One-on-One with Steve Darcis (BEL)

(Photo: Getty Images – Julian Finney)

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

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

Darcis in the Istanbul Open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo: Getty Images – Julian Finney)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

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

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

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

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

Do you get the picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Julian Finney – Getty Images Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wimbledon 2017: Men’s Semifinal Previews

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

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

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

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

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

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

Photo: Shaun Botterill – Getty Images Europe

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

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

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

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

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

Photo: Julian Finney – Getty Images Europe

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

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

Have a great Friday afternoon!

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Wimbledon 2017, Match Preview: Magdalena Rybarikova vs Garbine Muguruza (14)

Among the four semifinalists in the Wimbledon women’s draw, there is one unseeded player and the other three are all seeded outside the top five. With Serena Williams out, Angelique Kerber still trying to find her top form, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova making their comebacks, it was no secret that the women’s draw in Wimbledon presented an opportunity for some players to advance into the second week, and possibly have a breakthrough. However, only a handful of people would have picked Magdalena Rybarikova, who has never reached the second week of a Major in her 12-year-long career, to be that player in the semifinals.

The 87th-ranked Slovakian did not have a very convenient draw either. Among her victims were the third-seeded Karolyna Pliskova in the second round, the athletic Croatian Petra Martic in the fourth, and the hard-hitting, 24th-seeded American Coco Vandeweghe in the quarters. It was anything but a cakewalk for a player who had spent the larger part of last year recovering from two surgeries, one on her knee and the other on her wrist. She started her comeback in February, having dropped to no. 453 in the WTA rankings. It is nothing less than impressive that she even amassed enough points in such a short time and made the main draw of Wimbledon, let alone advance to the semifinal round.

Photo: Shaun Botterill – Getty Images Europe

Rybarikova was able to do it, thanks to a crafty style of play, with plenty of variety that can at times leave her opponents bewildered. It is the type of game that can throw heavy-hitters like Pliskova and Vandeweghe out of their rhythm and frustrated. She can vary her ground strokes through a multitude of spins (such as high and loopy at times, flat drives at others, with the occasional low-bouncing slice mixed in) and give a different look to the returner through changes in placement and speed on her serves. For example, she has the ability to slice the serve and make it curve further once the ball hits the ground as well as any other players that utilizes that type of serve, such as Lucie Safarova.

Her opponent Garbine Muguruza is another heavy-hitting star. This is partially the reason for which a match that shows her as the clear favorite to win, at least on paper, could quickly turn into a nightmare for the 14th-seeded Spaniard if she does not take the necessary precautions. After all, Muguruza will hit the ball aggressively from the baseline but not more than Pliskova does, and will serve big, but not bigger than Vandeweghe does, and we saw how that all worked out for Karolyna and Coco when they faced Magda. Muguruza will also need to strike a lot of balls from the knee level or below, not exactly her preferred height for ball contact.

The good news for Garbine fans is that their favorite player is more athletic than any of Rybarikova’s previous opponents (except Martic) and she seems to have caught fire as the rounds progressed. She played a terrific match against Svetlana Kuznetsova, never allowing her to get set and gain any control of the rallies. She was even able to hit spectacular counter-punch shots from defensive positions in the court, even when she found herself chasing balls down. She can move side to side, and explode forward, a lot better than most of her colleagues. It means that against Rybarikova’s low-paced shots, she will likely have her chance to frequently get in position, in order to unleash her powerful baseline strokes.

Photo: Shaun Botterill – Getty Images Europe

The outcome of this match will for the most part depend on two things. First, in terms of on-court tactics, the way both players handle the first shots in the rallies – meaning the returns, first-serves and their percentages, accuracy of the second shot the 1-2 punch pattern – will largely determine the outcome of the points. Garbine’s success rate in these will prove central to her game plan. The last thing she wants is to allow Rybarikova to park herself in the middle area of the court, switch her “slice-dice-direct” mode in active mode, and make Muguruza guess the next shot instead of the other way round. Second, in terms of inner game, the way Rybarikova handles being in the semis of a Major for the first time in her career, against a player appreciated by the Wimbledon crowd, will make the difference in the first 20 minutes of the match. Luckily, it is not her first outing on Centre Court where she already defeated Pliskova and finished her match against Vandeweghe.

I do not consider Muguruza a heavy favorite in this match, as most people do. In fact, I believe Rybarikova, with a solid start in the first couple of games, has a legitimate chance to derail Garbine. I am intrigued!

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Wimbledon 2017: Men’s Quarterfinals Preview

Fascinating quartet of matches await tennis fans on Wednesday. All of them, maybe except one, have the potential to either finish in three straight sets, or go to the distance. Below are my thoughts on what to expect tomorrow during these encounters, with the first two matches taking place on Centre Court and the next two on Court 1, in the order below.

Andy Murray (1) vs. Sam Querrey (24)

Querrey is a dangerous player, very dangerous. Murray is an excellent scrambler. This match has the ingredients to contain three entertaining sets, maybe four. For anything else to happen, Querrey must have a big serving day against one of the best anticipators in the sport. It is not outside the realm of possibility but Murray can sometimes make his opponents feel like he is standing right at the spot to which they plan to serve, before they even toss the ball. Same can be said for his anticipation on the opponents’ approach shots.

Photo: Julian Finney – Getty Images Europe

This is simply a good match-up for Andy who has at the same time performed at the highest level for most of the tournament, although he has enjoyed a convenient draw compared to other favorites. It would, quite frankly, be a monumental upset, a disaster for the home crowd, and a nightmare for the organizers who would obviously prefer Andy to play on the final day, if Sam were to somehow win and advance to the semis. Querrey will play the spoiler role, but I don’t believe he will ultimately satisfy the role’s requirements.

Roger Federer (3) vs. Milos Raonic (6)

As you may recall, if you read my last entry in Mertov’s Tennis Desk, I expected Federer and Nadal to reach the finals on July 16th. Nadal is out, but I am still expecting Federer to do so. I also do not believe Milos has at this point reached his form of last year before he faced Roger. More importantly, today’s Federer is not last year’s version, when he was full of doubts and nursing an injury.

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

Raonic returned better in their last year’s match (see the fourth set’s last two return games and the tiebreaker) than I have ever seen him until and since then. He also had the luxury of winning the first set last year, which is also a must for his chances tomorrow.

The strategies these two players will employ against one another do not require a rocket science degree. Federer will exploit Raonic’s backhand and keep him chasing balls rather than attacking. Raonic will look to serve a lot of aces, and hit his forehands big to earn direct winners or set up the winning volley. First-serve percentage will be a major determinant of the scoreboard. We are likely to see at least one tiebreaker, if not more, if these two men happen to have a good serving day by their standards. It was a very close match last year, yet, I expect not only a different outcome this year, but also a more one-sided affair.

Having said that, I am a fan of Milos and I have always believed he would be the first to break through the success that the Big 4 enjoy at the top of the ATP. Stan Wawrinka has done it before him and injuries have repeatedly hindered his progress. He has been healthy for a while now and that alone keeps the possibility of another long thriller like the one from 2016 alive.

Marin Cilic (7) vs Gilles Müller (16)

This is the one exception that I have mentioned in the introduction. I can see Müller or Cilic winning in three or four sets, but I do not believe this match will see a final set, especially if Cilic is the first to get to two sets. A fifth-set affair could spell disaster for Müller who has already played two “hyper-extended” matches against Lukas Rosol (9-7 in the fifth) and Rafael Nadal (15-13 in the fifth). He is in good shape, but not that good.

Müller faces another problem against Cilic that he did not against Nadal. Marin will not park by the line judges behind the courts to wait for his lefty serves. He is an aggressive returner by nature and likes to hit them when the ball is on the rise. At the cost of getting aced a few times, he will stand close to the baseline and force Müller to volley first from around the service line in case the lefty from Luxembourg were to utilize his serve-and-volley pattern. This is why a high first-serve percentage is essential for Müller. He must be able to collect some free points. He served in the low sixty-percent range against Rosol and Nadal, and won over 80% of those points. However, when he had to resort to a second serve, his winning-point percentage drastically fell, below 50% in both matches.

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

The Croate is also unlikely to rally from far behind the baseline, à la Nadal. This means that if Müller has to play the retriever role while Cilic directs the rally’s traffic from the top of the baseline, the lefty can kiss that point goodbye.

I do not want to underestimate Müller though, simply because, at the age of 34, he is having a career year. He garnered his first two ATP titles this year, the most recent one on the grass courts of s’Hertogenbosch. Interestingly, his only loss on grass this season has come against Cilic who, for his part, is also having a solid season. The first two sets should determine the outcome of this match. I am intrigued by this match and plan to watch it.

Novak Djokovic (2) vs. Tomas Berdych (11)

Djokovic finally joined the others today, after his match was postponed from yesterday due to a “series of unfortunate events.” Although he recorded his eighth win in a row on grass, I have yet to see the form he needs to win Wimbledon. The good news, for now, is that he may not need to be at his best to defeat Tomas Berdych who is notorious for beating players he is supposed to beat, appearing to catch fire in the first weeks of Majors, and then fading away when facing an elite player, right when everyone is beginning to wonder if his breakthrough moment has arrived. On the other hand, Wimbledon is the only Major where he had some resemblance of a breakthrough, in 2010, by upsetting Federer and reaching the final. How much of what happened seven years ago is relevant today? I will leave the answer to the readers.

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

Berdych is a heavy hitter. He hits the ball so heavy sometimes that the sound of his racket smacking the ball will produce a “boom” sound in your living room if you are watching it on TV, or in the stadium. The problem for Tomas is that he is playing against Novak who, at his best, eats high-velocity flat shots for breakfast. So the big question for this match remains, will Novak be at his best? If yes, this is a routine script with a few impressive baseline rallies and a bad ending for Tomas. If, however, Novak cannot produce a high level of play, we can see anything from a long thriller like the one he played against Denis Istomin in Melbourne or, if he goes further and begins to battle himself along with his opponent, to the debacle against Dominic Thiem in Paris.

If you have the possibility to watch both courts and have the ability to change back and forth between the courts, good for you. If you like focusing on one match from beginning to the end, like I do, you will have to make some tough choices tomorrow. In either case, you are in for treat. Enjoy!

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Who can stop Roger and Rafa?

Let me first begin, for better or worse, by giving my one-word answer: Nobody! I believe that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will march on to the finals, not only because they have been the two best players in 2017 by a large margin, but also because they have not shown any signs of considerable drop in their form. It is particularly remarkable that one can take two months off from competition right when he was on top of his form – a risky move even for Roger’s standards – and reach that level again so quickly, while the other adjusts from the clay-courts of Roland Garros, without having played a single match on grass, to the courts at Wimbledon, and still produce his top-quality tennis (not that he has not done the Paris-London victory combination before, twice as a matter of fact).

Can any player challenge them? Sure, but can they actually beat one or the other? Highly unlikely…

First, on Rafa’s path to the final…

It seems that Rafa has picked up where he had left off at Roland Garros. He has yet to lose a set in the 10 matches that he played in Paris and London combined, and there is a legitimate possibility that it may well be the final day of Wimbledon before we see that happening.

Nadal steamrolled through his first three rounds, with the only glitch coming in the third set vs. Karen Khachanov, in the late stages of which the Spanish champion, uncharacteristically, sprayed a few errors on forehands. Many believed the young Russian would push Nadal, even push him beyond three sets. I did not.

While Khachanov has the pedigree of a player that can quickly rise in the rankings in the years to come – powerful serve, decent technique, the ability to unleash during rallies – he still lacks the on-court decision-making that top players possess. A good example of this, among others, took place in his match vs. Victor Troicki in the Istanbul Open where he kept running around his backhand to accelerate with his forehand (although his ability to flatten out the backhand is currently superior to the backhand one, especially on low balls) and leaving the deuce side vulnerable once he was unable to put the ball away. Troicki fed on that throughout the match, and Khachanov never adjusted. In a five-set encounter against a high-IQ champion like Rafa, you can bet that you will need to change and adjust your tactics at some point during the match whether you are leading or trailing. This is not a skill that Khachanov, or any other promising young talent, cannot develop. However, it takes time and the 34th-ranked Russian still has room for improvement in this area, before posing a threat to top players in Majors.

Photo: David Ramos – Getty Images Europe

Rafa faces Gilles Muller next. The 34-year-old veteran from Luxembourg has enough experience, thus he will not be intimidated by any legend on the other side of the net. Furthermore, he has a win over Rafa, at Wimbledon, on his résumé. Yet, that was a dozen years ago and Nadal of today is far better than the one from 2005. I am sure the matchup worries some Nadal fans, for decent reasons. Muller can win a large number of points on his lefty serve, as well as hit a variety of them; flat, sliding slice, kick, curve into the body, you name it, Muller can serve it. Rafa has had trouble with these types of players in the past. Having said that, I do not see how Muller can break Rafa’s serve, especially considering that the Spaniard has increased its velocity to it since coming to London (see the last few break points that he saved against Khachanov). I would guess that Muller will need to get to a tiebreaker or two in order to have any chances to cause an upset.

Like Muller, there are a few other solid players on Nadal’s half. I am simply not convinced if they can defeat him. There are a couple of baseliners, Roberto Bautista-Agut and Marin Cilic, one of whom will face Nadal in the quarterfinals. It has been said that Cilic could have a chance to defeat Rafa, assuming he gets there. Cilic has indeed had a good year and his big game can overwhelm any player when his first serve and forehand are clicking on all cylinders, à-la-2014 US Open. He will nevertheless need to pull one of the best winner-to-error ratios in his career to outlast Rafa from the baseline, as well as a bit of help from him, the kind that Khachanov received (but could not capitalize on) in their third set.

One issue that Rafa has not completely fine-tuned yet is the depth on his groundstrokes. Even in Paris and in his first three rounds here, his shots landed inside the service line at times. I would call this the only apparent difference between the 2008-12 version of Rafa and the one today. On the clay courts of Paris, or against his opponents here so far, this did not present a major problem. Even when they moved in and unleashed on their shots, Rafa’s ability to scramble and get one or two balls back forced them to make errors on their second or third tries. Against the elite players, or the ones that do not think twice when it comes to relentlessly approaching the net on grass, this could present a problem for Rafa. They will either have enough skills to put the ball away when they get their one chance, or immediately approach and challenge Nadal to come up with passing shots from difficult positions. Federer’s two victories over him in Indian Wells and Miami are prime examples of strategies that included this component.

However, this is not the bread-and-butter plan of Andy Murray, Rafa’s potential semifinal opponent. Andy is likely to construct points, look for his opportunity to accelerate down-the-line, and hope to win some free points on his first serve. Coming to the net will not be an essential part of his plan A. Yes, the crowd will be behind him, but alas, depending on “build-up points” from the baseline is a painful way to try to beat Nadal.

Photo: Clive Brunskill – Getty Images Europe

Few more things to keep in mind for Rafa:

– One of his main weapons, the run-around forehand, will be a bit more limited on grass than on other surfaces due to the low bounce. This will not permit Rafa to hit as many forehands from the chest-to-shoulder height, the spot at which he prefers to hit his aggressive forehands.

– Rafa likes to take risks, pound first serves and groundstrokes harder, when he faces break points or trails in a tiebreaker. His first-serve percentage (with the increased velocity), especially on break points against him, will play a major role in holding serve.

– The weather is working in Rafa’s favor. There are only two days on that show rain, less than 50% on each day, for the rest of the tournament. Dryer courts keep the balls bouncing higher, although still nothing like on clay, as Dustin Brown who said grass at Wimbledon is slower than clay in Paris would have you believe, a claim since then refuted (to avoid saying mocked) by a number of other players. They have pretty much unanimously pointed to the dryness of the courts with regard to the speed and admitted that this causes the courts to be slower than usual (again, only by Wimbledon and grass-court standards).

Second, on Roger’s path to the final…

Roger has a more rocky road to the final than Rafa and I would have contemplated for a while about his chances of reaching the final in London, had it not been for what I saw in his victory run in Halle followed by the first two rounds** at Wimbledon. I had believed taking two months off competition while he was at the top of his form had been an extremely risky decision. However, his game improved throughout the five matches he played in Halle, and by now, he seems to have fine-tuned his game just in time to enter the nitty-gritty of the second week.

**I say first two rounds because this had been my thought even before he played Mischa Zverev earlier today and I wrote so, yesterday, in an article published in Tenis Dunyasi magazine website.

He will face Grigor Dimitrov on Monday. I am a fan of Dimitrov’s game and I like his chances to eventually join the elites of men’s tennis at the top of the rankings, but this is just a bad matchup for Dimitrov, very bad. When two players essentially play the same style, possess similar strengths and weaknesses, develop points using similar strategies, and one of them happens to be a tiny bit better than the other, the scoreboard will usually reflect that difference with fairly large margins. Dimitrov will have to wait at least one more Major for his potential breakthrough.

Quarterfinal round is where the plot thickens for Roger. Both Alexander Zverev and Milos Raonic have the game to defeat Federer on a given day and they have both done it before. They are two of the very few candidates with a legitimate shot at dismantling the stranglehold the Big 4, plus Stan Wawrinka, have on the Majors. Milos is a step ahead of Sascha in that he has not only gone further than the German in Majors, but Wimbledon also happens to be the Major in which he reached the final round, having defeated none other than Roger in the semis after a five-set thriller.

Photo: Shaun Botterill – Getty Images Europe

The wounds of that semifinal must undoubtedly be fresh in Federer’s mind. This is the reason for which it is imperative that Raonic somehow “steals” the first set from Roger and makes the Swiss doubt himself again. But this is a different Federer than last year’s version. In 2016, Federer arrived to Wimbledon nursing an injury and questioning his chances of even getting to the finals. He had also been stopped by Novak Djokovic four times in two years, with the most brutal loss coming in the 2016 Australian Open (remember the first two sets?).

This year, Federer made a comeback to the top like no other man probably will for a foreseeable future, at the age of 35. He is full of confidence, injury-free, refreshed, and playing well. I expect him to get to the net a lot against Raonic (not as much if he faces Zverev) and challenge the Canadian’s passing shot skills, as well as backhand returns.

Djokovic will most likely be his opponent in the semis. Among the Big 4, Novak has had the least rocky path until now, and the case remains the same in the next round. If he were to lose to Adrian Mannarino, who has played 25 sets in two weeks, almost half of them in the 105-degrees-Fahrenheit-plus courts of Antalya, it would probably go down as a bigger upset than the loss he suffered against Sam Querrey last year. Then, in the quarters, he will face either Dominic Thiem or Tomas Berdych. That should be the first true test of his game at Wimbledon. Let’s move on and assume Novak makes it past that stage, since our topic is Roger’s path to the final.

Photo: Sahun Botterill – Getty Images Europe

I do not believe Djokovic poses as big a threat to Roger as he did during the 2014-16 period, not only because he is still a few steps away from that level of play, but also because Roger has improved in a couple of areas since then, such as returns and backhand-to-backhand cross-court rallies. The fact that Roger has not beaten him in a Major since in five years will work as a psychological factor in Novak’s favor, but that needs to be coupled with the type of confidence that the Serb can build only if his level of play skyrockets in the next two rounds. I am not talking about the type that you build by beating the likes of Adam Pavlasek, Ernests Gulbis and Mannarino either. Having a convenient draw can work in your favor, but can also work against you. Novak’s case is the latter here.

Few more things to keep in mind for Roger:

– He is slowly but surely fine-tuning his returns. They were worrisome in the first two rounds, but better against Mischa (see his first break early in the match). Nevertheless, there is more room for improvement. He will need his drive and spin returns against Rafa, and his slice and bunt returns against everyone else, to be at their best.

– The larger issue against Mischa was Roger’s success with passing shots. This is where stats can be deceiving. Passing shots missed, or returns missed against serve-and-volley players, count as forced errors, regardless of how easily makeable they may actually be. Thus, you see the number 9 (for the whole match) next to the unforced errors and 36 next to forced error categories in Roger’s stat box. He missed some passing shots yesterday that he should be able to make nine out of ten times in his sleep. There was a particular one in the first set where he literally had time to get set and unleash on either side, with Zverev standing at the net like a traffic officer with no other job but to direct cars to pass on either side of him. This will not be a big issue in the upcoming rounds, unless Roger faces Raonic in the quarters. Milos has one of the highest rates of success at the net and has integrated net play a while ago into his preferred game plan. His serve-and-volley success rate is also among the highest in the tournament, along with Federer and Muller. If Roger does not pass well, Milos may just find a way to get to the tiebreaker and steal a set or two from Roger (see above).

– Speaking of serve-and-volley success… Roger’s high-percentage rate in that category, 83%, must be an encouraging sign to his coaching team. This is central to Roger’s game plan because, during his service games, it keeps the element of surprise weighing heavily on the shoulders of his opponents. Furthermore, Roger’s body language gains a whole new level of positivity when he is cruising on his serve-and-volley points.

– Winning long points has remained a question mark at Wimbledon. In his first two rounds, he only played nine points that lasted above nine shots, and Roger won only three of those. These are not high-enough numbers to draw a sound conclusion, but once Roger possibly faces the likes of Sascha, Novak, and Rafa in the finals, it will be one of the most determining factors in the outcome. Don’t take my word for it. Revisit the Australian Open final.

– See my last note above, in the Rafa portion, with regard to the weather. This should also work in Novak’s favor were the two to meet in the semifinal round.

If I turn out right, we will watch yet another Roger vs. Rafa final on July 16th. If you are an avid fan of either of these two champions, take a few “chill pills,” relax and enjoy. If you are neither, and love tennis, grab your favorite cold or hot beverage, and enjoy the highest quality of men’s tennis possible our lovely sport has to offer.

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Tactical Analysis: Ana Konjuh def. Irina Begu, 2nd Round Wimbledon 2017

It is an old cliché in tennis to speak of the importance of first-serve percentage, yet every once in a while, there will come along a match where players will depend on it so much that not only can you not avoid discussing it, but you feel compelled to use that particular match to rehash its importance. Such was the match pitting the 29th-ranked Croatian Ana Konjuh against the 64th-ranked Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu.

Let’s begin by numbers alone. Begu won 80% of her first-serve points, but only 29% of her second-serve ones. For Konjuh, the discrepancy between the two numbers was not that large. She won 66% of her points when she put her first serves in versus 53% when she had to settle for a second serve. However, when you look beyond the sheer numbers, it is not hard to see that Konjuh needed first serves just as badly as her opponent did. In fact, I will go a step further and say that, in a match where she served only 58% first serves and gifted 8 double faults to her opponent, the timing of her first serves played a central role in the outcome of the match.

For starters, this match did not feature any long rallies, not that anyone expected it. Konjuh hits the ball hard, very hard. Her baseline shots are rarely intended for merely extending the rally. She will occasionally produce a drop shot to surprise her opponent or sparingly attempt an off-speed slice if extended on her backhand side. Otherwise, her game is driven by power, with her backhand being flatter than her forehand. If you have weathered the storm of a few shots by Konjuh in a rally, there is a good chance that the next ball will either be a winner or an error, with the ball traveling at warp speed 9 in either case. Begu, for her part, is craftier. She can vary her spin, change pace, or generate power if necessary. Both players’ have solid first serves that can produce aces or at least set them up for the second shot.

From the first few minutes, the strategies of both players became fairly clear. Konjuh would seek to mostly go for winners and overwhelm Begu with her power. Knowing that, Begu would look to take charge as early as possible in the point (read that “on the serve or return”) and keep Konjuh in the unfamiliar position of chasing balls and defending. Begu has big backswings, especially on the forehand, so if Konjuh managed to unleash a few shots in a row in, she would eventually pressure Begu into an error.

Begu put herself in a position to take the first set, more than once. In the always-crucial seventh game, Konjuh had to first save two break points (the second one at 30-40 with an exquisite backhand drop shot). At deuce, we witnessed one of the rare long points of the set. At one point in the rally, Konjuh approached and had Begu fully stretched to her forehand. Irina came up with one of the best defensive and high lobs of the day, pushing Konjuh back behind the baseline to reset the rally, and eventually win the point on a forced backhand error by her. In the ensuing break point, Begu produced a mid-pace, floating slice out of nowhere, throwing Konjuh off, and earning a forehand error from the Croatian, one that bounced off the tape and went wide. I know this went down in the stats as an unforced error, but I bet that earning an error from her opponent by feeding her the type of pace and spin that she had not yet seen so far in the match, was precisely what Begu had in mind when she sliced that backhand. Chalk one up for the high-IQ decision by Irina, even if the stats will just remember it as an unforced error by Ana.

Irina Begu — Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe

Begu eventually served for the set at 5-4. Unfortunately for her, she played her poorest serving game of the set. She began the game with two forehand unforced errors and followed them up with a double fault to find herself down 0-40. Two points later, Konjuh equalized at 5-5. Begu once again had an opportunity to take a commanding lead. She went up 0-40 on Konjuh’s serve game, and should have completed the break in four points had it not been for the unexpected forehand error on a shot that she would probably make 8 out 10 times. Subsequently, Konjuh tallied 5 points in a row to force the set into a tiebreaker, in which she took the early lead and never looked back (7-3).

Thus, the first set ended 7-6 in favor of Konjuh, and Begu was probably left feeling that she should have pocketed it 15 minutes earlier. In fact, I would argue that winning the first set, after playing “survival” during most of it, ultimately played the most important role in Konjuh’s three-set victory. The next two sets were more clear-cut in that each player outperformed the other once and split the last two sets.

Now, would be good time to get back to what I underlined in the beginning of my analysis. At that 5-5 game, in which Konjuh went down 0-40, only to come back and hold, she missed her first serve in the first four points of the game. That is when she went down 0-40, and only won the fourth point thanks to the above-mentioned unexpected unforced error from Begu. However, after 15-40, Konjuh made all her first serves. Those four points finished in an ace, a service winner, a forehand winner set up by a big first serve, and a forced return error by Begu. Those four first serves came at a point in the match where she desperately needed them. The same can be said for the 3-5 game, in which Konjuh got 4 out of 5 first serves in and held easier than in any other serving game in the set.

When the match resumed in the second set, Begu broke Konjuh’s serve on the fifth game. Konjuh started that game, when Konjuh started it with a double fault and lost the other two points in which she had to resort to second serve. This is also when Ana’s forehand began to falter. Other than the double fault, she also committed two unforced forehand errors. She would add two more forehand unforced errors in the next game, one more in the 8th game, and throw in a double fault to end the set.

There was going to be a final set.

It was clear that if Konjuh was to defeat her opponent, she needed to cut down the number of double faults and unforced errors, especially on her forehand, and be able to count on her first serves when it mattered.

Ana Konjuh — Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe

Whatever momentum the Croatian garnered when she hit a stunning sharp-cross-court forehand winner to break her opponent’s serve in the opening game of the final set, was negated when Begu produced her best return game of the match in the second game. Two games later at 2-2, things got further complicated for Konjuh when her forehand faltered again when she was leading 15-30 on Begu’s serve. Later in that game, Begu served two clutch aces, both wide on the deuce side, at 30-30 and deuce, that helped her propel to a 3-2 lead in.

Nobody could have guessed it at that moment, but that would be the last game that Begu would win for the rest of the match.

At 3-3 and 30-15 up, she threw in an untimely double fault (one of her two in the set). She would miss her first serve three more times in a row. On one of those, at deuce, Konjuh unleashed a big return on a second serve that forced Begu to miss her backhand. One point later, Konjuh was up 4-3 serving. In that game, she would win 4 out of the 5 points that she started with her first serve, two being aces, helping her to build a 5-3 lead. Konjuh would break Begu one more time to end the match 7-6 2-6 6-3.

In the last 4 games, Konjuh only made two unforced errors and one double fault, consistent with her match-long trend of cutting down on her unforced errors – 19 in the first set, 14 in the second, and 10 in the third. There were three keys to the final set, which I have mentioned above, and Konjuh managed to get them done. She cut down on her double faults (only one in the final set), she cut down her overall number of unforced errors (particularly in the last four games), and she put her first serves in when she needed them.

In the next round, Ana Konjuh will seek to reach the 4th round of a Major for the first time in her career by taking on the 8th seed Dominika Cibulkova.

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A Unique Culture: the Queue at Wimbledon

Note: This is the expanded (and in English) version of my post-2016-Wimbledon article published in Tenis Dunyasi magazine, one year ago.

It is common knowledge that Wimbledon values traditions and hangs on to them. After all, players are still required to wear white outfits and it was not until 1986 that they changed from white tennis balls to yellow ones, many years after the rest of the tennis arena did.

Then, there is the Queue. A singular experience at Wimbledon, a tradition that has existed for over a century. The name is self-explanatory; you get in the queue and you buy tickets. It is nevertheless unique in that Wimbledon is the only Major that still continues the practice of making tickets available for the public to purchase, on the day of competition. The more you dig down to the details of how the Queue’s mechanisms work, the more fascinating it becomes. It is not just any queue. It is a camp site. It is a social club. It is an over-night (or over-more-than-one-night) stay. It is a thrill. It is a place of joy, if you get the ticket of your choice, or of pain, if you do not. Yes, you read it right; getting in the Queue and waiting for days do not always guarantee you entry.

Here is how it works: there are 500 tickets put aside for Centre Court and Court 1. If you don’t get one of these, you have to settle for a Grounds Pass. Thus, camping out in the Queue for a day or two, before the day of your choice, pays off if you adamantly want a Centre Court or a Court 1 ticket. The Queue begins at a park adjacent to the Wimbledon grounds. You first get a “Queue Card” with a designated number. The card holders set up their tent and equipment to settle in the designated area. Depending on the number on their first card, they receive a second card (in exchange for the first one) 24 hours before the day for which they requested the ticket.

The number of the second card matters, a lot! If you want to guarantee having a Centre Court ticket, that number needs to be 500 or below. You may still get into the Centre Court if it is numbered below 500, but that depends on how many people before you request a Court no.1 ticket instead of a Centre Court one. For example if your card’s number is 650 and you want a Centre Court ticket, you need at least 150 people before you to choose Court no.1 (or other courts) over Centre Court, thus the importance of which (favorite) player is scheduled on what court. If your card is among the first 1000, you are guaranteed to enter either Centre COurt or Court no.1. You get it? If you do not, you can delve into the 26-page brochure that is distributed to the Queue’s denizens at their arrival.

After spending the night in your tent, you pick them up in the morning, leave them at the designed deposit area, and stewards (more on “stewards” little later) show you the way to the actual waiting line of the Queue. When your turn comes up, you get the entry wrist band and you enter Wimbledon grounds with your ticket. This is the moment of victory, of exhilaration, one where you reap the benefits of long hours of wait.

For all the reasons I mentioned above, and more, you can hear the most gripping tales from the people coming from all corners of the world in order to experience of the Queue culture. In fact, the four remarkable individuals with whom I talked come from different continents. Before I go into their stories, let me point out one thing; the Queue is dominated by Roger Federer fans! Before I ventured there, I was expecting plenty of Andy Murray fans, and some fans of other male and female players. Yet, outside of a few exceptions, an overwhelming majority donned Nike clothing with something about Roger on them, or a “RF” hat, or had some sort of Swiss paraphernalia.

Jen and Gloria

Jen from Brisbane, Australia, and Gloria, originally from Hong Kong (now calls Sydney her home), have also traveled to London with the intention of cheering for Federer. It is, in a way, thanks to Federer that they met two years earlier at the Brisbane ATP tournament, during a dinner organized by Tennis Australia with the Swiss in attendance, as well as Patrick Rafter and Rod Laver. During the auction part of the dinner, Gloria won the right to flip the coin on the court before Roger’s first match. Jen, for her part, got a photo op with him and the chance to watch one of his private practice sessions.

Jen and Gloria have been friends ever since that week: “You know, the thing is that Roger attracts different people from different backgrounds. We would have never met if it weren’t for our admiration of Roger” says Gloria.

Jen smiles and remembers more details: “Gloria and I were both at the dinner and seated at the same table. During the dinner, there was an auction. One of the auction items was a chance for four people to attend one of his practice sessions for an hour and a half at Brisbane International, and also for someone to do the coin toss for his first match. Gloria and another girl beat us for that auction [both laughing hard].”

“It was expensive!!” adds Gloria.

Jen agrees [more laughter]: “Yeah it went ridiculously expensive. There was another auction for a photo with him on that night. I was inspired by Gloria’s winning of the previous bid, so I bid on that one and won [laughs]. So, we became friends there with Gloria. We all attended the practice together.”

The planning for Wimbledon and the Queue began before they even departed: “I had to work all the way to Friday and I boarded the 9 PM flight on that evening. The draw came out when I was at the airport. We were texting, trying to organize when we would start the Queue. We were arguing [both laugh hard]. I was saying ‘you have got to give me some sleep, surely! 24 hours on a plane, you know?’ So finally, I arrived here around lunch time on Saturday.”

Gloria came to London before Jen: “I arrived one day earlier, on Friday, to get used to the environment. It’s my first time to come to Wimbledon and unlike Jen, I never lived in London. So I walked around to get familiar with everything. I went to see where the Queue started. On Saturday, I saw the first ones to get in the Queue around noon. It was amazing. I quickly texted Jen and said [using a scared tone] ‘Someone is already in the Queue!’”

Once both in London, their schedule – time of arrival to the park, when to enter the Queue, the type of ticket requested – revolved around the Swiss legend’s matches.

Jen continues: “When I arrived, we went out to Southfields for an early dinner, but we did not neglect to check the Queue before going. There were about 50 tents pitched, and we thought we would be okay. So, we decided to come back to our BnB. We organized with our friends that we would get up early and come back to the Queue about 4 AM early on Sunday morning. Then, we thought ‘Let’s cheat and get up earlier!’ [laughter]. So we had breakfast in the dark around 2 AM, and we arrived to the Queue at 3:30. We waited. At 8 AM, they opened up the gates and usher you in. There are two parks with a golf course in between. The actual Queue is where you come through the gate and through the field, where they put you in rows where you see all the other tents. So, we put down our tents.”

To be clear, Jen and Gloria are doing this early Sunday morning, for the right to gain entry to the grounds on Monday. I should also point out that Gloria bought her tent in London, but Jen brought hers from Australia and had to confirm it, with a giggle I might add, once she saw the shocked expression on my face: “Yes, they are the pop-up kind, really flimsy. A sleeping bag too, you name it.”

Around 3 PM in the afternoon, they receive their Queue cards and see that they are numbered within the first 500. First part mission is accomplished! The true moment of triumph will come they actually enter Wimbledon with their centre-court wristbands the next morning. Having received their Queue cards, they must for now await patiently in their tent from Sunday afternoon to Monday morning.

“Yes! In the tent, all day and all night” confirms Jen. “They wake you up about 5 AM so you can start disassembling the tents. Then, they have a left-luggage area that opens around 5:30. You leave all your camping gear there. They keep your tents, all packed up, until you come back. Once you do that, you get back in the same line where you had your tents.”

Gloria: “We wait on the pitch until about 7 AM. We form a line. Then, they start walking us out.

Jen: “They take us through the Golf Course, we pass through a garden pass. There are some sponsors as you walk along, some entertainment. At the end of that path, you go through security. Then they hand out the wrist bands for the court that you want. They open the gates at about 9:45 and we enter the food village area.”

When I ask if that is a similar feeling to a victory for them, they smile big and answer in unison “Yes!”

Yet, there is still more to this tale after they watch Roger win his first-round match: “We went straight back to the Queue for Wednesday tickets because that is when he would play his next round” says Jen.

“Yes, we want to make sure, we are in the first 500 for Wednesday!” adds Gloria.

Jen: “Roger finished late, around 9 PM on Monday. It was getting dark, we were starving, and it was raining! We were in the third row of tents. We received our Tuesday card on that evening. My number was 772 [which included people wanting to go in on Tuesday]. We put up the tents again. Essentially, when they wake everybody up on Tuesday morning, they tell you to drag your tent over to the side without dismantling it, if you choose not to move in the Queue with the Tuesday crowd.”

When the Tuesday crowd moved out and the cards for Wednesday’s entry were passed around to replace the Tuesday cards, Jen’s new card number was 80.

Gloria was in a similar situation. Mission accomplished, again! Thus continued the tale of Gloria and Jen, not without hardships, mind you? The weather was miserable for a few days and their tents leaked, so they had to buy new ones! The last time I talked to these two wonderful women, it had been 11 days since they began the daily Queue routine.

Edgard

Jen’s “neighbor” in the tent area was a young Brazilian named Edgard. Aspiring to be a lawyer, Edgard had traveled around the world and participated in charitable and humane causes. He had recently gone to Syria to better understand the Syrian refugee crisis. He also had an on-going dream; to see Federer play live. In order to truly understand what an emotional roller-coaster he went through, until Wimbledon and during his time in the Queue, to realize his dream, it is best to show you my question-and-answer session with him, unedited (and if you could have only been there and see him say it with his better-than-average English authenticated with a strong Brazilian/Portuguese accent, priceless!).

Edgard: “I was in Syria helping with the refuge crisis for weeks. After that, before I go back to Brazil, I wanted to give myself a gift. That gift was to realize my dream of watching Roger Federer play. I went directly to Madrid, he pulled out. I said ‘Come on Roger, I came here just to watch you, I don’t have anything to do in Madrid!’ Then I came to Roland Garros, just to watch Roger because I am not sure if he is coming to Olympics. I arrive to Paris, he pulls out! Again! And I was like… man… what about my gift? I was doing talks about the refuge crisis in universities. I was postponing my departure to Brazil to see if I could see Federer.

My last job ended on July 1st at a university in Portugal. So I thought ‘okay I am just two hours from here to London’ but I heard that it was impossible to watch a match at Wimbledon, especially Roger on Centre Court. This was my hugest dream ever, to watch Federer on Centre Court. Everybody in Brazil knows that I am a Federer fan, because I have a huge flag in Brazil, half Brazilian, half Swiss flag. So when I landed here, I came directly from Gatwick Airport to here. Because somebody told me ‘Go Edgard, go there, you can make it!’ I don’t have a place to stay, I didn’t book anything. I arrived here on Saturday morning and I started camping. They began to distribute the Queue card. My number was 503!! When they gave me that card, it killed all my expectations; I thought I couldn’t make it. I started to cry when I saw the number.

But people kept encouraging me saying ‘No Edgar, you can make it, just wait.’ I was sweating, waiting to see if I could make it. During those two days, there was a tournament on a mini court, and I played. People thought I had the same style as Federer, I am a huge fan of him, so they began calling me “Fedgard” and cheering me up, because I was number 503 and they could see that I was desperate. It was the worst two days of my life waiting to see if I could get in. They scheduled Federer and Murray on Centre Court for Monday and I told people that I am more nervous in this Queue than crossing the check points in Syria, seriously!

So, when the stewards began coming with the wrist bands, I asked her ‘am I in?’ She told me ‘I really don’t know.’ And I felt like a heart attack. I lost my mind. Why did I have 503?

Finally, it turned out that I made it by 10 people, I was the 490th person! 13 people chose something other than Centre Court. When the steward came again to me and gave me the good news, I just put one knee down and looked up, seriously. They even took a picture and put it on their Facebook. It’s a dream come true! It’s the biggest dream ever!!! They put me on Centre Court, and I was.. wow! When they showed me the seating to ask where I wanted to sit, they showed me two sections that were closest to the court and asked me to choose (sections 102 or 103). I looked and said ‘Wait, you are joking?’ She said ‘No, no, it’s correct, choose one.’ I said ‘Come on, it’s a mistake, wait!’ The lady said ‘No, no, but hurry, look the line is waiting.’ I was shocked! I got on my knees again. Yes! Again! It was unbelievable.. Unbelievable! I am going to watch Federer at Wimbledon? Seriously, really? I mean, Federer was 5 meters from me! Impossible! Everybody was cheering me up. It was amazing, amazing! After I received the wrist band, I really broke down, because I was exhausted, it was a huge dream. So I got to see him yesterday. I never thought I would get to watch Roger in Wimbledon, on Centre Court!”

Me: So you are going to see him again tomorrow, right? I see that you are in the Queue one more time.

“Yes, I am giving myself a second gift [laughs]. But let me tell you why I had the number 503 in the beginning. I was told to ask for the stewards’ help when I arrived to Wimbledon. You know, I have an accent when I speak English and I don’t speak very good, so when I arrived, I told someone who looked like he was working at Wimbledon for the steward. They understood it as the name “Stewart” and began asking each other who “Stewart” was. One of them used his walkie-talkie to radio others, asking who this “Stewart” was. Nobody could locate this “Stewart” of course. I didn’t realize what was happening because I don’t know the word “steward.” Finally, one of them said ‘do you mean steward? Like one of us’ and she said the last part of “steward” making a big “O” with her lips and not saying the “T.” She then showed her vest with the word “Steward” on it. So I understood where the communication went wrong. But I lost a good 10 minutes during that misunderstanding, waiting for them to find “Stewart.” That is why I got the number 503! Imagine if I didn’t get in because of that!”

Susie

So has the Queue experience always been like this? Or how was the process to enter the grounds before the Queue ever came around? For information on that, I turned to Susie, a self-described “London born and bred” woman who has “played and loved tennis” all her life. She is extremely friendly and does not mind sharing her memories at Wimbledon, and more importantly, she has some fascinating ones to share. She has been attending Wimbledon since 1972. Stan Smith’s 5-set victory over Ilie Nastase in the men’s final was the first match she had ever seen live.

“I was very, very young” she adds, laughing.

“Since then, I followed Connors for years, then Edberg, then Federer! In the 70s and 80s, we used to sleep on the street outside Gate 13. We had no tents. We had make-shift shelters, rain or shine. Remember, they used to have a standing-room only stands on the Centre Court in the front. So when they would open the gates, we would literally charge in [hands waving forward], because we wanted to get to that standing room in the front. I mean, people would lose their flip-flops and shoes. Then, they would pack you in, a bit like in some football stadiums. If you were at the front, you were kind of pressed against the barrier, but you know, I saw up close some of the great finals during those days. I saw Connors, McEnroe, Borg, doubles teams like Gottfried and Ramirez and all the great matches involving all those champions.

In the later years, obviously from a health and safety point of view, they got rid of the free standing and they structured the Queue, but the charm of those days was absolutely fantastic. Sometimes, after we got in, we would go to the old court 1. There was an alley where the court covers sat. In those days, security was not as hot and I used to sneak in with other schoolgirls. We could smile nicely to people and they would let us sit at the top of the stairs or spare seats. Now, of course, that charm is gone, and it’s more disciplined.”

I do not have much to add to what Jen, Gloria, Edgard, and Susie say, but I can comfortably say that one must see the Queue first-hand and talk to the people there to even begin to fathom what they experience. Even then, it would be impossible to truly understand the experience. I could literally sense the enthusiasm of the Queue denizens, and their excitement, when I talk to them. I used to believe that they were going through great pains just to get into Wimbledon. Now, I see it differently. It is a unique place where you meet people and make new memories about which you can talk to your family and friends when you get back home and to your children in the future. So my advice to people who are curious about the Queue and don’t mind a bit of adventure: do not hesitate to join the Queue culture, get your equipment, and begin planning your trip to your next Wimbledon.

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Roland Garros 2017 Women’s Final Preview

Simona Halep (3) vs Jelena Ostapenko

Stop the press! There will be a new Major title holder after tomorrow. It will either be the no. 4 player in the world Simona Halep who has chased a Major title for a while now and received a lot of (unfair) criticism for not having won one, or the no. 47 Jelena Ostapenko who was probably unknown to the large majority of casual tennis fans prior to this Roland Garros. One thing that even the most die-hard tennis followers would have never guessed two weeks ago is that these two players would face each other in the final in Paris. For my part, I cannot wait to see this exciting match that pits one of the hardest-hitting players in women’s tennis – one that produces an astonishing amount of winners (245 so far in 6 matches) – against one of the fastest and most consistent ones. The two players’ strengths provide a compelling contrast in style, one that usually results in entertaining, high-quality encounters.

Ostapenko already faced some remarkable baseliners and came out on top each time. Her last two victories came against Caroline Wozniacki and Timea Bacsinszky who both have excellent clay-court skills and play essentially from the baseline, although somewhat different in the type of shots that they produce. Wozniacki banks on her footwork, consistency, and depth. She accelerates the pace only when strategically needed (ask Svetlana Kuznetsova about that). Bacsinzky has a lot more variety on her ground-strokes and prefers to step in the court to hit aggresively at times, and control the rallies. Ostapenko topped both of them in two high-quality three-setters. She will have to beat another baseliner, at least just as solid as those two, in order to lift her first trophy in professional women’s tennis – she has yet to record a WTA title in her young career. Halep’s game stands somewhere between Wozniacki’s and Bacsinzky’s in that, while her A-game is based on her solid groundstrokes and footwork, she varies the speed and the angle of her shots more than the Caroline, yet uses less variety of spins and specialty shots than Timea. Halep also has a first-rate down-the-line backhand that she uses abundantly.

Photo: Jimmie48Photography

The big challenge for Simona centers on her ability to anticipate Ostapenko’s shots early, in order to make the Latvian hit that extra ball or two that may result in errors. However, what Ostapenko does to her opponents can negate that. She begins to nail so many winners that her opponent feels pressured into hitting a few of their own rather than guiding the extra deep shot back. Then, they gradually get sucked into the type of high-velocity game that favors Ostapenko. It happened to Wozniacki and Bacsinszky more than once during their respective matches. If an individual knew neither the history of these two players nor their past performances, and just watched them throughout this tournament without knowing their identity, I believe he or she would pick Ostapenko to defeat Halep. That is how impressive Ostapenko has played.

Yet, there is always the other side of the coin, the side that heavily favors Halep. She is an evolved player, mentally and physically, whose next step into the world of elite cannot be, at this point, anything other than adding a Major title to the list of her accomplishments. She said in her press conference today that this final feels much different (read that as “more serene”) than the 2014 final in which she felt an air of chaos around her with “50 friends and family” around her. It was her first time in the final of a Major. This year, she is just surrounded by her team and you get the sense, from listening to her talk about it, that she feels more tuned in. You can only imagine that coming back from 3-6 1-5 down against Elina Svitolina must have been only increased her desire to win the title.

For Ostapenko, this is all new territory, and it is a big deal! Even the President of Latvia called her to congratulate her on reaching the finals. Everything will be different tomorrow for her, from the moment she steps into the grounds, to warming up for her match, to walking out to the court. Yes, Ostapenko is fearless. Yes, she can whack the ball for a winner, even under pressure. However, the realization of playing on the Philippe Chatrier court with your first Major title on the line carries an inescapable weight, and any player claiming not to get overwhelmed by that, not even a bit, is simply lying or in denial. Do not be surprised if Ostapenko has a shaky start to the match.

Photo: Jimmie48Photography

Unforced errors for Halep, and return efficiency for Ostapenko will be the key stats to look for during the early games. Halep probably understands that she will see several winners go by her. She also knows that she can limit the damage to only spectacular winners by Jelena, by landing a large percentage of first serves in, and trusting her footwork to get back as many shots back in play as possible. Halep should look to add spice to her second serve at the cost of making a few more double faults, because there is nothing that her opponent enjoys, and builds confidence upon, more than hitting return winners. I believe Halep will win her first Major title on Saturday. As for Ostapenko, it will be the first giant step for toward winning her first in the future. I am looking for a straight-set victory, with a close finish at the end. Simona has wonderful strategists in her team, and possesses the high-IQ needed to implement the game plan that they concoct together.

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Thursday at Roland Garros: Preview of Timea Bacsinszky (30) vs. Jelena Ostapenko

The reason why you don’t see a number in parenthesis next to Ostapenko’s name in the above title is because she is the only unseeded player left in the draw since the quarterfinals. The 47th-ranked player in the world has been the biggest revelation of this year’s Roland Garros, defeating the Olympic champion Monica Puig in straight sets, the 23rd-seed Samantha Stosur in three sets in the round of 16, and Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals, also in three sets. The Latvian is also the last teenager to reach the semifinal in Paris since 2007, although her teenage years will come to an end tomorrow as she will face Timea Bacsinszky who will also be celebrating her birthday – what are the odds, right?

Jelena Ostapenko – Photo: Jimmie48Photography

Ostapenko is a powerful hitter, very powerful. She wins most of her points with direct winners, striking the ball at warp speed. She does it from the very beginning of the point, with either a high-velocity first serve or a speedy return that overwhelms the server. This is a big reason why she leads the tournament in break-points-won category with 31. Her opponent Bacsinszky is close behind her with 29. It is highly unlikely that Ostapenko will play any differently against Bacsinszky than she does against others. She does one thing, and she does that very well. This is not to say that she has not developed any other shots. For example, she can once in a while stick in a wicked drop shot, or a sharp angle. But at this point in her development, she rarely uses specialty shots, rather choosing to produce powerful shots during the large majority of rallies.

Timea Bacsinszky, on the other hand, as I wrote in my preview of her previous match, can vary the effects on the ball as well as any other player. Unlike other players that Ostapenko has faced, she is highly unlikely to give Ostapenko the same look over an extended rally (and against Ostapenko a six-shot rally may be considered an extended one). Look for the Swiss to mix in slices, high and loopy spin balls, as well as occasional accelerations to keep her opponent off rythm during rallies. Timea also has great footwork and anticipation which means the young Latvian will likely be forced into hitting a shot or two more to put the ball away than she has had to do so against her previous opponents.

Timea Bacsinszky – Photo: Jimmie48photography

Finally, there is the experience factor. Bacsinszky has been to the quarterfinal stage three times now, and this is her second semifinals in the last three years. She also has four WTA titles in her career. Ostapenko, in contrast, has done neither. I believe Bacsinszky will seize the opportunity and reach her first Major final on her birthday. I look for a fairly contested straight-set victory or a three-set victory with a strong finish by Timea, in which the unforced error count for Jelena grows quicker as the match progresses.

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