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Tebbutt: Who’s ready for RG?

May 15, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt
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The 2018 clay-court season has gone by quickly and we’re down to the last major event before Roland Garros – this week’s Italian Open also known as the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

On the men’s side in Rome, despite his quarter-final loss last week in Madrid, Rafael Nadal has been, and remains, the dominant figure. But things are not so obvious in the women’s game.

Of the nine WTA Premier series events played in 2018, eight different players have emerged victorious with only Petra Kvitova – Doha and Madrid – managing to win more than once.

Her title on Sunday at the Madrid Open was her third in the Spanish capital but that event (at 667 meters altitude) is not viewed as the best indicator of what might happen on the more earth-bound terre battue in the 16th arrondissement in Paris.

Kvitova has won four titles this year and will be on an 11-match winning streak on clay when she enters the French Open after victories the past two weeks in Prague and Madrid.

@Petra_Kvitova

The powerful Czech is 21-9 at Roland Garros and made the semi-finals in 2012 and the fourth round in 2011 and 2015. But she’s just one of a host of players who have to be considered in with a decent shot at winning. That includes previous winners Garbine Muguruza (2016) and Maria Sharapova (2012 and 2014) and even defending champion Jelena Ostapenko. The 20-year-old Latvian is only 1-2 at two clay-court events in 2018 but has an inborn feistiness that suggests she might be able to reignite last year’s magic.

No doubt the sentimental favourite will be 2017 runner-up Simona Halep. The current World No. 1 lost last year’s final to Ostapenko after leading 6-4, 3-0 and three break points for 4-0, as well as this year’s Australian Open final when she was beaten 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-4 after being at 4-all in the third set with Caroline Wozniacki.

Wozniacki has only two quarter-finals to show for 10 appearances at the French Open but her maiden Grand Slam title at Melbourne Park in January has given the 27-year-old Dane a newly-found stature.

The list of challengers includes big-hitting Karolina Pliskova, a semi-finalist in Madrid and winner of the first big clay-court event of the new season in Stuttgart last month.

There are also Kiki Bertens, champion on clay in Charleston and runner-up to Kvitova in Madrid, current world No. 4 and Rome defending champion Elina Svitolina, Americans Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Coco Vandeweghe as well as Caroline Garcia, Elise Mertens and maybe even two-time Slam winner Angelique Kerber.

Serena Williams – champion in 2002, 2013 and 2015 – might play Roland Garros. But it’s hard to imagine the 36-year-old, currently ranked No. 454, rekindling her best form – over seven matches – after all she has been through in the past year, as well as with zero prep matches on clay.

There was a sense that Victoria Azarenka, now ranked No. 84 but showing improving form, might have been a possibility but then she was beaten 6-0, 6-3 by the heavy-hitting Naomi Osaka in Monday’s first round in Rome. Could the 20-year-old Japanese be a threat and surprise everyone as she did with her breakthrough triumph in Indian Wells in March.

Precedent has been established for a shocker result – just 12 months ago Ostapenko, ranked No. 47, came from nowhere to hoist the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

On the subject of ‘Coupes,’ a year ago the French Federation gave a replica of the Coupe des Mousquetaires to Uncle Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s longtime coach.

Uncle Toni’s protégé had just won his remarkable 10th Roland Garros title and remains the favourite for No. 11 come Sunday June 10th. His 7-5, 6-3 loss to Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals in Madrid last week is more hiccup than harbinger. Last year Thiem beat Nadal in the Rome quarter-finals before the muscular Majorcan got 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 revenge in the semi-finals in Paris.

“Well, three weeks ago I beat him 6-0, 6-3 (actually 6-0, 6-2),” Nadal said right after his loss in Madrid referring to his win over the Austrian in the Monte Carlo quarter-finals. “I think it’s just been a match that he was better than me, same as a few weeks ago I was better than him.

“This week, of course, he has been the toughest opponent. There is no discussion about that. This is the reality. If he beats me three times in a row, maybe we can say he reads my game and can beat me. Today he was better than me, and that’s all.”

It could be a strategic loss for Nadal to take some of the pressure off – following his record 50 sets in row winning streak on clay – heading into the French Open. The weight of expectation can get to even the greatest – as happened in 2011 when Novak Djokovic entered Roland Garros 41-0 on the season only to be upset by Roger Federer in the semi-finals. That was his single loss to Nadal (6-0) or Federer (4-1) that whole year.

In his day, Ivan Lendl, champion in 1984, 1986 and 1987, always seemed to have a loss in the lead-up tournament before Roland Garros that served to fire him up and remove any inclination toward complacency.

Nadal’s defeat in Madrid, and especially the way it allowed eventual winner Sascha Zverev and runner-up Thiem to showcase their red-clay pedigree, has livened up things up going into Roland Garros. Coronations of King Rafa are fine – but not if everyone else is just along for a ceremonial ride.

Denis, Milos and Genie

Denis Shapovalov was a revelation on the clay last week in Madrid – reaching the semi-finals with notable wins over No. 22-ranked Kyle Edmund and No. 24 Milos Raonic.

He scored his first ever ATP clay-court match victory against Tennys Sandgren in the opening round then looked more and more comfortable on the surface.

“It’s been a tremendous week,” he summed up after losing in the semi-final 6-4, 6-1 to eventual winner Sascha Zverev. “Getting my first win on the ATP Tour on clay here, making semifinals of such a big tournament, I could never imagine to do so.
“I’m very happy. It’s been a huge, huge confidence booster for me.”

He did admit he was disappointed in his level of concentration during the loss to Zverev, suggesting it could have been the long wait to get on court after a drawn-out women’s final or maybe the cumulative effect of a long week.

Photo credit: Mauricio Paiz

Milos Raonic had his best win of the year in the second round in Madrid when he toughed out a 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 victory over Grigor Dimitrov. He didn’t have his best day against Shapovalov in his next match but his 19-year-old compatriot was a whirling dervish of phenomenal shot-making that afternoon. Also, Raonic may not have been at his best physically because he subsequently pulled out of this week’s event in Rome with a recurring right knee (meniscus) issue that dates back to November.

Following the 6-4, 6-4 loss to Shapovalov, Raonic was on the receiving end of some outlandish barbs from a (Toronto) Globe and Mail columnist. The writer began his hyperbolic piece with this paragraph: “Though only 27 years old, Milos Raonic has reached the Rolling-Stones-at-60 stage of his tennis career. Health issues often interrupt Raonic’s touring. He can’t figure out who belongs in his back-up band. The old hits don’t land quite as hard any more.”

The fatuous, facile cheap shots continued as he went on to add about Raonic, “He can still only cover as much court as the (considerable) width of his arms, while the sport is moving toward smaller, quicker men.”

Firstly, let’s not forget that, the day before his loss to Shapovalov, he defeated the No. 4 player in the world Dimitrov – no small feat. Second, if “the sport is moving toward smaller, quicker men” then how come there has never been a taller top-10 (see below) in the history of tennis, including five men who are at least 6-foot-6?

Here’s the current top-10 and their heights:

No. 1 Roger Federer – 6-foot-1

No. 2 Rafael Nadal – 6-foot-1

No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov – 6-foot-3

No. 4 Sascha Zverev – 6-foot-6

No. 5 Marin Cilic – 6-foot-6

No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro – 6-foot-6

No. 7. Kevin Anderson – 6-foot-8

No. 8. Dominic Thiem – 6-foot-1

No. 9. John Isner – 6-foot-11

10. David Goffin – 5-foot-11

Photo credit: Mauricio Paiz

Last week was a tough one for Genie Bouchard – she didn’t even have a chance to get out of the gate when an abdominal strain forced her to give a walkover to Andrea Petkovic in the first round of the $100K ITF event in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France.

It was almost a year ago that another misfortune derailed her when she was on an upward trend after reaching the quarter-finals in Madrid, including a memorable and inspired win over Maria Sharapova. The following week she sprained her ankle, had to pull out of the WTA event in Nurenberg, where she won the title in 2014. The joint was still bothering her when she ill-advisedly decided to play the French Open (even if she won a round), and wrecked any momentum she had built in Madrid.

This latest setback robbed of her a chance to get ranking points in Cagnes-sur-Mer and resulted in a rankings drop to No. 169. Hopefully she will be able to play the qualifying for Roland Garros next week. But if she can’t and doesn’t defend 70 points from reaching the second round a year ago, she could tumble as far as No. 200.

Bouchard has shown a lot of determination to get back to where her talent and ability should have her. Andre Agassi at age 27 fell to No. 141 (November, 1997) before climbing all the way back to the top spot in the ATP rankings within 20 months. He can serve as an example and an inspiration for the 24-year-old Bouchard as she faces the greatest challenge of her young career.

Maria Mans Up

Five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova had a brief practice hit in Rome with 16-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal – and appeared to be pleased with how well she performed.

Tennis Couples

This GIF (no longer available on the MutuaMadridOpen website), of Dominic Thiem and girlfriend Kristina Mladenovic embracing after he upset Rafael Nadal last Friday, got Tebbutt Tuesday thinking about tennis couples.

The most famous over the decades have probably been these three pairs – each of whom reached No. 1 in the rankings: Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors, Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi and Kim Clijsters and Lleyton Hewitt.

Most prominent among current tennis lovebirds are Thiem and Mladenovic, Ajla Tomljanovic and Nick Kyrgios, Donna Vekic and Stan Wawrinka and Madison Keys and Bjorn Fratangelo – the latter, at No. 109, being the only player not currently ranked inside the top-70.

NOTE: Next week’s Tebbutt Tuesday (later in the day) will come from the qualifying at the French Open – au revoir.