All posts by nikhillahiri

Youngsters Triumph in Montreal and Cincinnati, but Veteran Nadal Returns to No. 1

Though the 2017 tennis season has been dominated by older veterans, the aging bodies of the Big Four kept them away from the championship trophies in the two biggest lead-up tournaments to the US Open: the Canada Masters in Montreal and Cincinnati Masters in southern Ohio. Young players pounced on these opportunities, claiming major victories for themselves in these two pivotal tournaments.

When the draw was finalized in Montreal, it was already filled with holes. Novak Djokovic, then the defending champion, called off the rest of his season after Wimbledon due to elbow injury. Then-World Number One Andy Murray also withdrew, due to his own hip injury. Additionally, Stan Wawrinka, who recently reached the finals of the French Open, was also absent from the tournament, as he too ended his season early due to a knee injury.

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With Andy Murray (pictured) sidelined due to injury, Rafael Nadal was able to take the World Number 1 ranking relatively uncontested.
Thus, the clear favorites for the title were the two players who have dominated the past decade of tennis, but especially the past year: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. In addition to seeking another title at the Canada Masters, Nadal also had the opportunity to regain the world’s top ranking if he reached the semifinals of the tournament. However, the tournament’s top seed suffered an early exit in the third round at the hands of hometown wildcard Denis Shapovalov, who went on to make his own fairy-tale run to the semifinals.

Nadal’s departure left Federer as the sole favorite for the title, as the Swiss maestro has played superb tennis all season. Federer fought his way to the championship match, where he faced off against German youngster Alexander Zverev. Zverev, who is amidst a breakthrough year, handily defeated the heavily favored Swiss champion in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4, to win his second Masters 1000 title of the year.

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Alexander Zverev (pictured) came away as the victor in the Montreal Masters.
Though Nadal did not reclaim the top ranking in Canada, he was ensured the world’s highest spot before play even began in Cincinnati due to the continued absence of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, as well as the withdrawal of Federer from the tournament due to back injury. A number of others joined the older champions in pulling out of Cincinnati, including Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. This left Nadal as the sole member of the Big Four and as the favorite to win the tournament. However, the Spanish champion could not capitalize on the absence of his peers; it was again younger players who would seize the day.

Nadal fell to swaggering Australian powerhouse Nick Kyrgios in the quarterfinals in the second match of a doubleheader. Both Nadal and Kyrgios were forced to play two matches in a single day, as their third-round matches were rained out and then moved to the following day. In his third round match against the towering Croat Ivo Karlovic, Kyrgios fell behind early, but came back in the second and third set to play lights-out tennis. He replicated this play in his night match against Nadal, defeating the top seed in straight sets, 6-2, 7-5. In the semifinals, Kyrgios edged out another Spanish veteran in David Ferrer, 7-6, 7-6, to face Grigor Dimitrov in the final, who also won his semifinal match 7-6, 7-6, against hometown favorite John Isner. In the final, Dimitrov, long considered an up-and-comer who has never quite reached his full potential, defeated Kyrgios 6-3, 7-5 to claim the title.

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Nick Kyrgios (left) defeated Rafael Nadal (right) in the Cincinnati Open, but eventually fell to Grigor Dimitrov in the finals.
Though Nadal fell short in both of these significant tournaments and failed to pounce on some rare opportunities, he did return to World Number One status through his efforts over the past two weeks. This is a special milestone for Nadal, who last held the world’s top ranking over three years ago in June 2014, as his injury struggles throughout 2015 and 2016 left him doubting whether he would ever return to his old form.

Wimbledon 2017 – Gentleman’s Singles Preview

On Monday, the tennis tour will return to its sacred ground: The Championships, Wimbledon. To culminate the month-long grass-court season, tennis greats and unknowns alike will attempt to forever etch their name in tennis history by claiming the sport’s most coveted title.

Wimbledon’s pristine grass lawns have set the tournament apart from other tournaments, even other Majors, for decades now. The low bounces and quick play contrast sharply with the high bounces and long rallies of clay-court tennis played just a month ago. With only three weeks to make the transition, players must rapidly shift their playing styles, making the tournament a fascinating fortnight of tennis.

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With the qualifying tournament complete and the first round underway, let’s breakdown the draw for a closer look at the next two weeks.

Gentlemen’s Singles Draw Preview

At the top of the draw sits defending champion, top-seed, and World Number One Andy Murray. Murray has achieved his best results on the grass, winning two titles on his home-turf in 2013 and 2016 respectively. Murray accumulated a streak of success towards the end of last year, winning Wimbledon, Olympic Gold, and the ATP World Tour Finals to finish as year-end Number One. However, Murray hasn’t been able to replicate the same level of success this year, losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open and in the semifinals of the French Open. In his Wimbledon tune-up, Murray, the clear favorite to win the 500-level tournament, fell in his first match to a Lucky Loser. Murray’s quarter of the draw includes some dangerous players. Nick Kyrgios, the big-serving, swaggering 22-year-old who took out Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014, could have met Murray in the third round, but he removed himself from the tournament due to a nagging injury after going down two sets in the first round. Fifth-seeded Stan Wawrinka, who reached the finals of the French Open last month, was eliminated in the first round, clearing a path to the semifinals for Murray. My pick to meet Murray in the quarters is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the big-serving and hard-hitting Frenchman. Despite Murray’s recent struggles, his mastery of the grass makes him the obvious pick to reach the semifinals from his quarter.

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The importance of tradition at Wimbledon has set it apart as a unique tournament. Wimbledon differs from many other tournaments through its seeding system. While most tournaments seed players based only on their ATP or WTA ranking, Wimbledon factors in success on grass in its seeding formula. As a result, world number two Rafael Nadal is seeded fourth. Nadal has looked incredible during the first half of the year, reaching many finals during the year’s first quarter and dominating the clay-court season. Dangerous players in Nadal’s section include big server Gilles Mueller and Lukas Rosol, who defeated Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon in 2012. However, I’d bet on Nadal’s recent excellent play to propel him to the quarterfinals. At the bottom of Nadal’s quarter, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic are likely to meet in the fourth round in a rematch of the 2014 US Open final. Cilic, with a hard and flat game, is the clear favorite in that match-up. A Nadal-Cilic quarterfinal will prove interesting. Despite Nadal’s recent dominance, he has struggled mightily at Wimbledon since his last run to the final in 2011. Nadal’s topspin-heavy game and injury prone body has prevented him from winning a third Wimbledon title. Cilic has made a few deep runs at grass-court warm-up tournaments, while Nadal has rested his body since a highly successful clay-court season. The addition of Carlos Moya to Nadal’s coaching team should help him transition from clay to grass. This match-up is a tossup, but I lean towards Cilic. In a Murray-Cilic semifinal, the hometown favorite Murray has the crowd, the surface, and experience all behind him.

My pick for the top half’s finalist: Andy Murray.

Onto the bottom half. Novak Djokovic, the world number four, is seeded second despite his struggles over the past six months. Djokovic claimed a title in Eastbourne on grass-courts this week, which should inject the Serb with some much-needed confidence. A potential matchup with Juan-Martin del Potro in the third round could prove interesting, but I see no legitimate threat to Djokovic’s quarterfinal chances. There, he could face Dominic Thiem, the young Austrian who defeated Djokovic in quarterfinals of the French Open, or Tomas Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon finalist. Thiem’s struggles on grass point towards a Berdych-Djokovic quarterfinal, a matchup that shouldn’t trouble the second seed. Blessed with a relatively easy draw, I see Djokovic advancing to the semifinals in London.

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Roger Federer, 7-time Wimbledon champion and world number five, has been seeded third due to his unmatched grass-court record. Federer has looked utterly dominant this year, winning the Australian Open, the Indian Wells and Miami Masters, and a recent grass-court title in Halle, Germany. Federer skipped over the clay-court season, historically his worst stretch of the year, to prepare for this very moment. His quarter of the draw appears most interesting. Federer is likely to meet Grigor Dimitrov, nicknamed “Baby Fed” for his Roger-esque game, in the fourth round. Fed versus Baby Fed will be fun to watch, but the Swiss champion should have no problem advancing to the quarterfinals. Here, he could likely face eighth-seeded Milos Raonic or tenth-seeded Alexander “Sascha” Zverev–both interesting matchups. Raonic reached the finals last year and will be seeking to replicate last year’s success with his big serve and hard, flat groundstrokes. Zverev has rapidly ascended the tennis rankings over the past year and looks to be a future star. Though Raonic struggled in pre-Wimbledon grass court tournaments, I lean towards the big-serving Canadian to battle past Zverev and reach the quarterfinals. This would set up a rematch of last year’s Raonic-Federer semifinal, in which Raonic upset Federer. This year’s match should produce a different result, as Raonic will likely struggle to topple the dominant Federer.

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Should the bottom half play out as I predict, Federer and Djokovic should face off in the semifinals. This match could prove to be the jewel of the tournament, as the two faced off in successive Wimbledon finals in 2014 and 2015. Both of these championship matches are memorable, and the 2014 five-setter has become legendary in the world of tennis as one of the all-time great matches. I most look forward to this match-up, where a superb Federer will look to avenge his previous losses against a struggling yet determined Djokovic. I’m hoping for another five-set epic, but Federer is simply playing too well to beat. I pick Federer in five sets to advance to the final against Murray.A Federer-Murray championship match, a rematch of the 2012 final, should produce a similar result in 2017. Murray is a fighter, tougher than almost any player on tour. He will defensively battle back against whatever is thrown at him. But Federer has form, confidence, and seven Wimbledon Championships on his side. My guess? Federer in four sets to win a record eighth Wimbledon title (surpassing Pete Sampras) and a mind-boggling nineteenth Grand Slam title.

The Return of the Old Guard

The Old Guard has returned to the top of men’s tennis in 2017. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both counted out at the end of last year as old, battered players on the decline, have dominated the first half of the tennis season, blowing away their competition in nearly every tournament.

After a few warm-up tournaments in Asia and Oceania, the tennis season kicked into high-gear in mid-January when the sport’s biggest names arrived in Melbourne for the 2017 Australian Open. Andy Murray, the new World Number One, entered a Grand Slam tournament as the top seed for the first time in his career. He, along with second-seeded Novak Djokovic had dominated the sport for the year, battling for the tour’s biggest titles. Nadal and Federer, who had both struggled with injury for much of the 2016 season, entered the tournament as long shots. The two legends are accustomed to having a “1” or a “2” placed next to their names, but were pushed down in the rankings; Nadal entered the tournament as the ninth seed, while Federer entered as the seventeenth.

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Despite their respective rankings, the two veterans tore their way through the draw, eliminating the younger competition. Federer defeated the likes of Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, and Stan Wawrinka en route to the championship match. Nadal, meanwhile, battled past Gael Monfils, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov to reach the final. Many analysts lauded the final as the most anticipated match in decades; the two rivals had not faced off in a Major final since 2011, and given their age (Federer, 35, and Nadal, then 30), were likely to never square off in a Major final again. Nadal had history at his back. He had defeated Federer in the 2009 Australian Open final in an epic five-setter, and hadn’t yet lost to Federer in a Major outside of Wimbledon. The 2017 final was yet another epic, with the two legends battling back-and-forth for a return to glory. After being down two-sets-to-one, Nadal battled back, took the fourth set, and went up a break in the fifth. Despite the Spaniard’s best efforts, the determined Federer would not let the title slip from his grasp, and ran away with the fifth set 6-3.

Again atop the tennis world, Federer continued to dominate the first three months of the season. In the first Masters 1000 tournament of the year at Indian Wells, Federer defeated Nadal in straight sets en route to the title, defeating compatriot Stan Wawrinka in the final. At the Miami Masters, considered by some analysts to be the unofficial “fifth slam,” Federer and Nadal again squared off in the final, with Federer triumphant. The Swiss legend had taken each of the three biggest tournaments of the first quarter of the year, with Nadal running a close second to Federer’s dominance.

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In May, Federer announced that he would not participate in the spring clay-court swing, including three Masters 1000 tournaments and the French Open. Nadal, who relishes the red dirt, commenced his dominance of the second quarter of the season. He dropped just one set on his way to the title at the Monte-Carlo Masters, becoming the first man in the Open Era to win ten titles at a single tournament. Nadal again dominated the Barcelona Open, winning the tournament without dropping a set. The King of Clay notched a third straight title by winning the Madrid Masters and defeating rival Novak Djokovic on the way in straight sets. Though Nadal’s perfect clay season was interrupted by a loss at the Rome Masters, he entered the French Open as the clear favorite.

Nadal played perfect tennis nearly the entire tournament, dominating his opponent in every round. By defeating Stan Wawrinka in the final 6-2, 6-3, 6-1, Nadal claimed the French Open without losing a single set and dropping just 35 games over the course of the entire tournament. By winning at Roland Garros, Nadal became the first man to ever win a single Grand Slam tournament ten times.

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The resurgence of Federer and Nadal, along with the emergence of Swiss veteran Stan Wawrinka as a powerful force on the tour, marks a significant shift in the age barrier of the men’s game. From the Golden Age of the 1970s and 1980s to the whirlwind 1990s owned by the likes of Agassi and Sampras, tennis was always seen as a teenager’s sport. Most stars made a name for themselves in their late teens and had racked up most of their achievements by their early to mid-twenties. Age thirty was seen as the the towering barrier few could surmount in striving for tennis greatness, the unofficial retirement age of tennis players. Regardless, these past five years of tennis have seen the dominance of veteran players.

Most “young” and up-and-coming players are now in their mid-twenties, such as Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov (both 26). Each of the dominant players of day have now passed thirty; Federer is 35, Nadal 31, Djokovic and Murray both 30, and Wawrinka 32. Wawrinka’s rise has particularly mirrored the older shift in the men’s game. Wawrinka spent much of his career swimming through the top-30, occasionally breaking into the top-10. It wasn’t until age 28, when he notched his first Grand Slam title at the 2014 Australian Open, that his consistency peaked. Since then, Wawrinka has threatened the dominance of the Big Four by playing the best tennis of his life, post-30. He beat Djokovic to win the 2015 French Open at age 30 and again beat the Serb to win the 2016 US Open at age 31. At age 32, he reached the 2017 French Open final to solidify a showdown of veterans as he stood against the 31-year-old Nadal.

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Stan Wawrinka (pictured) has actually accumulated better results with age, and currently sits world number three.

Some have attributed the older shift of the game of tennis to the growing need for athleticism and strength in a game evolving towards greater power and spin. Additionally, the mental toughness possessed by veterans has become increasingly important in winning seven grueling best-of-five set matches. The evolution of tennis towards a 30-year-old’s sport has elongated the era of dominance of the Big Four, potentially a boon for a sport blessed with four superstars in Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. Though younger players such as Marin Cilic have been able to make smaller breakthroughs, no youngster has interrupted the dominance of the men’s game by stronger, tougher, older veterans.