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Tebbutt: Wimbledon looms large

Jun 19, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt
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It started as early as the end of the French Open – players at post-match presentation ceremonies wishing their opponents good luck at Wimbledon.

It continued last weekend as Roger Federer offered his best wishes to Milos Raonic for Wimbledon after beating him 6-4, 7-6(3) in the final of the Stuttgart ATP 250 event on grass.

There’s only a five-week window on grass every year – not counting the Newport, R.I., tournament the week following Wimbledon – when players get a chance to go back to the grass-court roots of the sport. It all culminates with the ne plus ultra of tournaments – the Championships fortnight at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon in 2001 and knows better than most – especially after three runner-up finishes – about the stature, in tennis and the world of sports, associated with being a Wimbledon champion. Earlier this year when he began coaching Raonic, the 46-year-old Croat had one principal directive for the 27-year-old from Thornhill Hill, Ont. “The first thing he said to me is all the work you’re going to do right now,” Raonic said during the Indian Wells event in March, “it’s with the goal to play well at Wimbledon. Anything that comes before that is a bonus.”

There haven’t been many bonuses, except for a semi-final at Indian Wells, for Raonic mainly because of a right knee issue that has limited his play and wound up keeping him out of the French Open.

But the wisdom of Ivanisevic’s counsel resonated last week when Raonic won four rounds on the grass in Stuttgart – including victories over No. 17-ranked Lucas Pouille and No. 19 Tomas Berdych – to make it to the final against Federer.

In that final Raonic played impressively except for a couple of lapses – a loose service game at 1-all in the first set and a double fault at 3-4 in the second set tiebreak.

Losing to Federer, the best grass-court player in history, is no shame and Raonic looks to be in good shape heading into this week’s event at Queen’s Club in London and then Wimbledon in less than two weeks. He won his first-round match on Tuesday at Queen’s Club defeating qualifier Yuki Bhambri 6-1, 3-1, ret. when the Indian had to retire due to a leg injury. He next faces the winner of a first round between David Goffin and Feliciano Lopez.

Last year Raonic lost (Thanasi Kokkinakis) in the first round of his only pre-Wimbledon event at Queen’s Club and never seemed to really hit his stride at Wimbledon – even though he got to the quarter-finals before losing to Federer.

Getting five matches in Stuttgart and maybe a few more this week, would be far superior preparation to 12 months ago.

A finalist at Wimbledon in 2016 (Andy Murray) and a semi-finalist in 2014 (Federer), a fit and healthy Raonic is among the favourites for this year’s event in a group behind Federer that includes last year’s runner-up Marin Cilic and past champions Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, although the Serb is difficult to size up based on his recent subpar form.

Denis Shapovalov has lost in the first round of his two tournaments on grass so far this year – 7-6(6), 2-6, 6-3 to crafty Indian Prajnesh Gunneswaran in Stuttgart last week and 7-6(7), 7-6(6) to Gilles Muller on Monday at Queen’s Club. The latter was an extremely close match with Shapovalov leading the first-set tiebreak 4-1 and holding a set point at 7-6. The savvy 35-year-old Muller, a lefthander, knows his way around a grass court and upset Nadal 15-13 in the fifth set of a classic at Wimbledon a year ago.

There’s no question the skilled Shapovalov has a great game for grass but he’s only 19 years old and still has lots to learn.

The great Pete Sampras won just one match in his first three Wimbledons between 1989-91 but went 5-1 in 1992 (semi-finals) and then 7-0 in seven of the next eight years as he eventually racked up seven titles by 2000.

It would be presumptuous at the moment to suggest Shapovalov will be another Sampras. But it’s realistic to suggest he’s in the apprenticeship phase of how to play on grass. Many observers believe it will eventually be his best surface – maybe sooner rather than later.

He will get in a third Wimbledon prep event next week – playing the ATP 250 in Eastbourne.

Genie Bouchard was beaten in the third round of qualifying for this week’s WTA Premier event in Birmingham, England – losing 7-6(7), 4-6, 6-4 to No. 77-ranked Jennifer Brady of the U.S. on Monday

While that was not what her fans had hoped for, Bouchard had already won two matches – the first time that has happened since the WTA International Series event in Taipei City after the Australian Open in February.

In Birmingham she defeated big-hitting, No. 111-ranked American Caroline Dolehide, 19, by a 7-5, 6-4 score before beating 20-year-old Priscilla Hon of Australia, ranked No. 168, 6-3, 6-4. The previous week Hon had reached the semi-finals of the Surbiton Challenger event on grass.

Unless she happens to be awarded a wild card by Wimbledon, Bouchard will be playing the qualifying for the 2018 ‘Championships’ at Roehampton next week.

It will be something of a sobering experience for her because most of the courts are laid out in a long line one after another and the grass is not exactly up to Wimbledon’s demanding standards. Still, her experience from Birmingham – including having two points for 5-all in the final set against Brady in Monday’s loss – shows a more committed and competitive Bouchard, a definite improvement from many of her more recent tournaments.

Pushing Peter to Double Digits

Since August 15, 2016 – a total of 97 weeks – Peter Polansky’s ATP ranking has been uncannily consistent. It has never strayed outside the limits of No. 164 to his current career high of No. 112.

Polansky’s first Futures tournament was in Mississauga, Ont., as 16-year-old in July, 2004. There he beat Mirko Pehar of the U.S. before losing to Thomas Blake, older brother of James Blake.

The self-effacing Polansky, who turned 30 last Friday, has a fan base that would dearly love to see him finally crack the top-100 after almost 15 years on tour.

He has won two Challenger events and 15 Futures titles over that time and just reached No. 112 this week. That’s roughly eight spots out of direct entry for the US Open. He has played a total of 33 Grand Slam qualifying events and has been successful (including being a lucky loser) seven times in making the main draw – recording his only win at the 2010 US Open over No. 32-ranked Juan Monaco of Argentina.

The one glaring absence on his resumé is Wimbledon. He has qualified three times in Australia, twice at the French Open and twice at the US Open but never for Wimbledon’s main draw.

In his quest for the top-100, he has a window of opportunity over the next few weeks to accumulate some points because all he has to defend are 16 from a third-round qualifying loss at Wimbledon last year.

But the window could close quickly because he will soon have to defend points from last July when he was runner-up three weeks in a row at Challenger events in Winnipeg, Gatineau, Que., and Granby, Que.

On Tuesday, he did something unusual in tennis – he (with partner Matt Reid of Australia) played his doubles match against Purav Raja of India and John-Patrick Smith from Australia before his singles match. Polansky and Reid were beaten 6-1, 6-4 while in singles Polansky then faced Australian qualifier Akira Santillan.

A hard-working, conscientious athlete, Polansky has paid his dues and earned the right to finally see double digits in the ranking numbers beside his name.

Father and Son?

When Daniel Nestor, 45, and Denis Shapovalov, 19, took to the court at Queen’s Club on Tuesday to play second seeds Henri Kontinen and John Peers in doubles, the 26-year age gap between them is the largest on tour since Patricio Rodriguez of Chile (43) and Emilio Sanchez (17) of Spain played together in Barcelona in 1982.

Turning the Big 18

Bianca Andreescu has one of the sunniest dispositions among Canadian tennis players, so it was fun to see her tweet celebrating her 18th birthday last week on the 16th. Currently ranked No. 187, this week she’s playing the Challenger event on grass in Ikley, England. On Tuesday she advanced to the main draw by defeating No. 199-ranked Jaimee Fourlis, 18, of Australia 6-2, 6-2 in the final round of qualifying.

Well-Played!

Social media is over-loaded with videos proclaiming to show great points from tennis matches. Some of them are deserved but many are just not really that exceptional.

Here’s a solid blast from the past – on grass – from the final between Andy Roddick and a double-diving Nicolas Mahut at Queen’s Club in 2007.

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