “What do you want me to say?” she asked repeatedly. The sentiment is common among tennis players — I think this is why so many of them are almost comically diplomatic, seeming intent on stressing that they respect their opponent deeply before actually responding to a post-match question. They just don’t seem to trust the media as an institution, leading to bunches of tired cliches. (“I do it for God,” “I got lucky on a few of the big points,” and “I really respect my opponent” are on the leaderboard.) “How do we get away from that?” I asked Bodo.

“You can’t,” he said flatly. “Because the sport in that regard has been industrialized.” Oh.

“In media training,” he elaborated, “they are told to avoid controversial subjects. They’re not trained to say no comment…They’re trained to basically accentuate the positive things about themselves, about their game, to avoid controversy. It’s obsessive.” And when players clap back at the press, Bodo thinks journalists back off too quickly in an effort to be nice. “The press has been turned into a public relations vehicle for the player,” he told me.

“I believe, in some ways, you actually have a better story if you don’t talk to [tennis players], but you have really done your homework on their careers and the issues at play.”

In the early days of Bodo’s career, press conferences weren’t the norm. “When I started covering tennis,” he recalled, “you walked back to the locker room with some dude and sat down on a bench while he took off his sweaty stuff and stood before you naked and answered some questions for you.” While the nudity element has been phased out for good reason, the one-on-one format was an opportunity for more of a back-and-forth — the current press conferences are more like a teacher calling on a room of students. Ask your question, get your answer, then sit on your hands. Journalists still have one-on-one interviews with players, but it’s much more difficult than it was — they tend to be set up through media representatives, who often decline on behalf of the player. (I’ve reached out to a few reps myself, and I’m at the point where even getting a response is a legitimate victory, regardless of the answer always being no so far.)

Players’ fear that whatever they say will be warped into a misleading headline has likely only been made worse by Twitter and social media. Quotes can be presented out-of-context (looking at you, Luigi Gatto), leading to fans of one player dogpiling someone if they feel their favorite has been disrespected. “I gotta say, it’s kind of a cesspool,” Bodo said of Twitter. The way he speaks of the site is the opposite of the fond way in which he remembers TennisWorld; he thinks the nature of the app makes people approach it from a combative mindset rather than a communal one. Besides tweeting out links to his pieces, which Bodo enjoys — he mentions the aesthetically pleasing thumbnails when linking to an article — “I kind of have to go in holding my nose.”

It might sound harsh, initially, especially to someone who spends hours a day on Twitter (which I do, and if you are reading this, given how many of this website’s views come from Twitter, you may well too). And Tennis Twitter certainly has its benefits — connections can be built there as well. This website wouldn’t exist without it, nor would many of my close tennis friendships. But Twitter also exacts a cost, to productive tennis discourse as well as mental health.

Bodo is concerned that coverage of the sport is evolving away from fair criticism, especially when fans get involved in journalism. Allegiances aren’t the issue so much as someone being unwilling to criticize a player. “There’s a lack of real criticism in tennis, I think,” Bodo opined. “Of real, open-minded, fair criticism… It’s very much advocacy journalism, fan journalism. And that’s a little discouraging. People are very wedded to their heroes, and to the game, and they don’t want to criticize, et cetera. I think there’s an enormous gap there.”

Bodo then touched on perhaps the central question of fandom. “How can you worship somebody who’s, like, 30 or 40 years old and you’ve never met?” he asked, seeming genuinely perplexed. “I’ve spent my life among [professional tennis players]. I’ve had food with them. I’ve babysat their kids. I’ve talked to them, their coaches, their trainers, their agents, everybody. Over and over. [Fans] have never talked to these people, yet they’re gonna tell you what a jerk you are because of what you wrote about such-and-such a player.” He pauses for a second. “That’s fandom.”

That’s a bad corner of it, anyway. There are obviously scores of unproblematic fans, but all too often they’re drowned out by the more vocal extremists, for lack of a better word. It’s a problem on two levels — the inability of a journalist to criticize a player makes it difficult to have a productive professional dialogue about tennis; the inability of a fan to criticize a player kills the more informal debates. Both probably impede outsiders’ understanding of how tennis is actually functioning. Twitter’s overly digestible format allows everyone to vent back and forth, often in arguments where both parties endlessly straw-man each other. Writers and journalists frequently come under fire for being biased when the angry party hasn’t even bothered to read their pieces. It’s no wonder Bodo largely stays away besides tweeting links to his new articles.

*****

Bodo and I finished our chat with an obligatory few minutes on the future of tennis. As clearly flawed as many structures in the sport are, there’s no quick fix. People are constantly pushing for change in tennis, and rightly so, but Bodo pointed out that a new system requires the unraveling of the old system. “The ITF, like it or not, is in charge of the worldwide grassroots game,” he said. “If you want to throw that out by taking that money away so they can’t donate 17 million dollars to developing tennis in Africa, and having tournaments and Challengers and youth programs in Africa, fine. But you know what? One of the operational parts of the ITF is the outreach to the grassroots community. So I think that needs to be better understood. You can’t just say, ‘the USTA makes so much money, but they don’t really spread it to the players.'”

Bodo observed all the different entities on the tennis tour — the ATP, the WTA, the four individual Grand Slam events, the ITF — and how hopelessly scattered yet somehow simultaneously intertwined they are. Mass change would require these organizations, which may have conflicting interests at any given moment (recall that Wimbledon vs. ATP/WTA debacle last year), to act in tandem. The more profitable branches of the tour might be asked to share the wealth, and the branches of the tour don’t answer to anybody but themselves. It’s as if a pair of already-tangled headphones decided to take a bath in some hot glue. Which is why the early “hey, wouldn’t it be great if the tours united” tweets during the pandemic never amounted to anything. It’ll take more than a positive sentiment to get from Point A to Point B. It’ll require effort and sacrifice.

“How do you unwind what you have,” Bodo asked, “to make the better thing happen?” It’s a question that tennis, this enchanting sport that has us in raptures despite its many many flaws, will likely continue to ignore.

As for the future of tennis journalists? “Maybe what comes next is a revival of longform, classical journalism, which would be wonderful,” Bodo said optimistically. But I figured it was to balance out the tone of what he had just told me prior to that. Bodo recalled that he didn’t even aim to be a tennis writer. “But I knew the game, the tennis boom had just occurred, and there was an interest in having tennis content.” 15 years after starting at TENNIS magazine, “I woke up and it turned out I had achieved a little niche in the industry.”

“But I don’t think that occurs anymore!” he said. “I don’t think you can go into tennis and get that kind of a foothold and have that flourish and blossom into something much bigger, and something maybe you didn’t even anticipate.” I got the sense that Bodo was talking about TennisWorld again on some level, not just the way young tennis careers had more room to thrive in the past.

“Those days are gone, unfortunately.”

What to Look Forward to in February

By James Steel

As the confetti lays still on the courts of Melbourne the tennis world bids a fond farewell to the Australian Swing and turns its attention to the Sunshine Double. But before then, there are a range of exciting, if not bitty tennis tournaments for tennis fans and players to get their teeth into. I’ll go into some main stories that could come to fruition and where they will happen.

Alcaraz’s return

Carlos Alcaraz is making his much-awaited return to the tour in South America. Currently, the world number 2 will be the top seed in the ATP 250 event in Buenos Aires and the ATP 500 event in Rio De Janeiro. (Rio was the first ATP 500 Carlos ever won last year, defeating Diego Schwartzman in the final.) Carlos played arguably his best tennis last year on the clay, beating Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in succession in Madrid, and as such it looks like a good surface to build back match practice after the leg injury.

Carlos will be joined by a range of ATP players including British number one Cameron Norrie, who is taking on the February clay for the first time (yes a Brit is playing a February clay event). Lorenzo Musetti will be there too, whose biggest title
to date was on the post-Wimbledon clay at the ATP 500 in Hamburg where he beat
Alcaraz in the final. Dominic Thiem, who is looking to use these tournaments to build back his ranking, will be also present on the golden swing.

Ridiculously staked WTA events

It seems that with another February comes another stupidly high-staked WTA event. This is seen most prevalently at the WTA 500 in Doha where the lowest-ranked player with direct entry is Martina Trevisan, who has an entry ranking of 21. If you look at the Qualifying list for Doha you will end up doing a double take. Barbora
Krejčíková, Elena Rybakina and Amanda Anisimova are all currently due to play
qualifying. Now most can agree that they would make the seeding of a range of WTA 250 events so it will be a shock to see them in qualifying, but the lack of tournaments in this time means that this is a reality — everyone is forced to play the same events, leading to incredibly high-quality fields even in smaller tournaments.

Ridiculously staked ATP events (?!)

This may make you all do a double double take but yes, looking at the current ATP draw sheets there are a range of major titlists and Masters 1000 winners who are looking to participate in the 250s and 500s this February. The most notable examples of this would be the Rotterdam ATP 500 whereby you have Tsitsipas, Rublev, FAA, Rune, Hurkacz, Medvedev, Khachanov and Zverev all occupying the seeded positions. Sinner is on the entry list but isn’t even seeded! Another example would be Doha where Nadal is joining Rublev, FAA, Medvedev and Zverev at a 250! Novak Djokovic is expected to hit Dubai as well so expect to see most of the top 20 in action very regularly this February.

First main tour title hunters

This time of year usually gives players who don’t hold a main tour title the opportunity to win their first tournament. Some examples of recent first time winners in February include Sasha Bublik in Montpellier, Felix Auger-Aliassime in Rotterdam and Pedro Martinez in Santiago. All of them picked up their maiden title last year. There are then a range of players who are still trophyless but looking good for their first title. These include Jack Draper, Ben Shelton and Jiří Lehečka. All of these players are down for multiple tournaments this month, so let’s see if they can break their duck.

Davis Cup Qualifiers

This month sees the start of the journey to Malaga as 24 teams take to courts all around the world to get through to the group stages of the Davis Cup. Some of the
strangest ties see the United Kingdom heading to the Columbian clay, the United
States heading to Uzbekistan and a very interesting clash between Germany and Switzerland. We may all have some fatigue from team competitions after
the United Cup but I’m sure the allure of supporting your nation will still convince people to watch the event.

Novak Djokovic and Difficult Heroes

Embed from Getty Images

It got him then, right there where he stood, surrounded by a team of those he loved, and the effect was instantaneous, sending him down and to the floor where he lay and wept openly as the world looked on from the camera above.

An often polarising figure, Novak Djokovic has never found it difficult to be open with his opinions and thoughts but this here and now, in the shadow of his 22nd major title and ascension back to the world number 1 position, was a peeling back of the skin to show the heart that beats and tries and tires and cares beneath the surface of a man frequently described as an undeniable forever-there of a player. 

This reaction was not altogether unexpected. Djokovic’s tears reflect back a year and more, taking into account his deportation from Australia at the start of 2022 and further back still into his at times frosty relationship with the media throughout the pandemic that threatened to skew his portrayal from less of a misunderstood individual into a more villainous anti-hero. Now though, his emotions continued to fall when he was back sitting courtside as he struggled to contain all that he was feeling, his towel marked with a damp map of the journey he’s been on. Lost opportunities and future possibilities will leave you grieving just a little even in victory.

***

I don’t believe Djokovic has gone about everything over the last few years in the ways that he should have done. At times, I’ve been frustrated with his attitude and refusal to switch things around so that tennis could be the primary focal point of his life. But in my inner-conflict, my love for him grew because my god, I adore my messy protagonists, those ones that leave you questioning desperately to the heavens as to why they are the way that they are but knowing deep down that if they weren’t, if they changed even for a moment, even for a second, they’d lose the thing that makes them go. It’s that refusal to cave even when you think that they should that keeps you coming back with an eye-roll and slight smile of annoyed acceptance. I need my players to irritate me to no end and to have me wondering why I even bother sometimes. I want them to shake my head for me in disappointment and then have me forget it all in a moment of their genius. I want them to send me to bed telling myself that I’m done with them, only to have me getting up the next day praying that they’ve won. I need flawed brilliance and dented perfection. I’d implore you to try disagreeing with your favourites once in a while. It’s fun, I promise!

In any case, Djokovic’s abilities seemingly know no earthly boundaries whether you like him or not. He seems monstrously content with weathering storms both on and off the court, gazing up at the thunder and lightning dark with a confidence ready, as though poised to climb right up there among them if he needs to. And he has needed to, so many many times to sort out issues in his tennis and his personal life, rewiring the sky to give himself a bit more sunlight to work with. And in the end, the man so well known for laughing in the rain finds himself in tears now when the clouds have washed themselves gone.

To see Djokovic succeed here again, in a place that represents many career highlights and one of his very biggest career lowlights, demonstrates a mental ability to move on when so many are still desperate to remind him of his past. It bookends a year that had victory for him and many of them but felt tied to its opening chapter of visa issues and vaccine statuses. This win felt cathartic, shaking him to his knees with a distinct gratifying heaviness that can only really be defined as a promise to step forwards from all of this.

I feel Djokovic needed this tournament. To see him get it is a reminder that while writers of history may fall at times, their pens so very rarely quiver.

Novak Djokovic accepts applause after winning his 22nd major title at the Australian Open 2023. Screenshot: AO Youtube Channel

Supernova(k)

Novak Djokovic is a better player now than he was ten years ago.

It took me a while to believe this. My brain would melt when I’d watch clips of his gymnastic retrievals from 2012 and 2013, and as impressively as he defends now, it’s not quite as insane. (Look at some of the stuff he does here, for instance.) But everything else has gotten better. His serve, once an unreliable shot in the dark — he hit more double faults than aces in the entire 2010 season — is now one of the best in the world. Combine that with a forehand he can paste as hard as anyone, and you have a serve-plus-one game that is very much in the Peak Roger Federer mold.

That alone makes Djokovic good enough to beat most players on tour. He didn’t lose his serve once in the 2019 Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal, he only lost it twice in the 2021 final against Daniil Medvedev. But then you have the return of serve, arguably his greatest asset. No matter who you are, Djokovic will eventually get a read on your serve. You’ll thwack a 135 mph bullet down the T and Djokovic will send a comet back at your feet. His first service game is usually easy, a hold at love or 15, while his opponents immediately find themselves dragged to deuce or worse.

Just listen to what Medvedev says about his first service game in his 2021 final loss to Djokovic at 5:20 of this video — he wasn’t tight and made all his first serves, only to get broken anyway.

There’s the backhand, unrivaled in its consistency and timing. The feathery drop shot. The continuously improving touch at net. The ability to change direction off both wings at any point in a rally. The smothering depth on his groundstrokes.

What makes Djokovic most amazing is not any one of these attributes. In fact, none of them in isolation are exactly paramount to his success anymore. His true superpower is that his game has become balanced enough that a couple central parts of his game can go completely haywire and he can still beat almost anyone. At this tournament, Djokovic suffered from a hamstring injury, hampering his ability to pull off his trademark backhand defense in the open stance. Typically, Djokovic can send back shots three-quarters of the way to the baseline from incredibly uncomfortable positions on his backhand wing; there’s minimal difference in his shot quality whether he’s doing the splits or standing stock-still. But over this fortnight, Djokovic had to abandon that fantastic skill and send back defensive slices, which had more air under them and were easier to attack.

And it didn’t even matter. You can blame Djokovic’s opponents for failing to rise to the occasion, sure. Grigor Dimitrov had chances in the first and third sets and blew them epically, losing in straight sets. Andrey Rublev was always playing from behind in the quarterfinal and couldn’t muster up as many as five games in a set despite being seeded just one spot below Djokovic. Arguably the best performance against Djokovic this tournament came from Roberto Carballés Baena in the first round — the Serb was never in danger of losing there. But let’s take a second to appreciate Djokovic’s ability to get by without certain parts of his game. Not having his open-stance backhand defense barely seemed to make him easier to beat. Djokovic had so many backup plans, such sharp tactics, such an ability to expose the shortcomings in his opponents’ games, that he was untouchable anyway.

*****

No ATP player, past or present, can match Djokovic’s peak level on a hard court (especially not this hard court). Djokovic once reeled off two sets against Federer on Rod Laver Arena in under an hour. He beat Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 in the 2019 final. He has beaten Andy Murray in straight sets in an Australian Open final, twice. In the fourth round this year, he beat Alex de Minaur badly enough to make Australian fans cover their eyes. The poor underdog won five games total in three sets, he could not hit a single winner past Djokovic from the baseline (literally), and he was clearly dazed in press.

Djokovic did all that to de Minaur with a negative winners-to-unforced-errors ratio.

Some are bemoaning the lack of competition for Djokovic this year — Tommy Paul as a semifinal opponent is not in the same league as Federer, Murray, or Stan Wawrinka. They’re right. But the way I see it, Djokovic has earned this. He waded through the lava during the early years of his career, losing again and again (and again) to Roger and Rafa. He overcame them, outlasted them, and this is his reward.

But I think that Djokovic has attained such a high level at the Australian Open that who he plays doesn’t matter much anymore. It’s similar to Nadal at Roland-Garros in his best years; from 2005 to 2014 (and then again from 2017 to 2020), his draw was basically irrelevant. He beat Federer and Djokovic at Roland-Garros in 2006, 2007, and 2008. In 2013, he had a hellish draw, culminating with a 4.5-hour marathon with Djokovic in the semifinals, ran through all of it, then beat poor David Ferrer in a straight-set final. With Djokovic, does anyone really have the tools to beat him at the Australian Open right now? How would you have an opponent, even the most quality competition in the draw, go about beating him? I just don’t see it.

The simple fact is that there is no working blueprint for beating Djokovic at this tournament. You have to hope he self-destructs. Tennis analysts and strategy coaches beg his opponents to come to the net more often, but like Tommy Paul alluded to in his post-semifinal presser, you can’t come to net if you’re constantly being pushed behind the baseline. Serve-and-volley is a suicide mission when Djokovic is taking his huge cuts on the return of serve. If it were me, I’d try to hit drop shots on every single point to make Djokovic as miserable as possible, but the guy is faster than most players on tour, even at 35.

Paul touches on what I think is the most difficult part of playing against Djokovic: He hits so consistently deep that his opponents don’t have time to implement their gameplan, almost regardless of what that gameplan is.

The Paul match was a good example of how gigantic Djokovic’s margin for error is. He made something like 25 unforced errors in the first set, practically throwing away four games in a row after having set point at 5-1. Then he held easily at 5-all and broke Paul from 30-love down at 6-5. From there, he lost just three games for the rest of the match. If Djokovic’s backhand is misfiring, like it was in the very first game of the match, he’ll throw down a few huge first serves. If the serve is off, he’ll dig in for some long rallies. If the rallies aren’t going his way, he’ll toss in a drop shot, give a little bit of ground, then suddenly be willing to play a 40-shot exchange on a big point. And when things are working, when he builds a lead and starts taking every ball early, going for return winners on first and second serves, it’s video game tennis. There is nothing anybody can do in response.

Djokovic rarely hit his video game peaks in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, but managed to win in straight sets anyway. It’s a favorable matchup for Djokovic; he can ruthlessly expose Tsitsipas’s weaknesses (the backhand and the return of serve) while offsetting his strengths (the serve and forehand). Djokovic only dropped serve once in the final and reacted by breaking back immediately. The scoreline — 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) — hints at moments of tension, but Djokovic led the second-set tiebreak 4-1 and the third-set tiebreak 5-0. He was never letting go from there. Match point was emblematic of the way Djokovic breaks his opponents down: He hit a big serve to Tsitsipas’s forehand, which came back. He rallied to Tsitsipas’s backhand twice, tempting that wing to break down. It didn’t, so Djokovic simply ripped an ultra-risky inside-in forehand that Tsitsipas got a racket on but couldn’t navigate between the lines. Djokovic will pick on your weaknesses, but even if they hold up, he’ll just produce the necessary brilliance from his own game.

Djokovic’s motivation used to be fragile at times — after winning the 2016 Roland-Garros to not only complete the Career Grand Slam but the non-calendar Grand Slam itself, he had a two-year down period. When he crushed Nadal to win the 2019 Australian Open, his third straight major title, he wasn’t quite himself for the next couple months. I thought he needed to be threatened by a rival to play his best tennis. But he seems to have overcome that. I think he needs to win a crazy number of majors (say, 25 or something) to truly get the mainstream GOAT honor that he craves, and I think he knows that. So despite already having won more than enough to deserve the accolades, he’s intent on not just beating records, but putting all of them out of reach.

He’s well on his way. This title marks Djokovic’s 10th Australian Open and his 22nd major overall, tying him with longtime rival Nadal and foreshadowing a mouthwatering duel at Roland-Garros to decide the race to 23. Djokovic is certainly the more in-form player and has been the better player overall for quite a while, but every time he’s looked in position to run away with the Grand Slam event race, Nadal has come back at him. In 2016, Djokovic pulled within two, having won the last four in a row, only to slump until 2018. At the end of 2021, Djokovic tied Nadal for the first time, winning three straight majors to create a deadlock at 20, only for Nadal to win the first two majors in 2022. With Roland-Garros being the crown jewel of Nadal’s empire, and unlike his matches at this tournament, Djokovic will need to be at his best to win that hypothetical clash of the titans.

That said, Djokovic has built an already-majestic career that, unlike Nadal’s, seems nowhere near over. I don’t want to be hyperbolic here, because 19-year-old phenom Carlos Alcaraz couldn’t play this tournament, and after winning the U.S. Open and reaching #1, he was going to be Djokovic’s biggest threat in Melbourne. But as for the rest of the tour (at least for now), it is clear that Djokovic, despite his lengthy tenure at the top of the game, cannot be dragged down from the summit. Everyone might just have to wait until he decides to descend on his own terms.

Aryna Sabalenka Has Her Moment

You knew it was never going to be easy. Aryna Sabalenka had spent much of the past 12 months ironing out the many kinks in her second serve, but if anything was going to bring back the yips, it was the possibility of winning her first major title. She tried for a huge second serve on championship point #1 and missed it, bringing back memories of Goran Ivanišević trying to serve out the 2001 Wimbledon Championships. On Sabalenka’s second and third championship points, she made second serves but lost the points. Finally, on the fourth attempt, she was pulled wide by Elena Rybakina’s angled crosscourt forehand but got it back, and Rybakina missed her next shot. Sabalenka sank to the ground in exhausted elation.

Having touched on the end of the match, I just need to say it: Damn, this was a good final, and it required a heroic effort from Sabalenka to win. Rybakina looked unflappable — hell, she looked near-invincible — in the opening set. Her serve was spitting aces left and right, and the one time Sabalenka managed to break her in the first set, Rybakina promptly broke back. When Rybakina had served out the opener and went up 15-40 on Sabalenka’s first service game in the second set, I thought a repeat of the semifinal against Victoria Azarenka was on the cards. Rybakina is dangerous enough at the beginning of a match, but with a lead she can become untouchable.

Instead, Sabalenka launched a sustained assault from the back of the court, hitting her groundstrokes with so much furious pace that even Rybakina buckled under the siege. Sabalenka routinely got her opponent’s huge serves into play, and once she did, got to work overwhelming Rybakina in the baseline exchanges. If Rybakina has a slight weakness in her game it’s her defensive forehand — she often goes for running winners but rarely makes them, and Sabalenka drew those errors time and again. Rybakina, the Wimbledon champion last year, had been pushed earlier in the tournament, but this was the first time I saw her truly on her heels. She fought gamely in the second set, saving three break points at 1-4 and two more at 2-5. But Sabalenka had a vise grip on the match and refused to let it go, serving out the set confidently.

Besides her issues with the second serve, the main reason Sabalenka was yet to win a major until last night was the riskiness baked into her style of play. She hits with enough power to overwhelm anyone, but there’s a very fine line between precision and wild inaccuracy when you hit the ball as hard as Sabalenka does. And yet she finished the night, the most pressured of her tennis career, with an astonishing 51 winners and 28 unforced errors. Harnessing so much power on such a big stage — she was hitting her forehand harder than the men, regularly going beyond 85 mph — is as impressive as it gets.

While Rybakina did well to hold her first three service games in the decider, Sabalenka was inevitable. Her break at 3-all had been a long time coming. When she stepped to the line to serve for the title, she had played so well for so long that I tried to imagine Rybakina breaking her and couldn’t.

But this is tennis, a sport that forces viewers to imagine the unimaginable. Though a player can win four points in under a minute, winning the final game can also be an impassable chasm. Rybakina went up 15-30, then had break point after Sabalenka’s first couple championship points passed her by. I watched the final from Kia Arena, where they were showing the main event from a couple big screens. There weren’t many others there — maybe fifty — and we had no reason to cheer, being far enough away from Rod Laver Arena that the players would never hear our shouts. Still, what I will remember from the final few minutes of the match is the way we gasped when Sabalenka smashed a big serve and put our heads in our hands when she failed to take a championship point. I think she had won over most of the tennis world before she even put the match to bed.

*****

It’s hard to imagine a better start to the year for the women’s game. Rybakina had an opportunity to win a second major and receive the deserved amount of acclaim for the first time — her Wimbledon title was practically swept under the rug — but I daresay the run to the final alone gained her the rightful recognition. Her run was impossible to ignore; she went through 2022 finalist Danielle Collins, world number one Iga Świątek, power player extraordinaire Jelena Ostapenko, and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka. And despite playing a superpowered Sabalenka, she was three games away from the title. The loss will sting, but this was not a choke, nor was it a gigantic missed opportunity. For me, this was a rare final that generated only positive emotions — I’m thrilled for Sabalenka and proud of Rybakina, and I think both will win more majors in the future.

Świątek is still the world number one, and while a portion of fans will surely say Sabalenka is the best player in the world having won this title, Świątek’s consistency is still a bar no one else on tour has reached. But she has a chase pack breathing down her neck now. Sabalenka and Rybakina have both beaten her recently, the latter in the fourth round of this very tournament. There’s Jessica Pegula, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Garcia. Ons Jabeur and Maria Sakkari might not have lived up to the Netflix-high expectations this tournament, but they’ll be back, as will Coco Gauff and Collins and the injured Paula Badosa. The potential for rivalries is huge. Who wouldn’t say yes to a Sabalenka-Rybakina rematch, anytime, any place? Wish this cast of characters good health, because the rest of this season could be a truly epic battle royale.

For now, though, everyone has a while to enjoy the afterglow from what was the best major final in some time. It was arguably the best match of the tournament, which is all you can ask for in a championship match. Both players hit their peaks and both felt the wrath of their opponent. The title was well deserved — it’s a tribute to Sabalenka grinding through match after match of hitting 20 double faults until she fixed the glaring hole in her game. The memories will last a lifetime. And our fingernails will not finish growing back until Roland-Garros.