Australian Open: Men’s Final Preview

Roger Federer (2) vs. Marin Cilic (6)

At this point in the Roger Federer – Marin Cilic rivalry, their 2014 US Open encounter, in which the Croat crushed the Swiss in straight sets, looks more and more like a colossal exception to the norm. It remains to this day Marin’s only victory over his rival. In return, Roger has defeated him eight other times, with the only “close call” having taken place at the Wimbledon 2016 quarterfinals (Federer came back from two sets down and saved three match points in the third). Roger played average tennis for most of that particular match and, by his own admission much later, did not prepare adequately for the tournament due to an arthroscopic surgery that required substantial time-off earlier in the spring. This Sunday, I strongly doubt he will play average tennis on Centre Court.

There are several reasons for which Federer dominates Cilic. I will not list all of them here because most are obvious to every enthusiastic tennis fan. The one that makes the biggest difference, in my opinion, is the fact that Cilic’s first step on returns and change of directions lacks the explosiveness needed to position his upper body for his shot, without which he cannot generate enough power on his groundstrokes.

Cilic’s upper-body rotation on the forehand and his ability to lean into the ball on his two-handed backhand are two essential elements required to produce his best tennis which mainly consists of overpowering the opponent. It is a complete change of equation when Cilic has to stretch for his shots and reach with his upper body to make contact.

Photo: Scott Barbour – Getty

I believe most readers will agree with me when I say that Federer is one of the best in the history of our sport when it comes to exploiting the glaring weaknesses of his adversaries. It should be no different on Sunday. Federer will look to vary his serves – some into the body, many out wide, some flat ones to the “T” – with the goal of exploiting Marin’s lack of speed on his first-step. He will use his serves to force the Croat to either get out of the way quickly on a serve that is curving into his body, or lunge wide to reach a sliding serve to the outside on the deuce side, or retrieve a flat serve bouncing on the “T.”

The only way this advantage in favor of Federer gets negated is if he struggles with his first serve and begins to depend on second ones. I do not, obviously, mean to knock down Federer’s second serve since it is one of the best in the Open Era, probably right behind Pete Sampras’ second serve. I intend simply to emphasize the fact that a bad first-serve day by Roger will not allow him to take advantage of an edge that he would otherwise have against Marin.

That still does not solve Cilic’s potential problems during baseline rallies. Federer is a master of creating angles and not relinquishing the upper-hand in the rally once it turns in his favor. He can keep his opponent on the run until he puts it away with a winner at the net or from the baseline, or until his opponent makes an error on a low-percentage winner attempt from a difficult position under pressure. He can also accelerate the ball to the same corner from which the opponent is recovering, putting him on his backfoot. Did that ring a bell? See two paragraphs above if it did not.

For his part, – and this will sound like a repeat of my semifinal preview – Cilic needs to focus on his strengths and not contemplate too much on aspects that he cannot control. He was able to do it against Kyle Edmund, another player with a big forehand and first serve, and raise the rest of his game as a consequence. Can he not do the same on Sunday? So what if his opponent serves well? So what if the opponent out-rallies him? Can he still not stay toe-to-toe with his oppponent if he serves at a high first-serve percentage and adds in a healthy number of aces? Can he not successfully put to use his solid 1-2 punch skills as a follow-up to those serves? Sure, he can. In that scenario, he would probably need to take the set to a tiebreaker and steal it, but yes, it is possible. But now change the word “opponent,” used thrice earlier in this paragraph, to “Federer.” All of a sudden, Cilic’s task seems a lot more difficult than it did against Edmund.

Defeating an in-form Federer is an imposing mountain to climb for any player. It is a challenge that very few players have been able to overcome, and that, only a handful of times. Cilic is not one of those players. I do not expect that to change on Sunday. His first serve and 1-2 punch – assuming the first serve clicks – may earn him a set, and then he would need help from Roger (or something…).

Otherwise, look for an extremely jovial Federer to break a new record, his own, for the number of Majors won, as well as the record for the “duration-of-post-match-interviews” statistic, also his own, set earlier this week (I gather).

Enjoy the match!

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Photo: Mark Kolbe – Getty

Thursday: Australian Open Semifinals Preview

It has been a fantastic ride so far in the first Major of the year, and the four match-ups in the semifinals of the two singles’ draws should delight any tennis fan. You have again a healthy mix of favorites still marching on, newcomers on the rise, and established players chasing their first Major title. Could anyone have guessed correctly the eight names still in the draw? I doubt it, but if someone did, my hats off to them.

Speaking of guessing, I have been wrong several times this week. As those of you who regularly follow my posts already know, when I write these previews, I attempt to forecast what may happen in the match, strictly tennis-wise, based on past observations. Any player or coach will tell you that the strange and unexpected take place regularly in the arena of competitive tennis. For example, in my last preview, I gave the reasons why I felt that Marin Cilic’s chances were very slim against Rafael Nadal. I also explained specifically my take on what Cilic would need to do in order to pull the improbable upset win. I maintained that it was highly unlikely that he could put all that together.

Guess what? He did.

Yes, Rafa’s injury sealed the match in the fifth set, but Cilic deserves full credit for doing what was necessary to put himself in a position to win. Although I turned out right in the ins-and-outs of how he could do it, I was wrong in thinking that he ultimately could not. And turning out wrong on the final score is nothing new for me, ha! People who know me can tell you that I am terrible at predicting scores. They can also tell you that I have had zero interest in betting. I don’t even know what those numbers mean when I see the occasional tweet or article about odds. So, if there are any obsessed gamblers reading my posts hoping to gain insight, you have been warned !!

Let’s now get to two** semifinal matches scheduled for Thursday. Keep in mind that, I write all this under the assumption that players will not suffer from injuries or sickness during the match, or retire.
**Time constraints unfortunately do not allow me to preview all three singles’ matches, so I had to pick two.

Simona Halep (1) vs Angelique Kerber (21)

Let me provide a quick check list:
– Two players, one officially ranked number one in the WTA, the other motivated to get there and certainly playing like one.
– Evenly matched encounter, with Kerber leading 5-4 the head-to-head tally. Both undefeated in 2018, each with a record of 10-0.
– Both playing five-star tennis in the quarterfinals, winning routinely against opponents to whom most in the WTA field lose routinely.
– Now scheduled to play each other in the semis of a Major with the number-one-ranking implications.

I ask you, what more could you want as a tennis fan? I have an idea. You would want to clear out your schedule, make sure you have an ample of supply of popcorn, your favorite beverage, and a quality screen on which to watch it unless you are in Melbourne holding a ticket to see it live.

Photo: Mark Kolbe – Getty

This match promises a lot precisely because it is almost impossible to predict. Kerber and Halep are two of the best baseliners in our game for many reasons. They move exceptionally well and possess fine counterpunching skills from difficult positions. Plus, there is not a particular baseline pattern in which they show a visible weakness. You hit a sharp cross-court, they can run it down, respond with a wicked angle, and put you on your backfoot. You accelerate down-the-line, they can take advantage of the open cross-court or send it back in the same direction. You hit the ball hard and deep to the baseline in hopes of putting them off-balance, they can bend their knees, to the point of touching the ground, and use their wrist-control to strike back with a half-volley, thus take back the control of the rally.

So, can either of them break the other down from the baseline? I do not have the answer to this question. That is mainly the reason for which I find this match fascinating. The outcome will hinge more on factors such as mental toughness, problem-solving, on-court IQ, conditioning, experience, and the will to win. As I compare and contrast the two players with those factors, I find myself repeating sentences like “Simona excels in X, but so does Angie,” or “Angie is the best at doing Y, except for Simona,” or even “I remember the match where [one] mounted an incredible comeback, but wait, there is also that other match where [the other] fought through adversity.”

Do you see where I am going with all this? Maybe the right answer is nowhere, and I am happy with that. Because, that is the type of puzzle that produces the highest quality in tennis, one in which the two players push each other to their level to new heights as the match progresses to a thrilling climax.

Photo: Cameron Spencer – Getty

I can almost hear some readers reminding me that Kerber has already won two Majors compared to zero for Halep, and thus she has shown the ability to cross that barrier, giving her the edge over her opponent. It is a fair argument, but then, could we argue that Simona’s lack of Major titles adds to her desire to win, because she the stakes are higher for her than for Angie? But wait, hasn’t that been the case for Simona since she reached the finals of Roland Garros in 2014 and lost to Maria Sharapova? So that could make Simona tight when the match is on the line… or something… !
…………………….. !!

Yes, it is all beginning to sound silly. I am stopping right here before I get a headache and setting my priorities straight. I must clear out my schedule, get my popcorn and beverage. Thank heavens, I already have a quality screen. Phew!

Marin Cilic (6) vs Kyle Edmund

My Tuesday preview involving Edmund’s match against Grigor Dimitrov had a certain pattern that did not age well. Firstly, I talked about Edmund’s qualities and emphasized his good form of late. Secondly, I admitted that I should have learned my lesson about picking against him (I favored Kevin Anderson to eliminate him in the first round, same with Andreas Seppi in the fourth), only to finish by saying that, although he had already proved me wrong twice, I still cannot favor him against Dimitrov. I even finished with the following ironic quote: “Edmund will simply have to teach me the same lesson again.”

Well, he did teach me a lesson, again. And I promise, I learned my lesson this time.

I do not care that he will be an underdog against Cilic. He made a believer out of me by now, as he did with many others around the world. I will, however, add that the reason for which I believe Edmund can yet pull another upset does not solely originate from some silly fear that I may repeat the same mistake four times. It is also because Edmund possesses the bits and pieces necessary to beat Cilic.

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty

I have written about Edmund’s ability to produce an abundant number of winners in my preview of his quarterfinal match vs Grigor Dimitrov. As of today, he leads all players in the Australian Open this year in the forehand-winner category with 127 of them. Both against Seppi in the fourth round and Dimitrov on Tuesday, Edmund repeatedly nailed winners from that side that left his opponents bewildered. He also added a bunch of aces and unreturnable first serves for good measure.

I cannot underline enough the fact that he was able to maintain his level and produce those winners against two different type of players. On the one hand, Seppi hits the ball with pace and rather flat, giving little time to his opponents to prepare for the next stroke. Dimitrov, on the other hand, can hit a high-bouncing spin, as well as a sizzling slice that will stay very low. This shows Edmund’s ability to impose his game to a variety of players. Does that group include Cilic? I believe so.

Photo: Cameron Spencer – Getty

The big Croate loves to make contact with the ball high, preferably around the chest and shoulder level. This is why he was able to take some of Rafael Nadal’s balls on the rise and drive them back deep into the Spaniard’s baseline territory. Cilic struggles a bit more on lower balls, and on those where he has to reach wide to hit. In other words, if you face Marin, do not let him get set and lean into the ball with his upper body, because that is when he can generate some heavy, warp-speed shots. Edmund, for his part, is equipped to deal with that, because he is not a heavy topspin hitter by nature anyway.

In fact, when Edmund performs at his best, he often takes the initiative with crisp forehand accelerations, and occasionally, with flat down-the-line backhands. In doing so, he makes the ball glide through the court without losing much velocity. Furthermore, the ball stays low on the bounce. Seppi and Dimitrov, his last two victims, could handle those balls when they could get to them (except that they often could not). Cilic, in contrast, should struggle with those even if he does get to them, because he will need to reach to strike an off-balance shot from below-the-hip level. That should not allow him to load his body into the shot like he prefers to do.

So, Edmund fans, I apologize ahead of time, but not because I think your man is going to lose. On the contrary, I think he will once again get it done. I am apologizing ahead of time, for picking him to win, because of my dreadful past track record 🙂

Stay well and enjoy the tennis !

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Tuesday: Australian Open Men’s Quarterfinal Previews

We are down to the final 8 of the men’s draw at the Australian Open. Each quarterfinal match offers its own narrative, one more compelling than the next. On Tuesday, the line is clearly drawn as to who the favorites and the underdogs are in the two men’s matches scheduled. These players also have, among themselves, different pursuits. Among the two favorites, one is trying to confirm his number-one status and shape further his place in the history of the sport, while the other is attempting to take a giant step toward that elusive elite status. Among the underdogs, one is seeking to earn more respect than he gets despite having reached the finals of Majors twice, winning one, while the other simply wishes to extend the best week of his young career.

Below are my previews of both matches.

Grigor Dimitrov (3) vs Kyle Edmund

Grigor gets another chance to solidify the argument of why he should be considered one of the current elite performers in men’s tennis. He is not exactly there yet, mind you, but he has a golden chance to reach that status this week. Since having defeated the qualifier and 186th-ranked MacKenzie McDonald in the most unconvincing way possible – 8/6 in the fifth set after being bageled in the fourth, 8 aces and 9 double faults, and a slew of unforced errors – Dimitrov has gotten his act together. He put forth an impressive march to the quarterfinal round in his last two matches. I call it impressive in that he faced two quality opponents, Andrey Rublev and Nick Kyrgios, and showed poise almost each time they challenged him at crucial stages of both matches.

Photo: Darrian Traynor – Getty

His opponent’s run to the quarterfinal, however, may take the cake in the overall sense of the term “impressive.”

For starters, Edmund was not supposed to be here. When the draw was made, he was unseeded and scheduled to face the US Open finalist Kevin Anderson in the first round. The 49th-ranked Edmund, with the never-depleting gas tank, recorded the upset victory over Anderson, the first of two five-setters he won prior to his last round. After a straight-set victory over Denis Istomin in the second round, he won his second five-setter against Nikoloz Basilashvili. All three were remarkable wins, but it is the way in which he pulled his four-set victory in the fourth round against Seppi that was truly striking.

After having lost the first set and gone down a break in the second, and suffering from a lingering pain in his shoulder, Edmund suddenly began to produce his best tennis of the week for the next two hours. At times, Seppi looked helpless against the barrage of winners that Kyle was nailing from all areas of the court. He did not give up after the disappointment of losing the tiebreaker of the first set, kept a positive body language, showed all the signs of mental toughness that would delight any player’s fans and coaching team.

Edmund was placed in a relatively advantageous section of the draw (Jack Sock and Kevin Anderson, the highest seeds). He took full advantage of that opportunity once he got past Anderson. With all due respect to Istomin, Basilashvili, and Seppi, they do not impose the same degree of intimidation that his next opponent or his potential future opponents this week will do when standing next to them in the tunnel prior to walking on the court.

Then, there are the tactical possibilities. As tennis fans, we could be treated to a wonderful spectacle if Edmund starts strong and protects his service games. That begins with a high percentage of first serves and an aggressive approach to the next shot coming from the opponent’s return. This 1-2 punch pattern is in fact an essential part of Kyle’s usual A plan, his “bread-n-butter” so to speak.

Let’s ponder for a second. What if Edmund was to catch fire, à-la-sets-three-and-four of his win vs. Seppi?

To grasp the extent of how incredible Edmund’s performance was in that period of time, you would need to watch the replay. He hit so many winners that, at a certain point in the match, I began to simply expect winners every other point and started considering them “routine points,” only admiring the ones hit from impossible positions. Yes, I admit, from that point forward, I became what you would consider a spoiled tennis fan. Shame on me!

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty

Can Dimitrov extinguish that kind of fire? Yes, only because he moves quicker and defends better than Kyle’s previous opponents. In fact, the Bulgarian is one of the best athletes in men’s tennis. How many shots did Kyrgios hit in the previous round that he thought were winners, but ended up coming back, forcing him to take another crack? Only Nick could accurately answer that, but I will make an educated guess and say that the number was easily in double digits. Did you see, for example, the forehand missiles hit by Dimitrov while he was fully stretched and on the run? I can only hope, Edmund’s behalf, that he did not use up all his winners against Seppi and that he still has plenty in his reserves.

There is also that scenario where some physical pain limits Edmund’s ability to perform and he loses in straight sets, or furthermore, forces him to retire. Ignoring that possibility for a moment, I would like to say that I learned my lesson about picking against Edmund (twice in fact), and that I will not pick against him again. Yet, I cannot. I have believed in Dimitrov to go to the final since day one of this tournament. Edmund will simply have to teach me the same lesson again.

Rafael Nadal (1) vs Marin Cilic (6)

There are reasons for which Nadal has, for the most part, dominated Cilic since his only loss to him in Beijing nine years ago. It can partially be explained by intangibles unrelated to technical and tactical aspects. Rafa is one of the best athletes in the world and Marin is not the only player that he has dominated over extended periods of time. He has more experience in the second week of Majors, and on big stage, than any opponent he faces, unless the latter happens to be another member of the rare elites in our game (you know who they are). He is mentally the best competitor our sport has ever seen. I could continue with this list, but I will stop right here and move on to the tactical side where the forecast looks just as bleak for Cilic.

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty

Diego Schwartzman frequently gave Nadal fits during their match. He forced the Spaniard to come up with several great shots in a row to eventually collect the point. He sent a message to Rafa from the early stages of the match that he would not go away simply because he lost a long point at deuce or a contested game. In short, he gave Rafa some of his own medicine, because that is precisely how Nadal’s adversaries feel until that moment in the match where they cease being his adversary and give up. Diego remained Rafa’s adversary all the way to the bitter end.

He was able to do so because, first and foremost, he is quick. He could run down so many of Rafa’s shots and send them back high and deep at times, flat and hard at others. His speed, agility, and explosive first step allowed him to change directions in the blink of an eye. His ability to counterpunch from off-balance positions produced winners for which even Rafa was not ready.

Well, I just listed a bunch of qualities about Schwarztman’s game that lack in Cilic’s. Let me be clear: Cilic is a good mover. If you hit an average drop shot for example, he has the speed to get to it and punish you. In a basic side-to-side rally, he can stay with his opponent and overpower him. His shortcomings appear if, for example, he has to quickly go outside the boundaries of the court to return a wide serve and immediately get back to the middle of the court for the next shot. Or if he has to stop and change directions during the rally when his opponent accelerates back to the same corner from which he is trying recover.

You can see two examples of these weaknesses in Cilic’s first-set tiebreaker against Pablo Carreno Busta in the last round. In the first point of the tiebreaker, the two players engage in a rally that Cilic initially dictates until Carreno hits a forehand down-the-line that changes the pattern and forces Cilic to backtrack. It momentarily puts him on his backfoot. This allows Carreno to reverse the dynamics of the rally and make Cilic chase balls. Three shots later, Carreno makes Cilic stretch out to the forehand side, far behind the baseline. Marin nets the defensive slice attempt. Another example occurs later in the 4-2 point. Carreno accelerates inside-out with his forehand, which makes Cilic stretch his long legs wide and reach with his upper body for the two-handed backhand that he ends up floating deep. Look for points like this to multiply against Nadal.

When Nadal used this type of pattern against Schwartzman – the kind that Carreno used against Cilic in the points described above – Schwartzman defended without much difficulty. He got Rafa’s shots back and did not miss a beat in recovery time. Cilic, on the other hand, will make errors, and consequently, Nadal will not feel the need to take more risks.

Photo: Cameron Spencer – Getty

So, what can Cilic do? He must concentrate on his own strengths and use them with conviction. It starts with his serve and court positioning. He has one of the biggest first serves in the ATP Tour. He must earn a large number of aces, and if the return comes back, he must take extreme risks on his forehand to control the middle of the court. He needs to flatten out his shots and basically look to hit Nadal out of the court, or at least keep him scrambling enough to the point where Rafa will not have the occasion to get set and turn the tables around in the rally. In short, Cilic will need to play big, à-la-USOpen-2014. He must either hit the winner or miss going for one. It’s a tall order. Cilic’s chances are slim at best, although it is within the realm of possibility. If he loses the first set, that realm may also disappear. I do not see Cilic winning three straight sets, or three out of four sets, against Rafa under any circumstance.

Enjoy the matches.

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Monday: Australian Open 4th-Round Previews

Following a slew of upsets and thrillers throughout the first three rounds, the second week features a good mix of opportunistic and in-form players from the middle echelons (as in, not seeded high), and established players eager to confirm their top-player status. Here is my take on three matches, scheduled for Monday, that feature such players.

Caroline Garcia (8) vs Madison Keys (17)

Garcia is having a solid run, a very solid one. I can’t put it on the same level as the quarterfinal-run she had in last year’s Roland Garros – not yet – but it has the potential to match and surpass it. In terms of performing at the Majors, Caro is steadily fulfilling the primary requirement, which is, a string of second-week appearances, gradually pushing the envelope further. You judge for yourself: a third-round run in the 2016 US Open, followed by a quarterfinal and a fourth-round appearances in Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the summer of 2017. This is what I call a healthy progress for a (near-)future contender.

She enters yet another second week in a Major and her road to get there has not been a cakewalk by any means. She had to solve two puzzles in a row in the previous rounds, overcoming the up-and-comer Marketa Vondrousova in the second round, and Aliaksandra Sasnovich next. She passed both tests with flying colors, don’t let the close scorelines tell you otherwise. Garcia offered her best in the final sets of both matches, clutch responses to the successful challenges thrown at her in the earlier portions of each match. Furthermore, Vondrousova and Sasnovich are different players, the former one being a crafty left-hander, and the latter, a solid baseliner with a terrific backhand. Her conquest of both opponents in the extended moments of the final sets shows Caro’s ability to make use of her I.Q. (of which she has plenty, her problem in the past has been nerves, never her on-court astuteness) in dealing with a variety of tasks presented to her.

Photo: Cameron Spencer – Getty

Keys, last year’s US Open finalist, now presents a daunting challenge to Garcia, not only because she is motivated herself to add another deep run to her list of accomplishments, but also because she can match Garcia’s power and turn the tables on the French’s preferred game plan. It is no mystery that both players would like to dictate rallies, keep their opponents on the run, and eventually finish the point with a baseline or a volley winner. It is also well-known that they struggle if they are forced to play defense, and thus, find themselves in the unusual role of having to scramble from corner to corner. It is that second factor on which rests the key to the outcome of this match.

First question: can each player, if forced to, retrieve a number of successive balls without erring? Second one: if so, can they turn such rallies to their advantage with a counter-punch shot, gain the initiative, and press back successfully? The way each player grapples with the two questions above will determine the winner. I should rather say, the player with the more emphatic “yes” answer to both will reach the quarterfinal round. I believe Garcia is a step ahead of Keys on the first part because she is slightly quicker than Madison with her first step. As to the second question, I am leaning toward the Amrican, only because one of her specialties is nail winners from anywhere on the court, even on the full run. At the end, my nod goes ever so slightly toward Garcia solely based on the fact that her previous two rounds got her primed and ready for Keys, whereas the American has not yet faced an opponent of Garcia’s caliber.

Novak Djokovic (14) vs Hyeon Chung

Couple of the biggest questions coming into the men’s draw have, for the most part, been answered. Djokovic is physically fine and the level of his tennis is not too shabby either. Notice how I threw “for the most part” in the first sentence. We cannot be one hundred percent sure of Novak’s health until the end of this tournament, even if his win against Monfils was played under brutal conditions. He did also get a massage on his back during his last match, though I did not consider that worrisome. I will only feel at complete ease, once he survives a match that goes to distance and comes out to play the next one with still no physical pain. For example, finishing this tournament with zero pain in his arm or any other part of his body would undoubtedly mean that Novak can get back to his regular tournament schedule in 2018. That is my primary wish for him. I missed the Federer-Nadal rivalry prior to last year and was happy to see it make a come back in 2017. I missed Novak last year, and I would equally be happy to see him back in the mix.

The going-to-distance test, that I mentioned above, may very well take place against Chung. The South Korean is consistent, athletic, pesky. He probably feels to his opponents like that chewing gum that gets stuck in your hair and no matter how hard you try, you cannot get it out. He rarely donates points, uses angles efficiently, and accelerates well. Furthermore, he comes into this match with his confidence riding high. The problem for him, lies as much in the details of this particular match-up as the identity of his adversary.

Photo: Pat Scala – Getty

Yes, Novak’s status will play an important role as both players walk on the court. Fans can ignore it or pretend for one day that such notion does not exist, but it will loom large in Chung’s mind. For a young player like him, facing a legend in a Major, is a one of the necessary steps in his own potential transformation into a top player in the future. Usually, the first time it happens, it does not end well for newcomers – remember Roddick’s learning experience in his night-time Arthur Ashe stadium encounter vs Pete Sampras at the 2002 US Open before he became no.1 player one year later?

Regarding the match-up, Chung’s two best shots from the baseline, the inside-out forehand and the cross-court backhand accelerations, play into Djokovic’s strengths. In fact, if there were one area in which Novak does not appear to have lost an iota of confidence, it is his phenomenal ability to absorb heavy balls drilled to his backhand side and send them back with interest, especially down-the-line. I like Chung a lot, but I am afraid his run in this Major stops here. Do not expect his long-term development to halt anytime soon though. This tournament, coupled with his title in the Next Gen ATP Finals in November, are nothing less than confirmations of his steady rise in the ATP ranks.

Fabio Fognini (25) vs Tomas Berdych (19)

How well did Berdych perform against Juan Martin Del Potro in the third round? Extremely well. He may have played his best match ever in a Major, outside of his wins against Roger, Novak, and Rafa in previous ones. It was an eye-opening performance because it came somewhat unexpectedly. Berdych had not impressed anyone with his form since having reached the semis at Wimbledon. He had recorded 4 wins and 5 losses and gotten past the second round only once, in the ATP 250 event in Los Cabos. He has, however, played nothing but solid tennis in Melbourne so far – okay, maybe not in the second set of his second-round match, but let’s not get picky.

His opponent Fognini has had an easier draw – relatively speaking of course – and has at times struggled with his concentration (nothing new there). But he is an underrated performer on the big stage. Frankly, I don’t know how long it will take before the tennis world recognizes how impressive the Italian has been in Majors. I can understand why his on-court antics preoccupy and fascinate most people. However, if you take the time to follow his antics, get amused by them, comment on them, or criticize them, and yet you are half aware of the fact that he has reached the second week of Majors four times, the third round on three different occasions on his least favorite surface at Wimbledon, and been a steady fixture in the ATP top 50 during the last nine years, with substantial time in the top 30, I would argue that you are as much an antic (if not more) as a tennis fan as Fabio is as a player. He is a spectacular shot-maker and I guarantee you that his name is somewhere on top of the list of players that favorites at Majors would like to see the least in their early-round section of the draw.

Photo: Cameron Spencer – Getty

Fabio has a chance to win if he can derail Tomas’s steady and crisp production of power from the baseline. He is certainly skilled enough to do just that. Thanks to his impeccable timing on his swings, he possesses the ability to create angles and depth regardless of his positioning on the court. I am guessing that Berdych will see some balls come back with a vengeance from Fognini, in situations where other players would be happy to just remain in the point (one example: Fabio’s shot production in his US Open win vs Nadal in 2015). You may think that Berdych already faced that problem with the Del Potro forehand and handled it fine, but Fognini is a different case. Firstly, the Italian can do it from both sides. Secondly, because of his wrist control during the swing, the direction of his shot is hard to read from both wings. He can prepare a certain way to hit a down-the-line flat winner, yet prepare i the same way to fabricate a mid-pace, topspin-angle shot.

If Fognini focuses on the task at hand, and not on the side shows, I am picking the upset here. I know, you don’t have to remind me that I am perhaps expecting a lot. If you insist on doing so though, I would also ask in return, is it not expecting a lot to assume that Berdych will perform at the same level as he did against Del Potro?

Enjoy!

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Saturday: Australian Open 3rd-Round Match Previews

After two grueling days at scorching temperatures – above 100 degrees Fahrenheit – the weather is finally supposed to calm down on Saturday, and the players could not be more thankful. It will be interesting to see how much of the heat effect from Thursday will carry over to Saturday for those who had to play taxing matches during the day session. Yes, Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Garcia, Dominic Thiem, and Ana Bogdan, I am talking about y’all.

Let’s look at three of Saturday’s third-round matches, two of which involve the names mentioned above.

Madison Keys (17) vs Ana Bogdan

The draw is shaping up nicely for Keys, the 2017 US Open finalist. She has had two expeditious wins, allowing her to remain fresh for the next round(s) to come. She would love to play on Rod Laver Arena, the fastest of the show courts at the Australian Open. Regardless of the court, she will be the heavy favorite in this match, and should deliver. Her opponent, the Romanian Bogdan ranked 104 in the WTA, faces a steep hill to climb. To make matters worse, Bogdan played a physically and emotionally (she cried, exhilarated, for a full minute after the handshake) taxing match against the pesky Yulia Putintseva, winning 6-3 in the third after 2 hours and 6 minutes under brutally hot conditions.

Photo: Mark Kolbe – Getty

Unfortunately for Ana, her game does not match up well with Madison’s either. The unseeded Romanian likes to accelerate the ball, but in order to do that, she will need to get her feet set and control the rally from the middle of the court. Keys is the last person to allow her opponents to direct rallies. The American’s plan A also involves aggressive groundstrokes, except that she can do it with more power and accuracy than her opponent. Furthermore, she can produce bazookas even when she is on the full run, something that sorely lacks in Bogdan’s game. Once forced into a game of scrambling and retrieving, Bogdan’s level drops drastically, and I must add strangely, because she is actually a very good athlete.

All signs point to another comfortable win for the American. These two have never played each other, and I am guessing that Keys will still remain undefeated in this head-to-head count after tomorrow.

Angelique Kerber (21) vs Maria Sharapova

Well, what a blockbuster we have here in the first week of a Major! Kerber is so far undefeated in 2018, having won the Sydney WTA event. She seems to have found the form that carried her to two Major titles in 2016, both on hard courts. Sharapova has equally looked sharp in defeating the 14th-seed Anastasija Sevastova, avenging her loss from the 2017 US Open. This could be a final and hardly anyone would be surprised.

What is compelling about an encounter such as this one is the clash of contrasting styles of the two players. On the one hand, the Russian is a relentless attacker, a power hitter, a shot-maker. The German, on the other hand, is an incredible scrambler, retriever, a counterpuncher. If you watched Friday’s thriller between Petra Martic and Luksika Kumkhum, you know what I am talking about. Expect no less from Kerber and Sharapova tomorrow. This is the kind of match-up that produces memorable matches. Their last three matches were entertaining to say the least, all going three sets. They will not matter match in determining the outcome of Saturday’s match however, the last one having taken place in 2015. It is three years later, and both players have evolved in more ways than I can fit in an extended research paper.

Photo: Mark Kolbe – Getty

The match is likely to be scheduled on Rod Laver Arena. Chalk that factor up for Sharapova who will look to flatten out her shots and hit the corners on the fastest show court. She will indeed need every advantage she can get, because Kerber has faced the same test on Rod Laver Arena before, and passed it with flying colors on her way to the title two years ago. I am giving a slender edge to Angelique to win this match in a tight, extended three-setter. I am however looking for Maria to reestablish herself as an elite force in the WTA in 2018, vying for the top titles throughout the rest of the year.

Roger Federer (2) vs Richard Gasquet (29)

Glancing at the social media, I am surprised to observe that many people expect Gasquet to offer some degree of challenge to Federer. Forget about the 16-2 head-to-head record in favor of Roger (Gasquet’s two wins coming on clay), and tell me when is the last time Gasquet won a set against the Swiss on hard courts? I will give you a few hints. George W. Bush was the President of the United States, there was no such thing as an iPhone, and Zinedine Zidane was sent off in a match that saw Italy win the World Cup two months earlier.

This is simply a bad match-up for Gasquet, not only because Roger is in good form, but also because, I believe, Gasquet will walk out on the court with close-to-zero belief that he can beat Roger. We are talking about a player, albeit very talented, who has a 3-44 record against Roger, Rafa, and Novak combined. It is hard to build any confidence after so many failures against the game’s elite players. 2011 was the last time the Frenchman recorded a win against either of those three champions (Federer in 2011, on clay, 7-6 in the third).

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty

Look for Gasquet to either play a close first set, most likely due to a slow start by Federer, and wilt away in the next two, or go down by two sets, only to challenge the Swiss in the third, only because he freely goes for his shots, feeling like he has nothing left to lose. A let-down by Roger is the only way Richard can steal a set and create some tension in this match. Otherwise, Federer will overpower Gasquet from the baseline, stretch him to the backhand side and put the floaters away by sneaking to the net. He will also add a few aces here and there for good measure. I am a fan of Gasquet’s style, but here, the only thing I can say to him is “bonne chance mon pote.”

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Australian Open 3rd-Round Match Previews

The early-round matches at this year’s Australian Open have provided more thrills than I can remember in that of any other Major in recent years. Surprises, comebacks, referee-player arguments, high-quality tennis, you name it, the first four days had it. While I try to catch my breath from all the excitement of the last four days, here comes Friday, looming large with a slew of intriguing third-round matches that promise to satisfy any tennis fan’s craving for more compelling viewing. There are too many of them, so here is my look at a couple, one on the men’s side, the other on the women’s.

Grigor Dimitrov (3) vs Andrey Rublev (30)

Dimitrov faces high expectations, very high. Having faced two qualifiers in the first two rounds, second of which unexpectedly turned into a nail-biting five-setter, Dimitrov now must march through a string of threatening adversaries in his quest to reach the final weekend of the tournament. Rublev, the young Russian, is the first obstacle standing in his way. This could be a slugfest from the baseline, with neither player lacking firepower, especially on their forehand sides.

Photo: Getty – Clive Brunskill

At first glance, the signs are not good for the third-seeded Dimitrov. Rublev pulled the upset on him in their only previous encounter, in the second round of the 2017 US Open, in straight sets no less. Furthermore, Dimitrov’s level of play against the qualifier MacKenzie McDonald was fragmented at best, with long sequences of error-filled games. I would not blame anyone picking Rublev for an upset, but I believe it will be a different story on Friday.

The problem for Rublev is that Dimitrov plays a similar style but with more variety in his repertoire. Yes, Rublev’s forehand is a threat (although, I may be the only one in the world thinking he still has plenty of room for improvement on that wing, starting with the ability to convert some of his warp-speed swings into a flatter cuts on the ball), and yes, he can use the backhand down-the-line acceleration better than most players. Then again, he is also taking on one of the most athletic players on the ATP Tour who can use his speed to retrieve and counter-punch those attacks with interest.

Another problem for Rublev is his transition game. Does he possess the weapons to put the pressure on Dimitrov’s backhand, and if he does, once he gets that short ball in the rally, will he trust his approach-and-volley skills to push the Bulgarian around? My answer: yes, to the first question, no to the second. The net is an area that still lags behind the rest of his game.

Were the above factors not valid when Rublev defeated Dimitrov at the US Open, merely 4,5 months ago? Of course, they were. It is, however, much harder to pull this kind of upset twice, against the same player, in two Majors in a row. Just ask Denis Shapovalov who lost to J0-Wifried Tsonga on Wednesday in a close five-setter after having beaten him in straight sets at the US Open. Tsonga was the first to admit that his loss in New York ultimately helped him be more prepared for yesterday’s match. I believe Dimitrov will also have learned from his loss in New York. Hic chances also increase exponentially if his first serve clicks and earns him a free point or two in every serving game.

Should he prevail, he would then move on to the winner of the match between Kyrgios and Tsonga. Dear Grigor, the draw did not do you any favors, but if you want to establish yourself as an elite player on the ATP Tour, the next nine days is your golden chance!

Kaia Kanepi vs Carla Suárez Navarro

Are we surprised that in the section of the draw featuring Coco Vandeweghe and Dominika Cibulkova as the two highest seeds (there were also, Babos, Puig, and Stosur), we have two unseeded players vying for a spot in the fourth round? At first glance, maybe. Having witnessed the first four days of the tournament however, the answer is a firm “no.” Furthermore, any WTA player will tell you that the often-underrated (this is a former top-20 player who has reached the quarterfinals of every Major except this one), hard-hitting Kanepi, and the crafty Suárez Navarro are two competitors that they would wish to avoid in the early rounds of any Major.

Kanepi’s career, filled with substantial interruptions due to illnesses and injuries, took another positive turn as she came from the qualifying draw to reach the quarterfinals of the US Open in September. Since then, she has been accumulating a lot of wins. If she can get past Carla and reach the fourth round of the Australian Open for the first time ever, she would represent a threat to anyone in the second week. She did start particularly play well against Puig in the second round, going down an early break. She sprayed a lot of balls long, especially on returns. She eventually won five games in a row to pocket the first set, but Puig’s untimely errors and double faults had as much to do with it as Kanepi raising her game. The encouraging part was her ability to raise her level in the last few games of each set. Experience helps, especially when you start poorly.

Photo: Getty – Quinn Rooney

Suárez Navarro has defeated Kanepi four times before. She has also failed four other times. But all eight matches took place in 2014 or before, thus I would call the 4-4 head-to-head record almost irrelevant to the outcome of Friday’s match. The key to this match will be how efficiently the Spaniard will weather the storm of Kanepi’s powerful ground strokes. On the one hand, Carla’s game has the goods to derail an opponent that uses power (ex: her first two rounds at the US Open). On the other hand, she can also get derailed by power herself and quickly fade away (ex: 2015 Wimbledon loss vs a then-unknown Jelena Ostapenko).

My initial reaction is to pick Kanepi, mainly due to her recent form (and her opponent’s lack of recent form). How much does that come into play now that both players have two wins under their belts? Not as much as if it were a first-round match. The big question mark remains how fast the Estonian will come out of the gates. She did just fine in that category against Cibulkova in the first round, but not so in the second round against Puig, as noted above. Carla must also keep Kaia on the move, as the Estonian can hit any spot on the court with alarming power if she gets her feet set. In any case, I am looking for Kanepi to complete her round-up of at least a quarterfinal appearance in each of the four Majors. A win on Friday here would take her within one match of accomplishing that.

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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.

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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