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.

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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.

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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.

DI1

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.

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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.)

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…
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Notice how green they are… for now!
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Roland Garros: Either Packed or Soaked

Pictures tell a thousand words, as the saying goes. Plenty has been written on the miserable weather conditions at this year’s French Open and the players’ woes when they were told to play on barely playable (not to say “unplayable”) courts in wet conditions. Sadly, the agony of the tennis fans who come to Roland Garros often gets relatively little coverage. If you have read, in the past, my articles on the only clay-court Major of the year, you probably know that I am, by now, “maxed out” on how insufficient the facilities are for regular ticket holders. Thus, in this update, pictures do the talking, with minimal commentary from me. Here they are…

One of the two main sidewalks leading to the gates of Roland Garros at 8 AM (notice how narrow)..22a

Now here is the other sidewalk when matches have started. This is still a good distance from the gates. Thank the security checks and lack of space movement..22

This one is a bit closer than the above spot, increasingly chaotic, because the space gets narrow again a bit later where there is another security check. In the first week, it was so disorganized that it took up to an hour or more, just to get in the venue. 23

Under the Cochet stands of the Philippe Chatrier court during rain, one of the few spaces where people can escape it. 24

And here is the other side of Chatrier, under the Borotra stands, also during rain. 31

Here is the main alley between Chatrier and Lenglen. This one is taken early in the morning before the public gets there.. 28a

Now, the same view when the matches are on, packed even though it’s cloudy and gray (i.e. on a sunny day, twice-more packed, see my previous-years posts if curious). 28

And now the same view when it’s raining !! 29

Believe me, on Monday and Tuesday of the second week, it took 15 minutes in heavy rain, just to walk those sidewalks and eventually get to transportation. Remember this is AFTER you get out of the venue, leaving to go elsewhere! 30

In case it was not raining, it was gray and cold! Check out these Lenglen stadium spectators. Not exactly cozy, hein? 33

Back to the overcrowding, the lack of space, and the agonies of pedestrian circulation… Here is the narrow walkway between courts 14-16-18 and 15-17. Somewhere in there are Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis (WTA’d top doubles tandem) trying to get to their match court, I am NOT kidding! 25

This is one side of the alley behind Suzanne Lenglen.. 26

And this is the other side of that alley around the same time.. 27

The line to get into Court 17, many of these people are likely to miss a set, more or less, before they can get in. 32

And this is the line to get into Court 2 which has more stands than most other outside courts. At this moment, the match on the court was at 1-1 in the third. I carefully watched, and less than a quarter of these people waiting got in the stands in time to see any of the match. Most waited just so they could get in for the next match. (Side note: the guy on the left bottom corner, asking someone leaving the premises for his ticket to get into Chatrier, LOL) 34

Until the next update… Vive Roland Garros!

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French Open 4th Round: Murray def. Isner 7-6 6-4 6-3

In this piece, I will only analyze the first set of this match, more particularly, Andy Murray’s brilliant strategy on first serves, because the set (and consequently the match) was essentially decided on it. Andy Murray was never in real danger after winning the thrilling tiebreaker 11-9.

Details often distinguish great champions from other top players. Murray is an elite champion, John Isner is not. This is not to say that Isner is not a successful tennis player. His career speaks for itself. He has occasionally recorded wins against the elites and won numerous tournaments. But there is usually something that separates the likes of Murray, Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer from the likes of Isner, Tsonga, Ferrer, and Berdych. The elite champions find something where most other players are not able to, and use that something to their advantage in the way that others do not. In 2013, in the post-match press conference the quarterfinal match in which Tsonga squandered four match points and lost to Djokovic in 5 sets, he was asked why the French players never seemed to get over the hump against top players. Tsonga admitted that there was “something lacking” in them that did not in the elite players. What he said could easily be applied to what I noted above. In this particular encounter between Murray and Isner, the difference was the high-IQ strategy employed by Murray on first serves.

Until the tiebreaker, Isner never faced a break point and was closer to breaking his opponent’s serve than Murray was to breaking his. John had his first break point at 2-1 up. Before I get to that, let me bring up Murray’s strategy on his first serves. For the most part of the first set, he surprisingly served to Isner’s forehand, which is the American’s stronger side. Often able to hit an aggressive return on that side, Isner possesses the ability to put himself in a commanding position from the beginning of the point. One would think that his backhand return being weaker, most player would choose to hit the majority of their serves to that side.

Not Murray, not on that gloomy, drizzly, late Sunday afternoon.

It must have surprised Isner too because he was expecting, especially early in the set, more serves to his backhand, and thus, found himself off balance on some forehand ones. Unfortunately, I did not keep up with the numbers but I feel certain that Isner had to return Murray’s serve with his forehand more often than with his backhand. I do know however that Murray won more points off his first serves when serving wide to Isner’s forehand (meaning wide on the deuce side, to the “T” on the ad side) than to any other spot (body-forehand, body-center, body-backhand, wide backhand) in the service box.

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Remember that this chart does not include the number of points in which Isner got the return in play. I would assume that the total number of serves would reflect a pattern of serving by Murray that favors Isner’s forehand returns.

With that said, now let’s get back to Isner’s first break point at 2-1 up, ad-out on Murray’s serve…

Murray chose to hit the serve to Isner’s backhand side, with a slight curve into his body. Isner missed the return out. Murray went back to mostly serving to Isner’s forehand (not to say that none of his serves went to the backhand, but certainly not the majority). Then came the second break point opportunity for the big American at 3-2, 30-40. This is where Murray got a bit lucky, at least at first. Isner returned back, got into the rally and hit a forehand on the line that would have put him into an advantageous position to win the point, except that the line judge called it out. The chair umpire corrected the call and asked for the point to be replayed. Murray hit an ace and got out of that jam. Yes, Isner got unlucky, but guess where Murray served that ace? Yes, wide to the Isner’s backhand side. After he held, Murray continued his pattern of mostly serving to Isner’s forehand side, whether aiming close to the body, or wide to the forehand.

There were no more break points and the tiebreaker was going to decide the first-set winner, a tiebreaker in which Murray, unlike the rest of the set, would relentlessly test Isner’s backhand side on returns. At 2-0 up, Andy aimed once again Isner’s backhand side and hit an ace to the “T.” At 3-2 up, he hit another big, flat serve to the outside corner, taking advantage of Isner’s short backhand return to put the next ball away for a winner. At 4-2 up, another hard, winning serve to the “T” ensued. In other words, after serving mostly to Isner’s strong side throughout the set, Murray was determined to test his opponent’s weaker side on crunch time.

After getting aced twice by Isner, at 5-4 up, Murray chose to serve to Isner’s forehand this time, probably trying to avoid being predictable, and he paid the price. Isner got the return back and Andy eventually missed. At 5-5, he had to serve a second serve to which Isner replied with an aggressive return and the American held a set point on his serve at 6-5. This was the only point where one can truly say that the American should have won, holding the set on his racket. He couldn’t deliver the big ace, as he so often does, and Murray ended up passing Isner at the net to get back to 6-6.

Later at 6-7, down another set point but this time on his serve, Murray served into Isner’s body, but forcing him to hit a backhand. Isner missed the return and they were at 7-7. As one might expect by now, it was another hard first serve to Isner’s backhand. It resulted in another backhand return error by the big guy, and now Murray held a set point at 8-7. Isner held both of his service points and went up 9-8 earning his third set point. Andy attacked Isner’s backhand in the rally and forced him into an error. At 9-9, Andy served big to Isner’s backhand (yes… again!) and saw the American’s return go in the net. He won the next point on a baseline error by John and took the first set 7-6.

At the end of it all, Murray reversed his service pattern, almost completely, when it mattered the most. One may question the wisdom of playing to your opponent’s strength during most of the set, but there is no doubt that it was planned so by Murray and his team, to keep Isner off balance when it truly counted. It is possible to work your opponent’s weak side so much that, by the time crucial points come about, they have found a way to deal with it and gained confidence. Furthermore, they expect you to test their weaknesses.

Andy did the opposite. He served to Isner’s stronger side for almost the whole set. That did not allow John to favor one side or the other, or to begin expecting most serves to his weak side. But when faced with break points earlier in the set, and when the tiebreaker began to determine the outcome of the set, Murray systematically went back to his opponent’s weaker side that did not get worked much previously. It was the difference, that “little something,” in the set that ultimately tilted the balance in the Brit’s favor. Not giving Isner the luxury of making an educated guess throughout the set on which side he would have to return was also why Murray won 80,6% of his first-serve points (25/31).

As it turned out, that first set went a long way to decide the winner of the match. Now, Murray is in the quarterfinals, preparing for an encounter with the local favorite, and the in-form, Richard Gasquet, while Isner will not be back to Roland Garros until next year. Murray had a terrific plan on his first serves, one that he executed to perfection. I am sure it was only a segment of his larger game plan to defeat the 17th-ranked American, and there is no denying that he did come close to losing the set. Ultimately, however, those are the intangibles that somehow seem to work in the favor of the elite players, and on Suzanne Lenglen court yesterday, that one particular intangible lifted the second-ranked player in the world to the next round of a Major.

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Tactical Analysis: Kuznetsova def. Pavlyuchenkova 6-1 6-4, French Open 3rd Round

This was a tough match-up for the 27th-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova from the moment she walked on the court 3, Roland Garros, to face the 15th-ranked and 2009 French Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova. The two Russians had previously played five times, all on hard courts. Pavlyuchenkova had only won once, and the four wins by her opponent were all comfortable, straight-set wins, except the match in Canada in 2010 (7-5 4-6 6-1). To make matters worse for Pavlyuchenkova, they were this time playing in Kuznetsova’s favorite Major, on her favorite surface.

Pavlyuchenkova is, for the most part, a hard, flat hitter. She seldom uses a backhand slice, and occasionally hit effective drops shots. She usually tends to put pressure on her opponents by taking the ball on the rise, stepping inside the baseline, and using her powerful forehand to either hit winners, or force her opponent into errors. Unfortunately for her, it all plays into Kuznetsova’s game plan. Sveta has a wide arsenal of shots at her disposal and thrives on scrambling in the back of the court, and getting as many balls back as possible. She can, when the opportunity arises, counterpunch and turn the rally in her favor. She can also hit flat or high topspin on both sides and change the pace efficiently with her backhand slice to take the pace off the ball. With a flick of her wrist she can hit angles at the most unexpected moments, or accelerate the ball and approach the net on whim. She has sound technique on her volleys and serve. I could comfortably say that her game is well-crafted to succeed on clay courts. Sveta usually performs well against (mostly) one-dimensional players, taking them out of their rhythm by giving them several different looks during rallies. Last but not the least, Kuznetsova is one of the smartest players on the WTA tour.

All of the above, as one would expect, worked in Kuznetsova’s favor as she put on a display of high-quality tennis that left the spectators in awe, at least until her lead at 6-1 3-1. If anyone wanted to make a case about why it is important for promising juniors to develop all facets of their game early in their tennis career, this would be the emblematic match to show them.

Pavlyuchenkova did not particularly play badly during that stretch. She stuck to her guns, applying pressure whenever she could, and hitting returns early (photo below) to take charge from the beginning of the point in her return games, which is what she does best.

Pavs

The problem was that Kuznetsova would not allow her to settle into that routine. Not only would she get those balls back, but she would dazzle the crowd, with how many weapons she possesses in her game. She finished the first game on an ace, the second game on a “sneak-in” swing volley winner when Pavlyuchenkova did not expect it, and the third game on a passing shot on the run, when Pavlyuchekova decided to attack because, up to that point, nothing else worked.

One particular point in the late stages of the first set summarized what was happening (see the sequence below). In that point, Kuznetsova remained on defense during the first part of the rally, starting with the return, then retrieving a couple of balls from deep behind the baseline. On one shot later in the rally, she found enough time to run around her backhand to hit a high, aggressive, inside-out forehand to pull Pavlyuchenkova wide on the ad side. Pavlyuchenkova, who found herself on defense for the first time in the rally (not part of her plan A), returned the ball a bit short on the court. It was the first short ball that Kuznetsova got in the rally, and unlike her opponent, it was all that she needed to put the ball away with a hard forehand to the open deuce corner.

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Sveta would later say to me that she was playing “smart tennis” at that point. “I knew what I had to do and I completed it well.”

Then she let her guard down. She squandered a 30-0 lead in the 3-1 game, and a 40-0 lead in the next one. Pavlycuhenkova, with renewed confidence, played a great seventh game and took the lead 4-3 for the first time in the set. Unexpectedly losing those two consecutive games with 30-0 and 40-0 leads did not help Sveta who registered a string of errors for the first time in the match. Kuznetsova admitted later that she “got tense and started to do weird things.” She said the ease with which she got the 6-1 3-1 lead played a role in her let-down: “Really? I’m winning that good? And I just get a little bit nervous, I don’t know, I just got a little bit confused and I started playing short points, and it’s not really what I had to do against Anastasia, and then I started to get back to what I was doing [at 3-4 down]. But it was tricky you know, I had to make my plan to get back in the match, and it was a more difficult task to win then, instead of winning when I was 3-1 [up].” She added that she needed to “shut it down” in her memory when she was down 3-4 and say to herself “Look, you got to start over.” She finished her point saying “I’m better on clay and I have to focus on that.” She did just that, winning the next three games and the set 6-4.

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Pavlyuchenkova did have success when she attacked the net (8/10), but the problem is that she did not get to do that much as Kuznetsova kept her guessing and out of balance. One stat jumps out: as aggressive as Pavlyuchenkova plays, going often for winners, Sveta ended up hitting a dozen more winners than her (27 to 15). That is because when Sveta gets a chance to finish the point, she has already worked her opponent and set up the opening for a high-probability winner (remember the sequence above). It is an essential part of her game, to cleverly construct the point. However, not many players can do that unless they possess a variety of shot making skills. That is what sets Kuznetsova apart from most players. It is also the reason for which Sveta remains a daunting opponent on clay, especially at the French Open where she had the most of her success in Majors.

Her next opponent is the fourth seed Garbine Muguruza who also happens to base her game on powerful ground strokes. I cannot wait to see what Kuznetsova will have in store for that match.

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May 20, 2016, Court 8, Roland Garros, Paris: History Made

When I woke up Friday morning at the apartment that I rented with my daughter on the 16th arrondissement of Paris, it was drizzling outside and the sky looked gray. Yet, I was full of optimism for what had the potential to be a historic day for tennis in my native country of Turkey. With a population of almost 80 million, Turkey had yet to produce a female player that played in the main draw of a Major in the Open era, and Marsel Ilhan was the only one to do so among the men. Equally, never before had Turkey been represented by three players in the last round of singles’ qualifying in the same Major. Thus, Cagla Buyukakcay (WTA 85), Ipek Soylu (WTA 175), and Ilhan (ATP 198) did already make history by winning their matches on Thursday. Yet, that would be peanuts compared to the buzz that they would generate were they to win their matches and advance to the main draw.

That is what was on the line on that Friday, May 20, 2016: the rewriting of Turkish tennis history. All three players were scheduled to play on the same court, Court 8, a sensible decision by the organizers. In fact, those were the only matches scheduled on that court, meaning it could become one of the famous courts in a nation’s tennis history.

I arrived to the grounds around 9 AM, an hour before the first match, talked a bit to Cagla and her coach Can Uner, wished them good luck, then headed to Court 8 to wait for her match. She was scheduled first, followed by Ipek, and Marsel. Being the top player in Turkey for a couple of years some 25 or so years ago, I feel that I am qualified to say the following: if you told me back then that one day, I would stand on the grounds of Roland Garros on the last day of qualifying, waiting for a Turkish player’s match to begin, while watching another Turkish player (Ipek) warm-up on Court 6 for her match later, and seeing a third Turkish player (Marsel) walk by me with his coach, on his way to practice on another court, I would have told you that you had simply lost your mind.
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Yet, that is precisely what happened. I realized that while still remaining far behind where it should be, the interest in tennis has indeed increased dramatically over the last decade in Turkey, thanks to some giant steps recently taken by the few top Turkish players.

Buyukakcay is definitely one of those. She won a WTA event last month (Istanbul Cup). Thanks to her successful results of late, she is ranked in the WTA’s top 100 for the first time in her career, and has become the only Turkish female player to ever do so in singles. As she entered Court 8 to face Klara Koukalova of Czech Republic, she knew very well the stakes at hand. She had a chance to overcome another hurdle, reaching the main draw of a Major, that has nagged her for years, and to become the first Turkish female player to do so. I made my way next to her coach and sat next to him. Cagla looked determined from the moment she entered the court. She got off the gates playing some top-quality tennis, and never looked back until 6-1 5-1 in the second set.
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As most tennis players know, finishing a match is not an easy thing to do, especially when so much is riding on one match (I should add that Cagla is also chasing the possibility of representing her country in the Olympic games in Rio). Not having anything to lose at that point in the match, Koukalova played freely and showed her high shot making skills. Buyukakcay got a bit tight and found her lead erode to 5-3 with Koukalova serving. But that was as far as the Czech player got. Cagla broke her serve on a double fault and immediately pumped her fist toward us in joy. Tears came flowing down her eyes before she even reached the net to shake her opponent’s hand.
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She approached us at once and gave heartfelt hugs to everyone and spent time with the Turkish fans (including a few people from the Turkish Consulate) who supported her. The celebration went on for so long that by the time Ipek Soylu came on the court with her opponent Kateryna Kozlova, Cagla still had not left the court. It was nonetheless 1-for-1 for Turkish tennis.

Soylu is twenty-year-old up-and-coming, talented player who has seen her ranking rapidly rise in the last couple of years. Just like Cagla did before her, Ipek began her match at a very high level and continued to do so until she had a 6-3 5-2 lead. She executed her plan A – which features aggressive returns and ground strokes – to perfection, complementing it with effective serving.
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She also needed one more game to finish the match, which, once again, is one of the harder things to do in matches at the Majors, mostly because there is more on the line in Majors than in any other individual tennis event. Kozlova played one solid game, letting her opponent know that she was not folding. Then, Soylu played three games filled with unforced errors before finding herself down 6-5 30-0, two points away from a third set. She showed her competitive spirit as she forced Kozlova into a backhand error, then played three terrific points in a row to carry the set into a tiebreaker. That helped her regain confidence and find her earlier form. She played an excellent tiebreaker and closed out the match winning the last 5 points in a row, 6-3 7-6(2). She brought her hand to her mouth in disbelief, looked at her corner where her coach and mother sat, and let her tears flow.
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Less than a minute later, a second celebration was underway on the same corner of Court 8 as the earlier one with Buyukakcay. A nation that has not seen one single female player reach the main draw in the Open era, now had two of them accomplish that goal in one day, on the same court. Could Marsel Ilhan also win and triple the joy of Turkish tennis fans? Barely had Ipek left the court that he arrived for his match against Guido Andreozzi, a clay-court specialist from Argentina.

Ilhan did not begin his match as well as the Turkish women did, losing the first set 6-3. He modified his game plan a bit in the beginning of the second set, broke early, and turned the match around by winning the set 6-2. He went up 4-1 in the third, only to see his lead evaporate because Andreozzi proved to be too pesky an opponent to let Ilhan roll over him for two sets in a row. He got the break back, and the match went into “overtime” because there are no tiebreaks in the deciding set at the French Open.
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Ilhan was clutch in the last two games, winning the match point on a skillful approach shot followed by a winning backhand volley which left Andreozzi meters away from the ball. The scoreboard read 3-6 6-2 8-6 in his favor. He lifted both hands to the packed stands of Court 8, and saluted his corner.

There was also something else that took place during most of Ilhan’s match that went unnoticed by most people present (not that it was they could have known). Buyukakcay arrived in the second set with his coach to support Ilhan (see pic below), and Soylu joined the support from the other side of the court around the mid-point of the third set.
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This was another amazing moment for someone like me who would have never guessed, not-so-long-ago, that such a scene could ever take place; a Turkish player battling to get into the main draw of a Major, being supported by two other Turkish players who have already guaranteed their spot in it. Are you kidding me?

Nope, this was no joke. The Turkish players went 3-for-3, which meant that the date and location of this accomplishment – May 20, 2016, Court 8, Roland Garros, Paris – were guaranteed to be etched in stone forever, in all future historiography about Turkish tennis.
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Spectators slowly left, but I stayed behind to take a few last pictures of this “soon-to-be-legendary” court to capture the last moments of the day. The maintenance crew came quickly and began watering the court to get it ready for more play the next day. Just like Buyukakcay, Soylu, and Ilhan needed some downtime to digest their success after the incredible day that Turkish tennis fans experienced thanks to them, the court on which they accomplished it also needed some recuperation.
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It was time to leave, but I was satisfied. What started out as a dreary day with gray skies turned into golden one in more ways than I could have imagined. I watched hours of terrific tennis, my favorite sport, and witnessed history being made in that very sport of my native nation. Thank you Cagla, thank you Ipek, thank you Marsel!

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