Down, But Not Out

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What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “tennis”? Yeah, it’s the same for everybody – “Roger Federer”. The most charismatic, the most popular player in the history of men’s tennis.
How would it feel to know that there won’t be a Roger Federer at this year’s Rio Olympics? Moreover, there won’t be a Roger Federer for the rest of the year, including US Open? It would suck, most definitely.

Federer’s career has been rather injury-free, barring a few seasons where he was plagued with injuries. Even then, he managed to awe millions of tennis fans all over the world, with his majestic artistry. But, as is normal with almost every tennis player, age caught up to him and the frequency of the injuries simply increased. 2016 was the culmination of all the damage that’s been resisted for a long time. He’s 11 days from being 35; and understandably so, his body couldn’t take it anymore. His recurring back injury, the one that’s been acting as a villain ever since 2008, was at its worst this season. Further, more injuries began to let themselves be known as 2016 rolled on. His worst problem in 2016 was probably his knee injury. An unusual one, given the fact, it happened when he was preparing to bathe his twin daughters; which he later agreed to. He heard a simple “click” in his knee and he knew immediately that something was wrong. As a result, he had to withdraw from notable tournaments like Indian Wells Masters and Miami Masters.

Though he began his clay court campaign in Monte Carlo Masters, it was cut short due to the recurring back injury. It forced him to withdraw from Roland Garros, as a result of which, his run of consecutive 65 appearances in a major broke down. But, the knee injury kept being troublesome and a nasty fall on court would lead to an injury-timeout and eventual loss against Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon semifinals. Nobody, probably not even Federer and his team could have contemplated that the loss would bring the curtains down on his 2016 campaign. On July 26th, Federer posted on his Facebook page, a heartfelt apology for disappointing his fans. “The love I have for tennis, the competition, tournaments and of course you, the fans remains intact” he wrote.

Roger’s playing style can sometimes have adverse effect on his back, especially while serving. But his envious track record, when it comes to injuries, has been primarily due to his mind-numbing fitness – the one that makes him unique and sets him apart from his contemporaries. A total of zero mid-match retirement, is worth a record, isn’t it?

A smooth game, complemented by occasional big groundstrokes has served him pretty well. Being touted the greatest of all time is one of the major accolades. And so is, one of the fittest of all time. And that brings us right back to the point. Why did Federer get injured so frequently this year, despite his bright “almost-injury-free” career? The reasons being – age; and, the increasing amount of physicality and power that’s being adhered into the sport. A player of Federer’s caliber would have adapted to it very well, had he been 24 right now. But, he’s 34 and it is not only difficult to adjust at such an age, but also unfair to ask of him to do so. And when a tennis player is past 29/30, the rate of recovery from an injury gets a lot worse. Federer is 34, for that matter. As has been aforementioned, 2016 was simply the year when Federer couldn’t resist any more. That he didn’t break down earlier, and only did so at 34 (when most players retire at 32-33) is yet another souvenir for the Swiss Maestro.

Federer’s decision was indeed a thoughtful one; one that ought to make you rethink on what Federer’s priority is! He’s always said that winning an Olympics singles gold has been one of his top priorities. His Olympics achievement may include a gold at doubles, but only a silver in singles. This might not have been his best chance to have a go at the gold medal, but was probably his last chance to do so. Also, tennis fans were preparing themselves to witness a duo of massively popular individual players in their respective fields, to join hands in Mixed Doubles – Roger Federer and Martina Hingis. But, if we think about it, Federer and his team proved again that he doesn’t care about titles. He wants to play the sport for as long as he can because of his immense love for the sport. In his Facebook post, he said that, “I have made the very difficult decision to call an end to my 2016 season as I need more extensive rehabilitation following my knee surgery earlier this year. The doctors advised that if I want to play on the ATP World Tour injury free for another few years, as I intend to do, I must give both my knee and body the proper time to fully recover. It is tough to miss the rest of the year. However, the silver lining is that this experience has made me realize how lucky I have been throughout my career with very few injuries.” – a clear message which means he doesn’t plan on hanging up his boots, yet.

So, let’s come to the burning question in ATP right now! What’s next in store for our beloved RF? Well, as ATP’s ranking is structured, he’d end 2016 with an accumulated total of 2130 points, meaning, he would end up around 15/16 by the end of the year. And that implies, he might end up facing any one of the current top 3 in ATP – Novak Djokovic/ Andy Murray/ Milos Raonic. He could use his protective ranking to be in a safer position, but, Swiss Davis Cup captain and Federer’s coach Severin Luthi – oozing in confidence – dismissed any such idea, saying “Federer will be in a position to beat anyone. Rankings don’t matter much.” Also, he mentioned that Federer would not be undergoing any surgery on his knee.

Roger’s knee is hurting and his return to top-tier tennis might seem impossible right now, but he is a fighter and he’ll be back. He wants to play for a few more years and he will, unless injuries keep coming back. And now just the current top 3, but also the other veterans, including Rafael Nadal would pose threat. Moreover, way too many youngsters (the likes of Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev) have been on the rise this season and it’s only expected that they would get even better in the next. Federer would have to deal with them as well, and with age not being on his side, he’d have to face a big hurdle next season. The elusive 18th Grand Slam title might not become a reality, but he’ll surely give stern tests to others when he comes back.
He has talked about playing his natural aggressive tennis when he is back, and that would mean, more success on the hard courts and lesser on clay, maybe another good Wimbledon run AND more problems with his back.

At this point, it is almost impossible to predict what the future has in store, but one thing is for sure, all eyes would be on Roger Federer and he knows that too. Since he’ll be 35 and a half next year, expectations should be kept in check because it’ll be more difficult for him than it’s ever been, due to this long injury layoff. Then again, he is the Maestro of tennis – he can be down for a bit, but it’ll be foolish to count him out just yet.

This was originally posted in http://www.sportscafe.in 

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Toronto Analysis and Prediction

A flurry of withdrawals has pretty much taken a lot of interest away from the Rogers Cup, Toronto. The likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray have withdrawn in order to stay fit and prepare well for the upcoming Summer Olympics at Rio. But, tennis’ top star right now, Novak Djokovic is playing and leads the field. Let’s have look at the draw.

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Rogers Cup Men’s singles Draw.

                        Draw Analysis

Top seed Novak Djokovic, playing his 10th Rogers Cup in as many years, has a 30-6 record here with 3 titles to boast, the latest of which was back in 2012. This year, Novak has a potential 3rd round clash French #14 seed Benoit Paire who recently lost in Washington 500 quarterfinal. #5 seed Tomas Berdych will have two tricky potential rounds against rising Croat teen Borna Coric and big-serving American John Isner to get to the quarterfinal to meet Djokovic there.
One of the key title contenders, Canadian hope, #4 seed Milos Raonic will look to strengthen his London bid as he would potentially take on German wonder kid Alexander Zverev in the 2nd round. A possible quarter final win over either #7 seed David Goffin or #10 seed in-form Frenchman Gael Monfils would set up a much awaited semifinal match-up for Raonic against Djokovic.

Some crunch matches and potential matches await in the bottom half of the draw where things are likely to be more exciting and topsy-turvy than the top half.
2nd seed Swiss star Stan Wawrinka, playing in his 10th Toronto Masters, will look to shrug off two successive defeats at this tournament. He’s drawn to have a potential quarterfinal against rising star, #6 seed Dominic Thiem, against whom he has a 2-1 H2H record. Thiem, himself though, would be looking to carry on his good form of this season and forget about the two early losses he was handed in Wimbledon and Kitzbuhel. He’ll have a potential 3rd round match against in-form Aussie Bernard Tomic, a match that can go either way.
In the 3rd quarter, #3 seed Kei Nishikori is drawn against #8 seed Marin Cilic for a place in the semifinals. But none of their road to semifinal would be easy. The winner of the match between big serving Croat Ivo Karlovic and fastest rising American Taylor Fritz would pose threat to Cilic. Well, not only that, popular Aussie Nick Kyrgios would look to reach the quarterfinals, brushing aside potential threatsrising Canadian teen Denis Shapovalov, talented Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and Cilic himself.

                         Draw Prediction

Possible 3rd round :

(1) Novak Djokovic vs (14) Benoit Paire
(9) John Isner vs (5) Tomas Berdych
(4) Milos Raonic vs (15) Steve Johnson
(10) Gael Monfils vs (7) David Goffin
(8) Marin Cilic vs (11) Nick Kyrgios
(13) Lucas Pouille vs (3) Kei Nishikori
(6) Dominic Thiem vs (12) Bernard Tomic
(16) Jack Sock vs (2) Stan Wawrinka

Possible Quarterfinals : 

(1) Novak Djokovic vs (5) Tomas Berdych
(4) Milos Raonic vs (10) Gael Monfils
(11) Nick Kyrgios vs (3) Kei Nishikori
(6) Dominic Thiem vs (2) Stan Wawrinka

Possible Semifinals : 

(1) Novak Djokovic vs (4) Milos Raonic
(3) Kei Nishikori vs (2) Stan Wawrinka

Final : 

(1) Novak Djokovic vs (2) Stan Wawrinka

Winner: Novak Djokovic

 

Dominic Thiem – The New Sensation

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It’s been quite a while since Austria produced any male superstar in tennis. Thomas Muster‘s off-form brought an end to Austria’s hopes from ATP. Sure, there was Jurgen Melzer, who peaked at #8 in the rankings but he couldn’t stay for long. When Melzer was peaking in singles, there was this dark-haired 17 year old fellow Austrian who was making his pro debut at Kitzbühel, an Austrian 250 event. Yeah, he lost. But a few weeks later, at Vienna 250, Dominic Thiem, ranked 1890, defeated Muster himself, 62 63. Well, unlike fairy tales, things didn’t start looking up for him right away. Maybe that was a sign – that Thiem’s career wouldn’t be a fairy tale; he’d have to struggle a lot to gain ground; he wouldn’t always be successful, but he would still fight and give his best… Who knows?

And Thiem followed the signs and worked hard. He lost to Bjorn Fratangelo in his only junior major final at Roland Garros. Now, Thiem is ranked 9 and Fratangelo… well, not even inside top 100. He was rather late to be introduced to top-tier ATP, but he gained momentum very soon. 2016 would be the year when he shifted to fifth gear completely. If one were to choose 2016’s breakout stars in ATP, Thiem would invariably be a top choice.

Thiem is a workhorse – in the most basic sense. Normally, he would hit the ball hard and keep hitting it until his opponent is cornered and forced to err. And this suits his aggressive baseline game just as well as it suits his defensive game. Like many other youngsters, Thiem concentrates on the baseline more than anything else. But what separates him from the rest of the field is his mentality and penetrative grounstrokes. He takes care of the rallies from the baseline and looks to prolong them with a good back-swing. A player whose both wings are just as effective (with powerful groundstrokes reaching 100-105 mph at times), with a big serve (reaching 135-145 mph frequently) in which topspin is infused a lot, Thiem is capable of just about anything, especially on clay, and has defeated the “King of Clay”, Rafael Nadal this year. He has a perfect height of 6’1″ and amazing physique which helps him move greatly on court.

One of the most successful players this year, Dominic has won titles on all three surfaces in 2016. The only player to do so. He has been the hardest working player this year, having played as many as 19 tournaments and reaching the semifinals at 9 of them with a 48-14 win-loss record. He has defeated Roger Federer twice this year, Nadal once, rose from #20 to #7 in the rankings, 6-7 against top 20 opponents and is at #6 in the Race to London rankings. That’s – success for a breakout star. Pundits have opined that Thiem could win a major (preferably the French Open) within the next 2 years. And that’s not an overestimation. Thiem’s success has primarily been on clay, with 5 of his 7 ATP titles coming on clay.

What stands out is his mentality and humbleness. His never-say-die attitude lifts his game up even on a bad day. And his humbleness off the court is one of the best of the lot. When he practiced with Andy Murray, Thiem apologized for hitting winners.
He takes nothing for granted and enjoys whatever opportunity he gets. He doesn’t worry about what happens off the court. His sole motivation is to get to the peak of the tennis hierarchy. His coach Gunter Bresnik has helped him a good deal in achieving such level of zen. He’s always calm and confident and ready to pounce on his opponent unleashing lethal tennis.

Despite primarily being a clay-courter, Thiem has been successful this year on hard courts as well, posting a 16-5 record with a 500-level title to boast. He has a serve-and-volley game similar to Federer’s that perfectly complements his heavy topspin-oriented powerful baseline tennis, to excel on hard courts. With the mind-blowing improvement and consistency in his game this season, and only 335 points to defend for the rest of the year, Dominic’s chances of a top 6 finish seems more than realistic. His Grand Slam success might have been restricted to just one semifinal at French Open and one pre-quarterfinal at The US Open, but, this time around, he might reach yet another quarter final at US Open.

Tennis’ latest sensation is just 22 and has got a long way to go. The road might not be smooth, but Dominic Thiem knows how to uproot the difficulties that come his way and get the job done before anybody else from his age group. It’s been quite a while since Austria produced any male superstar in tennis. But, Thiem’s rise to fame has surely given hopes to many Austrian fans. 

“Wunderkind” On The Rise

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Zverev serving against Federer in Halle.

July 6, 2014. A 6’6″ German 17 year old, ranked around 650, takes the Challenger tour by storm as he wins Braunschweig Challenger. Youngest player to win a Challenger tournament since Bernard Tomic (2009)

July 18, 2014. A 6’6″ German 17 year old, ranked 285, takes the ATP World Tour by storm as he becomes the youngest player since Rafael Nadal (2004) to reach an ATP 500-level semifinal, at Hamburg 500.

Both times, it was Alexander ‘Sascha’ Zverev, the prodigious 17 year old with a game suitable for clay, who beat top 100 stars in succession in the two breakout weeks. A few records were shattered, of course; but what stood out, was his attitude. Beating #89 Paul-Henri Mathieu in Braunschweig final 16 61 64, and two week later, beating #83 Tobias Kamke in Hamburg 06 75 63 – that takes character, which Zverev didn’t lack.

March 16, 2016. Zverev comes within one point of victory against 14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal but eventually loses the match 76 06 57, primarily owing to inexperience.

June 18, 2016. Zverev defeats 17-time Grand Slam champion, Swiss maestro Roger Federer 76 57 63, on a court where Federer was the 9-time champion and Zverev was playing only for the second time in as many years.

Zverev’s rise, to be precise, has been meteoric. Not many teens can do the successful transition from Juniors to Futures/Challengers to ATP tour. While some take a lot of time to mature, some get lost in the vast range of players and never shine again. But, this teen, who has a big serve and big groundstrokes, has held his ground, rather than giving it away. Born in a family where tennis is the main profession, Zverev always thrived for the best. He was awarded the “ATP Star of Tomorrow” award for ending 2015 as the youngest member inside top 100. His transition from ‘clay prodigy’ to ‘talented all-courter’ has been exceptional. Especially in 2016. Having defeated a bunch of top 20 stars en route to a 29/17 win-loss record, he has made heads turn. Pundits and a crop of tennis stars have taken into account, this guy’s sheer ability to serve cannons, hit thunderous groundstrokes on both wings and move amazingly well despite his tall 6’6″ stance. His arrival to the big league has been so enthralling that, Nadal is hopeful of Zverev’s chances to become a future #1. And, Federer, world #1 Novak Djokovic and world #2 Andy Murray practice with him quite a bit, helping Zverev in the process. Dominic Thiem, 22 year old world #7, is one of the closest friends of Zverev and gives him vital advice about the life on tour, as does Sascha’s older brother Mischa Zverev, who himself was a top 50 player in 2008-2009.

Zverev works on his physical fitness quite much, because he’s aware that a 6’6″ will have to achieve ultimate fitness to move well on court and procrastinate the chances of an injury. Jez Green, Andy Murray’s former physical trainer, works with Zverev now, which is a good sign for the German teen. Sascha has proved time and again, that he’s not just thunderous backhands and big serves. He moves just as well. His mobility on the baseline is surely one of the better aspects of his game. It has become a vital aspect to his ever-improving game, that has helped him reach 2 tour-level finals at Nice 250 and Halle 500.

The hard court season, post-Wimbledon hasn’t been great for him yet, though. A win-loss record of 4-7 on tour is rather uncharacteristic for the teen who broke top 30 only at the age of 19. With form on his side, and mature guidance (like what he’s had so far) Zverev looks set to turn the wheel on in his favor. A good hard court season might even mean that he’d break top 20 as a 19 year old, a feat which hasn’t been achieved since another 6’6″ Juan Martin del Potro who did it in 2008.

Sascha has become the face of ATP’s #NextGen campaign owing to his rise to fame. Tonight marks the beginning of 2016 summer hard court campaign and he’d take on fellow #NextGen star Taylor Fritz, an 18 year old American who has had a meteoric rise to fame, as well. One can only hope that Alexander Zverev would materialize the insane amount of hype he’s getting, and that he’s capable of doing so.