ATP Finals Saturday: Goffin Happened

David Goffin pulls the shocker, defeats Roger Federer 2-6 6-3 6-4

What constitutes a shocking upset? There are many components to it, but the three major ones in my opinion are when the match pits two players where one has clearly dominated the other in their previous encounters, it takes place on one of the favorite player’s surfaces in one of his favorite events, and it initially takes shape as expected, meaning the favorite player showcases his skills, looks unbeatable, repeats successfully the patterns seen in their previous matches, subsequently grabbing a commanding lead while the underdog seems to look helpless.

And then, the improbable (or the impossible) happens. The match turns around completely, and stays that way for an extended period of time while most people are constantly expecting at any time that it will “soon reset back to normal.” Yet, it never does. It continues to the bitter end.

This is virtually the scenario we saw today in London with Goffin and Federer. There was also the added pre-match nuance about Goffin’s condition in terms of his endurance and his knee.

Photo: AFP – Glyn Kirk

In my preview, I talked about the match-up problems that Goffin would have against Federer, which were directly the causes of his 0-6 record against the Swiss until today. Here they are:

“Firstly, his second serve is weak enough to where Federer can either attack the net and pressure Goffin behind the return, or begin running him ragged from the start of the point. Secondly, handling Federer’s serves is a puzzle that he needs to solve to have any chance to get ahead, in case he stays toe-to-toe with him in the early portions of the match. Thirdly, his up-and-down movement will have to shine, because Roger can bounce the ball high or keep it low with his slice, and David is a player that has a strong preference on where to strike the ball, which is around his hip-to-chest level.”

These took place in the first set, more or less in the way described above.

Then came the beginning of the second set.

Each of the first two games deserves a close look.

0-15 up in the first game on David’s serve, Roger misses a makeable passing shot, frames another backhand, erasing his 0-15 and 15-30 leads. Goffin, to his credit, gets his first serves in when needed and holds. Yes, there was a bit of help from Federer, but Goffin also did his part.

The second game on Federer’s serve is when we see clear signs of shift in Goffin’s approach. He begins tackling Roger’s serves with aggressiveness, at the cost of missing a few returns, in order to solve the puzzle that I mentioned as my second point in the preview above. Not much he could do on a wide serve by Federer on the first point. On the second point however, Federer hits a first serve to his comfort zone, and Goffin nails the reflex return deep to the corner – ok, a bit of a mishit may have helped, I am not sure. Federer, caught a bit by surprise, misses the the next shot, a forehand.

At 15-15 on Federer’s second serve, Goffin takes a big risk again. He steps inside the court and sends the return deep to the middle. It lands a bit out, but it’s the right play. This is what I meant by “at the cost of missing” above. It’s a typical case of doing the right thing, missing the execution.

At 30-15, same thing again! Goffin nails the return from inside the baseline, this time on Roger’s first serve. Federer is caught backing up and misses the next shot, which is also a forehand. Now it’s 30-30.

Roger serves well in the next point and wins it at the net. Now, it’s 40-30, game point for Roger.

Roger serves a second serve, and guess what? David returns aggressively again, pushing Roger back to hit a backhand that lands short, on which David attacks to the open corner. Federer misses the next shot, a forehand, again!

Notice closely what is happening here.

Goffin makes an adjustment, noticeably going fully aggressive on returns, and not only does it begin working for him, but bye then he has already pushed Federer into making three forehand errors. The consequence? Anytime a player misses three times from the same wing in a game, you better believe that a certain level of doubt begins to settle in his mind about that particular shot. Need I remind those who watched the match how Federer’s forehand went from this point forward? Well, its downfall began right here, in the second game.

(Those who do need the reminder should just watch the 1-0 game in the third, in which Roger goes up 0-30 on David’s service game with a legitimate chance to get a head start in the final set.)

At another game point for the Swiss later in the same game, an extended rally ends with, Roger missing his forehand again in the net. That error may go down as unforced error in the stats, but it is a direct result of the doubt beginning to burgeon in Federer’s mind from the three previous misses caused by Goffin’s aggressive returns. Back to deuce, still 1-0 Goffin, in the second set.

Fast forward to the third deuce. Goffin hits a direct winner on the return and now he has a break point against the man who has only lost his serve twice in the tournament. What happens in that break point? A short rally takes place in which Roger gets a short ball on his forehand, and hits a badly placed, mid-pace approach to David’s forehand who passes him cross-court. Is it a mediocre approach shot by Roger? Yes. Was it just a brain freeze? No. Did the previous four forehands missed in the game, the first three caused by David’s shift in tactics, play a role in his apprehensiveness to nail that approach shot? You bet. I believe the fear of missing that forehand contributed to the fact that Roger ended up hitting the approach shot safer than he would have otherwise done.

Goffin gets the break, goes up 2-0. The improbable turnaround has now taken off the ground, about to turn into an extended, high-altitude flight for two sets.

It does just that, with more adjustments from Goffin. He is determined to play inside the court and begins to move forward beautifully to hit the ball at his favorite height – see my third point above in the preview quote – on evry short ball hit by Roger. A great example of that is the very first point of the next game. It ends with Goffin’s swing-volley winner, set up by three aggressive shots in a row from inside the court.

The pattern has now changed. Federer is defending, Goffin attacking. For that to work, Goffin not only needs to return aggressively, but also get a lot of first serves in and “go big” on the second shot. He will do just that for the remainder of the match, and by the time he holds to confirm the break, the improbable turnaround has reached the necessary altitude and cruising.

Speaking of the second shot following the serve: see the 1-2 game in the final set. David has played, up to that point, his worst service game since the beginning of the second set. He should feel the heat, right? Nope. He stays as cool as cucumber. He presses on. He gets the first serve in, attacks on the second shot, hits the a volley winner: deuce. Next point, he gets the first serve in, attacks on the second shot, hits the volley winner: ad-in. Maybe I should have copied and pasted. Finally, a return error by Roger, and it’s 3-1. Break confirmed.

By now, Goffin is feeling it, Federer is not, probably a bit in shock himself. So were most tennis fans, I would think. Goffin rolls on his service games continuing the same pattern, all the way to the end. He continues to hit hard on returns whenever he can, but by now, holding serve has become a priority. For that to continue, getting first serves in and staying aggressive on second shots are the two components he needs. They do indeed work, his winning formula is complete. One break each set suffices.

Photo: Getty – Julian Finney

Could Federer have made adjustments once down a break in the third? Of course, he was in a losing pattern. For example, he attempted to hit his backhand return that he has been slicing for the most part (not for the wrong reasons, it has worked in the past and in the first set) and missed it into the net to lose the game. That is what losing confidence does, and makes you less likely to try it again.

His confidence was also long gone in his two biggest weapons. As noted above, his forehand was spotty by then. Under the heat brought on by David’s returns, his first serves were no longer clicking either. While he served beautifully at 68% first serves in the first set, in the second and third set those numbers dwindled down to 57% and 59% respectively.

Conclusion: let’s give credit where credit is due. Goffin deserved to win the match. He was the better player for two sets, and the fact that Federer’s level dropped after the early break in the second set was secondary, and consequential, to what Goffin did to reverse the tide.

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Looking Ahead to Federer vs Goffin

The Belgian facing a giant hill to climb

For the preview of the other semifinal between Grigor Dimitrov and Jack Sock, click here

David Goffin played two lop-sided matches in his last two group matches. He lost the first, won the second. One certainty is that after a grueling three-setter against Rafael Nadal in his first match, he could not have asked for a more economical duo of matches even if he ended up on the losing end in one of them.

For him to have any chance against Roger Federer, he needs to have his footwork geared up, and even in today’s seemingly routine win over Thiem, he did not appear to be at 100% in his movement. By tomorrow, hopefully for him, it will improve. It better! Or else, he is packing up his bags.

The question is, would packing up his bagsy necessarily be a bad thing for him? Consider that he is one week away from playing his first match, a five-setter need I remind, at the Davis Cup finals in Lille, France. The Belgian tennis fans might not think it would be. But what does Goffin think? I tend to believe that top professionals in our sport would give 100% in an event like the ATP World Tour Finals, regardless of what awaits the week after.

Photo: Getty – Julian Finney

I do, however, believe that if Federer gets a head start and wins the first set, the subconscious may create a few dents in the professionalism of David, in the sense that the will to fight and to climb back into the match may not be as intense, since something even more intense is approaching fast – and yes, Davis Cup is a more intense experience for a player than any other event.

The bad news for Goffin is that getting a head start is a trademark of Federer. He has won Basel, and remained undefeated so far in London, without playing at his top level. You can, on the other hand, see his desire to win, his will to achieve perfection.

Everyone knows that this tournament means a lot to him. On numerous occasions, he has explicitly stated that winning the ATP World Tour Finals is a priority for him, ranking right behind the Majors. His drive will insure that, even if he does not perform at his best, his mind will stay sharp. He will put forth what is necessary to turn the match in his favor. “Efficiency” will be the key term for him, as it was in his win over Zverev on Tuesday. His top-level form may not even be necessary.

Furthermore, there are match-up problems here for David, above and beyond the psychological weight of having an 0-6 record against the Swiss.

Firstly, his second serve is weak enough to where Federer can either attack the net and pressure Goffin behind the return, or begin running him ragged from the start of the point. Secondly, handling Federer’s serves is a puzzle that he needs to solve to have any chance to get ahead, in case he stays toe-to-toe with him in the early portions of the match. Thirdly, his up-and-down movement will have to shine, because Roger can bounce the ball high or keep it low with his slice, and David is a player that has a strong preference on where to strike the ball, which is around his hip-to-chest level.

Photo: Getty – Julian Finney

The longer the rallies, the better for Goffin. At his sharpest, Goffin moves side-to-side as quickly as any other player on the tour, and extended rallies are likely to favor him, if not, at least increase the chances of Federer committing errors. Again, we come back to Goffin’s endurance. Can he play the scrambling style of game throughout the match, putting in long miles on his legs, and not run empty on fuel? I do not believe so.

If Federer’s first serve is on, considering all the above factors, look for a routine straight-set affair. Otherwise, Goffin must stay on serve early in the match, just to keep it close. Let that happen first, then have Goffin manage to steal the first set, “and then we’ll talk” (as Hank says to Walter in an episode of Breaking Bad).

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Looking Ahead to Dimitrov vs. Sock

From Sascha to Grigor, the road gets bumpier for Jack

For the preview of the other semifinal between Roger Federer and David Goffin, click here

Well, this semifinal between Grigor Dimitrov and Jack Sock should be a first-rate encounter. You cannot find two players, this late in the season, who seem to be peaking in form to the degree that these two are, and they both deserve to be in the semifinals.

Sock will have to deal with a different (and a more complicated) set of problems when he encounters Dimitrov on Saturday than he did in his three-set win over Alexander Zverev on Thursday.

For starters, Sock will not be handed numerous free points on double faults at crucial turning points of the match. This is not to say Dimitrov is not prone to committing double faults, but he will certainly be less generous than Zverev, and unlike Sascha, he will have enough sense to hit a safer first serve and get it in play on a crucial point after having double faulted in the few preceding ones.

Photo: Getty – Alex Pantling

Secondly, the young German played with predictable patterns throughout the match on Thursday, hardly changing the spin and the pace of the ball. That allowed Sock to anticipate his shots, get to the ball in time, and even run around the backhand to nail his forehand. See the 4-2 30-30 point in the final set, for one example out of many. Jack lost that point on an unforced error, but if you observe Jack’s movement during the rally, you will see how he knew ahead of time, on every shot, where Zverev was going to direct the ball. You will see him moving to the anticipated spot before even Sascha struck the ball.

That is because Sascha’s game, after two sets and a half, had become so predictable that when he actually hit a rare backhand down-the-line that was neither powerful (by his standard) nor to the corner, it turned into a winner because Jack was moving to his ad corner expecting the cross-court backhand from Zverev. That was a rare – a very rare – deviation from the norm for Zverev.

That level of predictability will be absent with Dimitrov on the other side of the net. The Bulgarian is a high-IQ player and knows better than to give the same look more than once or twice to a player whose streaky game depends on repetition and rhythm. When the Sock machine clicks on all cylinders, the American is hard to stop. His forehand, his serve, and his volleys can be deadly (see the fine touch volleys he hit on Thursday). Grigor will do everything possible to keep Sock out of his comfort zone, and that starts with staying away from predictable patterns that allows the American to get his feet set.

In addition, Grigor mixes up the ball a lot more than Sascha, and unlike the German, he does not have a visible weakness in his game such as second serves or low forehands on the opponent’s slice shots.

Sock may need to adjust his tactical formula more than once on Saturday, not because his initial one may not work, but because Dimitrov possesses enough ingredients in his game to modify his and counter Sock’s tactics, enough to push the American to adjust.

Photo: Getty – Clive Brunskill

You may have guessed it by now. Yes, I favor Dimitrov in this match, even though some naysayers will throw the “but Sock beat him the last three times he played” or “he is 3-1 against him” lines at me.

And they may be right.

For one thing, Grigor has had matches in the past where he came out unexpectedly flat and disappointed everyone including himself – although I can’t remember off the top of my head an abrupt loss by Dimitrov in recent times due to dismal play, while he was having a good run. Does the loss to Rublev at the US Open count? For another, I am terrible with score predictions. I do, however, feel confident in predicting that the outcome will be determined by how Sock handles the above challenges posed to him by Dimitrov.

Make no mistake: Sock can generate power and he is on a roll. His forehand is arguably this week’s biggest weapon in the tournament. I have no doubt that he feels pumped up after the last two weeks, and that he genuinely believes in his chances against anyone.

He has indeed been riding smoothly and at high speed on a wide-open highway.

Yet, I believe that ride will get very bumpy on Saturday. The terrain is about to change. He will deal with some narrow back roads with holes and low visibility, and after having ridden for so long, his tank may go empty with no gas stations around.

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ATP Finals, Wednesday: First-Match Recap

Grigor Dimitrov on fire, defeats a flat David Goffin 6-0 6-2

After a match like the one Dimitrov and Goffin played this morning in London, it is next to impossible to evaluate with accuracy the value of such win for the victorious side, as well as the negative effect it may have on the losing side.

Grigor should feel great for having won so convincingly. But wait, should he really after this match? David should feel bad for having gotten blown away so quickly. But wait, should he really? The circumstances surrounding this match cause the existence of those two “but wait” clauses.

Dimitrov could have played the best match of his career, yet he would not get the full credit because his opponent was (or at least appeared to be) diminished. Well, what the 6th seed from Bulgaria did was still pretty close to perfect. His footwork was stellar and that led to the display of his spectacular shot-making skills.

Photo: Getty – Julian Finney

Grigor Bulgaria generated power on his serve and returns, varied the pace and the spin on his backhand at will, and nailed winners with his forehand every time he had a chance to step in the court. As the icing on the cake, he won several points at the net, looking impressive not only because of his sound volleying technique, but also because of how quickly he was closing into the net whenever he sensed that Dominic was in trouble and about to float the ball back in the court.

You need examples of Dimitrov’s all-around skills working to perfection? Look no further than the two game points he won in the second and third games of the match.

At 1-0, 15-40 up on David’s serve, Dimitrov hit an aggressive return, a low backhand slice, two backhand heavy topspins, a dazzling forehand counter-punch shot on the full run that put David on defense, a slice approach shot, and a high-degree-of-difficulty drop-volley that force David into an error.

Footwork, defense, offense, transition, wrist control, you name it, Grigor had it. He enjoyed it too, yelling a loud “Come oooon!” that you could hear over the cheers and claps of the spectators.

Next, game 2-0, 40-15 on his serve, he went on full offense, imprisoning Goffin to the add corner with a trio of stifling forehands, each time pushing him further wide and back, and running lightning fast to the net after the third one to catch the ball in the air and put the forehand volley away to the open court.

These two points were part of a doozy set of three first games by Dimitrov during which he showed all the signs of a determined player with a purpose. Notice that at 3-0, Goffin did not have the body language of a defeated player, or even a diminished one. He was simply outplayed for three games.

Photo: AFP – Glyn Kirk

I would argue that Goffin began feeling the after effects of his fatigue from his previous match – or is he injured? We will not know for sure anytime soon – only after the reality of having to fight another long battle to overcome a player on top of his game has set in. Those three games were a large part of that reality setting in.

The last straw came when he had a chance to hold serve on an advantage point in the next game.

In that point, and I would call it the best point of the match, it seemed like Dimitrov made Goffin run the five-mile marathon at high speeds following a 22-shot rally that ended with an exquisite drop shot half-volley at the net, leaving Goffin visibly breathing hard. Goffin was so exhausted that he double faulted the next point. He eventually lost that 16-point-long service game that lasted 8 minutes and 15 seconds.

The curtains closed on David at 4-0, he never recovered. That was the moment after which he began feeling the fatigue, his shoulders slumped, and appeared to have very little fight left in him.

So, what is next for both of these players?

Photo: Getty – Julian Finney

Grigor has now qualified for the semifinals and will face either Jack Sock or Alexander Zverev. Should he feel confident? Yes. Does he look as sharp physically as (or sharper than) anyone else in the tournament? Yes. Is he good enough to win the tournament? Possibly, certain within the realm of possibilities, and it’s not like there are many possibilities here. What would this title mean to his career if he were to win? A whole lot! Hard to express in words, and if he really were to win it, I believe he would also find it hard to express after the match.

Goffin says he did not lose the match because of a physical ailment and gave all the credit to Dimitrov. Did we expect anything less from one of the nicest guys on the ATP Tour? I don’t believe so, even though most of us saw it differently on the court. He was either tired, or injured, or both. I would take the first over the next two, but also give credit to Grigor’s tennis in the early going for aggravating David’s problems.

David still has a decent chance to make it to the semis if he defeats Dominic Thiem on Friday. I am not so sure how many Belgians around the world will cheer for him in that match. Davis Cup finals against France and the prospect of playing a best-of-five-set match for his country loom large for Goffin, precisely one week from Friday.

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ATP Finals, Tuesday: Second-Match Recap

Roger Federer, efficient enough in his 7-6 5-7 6-1 win over Alexander Zverev

“Efficient enough” is the key term here. It was not a stellar performance, but Roger used whatever was available to him within the scope of his current form and the opponent he faced – yes, yes, I know, that is still way above the standards of others, but let’s focus on this match, shall we?

Let me also note that the Swiss may not even need his top form to win the ATP World Tour Finals. He won the Basel title two weeks ago without performing at his top level. Today, he defeated the number-three player in the world, while playing spotty and uninspiring tennis at times.

Back in 2012, I wrote an article in which I talked about Federer’s rare ability to switch from one Plan A to another and not skip a beat, while others can only switch to plan B’s, thus compromising their preferred tactics in an effort to adjust to their opponents. Roger’s repertoire is large enough to where he can change patterns, shift his positioning on the court, vary his pace and spin, and still call that modified tactic, his Plan A.

Today was no different. He came on the court with yet another Plan A, but he had to modify it after the first five games to pull off a victory that was only delayed by some inexplicable loss of intensity in the early portion of the second set.

Here is the purpose of my piece today. The general impression in the world of tennis after the match was that Federer was slicing his backhand too much, thus playing too defensively, and that it was a mistake on his part. It is true that the slice was part of Federer’s game plan, but certainly not to the extent that we saw over the three sets. Those who closely observed the early games should have realized that he definitely did not begin the match that way. An analysis of the first five games should clarify why Federer initially sought to follow a distinct plan, yet ended up executing a different one.

First let me give you some numbers. Until 3-2, Federer sliced his backhand thirteen times, and came over the top (call it flat, spin, or drive) also thirteen times. However, seven of those thirteen slices came when he had to stretch or lunge to get his racket on Sascha’s booming first serves and return them. In other words, he had no choice but to block or slice those seven returns.

Photo: Getty – Julian Finney

Thus, if we just count the backhands hit once going past the serve-and-return phase of the points, he sliced only six times vs thirteen over-the-top backhands. Plus, he was going to hit some anyway because the short and slice backhand was part of his plan to get Sascha to commit errors – for those interested in visual examples, Sascha missed his first such shot at deuce in the first game. To sum it up, Roger sliced only three or four times in the first 5 games when he had a choice.

I would not call that a defensive tactic.

That short slice, forcing the six-foot-six (almost two meters European terms) German youngster to move forward a bit inside the baseline and strike the ball below his knees, would prove vital to Roger’s success for the rest of the match. He probably walked out on the court planning to utilize that weapon. He would stick mostly with aggressive drives on both wings that have been working well for him this year, and mix in the occasional low slice to throw Sascha off balance. At least, that is precisely what the first five games showed.

Yet, as we know now, he ended up slicing a lot more than that, didn’t he? It was not an error on his part, he did not have a choice. His opponent showed him in the next two games, on three different occasions, that Roger’s plan A that rested on varying the pace just enough to still take charge with aggressive shots would not be enough, and that he would need to defend a bit more than he initially wanted to.

Let’s remember those three occasions:

Federer was leading 2-1 and Zverev was serving at 30-15. The point began with another short and low slice backhand return by Federer. This time Sascha handled it (not the norm in this match) and sent it deep to Roger’s backhand forcing him to defensively slice back. However, on the next shot, Roger got his feet set and nailed maybe the hardest flat backhand of the match to Zverev’s add corner. I am guessing he did not expect it to come back. Not only did it come back, but Sascha landed it on the baseline. Federer backed up quickly and spinned his forehand back. Two shots later, Roger would once again be under pressure on his backhand and this time he would miss it. It was then, the longest point of the match. Federer mixed it up, never giving Sascha the same look twice in a row, using his two biggest weapons, the low and short slice and the crushing flat shot. The problem was that Zverev answered every challenge beautifully in that point and Roger ended up being the one to commit the error.

The second occasion was even more telling. This was a 22-shot rally, the first point of the 2-2 game, in which Federer threw everything but the kitchen sink at Sascha in terms of being aggressive. He did not use his slice once, and had Sascha on the ropes for the better part of the point. But the German put on display his defensive skills and got every ball back. He eventually found the balance in the rally around the 15th shot. At the first opportunity, when he got his feet set, he accelerated his backhand down the middle of the court to a stationary (and probably frustrated) Federer. Another long rally would end with the Swiss coming out on the losing end, this time missing his forehand into the net.

Two points later, at 15-15, once again Federer got into a back-and-forth with Zverev, and once again, it looked like he had the upper hand in the rally. He was the one with the initiative, slicing his backhand only once but coming over the top and accelerating on all the others. Zverev stood tall once again, got everything back, and Federer eventually went for a rocket shot to the corner that sailed out.

Let me summarize. These three points took place within a three-minute, two-game span and changed the entire outlook of the match. Federer still held to go up 3-2, thanks to some remarkable placement on his serves (what else?) but one thing was clear: he would need to modify his game from that point forward.

He would now play a bit more conservative and make more use of that short and low slice. He would take risks only when a convenient opportunity – read that “one that offered good percentage play” – presented itself. He would rely on his serves to hold and on Sascha’s errors to break. That was now his alternative plan A.

Photo: AFP – Glyn Kirk

The rest of the match was interesting and topsy-turvy. There were some wild swings both ways. The tiebreaker itself, Federer’s loss of intensity at 7-6 3-1 up, his renewed intensity once he held in the second game of the final set, and finally, Sascha’s erosion in the last 15 minutes of the match, are all worthy turning points to be discussed, but beyond the scope of my focus in this article, which was to examine the reasons behind Federer’s seemingly defensive play in today’s match.

Couple of side notes:

– From 3-2 to 5-4, total of four games, only a little over 7 minutes elapsed. And that is including the two game changes. I can’t remember four games that went by so quick. I have no proof, obviously, but it felt like a record. It was 3-2, I blinked, and it was 5-4.

– Federer’s short and low slice backhands harassed Zverev endlessly. He missed one at deuce in the very first game, he lost the first set tiebreaker on one, only to mention two among many. If other players did not know any of his weaknesses before, they know at least one now.

– That was a short-tempered Roger out there today. He visibly got frustrated as early as the second game when his forehand passing shot attempt flicked the net and sailed out. His hand did some sort of quick, upward motion that I can best explain as “Get the hell outta here,” although I have no idea what came out of his mouth. And that was only the beginning.

– I am sorry, I listened to all the explanations for years, but I will still call the likes of the Marin Cilic vs Roger Federer match on Thursday a pseudo-ATP match. I hardly believe that either player cares that much about winning or losing that match (probably Roger even less than Marin). For those who need clarification, Cilic at 0-2 is already eliminated and Federer at 2-0 has already qualified for the semifinals.

Until next time…

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ATP Finals, Monday: First-Match Recap

Grigor Dimitrov def. Dominic Thiem 6-3 5-7 7-5

Two weeks ago, in a podcast hosted by Tennis Accent, when the discussion centered on Dominic Thiem, I spent a few minutes drawing a comparison between him and Grigor Dimitrov. I maintained that Dimitrov has better on-court instincts than Thiem does, and consequently, makes better decisions during points than the Austrian does. When Thiem makes errors, they can often be due to bad decisions whereas when Dimitrov makes them, it’s usually because he simply missed the execution although he chose the right shot.

Little did I know that they would face each other thirteen days later in the ATP World Tour Finals. Having now seen them play for the third time this year, and with all three matches going to the final set, I stand even more firmly behind what I said.

As far as today’s match is concerned, I realize that most people remember the last couple of games better than any other part of the match. Thus, they remember Dimitrov getting tight and struggling to close out the match at the end. That is certainly (but only partly) true. To make that, however, the principal theme of one’s after-match thoughts on the winning player would be incomplete. Let’s look instead at the complete picture.

Photo: AFP – Glyn Kirk

Neither player performed particularly well or dominated the match at any moment, even though there were plenty of shot-making on both sides.

There was however only one player who had a firm game plan in which he believed. That same player insisted relentlessly on taking the initiative during points in order to execute that plan that he and his team designed specifically for this match. That same player believed in that plan with such clarity that he was willing to accept the minor setbacks caused by occasional errors but not let them deter him from achieving his goal. He and his team probably believed that in the long run the cumulative effects of their plan would tilt the outcome in his favor. That proactive player’s name was Dimitrov.

Then, there was the other player. His plan was like the one he had used in most of his past matches regardless of the surface. He had stuck to his strengths that were enough against most players that he faced. He was not going to be proactive like his opponent, instead he would adjust if his opponent happened to get the lead. That reactive player’s name was Thiem.

Let me illustrate the difference I described above with some examples.

The match began on Dimitrov’s serve. On the first point, Dimitrov got a solid first serve in, Thiem responded with a rather short ball to the middle of the court. Dimitrov went for the inside-out forehand winner and missed by a couple of inches.

Two points later, at 15-15, another solid first serve, another short return by Dominic to the middle (albeit a bit shorter this time), another inside-out forehand winner attempt by Grigor, this time successful. Missing that same shot on the first point made no difference. No hesitation on the footwork, no holding back on the speed of the swing. That first point would not be the only time he missed the second part of the 1-2 punch (see the 1-1, 15-0 point), but he obviously believed in that tactic enough to stick with it from the beginning to the end.

Later in that first game at 40-30, we saw the first rally of the match. Dimitrov kept rallying deep until he got a ball that gave him just enough time to wind up for a big backhand. He flattened it out for a powerful down-the-line for winner to take a 1-0 lead.

First game made his plan was clear to everyone. He was going to look to push Thiem around, put him on his backfoot and use the court’s speed in order to press Thiem who needed some time to prepare his big backswings to launch his groundies.

The 1-2 punch behind the first serve and the flat backhand down-the-line accelerations were two of the many components of that plan. Another major one was to step in on Thiem’s second serves and unleash on returns. He was also determined to approach the net anytime he stretched his opponent on the run or got a short ball to move forward.

Not every component had to work perfectly. Errors were allowed and expected. Not every component needed to end with a point won either because there was another player on the other side of the net, a skilled one at that. The goal was to make the components work as an ensemble often enough to collect most of the points. Hopefully, after some time, Thiem would feel the urgency to make adjustments beyond his comfort zone, and as a result, commit more errors.

Thiem relied on big swings to generate pace and on direct points from first serves.
That was enough to hold a couple of times, but serving at 2-3, it began to fall apart. Leading 15-0, Thiem ran down a cross-court backhand by Dimitrov and floated it back in the court. Dimitrov quickly ran to the net, caught it in the air, and finished the volley. Chalk one up for Dimitrov’s plan.

At 15-15, Dimitrov hit a low, slice backhand return, deep to the middle of the court. Thiem had no plan, no idea what to do with the ball, except aimlessly swing a heavy spin forehand to Grigor’s deuce side. From the ankle level, slightly behind the baseline, on a sliding, low ball, a hard spin ball to the opponent’s strength should have been Thiem’s last choice. Yet, he hit that shot, missed it, and went down 15-30.
Chalk one up for Thiem’s bad decision-making.

At 15-30, Thiem double-faulted. You can simply blame Thiem, or do like Paul Annacone did on the Tennis Channel and give credit to Dimitrov for consistently stepping inside the baseline and unleashing on returns, thus pressing Thiem into a risky second serve. I chalk one up for a combination of both because while I agree with Annacone, I cannot pretend that a player should get zero blame for double faulting. Not for double faults.

Regardless, Dimitrov now had two break points.

On the second break point, Dimitrov again got a slice return in, this time a bit shorter than at 15-15, and what did Thiem do? He attempted exactly the same shot as the one at 15-15, and missed it long, again!

Even if that shot landed in, it would not have been a winner. In fact, Dimitrov would have gotten it back without much problem because it was to his stronger forehand side and he was already there. Once again, there was no reason to hit that low-percentage, high-velocity shot on a heavy slice ball that bounced no higher than the knee level, unless he aimed it to the open court for a winner.

Bad decisions by Thiem, clarity and purpose from Dimitrov.
Dominic sailing aimlessly, Grigor following his plan.
There is the difference that I noted above between these two players.

On the scoreboard, it meant a break for Dimitrov, 4-2. He would go on to win the first set 6-3.

Thiem eventually turned it around in the second, largely thanks to keeping his balls deeper, and more to Dimitrov’s backhand. When short-ball opportunities became rare, Dimitrov began rushing, taking unnecessary risks, and eventually losing the second set 7-5 on three straight errors on his service game.

Photo: AFP – Glyn Kirk

When Dimitrov was serving at 0-1, 0-15, in the final set, his prospects looked grim. He had just played his two worst games of the match and needed to stop the slide. He had gotten away from one particular component of his plan, which was to approach the net when the opportunity presented itself. He had passed on some of those chances in the last several games. Solid serves came to his rescue and he held for 1-1. Balance was restored, as well as his confidence.

Dimitrov, looking more and more positive as the final set progressed, finally broke Thiem in the seventh game and served for the match at 5-4.

That is when one of the most disastrous sequences any player can face took place.

With Dimitrov two points away from the match at 30-15, Thiem’s return landed clearly deep. Grigor even stopped his feet momentarily, after hitting the ball back. Yet, there was no call (replays showed that it was clearly out). Dimitrov realized that and continued the point.

It turned into a long rally in which Thiem approached the net on a cross-court shot, right to Grigor’s forehand – yes, another terrible decision by Dominic. Dimitrov simply needed to hit a mid-pace forehand down-the-line to passing shot to the open court. He didn’t hit it accurately enough, and not with enough speed. Thiem got to the ball and won the point.

Dimitrov should have won that point at two different times and hold two match points on his racket at 40-15. Instead, it was 30-30. First the umpire betrayed him, then his own apprehensiveness, within the same point.

At 30-30, Dimitrov hit a forehand inside-out that bounced off the net and landed conveniently for Thiem in the mid-court. He put it away with his backhand. It was now 30-40, break point for Thiem. Dimitrov ended this dreadful turn of events with a framed backhand that sailed wide.

In a matter of two minutes Dimitrov went from staring at the finish line at 5-4 30-15 to a neck-to-neck race at 5-5. It all happened in less than two minutes, because of some combination of a horrendous non-call, bad luck, and his own gagging.

This is where I come back to what I said in the beginning of my recap.

Most people will only remember the two successive double faults by Thiem to lose that next 5-5 game. Thus, they will claim that it was thanks to Dominic that Dimitrov got over the disappointment of losing his serve at 5-4, got the break again, and eventually won the final set 7-5. Because, well, “Dimitrov can’t finish.” Why in quotation marks? Because that is what the complicated sequence of three points described above will be reduced to: “Dimitrov can’t finish.”

They will also ignore how Dimitrov got to 0-30 in that 5-5 game before Thiem double faulted. They will not remember the great defense by Grigor on the first point, and the forehand lunging return he hit on a terrific first serve by Thiem on the second point (even though Thiem should not have missed the next shot).

More importantly, they will forget that Grigor played those two points, virtually less than a minute after the disastrous three-point sequence I described above. Many players would have lost their cool and never keep their resolve the way Dimitrov did, immediately following such a disappointing 2-minute-long sequence.

So, yes, Thiem did help Dimitrov with those two double faults and even an error at deuce on the 6-5 game. Yes, Dimitrov did have “some” trouble closing out the match. Just like he deserves “some” credit for the win.

In fact, he thoroughly deserved to win the match, because not only was he the more determined player with clear plan as I noted above, but also because he knew how to persevere and quickly put behind a forgettable plot twist at a crucial moment late in the final set.

In his post-match interview on the court, Dimitrov showed self-awareness, admitting that he was “pretty nervous in [his] first match out here.” When asked about those 5-4 and 5-5 games, Dimitrov had a few sentences to say, something that sounded like “You fail and you get back up again” and something else about how to “manage to switch it that fast around.”

Sorry I can’t remember the exact quote.
But, you get the idea…
Grigor certainly does…

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ATP Finals, Sunday: First-Day Recap

Zverev defeats Cilic 6-3 4-6 6-3 in a match filled with ebbs and flows
(For the Federer vs Sock recap from earlier, scroll down)

It is hard to gauge the speed at which Alexander “Sascha” Zverev Jr. will develop into a top player. While there is no doubt that he has immense potential, he also seems to suffer from lapses of concentration and/or frustration, and from wide fluctuations of form within matches. Or shall I say he “benefits” from the latter? Because in today’s match, he ultimately benefited from one such fluctuation, the last one, the one that mattered the most. Or something…

That is what Zverev offers at this point in his career. An exciting up-and-comer, with question marks lingering as to “when” he will join the group of elites at the top of the men’s game.

Sascha began the encounter with a pristine first game, probably one of his best games of the match, to break Cilic’s serve and get a head start à-la-Federer (see my recap of the first match for clarification). He did not commit one single unforced error, he outlasted (and “out-skilled”) the big Croat in every extended rally, putting the exclamation point at the end with a five-star drop-volley winner. At 2-0, he saved the only break point he faced with an ace, and operated on cruise-control for the rest of the first set. Last game included one excellent low-volley winner and three big first serves that did not come back over the net. Solid start, solid finish, a 6-4 set against a veteran player who did not particularly play bad, yet did not have enough consistency and depth to answer the initiatives that the young German kept taking in rallies.

In the second game of the next set, came the first bad sequence of the match for Sascha. At 15-15 on his serve, he committed two unforced errors in the net, one on each side. Although Sascha saved the two break points, his next two wild forehand misses, both deep, gave Cilic his first break of the match.

Well, you see, with Zverev, the bad patches can last, for a while. This is part of the uncertainty I noted above. While top players will quickly put that one-game bad sequence behind them and get back to the labor at hand, Zverev tends to drop his shoulders, look at his corner, wave arms in the air in a dejected manner. And subsequently, the errors keep coming.

To be fair, his body language did not turn, at that stage of the match, as negative as it does at other times, but his intensity did drop. In the very next game, he missed a routine backhand error to start, and at 30-30, missed another wild forehand deep. A point later, Cilic was walking confidently to the chair, up 3-0. That confidence carried Marin for the rest of the second set, losing only two points on his service games in the next three service holds. The set ended on yet another forehand error by Sascha.

Photo: Getty Images – Julian Finney

Fast forward to the 1-1 game of the final set. At this point, Cilic has kept a steady level of play since he regained his confidence early in the second set. He has been serving well but still losing most of the long rallies to his opponent. Sascha has seemingly recovered from his extended “bad sequence” because he has also been holding serve for a while. At 30-30 serving, Sascha makes two disastrous backhand errors in a row. After the first error, he slams his racket’s strings in frustration with his right hand. Following the second one, he almost slams his racket to the ground, only to hold back at the last second. He then turns to his corner to start a monologue during which the expression on his face resembles one that you would have if the 5000-piece puzzle on which you spent five days putting together just got thrashed by the bullying kid next door.

Coaches may want their junior players to observe Cilic’s glance at Zverev as he walks to his chair. I assure you that it is nothing less than a generous amount of adrenaline, boost, or whatever you want to call it, that Marin is feeling as he sees Sascha’s negative body language. You don’t believe me? Watch the four excellent points that Cilic wins in the next game to hold and go up 3-1 (Zverev also won two).

Then, the unexpected took place in the next 20 minutes. At 1-3 serving, Zverev committed two bad errors to go down 0-30 and I am sure most viewers concluded that he was on his last leg at that point. Somehow, he pulled off his best point of the match to get to 15-30, and with a bit of help (but not too much) from Cilic, he managed to hold to get back to 2-3. As Zverev’s fans were thinking “ok, that hold lifted him up, now one break and he is back in this,” they saw their man go down 40-15 and slam his racket to the ground – he actually did it this time – and look dejected. As I have noted above, this is not a good version of Sascha. When he gets this way, it does not end well for him. I will steal a quote from another tennis writer (I doubt he will mind) that I respect a lot, Matt Zemek: “Zverev is an evolving, young player, but to this point in his career, he has usually not played well when angry.”

Photo: AFP – Adrian Dennis

Perhaps there is a first for everything, because this “bad sequence” did not last! Sascha won the next four points in a row, three of which included a superb backhand down-the-line winner, a volley put-away, and an outstanding defensive lob. Virtually out of nowhere, Sascha was back on serve. Then, he did something baffling as he went to the chair to change his racket: argue with the chair umpire on a challenged call from two points ago that actually ended in his favor. What was the point of that? I do not know, nor care to. What matters is that Sascha needs to learn to let trivialities go. It is literally trivial on his part to argue with the referee on whether he should have corrected a call (or not) two points ago, after having realized the most amazing turnaround of the match and won the game.

Sascha held serve to go up 4-3 and never looked back. He was back to his first-set form, looking pumped, and ready to cross the finish line. Up 5-4 on Cilic’s serve, he did just tha with four efficient rallies in a row, three of which ended in impressive winners after several hits. It was a blank game, the best one he played in the match. Did Cilic play badly during the two hours and four minutes that elapsed? No. Did he choke? No. Could he have won maybe one or two more points within the large group of “turning points” throughout the match (there were many)? Maybe. The point is, Zverev should take credit rather than Cilic carry the blame for the outcome of this match. I do not believe that anyone, myself included, at about 25 minutes before the players shook hands at the net, expected Sascha to chalk up the win.

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Roger Federer sets the pace early to a tight but straight-forward 6-4 7-6 win

By “setting the pace early” in Federer’s case, I mean getting the lead off the gate, and never relinquishing it. Federer is one of the best front-runners in tennis. That should come as no surprise considering his serving and one-two-punch skills, although his first serves were below their peak level in the first set at 58%. Ultimately, he did not need them to perform at their peak level, thanks largely to a phenomenal first game of the match.

It began with a backhand down-the-line winner with pinpoint accuracy on the first point and continued with a defensive topspin forehand hit with just enough dip to force Sock into an error at the net on the second. Although Sock equalized at 30-30 with an ace and a forehand winner, Roger hit an exquisite backhand return deep enough to set the forehand winner on the next shot to earn the break point. It would be his only one in the first set, one that put a definite stamp on the first set. Roger won it with his second backhand winner, a high-velocity one going down-the-line, leaving Sock helpless in his effort to reach it. That first game was Federer at his best, every single shot hit with a purpose, designed to stifle his opponent. It was like a runner getting a head start by a few steps on his nemesis and looking back occasionally to watch him try desperately to catch up to him, but to no avail.

Photo: AFP – Adrian Dennis

The rest of the first set was a straight-forward affair, with Federer keeping his advantage by using a variety of first and second serves, allowing him for the most part to gain the advantage early in rallies. On his return games, he never played a perfect game like the first one again, sporadically spraying uncharacteristic errors (for an example, see the 3-1, 15-0 point, in which Federer hits almost identically the same backhand as he did on the break point, this time missing it deep). Sock, for his part, recovered remarkably well mentally from the break and stuck to his guns, insisting on trying to push Federer into hitting shots off his backfoot. He succeeded several times, such as the game point he won to get back to 2-3, but not frequently enough to make a dent on Roger’s service games. Certainly not enough to earn a break point, despite the subpar first-serve performance by the Swiss in the first set. Who mourns a 58% on first-serves, four percentage points lower than Roger’s career number, when he still wins 89% of the ones he hits in, and finishes the set with an ace, an almost-registered trade mark in his name?

The first set, and I mean the part after the break in the first game, did establish the tone of the second set. It would be tight affair, going down to the wire, unless Federer reached perfection once again on a return game to cut the party short. He did not, and the set went to a tiebreaker, but not before the Swiss causing his fans to feel some familiar chills to their necks by not capitalizing on five break-point opportunities in three different games.

In the 3-3 game, at 15-40 on the American’s serve, Roger missed two backhand returns in a row, the second one being on a second serve that bounced in the middle of the box. Later in the 4-4 game, the Swiss sent a makeable backhand passing shot into the doubles alley on his third break point of the set. By the time the fourth one came around two points later, you could almost see the apprehensiveness in Federer. Instead of returning aggressively, like he has done so far on routine second serves by Sock, he hesitantly hit the return back in play, short to the middle of the court for that matter, and on the next shot, hit another makeable backhand into the net, below the tape. The fifth and last failed-break-point attempt on his behalf would come in the 5-5 game, but Sock would fully deserve the credit on this one, pinning and stretching his opponent to the corner.

Photo: AFP – Adrian Dennis

Eventually came the tiebreaker, in which first serves were a precious commodity, until that is, Sock double-faulted at the most inopportune time to go down 5-4, with two points to follow on Federer’s serve. That was all Roger needed to pull another one of his almost-trademark qualities: relying on his first serve when circumstances demand it. A wicked first-serve that curved into Sock’s body to set up the forehand winner on the next shot (i.e. textbook one-two-punch) earned Roger a match point, and an ace hit wide allowed the match to get registered into record book.

Overall, it was a solid, but not ground-breaking, effort by both players. There were even a couple of lamentable misses by both players. Federer smacked a ball into the net at game point for Sock on the seventh game of the second set, after Sock gave up on the point and turned his back to offer his butt as a target (yes, you read it correctly). Federer would later joke, saying that perhaps he missed the shot because he didn’t go for that “rather unusual target.” Sock for his part, sent a routine high-backhand volley into the net – on game point at 5-6 mind you? – instead of the wide-open court, but recovered to still hold his serve.

Again, Federer’s fans will probably feel unsatisfied, largely focusing on the break-points missed in the second set – Side note: Don’t all fans do this? Remember only the negatives? I once heard Jimmy Connors say in an interview that when asked what his “most memorable” matches were, he admitted that the close one the he lost, such as his five-set losses to Borg at Wimbledon, always crept in his mind first. Hopefully they will not overlook that Federer served extremely well in the second set, faced no break points, stuck to his A plan to push his opponent around to create openings, exploit those openings to cut the points short, and found the best in his arsenal when he needed it, first to get the crucial break in the beginning, and second, to finish the match at the end. Sock, for his part, also played well and should tackle his next match with confidence.

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One-on-One with Steve Darcis (BEL)

(Photo: Getty Images – Julian Finney)

On the heels of another crucial fifth-rubber victory by Steve Darcis in Davis Cup competition, I decided to post, as part of my “Sitting across Mertov’s Tennis Desk” series, a large portion of my one-on-one chat that I had with Steve during the Istanbul Open (May 1-7) of this year. A more extended version of this one-on-one was first published in the June issue of Tenis Dünyasi magazine (translated to Turkish).

I consider this conversation with Steve to be one of the most informative and enjoyable chats that I have ever had with any player, coach, or well-known tennis figure. Among other things, “the Shark” gave his insight on his game, his career, his never-ending battle with injuries, the meaning of Davis Cup to him, and his preparation schedule for the season.

Darcis in the Istanbul Open.

Below is the English translation of the pertinent parts of the chat. The original chat was conducted in French, on May 4th, 2017.

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Steve, let’s begin with what is probably your least favorite topic: the never-ending injuries that you have suffered throughout your career. In 2008, at the time you achieved your best ranking*** [no.44], you said in an interview that you had not had a year without injuries and that you were hoping that 2008 would be the last one. We know now that your wish did not come true. Yet, here you are nine years later, about to reach your highest-ever** ranking [no.43] when ATP posts next week’s rankings. It seems that your perseverance and hard-work are finally bearing fruit.
(***Darcis reached his highest-ever ATP ranking of 38 on May 22, three weeks after this interview. He is currently no.77)

Yes [chuckling], injuries have become a part of my life, despite having done everything to avoid them, and I still do. After 2008, I still had serious injuries. During my win over Nadal in Wimbledon 2013, I fell on my shoulder and tore a tendon. The pain subsisted and I had to have surgery at the end of that year. I was sidelined for a year following the surgery. Only in the beginning of 2015 was I able to come back to 100%. After that, I had two wrist surgeries (at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016) and I could only play doubles in the finals of 2015 Davis Cup. Those were serious injuries. I must admit that it took me a long time to recover from my wrist problems. It has now been only about a year that I have been playing without being hindered by an injury. I continued to work hard through those and I always believed I could come back. Now, I am at the best point of my career in terms of ranking. Nevertheless, injuries have hampered my career, I can’t deny that. At the same time, I cannot change reality either. I have learned to live with injuries.

Also in 2008, you talked about how special it was for you to be selected to represent your country in Davis Cup for the first time and that you hoped that you would get to do that for many years to come. Nine years later, that dream has come true for you. Has that ride been as magical as you expected?

[Nods head] Playing Davis Cup carries a very different emotion. To represent your country, to be part of a team, to play for your teammates, for the public, these are honorable causes for me. I believe it is a feeling that every player should get to experience, if possible. In my opinion, representing your country in Davis Cup is as big a thrill as doing so in the Olympic Games. It is true that Davis Cup takes at least a few weeks out of the year and requires great effort and energy from players. Therefore, not every player is able to do it. But you never get to feel the type of emotions that you do in Davis Cup, in any other competition. They become your career’s most unforgettable moments. It is hard to describe those emotions, the exhilaration of togetherness and comradery. They are fabulous moments. Plus, we have a super, super nice team, we complement one another well.

In 2015, I agree that we took advantage of a favorable draw to reach the finals. But this year (2017), that has not been the case. I believe we are a very successful team.

(Photo: Getty Images – Julian Finney)

Is it even possible to compare the successes in Davis Cup vs your individual ones in tournaments? For example, your first-ever tournament won in Amersfoort (Netherlands) or your win over Nadal in Wimbledon, is it possible to compare them to your Davis Cup accomplishments? If so, which one do you value the most? Along the same lines, is it possible for you to pick a moment that you would call “the best moment of my career”?

To be honest, it is difficult to pick one single moment. But if I were forced to pick one, perhaps my Davis Cup victory in the fifth rubber of our semifinal tie against Argentina stands out. My opponent was Federico Delbonis. The atmosphere [in Brussels] was crazy. On top of everything else, I had already played a four-hour-long singles match on Friday and a doubles match on Saturday that lasted four hours and fifteen minutes. When I woke up on that Sunday, my leg was hurting. I was feeling tired and I did not feel ready to play a match. But everyone around me really wanted me to play because I had been in a similar situation three times before and won for my country. So I had some experience, and tied again at 2-2, experience counts a lot. It was an incredible moment. You don’t experience those types of feelings often. It was exceptional and we will try to have another one like that this year, [smiling] we are already in the semis.

This is why they call you “Monsieur Coupe Davis” in Belgium. Then, there is “The Shark.”

[Laughs] Yes, in 2002, I had a shark tattooed to my shoulder. That was the year I turned professional. My friends immediately began to use that as my nickname. My tattoo is still there.

Let’s go more in detail to your tennis. Many of your opponents, as well as some coaches, feel that your best asset is your backhand, particularly the slice one. You seem to set points up with that shot. What is your take on that? Do you also feel that some of your other talents are remaining underrated because of all the attention your backhand gets?

I believe that I am very lucky to have a solid technique overall, on all my strokes. Thanks to that, I am able to produce a variety of strokes if I need to, at different moments. My backhand is not an outstanding shot to be honest, but I agree that my slice can perturb my opponent’s game plan because I am able to change a rally’s pace and pattern with it. In today’s tennis, any player can explode on both sides with strokes that are powerful and flat. So, my ability to play a more “classic” style of tennis, change the rally’s rhythm during points, occasionally use my drop shots, and mix in higher or lower bounces, give me a certain overall advantage. This is, I believe, is the biggest strength of my game, my ability to make use of these variations. Today’s players go “bam-boom” and serve at 220 kilometers. Thus, my game sometimes can present an unusual challenge to them. In reality, I win more points with my forehand but it is true that my backhand helps me set the point up. It is the side that takes my opponent out of his game.

Let’s get back to your ranking for a moment. You are now ranked 49, and next week you will go higher, and as we said before, you will reach your highest ranking. In our era of modern tennis, there are many players who have success past their 30s. You are 33 years old and playing perhaps your best tennis. As a living example of players peaking past their 30s, can you give me your take on this trend?

[Raises eyebrows] Yes, there are many players for real who are above their 30s and in the best period of their careers. I don’t think anyone can deny that this comes, at least a bit, as a surprise. They seem to pay attention to the physical aspect of the game. Frankly, I made some changes to my routine too, even though I was forced to do some of it due to injuries. I spend less time on the court and I pay more attention to my physical conditioning. I take more precautions to avoid injuries and I design my workouts around that idea. In short, I take better care of my body. Physical preparation and taking care of my diet have become important factors lately in my career. I even get surprised myself at how much I have modified my routine over the years.

Darcis winning his first-round match in Roland Garros 2016.

Can you talk a bit about your preparation during the off-season period? I mean the months of November and December for example, when you are not competing.

This period lasts around five weeks in my case. During the first three weeks, I play little tennis, at the most one hour per day, and that, only to “remain in contact” with the tennis ball. Instead, I concentrate on physical conditioning. My first goal is to strengthen my muscles to avoid injuries, especially in those areas where I have had previous injuries, in order to increase my endurance. I spend more time on the court during the next two weeks, concentrating more on my tennis. I can’t do two practice sessions per day anymore [points to his body]. So, I do one session that lasts a bit longer than usual, above two hours, maybe three or longer. After all, you can’t practice the things that you do on the court anywhere else.

This year, for the first time in my career, I spent this two-week portion of my off-season preparation period outside of my country, in Abu Dhabi. I can now confirm that it was the right decision. I was preparing in the heat and under the sun, which helped me get ready for the tough stretch in January, for cities such as Chennai and Doha, followed by Melbourne. I played under the same conditions there, and I felt ready for the challenge.

I also tend to take breaks during the season, especially after having played few tournaments in succession. I don’t even pick up the racket for a week during that time, but I remain active physically for the eventual return to courts, if not I know I would feel heavy.

Thanks for your time Steve, and good luck this week in the Istanbul Open.
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Update: In the Istanbul Open, Darcis lost to the eventual winner Marin Cilic in the quarterfinal round. Today (Sept 17), he added another remarkable fifth-rubber win to his already impressive Davis Cup accomplishments by beating Jordan Thompson of Australia in straight sets. Belgium will face France for the Davis Cup title on Nov 24-26.

Darcis and teammates celebrating Belgium’s victory with the crowd at the end of today’s match. (Photo: Getty Images – Julina Finney)

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Wimbledon 2017 Men’s Final Preview: Roger Federer vs Marin Cilic

You can find all the information you want on the internet about Federer’s accomplishments, if you do not know them already, with one or two clicks. Nevertheless, I have always found interesting what his colleagues have to say about him during tournaments. So I will skip any lengthy introduction to this preview and begin with some quotes by the last two victims of Federer, Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych, from their post-match talk with the press.

Raonic:
“I was sort of moving on, okay, let’s see if he can do it again. Let’s see if he can do it again. He kept doing it.”
“You can see there’s not much doubt in his mind. He’s feeling it.”

Berdych:
“I don’t see anything that would indicate really Roger is getting older.”
“I think he’s playing by far the best tennis right now.”
“He’s playing barely with any mistakes.”

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

Having watched Roger improve through each round at Wimbledon – not that he was playing anything below “pretty well” tennis before the tournament even began – the above observations by Milos and Tomas do not seem exaggerated. In fact, Federer’s past-round performances confirm them. Roger is three straight sets away from pulling a “1976-Borg,” in other words, capturing the title without losing a set. He would also become the only man to ever win eight Wimbledon titles. Both are very much within the realm of possibility, unless his opponent Marin Cilic concocts some brilliant game plan to first snatch a set, and then two more. (Side note to (some) people: Yes folks! There will be another tennis player on the other side of the net. He is the number 6 player in the world, and he plays “pretty well” too!)

Cilic was in position to do just that last year in the quarterfinals, when he led Federer two sets to zero and had 0-40 lead on Roger’s serve at 3-3 and could not capitalize on those break points, then squandered three match-point opportunities in the fourth set, and eventually lost the match 6-3 in the fifth. It was a thrilling match with several unexpected turns – you can read my detailed analysis of that match from a year ago by clicking here. It was only a year ago, yet a lot has changed since that day.

First of all, Cilic is at a high point in his career, although 2017 cannot yet be called his best year. There is no doubt that the year 2014, in which he amassed the US Open title, as well as three other ATP ones, is his golden one. However, if we drop the calendar-year angle aside, and center on his last twelve months, Cilic is on the verge of moving up an echelon by his own standards.

After losing to Federer in the quarterfinals of last year’s Wimbledon, Cilic managed to win his first ATP 1000 event in Cincinnati. Then, he captured the titles at the Swiss Indoors in Basel, and at the Istanbul Open in May, the last one being his first career title on clay. He is currently ranked the sixth-ranked player in the ATP, the highest ranking he has achieved in his career. Finally, he is now on the verge of winning his second Major title, first Wimbledon.

Do you get the picture?

He is one win away from confirming his status as an elite player in men’s tennis, ensuring his induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and, as one of my favorite tennis writers Matt Zemek says in his article, “traveling from one tennis universe to another.”

He did not get here by coincidence. I will not go into the “who”s and “why”s of how he has risen up the rankings and won titles, nor blemish his accomplishment of reaching the final here by trivial mentions of whom he did not face. It is sufficient to say that for most of us who follow tennis closely, when the draw was made, Marin was right behind Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray when considering the possible names who could make the final from the top of the draw.

What makes him different now than in the past years, including in 2014?

For starters, the 2014 US Open run was one of a kind. His performances in the semifinal and final rounds were nothing less than dazzling, and highly unlikely to happen again. Cilic literally blitzed through two formidable opponents, playing some type of what I call “spatial tennis.” It is neither realistic nor fair to Cilic, though not impossible in the word’s true sense, to expect that type of performance repeated again. He has not since then and he is not currently doing it in this Wimbledon. Instead, he has gotten the job done the old-fashioned way, by the use of sound tactics, a steady level of tennis, and by maximizing his strengths (84% points won on first-serve points).

This brings me to the heart of the answer to the question above. Today’s version of Cilic has one thing going for him that he did not have, at least not as much as he does today, in his version of the past. It is his improvement of how he handles nerves.

Cilic has been known in the past to get tight in matches. His loss to Federer last year was the most glaring and recent example of that. I am sure the end of his first set against Sam Querrey, when he framed two backhands in a row and hit the outside of the doubles’ alley to lose the tiebreaker, reminded Marin of those times. Yet, he persevered, and put that moment behind him to win most, if not all, of the clutch points in the next three sets. He eventually held two match points, at 6-5 in the fourth set. In the first one, Cilic blew another backhand sitter in the net. Was he going to now hesitate unleashing a shot if he got a similar chance in the next point? He was not. The remarkable forehand winner that left Querrey staring in the second match point secured the victory. The win against Querrey only proved once again that Cilic has learned how to handle pressure and will no longer succumb to it like he has in the past.

Photo: Julian Finney – Getty Images Europe

It is a long process to overcome such barriers. You could tell how much the mental improvement meant to him back in May, after he defeated Diego Schwartzman 6-1 7-6 in the semifinal of the Istanbul Open. Cilic dominated that match until midway through the second set when he began making errors and allowed Shwartzman to crawl his way back into the match. In his post-match comments, he touched on those moments in the second set when doubts crept into his mind: “I am extremely satisfied with how I was hitting, and also in the second set, when things got tight, when things were not working so well, I still kept the same focus and same mentality, that is something that I believe is going to bring me much more in the next couple of months.”

Here we are, a couple of months later, and Cilic could not have been more accurate.

So yes, his serves and his forehands, how deep he can keep the ball during rallies to stop Federer from directing rallies, or how often he can return Roger’s serve back in the court, will all play a role in the outcome of Sunday’s final. Yet, very few of those factors would matter now, had Cilic not learned how to master the mental challenge with which he was faced.

Federer, for his part, does not seem to have any questions marks in his mind. None at all! He has won all the key points that he had faced in his previous matches, including five tiebreakers in which he raised his level even higher than in the rest of those matches. If you have not seen them and you would rather see it for yourself, I would suggest that you watch the tiebreaker against Lajovic, or the one against Raonic, or the second-set one against Berdych.

The problem facing Cilic is that Federer has already encountered in this tournament a first serve as big as his, much better second serves than his, and forehands as big as or better than his, and dealt with all of them just fine. I would comfortably say that Marin is not likely to win prolonged baseline battles. He returns well, but Federer throws a lot of different types of serves at his opponents at his adversaries until he finds the right formula. This is nevertheless one small window of opportunity that could open for the big Croat. He could get an early break before Roger finds the right formula on the serve, and protect that lead as long as possible.

In terms of on-court patterns and tactics, I believe Federer is clearly superior to Cilic in that, he can vary his shots more, transition from defense to offense in the blink of an eye, and fabricate a different pattern in rallies than the previous ones that may not have worked, and do those adjustments in a very short period of time. Thus, the main puzzle to solve for Roger will be how to neutralize Cilic’s power and not allow him to start the match like the one in New York in 2014.

Last note: I have said before Federer’s quarter and semifinal matches that, in order to have shot at defeating him, his opponents must absolutely find a way to win the first set, and that carrying it to a tiebreaker would be one possible way to do that. Having watched the three tiebreakers in those two matches, I feel fairly at ease saying that tiebreakers would not be in Cilic’s favor.

Where does all this leave the two finalists? You make your own call. It is nevertheless undeniable that Federer is the heavy favorite and that Borg, in the category noted earlier, could have some company in the record books by tomorrow evening.

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Wimbledon 2017: Men’s Semifinal Previews

Roger Federer (3) vs. Tomas Berdych (11)

In the third set of his match vs Federer on Wednesday, Milos Raonic played one of the better sets of his career and still could not steal the set. On how Roger kept coming up with one amazing shot after another, Milos said it best: “I was sort of moving on. Okay, let’s see if he can do it again. Let’s see if he can do it again. He kept doing it.” In case you missed it and require some illustration of what Milos is talking about, you only need to watch four points with which Roger climbed from 1-3 down to 5-3 up in the tiebreaker.

Raonic is hundred percent right. Federer keeps doing it over and over again, and does it even better with each match since Wimbledon began 11 days ago. The question is who can stop Federer, and my answer to that, as some readers may remember from my article on Sunday, was a simple “nobody,” at least until the finals. Well, Tomas Berdych is the last one standing between Federer and Sunday.

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

The only way to beat Federer is to crush the rallies with heavy shots going at warp speed 9 (see: Star Trek terminology). You can probably tell from the adjectives I used how much I believe in the possibility of such chain of events taking place tomorrow. There are nevertheless only a select few players who can do that to Roger and Berdych happens to be one of them. He did it twice in Majors, in 2010 at Wimbledon, in 2012 at the US Open. He had a great chance to do it even earlier, in 2009, at the Australian Open, but could not close it out, letting Roger come back from two sets down to beat him in five.

However… and you knew there was one coming… Federer has not lost to Berdych since 2013. He also defeated him soundly in this year’s Australian Open. That is more likely to be the scenario tomorrow. Federer is serving betterer-than-everer and Berdych not only lacks the explosion necessary on his first step to return the serves away from him, but also will have a miserable time catching any sort of a rhythm if Federer varies their speed and spin, as well as he has done so until now. Life will get even more complicated for Tomas if, on top of everything else, if he goes down a break down early in the match and allows Roger to play with a lead. Thus, Berdych must hold serve early and aim to create a dent in Roger’s baseline armor with his power. It is the only formula, regardless of how obvious it seems, that gives the 15th-ranked Czech player any chance to disturb Roger.

Photo: Shaun Botterill – Getty Images Europe

Federer, for his part, will counter that with his large arsenal of shots from the baseline and mix in a few rocket forehands of his own, aiming for the corners on Berdych’s side of the court. If the Swiss systematically wins rallies that go over seven or eight shots, I believe we will watch a one-sided, routine affair for three sets. If not, it may still be one-sided, with a more balanced scoreboard, whatever that may mean to you. If I am Berdych, I would first and foremost hope for Roger to have an off day on his serves, then focus on holding my service games, and look to get ahead in the first set. Unless he can derail Federer’s confidence early, there is no “W” for Tomas at the end of Friday.

Marin Cilic (7) vs. Sam Querrey (24)

The fact that Cilic is the favorite in this match certainly has something to do with his much superior record in Majors compared to that of his semifinal opponent. Not only does he have a Major title in his name but also a multitude of quarterfinal and semifinal appearances compared to only one semifinal one for Sam. Marin has also collected eight more ATP titles than Sam has over his career.

Cilic also carries a lot of explosive ammunition with him in the form of forehands and serves that he can unload on the court and make life very uncomfortable for the guy across the net. Don’t take my word for it; ask Kei Nishikori and Roger Federer, his last two victims on the way to his US Open title in 2014.

Yet, same can be said for Sam with regard to his artillery comprised of forehands and serves. If we were to look at the numbers, Sam’s numbers in those departments are as solid as those of Marin. Querrey is collecting points from his serves at about the same rate (84%) as Cilic does (83%). Querrey gets 63% of his first serves in while Marin is serving at 62%. Cilic has hit ten more winners on the forehand side than Sam (78 to 68) over the course of the tournament. Sam has 126 aces throughout the tournament compared to Marin’s 105.

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

So, if we are going to praise the power of Cilic’s serves and forehands, we must do the same for Querrey. The story is not much different in the unforced error categories. They are practically the same: 52 forehand unforced errors and 46 backhand ones for Sam, 54 and 46 for Marin.

Points-won-on-returns categories seem to carry the only significant difference between the two players. Cilic has won 32% of his total first-serve-returned points versus 28% for Sam, and on second serves that number is 58% for the Croat, 48% for the American. This distinction in return-points won may nevertheless be the result of Sam having faced more big servers (Kevin Anderson, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) in the previous rounds than Marin has (Gilles Muller).

This is the reason for which putting too much importance in numbers can be misleading. Cilic may have had trouble reading Muller’s serve but could jump all over Sam’s. He may outlast Sam in rallies every time they can get into a cross-court backhand rally, eventually causing Sam’s unforced error count on the backhand to climb higher than usual. I can multiply such examples when one faces the other. That is why the way a player matches up with another supersedes sheer statistics in terms of importance.

The bottom line is, Cilic is a better baseliner than Querrey. He does the “1-2 punch” better than Sam does, because he can use his backhand just as effectively as his forehand on the second shot of that “1-2 punch” combination, whereas Sam must run around his backhand to be as effective. Both players can generate a lot of speed from deep behind the baseline, but I would argue that Sam can probably hit more “wow” shots with his forehand from that position than Cilic can. These are the details that will make the difference rather than comparison of numbers and percentages.

Photo: Julian Finney – Getty Images Europe

My only question mark for Cilic would be where he will position himself on the returns. In my quarterfinal previews, I mentioned that Marin would wait Muller’s serves closer to the baseline after seeing how much Rafael Nadal struggled on returns against Muller, because he was parking by the line judges to wait for them. To my surprise, he chose to stay few yards behind the baseline, not as far back as Rafa, but certainly not as close to the baseline as I expected. As a result, he also struggled with Muller’s wide serves, albeit not as much as Rafa did. So, I am reluctant to comment on his position on returns when returning Sam’s first and second serves. I will merely “guess” that, for his sake, Cilic will step inside the baseline to return Sam’s second serves.

Speaking of on-court stance, where players choose to hit their shots from will be an important part of the formula for victory. You know the image of the court that the experts put up on your screen, the one on which you see straight lines running parallel to the baseline, one in front of it and one in the back, each separated area colored differently so that they can tell you what percentage of their shots the players hit from each colored zone? That is what I am talking about. If Marin can more hit shots from the colored area inside the baseline than his opponent, he will be the one likely to reach the final on Sunday, and vice versa. I can at least guarantee one thing: we will see plenty of baseline shots, but we will not see many rallies. These two players will hit every ball with a purpose and that purpose will rarely include notions such as “getting the ball over the net” or “making the opponent hit one more shot.”

Have a great Friday afternoon!

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