On Istanbul Open’s Attendance Woes

Two weeks of world-class tennis in Istanbul ended on Sunday, first the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul CUP (WTA) on the last week of April, followed by the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Open (ATP) on the first week of May, both taking place at the Koza World of Sports facility in the Esenyurt neighborhood of the greater Istanbul area. I was not here for the Istanbul Cup due to my obligations in my “other” life, but I made it to my hometown on time to catch all the action during the Istanbul Open. Everything that follows, with regard to the attendance woes of the tournament, will be based on my observations during the Istanbul Open. I will add that many people that I know have told me that same type of issues also existed during the previous week, albeit not as blatantly, thanks to the success of two Turkish WTA players reaching the quarterfinals.

My friends, and those who follow me, know that I show great interest in the organizational structure and planning of tournaments, and talk about them often. It is what I plan to do in this article. Istanbul is my hometown, where I was born. I come from the tennis world of the city. I grew up as a tennis player in this same milieus. I want this tournament to succeed. I want the stands to fill up. So, I write a bit more passionately about it than I have for most other tournaments. It may seem like a long post, but there are a lot of pictures and embedded tweets used to clarify the talking points for you, the reader. Having said that, let’s move on to the topic at hand.

There are many contributing factors to the tournament drawing very little amount of on-site spectators. Furthermore, none of this is new. This problem existed in the tournament’s inaugural year 2015, brushed under the carpet thanks to the Roger Federer frenzy that carried the week, and it continued in 2016:

The attendance was a painful issue, once again this year, leading to some people commenting on it on social media. It just looks bad when the stands are empty, and I really mean empty, day after day, match after match.

It was only on the final Sunday, thanks to two top-10 players meeting for the title and the completely unexpected success of Tuna Altuna, a local player who generated much-needed energy by reaching the doubles’ final with his partner Alessandro Motti, that Koza WOS Arena filled up around little more than half-way, between 4500 and 5000 people.

I know 6,700 was the official number given but if you were there, you knew that was an inflated number, in the same way that some universities inflate their attendance numbers above the actual ones through various methods (attendance vs ticket sold vs turnstiles turned, etc) in the College Basketball world of the U.S.A. Yet, nobody who was there all week can deny that “little-more-than-half-full” was a beautiful sight compared to previous days. Here was the attendance on the Raonic vs. Tomic quarterfinal match, at 7 PM on Friday evening:

There is one major contributing factor to this problem, one for which there is no solution in the foreseeable future. The facility is simply too far away from the rest of Istanbul. The Ataturk airport is considered “away from the city center” by many life-long Istanbulites and the tournament site is a considerable distance past the airport. To give you an example, I drove every day from Camlica neighborhood, on the Asian side of Istanbul, but only a few minutes away from the Bosphorus Bridge (the oldest and the busiest of the three bridges that now cross the two continents). It took me anywhere from 1 hour, when I would drive past 10 PM, to over two hours during the day just to go one way! There are a ton of tennis fans living on the Asian side, much further from the bridge than I do, and it takes them longer just to reach the bridge, i.e. add roughly an hour to the trip. People living in the busy neighborhoods of Levent, Etiler, Nisantasi, Bebek, Istinye on the European side, probably spent roughly the same amount of time on the road going one way, meaning it could possibly be a three-to-four-hour affair to go back and forth to the tournament for most of those people. It is thus, a pain to get to the location, a major pain!

Yet, this problem is here to stay. The facility is owned by Garanti Koza, a successful land development company with far-reaching resources part of which they use generously, to their credit and they should be applauded for this, to help the development of Turkish tennis. Furthermore, the construction continues on site to transform it into a state-of-the-art, world-class sports facility. It’s their facility, their point-of-pride (understandably), the tournament is not moving anywhere else, thus the unsolvable problem of location. Istanbul’s infrastructure and the urban public transportation system are simply not there to ease the burden either.

There are, however, smaller issues that exacerbate the problem, ones that are indeed solvable. Let’s keep in mind the central issue: the lack of attendance. Thus, in order to at least ease the burden brought on by uncontrollable factors, one must do all else that remains within one’s power to counter the effect. For example, one can take measures to make the experience pleasant for those who do indeed decide to come, so that they will come back, and encourage others to do so. What should be the primary goal? To make every effort possible to let people know the different ways with which they can get to the site, inform them, do it frequently, do it visibly, and most importantly, do it clearly!

First, it starts with the official website, the number one source for the dissemination of information about the tournament. Let me first point out that the website is an improvement from two years ago, the last time I attended the tournament. It’s nicely designed and has both English and Turkish pages. However, once again, remembering the number one obstacle you are fighting, and the fact that anyone who decides to attend the tournament probably never heard of the site, should the instructions on how to get to the site not be the first thing that appears on it? You type in the web address to Istanbul Open’s homepage, and even if you make the browser full-page, you still don’t see it. You have to scroll down to get to the link that tells you how to get there. In other tournaments, this may be acceptable, but not when the location of your tournament is perennially the main reason why you can’t get people to come out. When I tweeted about the public transportation problem (by which I meant the city’s public transportation system), the tournament director Paul McNamee was quick to point out to me that my tweet was inaccurate, that there was transportation offered (again, my post was about public transportation system and the city’s infrastructure, not the tournament’s sponsor-arranged transportation specifically for the week, but ok..), and had his assistant’s*** phone opened up to the page on which it shows the transportation points, and had her show it to me. That link, more specifically, what it shows on that link, should be the glaring, unmistakable information staring at the person who just arrived to the home page. If not, at least a big bold link saying “Click here for Transportation schedule” should show up, and not be on the lower portion of the page with three other links of same size, where one must scroll down to see. Attendance and location are your main problems: then, make your instructions on how to get there easy-to-reach and visible.

***I will not go into the details of the short dialog that took place between her and I, but anyone involved in public relations of a tournament should have better communication and/or social skills, should definitely keep the second sentence that she said to himself/herself, if anything at all, certainly not say it to a media member (my badge clearly showed that I was), who could easily make a flashy heading for an article, if he/she had bad intentions or aspirations of high clicks or ratings, at the cost of making the tournament look bad (plenty of those around, believe me).

Second, announce relentlessly and continuously that a sponsor has arranged transportation to the tournament site from two key spots in Istanbul. People who use regular public transportation do not automatically become aware of this, because it is not part of the public transportation system. Don’t announce it on the tournament’s facebook page only once, on April 27th, before the Main Draw of the tournament even begins, and then never post it again! Don’t wait until Wednesday of the tournament to announce it for the first time, and the only time, on tournament’s Twitter page! Announce it on social media at least once or twice a day throughout the tournament. Tweet it, Facebook it, Instagram it, tell the broadcasting TV station to remind it to the viewers, every single day, every morning and evening, and get others to do it. Why? Because nobody knew until then about the arranged transportation for the tournament. Here is a great idea to remedy the problem, at least partially, and yet, it is not announced properly. When I was made aware of it, I asked as many people as I could, including people in the world of tennis in Turkey and regular attendees of the tournament, and not a single person said “yes I knew that they set up transportation for this week.” Nobody until that point (we had the conversation on Wednesday) mentioned it either when the lack of attendance was the topic of conversation because, again, they did not know. One facebook post on April 27th and one Tweet on May 3rd are not enough for a tournament taking place throughout the first week of May. When I found about it on Wednesday (May 3rd), I began tweeting about it, underlining it constantly on TV (I was doing daily commentary on the TV station broadcasting the tournament), turning to the camera and literally appealing to the people of Istanbul, to look at the website for the transportation schedule, every day. Yes, I received some feedback from regular listeners and followers saying “thanks” and that they did not know. Unfortunately, I was the only one relentlessly repeating it on either the social media and on TV for people to come and look to the website for transportation schedule. I did not see the same diligence from tournament organizers other than a tweet or two at the most for the rest of the tournament. Below is a tweet from a devoted tennis fan, who had discovered the arranged transportation on that Wednesday, informing other people on the exact location of the bus (translation: “by the Migros located under the stadium”). The website link simply says “by the stadium,” which happens to be Fenerbahce’s big home stadium (50,000+ capacity) and “by the stadium” could be anywhere around it. Good luck walking around that stadium to find the bus. Yes, specifics indeed matter. (Side note: This tennis passionate told me there were only 8 or 9 people in the bus)

Third, make the instructions on how to get there – let me put it in bold letters again – clear! Do not simply assume that everyone owns a GPS-abled phone. It is not enough to instruct those who depend on the directions from the website, to simply “take the Esenyurt Toll Booths exit to reach Garanti Koza Arena” (or the equivalent of on the Turkish version of the page). It is inaccurate, incomplete, misleading, and lazy. You can’t even see toll booths at the exit that you must take, nor does it say anywhere at the exit that there are toll booths. And once you miss the exit and keep going straight on that highway, you end up seeing the tolls on the right. By then, it’s too late, you can’t turn, and there you go swirling around in complicated traffic for another 15-to-20 minutes. If you did manage to take the exit, you don’t just “reach the Garanti Koza Arena.” There are few more turns and splits on the road. The sentence “take the Esenyurt Toll Booths exit to reach Garanti Koza Arena” is anything but accurate. Make the tournament site clear to those who drive up. Have big signs telling people where to turn, and have them at several points, all the way from the toll booths. Perhaps, it’s better to show in pictures:

1) Here is the first time you see the exit as you approach it. As you can see, there are no toll booths within sight, and not even the word “Esenyurt” in this first sign.

2) Then as the exit separates, there is a second sign with Esenyurt on it, but still no toll booths, nor can you see any in the distance. If you remain on the highway (left side) you are lost for 15-20 minutes.

3) If you made it to the toll booths, once you pass them, you come to another road split. It says to go right for “Esenyurt.” You must NOT! You need to stay on the left, which you would not know to do, especially that the site is announced as being located in “Esenyurt.” Now pay attention to the two small signs under the big Esenyurt traffic sign, to the left of the ambulance. The smaller of those signs, the lower one, tells you in small letters to go left for the Istanbul Cup and Istanbul Open. Unfortunately, they are impossible to see if you are driving as you can see from the image, unless you are right up close to them at which point you have already committed to the turn and cannot go back. Could these signs not have been larger? Or better yet, could this not have been explained on the directions rather than saying “take the Esenyurt Toll Booths exit to reach Garanti Koza Arena”?

4) You eventually notice the large Koza WOS Arena on the far right (if you have seen pictures of it), so you feel that you may be approaching. But right here, you must turn right and not go straight (and get lost for another 10-15 minutes), which you could easily do since the Arena straight up the road, on the right side. Again, that “invisible-from-your-car sign” tells you go right, if you can see it while you are driving while frantically trying to figure out where to go. I circled it in orange so you can see which sign I mean. The bigger letters at the bottom say “Parking” and the smaller letters at the top say the names of the tournament (shouldn’t at least that be reversed?). Good luck seeing that from inside your car, which is where I was, when I took this picture.

Fourth, and once and for all, please have a big banner, or some sort of a large sign showing anyone who drives up that there is actually an entrance to the ATP Tennis event taking place, “TEB BNP Paribas ISTANBUL OPEN.” This was the case in 2015, and two years later, there is still not a ‘visible-to-everyone sign’ indicating that you have actually arrived at the entrance of a world-class tennis event! I literally saw dozens of people asking others in buildings nearby where the tournament is, when they were but 50 meters away from the entrance, because they cannot see it. The site is continuously expanding, therefore, there is the constant noise and appearance of construction in the area. This is simply not a pretty sight when you first drive up. It was not in 2015, it is not now. But that is understandable since a world-class sports facility is under construction. However, it is no excuse to make the simple process of parking and finding the entrance to the tournament feel like yet another obstacle. Here are more pictures to clarify further:

1) Let’s pick up from the right turn in the last picture above. This is what you see once you have turned. Now the tournament’s entrance is about 60 meters to the left. Can you tell? Nor can anyone else unless they have already been there or unless they see a big sign of the tournament at the entrance. But, alas..

2) Here is the same street, driving from the other site. The tournament entrance is now to the right, between where the van and the two buses are parked. Again, can you tell? Nor can anyone else coming from this direction. Would a giant, high banner saying “Istanbul Open” help? You bet!

3) I will simply ask the question: Should the entrance to an ATP Event look like this? There are again, two of those small signs on each side, with the words “Turnuva Alani” (meaning “Tournament Area”) added. They are hard to see from your car anyway as you drive past them (and not easy to read unless you are up close to them), and then, they are blocked by people at times(because they are only at about hip-level), or by vehicles at others.

4) The next four pictures illustrate what you see once you walk past the above entrance. (a) You walk a straight path during which you see blue signs ahead saying the tournament’s name, so at least now you know you are headed in the right direction.

(b)You go up two escalators.

(c)Finally, at the top of the second escalator, you arrive to the security and ticket check.

(d) After you go past that, the outside courts are on your left and right, and the impressive Koza WOS Arena is staring at you straight ahead.

The outside area of the tournament is nothing exceptional, but the Koza WOS Arena itself is a wonderful show court to say the least. The players like it, the structure is stunning, and it has a retractable roof. Overall, the tournament is a definite improvement from its inaugural 2015 edition. Paul McNamee, whose tennis past should prove by itself that he is vastly qualified for such position, is obviously an excellent choice as the tournament director. The field of players was also great, featuring two top-10 players in the finals, which happened in only three other ATP 250 events in 2016 and 2017 so far. The players were thankful of how well they were taken care of during their stay. Credit goes to Paul and others who made it a pleasant experience for them.

Nevertheless, there is more to a tournament’s success than the players, and it needs to be a team effort. One person cannot do it all. In all fairness, I would speculate with a certain amount of comfort (for the record, I haven’t talked to him about all this specifically, not that I have not tried) that Paul probably faces the same daunting challenges that the previous two tournament directors faced: trying to make things work in a situation where many elements are out of your control, and sometimes, people to whom you delegate responsibilities do not exactly “get” what you expect them to do in the day-to-day operations.

One must, however, and again I keep coming back to the number one problem facing the tournament – the empty stands -, diligently attack the things that one can fix. Yet, some of the problems I foregrounded above have existed since the first year of the tournament. They are indeed fixable. Once you take care of these (solvable) problem, therefore negate some of the negative effects of the site’s geographical location (the unsolvable problem), and you manage to add a certain amount of a “pleasant” experience to the process of attending the tournament, people may come in larger numbers. It would certainly be worth the effort in order to make attendance numbers improve. But if people have to battle extra elements on top of simply driving/riding for a long time, just to get to the vicinity of the site, they are unlikely to come back, and highly unlikely to talk positively about it to their friends and acquaintances.

I remain hopeful for the years to come.

Note: Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter

Conversation with Steve Flink — 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame Inductee

I have been following Steve Flink’s writings ever since my lifelong passion for tennis began in my childhood years, and continued throughout my playing and coaching years. One of the leading journalists and historians in the tennis arena, Flink’s vast knowledge of our sport is second to none. Moreover, Mr. Flink will be inducted on July 22 of this year at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island. You can therefore imagine what a great honor it was for me when I got to meet him at the 2016 Wimbledon, the place where his passion for tennis began to take root in the early 1960s. The following day, I had lunch with him during which we chatted, in some detail, about some of the great matches and memorable events in the history of tennis. It was one of the most stimulating conversations I have ever had as a tennis lover, and of course, it helped that those were two of Mr. Flink’s favorite topics to discuss. He did, after all, write two fascinating books (both must-reads for any tennis fan) entitled The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century (1999) and The Greatest Tennis Matches of All-Time (2012).

In our first chat, we covered a variety of topics such as some of the unforgettable matches in history, the usage of correct terms when discussing historical accomplishments, and the ins and outs of the discussion surrounding the “Greatest of All-time” debate. Below is that chat, only minimally edited for clarification purposes.

Notice: This conversation was also translated into Turkish and initially published in the post-Wimbledon-2016 issue of the magazine Tenis Dunyasi. This is the original English version.


Thank you for taking the time! Let’s start with where you first caught the “tennis bug.” Can you identify such a moment in your life?

Yes! Right where we are sitting! I was 12 about to turn 13. It was 1965. I had seen a little tennis, I watched the Davis Cup finals for a couple of years in a row in 63 and 64, US vs Australia which was on public broadcasting in the States. I enjoyed watching it but it hadn’t gripped me the way it did later. I mean I was interested in those matches and those guys played, I got to watch Dennis Ralston and I liked him a lot, but it was not until I came out here in 1965 that I caught the bug. My father brought me out here and I was 12, about to turn 13. I came a bunch of times in 65 including the final. But I first came on a cloudy day during the first week and it just [pauses]… just… [shakes his head] completely engulfed me, I guess that would be the word. Then, form that point on, I followed it every day in the newspapers.

Later, I was back in New York, my parents were divorced then. I went to the US Nationals at Forest Hills, which later became the US Open. I went a bunch of times there. My passion grew out of those experiences. The summer of 1965 was the beginning of my passion for tennis.

As someone with a unique insight of a tennis historian on the matter of using correct terms: there are few terms that are often used out of context or incorrectly. For example, when a player wins one of the four elite tournaments, is it correct to say they won a Grand Slam, a Grand Slam event, or a Major? Also, isn’t it incorrect (or unnecessary) to say the “Calendar Year Grand Slam” since the term Grand Slam’s meaning has historically included the completion of that achievement in the same year? Many people, including some of the top players, now say call Majors “Grand Slams” as in for example, saying that Djokovic won a Grand Slam when he won Roland Garros, or that Roger Federer has won “17 Grand Slams.” Along those lines, which is it when the score is 6-6, is it a “tiebreaker” or a “tiebreak”?

Ok, bunch of points to make there. People say – and I even use it sometimes just to make clear and to not have anybody be confused by what the achievement is – “Calendar Year Grand Slam.” In a sense, it’s repetitive, but I think people use that as a clarification means. But obviously the “Grand Slam” is the four Majors in one year. What happened was, players started getting caught saying, way back in the 80s and early 90s, things like “I know next year I am going to win a Grand Slam,” I remember Jennifer Capriati saying this. What she really meant was “a Grand Slam Event.” This is one of the few areas where I disagree with the late Bud Collins. He was a strong believer in that you could absolutely and only call it a Major. I think if you say “Grand Slam Event” or “Grand Slam Championship,” it’s very clear, there is no mistaking it. So, I think these are interchangeable with “Major.” When I write, I use both. Sometimes I call it a Major, sometimes a Grand Slam Event, but the point is that they are both acceptable. I know other historians agree with me that as long as you get that word “event” or “championship” in there, you make the distinction from “Grand Slam” which is only one thing, winning all four Majors in one year. Now, the “Calendar Year” – and I know in some ways it’s a mistake and people claim it is – is added just so people understand, I think, the difference between that and Djokovic winning four straight over two years for example.

I try to be a bit more flexible about these terms, but Bud became very adamant about that, not in the early years, but let’s say, by the last 20 years of his life. He was more and more adamant as the years went by, and I respected him greatly on it, but it reminded me of his feeling about “tiebreak” vs “tiebreaker.” Again, I don’t agree, I think either of them is fine. There is no confusion in the public’s mind. What happened was, and Bud was absolutely right about this, “tiebreaker” was initially what Jimmy Van Alen, the inventor of the tiebreaker, named it. From the time that it was first used at the Majors in 1970, that is how we referred to it. Then, somewhere along the lines, I would say in the late-80s or early-90s, certainly by mid-90s, people from the ITF and other tennis-governing bodies adopted the term “tiebreak.” I did not have a problem with that. I thought “ok, that’s fine, there is not a big difference.” I would use either one personally, I don’t see how there could be any confusion between the two. But again, Bud felt very strongly about it, I respectfully disagreed with him. These were probably the only two things I ever disagreed with him in all the years that I knew him. “Tiebreak” or “tiebreaker,” either is fine.

Speaking of Bud Collins, is there a special dialogue that makes you say “yes, that was Bud Collins” or an anecdote with him that you particularly remember?

Wow, that’s tough! There were so many experiences with him. I think of his humor, his wit. I am not sure if a single one stands out, but one amusing story that makes me think of him was when I had to play tennis against him. He would always put a lot of pressure on you, he would chip and charge a lot, get to the net. He was much better player than he led on by the way. Ground strokes were not that great, but he volleyed beautifully and had a good kick serve. He was tough to play against. So I would start to press on my ground strokes, but I also would start double-faulting. We played a bunch of times, many times over here in England. One particular time, when I began pressing and double-faulting again, he said to me “Steve, just like Hazel Wightman** always said, you can’t double-fault when you get your first serve in.” I thought that summed him up. It was actually good valuable advice, his way of saying “get more first serves in and you won’t fall into that trap.” But only he could say it in such an amusing way.

** “Mrs. Wightie” (1886-1974) was an American tennis player who won 17 Major titles in singles and doubles in the early 1900s.

A second story was when I used to work with him behind the scenes as a statistician. Later, I actually started doing on-air with him in Madison Square Garden during the Virginia Slims Championships. Couple of years after we started, I did a telecast for ESPN. I was a color commentator. He sent me a very nice, thoughtful note in which he said “I watched your telecast from Memphis. You were very good; I was proud of you. Collini.” It was so nice of him to say that because it was not my telecast after all. “Collini” was how he liked to refer to himself. I am trying bring across his humor and his kindness, and I think those two stories epitomize that.

Is it true that in the early 20th century, women played five sets at Wimbledon, and that the committee back then decided to have women three sets because they felt their bodies were more suited for shorter on-court battles?

U.S. did it too. 1902 may have been the cut-off point. They just felt that it was unnecessary and it became the common currency to get away from that and get back to best-of-three. There was a little experimentation with it in the earlier days, it’s true. Just to tie that in, I don’t accept the argument that some people connect it with the ATP Tour or men’s tennis. Advocates of men’s tennis say “to have equal prize money, women are going to have to play best-of-five.” I think that’s foolish.

As a historian of the game, what are few things that you believe have lost their importance, unjustly perhaps, over the years? In other words, what should never be forgotten by the tennis world?

I think the main thing is to remember the efforts of those pioneers, the players that turned pro, particularly in the 1950s, up to 1968 when Open tennis arrived to the scene. All the great players would be signed to play pro. Jack Kramer played the pro tour himself and eventually became a promoter. They would get signed up after they won Wimbledon or the US Nationals, then they would go into the wilderness. They would lose the chance to play the Majors. Obviously, we know that Rod Laver couldn’t play the Majors until 1968, after his first Grand Slam in 1962. Ken Rosewall was gone much longer than that. Lew Hoad barely played in them. So, I think the record keeping is a bit distorted when we just look at the Majors and how many of them a player has won. Some of these great players lost out on the chance to win Majors. Pancho Gonzales, for almost 20 years, from 1949 to 1968. Imagine what he could have done, particularly on grass with his game. He was such a great serve-and-volleyer, he would have won a bundle of Majors, and it didn’t happen. Jack Kramer would have won so many more than the three he got in the amateur years. He said he wanted to write a book called “we were robbed.” To me, that is the thing that is too easily forgotten.

Do you believe the “Greatest of all Times” argument or discussion has its valid place in the world of tennis? Of course, none of us can settle it, but is it a healthy discussion?

Oh sure, it’s a very good discussion. Of course, everybody has to try to be fair. I mean, ESPN recently did something that the Tennis Channel had done 4 or 5 years ago, which is to try to combine the men and the women in this discussion. I had my qualms with that idea because I don’t know how you combine or compare men’s and women’s games. But leaving that aside, the notion of the greatest male or female players of all the time, yes I think it’s a very healthy discussion. Again, there has to be some fairness toward the prior years, to Suzanne Lenglen and Bill Tilden in the 1920s, Alice Marble in the 1930s, and other great players like Don Budge who was the first to win the Grand Slam. They are too easily forgotten and you have to project them into modern times by asking what if they had the same diet, rackets, training abilities. I have always felt that if you took those great players in prior years, and they were taught now, they would be great in any year. So, I think that is the only problem in this discussion. It’s a little too loaded toward the modern generation and not enough respect payed to Tilden, Lenglen, Helen Moody and other great players of the first half of the 20th century.

Even today, sometimes for example, Laver or Bjorn Borg don’t get much respect in men’s tennis because people are emotionally tied to today’s players like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer.

That’s true, they don’t, Borg and Laver get lost. Already, and I mean already, it’s hard to believe, Pete Sampras! I mean, when he left the game, many of us thought he was the best of all times, and again, he gets too quickly forgotten in that discussion. Frankly, I would add that if you put all of them together on the court with their playing styles, and settle it that way, Sampras would be the one that would come out on top, except on clay. On any medium-to-fast courts, hard or grass courts, I would take him to beat Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and any others, because of the nature of his game. The combination of the serve with the attacking game, the big forehand, and his temperament would make him come out on top. Of course, that’s just my opinion. There was a bunch of us who participated in a Tennis Magazine imaginary tournament with the great players of all time. It was one set on clay, one set on hard, and the deciding set would be on grass. Sampras ended up winning that imaginary event defeating Nadal and Federer. We had Djokovic losing to Borg. It came down to the grass court set at the end.

I am just throwing out my view here, but to get back to the original question, yes, it’s a very healthy discussion. Nobody is right, it’s all judgmental, but it promotes tennis and that’s a good thing.

If you had to mention the top three greatest matches that you have ever seen in your life time, what would they be? [Reminder: Flink wrote the book The Greatest Tennis Matches of All-Time, published in 2012]

Well, I wrote a book on the greatest tennis matches of all times so that one comes naturally to me. Nadal vs Federer in 2008, I still believe, was the best that we have ever seen. The quality was so high on all five sets. Couple of 6-4 sets to Nadal, two tiebreakers to Federer, and then a 9-7 in the fifth. The thrill factor, the two best players in the world for the third straight year in the final of Wimbledon, pushing each other to the hill, all played into it. Then, there was the fact that it was a pretty miserably cool day at Wimbledon, yet they lit the place up and withstood all the rain delays. That match stands out to me the most.

Two other men’s matches stand out in different ways. The 1980 Wimbledon final between Borg and John McEnroe was one. I didn’t think I would ever see that match surpassed until Federer and Nadal came along. The other one that is high in my list is the Laver vs Rosewall match in Dallas in 1972, which went to a fifth-set tiebreaker. They were two men who were both slightly past their primes, but it was like they turned the clock back on that day. The Agassi vs Sampras in the 2001 US Open quarterfinals was a similar case in that they were both past their prime but played a phenomenal match. These are the ones that I would mention.

To throw another match out there, what about the 1984 French Open, when Ivan Lendl came back to John McEnroe in five sets?

That one was a great match but I didn’t put it quite up there with some of the others because for two sets McEnroe was just way superior, then Lendl came back and McEnroe got perturbed and upset, the crowd went against him. It maintained a nice quality until the end, but it was dramatic more than anything else. I still didn’t feel the quality was up there with some of the others I mentioned, but it was a pivotal moment in McEnroe’s career, as well as Lendl’s.

Let’s take that match as an example for the next question, or the Federer – Nadal one, or even a match like Fabio Fognini vs Nadal last year at the US Open where one player won the first two sets and the other came back to turn the match into a memorable one. Interjecting that notion into the discussion about perhaps bringing men’s matches down to two-out-of-three set format, would we miss out on the possibility of classics like these matches?

Well, you are right. But I also think, instead, we would get three-set epics. You would have matches that end 7-5 6-7 7-6 that still went three hours. A part of this argument that makes me realize that I may be in the minority. Some of us who are “die-hards,” we can actually sit and watch an entire five-set match with no problem, but I don’t think the typical spectator stays necessarily with a five-set match the way they stay with a three-set match. That would be the argument for the best-of-three format, you may keep the fans more immersed from beginning to end and it’s still a fair test. Having said that, I don’t think the top players are ever going to want to agree to this, because they will feel that there is a better chance that they will get picked off. They would lose an advantage in that they have a better chance to come back in five-set format. So, I don’t think that will ever happen.

My biggest qualm is the fifth-set tiebreak. I am a big believer that it should be used and the US Open is the only Major that does it. I am very baffled by that. We had the famous Isner -Mahut match ending 70-68 in the fifth set, 11 hours and 5 minutes. It ruined them for the rest of the year.

Would you be fine with playing two-out-of-three up to a certain point and switch to the five-set format in the later rounds?

No, that was tested in the 1970s in the French and the US Open, I didn’t like it. I don’t like the idea of suddenly changing the rules when you get to the later rounds. I feel like they are going to stick with the best-of-five format, but the tiebreak should absolutely be used in every set. You put somebody who has been in one of those extra-long matches, and they have a bad disadvantage. Federer suggested the other day that maybe it should be tried at 12-12, I don’t even think that makes sense. Just play it at the same time you play it in any other set at 6-6, and settle it there. It’s better for the fans, and frankly, it puts the players under added pressure, and that is not bad thing for them either. If you haven’t been able to establish a service break lead after 12 games in the set, a tiebreak is perfectly fair to both of them.


Note: Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter. This week: Live, on-site updates from the ATP Istanbul Open

Monday at the Australian Open: 4th Round Preview

The bottom half of the men’s draw at the Australian Open has opened up after Denis Istomin’s shocking upset of Novak Djokovic. On the women’s side, the two favorites in the bottom half of the draw, Serena Williams and Karolina Pliskova, are still going but there are plenty of new names raising eyebrows. After three rounds, we have a clearer idea of the players’ forms and physical conditions and that adds a new dimension to the discussion of how that will carry into the scoreboard. In fact, some of the matches have become question marks precisely because some in-form players, exceeding expectations. Isn’t that what makes tennis fun anyway? The challenge to sort through the unknowns and to bring some sense into the complicated equation that entails what may happen when two players walk into the court, is the ultimate “fun” exercise for all tennis fans and experts alike. Having said that, let’s take a look at three men’s matches and one women’s match from the bottom halves of the draw that will take place on Monday.

Dominic Thiem (8) – David Goffin (11)

In his last-round encounter against Benoit Paire, Thiem experienced some shoulder pain. Not knowing how that may carry over to the next match, I will leave that out of this analysis. I do know, however that Thiem’s game is not at the high level that it was last year around this time. His only chance to gain some ground in this match rests on his ability to pull a Rafa-like (or Gael-like) performance, meaning scramble a lot from the baseline, put a large number of balls back in play from defensive positions, and force Goffin into taking more risks in order to earn some errors from the Belgian. Equally, he will have to play a high percentage of first serves in, because Goffin will jump on Dominic’s second serve, as he did in last year’s Australian Open when the two played each other in the third round (Goffin won in four sets).

Getty Images: Photo by Scott Barbour

Thiem will also need to use his backhand slice in abundance. Goffin likes to take balls early in the bounce and use that speed to generate more velocity for his hard and flat, agressive shots. If Thiem keeps the balls low with his slice, that should negate some of Goffin’s advantage in the rallies. On low balls, Goffin will either need to use his wrist more topspin or respond with a slice of his own which should relieve some of the pressure on Thiem. On his second serve, I expect Thiem to mix in the slice more frequently than he usually does in order to, again, keep the balls low and not allow Goffin to take charge from the first shot in the rally like he would if Thiem simply used the kick on his second serve. Neither player is, for the lack of a better term, a “head case,” therefore I don’t expect them to lose discipline. Thus, the score is likley to be determined by tactical adjustments that the two of them will make as the match progresses. Although he is the lower-ranked player, I see Goffin being one step ahead as they step on the court.

Gaël Monfils (6) – Rafael Nadal (9)

There is not much to say for this encounter. On any surface, in any city, and in any condition, Rafa would walk on the court as the clear favorite against the flashy Frenchman. Gaël’s refusal to add an attacking – a forward – dimension to his game for over a decade, his insistence to camp out three or four meters behind the baseline and retrieve balls, and the fact that considering his existing game he will face an opponent that does everything little better than he does, infinitely limit his chances to record a win against Nadal.

Photo: Getty Images – Mike Hewitt

Let’s push the envelope as far we can for a moment. Let’s use the convenient “you never know in tennis” platitude and let’s add the endurance factor remembering that Nadal played a grueling five-setter against the young Alexander Zverev two days earlier. Let’s also assume for a second that Monfils overachieves from the baseline, serves a ton of aces, and steals the first set. Then, only then, he could possibly have a chance if Rafa shows signs of wear and tear. Yes, it’s a reach, I know! In reality, here is what should normally happen: (1) Gaël running himself ragged from one corner to the other, hopelessly waiting for Rafa to make an error, (2) Rafa clicking on all cylinders and winning practically all the rallies that extend beyond 15 shots while his opponent dazzles the crowd with his athleticism on one or two meaningless points and (3) Gaël constantly bending down to pull his shoe tongues or to tie his laces, and breathing deeply to recover from the preceding point. Just for the sake of tennis fans, I hope Gaël can prove me wrong and at least win the first set to make it interesting.

Grigor Dimitrov (15) – Denis Istomin

Few months ago, this would have been a tough match to predict. If it were two years ago, it would have been an easy one to predict. Now, on the other hand, both players are coming into this match with confidence, playing their best tennis in a while. In his three matches, Denis stayed on the court 10 hours and 49 minutes and played 14 sets. In comparison, Grigor played only 10 sets and spent more than four hours less (6:39) on the court than Istomin. Dimitrov should have the fresher legs when they step on the court for the match.

Dimitrov’s chances should greatly increase if he moves well from the start, because it will allow him to immediately start using the great variety of shots in his arsenal. If that’s the case, Istomin will be covering a lot of court space early and likely struggle with endurance in the later stages of the match. Nevertheless, there are a few positives to Istomin’s game in this match-up. His brand of tennis, featuring deep and flat shots that carry weight, and his remarkable ability to accelerate down-the-line shots on both sides should take Dimitrov out of his comfort zone. Unlike Gasquet, Dimitrov’s previous-round victim who plays with variety and spin, Istomin will drive the balls flat and deep without giving Grigor any angles to work with.

From 2014, Cincinnati

However, Dimitrov did not just beat Gasquet, he dominated him. If his level does not go down, he should still be the favorite to win this match and could go to the semifinals and further. I am also sure that, other players who are in that half of the draw, having seen Dimitrov’s form of late and his drubbing of Gasquet, will wish deep down that Istomin can pull yet another upset. Istomin must absolutely win the first serve to have chance.

Johanna Konta (9) – Ekaterina Makarova (30)

I am sure many readers, especially if they had seen Konta’s thrashing (there is no other word for what happened) of Caroline Wozniacki in the previous round, are giving the edge to Konta and maybe they are right. Yet, as much as some experts may now claim that Konta even has a chance to take the title, I believe that Makarova has the tools to halt the relentless Konta train. Wozniacki was stuck playing defense, scrambling to get Konta’s shots back for most of the match. It should be a different pattern against Makarova. The Russian has the capacity to send Konta’s high-octane balls back with the same pace and should not allow the Brit to get too many looks at shoulder-length, high-bouncing balls that she received from Caro on Thursday. Makarova’s balls will stay low and deep, forcing Konta to hit balls at knee level or below, and keeping her behind the baseline more than she had to in her previous rounds. I should also mention that Makarova can make use of angles and carry her opponents off the court’s outside lines. The Russian could end up controlling a number of rallies this way, putting Konta in the unfamiliar position of being pushed around. Then, there is also Makarova’s lefty serve with which she is able to hit all corners, especially the wide one on the ad court that would force Konta to hit a backhand from outside the court, just to start the rally. In return, Konta can also win a bunch of free points with her powerful serve. So, first-serve percentage is likley to be a key factor in the match.

Getty Images: Photo by Scott Barbour

At the end of the day, I believe it will be Konta’s level of play and decisions during points that will ultimately determine the outcome. Let’s not forget to mention the endurance factor for both players. Makarova spent a lot of effort in taking Dominika Cibulkova out in 2 hours and 53 minutes, so it will be interesting to see how fresh her legs will feel. Konta, for her part, has played twelve matches in twenty days in three different cities, and one can’t help but wonder if that will catch up to her at any given moment in Melbourne. Last but not the least, Makarova has consistently performed well at Majors. I lean toward the Russian to pull the upset in this match.

Until next time, take care everyone and enjoy the tennis.

Note: Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter

Sunday at the US Open: Two Match Previews

Louis Armstrong Stadium, Day Session

I am not sure why I am picking this match for a preview, because it involves one of the more unpredictable players of modern times, the athletic, powerful, talented, yet erratic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Jack Sock, an American who certainly has his best chance at a deep run in a Major, but has, every now and then, produced lackluster performances when he found himself in such moments. I should even warn everyone (including myself) that I may be doing this for nothing, since both players have retired from matches in the past due to illness, fatigue, or injury. Unpredictability surrounds this encounter.

Nevertheless, I can comfortably say that Tsonga’s form should play a larger role in the match’s outcome than that of his opponent. On a good serving day, Jo has the ability to ace games away. Even on his second serve, he can bounce it high enough to set the winner on the next shot. Nonetheless, this is one of the unknowns. In the US Open so far, he has served a fair share of aces and won plenty of free points on his serves, but his first-serve percentage remained below 60%. Sock is not a great returner, so Jo may not necessarily need to excel in this category, but it would dramatically help his cause if he could serve at 60% or higher. He has been successful at the net, especially against Kevin Anderson in the third round, and I expect him to continue to approach the net whenever he gets a chance.

Photo: Andy Lyons, Getty Images
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (Photo: Getty Images – Andy Lyons)

Unlike against Anderson, however, he will have the Louis Armstrong stadium crowd rooting for his opponent. The last thing Tsonga needs are rallies in which Sock uses his powerful forehand to push Tsonga around behind the baseline, and breaks the Frenchman’s fragile backhand down. Sock’s ground stroke velocity is considerably higher than Anderson’s and I do not believe it is in Jo’s best interest to turn the match into a “who-can-whack-harder-from-behind-the-baseline” battle. That pattern spells a straight-set victory for the American in my opinion, but it is up to Tsonga to avoid falling into that trap. With a variety of first serves, followed by forehand strikes or astutely placed backhand approach shots, Jo should put the pressure on Sock on the American’s service games. It will also diminish the importance of Jo’s backhand, and it’s a good thing for him, in the outcome of the match. In the worst case scenario, meaning extended rallies, Tsonga must keep the large majority of the balls away from Sock’s forehand, unless it is for the purpose of opening up the backhand corner. The American is more likely to produce a short ball from his backhand than from his unorthodox-yet-efficient forehand.

Sock is the lower-seeded player in this match, but I would not exactly call him an underdog in this setting. Most Frenchmen, Tsonga included, and often by their own admission, have never felt comfortable in the American continent, not to mention at the US Open. Furthermore, the pattern of success that American players have traditionally achieved when they are playing a tournament on their home turf is undeniable. Tsonga is not what you would call a “fierce competitor” either, and at times, he tends to lose his spirit on the court. I would therefore say that Sock’s chances of victory will greatly increase (more than it usually would against someone else) if he can pocket the first set. It would also behoove Jack to get the crowd involved quickly in the match and exchange positive vibes (and I say this, because Sock can sometimes do exactly the opposite) with the tennis fans present on the seats.

As I noted above, serves and forehands, or some variation of the “1-2 punch” as it’s sometimes called, will play a central role for Tsonga’s success. Yet, the same can also be said for Sock, because those are his biggest weapons too. The contrast is in the other areas of their game. Jack’s baseline game is superior to Tsonga’s, so he may not necessarily want to take risks and go for winners early (as opposed to Jo). The Frenchman’s volleying skills and athleticism make him a better net player than Sock. The difference is that Jo will need those skills to win, Jack may win without needing them.

Again, a lot of unknowns come into play in this match, but Tsonga is the player that will determine whether those unknowns will have an impact on the outcome or not. If he can execute the details listed above, I have no doubt that he will turn the tide in his favor and come out triumphant regardless of what Sock does, unless factors outside the court take over.

Arthur Ashe Stadium, last match Day Session

First, let me say this, in case my friends and my readers do not already know: I like Pouille. I have followed him since my years of living in France when he was a developing junior. His fundamentally sound technique had impressed me and I somehow knew he would steadily improve and reach the biggest stage. I first watched him live in 2009 when he was 15 years old, at a tournament in a small town just outside of Paris. He was the top player in France in his age group if I am not mistaken, and he lost to Tristan Lamasine, the current no. 222 in the ATP rankings, in three sets (the exact score and the name of the club escape me). Along with several other junior players, he remained on my radar. Once he grew older and began to climb up in the ATP rankings, I was not surprised. My only worry was that he would not physically develop as quickly as some other juniors. That did not turn out to be the case, as he has bulked up and improved his conditioning. In short, where his career stands right now was something that I frankly expected. In fact, I would be surprised if he does not continue his rise. He has a sound all-around game, the necessary on-court disposition, and the endurance needed to succeed in the Majors and other big tournament.

Considering that this is a preview of his match against Rafael Nadal on Sunday, at this point, you are probably expecting a “but” or a “having said that,” before I go on.

You won’t get it. That is because I do believe Pouille has a chance to defeat Nadal, although I am sure that he will enter the Arthur Ashe stadium as a heavy underdog. He will, however, walk in the largest tennis arena in the world with a lot of confidence thanks to a quarterfinal appearance in a Major (Wimbledon) and a terrific win on Friday against a solid Roberto Bautista-Agut, as well as a sense of belonging. He also possesses the mental poise to avoid intimidation, cyclical ups-and-downs triggered by frustration or extreme enthusiasm.

His main problem will be the same one that all players encounter when they face Rafa. The Spaniard will hit the ball a bit harder and with a bit more spin than any other solid baseline player on the tour. Lucas, for his part, will have to deal with a lot of pressure on his weaker backhand side. To make matters worse, the cross-court forehand is Rafa’s most natural shot, and calling Roger Federer for advice will not help Pouille on this particular detail. There is nevertheless a path to victory for Pouille in this match.

Photo: Getty Images - Mike Hewitt
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Getty Images – Mike Hewitt)

For starters, he will need to overcome the same challenge that his compatriot Tsonga faces, as noted above, but with more urgency. Oui! He will need a much higher first-serve percentage than what he has shown in his previous three matches – %43 vs Kukushkin, %57 vs Chiudinelli, %56 vs Bautista-Agut. Pouille’s game plan will need to build on his attacking game, especially on his ability to accelerate the ball with his forehand, and for that to happen, he will need a large bucket of first serves to set the pattern up. A percentage closer to 70 would be just what the doctor ordered for Pouille, but it may be too much to ask from someone who has not gone above 60% in the tournament. He will, in addition, need to adopt the same plan that he executed so well against Bautista-Agut: he must stay aggressive from the baseline but not go for straight winners too early, and unleash his forehand when he does get a ball on which he can step inside the baseline. If not a winner, he still has the volleying skills to get it done at the net, assuming he comes in on well-constructed opportunities. Beyond that, a little help from Nadal would help the young Frenchman. It is not impossible (like it used to be in the past) because Rafa has had off-days as late as this year. Remember, Rafa is not the pre-2014 version where his standard rarely dipped below of greatness whenever he stepped on the court. Yes, I agree that it sounds like I am listing a string of “ifs” for Pouille to succeed, but none of it remains beyond of the realm of possibility. Although, he has played 14 sets in his first three matches, I don’t believe fatigue will be an issue for Pouille (probably my most daring assumption).

In any case, it would be the greatest victory in Pouille’s career to date if he were to take out one of the greatest players of all times who is also one of the very few favorites to win the US Open. All the rising youngsters aiming to join the ATP’s elite level need a milestone victory to get on the path to establish themselves as potential candidates. Players such as Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic have penetrated that realm with a win or two and are paving the way. If he were to rise to the occasion, tomorrow’s match would be that type of win for Pouille.

Note: Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter

Today in Cincinnati, Reilly Opelka Was a Giant

Reilly Opelka is a big guy at 6’11, but that is not what the title of this article foregrounds. Today, in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, the 2015 Wimbledon Boys’ champion passed a remarkable test against Jérémy Chardy, an established top-50 player who has reached 4th round or better at all the 4 Majors throughout his career. For the 18-year-old Opelka who has recorded his first ATP-Tour win earlier this month in Atlanta, today’s 3-6 7-5 7-6(9) win over the Frenchman was the confirmation that he is, at this point, a considerable opponent at any stage of an ATP event. It’s true that earlier this month, he did beat the 28th-ranked Kevin Anderson – who is still recovering from injury and struggling to find his best form – and the 53rd-ranked Donald Young in Atlanta before losing to John Isner in three sets in the semifinals. That being said, today’s win proved that the Atlanta run was not an isolated performance and that the American will quickly improve on his current ranking of 364 from this point forward.

When today’s match started and Chardy broke Opelka’s serve immediately in the second game of the match, it looked like the American Wild Card recipient would gain some valuable experience but not much more. While Opelka is already known for his big serve, it was Chardy’s serve that stole the show as the Frenchman served 22 aces and 3 double faults to Opelka’s 18 and 9 respectively. Opelka also served at 56% first serves while Chardy did so at 64%. What most tennis fans did not expect was how Opelka rose to the challenge in other parts of the game.

Opelka served big
Opelka served big
But Chardy served bigger!
But Chardy served bigger!

Opelka steadied the ship after the early break and never lost his serve during the rest of the match. But it was impossible to break Chardy’s serve. The Frenchman, time after time, served aces and kept Opelka off balance with strong serves into the body including the one he hit (photo below) to win the first set 6-3.

Opelka jammed forehand

But Opelka was now also winning his service games without much difficulty. The only other break of the match came when the rain interrupted the 6-5 game in the second set when Chardy was about to serve at 30-30. That delay lasted less than an hour and the players came back on the court, but during the warm-up, the weather forecast apparently signaled lightning and the referee made the following rare announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a big lightning coming this way, we are sending the players back to the locker room.” The so-called “lightning delay” lasted over an hour. The skies turned into a nasty, gray-blue toned color, and a period of heavy rain followed.

"Lightning delay"
“Lightning delay”

During this time, Opelka had a Chobani yoghurt as he waited in the dining room. I don’t know what Chardy did but the delay certainly did not work in his favor. As is often the case when a match gets interrupted at such crucial moments, when the players come back to the court, it is possible that one or both players may not have the intensity or the concentration with which they left the court at a moment like 6-5 30-30. Chardy was the victim this time. What looked like a typical “tiebreaker set” before the weather delay finished in about a minute when Opelka quickly won the first two points and recorded his only break of the match to win the second set 7-5.

Players coming back after the delay
Players coming back after the delay

In the third set, the domination of the servers continued and the second set pattern repeated itself, this time without a delay to throw off either player. In the deciding tiebreaker, Opelka excelled in his decision-making and showed the poise of a player far beyond his years. The match was decided on the tiniest of details. Opelka was willing to take chances and develop patterns to put pressure on Chardy while the Frenchman hesitated on a couple of important points.

The tiebreaker, as it happened

Opelka started the tiebreaker with a successful serve-and-volley point to win the first point. After Chardy hit his signature forehand winner on a short return by Opelka, the American made the first minibreak on a strong return when Chardy hit a kick second serve to his backhand. In the next point, Opelka approached Chardy’s backhand on the first short-ball opportunity, causing the Frenchman to net the passing-shot attempt. Opelka was now up 3-1, but he missed an open-court backhand to record his first big error in the tiebreaker. Another powerful serve by Chardy equalized the score at 3-3 and the players changed ends. In the next point, Chardy had another shot at a forehand winner when he moved into the court on a short ball by Opelka. However, the Frenchman hesitated and instead of going for the usual winner, he simply hit it deep to Opelka’s backhand and allowed him to stay in the point. He paid the price for his reluctance as Opelka slowly gained control of the rally and finished it with a winner of his own. The youngster was up again, holding a minibreak at 4-3. He made his second (and last) unforced error of the tiebreaker when he netted a forehand. The players were back on serve at 4-4.

In the next point, Opelka attacked Chardy’s backhand for the second time in the tiebreaker and Chardy once again missed the passing shot in the net. The Frenchman was down 4-5 but would win the next two points with an ace and a string of dominating forehands to earn his first match point. At 6-5 up, when Chardy hit a powerful return on Opelka’s serve (which is not an easy thing to do) it looked like he would shortly shake hands and go to the locker room as the winner. Yet, Opelka produced a sizzling down-the-line winner off that return with his supposedly weaker backhand side and the players changed sides again at 6-6. Opelka served and volleyed again, this time on his second serve and won the point the classic way, with a winning volley. Now the American held his first match point at 7-6. Chardy was not yet done as he produced two big serves that earned one return mistake and another short return by Opelka, allowing Chardy to hit the winner on the next shot. The Frenchman was up 8-7 with his second match point in hand. Opelka once again rose to the occasion, sticking to the successful pattern that was emerging in the late stages of the match. He served and volleyed yet one more time, this time winning the point on a high forehand volley and saving the match point. At 8-8, Opelka, recognizing that bravery was the path to the win, approached Chardy’s backhand for the third time forcing him to miss the passing shot in the net, again. Chardy saved the second match point against him when he hit a kick serve to Opelka’s backhand and the big American missed the return long. The players changed sides for the third time at 9-9.

In this intense back-and-forth battle, it was the more experienced player that blinked first in the “extended” stages of the tiebreaker. On the 9-9 point, Chardy got another short ball in the middle of the court on his forehand. Usually considered Chardy’s “money shot,” the short forehand sitter let him down a second time in the tiebreaker (first one at 3-3, see above), this time resulting in a direct error in the net. Opelka held his third match point at 10-9, on his serve. As the saying goes, you stick with what got you there. Opelka had been successful serving and volleying or approaching the net to Chardy’s backhand. Sure enough, he did the latter as soon as the opportunity presented itself in the rally. This time, Chardy did hit the passing shot down-the-line over the net, but the tall American was able to reach it and place the cross-court forehand volley to the open court for a winner, ending the tiebreaker with an 11-9 win. He turned to his corner and screamed with joy. His sense of accomplishment was obvious in his face, and Chardy was disappointed as he added to his struggling year another unexpected loss.

Chardy's favorite position on the court
Chardy’s favorite position on the court

Opelka manifested the qualities that competitive players possess during crunch time. He was able to recognize the winning patterns, dare to take chances to put them into action, and execute without fear, realizing that there would always be a chance that it may blow up in his face. He did it whether he was down or up a match point. The bottom line remained that he knew he needed to take those risks, in the form of serving and volleying or approaching to Chardy’s backhand. It was a remarkable display of high-IQ for a player who was performing in the main draw of an ATP-1000 event for the first time in his nascent professional career. It was his opponent, with 11 years of pro experience, who got hesitant with his most powerful weapon while the American became a giant with his decision-making. I am also a fan of Chardy and I believe his career is very underrated, but there is no denying that the 18-year-old stole the show today and made an Opelka fan out of me.

Opelka winsOpelka will take on the 7th-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga next.

Note: Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter

Federer “Finds A Way,” yet Again!

Wimbledon’s official site, in its immediate official website update following Roger Federer’s spectacular comeback win vs. Marin Cilic, 6-7 4-6 6-3 7-6 6-3, used the headline “Extraordinary. Exhausting. Exhilarating.” It was an appropriate exclamation, considering that what took place on Centre Court on Wednesday was less about the quality of Federer’s game than about the nature and circumstances of the comeback. The way a tennis legend fabricated a win that seemed so unlikely at several moments of the match was indeed breathtaking.

Prior to the match, I shared my opinion on social media on what to expect. Quite frankly, the match could go either way, in any number of sets, because both players have not yet faced any redoubtable opposition, and thus, there were still many questions unanswered. Federer got to the quarterfinals without much trouble, taking full advantage of a draw that put him against considerably weaker adversaries. His performances in Stuttgart and Halle, two of the leading grass-court tournaments before Wimbledon, were less than impressive, and from his previous matches at SW19, it was hard to tell where his game stood. Adding to the doubt, Federer was still on the comeback trail from his injury. Last but not the least, the last time Roger had to go to distance, playing five sets in a Major, dated back to the 2014 US Open (vs Gaël Monfils). Cilic, for his part, had to overcome a challenging stretch of 10 minutes in the second set of his match vs Sergiy Stakhovsky, but he had yet to face a formidable opponent. At the same time, it is well-known fact, as Roger will be the first one to say so, that on a given day Marin could dominate anyone on the ATP Tour if his game is clicking on all cylinders. For all the reasons above, I felt that the first set would be a central component of the match. If Federer came out swinging freely, he would put doubts to rest and move on to the next round without much headache. If Cilic won the first set, it would be a long duel with the pendulum slightly tilting in the Croat’s favor. Although, I turned out right for the most part – and this is rare – I still did not foresee some of what took place for 3 hours and 17 minutes on the court.

Photo: Clive Brunskill - Getty Images
Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images

Both players held serve throughout the first set that went to a tiebreaker. While Federer was serving well, he was alarmingly losing most of the baseline rallies. Cilic was solid overall, but not hitting Roger out of the court like he did at the US Open two years ago. Although Cilic did face two break points at 2-2, he only lost one point on his first serve during the rest of set. He won the tiebreaker 7-4 and took the lead. Now there was no doubt. As he usually does when he plays from behind, Federer was going to have to pull all the weapons from the arsenal and find a way to turn the match around.

However, things went from bad to worse in the second set. Even Federer’s only reliable shot so far, his serve, took a hit. He served barely over 50% in the second set and in the game that he was broken at 1-1, Federer’s footwork looked dismal as he committed one uncharacteristic error after another to lose his serve. Cilic, on the other hand, seemed to remain solid, but not without glitches. He fell behind in a later game 0-30 after two double faults, but Federer was unable to take advantage as he committed a mix of forced and unforced errors during rallies. Cilic led two sets to zero and Federer still looked unsettled in the beginning of the third. Many thought his quest for an 18th Major was soon coming to an end. The quality of his tennis was just not at the point where he could contend for a Major title, or so it seemed. Even Cilic, one of the nice guys on the ATP Tour, would later say that he thought Federer was committing unlikely errors from the baseline, including the fourth-set tiebreaker.

Accordingly, it looked like Cilic was headed for the locker room with a three-set victory when the scoreboard showed 3-3 in the third set and he held three break points at 0-40 on his opponent’s serve. One pattern that kept troubling Federer was the second shot after the serve. Following Cilic’s returns, he often looked out of balance and committed mistakes (although Cilic’s returns would make them “forced errors”) on that particular shot. At 0-40, Cilic once again nailed a return right at Federer’s feet. The Swiss barely had time to take a step back and answered with an off-balance forehand that barely scraped over the net. It landed short. Cilic hit into the net what should be a routine backhand approach shot. It turned out to be one of the key points of the match. Cilic himself would later admit that this point, along with two of the three match points he had, were the points that he “regretted” the most once the match ended. Then at 30-40, Federer hit a well-placed, high-bouncing second serve that forced the Croat into an error. Federer finally held, and all of a sudden, the momentum shifted tiny bit in his favor for the first time in the match. He broke Cilic’s serve in the ensuing game and pocketed the third set 6-3.

Federer would admit later to remembering, during that set, his comeback vs. Tommy Haas in the 2009 French Open. In that match, Haas also led Federer two sets to zero, had a break point to go up, and serve for the match. Federer hit the line with his forehand for a winner and the match turned around quickly, eventually leading to Roger’s win in five sets and his only French Open crown two matches later. The only difference: he won the fourth and the fifth sets handily, whereas that would not be the case here against Cilic. Fourth set would be another battle back and forth, similar to the first set, except that Marin would have the opportunities to put the match away, while Roger would still play catch-up tennis. Cilic had his first chance to reestablish his dominance when he led 2-1, and 15-40 on Federer’s service game. Two effective second serves by the Swiss, second being much riskier than the first, got him out of trouble and he held for 2-2. At 4-5 would come a bigger opportunity for Cilic to put this encounter in the record books when he had a match point at 30-40. Federer missed his first serve on yet another crucial point. However – and yes, you may be noticing a pattern by now, more on it later – served an exceptional second serve to get out of trouble once again. A second match point would arrive at 5-6, but this time, Federer would hit an ace to save that one and bring the set to a tiebreaker.

In a thrilling 4th-set tiebreaker, Federer saved another match point and squandered four set points himself before finally winning it 11-9 on his fifth one. He especially found himself in big trouble after missing a forehand sitter on his first set point at 6-4 and losing the next two points to go down 6-7 and a third match point. His second serve once again took the leading role. He placed it wonderfully, forcing Cilic into another return error. Did I mention he also served an unreturnable second serve earlier in the tiebreaker? Well, I just did.

The fifth set was finally where Federer, for the first time in the match, did swing freely, serving better and better, and beginning to dominate Cilic on all facets of the game. One break was enough and he would find it in the eighth game of the set. In the next game, he served out the match and lifted his hands high up in the air after the ace that officially finished the match. Federer would characterize this comeback as a “big one” but not necessarily his biggest.

This was a special win, not because of the tennis that Federer played, but more because of his often-underrated competitor persona that surfaced. Tim Henman would confirm on his post-match commentary on BBC, accurately so, that Roger’s “will to win” was what got him over the hurdle. Federer said later that he was “lucky to some extent,” but he also affirmed that he would “rather be here than booking a jet.” Isn’t it the sign of a champion anyway to find some solution and fabricate a win when he/she cannot perform at the desired level? The elite athletes in our sport prove repeatedly that it is the case.

One of the most underrated shots in tennis is the second serve, yet somehow one that elite players usually lead in all categories to which it relates. As you read above, it was Federer’s second serve that got him out of trouble on the majority of critical moments during the match. Two match points and three crucial break points that almost felt like match points were all saved thanks to second serves that had faster-than-usual pace or risky placement, or both. Roger said that his serve was the one shot he felt he could always fall back on, specifically mentioning his second serve.

How much does he rely on it? Here are a few numbers to ponder. In yesterday’s five-set match, Federer committed zero double faults. Keep in mind that he was not, by any means, “playing it safe” on his second serves. In fact, he took high risks on many of them simply because he had trouble handling Cilic’s returns. On the break and match points noted above, they were placed extremely close to the lines. At Wimbledon so far, the Swiss has committed a total of 2 (“two” in writing) double faults in five matches! He won 59% of his second-serve points against Cilic, and that stat is at 63% for the overall tournament. Are these details? Maybe… But for some reason, these details are always present and relevant when the topic revolves around the top players of our game.

Federer plays Milos Raonic in the semis. The Canadian is also winning 63% of his second-serve points. Federer will need to extend to the whole match the level of tennis he put on display in the fifth set against Cilic. He will (possibly) need to do that again, in order to lift the trophy on Sunday. In short, he has to play his two best matches of 2016 in succession, in order to win his favorite Major. I neither see him defeating Raonic nor winning the tournament if he plays another match at a level no higher than the previous ones in which he was challenged throughout the grass-court season. The good news: he has improved with each match and during yesterday’s match. He reiterated the importance of the seven matches that he got to play in Stuttgart and Halle in terms of getting prepared for Wimbledon. At the end of the tournament, I am guessing that this particular one against Cilic may yet turn out to be the biggest.

Note: Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter

Interview with Denis Istomin “Part 2″ – Wimbledon 2nd Round

Side note: I named this “Part 2” because I previously interviewed Denis Istomin after his 5-set, first-round upset win over the 20th-seeded Kevin Anderson on Monday. I would highly recommend that you read that interview first in case you missed it (especially for background information on Istomin), by clicking here before you move on to read this one.

Yesterday, Istomin defeated Nicolas Almagro 6-4 7-6 6-2 to reach the third round at Wimbledon.


He was nice enough to take the time and talk to me about his pre-match preparation and the details of his win against the former top-10 player from Spain. Here is what he had to say.

Congratulations Denis!
Thank you very much.

You played a big hitter today. Almagro hits big from the baseline, big first serve, and has a game founded on power. Going into the match, did you want to keep the points long in the beginning and force him into mistakes early in the match, or did you perhaps plan to start aggressively yourself in order not to allow him to settle into his game?

I wanted to keep him hitting the ball. He has the kind of game where he wants to hit as hard as he can and it’s tough to play like that all the time. If you get four or five balls back, he wants to go even for more. He could start missing, so I tried to play in that way today. But at the same time, I was serving well, so I decided to be aggressive if I get a chance. I mean, I have a good record against him [6-0 now] so that also worked for me. But today, the first two sets were really tough. I was lucky that I broke him back at 5-6 in the second and won the tiebreaker. In the third set, his game went down, it was 3-0 in like five minutes.

You seemed to accelerate your forehand down-the-line a lot this match. Was that a particular part of your game plan? You usually like to hit out your forehand when you are on the run but it seemed that you paid particular attention to attempting down-the-line winners with your forehand.

Yes, but that is the style of game anyway. I feel I can hit down-the-line very good on the forehand and backhand. Many players know that I can be dangerous on the forehand. I knew that if I run so far out of the court, I will not have time to come back, so I hit my forehand full power. If not, I have to run to the other side and it’s a problem. I mean, I am not a short guy who can run fast, I need to protect the part of the court that I can cover. I don’t need to be playing a style where I run and cover the court like… I don’t know… like Djokovic or someone.

In the first set, you won your only break point, and the set at 5-4 up, with an excellent running passing shot.

Almagro can't reach Istomin's forehand, cross-court passing shot on set point.
Almagro can’t reach Istomin’s cross-court forehand passing shot on set point.

But the second set was more complicated. You had break points at 4-3, didn’t break, then you led 0-30 at 5-4 up, did not put it away. Then, you lost your serve at 5-6 but you were able to break back and win the second set. Can you elaborate on that?

Yeah, it’s tennis and it happens. If you lose such game against Isner and Karlovic it would hurt more because you know that it will be difficult to break back. But with guys who don’t serve as strong, you still have a chance so you keep playing in the same way you have until then and hope you break back. In that 5-6 game, I went up 0-40 and he still came back to deuce but I was finally able to break back. It was a very tough set. Even if I lost that set, I would have felt ok. He played good and deserved to win the set. He held his serve at 4-3 and 5-4 even though he was down in the game.

Are you physically feeling good?

Yeah, today I felt good. I had two days of rest which helped a lot. I play tomorrow again [vs David Goffin] so I am lucky I won in three sets and not 4 or 5. So I kept some energy for tomorrow [smiles].

For fans who may be curious about what players do between matches, what have you done since the end of your match vs Anderson?

After that long match, I showered, had something to eat, got a massage. I tried to sleep early that night but it was tough. It’s not easy to fall asleep after such a long match. It was around midnight when I finally fell asleep I think. The next day, I practiced 40 minutes, maybe even less, just to feel the ball and that was it. Yesterday, I did the same, preparing for the scheduled match. But then we sat all day waiting to see if we will go on the court or not, because of the rain. When it cancelled we went home. I tried to sleep earlier last night too. I did the same this morning, warming up this morning.

On Monday, when we talked you called your season “terrible.” Has that changed?

No, now it changed a little bit [laughs] but it’s still not great [laughs again].

Thank you, and again, good luck tomorrow!
Thank you!

Denis thanks the spectators after his win.
Istomin thanks the spectators after his win

Note: Denis will face the 11th-seeded David Goffin of Belgium on Friday afternoon. It’s the third match scheduled on Court 3. I hope to talk to him again following that match.

Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter for frequent, live updates from the grounds.

Interview with Denis Istomin – Wimbledon 1st round

Denis Istomin, the 103rd-ranked player from Uzbekistan (highest: 33 in 2012), defeated the 20th-seed Kevin Anderson 4-6 6-7(13) 6-4 7-6(2) 6-3 in the first round of Wimbledon. It was a thrilling come back by a player who has gone through his own trials and tribulations throughout his career. He has had to deal with numerous injuries and was severely injured in a car accident on his way to a junior tournament when he was 14 years old, one that resulted in a broken leg and required 80 stitches and a three-and-a-half-month-long stay in a hospital for recovery.

He is also coached by his mother – considered an “unusual arrangement” in a world dominated by male coaches – who got him back on the court two years after his accident. I thought it would be a good idea to give this background information before showing the interview below, because I did not want Denis to have to talk about these topics again. I am sure he has had to answer hundreds of question about them, although, as you will notice, he seems “pretty cool” about it.

Denis 1

Below is my chat with the soft-spoken, polite 29-year-old Istomin, following his thrilling win vs Anderson. He will face Nicolas Almagro in the second round.

You had 7 set points, yet you lost the 2nd set 15-13 in the tiebreaker to go down two sets to nothing. You were up 6-3 and the first three set points in a row, and the point at 6-4 was the longest rally of the match. Yet, you still managed to come back and win in 5 sets. I am curious, how quickly did you recover mentally after that second-set tiebreaker?

From 6-3 to 6-6 in the tiebreaker, I think he had a good serve. Then, yes, the next point was a Iong rally and I missed the down-the-line backhand a bit long. Then at 6-5, after this kind of point, you know, it’s tough to serve well because you are still tired from the last point. He also hit a good, aggressive return and got back to 6-6. After that, he served unbelievable the rest of the tiebreaker, I had no chances to put the set away although it was a long tiebreaker. When I lost that and went down 2-0 in sets, I took the points one by one, and hoped that I can make a break somewhere. I got lucky but I managed to get a break in the third set. But it changed the game completely. I started to play better, more aggressive, with the momentum. It continued and I played very well in the fourth set tiebreaker. I also think he got tired after the fourth set as well. I could see that and I just waited for my chance to break again.

I thought for a little while that he was getting tired toward the end of the second set, but he played another three sets after that.

Well, it’s a three-out-of-five-set match anyway, but he is good on this surface and he served very, very well. But I had more chances to break later for sure. For example, in the first two sets, I had maybe two or three break points, but then I started to return well and I had more and more chances. Third set, I also changed my tactic a little bit. I began hitting drop shots to make him run a little bit, maybe that had an effect on him as well.

Istomin at the moment of victory
Istomin at the moment of victory

Your peers and coaches who know you seem to admire your work ethic. Is that important to you or does it make you proud?

[smiles] Well, I mean.. I just do my job. I try to do it the best I can. It’s my life, that’s my charisma and character I would say. I try to do my best and work in the best way I can. After my car accident, I had some trouble with my body, you know, a lot of problems with my body. A lot of injuries. Every season, I had something. I try to not think about it and just work.

You have been playing Majors for a long time and have done your best at Wimbledon and US Open, reaching 4th round in both. You have had a tough season so far too. Are you perhaps looking at this Wimbledon and think that it may be a good opportunity for you to recover and find your best game again?

I have a terrible season this year…

[I interrupt briefly, smiling] I did not want to use the word “terrible” in the question…

[Laughs] No, no, it was terrible, terrible… Let’s be honest, it’s been a terrible season. I lost a lot of matches. I had crazy injuries and illnesses, losses came one after another. But ok… It happened. You are human and these things happen. You just have to work around it and it’s going to be better. I just try to keep playing, you know? This kind of match can change a season as well, so I am looking forward to playing better and better.

Does Wimbledon hold a special place for you compared to the other three Majors?

The grass, in general, is my favorite surface. And of course, Wimbledon has a nice atmosphere and I really like it here. All Slams are strong you know, and you have to be at 100%. Finally, I am at 100%.. I hope [chuckles]. In Paris, against Juan Monaco, I strained my ankle after five games [Monaco won in four sets], but in the end I finished a five-set match today so it looks good.

What is one question that you wished you never heard again in your interviews and press conferences?

[smiles] I am not really like this, questions don’t really bother me too much. If someone wants to know what happened somewhere or if I slept well, I mean, that is a question too. They [media] are doing their jobs as well so, for me, it’s ok. If you ask me hundred times, like everybody did to me before, “how’s working with your mom?” every time I like to answer and say “I’m doing really great.”

Thank you for taking the time.

Thank you, I appreciate it.

(Edit: Click here to read my next chat with Istomin three days later, after 2nd-round win.)

Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter for frequent, live updates from the grounds.

“The Finest Hour” – Cagla Buyukakcay’s 2015 Campaign

(Note: This is the English version of my article that was published in the May issue of Tenis Dunyasi, the largest publication in Turkey dedicated to tennis. It was written after her Istanbul Open title and before she qualified for the main draw and won a round at the French Open.)

It is March 9th, 2015 and I am at a dinner with Cagla Buyukakcay and her coach Can Uner in Indian Wells, California. Their hearts are heavy and their expressions gloomy. Silence reigns at the table. About six hours earlier, 15th-seeded Cagla lost 6-3 6-4 to Sesil Karatantcheva in the first qualifying round of the BNP Paribas Open Championships in Indian Wells. It was the first Premier-level tournament that Cagla entered based solely on her (then-) newly acquired career-high ranking. Yet, the excitement of that accomplishment was now replaced by the gloomy reality of having lost on the first day of competition. In an effort to cheer them up, I told them to leave it behind, that there would be many other challenges ahead, and that there would be disappointments as well as victories along the way. Can did not respond. Cagla, for her part, replied with her usual honesty, yet in a sullen tone “you are right Mert, but when you lose like this, it’s hard to find it in you to feel alive again.”

I regularly spend many weeks on the tour with Can and Cagla. We are close friends and we constantly share our thoughts and knowledge on the sport that we love. I have always admired their positive approach in such a competitive business. I confess that I had never managed to remain as cheerful and as positive as they have for extended periods of time during my years as a player. This added to my sense of helplessness toward my friends at that dinner. I have never seen them in such dismal mood. It saddened me.

Cagla and Can were upbeat during the couple of days leading up to the start of competition in Indian Wells, and with good reason.

IW 2

A month earlier in Fedcup, Cagla had recorded the best wins of her career (vs. Heather Watson and Elena Svitolina) and thanks to some terrific results in the previous few months, her WTA ranking had climbed up to a career-best no. 108. However, it was obvious that, deep down, she felt that she had failed the test at a higher “stage” like Indian Wells.

Little did we all know during that dinner that she was about to enter a long period of trials and tribulations, filled with frequent disappointments. Little did we know that between March and September, she was going to only win 6 matches and lose 19, exit every important tournament (including the qualifying rounds of Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open) after the first-round, and wait until the middle of September, a $25,000 tournament in Batum, Georgia, to remember what it felt like winning two matches in a row. Last but not the least, little did we know that evening, that her ranking was going to plummet from 108 to 192 during that six-month period.

Side note: Although Cagla reached the semifinal and final rounds of two other $25,000 tournaments later in September, it would not be until Dubai in November that Cagla would finally break free of this terrible downswing (more on these later). In other words, the overall focus of this article on an eight-month period rather than a six-month one.

Throughout this period, I remained in contact with Cagla and Can by phone regularly and in-person at a few other tournaments. I can say the following without a shred of doubt: only an exceptional player-coach duo could have survived this period that severely challenged their resolve and character. Usually, in similar situations, some type of deep-crisis moment arrives, necessitating a radical change either in the makeup of a player’s team or in the direction of her game. For example, the coach or the player, or both, could lose their belief in their partnership and decide to part ways at times. At others, they could decide that their methods are wrong, and thus, remodel their practice routines, in order to pursue new/other improvements in the player’s game. Only the partnership of a player like Cagla who represents the epitome of hard work, dedication, and possesses the ability to use her high-IQ to assess her performance during and after matches, and a coach like Can who can radiate his “positive vibes” to anyone standing within 100 feet of him could have overcome the anguish of that emotionally taxing eight-month-period, and ultimately get rewarded by the 2016 season that Cagla has had so far.

Indian Wells

None of the above is to say that they circumvented moments of crisis. There were plenty of them.

One such moment occurred when Cagla lost 6-1 7-6 to Naomi Broady in the first round of Roland Garros qualifying draw. This was a disappointing loss in that Cagla had just had a solid practice week in preparation for the French Open, and therefore, felt extremely upbeat about having found her game for the first time since March. However, as soon as she fell behind early in the match, she turned “passive with her game” as Can would later say. It was not until the second set that she recovered, but that was too little too late to score a come-back victory against a rising player like Broady. High performance in practice followed by an inability to transfer that level to matches often indicates that the player lacks confidence. Cagla would also later admit that during this period filled with disappointments, confidence was precisely what she desperately needed. This defeat was only going to add to the problem.

I immediately sensed the despair in her voice when we talked after the match that day. “Mert, this is so difficult” she said. “This bad period has gone on for too long now and I can’t stand it anymore that I can’t perform well in matches. I feel awful. I don’t know what else to do to turn this around.” When I spoke to Can, he did not sound much better: “I can’t even tell you how sad I am, my morale is below zero!” Simply put, they were depressed. Cagla needed some wins, and she needed them in a hurry! Anyone who played competitive sports can confirm that winning takes care of a number of issues at once. Even the problems to which you thought there was no solution can quickly get resolved as if a magic wand had touched them.

In the meantime, Cagla and Can had decided in 2014 to revamp and modify her game. It was a decision made after years of remaining in the 100-to-200 area in the rankings. The fact that she had been unable to enter the top 100 (she turned pro in 2006 and outside of a brief period in 2011-12, she had been ranked top 200 since 2010), and had never qualified for the main draw of a Major in her career, was beginning to weigh heavy in her mind. This is why Cagla and her coach had made, back then, the decision to go ahead with major modifications to her game. She began to work extensively on adding new shots to her repertoire, as well as adjusting the existing ones to enhance the aggressive dimension of her game. For example, they focused on increasing the variety on the placement of first serves. They committed to making the drop shot and the swing-volley regular components of her game. They began to pay particular attention to punishing any short balls that came Cagla’s way, and firmly decided that if the opportunity presented itself, she would not think twice about approaching the net. They had worked on these and more for the last several months, and Cagla was successfully starting to integrate them into her “A” game in practice. In matches, however, she was still apprehensive about using them, and would often revert back to her comfort zone, which was to rally from behind the baseline, remain consistent, and count on winning on her opponents’ errors.

Land 1

Side note: I neither have the space nor the time to get into the details of this process, but suffice it to say that it is an extremely testing time when a player who has been fairly successful with a particular game plan for an extended period of time attempts to introduce riskier elements to her game that are outside of her “comfort zone.” Here is a quick summary of what awaits a player who had made such decision. In order to accomplish this progress, the player must first work on the new (or modified) shots in practice to settle the technical details. Then, she must do it repetitively to gain enough confidence to use them in points. If she succeeds in those first two steps, then will arrive the toughest part of the process: she must integrate these shots in to her game plan in competition, with the understanding that she may, for a while, not be successful with them and lose matches that she may have won with her “older” game plan. Most players engaged in this process will, after a few disappointing results, revert back to their comfort zone because they will not be able to handle the lack of success in the short-term.

Cagla, for her part, was determined to move forward: “The losses are burning me inside but there is no place or time for negativity” she emphasized in our next conversation a few days later after our previous one (see above). Her coach Can never wavered in his commitment to help Cagla get to the next level. He would relentlessly encourage Cagla, clearly let her know that he firmly believed that she was going to get over this tough period. He would reiterate his belief to me in my conversations with him and was adamant that, despite the surmounting losses, he could already notice the progress in her game. I then reminded Cagla that a world in which a competitor did not reap the benefits of her hard work did not exist, and joined Can in encouraging her to stick with their progress plan. The problem was that during this period Cagla was playing higher-level tournaments than she had previously done, and thus, was having to play better, more experienced players. While trying to settle into a new, riskier game plan, a process which tested her patience, she was also having to deal with the psychological damage of suffering frequent (or consecutive) losses. At the time, it seemed like an impossible situation. That was how the summer of 2015 went.

New Image 6

In the beginning of September, Can and Cagla were approaching another moment of crisis. Desired results had not materialized and their patience was wearing thin. I must point out that, to my amazement, Cagla had still not lost her belief and was continuing to search for solutions. Following yet another disappointing 1st-round exit in the qualifying of the U.S. Open, I feared a possible crack in her patience and optimism. She surprised me yet again. I could only listen to Cagla and admire her maturity and objectivity in assessing the reality of her situation. When I told her that she should not let the losses convince her that she had not improved, she calmly replied “I agree that I have improved my game. Yet, it does not mean a thing if my improvement does not translate into wins. That is what I want now. I hope, I must, begin to win more matches. I frankly despise the fact that my ranking has gone down at a time where I think I am playing the best tennis of my career. I don’t deserve these back-to-back losses. I need to be mentally stronger, because I feel better about my tennis, and show that in the turning points of matches. With a bit more confidence it will happen. The losses have taken their toll on me. I want to be a tough player again! Once I start winning more, I will feel better, I truly believe that!” After she finished that last sentence, I will never forget, I thought to myself that it takes a special kind of player and a special kind of character to be able to see the larger, the more optimist picture this clearly, in the middle of such a terrible downswing. My fears that she may begin to think that she is in the wrong path and revert back to her older game, or try something totally anew, were dissipated after that conversation. I also knew that Can completely believed in her ability to keep pursuing the goals that they set together. I had no doubt that his enthusiasm and optimism were contagious enough to pass on to Cagla.

New Image5

Therefore, it was not a total surprise when, one week after our conversation above, she began bearing the initial fruits of her labor in a $25,000-tournament in Batumi, Georgia. She won five matches in a row to claim the title, and went on to reach the semifinals in her next two tournaments (also $25K each). Cagla was, for the first time, beginning to consistently use the new shots that she had practiced for a year, and to apply her modified game plan to matches. This was proof that she had overcome the toughest part of the process.

She was not, however, overlooking the fact that these tournaments were below the level of those during which she had suffered multiple losses, earlier in the year. It was difficult to tell if, in Cagla’s head, the so-called “difficult period” was over or not. The doubt creeped back in when her results remained below expectations in October. Despite her deep disappointment, I detected an upbeat tone in her voice and in the content of what she said when we talked on October 23rd, after her loss to Robin Anderson in Florence, South Carolina: “My disappointment is different this time. I played the kind of tennis that I aimed for. The new me was out there, so to speak. That is why I am so disappointed that I lost. For example, when I played Leykina [a month earlier], I lost because I did not dare to use my new game, I did not use the shots that I added to my game. But in this match, I did, and they worked, and I still lost! What more can I do?” Yes, there was a hint of despair in that last question, but there was also the understanding that her improvements were legitimate. More importantly, they had become part of her game enough for Cagla to now contemplate on how she can build on them. I tried to remind her that she was not alone on the court, and that there was an opponent on the other side of the net who also exercised her influence on the final score. Anderson was an athletic and an intelligent player. This defeat did not need to deter Cagla away from pursuing her long-term goals. As long as she kept improving her game, better results were inevitable at this point. When I talked to Can later, he agreed and simply stated: “We decided long ago that there would be no U-turns on this road. We will continue to move forward!”

Land 2Pre-match talk.

Then came the $75,000 Dubai tournament in November, the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge, where everything seemed to fall into place. But this was not some magic wand arranging everything with a simple touch. That week was the product of a long period of hard work, the end of a tough several-month stretch marked by trials and tribulations. Cagla did utilize all the new shots in her arsenal, did remain committed to her revamped game plan in the important points, did keep her discipline regardless of the score. More importantly, with each point, set, and match won, what little doubt she still had slowly evaporated away. She concluded the best week of her career, winning the title. Now, she had concrete proof that her game had climbed a level or two above where she had started 2015. The year could not have had a better ending.

Let’s now fast forward to April 23rd, 2016…

Cagla was standing with the winner’s trophy at the center of the Koza World of Sports Arena, the center court of the WTA Istanbul Cup event. During her winner’s speech to the crowd, she did not refer to Can as her coach, but rather as the one “who stood by her during my worst times.” As someone who has witnessed their interactions and many of their coach-player dialogs, I can attest to the accuracy of that statement.

Yet, let’s give credit where credit is due…

Cagla has never been one to simply follow her coach’s instructions. She also evaluates his input, analyzes her own progress, accomplishes the difficult task of transferring the skills learned in practice to matches, and continuously makes the necessary tactical adjustments on her own during matches. This was her victory, her trophy. Anyone who knows Cagla closely can tell you that her work ethic, her sheer determination, and her on-court IQ have all contributed to her success more than her technique. Along with those, the added factor of confidence in 2016 propelled her to career-high ranking and that WTA title in her home country. It was a fairy-tale ending to a long, difficult journey.

There is a scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which Gene Kranz, the flight director at the mission control in Houston, played by Ed Harris, finds himself in the middle of a crisis. The mission has gone wrong and he is focused on getting Apollo 13 safely back to earth. The director of NASA, played by Joe Spano, is standing behind him with another man at his side. He turns to him and says “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.” Kranz hears this, turns around, and replies with conviction: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Kranz’s quote represents the closest metaphor that I can think of when I look back at Cagla’s 2015 campaign, because I am certain that the word “disaster” has passed through everyone’s head in Cagla’s camp at some point during the 2015 season. One day in the future, after her tennis career has ended, she will likely look back at that disastrous period of eight months in the 2015 season and come to the realization that it was indeed her finest hour.

I always believed that the most fruitful periods in a player’s career are not the ones where everything is going well, his or her game is clicking on all cylinders, and positive results are coming one after another. The superior players (and coaches) are those who can turn a crisis situation to their advantage. Cagla and Can have passed that test with flying colors, in a way that should be a lesson to all other players and coaches. Of course, there will always be other challenges to overcome. However, what Cagla has proven, without a doubt, is that when a player concentrates on improving his/her game and not use results as the essential determinant of his/her success, the desired numbers also begin to eventually show up on the scoreboard.

In my talk with Cagla, two days after her Istanbul Cup victory, she was still in the euphoria of victory. It was not just that either: with that victory she also achieved her long-time goals of earning a top-100 WTA ranking, entering the main draw of a Major (due to her new ranking, she was guaranteed a spot in the upcoming Wimbledon main draw), and carved her name in stone into the record books as she became the first Turkish woman in history to win a WTA singles title. “It’s like I am in a dream Mert, how did this happen?” she said. “This morning when I woke up, I began crying in joy again as I lived the week all over again in my mind. How long I waited for this! What a wonderful feeling. I never experienced anything like this in my life, this must be what people truly refer to when they say ‘moment of bliss.’” In my mind, knowingly or unknowingly, she was trying describing her individual sense of accomplishment. It didn’t matter anyway what she was describing. It was the happiness that she was radiating that made it all worthwhile to listen to her. She became a champion and earned the right to be happy, at least for those few days.

Update on Cagla since this article appeared in Tenis Dunyasi: she had to play qualifying at the French Open and it turned out, after all, that she did not have to wait until Wimbledon to play in the main draw of a Major. She won three qualifying rounds and a round in the main draw in Paris, before losing to the 24th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-3 4-6 6-1 in the second round. She also became the first Turkish tennis player to participate in the Olympic Games, losing to Ekaterina Makarova 3-6 6-0 7-6(6) in a terrific first-round match.


She is currently ranked 77 (one below her career-high 76 last week) and has a chance at being selected to play in the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio. She is right now in London, preparing for her first-round match at Wimbledon against the 30th-seeded Caroline Garcia.


WIm 3

Also —-> Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter for frequent, live updates from Wimbledon.

Wimbledon 2016 to Begin Monday !

The 2016 edition of Wimbledon is here.
Will Novak Djokovic win his fifth Major in a row?
Will anyone stop Serena Williams?
Will there be a new Major winner on either side?

All these questions and more will be answered in the next two weeks on the grass courts of the most prestigious tournament in history of tennis. As usual, stay tuned to Mertov’s Tennis Desk for insightful posts.

More importantly —-> Click here to follow MT-Desk on Twitter for frequent, live updates from the grounds.

Here are a few pictures to wet your appetite. No Centre Court, the Henman Hill, or the crowds. Just calmness and beauty reigning at Wimbledon, less than two days before the mayhem begins.

Spectators who arrive by tube will walk along Wimbledon Park Road to get to the grounds.Wimbledon Park Rd

Court 2, the biggest stadium court behind Centre and No. 1Ct 2

And a few outside courts…
Ct 17

Notice how green they are… for now!
Ct 17a