It Takes Time

There’s a moment during the very first scene of Friends. Rachel hasn’t even made her entrance yet, that’s how early it is. Ross is lamenting that his wife discovered she in fact was attracted to women and left him. “I just want to be married again!” he tells the rest of the gang.

If you can take the cringe-inducing boatload of jokes up to the aforementioned moment, it is at the end of this clip. Rachel walks in soon after (foreshadowing!).

It’s easy to see how he feels. Getting divorced means a total reset: going from having a life partner to being single. Reasonable goals after that might be to go on a date, or to get to know oneself better, but relative to being married, those ideals sound woefully small. Sadly for Ross, you can’t rush into a marriage (well, you can, and he did, but it didn’t end well). Getting back to that point tends to require a lengthy process — finding the right person, then progressing through a relationship. Wanting to skip the journey when you’ve already spent some time at the destination is an understandable whim.

I imagine Dominic Thiem feels similarly. He’s finally back on court now, after months of injury after injury delaying his comeback. Currently ranked 54th in the world (below Roger Federer, somehow, who has been inactive for most of the last two years), Thiem was once ranked as high as #3. It wasn’t his ranking that best exemplified what he brought to the tour, though, it was his ability to challenge Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Thiem improved steadily for a few years, then managed to snap Djokovic’s 26-match winning streak at majors in the 2019 Roland-Garros semifinals. A few months later, he toppled Nadal in the Australian Open quarterfinals, then came inches away from following up to beat Djokovic in the final. He did lose, but he was the player closest to overthrowing the old guard.

Thiem played blinding tennis, firing winners at 100 miles per hour on points both consequential and not. He developed exciting rivalries with the Big Three (he’s beaten them a combined 16 times!), plus Medvedev. He beat Nadal and Djokovic at the World Tour Finals in 2020, and though Medvedev did the same thing, it felt like the two titans played at a higher level against Thiem. He just beat them anyway. He was the heir to the Big Three. The top of men’s tennis was exciting — dare I say volatile? — with Thiem around.

Just look at some of the forehands Thiem hits in this video.

Thiem’s skill wasn’t just his power. He became a startlingly adept defender. Against Nadal at the tour finals in 2020, Thiem had a break point to get back on serve in the second set, having won the first. Nadal hit a bunch of classic crosscourt forehands, pushing Thiem farther and farther into his backhand corner. Then Nadal unloaded on a forehand down the line.

I would say that this forehand would have put away virtually everyone on tour, except that this forehand has put away virtually everyone on tour. Thiem, somehow, chased it down and reset — no, not reset, something better than that — the point with an angled slice on the run from miles behind the baseline. Nadal could barely get to the ball, and Thiem slammed a pair of vicious groundstrokes in response, the latter going for a winner. He looked set to make a serious run at the majors, to displace Djokovic and Nadal more than he already had.

That mindblowing point plus several others are in the highlights above.

You know the rest of the story. After breaking through for a well-deserved first major title at the 2020 U.S. Open and wreaking havoc at the World Tour Finals, Thiem’s motivation flagged (understandable, really, seeing that he’d achieved his lifelong goal), then he got injured. He is now trying to make his way back. He started at a Challenger event in Marbella and got bounced in the first round by Pedro Cachín. Now competing at the Serbian Open, there’s little reason to think things will go significantly better for Thiem; his opener is against the tricky John Millman. It’s not that Thiem isn’t the better player by far, it’s that comebacks take time.

I just don’t want to wait.

I have no right to be impatient. Thiem’s been through hell injury-wise, and it’s taken a huge effort just to get back into playing shape. I should be more than satisfied about him merely being back on court. Comebacks are a tricky beast, though; it’s very rarely as simple as a great player returning from injury and immediately playing great tennis. The Thiem of 2020, the winner-blaster eager to hit lines during tiebreaks, is a different guy than the Thiem beginning his comeback. That Thiem had a huge string of great results behind him, plus confidence that his body could hold up, because it was doing just that. This Thiem, even if he somehow maintains some confidence, has to build from the ground up in terms of form. Rediscovering and relearning the rigors of professional matches can be a lengthy process — look at Djokovic, another player who is badly missed in the later rounds of tournaments. He is just 2-2 on the year and got breadsticked by Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in his last match, which was played after a long layoff (a self-imposed one, I should add).

We’re so early in Thiem’s comeback that his next peak could be any number of months away, and I miss him, miss the way the game felt when he was at his best. Stefanos Tsitsipas has stepped into his heir-apparent role on clay, and Carlos Alcaraz is clearly the next generational talent it once appeared that Thiem was, but I want to see the Austrian back in the mix. I don’t just miss his tennis, I feel for him — it was less than three years ago when Rafael Nadal said he was positive Thiem would win Roland-Garros one day during the 2019 trophy ceremony after the Parisian major. Rafa was being courteous, but Thiem had made the last two finals and lost to the eventual champion the last four years. It seemed like a safe bet at the time, but it looks like far from a sure thing now — Nadal and Djokovic are still around, Tsitsipas is now a beast on clay, Alcaraz might be an invincible world-beater in another year or two. Plus, there’s no guarantee Thiem will even rediscover his best tennis. Many players have their primes severed by injury and can never scale the mountain again; it would be more than understandable if Thiem fell into that category.

I don’t want Thiem to have to get back in tune with all the things that made him great before he got hurt. I don’t want to get used to seeing his name in a draw and having it mean something different than it used to. I don’t want him to have to slog through a bunch of low-level tournaments just to have a shot at getting back to a level he already attained. I want him to be able to step through a time warp and come out the other side fully used to the tour again, drilling backhand winners down the line like there’s no tomorrow. I just want him to be at the top of the game again.

This isn’t how injury comebacks work. Thiem will understandably need a few tournaments to reacclimate to his game and his opponents. And if the best part of his career is behind him, he has nothing to be ashamed of. YouTube is the proud home of hundreds of his blazing down-the-line winners, many of them hit against the very best of players.

I know all that. Thiem isn’t going to magically start playing like he did at the end of 2020.

But it would still be nice.

Monte Carlo 2022: Morning-After Recap

By Hanya El Ghetany

Despite the absence of many of the big names such as Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, Gael Monfils, and Matteo Berrettini, Monte Carlo remained unquestionably one of the most dramatic tennis ATP 1000 events of 2022 so far.

A tournament that began with much hype being drummed up regarding a possible quarter-final first encounter between Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz took a twist and a turn and ended up instead as a showdown between Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and Taylor Fritz. We had very interesting choices of fashion along the way. From Tsonga’s △◇⌔⟁◐╭ ╯⧖⧉ to Alexander Zverev’s sleeveless outfit. Gigor Dimitrov’s engravings on his racket attracted attention. We all missed Djokovic and his roars. While the Serb did not disappoint, he faced an early exit against Fokina who just loves to cover himself in clay. Alexander Bublik’s run came to a halt when he abruptly retired mid-match and mentioned that he just doesn’t like clay. We also had one last year of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Monte Carlo as he announced that his retirement will be at Roland Garros. Jannik Sinner shocked me this tournament. His performance was excellent but what surprised me the most was the outpouring of support he received in Monte Carlo. Not sure if Monte Carlo or Rome. Did you hear the “JANNIK JANNIK”?

Wanting celebrities? None other than Brazilian star Neymar showed up. Also, Khaby!… if you know, you know! Looking for drama? We also had some interesting signs on the camera. Stefanos Tsitsipas gives the signature process a good deal of thought, certainly as much as he gives his tweets. He signed yellow submarine – a Villarreal fan, eh? But also signed Green Parachute… Not sure what’s that about. Dimitrov just gave the camera a kiss so let’s pretend it was for us. Fokina was probably hungry when he signed Burrata y milanesa. Casper Ruud admitted his love of clay, misspelling clay along the way, and the pen ran out of ink by the time it reached Fabbio Fognini.

In all seriousness, we had some interesting matches that put the debate of where tennis will go after the big three retire to rest. We still enjoyed Monte Carlo despite Djokovic’s early exit. Sebastian Korda vs Alcaraz, Korda vs Fritz, Andrey Rublev vs Sinner, Hubert Hurkacz vs Dimitrov, and pretty much every Fokina match. I’m not worried about the future of tennis.

The quarterfinals had an intriguing line-up. Fokina vs Fritz, Dimitrov vs Hurkacz, Diego Schwartzman vs Tsitsipas, Sinner vs Zverev. All of the matches were exciting to watch and all of them had an equal chance of making it to the semi-finals. However, Fokina, Dimitrov, Tsitsipas and Zverev were the semi-finalists and eventually, Tsitsipas would successfully reach the final, just one step away from defending his title. In his way was Fokina, contesting his very first ATP 1000 final. This is shaping up to be a good year for Spaniards after Alcaraz winning Miami. (Food for thought: Look how classy and enjoyable tennis is without angry racket smashing and nasty snaps? Tennis doesn’t need this).

Up until the final, we saw 7 matches end in a 7-point tie-break each as theatrical as the next. Evans(W)/Bonzi, Martinez(W)/Humbert, Felix/Musetti(W), Fucsovics/Schwartzman(W), Tsitsipas(W)/Dere, Dimitrov(W) /Hurckacz and Sinner/Zverev(W)

Monte Carlo concluded with the Tsitsipas defending his title and beating Fokina in yet another match that ended in a 7-point tie-break 6-3, 7-6 (7-3). By going back-to-back, the Greek became the first player outside the big 3 to defend a masters 1000 title since Ferrero in 2002 & 2003.

As the dust settles for now, I honestly can’t wait for our next Masters 1000 in Madrid.

Title Defence Complete: Stefanos Tsitsipas holds his trophy after winning his second Monte Carlo title in a row. Screenshot: Tennis TV

The Tennis Mountain

By Nick Carter and Aoun Jafarey

A while ago, Aoun shared some interesting statistics from the ATP Tour with the Popcorn team. It’s a big data set, covering every male player who has played at the highest level in the open era. All 6,478 of them.

The median number of matches won by everyone who has played a men’s singles match on the tour in the open era: 1. 

Median number of matches lost by everyone who has played a men’s singles match on the tour in the open era: 3. 

This data is just focused on the elite, the ATP Tour. Not the second tier of ATP Challengers and certainly not the third of ITF Futures, which is where everyone has to come through. Everyone who has worked hard to work their way up these then faces the challenge of winning on the elite pro tour. However, 40.5% of players who have ever played an ATP Tour match never won one. That’s how tough winning a match is in this sport. In fact, only 44.6% of male players in the open era have won more than one match. 

So, if we go by median average, a professional tennis player will usually win one at least one high level match in their career. But they will lose more than they win. This is incredible to think about given that we usually only watch the pinnacle of the game, where most players we watch at that level will usually win most of the matches they play. Think about it, most matches we choose usually involve someone who has been in the top-ten or even top-twenty. The median average number of ATP tour wins for a player ranked top twenty is 319 (rounded up). It’s 382 (rounded up) for players who reached the top ten in their careers. Even if you look at those ranked top-fifty, the median average is 173. We as fans are used to seeing players win multiple matches, and it makes it hard for a viewer to understand how much of a challenge this is.

Speaking of the rankings, of those 6,478 men who have played on the ATP Tour:

42% made the top 500 

17% made the top 100 

10% made the top 50 

4.4% made the top 20 

2.7% made the top 10 

Tennis is a sport based on elitism. Those at the top get most of the money, all the glory and the lions’ share of the match wins. Everyone has to scrap and climb their way to the top of the tennis mountain. Each step up the rankings is progressively tougher, as winning match on the next step up is a huge challenge. Even if you get to the top there’s no guarantee you’ll stay there long. As an extreme example, Daniil Medvedev only lasted three weeks as number one. In the process, you’ll push your body and finances to their limits, and if one of them gives then it’s all over. You’ll also sacrifice so many other things, including time with family and friends, so the mental toll must be immense too. The odds are always against you to be even remotely successful as a tennis player.

Have a look at this tweet from Aoun:

The stats here show that less than half of all professional players who somehow got to play on the ATP Tour in the open era have even reached the top 500! This is incredible to think about, but it does make sense. Tennis is one of many sports played across the world. Millions play it, usually casually or as part of a club. Only about 3000 men and women choose to try to play professionally at any one time. Yet, very few of them end up will even be ranked in the top 500. Now, Aoun’s data does not include those who broke milestones by only playing ITF Futures or ATP Challengers, but that just further highlights how difficult it is to even get to play on the main ATP Tour or even Davis Cup. 

All of these people are talented, all have worked incredibly hard. Not all will find success at the medium level, let alone the highest possible. Only about 10% will even make top 50 in their career! Some will have more natural talent, some will have honed specific skills far better and these will help. Most who do make it have the mentality to do so, the attitude and consistency. 

Think about the tennis mountain again, each stage becomes progressively steeper. On Mount Snowdon in the UK, the gradient increases the higher you get. As these players try to climb it, the standard of the opponent gets better. They have the talent and the capability of beating any of them, but to do it on a regular basis requires tremendous effort. It has to almost become routine, which is so hard for younger players at the beginning of their careers. We get excited by Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, but look at Hugo Gaston, Holger Rune and Juan Manuel Cerundolo. After impressing on the lower ranks, or making explosive debuts, the battle to win elite level matches has often been too difficult as they establish themselves. By the way, all of this is the case on the WTA tour as well. This is perhaps even more extreme given how players on the women’s side can break through or make an impression at a younger age. Think Emma Raducanu or more recently the 15-year-old Brenda Fruhvitova, who hasn’t won a title since her impressive start to the year in ITF Futures and making her WTA Tour debut. 

Let’s not just focus on young players. Older players have to fight far harder to maintain their place in the elite, as their bodies begin to fail more and new challengers emerge who are changing the game. Then, there are the ones in the prime of their career. Even if they never win a major, those who consistently win matches and stay in that top 10% are doing something amazing. And credit to those who keep plugging away who have yet to reach that ultimate elite, hoping for a Karatsev-like breakthrough. Even winning matches on the lower tours regularly are only done by a third of professional players. 

Humans have a tendency to focus on the ultimate elite in sport. The top 1, 3, 4, 10 in the world or of all time. In the era of the ATP’s ‘Big Four’ this has been amplified for us tennis fans, despite the fact they are outliers. General population statistics don’t apply to them the same way. Not even statistics for average athletes would apply to them. We don’t appreciate the effort and talent it takes to be top 50, 100, 200 or even 500. We don’t understand how hard it is to win one professional tennis match. We need to stop treating the elite or the greats like they are the norm, seeing anything less as sub-par. To anyone who is reading this trying to make it in the professional game, whatever ranking you are, we salute you.

Source: Jeff Sackman through Tennis Abstract

One Statistic That Will Change How You View Tennis

By Nick Carter

When I started doing the research for this piece, the original purpose was to see how many players have a win against a world number one against their name (since computer rankings began in the 1970s). I quickly discovered this list would be way too big but I started noticing the rankings of those beating number ones on the men’s side through history were lower than I expected. I then decided to isolate the “Big Three” era to see if the numbers were significantly different.For clarity, I believe the “Big Three” era began in 2004around when Roger Federer won the Australian Open to become world number one for the first time. Because I thought it might make an interesting comparison piece, I decided to look at the WTA as well. During the process of collating all of this, I came across an interesting number: 165.

During the period from 01/01/2004 to 31/12/2021, the number one ranked ATP player lost 165 matches. By ‘lost’, this only includes completed matches and not defaults or retirements. 165 matches where another player closed out the victory against, according to the ranking formula, the best player in the world. Interestingly, during the same period, the number one ranked WTA player has also been defeated 165 times.

This has made me massively rethink the modern era of tennis and the standard it takes to reach world number one. If a world number one is just as likely to lose in the men’s game or the women’s game, have the “Big Three” not been as dominant as we thought? Or is it that the top players on the WTA Tour are stronger than we think?

In the 18 calendar years this period covers, there have been 17 WTA players ranked at number one (Serena Williams, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Amelie Mauresmo, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, DinaraSafina, Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka and Ash Barty). By contrast there were just five players at the top of the ATP: The “Big Three” of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, plus the “Two Andy’s” of Roddick and Murray. It is tempting to think the standard is higher in the men’s game because the gatekeepers at the top have been more consistent.

However, the fact that the world number one on both tours has lost an even number of times during the period 2004-2021 suggests that in fact, no matter who the player is, it takes the same effort to achieve the ultimate upset. The issue the WTA number ones have found is that they haven’t been able to maintain the required level for as long or as consistently as the ATP “Big Three”. The exception to this of course is the extraordinary champion that is Serena Williams, who has justifiably been the biggest women’s tennis star for almost 20 years. For me, this doesn’t highlight weakness, but just how unusually strong Williams, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been. After all, very few players have been able to consistently win for the course of over a decade. Only Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court, Chris Evert and Andre Agassi can be said to have done this as well. These players are the exception, not the rule. That is part of what makes them all-time greats, not just of their eras.

The point I am trying to make here is that the number one players on both tours deserve equal respect for their achievements, at least whilst they are ranked at the top. Not everyone has to be a record breaker. If you average out the 165 losses across the 18 seasons, the world number one generally loses around 9 matches a year, which is still pretty good going for a year on tour. By that score, if a single player was to have that kind of season, they’d win about half the tournaments they entered, or win a major or two that season with a couple of 1000 titles on top. 

Of course, the next question is what kind of quality of opponent does the number one player of each tour often fall to? After all, if they both lose with the same amount of regularity, but the ATP ‘Big Three’ only lose to each other whilst the WTA number one can often be beaten by the number 100, then that could be a better indication of the quality at the peak of tennis.

The numbers do reveal something about this, but not quite what you think. During 2004-2021, when the ATP number one player lost, 90.3% of the time it was to an opponent ranked inside the top 50. This is again, exactly the same statistic on the WTA. 90.3% of the time the top ranked women’s player lost a match, it has to been to someone in the top 50.

This shows that these mega upsets of players ranked really low upsetting the world number one are in fact just as rare across both tours. In fact, someone outside the top 100 pulling off this kind of upset has only happened 5 times on either tour during 2004-2021. 

This has also made me rethink how I see the tours as a whole, not just at the headline level. Being ranked in the top 50 is actually a bigger achievement than many make it out to be, and we should emphasise their quality as much as Top 20 or even Top 10. If someone is ranked top 50, the difference in level between them and the number one is not that much. What truly separates them is their consistency of achieving their peak performance. Suddenly, Ash Barty’s loss to Shelby Rogers in the US Open 2021 isn’t as big of a surprise on paper (in context it remains a significant upset though).

The variance in standard of losses that we see between the ATP and WTA comes within the top 50. In recent years, it is clear that the ATP number one is less vulnerable to those outside the top 10 compared to the WTA. 56.36% of their losses during 2004-2021 were to top ten players. In comparison, 36.97% of losses sustained by the women’s world number one were to fellow top ten players, hardly an insignificant percentage but nowhere near the majority of cases.

However, the gap is less significant when it comes to top 20 players. 68.48% of ATP number one losses were to top 20 players, whilst for the WTA the figure is 62.42%. To be clear, these figures also include losses to top 10 players. Nevertheless, we can say that the majority of the time on both tours, when the top ranked player loses it is to someone ranked in the top 20. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone following the WTA, who have had a very competitive top 20 field for a couple of years now. Certainly, anyone ranked in that region is a definite competitor. I think the ATP is heading in this direction too, following the recent successes at Masters level for Cameron Norrie, Taylor Fritz and Carlos Alcaraz. 

There’s been a lot of statistics and opinions thrown around here, so let’s get to the point. Essentially, I am saying we need to re-evaluate how much respect we give to three groups of people: WTA number ones (in comparison to the ATP), players ranked 11-20 and also players ranked 21-50 on both tours. Just because there have been almost a new WTA number one every year on average, it doesn’t mean there is less quality on the women’s tour. It takes the same amount of effort to be the best player over 12 months, just because someone can’t maintain it for another 12 doesn’t make them less talented or impressive a player. It certainly doesn’t make them less of a star. A number one player is just as hard to beat in the context of either tour. Either they have the same required level, or the ATP number one is just as liable to have a bad day as the WTA leader.

We should also widen our scope for threats to the top players beyond the top ten. Again, in the ATP it has been all about that elite group mopping up titles. Now, that group is doubling in size, as it has already done in the WTA. Top 20 players still regularly find themselves in the business end of tournaments, that’s how they earned their ranking in the first place. The fact they are still very consistent in their win rates would suggest an explanation as to why they are responsible for most of the cases where the number one player has been taken down. When doing pre-tournament predictions, I will be looking at who’s in form from the top 20 to see who the big contenders are.

Finally, top players have to be seen as vulnerable to anyone ranked in the top 50. Anyone outside of that ranking would have to be considered a real upset. I’m not saying top 50 players have to be seen as automatic title contenders, not all of them have the required consistency for this. But on any given day, they are certainly capable of playing tennis with the very best of them. As sports fans, we prefer the idea of a field being competitive. The smaller the realistic pool of potential winners there are, the slower burn an event is. In a scenario where the top 50 are given more respect, suddenly half the draw are in contention for most tournaments (or even a whole draw at most 1000 events). Again, this has felt more of the case in the women’s game. I may have commented at Wimbledon and the US Open last year that half the field could be seen as title contenders. That’s part of what makes WTA tennis so intriguing to me at the moment, although don’t get me wrong I am also very excited to see big stars emerging and big rivalries developing at the very top. Going back to my original point, despite their relative lack of consistency, most fans and especially the media need to better respect the talent of top 50 players on both tours. The numbers are there to show they can perform at an elite level so it shouldn’t be a massive surprise any more.

Top of the Game: Iga Świątek and Novak Djokovic. Screenshot: Tennis Channel and ATP Youtube Channels

What now for Rafa?

By Aoun Jafarey

About nine years ago I was sitting at the Jumeirah Creekside hotel in Dubai discussing with my younger brother (who at the time was still working to give himself a shot at playing ITF Junior events) what Rafa’s latest injury comeback was going to look like. We went back and forth between all the times he’s already had to endure a break from the tour due to an injury and I ended up putting my thoughts down in the form of the article below “What now for Rafa?” for a blog that doesn’t exist anymore (Cross Court Tennis). It was a piece that I thought of while we were practicing at the Dubai tournament courts (my brother used to practice at the facility quite often and even had the privilege of practicing next to Berdych and Del Potro) and at that point in time neither of us thought we’d end up talking about Rafa attempting to make yet another comeback now 10 years later and yet, here we are. So, before we move on to what I wrote back then, I’m going to describe my approach to thinking about Rafa’s comebacks in the most Rafaesque way possible.

What happened in 2004 happened, what happened in 2006 happened, what happened in 2009 happened, what happened in 2012 happened, what happened in 2013 happened, what happened in 2014 happened, what happened in 2016 happened, what happened in 2018 happened, what happened in 2019 happened, what happened in 2021 happened, and what happened last month happened, here we are, we are in April 2022.

What now for Rafa?

It’s been 3 months since he last appeared on court, and fell to the world number 100 and first time qualifier, Lukas Rosol, at the most prestigious court there is in the tennis world. The headlines made it very clear; the world number 2 had been ousted at a tournament where he had made 5 finals and 2 championships in his last 5 appearances, having lost only to a player either ranked number 1 or 2 in the form of the greatest player across 2 generations and another that is continuing his quest to be the greatest of the generation that is forthcoming. Needless to say, the tennis world had been shocked. After winning what was dubbed by some as the red clay slam (since Madrid was played on blue clay), only a few weeks before this loss, no one in their right mind was going to bet on Lukas Rosol creating the upset of the year, or perhaps even the upset of this new millennium.

The Olympics, Toronto, Cincinnati and the U.S open are all tournaments that Nadal has missed since this match. These events have brought light to a new winner in the form of Andy Murray. Taking the Olympics and the U.S Open, Murray achieved back to back success in two five set finals, a feat that is nothing short of extraordinary given that before this he had only won 1 set in his four major final appearances. Murray even managed to get the Olympic gold on grass against a man who is as comfortable on that surface as a shark is in deep water, Roger Federer. He followed that up at the Open with an amazing win against the best hard court player of the last 3 years, Novak Djokovic. But enough about Murray and back to the wounded man, Nadal.

It’s difficult enough that you are born in this generation and make your first grand appearance in the tennis world with the likes of Federer dominating year after year, and that when you finally achieve a status you are worthy of and look to cement your position, you run into a brick wall named Novak Djokovic. Add into this mix a whole lot of injuries that have been as consistent in your career as your performance on clay and it sums up the story of Nadal. Just when you think things look bad enough, the man that has been trailing the trio finally finds the mindset that has betrayed him for years in a row. For the first time since 2003, we have had a year with 4 different major title holders, and now this is what Nadal has to come back to. Though to be honest, comebacks are not new to the Spaniard and this wasn’t the first time he missed a major. It’s all happened in the past and so far so good, he’s always made his way back up there fighting like the Nadal we have all got so used to seeing over the years. Running down corner to corner, sliding, grunting, punching and then finally making that pass running like the apocalypse would take place if he missed the ball. Leaving his opponent stunned with everyone else standing on their feet.

This time though, it’s perhaps not the same. For one, Rafa is older and the extent of his injury has been worse than ever before. So statistically, Rafa’s likelihood of repeating his feats in the past are lower. The more important point though is that this time, his return has 3 men at the top of their game waiting for him as opposed to just one in the past. Federer, Djokovic and Murray.

Murray is at a level he has never explored before and while Rafa has a distinct head to head advantage over him, Rafa hasn’t played Murray 2.0. For those who want to argue that the skill set remains the same and Rafa has the game to beat Murray, I don’t disagree, but if you’ve played the sport, then you will know it is just as much mental as it is physical. Murray 2.0 proved in New York City last month that he has the willingness in his head to last the 5 hour matches and come out as the winner.

People claim that Djokovic is out of form and that he has been figured out by the other top 3 now. First of all, he’s only number 2 now because he was so damn good in 2011 but missed out on points post the U.S Open. He achieved too many points to defend year over year in an era competitive as the one we are witnessing right now. Novak didn’t need to win the U.S and Toronto last year to become number 1 in the world, largely because Rafa was going through what he is right now with too much to defend to stay on top. Djokovic’s losses in the big tournaments have come in the form of 3 clay finals to Rafa, a grass and hardcourt loss to Federer and the same equation to Murray. The only stand out loss for the year really was at the hands of Isner earlier in the year at the Indian Wells. Loss of form? Not really. It was bound to happen sooner than later. Look at how Federer played in 2010 and Nadal did in 2011. The rankings system kind of forces players to come into this pitfall after an amazing year.

Now as for Federer, I would love to dive into this one, but let’s just put it this way. As long as this guy has a racket in his hand and decides to enter a tournament, he’s a top contender and no loss to him should ever be counted as an upset. Shot for shot, he is the best player out there. Trust me, I’m not a big fan of his but having played tennis since the age of four, I feel pretty confident in saying this is as good as a player gets.

So what do you do if you’re Rafael Nadal and you come back with the greatest challenge that you have ever faced awaiting you? How does anyone even come up with a plan to break through this? You can’t really make the schedule much easier as he’s already playing close to the bare minimum that is required by the ATP. Change of playing style? Not out of the question but a little bonkers if you think about it. He’s won 11 slams doing the same thing, despite all the injuries in the middle. He will almost certainly have to return to a bigger serve like in 2010 to pick up more cheap points and not work as hard as he does to hold serve. Be physically fitter? Now most people will probably laugh at this one, but fitness isn’t decided by using an inch tape and figuring out who has the biggest arms. You can be ripped as most players are, but match fitness is something that can be improved. If tennis had a tournament where you had to play a best of 9 sets, I don’t think there’s anyone who would last as long as Ferru (David Ferrer). If you need a refresher on this one, watch his match against Janko Tipsarevic from earlier this month. Ferrer literally just kept on pushing until Janko eventually physically broke down.

After trying to think all this though, the only thing one can really come up with is to leave this question to be answered by Nadal. There’s a reason why he’s loved so much around the world and it’s because somehow just when you think he doesn’t have a shot at coming out on top, he somehow does. Think back to Australia ‘09, Wimbledon ‘08, the Rome final against Coria ‘05 (which is when he won me over). Come to think of it now, the stage is almost being set for the perfect time for Rafa to return. This is what this man does best like no other on tour. On that note, I will give up trying to figure out how Nadal will get out of this situation because just as in the past, there’s something going on inside his head that none of us have a clue about and can ever predict. The best thing any of us can do is to be patient and take a seat until 2013 for the return of the man we all await.

The last time Rafael Nadal was on a tennis court in 2012 was his upset defeat to world number 100 Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon. Screenshot: Wimbledon Youtube Channel

Celebrating the Career of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

By Nick Carter

Yesterday, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga announced that he would be playing his final tournament at Roland-Garros this year, saying farewell to tennis on home turf. It has been a difficult time for the Frenchman recently, what with all the injuries he’s been hit with over the last few years. He is ranked outside the top 200 and has struggled to win matches since 2020. It will be sad to see such a charismatic player leave the tour, but Tsonga should be proud of his achievements. His biggest moments were reaching the final of the 2008 Australian Open, being runner up at the 2011 ATP Finals, winning Masters 1000 titles in Paris 2008 and Toronto 2014 (quite a run he had to win this one!) and being a silver medallist for France in the men’s doubles at the 2012 Olympics. No less significant were his 18 singles titles, reaching the quarter-finals of every major over the course of his career, and managing to beat every member of the “Big Four” multiple times (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray).

Tsonga never that likely to be a major champion while playing in this era. For multiple reasons. He was perfectly capable of beating the Big Three on his day, but did not consistently find the level to achieve this. For me, his most impressive title was his 2014 Canadian Open title. That title run saw him beat Djokovic, Murray and then Federer in the final. In context, both Djokovic and Federer seemed on top form at the time. Federer was only beaten on grass and US hardcourts by exceptional performances from his opponents that season. 

For me, Tsonga had the talent to win a major and it has always surprised me that he hasn’t. Yes, the stranglehold of the ‘Big Four’ made it difficult for him to break through, but Juan Martín del Potro and Marin Čilić managed to do it. Now, I’m not suggesting Tsonga is better than either of these players. Del Potro is more highly regarded as a player, because of his exceptional forehand. Čilić is probably seen as being about the same level as Tsonga when the Croatian was at his peak from 2014 to 2018. 

Tsonga did play exceptionally at some majors. His comeback from two sets down against Federer at Wimbledon in 2011 is not really talked about much, but it was a really impressive achievement given no one had ever done that to the great Swiss on his favourite surface before. (Actually, no one had ever beaten him from two sets down at any major before. One wonders if this had any influence on the 2011 U.S. Open, when Djokovic would immediately complete the one-two punch.) He put in an incredible performance against Djokovic at Roland Garros in 2012, four times being a single point away from upsetting the then world number one. Both these examples came in quarterfinals; Tsonga rarely peaked in the semi-finals or final of a major. His record when being in the last four of a major was 1 win and 5 losses. The perfect example of Tsonga not quite managing to find the required level to push into a final came at his home major. In 2013, he lost in straight sets to David Ferrer despite inflicting a lopsided defeat on Federer the previous round. This is probably the most extreme case, given how much of a challenge beating one ‘Big Four’ player was, and often Tsonga had to play them back-to-back if he did go deep at an event.

Tsonga did show he was capable of really excelling at a major, though. Australia 2008 was the first time I’d heard of the Frenchman, when he beat Murray in the first round. At the time, I wrote it off as the Brit underperforming (as he often did early in his career, before he stepped up later in 2008). However, Tsonga showed this result had more to do with the Frenchman finding his peak for the first time in his career. A victory against fellow countryman and (at the time) solid top ten presence Richard Gasquet was another hint that a big breakthrough was happening. His run to the semi-finals was really impressive, but he was playing one of the dominant forces in tennis at the time: Rafael Nadal. So of course, Tsonga won that match in straight sets. Watching this at the time put him back on the radar for me. The final against Djokovic was closer than the score of 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 suggests; Tsonga had chances late in the fourth set. 

Despite this promise shown, Tsonga never got as close to a major title again. We’ve talked about how good his ultimate top level was, but he didn’t reach this very often. Tsonga reached 15 major quarter-finals in his career, all from Australia 2008 to Australia 2017. He took part in 35 majors in that time, so only reached the last eight less than half the time. This is despite the fact he was a solid top 10 or even top eight player for much of this period. The sad reality is that when he did play to his potential, he more often than not came up against the ‘Big Four’ or Stan Wawrinka. Whilst he had the ability to trouble or even beat these players, they still beat him more often as they did with every other player on tour. Generally, if he was given a more favourable draw then he capitalised, unless the opponent was peaking (Verdasco at the Australian Open in 2009, Čilić at the U.S. Open in 2015). 

My thoughts on Tsonga are that he was good enough to win a major but was unfortunate to have such incredible contemporaries in Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka. He was good enough to challenge and beat them at times, but this wasn’t on a consistent basis. Tsonga was more like del Potro and Čilić in this regard. Someone else who is better at analysing the game can tell you why that might be. The Frenchman had power and variety in his game, as well as a really endearing on-court charisma coupled with impressive physicality. It is hard to identify a clear weakness in his game other than the mental side. When he was on, it was so much fun to watch him play.

Tsonga sinks to the ground in ecstasy after coming back from two sets down to shock Federer at Wimbledon in 2011. Screenshot: Wimbledon

For French fans, Tsonga was their best hope of having a men’s singles champion in recent years. He was the one from France’s ‘golden generation’ who had the best chance of winning a major. Richard Gasquet impressed at a young age but had clear limitations to his game. Gilles Simon did not have much beyond his endurance and defence to rely on. Gael Monfils has struggled with his endurance in long matches. They massively underperformed relative to their talent, although again this has more to do with the “Big Four” than them. No Frenchman has a hope of winning Roland Garros whilst Rafael Nadal is playing.

Overall, I will look back on the career of Jo-Wilfred Tsonga with some complicated emotions. I watched him play some really impressive matches, and he was part of making that 2008 Australian Open so great to watch as I was becoming a real tennis fan around that point. Tsonga is one of the few men to have beaten each of the ‘Big Four’ at least once in a major, along with Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych. 

For me, Tsonga will go down in tennis history as one of the best players never to win a major. A lot of this was due to the context of the era he was playing in. If he was at his peak now, he’d be talked about as a contender in the same way Medvedev and Tsitsipas are. However, he should not look at his career and think ‘what if’. I hope he, like many tennis fans, takes pride in what he has achieved and the great memories and moments he created on the way.

Better Be…

By Hanya El Ghetany

While we take a break until our next 1000-level event, I thought of playing a Harry Potter game and sorting some of the ATP players into houses based on their characters on the tennis court and during interviews. I don’t know them personally, obviously. So, this is just based on what we see on TV. 

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the qualities of the houses. Gryffindors show bravery, helping others, and chivalry. Hufflepuffs exhibit hard work, patience, loyalty, and fair play. Ravenclaws display intelligence, knowledge, planning, and wit. Slytherins are ambitious, cunning, and resourceful. They also value heritage. As wizards and witches like to always remind muggles, Slytherins are not all bad and Hufflepuff are not all useless. 

This is just my personal opinion so feel free to share yours!

HUFFLEPUFF 

“You might belong in Hufflepuff,

Where they are just and loyal,

Those patient Hufflepuffs are true,

And unafraid of toil”

Grigor Dimitrov 

Screenshot: U.S. Open

There is a video that was circulating where ATP Tennis players described Dimitrov in one word. Nadal said “elegance”, Djokovic said “friendly”, Berrettini said “flexible”, and Sinner said “style”. Thiem said “beautiful” (I mean, who wouldn’t agree?). It’s clear that Dimitrov is well-respected and loved on the tour. His game is one of the most visually appealing on tour. His enormous, goofy smile and his comedic regret when he misses an easy shot are always fun to watch. Remember when he said “you’re welcome” to Jordan Thompson? If there’s ever a charming supporting protagonist, it’s him. 

Alexander Bublik 

Screenshot: Tennis TV

If Hufflepuff were created for a player, it would be Bublik. Bublik is just so fun to watch because his facial expressions after a crazy point almost always mimic that of the viewers at home and on the court. If we think that he hit the best serve in his life, he instantly says “that’s the best serve I’ve ever hit.” His personality makes his matches enjoyable. He is hard-working, talented, and plays to win but also enjoys the game. I honestly always look forward to his exchange with his opponent after any of his matches. Hilarious. 

Taylor Fritz

What’s more Hufflepuff than signing a question mark on the camera after winning a big tournament? Taylor strikes me as a humble, good, honest guy who calmly continues with his business, preparing for his chance at greatness. *Hint: Diggory* He also went for In-N-Out Burger for a celebratory meal after the win. If that isn’t proof…

Dominic Thiem

Thiem is a Harry Potter fan himself! That said, the only evidence I have to put him in Hufflepuff is his fun personality on Instagram during his Q&A sessions. He once said he’d rather talk to animals than learn all the languages in the world. I have a feeling, though, that he would put himself in Gryffindor. Tough to argue given some of the shots he goes for under pressure.

SLYTHERIN 

“Or perhaps in Slytherin,

You’ll make your real friends,

Those cunning folk use any means,

To achieve their ends.”

Novak Djokovic 

Screenshot: U.S. Open

“When the crowd chanted ‘Roger’ I heard ‘Novak’.”

“Knowledge can be a curse if you don’t use it.” 

“I’m constantly looking for the right formula to be the strongest of all.”

Novak, in my opinion, is the good side of Slytherin. He is able to use the house’s qualities to his advantage. He manages hostile crowds superbly and frequently converts them into enthusiasm. This shows resourcefulness. His perseverance and mental discipline are admirable. He has expressed an interest in becoming a coach and passing on his expertise of the sport toward the next generation of tennis players – this shows heritage. He always wants to be the best and that shows ambition.

Nick Kyrgios

Screenshot: Australian Open

“Are you good at tennis? Exactly, so why are you speaking? Do I tell him [Ben Stiller] how to act?”

While I will respectfully choose to ignore the recent incidents that clearly put Kyrgios in Slytherin, the quality that strikes me the most about Nick is his cunningness. He tries to distract his opponents sometimes in clever ways and other times in deceitful ways to win the game. He is also clever in winning the crowd with his debatably funny personality. However, we saw what happens when this kind of Slytherin personality meets a nerve of steel like Sinner. *Wink-wink*. 

GRYFFINDOR 

“You might belong in Gryffindor,

Where dwell the brave at heart,

Their daring, nerve and chivalry

Set Gryffindors apart”

Rafael Nadal 

“I enjoy a lot of times playing with wind because for me it’s a challenge”

“For me, it is important to win titles and for that I need to work hard, stay healthy and be able to compete. The rest, I always say, it comes” 

Putting aside all of his career, Nadal’s remarkable comeback at the Australian Open this year and winning the tournament after dealing with a tough injury is enough to put him in Gryffindor. He loves a challenge and does not run away from a test, and he not only loves to win but needs to win. That showcases Gryffindor qualities. 

Carlos Alcaraz 

Screenshot: Tennis TV

Alcaraz screams Gryffindor. I do not have much evidence on Alcaraz except his runs in the Sunshine Swing. Winning his first Masters 1000 at just 18 just takes nerves of steel and a daring personality. 

RAVENCLAW 

“Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw,

If you’ve a ready mind,

Where those of wit and learning,

Will always find their kind.”

Andy Murray

Ravenclaws place a high priority on knowledge. We all know that Murray is one of the few outspoken tennis players out there – not just in tennis, but in politics as well. This indicates that this guy loves to read and educate himself. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s a guy who is opinionated and that is a clear Ravenclaw. He supports women’s tennis greatly and is known to shut down reporters’ sexism. He is also someone who understands where he is and what he needs to work on as a tennis player. He knows his strengths and weaknesses – that’s wit. 

Roger Federer 

Screenshot: Tennis TV

Federer, my favourite player, was particularly difficult to put in a house. I initially thought he would be an easy Gryffindor but then giving it a second go, I thought, hang on, he makes a great Ravenclaw. Nadal and Alcaraz are Gryffindors, but Federer’s Gryffindor qualities, though well-articulated, are hidden underneath a smart mind and a shrewd outlook. Ravenclaws are undoubtedly Hogwarts’ nerd house. To even go into the dormitories, you have to solve a puzzle. That’s a tremendous amount of commitment and knowledge. I can see Federer passing the test but not Alcaraz or Nadal. Roger definitely has courage and chivalry but chooses how to show them to the fans, and I think that shows intelligence. 

If you enjoyed reading this, I’m willing to go for part two!

The Golden Boy

In 2003, a ponytail-laden man with great court coverage and a forehand with the most easy power you’ve ever seen won Wimbledon. The tennis world fell in love with him instantly. He would win no fewer than 14 of the next 24 major titles, picking up the Career Grand Slam along the way and breaking Pete Sampras’s ATP record of 14 majors less than seven years after it had been set. He was the golden boy. His name was Roger Federer.

In 2005, a kid with stringy hair, capri pants, and the kind of speed that is usually limited to track stars went undefeated during the clay season. He had a forehand that bounced devilishly high off any surface, a weapon tempered by the tennis gods with the expressed intent of destroying backhands, particularly one-handers. As the kid aged into his twenties, his abilities molded themselves to other surfaces, and by 2008, he had dethroned Federer at Wimbledon. He was the golden rival to the golden boy. His name was Rafael Nadal.

A third guy suffered at the hands of these titans for years, a guy who had a near-perfect game but physical and mental weaknesses, a guy with a gluten allergy. In 2011, he put it all together and started beating up on both Federer and Nadal. He wasn’t quite as widely adored — the tennis world was content with one golden rivalry — but before long, it was obvious that with this guy around, the top of the men’s game had become a take-no-prisoners battle royale that was often too bright to look at directly. The third guy pushed his predecessors to improve their games, he smiled in the face of adversity, and boy, did he ever save some match points. His name was Novak Djokovic.

Since 2011, it has been these three, with the occasional Andy Murray or Stanislas Wawrinka intervention. Until 2016 or so, everything was glorious. Nadal and Djokovic played a pair of brutal, historic five-setters. Federer wasn’t gleaming quite as much as he had before 2009 or so, but was still easily good enough to be a factor at the top. The monotony of the faces next to the big trophies wasn’t boring in the least because of the consistently epic struggles required to win the titles.

After 2016, though, the tone changed a bit. Sure, the Big Three still dominated — when Djokovic declined after a spell of utter supremacy in 2015 and early 2016, Federer and Nadal immediately moved in to fill the gap — but they were in their thirties at this point. And sure, they were still the best of all time, but tennis history had told us thirty-somethings shouldn’t be able to dominate. We did get a last sublime match in the form of Djokovic-Nadal at Wimbledon 2018, but the quality of the biggest matches had gone down a bit. So we looked to the younger players to rise to the occasion.

They didn’t. The story of the LostGen is a sad one: a group of players with not quite enough skill and not quite enough belief that they could beat the middle-aged men at the top of the game. They were supposed to take over and were beaten so consistently by the Big Three that the LostGen actually declined first, despite being five-odd years younger on average.

Then we looked to the NextGen, the next next crop of young players. Surely this time would be different. Nick Kyrgios had the talent, Stefanos Tsitsipas had “future #1” written all over him, Daniil Medvedev had a game devoid of weaknesses. And Medvedev was indeed the one to crack through the Big Three stronghold, beating Djokovic in last year’s U.S. Open final. However, any inkling that he was the next Golden Boy shattered when he lost to Nadal from two sets up in the Australian Open final months later. Medvedev was great, and would surely go on to win more majors, but he wasn’t a transcendental player. He had only mastered the hard courts.

The problem was, Medvedev looked like the best player of the NextGen by some distance. Many of his peers had a glaring weakness in their return of serve (Tsitsipas, Berrettini, Shapovalov), and those with more well-rounded games seriously lacked the mental discipline to play long matches without cracking (Kyrgios, Zverev). Simply by virtue of the Big Three moving into their mid-30s and early 40s, the NextGen looked fated to take over, but there was not a Golden Boy among them.

We have been spoiled by the success of the Big Three. Everyone knows it, but understanding the problem doesn’t automatically lower expectations that have been ingrained into us by nearly two decades of peerless tennis. We have come to need a Golden Boy. It’s no longer enough to be impressed with someone, we need to be dazzled by someone. The tour knows this, which is why they tried so hard (and are still trying to an extent) to market Kyrgios, then Zverev, as the next Golden Boy. Kyrgios’s on-court tantrums and tirades at umpires turned many people off, but Tennis TV ignored that in their highlight videos, implying the behavior was entertaining controversy rather than just problematic. Zverev has been credibly accused of domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend, Olya Sharypova. He’s said nothing that comes remotely close to absolving himself. The ATP has been slow to investigate, doing next to nothing for almost a year, then waiting months to contact Sharypova after beginning an investigation.

The ATP, quite obviously, was desperate. They had good players, and some nice players, but their best players were well outside Golden Boy territory. We’d been saying for years that the Dark Ages were coming, but as long as the beacons of light that were the Big Three hung around, the next era would be delayed. And we couldn’t yet look to the next next next crop of young players, as a teenager hadn’t had significant success on the ATP in ages. 25 was the new 20, 30 was the new 25, 35 was the new 30.

“Tennis will be fine,” we agreed. And we were right, because tennis is tennis, a sport of epic physical and mental capacity that could be interesting to watch if two moderately proficient ten-year-olds picked up rackets. Still, the elephant in the room was that we didn’t have a Golden Boy. Men’s tennis was going to be fine, yes, but perhaps not much better than that. This looked like the future. Until he showed up.

You have surely seen him play by now. He is just 18, but he is as well-rounded as anyone on tour. Fans have described him as “a mix of the best qualities of the Big Three.” His forehand is a heavy comet. He can hit his backhand down the line. He is the best ATP prospect at returning serve since Murray and Djokovic. He is fast, fast like young Nadal was, fast in a way that puts the drop volley in serious danger of extinction when he takes the court. He’s got great touch, both on the drop shot and at net. He never loses his head. He is confident. Explosive. He seems like a nice guy. Tennis TV have pinned him to the top of their Twitter account. His name is Carlos Alcaraz. He is the next Golden Boy.

This isn’t to say that he is going to have a career like Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic. Way too many things remain unknown to make a prediction like that (injuries, potential rivals, how his motivation will hold up once he starts to win big ones). What is clear, though, is that Alcaraz is what the ATP have been looking for. He is a player who inspires pure awe in fans when they watch him. A player who makes you seriously wonder what it will take to beat him. A player who has a game that would make some top-five players positively weep with envy. He’s capable of Monfils-esque hot shots, but is also consistent and durable enough to play a three-hour thriller and emerge unscathed physically.

Virtually everything you can say about his game is positive. The serve is not great, but it’s a weakness he easily compensates for rather than an area he needs to improve. The feeling is that if he can become a merely competent spot server, everyone else is screwed.

*****

His rise has been so fast that it’s almost comical. Take his two losses this year. The first was a five-set loss to Matteo Berrettini at the Australian Open. Alcaraz faded in the fifth set tiebreak, double faulting on match point. The loss seemed easy to get over, though — Alcaraz had been two sets down, so it felt like a near-miss on stealing the match rather than a heartbreaker. Then there was the close loss to Nadal at Indian Wells, which could be rationalized by saying that Alcaraz wasn’t quite ready to beat a GOAT yet, and even then, he had forced Nadal to hit several insane volleys to win the match. Even his collapse against Hugo Gaston at the Paris Masters last year, where Alcaraz blew a 5-0 lead in the second set, felt like an ideal learning experience. It was in the round of 16 in a Masters 1000, so a big match, but Alcaraz has played far bigger ones already.

Alcaraz just won the Miami Open, making him the youngest ATP Masters 1000 champion in 17 years, but the way he won is more telling than the big title itself. Against Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alcaraz fell behind 2-5 to a storm of brilliant serves and returns (!) from the world #5. Out of nowhere, Alcaraz then started to blast winners of every imaginable kind. By the time he came back to earth, he had won the first set 7-5 and was up 2-0 in the second, with a love-30 lead on Tsitsipas’s serve to boot. The fifth-best player in the world had been reduced to a spectator. He really didn’t do much wrong — just a loose game at 5-3 — Alcaraz won most of the points during the run with winners or error-forcing shots. Tsitsipas had played, on the whole, a very good match, yet was outclassed by a player five years younger than him.

Then there was his next match against Miomir Kecmanović. Kecmanović is ranked 48th in the world, but consensus was that he played at a top-five level. Alcaraz lost a desperately close, high-octane first set, then put his nose to the grindstone to win the second and slog through the third, even as Kecmanović looked to be the better player. In another tiebreak, Alcaraz fell behind 5-3 but fought to match point with a trio of point-ending shots. Kecmanović pushed Alcaraz deep into his forehand corner, then came to net and loosed a drop volley short on the ad side. Alcaraz sprinted in, taking eight giant steps, then as he reached the ball, went into a slide to ensure he wouldn’t run into the net. He timed it perfectly, stopping inches short of it, and poked a beautiful backhand past Kecmanović for the winner. The crowd lost its mind.

In the final against Ruud, Alcaraz fell behind 4-1 in the first set, but such is his returning prowess that a deficit like this always feels correctable, and it was — Alcaraz climbed back to level the set. Then, at 5-all and 15-30 up on Ruud’s serve, Alcaraz chased down a very good crosscourt forehand from Ruud. It was a shot most players would have tried to repel with a slightly loopier shot than normal, to give themselves an extra moment to recover to the middle of the court. Alcaraz decided to blast it back crosscourt at the ungodly pace of 102 mph. He broke serve shortly afterwards, then didn’t lose another game until he had pocketed the first set and gone up a double break in the second. Ruud fought gamely, but to me the resistance seemed knowingly futile, like Ruud was battling because he knew he was supposed to, not because he still thought he could win.

Alcaraz served the final out to love. At 40-love, he glanced to his box and nodded. It’s something he does a lot. The gesture says nothing more than that he knows how good he is, that he understands completely what he is capable of and loves it when he meets his own high standards. “Cool as the other side of the pillow,” a commentator said. Then Alcaraz served and volleyed with almost casual ease on championship point and fell to the ground in elation.

*****

Alcaraz is now ranked 11th in the world, which is astonishing when you consider that eight months ago, he was ranked outside the top 50. He has reached a level of balance in his game that rivals in his mid-twenties are nowhere close to. Imagining how good Alcaraz will be at that age should have a CAUTION label attached to it for everyone else on tour.

Already, when Alcaraz is at his best, even high-ranked opponents are rendered totally helpless. Nadal managed to edge him at Indian Wells, and I think Djokovic will be able to beat him by making his service games hell, but besides that? Alcaraz is running through everyone he plays, seemingly improving from tournament to tournament. In the space of weeks, people have gone from saying he could win a major in a couple years to saying he could win one this year.

You can say the hype is out of control, though that’s an opinion that gets harder to defend with every match he plays. Alcaraz is what the ATP have been craving since the Big Three got old, and there’s not much more to say than just sit back and enjoy the show as the next Golden Boy tears up the world.

Świątek Shines in Miami

By Nick Carter

I really enjoyed the WTA Miami final, but not for the reasons I was expecting. A lot of us were hoping for a big battle between two stars of the women’s game, the beginning of an iconic new rivalry. What we got instead was a demonstration of high-level tennis, but mostly from one very special player who has now cemented herself as the world number one: Iga Świątek.

The opening game suggested we were in for a battle. It lasted for 11 minutes as Świątek time and again prevented Naomi Osaka from serving it out, whilst trying to carve an early break lead. It didn’t quite materialise, but it set the tone for the set. Osaka’s first serve was a piercing weapon, delivering several aces early on. However, Świątek was getting lots of returns back into play, and she had the upper hand in the rallies. Osaka’s big strokes weren’t overwhelming Świątek, her ability to scramble the ball back making the Japanese star play one more ball. This played into Świątek’s hands, as Osaka was far more likely to break down and make an unforced error.

At the start of the match, Swiatek seemed to be targeting her opponent’s backhand and trade with her there. It didn’t matter so much then as Osaka was missing from both wings. Let’s not be harsh here, at this point Naomi wasn’t missing by much. The errors weren’t coming from poor execution, but having to deal with awkward ball placement or just the pressure of having to hit winners to beat Swiatek, who just was not missing. She seemed to have an answer for everything Osaka threw at her, finding a way to compete for every point.

The biggest issue for Świątek in the first set was her first serve, which landed less than half the time in the first several games. Somehow, she was still holding to 15 or 30 despite this. Some of this is due to her consistency, but it has to be said Osaka made a tactical error on the return as well. She was standing over halfway to the service line when receiving the second serve to take aggressive swings, but this meant she didn’t get the purchase on the shot she needed. It’s like Osaka massively underestimated the Świątek second serve, or realized the need for her to attack that shot a little too much and wound up pressing. Granted, the second serve is not the strongest part of Świątek’s game, but Osaka needed to give herself more time to really attack it. As it was, she was getting jammed trying to return and ended up taking time away from herself rather than Świątek.

Osaka’s first serve kept her out of trouble for a while, but when it went AWOL in the fifth game Świątek immediately grabbed the break. Osaka managed to hold serve the rest of the set despite a lot of pressure in subsequent games, but one break was all Świątek needed to take control. Monday’s new world number one was probing every return game, looking to draw an error or open up the court to hit a winner. Likewise, a lot of smart serving put her in the ascendancy to win points and maintain her lead. Crucially, Świątek wasn’t making many errors herself; she stayed very consistent.

Then, as we have come to expect from Świątek, she took her level up a notch to close the first set.  Suddenly her first serve was landing in more regularly, which Osaka was struggling to get back. This was partly because it was only at this point, mid-way through the match, that Świątek began to really attack her rival’s forehand. Up until then, she’d been preferring the backhand, then as it steadily improved, switched to attacking both wings. However, Osaka’s forehand was sometimes misfiring from defensive positions and Świątek decided to capitalise and make her uncomfortable. It looked at first it might be a nervy hold, especially as Osaka tried to put the pressure on, but in the end the set was with Świątek, 6-4 after 53 minutes.

Osaka did not get much of a chance to reset ahead of the next phase of the match. Her unforced error count hadn’t settled, but more importantly she was under attack. Świątek was now making deep returns and targeting the forehand. She was doing what she always does, going up a level to make sure her opponent stayed down. This is the mark of how great a player Świątek already is. Suddenly, she was already a break up in the second set. Strong serving (two aces and one unreturned) in the following game meant she consolidated and now we wondered whether Osaka could mount a comeback. We’d seen her do it before in big finals, we knew it was possible.

However, if anyone has watched Świątek recently she doesn’t seem to be able to lose. If you look at her whole career, she doesn’t lose from winning positions, especially in finals. What followed was an awesome display of dominance from her. In the first set, when Świątek was making errors it was during points where she was going for big shots or trying to go toe-to-toe in rallies. Now, this was no longer an issue. Świątek was hitting big, attacking forehands and there was very little her opponent could do to counter this. She was now either forcing errors or hitting winners. Under pressure, Osaka double faulted to concede the double break. 

Swiatek got a bit tight in the following game, getting taken to deuce for the first time in the match after some groundstroke errors. However, she took the pressure off with some strong serving and taking control of the next two points. The result was in little doubt as Świątek lead 4-0. The fifth game of the set actually had some really good rallies, but most ended with a Świątek winner. Another strongly contested exchange resulted in a forehand error from Osaka, having been continually forced to play one more shot. By this point, she looked perplexed as to how she could possibly beat her fellow finalist. She wasn’t giving up, she still attacked, but Świątek was able to out-hit her.

Swiatek then strongly closed out the match in the next game thanks to some great serving and brilliant attacking play resulting in her hitting a winner or drawing an error. After seeing an Osaka return sail long on match point, Iga celebrated like she couldn’t believe what had just happened. Her previous titles in Doha and Indian Wells had been marked with a cry and a fist pump, as she was clearly elated. Here, it was like she finally was able to relax and enjoy the moment as she dropped to her haunches with a beaming smile. Maybe she was under more pressure to perform than we thought, given all the hype about being the world number one in-waiting and the expectation of winning the Sunshine Double. 

The atmosphere after the match was just really positive. Naomi got a wonderful reception as she stepped forward to receive the runner-up award. Her speech gave the impression of someone who was really happy to be there, to be back at the top level and being happy for her friend. The way she mentioned their rivalry being 1-1 suggests that whilst on the court they’ll take it seriously, off the court it’ll be the source of friendly banter. Then Iga’s speech was similarly positive, and her beaming smile was wonderful to see as she was clearly loving life. Iga Świątek is a worthy world number one and in this form I do not know who can challenge her if she’s having a good day. I’m getting 2000s Federer vibes from her, which of course begs the question if a ‘Nadal’ will arise and if so, who it will be. That’s for the future, for now let’s enjoy the fact we were treated to an unbelievably impressive performance from a great player who is still only 20 years old.

Iga Świątek hugs Naomi Osaka at the net after winning the Miami masters title. Screenshot: WTA Youtube Channel

A Conversation With the Big Three

By Owen Lewis, Scott Barclay, and Claire Stanley

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic recently got together to discuss the GOAT debate and life in general. Popcorn Tennis has obtained a valuable copy of the transcript.

Djokovic: Magic water, anyone?

Nadal: I never encountered water that is magic, no? Except in bottles perfectly lined up next to my chair on court.

Federer: *mimes one-handed backhand* Sorry, what? I get lost in my own artistry sometimes.

Nadal: Come off it Roger, your backhand was the reason you lost to me 23 out of the first 33 times.

Djokovic: Guys, guys, let’s all have respect. Respect for ourselves. Respect for each other. Respect for gluten-free food and all its virtues.

Federer: You know, I actually beat Rafa six of the last seven times we played. I started taking my gorgeous backhand earlier and harder, and he couldn’t handle the pace. I really don’t think this is talked about enou-

Nadal: I will keep fighting to find a solution, no? I lost some speed from my prime years. But at least I’m still an active player.

Djokovic: Was that a dig at me or Roger? Anyway, deportation needs to stop.

Federer: You guys should ski more. It’s very calming.

Djokovic: *frantically engages in wrist-strengthening exercises under the table*

Nadal: So, Roger, Novak, what did you think of how I played at the Australian Open? I’d say that makes me the GOAT, right?

Djokovic: Do you seriously think I wouldn’t have beaten you if the corrupt establishment had let me into the tournament? I’ve won the last 19 sets against you on hard courts!

Federer: Burn!

Djokovic: Easy, Roger. You’re clearly third-best at this point.

Nadal: Have either of you been fishing recently?

Federer: Don’t change the subject, Rafa. I think Novak would have beaten you as well. Remember the 2019 final? You only won eight games.

Nadal: You on Djokovic’s payroll or something? Unbelievable. You want people to think you wanna be his boyfriend, no?

*Federer side-eyes Nadal, clears his throat*

Federer: Not enough is said about how grass court tennis is the essence of the sport. Also, aesthetics are underrated.

Djokovic: I totally agree. You could argue that winning a Wimbledon final after saving two championship points against the so-called GOAT is the crown jewel of this era.

Nadal: Clay is clearly more important. Surface of truth, no? Groundstrokes more important. I have 13 Roland-Garros titles, 10 Rome titles, and 4538470493570349-

Djokovic and Federer: No one likes playing on mud, Rafa!

*awkward silence*

Nadal: We agree to disagree. I’ve been getting bored during my recovery from this stress fracture. What have you two been up to?

Djokovic: Do you think Medvedev enjoyed his one week at #1?

Federer: Three weeks. You’re so touchy about stats, Novak.

Djokovic: You only say that because I have more weeks at #1 than you.

Federer: *looks to Nadal and does the cuckoo motion* There he goes again.

Nadal: You know, Roger, I miss the days when it was just me and you in the final. Two nice guys, #1 and #2 in the rankings, the crowd cheering, contrast of styles, me holding the trophy.

Federer: Hold on, what was that last bit?

Nadal: Contrast of styles, no? Smoothness vs. grit, lefty vs. righty, amazing forehand vs. terrible backhand that everyone said was pretty for some reason.

Federer: *mimes backhand motion again, muttering to himself*

Djokovic: What do you guys think was the best season ever on tour, and why is it my 2015 season?

Nadal: Wait a second, I wasn’t at my best that year.

Federer: But you were in 2011.

Djokovic: Right! Wasn’t that when I beat you six times in a row, Rafa? I straight-setted you on clay TWICE! Roger can only dream of that.

Nadal: Is a fluke of the life, no?

Djokovic: No.

The Big Three convening in 2019 as a practice session for this conversation. Screenshot: ATP Finals/Tennis TV

Federer: Anyway, Rafa — when are you and Xisca going to have kids?

Nadal: Is a truth that the world is in a very bad place right now, no? And my career is not yet over. So is a decision that will take place later on.

Djokovic: Rafa, you know you’re not talking to the press, right? You can give actual answers.

Nadal: Right, sorry. I forget sometimes. We’re having kids in two years, whether I retire or not. But have you seen Andy recently? I told Xisca we draw the line at one. Imagine being mad enough to have four ki-

Federer: *glares at Rafa and mimes another perfect backhand*

Djokovic: Anyway. I’ll give them a jumbo bag of gluten-free cookies as a gift. Also, magic water.

Federer: Novak, do you believe that the earth is flat? That aliens are up there trying to spy on us through cell towers? That Nadal is better than me?

Djokovic: Yes, why do you ask?

Federer: *snickers*

Nadal: What was that last one again, Roger?

*awkward pause*

Nadal: I’m the only one of us with an Olympic gold medal in singles.

Federer: Ha, not as many as And- SHIT. That burn backfired.

Djokovic: Does it look nice beside your ATP Finals trophy- oh, wait.

Nadal: Remember the Djokosmash in the 2008 Olympic semifinal?

Djokovic: Djokosmash?

Nadal: Oh, shit, Roger. He doesn’t know. You explain it to him.

Federer: Novak, you see here, this is all in good fun-

Djokovic: EXPLAIN IT TO ME.

Federer: Well, since you kind of suck at overheads, people created a term for it when you hit a bad one.

Djokovic: At least my weakness is something small, rather than my backhand or picking my underwear out of my butt.

Nadal: *head snaps back to the conversation after staring longingly at the ocean* Oh, yeah. I saw someone doing that a while back. I won’t mention their name out of respect for their privacy, but it was gross, gross, gross.

*Federer and Djokovic exchange knowing glances*

Federer: What do you guys think about the NextGen? These are the people who will soon hold the keys to men’s tennis, you know.

Djokovic: Easy there, Roger. Rafa and I aren’t retired yet.

Federer: You will be soon. Have you seen this Alcaraz kid?

Nadal: Great champion. Hard worker. There’s a reason everyone calls him the next Rafa Nadal.

Federer and Djokovic: He plays more like me, don’t you think?

*Puzzled glances are exchanged. Nadal tries to count on his fingers. Federer points at himself, miming a one-handed backhand, then points at Djokovic, miming a two-handed backhand. Djokovic sips a drink whose color can be described only as disturbingly green.*

Nadal: Um.

Djokovic: What do you think of my luscious head of hair?

Nadal: I’m jealous. So jealous. *smacks leg and whispers* You were supposed to say that only in your head, Rafa. You will do extra pushups later.

Federer: Your hair looks great, Novak. Was it worth it to sell your soul to Satan?

Nadal: *pats Djokovic on the shoulder* He’s not over the 2019 Wimbledon final yet, Novak. And why should he be? He had match point, twice!

*Djokovic tries and fails to not look deeply pleased with himself.*

Federer: Hey, Rafa, didn’t I beat you that tournament?

*silence*

Federer: Poetry in motion. *mimes backhand*

Djokovic: Roger, you do know your forehand is better, right? It’s not even close.

Federer: *in deep thought*

Nadal: The ATP Finals aren’t even a real tournament. They’re like an exhibition with brighter lights.

*silence*

*Federer sips Lindt hot chocolate*

*Federer mimes a backhand, this time knocking off Nadal’s toupee on the follow-through.*

Nadal: Goddammit.

Federer: *snickers* I thought your hair had been looking thicker, Rafa.

*Djokovic pulls an exact copy of his own hair from a bag.*

Djokovic: Here you go, Rafa. It screws on.

Nadal: Screws on?

Djokovic: Don’t ask.

Nadal: I really want to ask.

Djokovic: You can ask, but if you do I’m taking my hair back.

Nadal: I won’t ask.

*Nadal puts on Djokovic’s hair. Federer looks around uncomfortably as if feeling left out.*

Djokovic: What will you guys miss the most about tennis after you retire?

Federer: You’re thinking about that already, Novak? Maybe you’re not as tough as I thought you were.

Djokovic: No, man. With the new edition of cryogenic chamber, I’ll be playing until 65 years old, kicking ass and taking names and making more players cry over missed match points. Just trying to kill time here until I’ve digested my breakfast of gluten-free bread topped with bird food.

Nadal: I’ll miss the fight. The competition. The passion. The will. The suffering.

Djokovic: Not at a press conference, Rafa.

Nadal: Right. Sorry. I’ll miss clay. It’s fun to win every single match. I’ll also miss my tiny shorts and sleeveless tops. I look really good in them.

Federer: I’ll miss my first few years on tour, when neither of you were relevant yet. And my long hair. But not the bleached blond era.

Djokovic: Ah, yes. The boring years.

Nadal: The weak era. You did have strong hair game though, Roger. I admire that about you.

Federer: *angrily mimes backhand* *whispers* People didn’t used to be able to punish this shot. And I know I had strong hair game.

Djokovic: I’ll miss winning everything. All the time. #NoleSlam

Federer: Did you just say “hashtag” out loud, Novak?

Djokovic: I have more Instagram followers than you.

Nadal: I have more than you both.

Federer: It’s only because you post so many pictures of your biceps.

Nadal: What can I say? Just flaunting what God gave me. And you like them all, Roger.

Djokovic: You should be ashamed that God gave you those two lumps on your arms but not two working knees.

*Nadal reaches across the table and Federer holds him back. Djokovic runs a hand through his hair*

Federer: Did you guys know that there’s a community of people on Twitter who argue about our achievements every day?

Djokovic: Yeah, I follow a good few of ’em. This guy Pavvy G really has my back. More than anyone should, honestly. I know I’m perfect, but I’m not THAT perfect.

Federer: Of course you follow your fans. Also, peRFect is my thing.

Djokovic: Don’t act like you’re so clever for that, Roger. It’s not that hard to think of complimentary words with initials in them.

Federer: Fine, you guys try.

Djokovic: UneNDing.

Nadal: SupeRNatural.

Federer: Hmph.

Nadal: I gave up on Twitter when Ana Ivanovic and I didn’t exchange as many tweets as I thought we would. It’s a weird means of communication. Oh, and people said I faked injuries.

Djokovic: Don’t you, though?

*Federer holds Nadal back again*

Federer: Swiss neutrality.

Nadal: Don’t look so pleased with yourself, Roger. You never mastered the Surface of Truth.

Djokovic: *looks sympathetically at Federer* Sorry I can’t say the same, buddy.

Federer: *snaps back from a daydream* You’re right, Novak. My forehand is better than my backhand.

*awkward silence*

Djokovic: Well, this has been fun.

Nadal: Has it?

Federer: No.

Djokovic: Rafa, I’ll see you on the clay. Roger, I’ll see you at Laver Cup. *snickers*

Federer: *mimes backhand, whispering to himself* Take that oil painting of a backhand!

Nadal: You guys, I’m really scared to lose the last few hairs on my head. I wish I could wear Novak’s hair without people asking questions.

Federer and Djokovic: I have to go. It’s a kid thing.

*Nadal is left sitting alone at the table. He Googles hair products.*

Nadal: Should I text Andy?

*Federer and Djokovic walk away from the table together.*

Federer: Novak, I have a confession. I didn’t really have a kid thing. I just didn’t want to listen to Rafa talk about how he’s balding for the millionth time. It’s so awkward, you know?

Djokovic: You don’t say. *thinks to himself, my god, he’s not kidding.*

*They walk in silence for a while.*

Djokovic: Well, Roger, this is where I leave you. I’ve got a date with a doctor who swears he can turn me into a werewolf.

Federer: See ya, Novak. *thinks to himself, my god, he’s not kidding.*

Nadal: *thumbs text* “Hey Andy, wanna hang out?”