Tennis 2015: Boys still finding it tough to beat the men

As we end the 2015 tennis season, it’s the usual suspects – Djokovic, Federer, Wawrinka and Nadal contesting the semis of the ATP World Tour finals in London.

After all the new names that hit the headlines in 2014, it almost feels like we have taken two steps back in 2015. Indeed, 2014 was a year of breakthroughs – not just the first-time Grand Slam winners, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, but the so-called ‘young guns’ of tennis, players in the range of 17-23 years.

At the top end of that age bracket, two 23-year-olds – Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov – had a stellar year in 2014. Both had been making steady progress over the past 2-3 years and last year, both reached the Wimbledon semi-finals; Raonic went on to qualify for the World Tour finals, while Dimitrov ended the year with 3 titles on 3 different surfaces. It seemed a certainty that by 2015, one or both would win their first major. Raonic started 2015 strongly, beating Nadal at Indian Wells and rising to #4. But a foot injury put him out of the clay court season and he just hasn’t been the same since he returned, ending the year down at #14. Dimitrov has fared even worse; he split with his coach (and also with his girlfriend Maria Sharapova) and seems to have been generally distracted. He ends the year at #28 and without a single title.

Kei Nishikori reached the US Opens finals last year at age 24, qualified for the World Tour Finals at which he took Djokovic to 3 sets in the semis. He ended the year at #5. This year, he has been pretty consistent, but hasn’t really troubled the top players (except a win over Nadal) and crucially has failed to make a mark at the Grand Slams. He had an early exit at the US Open, lost a bit of momentum towards the year-end and will settle for #8.

Last year, at Wimbledon, 19-year-old Aussie hot shot Nick Kyrgios announced his arrival on the world stage knocking out Nadal in the 4th round. Not since Boris Becker in the 1980’s has there been a player with so much ‘stage presence’. He ended 2014 at #52 and on paper, 2015 has been an improvement as he has moved up to #30, including wins over Federer, Wawrinka and Raonic. But he will probably be remembered more for his poor on-court behaviour leading to controversy, official warnings and fines. Hopefully all this is a part of growing up and will be put behind him in 2016.

Croatian Borna Coric started 2014 with wins over Top 20 players like Jerzy Janowicz and Ernests Gulbis. Later in the year, he defeated Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Swiss Indoors and became the youngest player in the Top 100. Coric hit a career-high 33 in mid-2015 although he later dropped back to a still respectable #45. The year included a win over Andy Murray in Dubai, but mainly his rankings improvement has come through consistent play, rather than through any spectacular big tournament success. I think he is more of a ‘grinder’ in the Nadal style and I assume he will continue his steady climb in 2016, but remains to be seen if he has the something special to challenge the top players consistently.

Nick Kyrgios (left) and Borna Coric (right)

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Another teenager, Alexander Zverev won the Australian Open juniors in 2014 and then hit the senior circuit at age 17 going on to beat a Top 20 player (Mikhail Youzhny) soon after. He has finally broken the Top 100 this year and climbed to #83. No big wins, but I guess we will be reading about Coric and Zverev contesting tournament finals ten years from now.

Austria’s Dominic Thiem is technically a young gun, as he has reached a ranking of 20 at the age of 22, but he has done so by accumulating points through consistent play rather than by beating any of the top players (although he did have a win over Wawrinka in 2014). However, he has won his maiden ATP title this year followed by two more – all at smaller tournaments. It’s a bit early to say whether he will build on this to rise to the top, or will end up as an ‘almost there’ player like David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych. But the fact that he is one of the few players with a one-handed backhand means that he is worth keeping an eye on. When Federer, Wawrinka and Gasquet retire, it will only be Dimitrov and Thiem keeping the one-handed backhand alive.

So for 2015, nothing really to set the heart on fire. Dimitrov, Raonic, Nishikori and Kyrgios all still waiting to challenge the top players consistently, while younger players like Coric and Zverev continue to play the Challenger tournaments to accumulate points and qualify for the bigger ATP tournaments.

With Nadal resurgent towards the end of 2015, Djokovic stronger than ever and Federer looking determined to keep himself fit for the Rio Olympics and Murray or Wawrinka always capable of winning another Grand Slam, it would be surprising if any of the young ones makes a significant dent in the Top 5 next year. This is not necessarily because these young guys are no good. Much has been said about how tennis has now become an older man’s game; the top players are all in their late 20s and early 30s, powered by improved racket technology and scientific training programs. It is doubtful we will see another teenage Grand Slam champion in the near future until some new disruptive technology comes along which would shift the advantage back to younger players.

Meanwhile, it’s always fun following the career arcs of new talent and there’s a whole bunch on the horizon. Thanasi Kokkinakis (age 19, rank 80) is a close friend and playing partner of Nick Kyrgios. Swedish fans look to Elias Ymer (age 19, rank 136) and his brothers to bring back 1980s style tennis glory to their nation. Just as Nishikori has put Japan on the tennis map, Hyeon Chung (age 19, rank 52) is set to do for Korea; he has been named by ATP as Most Improved Player of the Year for 2015. The US which used to dominate the game from the 70s to the 90s now has three teenagers – Frances Tiafoe (age 17, rank 182), Taylor Fritz (age 18, rank 207) and Stefan Kozlov (age 17, rank 356) – of whom great things are expected in the next few years. And maybe we can get some good old-fashioned Russian-American rivalry going in the Davis Cup if Andrey Rublev (age 18, rank 175) joins the earlier-mentioned Alexander Zverev in Top 20 in the next few years.

Clockwise from top left: Taylor Fritz, Elias Ymer, Hyeon Chung and Frances Tiafoe

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Federer’s chances at the US Open? I’m not as optimistic as the experts are…

Everyone’s talking about Roger Federer being the co-favorite (along with Novak Djokovic) for the upcoming US Open, on the back of his win in Cincinnati and having reached 4 finals in a row. No doubt, I am one of his biggest fans and nothing would give me greater joy than to see him add a 6th title in New York. However, I do feel that tennis observers’ analyses are a bit superficial in anointing him as the man to beat in New York.

As Federer has shown in recent times, it’s one thing to reach a final and and another thing to win the tournament against someone who is invariably younger and more motivated. Let’s face it, lots of lower ranked players just play out of their skin these days when presented the prospect of adding Federer’s scalp to their resume. How else to explain how Fed could have lost to Lleyton Hewitt, J W Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka in finals this year, when these players have otherwise had a fairly uneventful year (not counting Wawrinka’s early season success at the AO against an injured Nadal).

On top of that, one has to consider the effects of a 2 week, best-of-five tournament on a 33-year-old body. In Wimbledon, Federer benefited from the middle Sunday off, but in New York, he will have to deal with that highly compressed 2nd weekend, which would require him to win two best-of-five matches back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday to lift the trophy.

The statistics show that Federer’s 5th set performances haven’t been particularly impressive over his career. There are those two 5-set matches “he should have won, but lost” early in his career to Marat Safin (AO semi-finals 2005) and David Nalbandian (Masters Cup Finals 2005). More recently, he has succumbed in the 5th set to Nadal (Wimbledon 2008 and AO 2009), to Del Potro (US Open 2009), to Djokovic 2 years in a row in the US Open semi-finals (2010 and 2011, after saving match points) and to Tsonga (Wimbledon 2011).

Given his 5 year run of US Open titles from 2004-08, it is interesting that the next 5 years have seen progressively declining performances from him; the finals loss to Delpo in 2009, the two consecutive semi-final losses to Djokovic in 2010-11, then a quarter-final loss to Berdych in 2012 and last year, the unbelievable 3 set loss to Tommy Robredo in the 4th round. In three of these years, Federer had won the Cincinnati Masters coming into the US Open (2009-10 and 2012) and had been similarly hyped up as a potential USO winner by the tennis press. So, I’m not really sure that winning in Cincinnati this year is a strong enough reason to consider him a favorite again.

More likely, it is the absence of Nadal and the relatively poor ‘post-marital’ form of Djokovic that has given tennis pundits cause for optimism. No doubt, Nadal’s absence will have a huge positive psychological effect on Federer, who seems to play better just knowing that the Spaniard is not in the draw. But Djokovic is another matter altogether and much like Wimbledon, he will come in eager to prove a point.

While I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for Federer, I will be equally interested in watching out for the young guns. Dimitrov and Raonic seem to have at least one Slam as part of their destiny. There’s also a whole bunch of teenagers and early 20’s players who could cause early round upsets – Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Jack Sock, Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, Jiri Vezely and Dominic Thiem…although I haven’t checked if all these guys are through to the main draw.

Any which way, it should be an interesting fortnight in New York!

Tennis: a sport searching for a surface

Tennis is perhaps the only major global sport which does not have a single standardized playing surface. Obviously, when the modern game was first developed in the late 19th century, it was primarily played on grass (hence ‘Lawn Tennis’) and in fact, until 1974 three of the four Grand Slams (except the French Open) were played on grass. Over the past 100+ years, the sport has experimented with a number of surface types.

While the lack of standardization separates tennis from other major professional sports, it has also created variety in the game and allowed players of different styles to emerge and dominate the game over the years.

However, over the years tournaments have progressively dropped ‘high maintenance surfaces’ like grass and carpet in favor of durable surfaces like hard court and clay. In fact, grass is now restricted to just one Grand Slam and 3-4 tournaments that take place just before and after Wimbledon. I find it ridiculous that there is not a single Masters 1000 tournament played on grass; surely Queen’s Club is prestigious enough that it could have an expanded field and upgraded to a Masters 1000 status? How many more Masters tournaments would Roger Federer have won if this had been so? Similarly, carpet was a popular surface, especially for indoor tournaments and the year-end ATP championships have been held on this surface as well. It helped players with big serves, but helped baseliners and serve-and-volleyers equally well. Unfortunately, the ATP has not used this as an official surface since 2009…apparently to slow down the game.

So, over the years, both grass courts and carpet have been abandoned, while hard courts and clay courts have proliferated. Rallies have become longer, while big servers no longer have the advantage as they did until the 1990’s. But the increase in hard courts has come at a price and in recent years, Rafa Nadal has made much of the fact that the large number of hard court tournaments are responsible for injuries and are threatening to shorten tennis careers – his in particular!

I feel that the ATP must make one of two decisions. One – they can adopt a single surface as other global sports have done; create an all new artificial surface which is soft enough not to destroy players’ bodies, but has a ‘medium’ speed which supports all types of play. Or, they should embrace the fact that variety adds dimension to the sport and go back to having different tournaments with different surfaces. But certainly, the current practice of having the sport dominated by a super-slow clay surface and a super-hard and injury-inducing hard surface seems to be a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

The 2012 tennis season…something for everyone

Well, Novak Djokovic capped off yet another great season by winning the year-ending ATP Tour Finals in London, beating Roger Federer 7-6, 7-5 and reaffirming the World No.1 ranking which he took back from Federer last week.

But it wasn’t a Novak show all the way this year…quite the opposite in fact. For the first time since 2003, the 4 Grand Slams were won by 4 different players with Djokovic taking the Australian Open, Nadal winning his 7th French Open, Federer picking up his 7th Wimbledon and good old Andy Murray winning his first Slam at the US Open.

Ultimately, Djokovic deservedly ended the year as No.1 for his consistency, having reached the finals of 3 Grand Slams and also winning 3 ‘Masters 1000’ titles at Miami, Toronto and Shanghai. Djokovic will have to keep his eyes open in 2013, as challenges to his reign will come from all quarters – Federer continues to be dangerous even at the age of 31, Murray will be looking to win more Slams, Nadal will want to reassert himself and del Potro is close to re-discovering his 2009 form.

For Federer, it was a year to remember. He ended his Grand Slam title drought with the Wimbledon title, reached the finals of the Olympics singles tournament for the first time in his career, won 3 ‘Masters 1000’ titles (Indian Wells, Madrid and Cincinnati) and took back the World No.1 ranking to edge past Pete Sampras’ record of 286 cumulative weeks at No.1. In fact, Federer’s final tally of 302 weeks will be very tough to beat. Frankly, it will be tough for Federer to keep his motivation up in 2013, because he now owns or co-owns practically every record in the book.

Nadal incredibly finished 2012 in the Top 5 despite not playing for half the year, a testament to his performance in the first half, having won the French Open and 2 ‘Masters 1000’ titles. He now co-owns the record for most titles with Federer, both having 21. All eyes will be on Nadal when he returns to action at the Australian Open…in the past, when he has taken an injury break, he has always returned as strong and as motivated as before.

Andy Murray finally broke the Grand Slam jinx and won the Olympic Gold to boot, but his performance in the past couple of months has been worrying as he has lost a few matches after holding match points. When under pressure, he tends to stay back and go into defensive mode, rather than taking charge of the point. Interestingly, he failed to win any Masters 1000 titles this year. I am really curious to see if he can capitalize on his 2012 breakthrough next year.

David Ferrer had the best season of his career, winning 7 tournaments including his first ever ‘Masters 1000’ title in Paris last week. To achieve this at the age of 30 is incredible, but also adds weight to the argument that tennis is becoming an older man’s game. We no longer see teenagers winning Slams and major titles as we did with Becker, Agassi and Michael Chang in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Ferrer’s season has yet to finish, as he will play in the Davis Cup finals next week.

I feel that Juan Martin del Potro will get back to his 2009 playing level by next week. His results of the last few months have been very impressive, particularly with 2 wins over Federer and 1 win over Djokovic at the Olympics. I feel that he has a good shot at winning either the hard court Slams or even the French Open, where he has twice been 2 sets up against Federer, only to lose in 5.

Among the next lot, I don’t really see any names ready to break through and win a Slam or a Masters title. Both Tsonga and Berdych have reached Grand Slam finals and have the ability to beat the big names once in a while, but they can only win the Slams by fluke, rather than be consistent contenders.

The players of the future who can make the breakthrough are the four 21 year olds ranked inside the Top 50 – Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, David Goffin and Jerzy Janowicz (okay Janowicz turns 22 today!). There are other talented young players like Kei Nishikori (aged 22, ranked 19), Bernard Tomic (aged 20, ranked 51) and Ryan Harrison (aged 20, ranked 68), but their games are not powerful enough to win at the highest level. Two other names in the Top 100 worth keeping track off are 21 year old Russian Andrey Kuznetsov who won the Wimbledon junior title in 2009 and 22 year old Guillaume Rufin of France.

But the Top 4 + del Potro are so strong, that I would be very surprised if there was to be a first-time Grand Slam winner in 2013.

19th Masters title for Federer

Great performance by Roger Federer yesterday, with a 7-6, 6-3 win over towering John Isner to win the Indian Wells ATP 1000 tournament.

In the space of 2 days, Federer has beaten the only 2 players who have defeated him since September 2011. I missed the opening set, but when I woke up and saw that Fed had won it 7-6, I was encouraged to switch on the TV and watch the demolition in the 2nd set. Federer lost just one point on serve in that set and he out-aced Isner, the ace king.

In the next few days, they will all be back on court at the Miami Masters. These 2 ‘mini-Slams’ are the hardest back to back tournaments to win in tennis (other than the French-Wimbledon double), because they each have a 96 player field and have just a 3 day gap between them.

Should be interesting to see how the Top 4 fare in the next one week.

For the moment, Federer must be feeling great, having won 6 of his last 8 tournaments and now looking forward to a chance to overtake Nadal as #2 in Miami, if Federer wins there and Nadal has a bad tournament.

Indian Wells Masters final: Federer vs. Isner? What happened to Djokovic vs. Nadal?

I missed the semi-final action at Indian Wells ATP 1000 tournament this morning.

Djokovic vs. Isner happened too early. I woke up at 430am and checked the ATP Score Update App on my iPad to see that Isner was taking the 3rd set against Djokovic into a tie-break. Shut the iPad but couldn’t sleep. A few minutes later, opened it again and there it was – Isner beats Djokovic 7-6, 3-6, 7-6. Amazingly, Djokovic actually won more points than Isner in the match – 117 vs. 106. But Isner used his serve to win the 2 critical tie-breaks. Very happy for Isner…have been following him since he broke through at the relatively late age of 22 years.

Then came a rain delay followed by Federer vs. Nadal. I didn’t have the courage to watch that. I checked the score online to see that Federer had broken for a 3-0 lead only to lose the break. That was enough for me; I decided I was better off doing the weekend grocery shopping. Came back nearly an hour later to see that Federer was on match point and play had been halted due to rain! Unbearable! But a few seconds later, he served an ace and was through to the final.

The press will refer to this as a revenge final, since Isner famously upset Federer on clay in Switzerland in their Davis Cup tie last month. Should be an interesting match, but I will probably be too tense to watch…

Go Hamilton, Go!

Very happy to see Lewis Hamilton in pole position for tomorrow’s Australian GP. All the winter testing speculation has now come to an end and we get to know what the real race pace is. Or rather, we will know the real race pace tomorrow and there have been occasions in the past when qualifying pace hasn’t translated to race performance. But safe to say that McLaren are in the lead pack and so is Mr. Schumacher, starting from #4 in his Mercedes. This year Mercedes will genuinely challenge for the title I think.

Nevertheless it is surprising to see Red Bull down in 5th and 6th. Vettel will certainly squeeze something more out of the car during the race.

Less surprising was the fact that Ferrari didn’t make it into the final round of qualifying…Massa didn’t make it past Q1 and Alonso put his car into the gravel in Q2. The fact that they were struggling was already evident during early practice. It will take a few races for them to get their act together, if at all.

But what on earth is Romain Grosjean and his Lotus-Renault doing in 3rd position? And if he is up there, then clearly the car is very good and although teammate Kimi Raikkonen doing down in 18th, it will only be a matter of time before Kimi shakes off the rust and starts to unlock the potential of the car in the next couple of races.

The Toro Rosso’s are showing some surprising pace and start from 10th and 11th with rookie drivers Ricciardo and Vergne. What a thrill it must be for them.

Am expecting the winner tomorrow to be either a McLaren, Mercedes or Red Bull. I’ll be rooting for McLaren and Hamilton, as usual!