Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016 FINAL THOUGHTS: A GAEL FORCE WIND AT HIS BACK...AND IN HIS FACE

History hates nothing more than a crown unworn, a throne unseated, a title unearned.  The history of Gael Monfils is no different.  In 2004, he shocked the French tennisocracy by winning first 3 of the 4 junior majors, and stood on the precipice of doing something that hadn't been done since Stefan Edberg won the very first junior calendar grand slam of the open era in 1983.  He was the pearl that French tennis had awaited for years.  Though other Gallic juniors like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet had been more heavily touted, it was Monfils, formerly bespectacled, spindly and awkward, that emerged as the closest thing, to a sure thing, to end the French drought at the professional majors.  And though the strength of his game resembled the same qualities that characterize his professional exploits (the super hero speed and stretching, the fantastical trick shots, the unadulterated athleticism) there would have been those who still wondered if this weren't another mirage in the, then 20 year desert, of french men's tennis.

Those doubts, whispered by the most pessimistic, weren't doused by his quarterfinal loss of a match, and a shot at history, in the Boys Singles draw of the 2004 US Open:  in fact they were given a loud and undeniable voice.  His absence from the final, contested by Sergiy Stahkovsky and Andy Murray, a pair who would carry on a different kind of tete a tete this year following Indian Wells, was all but forgotten when he began a full time career on the ATP tour.  Launching himself into the top 50 with victories at 2 challengers and a full ATP event in Sopot, he was overshadowed only by the player that French tennistas have always truly believed to be the rightful heir to the legacy of Les Mousquetaires.  In fact Gasquet may have done him a favor by beating Roger Federer in Monte Carlo, putting the "bleu, blanc et rouge" bullseye at Roland Garros squarely on his back, where it didn't belong.  Monfils has actually had the most consistent results of all his contemporary countrymen at their home major, (if not the best, with Tsonga reaching one more semifinal).

But since that early promise, despite remaining one of, if not the most, athletic player(s) in the game today, and the evolution of the game making raw athleticism more and more of a common trait (if not distinguishing), Monfils has not translated that into commensurate success in the highest echelons of the game.  I have always suspected that while every other part of his body screams exceptional, the most critical tools in his tennis kit remain curiously ordinary:  his hands.  While Simon uses his to swash, Gasquet uses his to swashbuckle and Tsonga uses his to simply buckle, Monfils' hands, hardly the most sophisticated in the world, form the basis of little more than a human backboard.  No shot seems out of his reach, unless he decides otherwise, and it's a considerable reach.



But the hands have failed him from time to time:  the inability to handle the short slice, the tendency to receded further and further into the backcourt, and the almost psychological dependence on his athleticism to entertain (and not necessarily to win), have all belied the very profligacy of talent that coaches and the tennis punditry has bemoaned.  Darren Cahill once claimed that Monfils would, from time to time, skip a (second and) afternoon practice with his coach, Roger Rasheed, claiming he need a rest, only to find him later in his room hotel room hootin' and hollerin' while working up a sweat playing FIFA soccer on the playstation.  So perhaps something within him realized that there was a limit to how far he needed to develop himself physically (Rasheed's specialty), when the most critical tool available to him (his hands) remained unaddressed.

Maybe he knew something that we didn't?

This week, after having hired his Swedish coach Mikael Tillstrom in October of last year, worked on simplifying his game, and more specifically the technique on his serve, the Gael Monfils taking the court today in his second successive final (if 5 years after the first), has shorn his infamous locks, and some of the more elaborate machinations that have frustrated his least loyal fans.  The gale force wind at his back may be the new and improved serve, imperceptibly more rhythmic, but palpably more effective, has elicited only 2/3rd as many aces (42) as his infamous serving opponent (66).  He will need all the free points he can get to reduce his burden of proof that Karlovic might not get through a WTA field would it were not for that monstrosity of a first serve.

The jury is not out on either of their careers today, but the perceived quality of the final, will be largely dependent on the extent to which an entertainer can get down to business and mitigate the perception of a 5-24 record in ATP finals.

2016 CITI OPEN FINAL THOUGHTS: LIKE IT OR NOT...IVO KARLOVIC JUST KEEPS COMING

3 years Ivo Karlovic nearly died.  

He woke up one morning with numbness in his arm, that began to spread throughout his body.  A professional athlete, aged 34, he was accustomed to waking up with the creaky quality of a locomotive that takes a few strokes of the pistons to get up to speed.  But you just keep on moving and you get over it.  After all, there comes a time when, after years on tour, a player begins to wonder when is going to be the day that they wake up and the little engine just can't.  Agassi, in his excellent memoir Open, talked about the skittish assurance of moving one limb at a time, hoping the capacity to compete would come to him in stages, towards the end of his career.  The anxiety never goes away, but a player grows accustomed to the uncertainty, both of which are resolved despite the uncomfortable feeling of one's body working through its nightly torpor.


But this was different.  The numbness persisted.  And his speech was slurred.  

A house call from the paramedics brought relief that didn't last long, which is probably a good thing, because that would have sounded the alarm bells of doctors who didn't know if this professional athlete was having a stroke, or had an undetected brain tumor that wouldn't reveal itself.  Unlike the case of Leander Paes' diagnosis of neurocysticercosis (a parasitic infection that causes brain abscesses that can look like tumors) they would have hoped for a best case scenario - strange to contemplate under the conditions - of a bacterial infection that could be treated by ever increasingly powerful and specific antibiotics.  

But that too failed to resolve what had befallen Karlovic.  His wife Alisi and his (still to this day) coach Petar Popović by his side as he went in and out of consciousness, it wasn't at all clear that he would recover at all, or well enough to regain normal functions - to say nothing of the very real possibility that the least negative of all outcomes would be the end of his career.  Eventually the case was diagnosed as viral meningoencephalitis and after 10 days of treatment a few days of monitoring he was released from that hospital in Miami that nearly became the first stop the way to his final resting place.

But like that thunderbolt raining serve of his, Karlovic just keeps coming.  He's 37 years old, has wins over some of the best players in the history of the game (Federer, Hewitt), and one has the feeling that if his serve carries on like this he could play until he was 47.  He bristles at the notion, but Karlovic's game is not the equal of his contemporaries...not by a long shot.  We all know this, his opponents know this, we all try to avoid saying this and he himself will look you dead in the eye and deny this.

But that doesn't make it any less certain.  So how has he managed?

Well, over the course of his career, he has maintained a 92% 1st serve point win percentage, and if he keeps his 1st serve percentage above 55% (which he has, by a long shot) he is more or less guaranteed to at least take the set to a tie-break against the vast majority of his opponents.  In fact, Karlovic has played and won half of his sets this week with tie-breaks.  He hasn't dropped a set, and he hasn't been broken...not once.  I'm guessing he hasn't even experienced a mini-break in those tie-breaks.  So if he is to win his final over Gael Monfils today, it won't be because he's got great hands, or moves well, or even overwhelming power from the backcourt.  But that shouldn't diminish the admiration for the one quality that characterizes his personality, his serve, his career and his run at the 2016 Citi Open.

Like it or not, Ivo Karlovic...just...keeps...on...coming.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

2016 CITI OPEN DAY 6: THE YANKS ARE COMING


Maybe it was the chronological proximity to the Olympic games, or the Davis Cup, or the Rogers Cup.  For whatever reason, the main draw of the 2016 Citi Open played host to 17 Americans.  As young as 18, as old as 31, the door seemed to be open with anyone with a navy-blue passport and a forehand.  At just a hawk-eye's margin under 1/3rd of the field, it seems the only American tennis players who didn't appear for DC's premiere annual international sporting event, were the 10 names that encircle the stadium court as previous champions.  Which brings me to the subject of the Day 6 recap: there remains (for the 9th year running) a curious gap in the long tradition of American success at this event, which collides in history with the last American to win a major - one Andrew Stephen Roddick. Given the excitement surrounding the many supplicants who would gape to be his heir, both as the titlist here, and the next American world champion (with a "Y" chromosome), it begs a brief history of those yankee doodle dandies who've brought the bacon home from DC.

Now, if Donald Dell, John Harris and Steve Potts had had their way, I'm quite certain that the American they would have chosen to win the inaugural event in the nation's capital, would have been the man who's vision it was to do more than put the same asses in the seats over and over again.  After all, who but Arthur Ashe could have elicited the integrated audience that the socially conscious men behind the curtain had hoped for, and indeed achieved, in the first (and last) 5-set final in the history of the tournament in 1969.  On that day, everyone in the audience had hoped for a victory from the man born and raised 90 miles away in that other US capital (of the Confederate States of America).  His effort was herculean, albeit erratic, losing the first two advantage sets, with the second lasting 16 games.  And although he found his feet in the 3rd and penultimate set, try as he and everyone watching did, his loosed-limbed, left handed Brazilian opponent on the day, Thomas Koch, simply would not yield the right of way.

A year later, an American champion was guaranteed, as Ashe returned to compete for the final against Cliff Richey, a bare-knuckled brawler born of Texas tennis royalty.  His sister Nancy Richey is an ITHOF inductee who won the Australian Championships in 1967, and the first French Open in 1968, to go with 3 other majors in doubles.  Ashe would gain some measure of revenge when it counted, when he beat Richey two years later at the US Open, but on that day, the stars at night shone bright for the big heart from Texas.  

The Aussies took over the next couple of years, when Rosewall and Roche (in succession) disposed of the same Marty Riessen, denying the Illinois native his place on the Ring of Champions at the William H. Fitzgerald Tennis Center.  So it wasn't until 1973 that Ashe finally fulfilled the promise envisioned 5 years earlier and finally won the title to the delight of the partisan audience.  In a replay of the first US Open final (also 5 years earlier) Ashe defeated the wily, but altogether over-matched, dutchman Tom Okker, who had made a(n almost forgotten) kind of history himself by being the first Jewish tennis player to make a major final in the Open era.  In 1974 another American son of Abraham, Harold Solomon, ascended to the top row of the annals of Citi Open history, by beating none other than 3-time champion Guillermo Vilas, who wouldn't lose another final here until 1981.

In the interim, Vilas alternated titles with Americans for 6 years (missing the 7th by losing to his professional nemesis, and elegant compatriot, Jose Luis Clerc.  Jimmy Connors, by then the most imposing player in the world, both technically and in terms of his influence on the game, took the bicentennial year title in 1976, then won a second two years later against Eddie Dibbs.  In a repeat of their memorable, but lightly attended consolation (3rd place) match in 1971, Connors still had the better of his less illustrious compatriot.  Had he entered the tournament in 1980, it’s not altogether certain that he would have won it.  Though Connors record on clay was exemplary by the standards of mere mortals, for those whose faces grace the Mount Rush(the net)more of tennis, clay was by far his worst surface managing only one major title on the slippery stuff, and that in the familiar surroundings of the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills - also in 1976 (over Bjorn Borg, no less, but I digress). 

The best American on clay in 1980 was Brian Gottfried, who was enjoying one of the most successful years of his career, and nobody had worked harder to earn his place in Citi Open Valhalla than him.  Gottfried was the kind of player who would (and in fact did) only take one day off from practice...the day he got married.  That year, Gottfried earned his title by holding at bay the man most Argentine tennis fans pitted against their beloved Vilas, as the fairest fuzz whacking gaucho of them all.  It would be his one and only title in Washington DC.

Although a couple of Bollitieri Academy graduates (Jimmy Arias in 1982 and 1983, Aaron Krickstein in 1984) tried their best, the title escaped American possession until Jimmy Connors, in a prodigal return, killed two bald eagles with one stone, ending his own personal 4-year title drought, and one twice that long for Americans at the Citi Open, with a victory over the talented and languid, pre-Roland Garros conquering Ecuadoran Andres Gomez.  Connors initiated an American revival, resulting in titles for the Red, White and Blue in 9 of the next 12 years.  This sequence would include all 5 of Agassi’s titles (1990, 1991, 1995, 1998, 1999), both of Michael Chang’s (1996, 1997) and Tim Mayotte's lone title in 1989, which would have been American either way because his opponent that year was Brad Gilbert.

With so many Americans enjoying their 15 minutes at the DC troth, one could have been forgiven for assuming that the trend would continue ad infinitum.  The trend was eventually proven illusory, but Roddick surprised everyone with a victory over Sjeng Shalken in 2001 for his maiden title here (and the third of his rookie year) followed by an even bigger surprise the next year when James Blake won his one and only title, over Paradorn Shrichipan, having precosciously usurped Andre the Giant in the semi-final.  Unfortunately Blake’s interlude as the American standard bearer was short lived, both in the grand scheme of things and at this tournament.  Roddick would match his one-time American coach Jimmy Connors with 3 titles, his third (and last) would also spell the latest of an amazing tally of 19 titles in 45 years...four better than a third, and four shy of half. 

So who then, among the band of brothers still in the field is most likely to make their maiden title in DC #20 for the US of A?  

Well, there is the record holder for profligacy, 3-times bridesmaid John Isner, who’s professional breakthrough came at this very tournament, when Roddick last carried the flag.  That year, Tommy Haas joked that there ought to be a height limit on tennis players, after falling to the long-limbed tarheel in a 3rd set tie-break.  Last year Isner fell to the fastest hands in the (far) east, in a gripping final against Kei Nishikori.  This year, a well earned victory over Marcos Baghdatis, a natural talent who counts his return of serve as one of his weapons, is a good sign:  that because it seems to be the only kind of a player with a snowball's chance on a summer afternoon in DC, of beating him on that lightning quick Stadium Court.  James Duckworth, didn't benefit from any hangover from Isner's Davis Cup disappointment.  I could turn out to be a delayed reaction, and he will need all his reserves of fortitude to overcome his opponent in the quarterfinal.

Speaking of which, could Steve Johnson be the most likely to end the American drought in DC?  Already a winner at Nottingham this year, his respectable 4th round performance against Roger Federer at Wimbledon, may signal a coming of age for him.  He is (as is to be expected) older than players with similar experience on the ATP tour, but this is the first year Johnson's game is a match for his commitment to give every last drop of effort in him to his own cause.  He (very) effectively blunted the potency of Ryan Harrison's serve with a series of clever and effective chip returns to the deep recesses of the court.  

This is precisely the location of Nishikori's most effective returns last year against Isner, and I have a feeling that if he's feeling it at all in the legs, he will have neither the energy, nor the inclination to make the court smaller by serving and volleying - the only viable solution to Johnson's rathe obvious, but even more effective, solution.  And as hard as it is to imagine it, his serve may be even more effective this year than last, and Isner struggled to find it then. So, this could be the Trojan man's moment, and if he can get past Isner, there aren't too many players left in the field with all tools necessary to push him back down the walls of Troy.

Then there's Sam Querey:  another quiet American who (to this day, despite all his megaton serving contemporaries) still holds the ATP record for the most consecutive aces in a single match (10 against James Blake in 2007).  Surprising some with a magnificent effort to overcome 2012 Champion Alexander Dolgopolov tonight, Querrey showed that, more than an anomaly in his summer, his victory over Djokovic at Wimbledon foretells a resurgence in his career that could lead to him winning a title here that he has sought since 2009.  To do this, he will need all the free points he can get from his serve against a man who has been putting on a serving exhibition here himself:  the flash, flamboyant Frenchman Gael Monfils, who has hit 22 aces in 2 matches.  If Monfils is taking himself seriously, he has the pedigree to douse the fire lit in Querrey.  But if that Gallic Shrug, combined with the circus shots he sometimes tries, makes another appearance, I like the chances of (the) Sam(urai) Querrey.

Finally there's Jack Sock, who, in addition to hitting a tennis ball harder than anyone ever has, is apparently running for president.  I have always been of the opinion that if you want to know who has a shot to be the best player in the world, look for the guy that's doing something different:  Alexander (the Great) Zverev is hitting his groundstrokes at an averages speed of 81 mph - 6 mph faster than anyone else at the Citi Open.  Nick Kyrgios displays Federer-ish combinations of accuracy, variety and disguise on his serve.  And Jack Sock is hitting his forehand at as much as 6300 rpm...Rafael Nadal, the former King of Spain, maxes out at 5800 (with all due respect to Federer's slice backhand that reaches out at 7200 rpm...but that's a very different kettle of fish).

So this is a tool in Sock's sock that is exclusive to him - it's his Excalibur, Aegis of Zeus, the ring of which he is the Lord...and boy did he put it to good use today.  Like a game of cat and mouse played men with racquets, he used his rpm to consistently force Daniel Evans into a series of very limited choices, most of which ended with him lancing the boil of Evans' frustration with a screaming forehand winner.  The minute Evans left a shot not quite far enough into Sock's backhand corner to...well, force him to hit a backhand, Sock began ripping his forehand, real heavy and at an acute angle, into Evans' backhand.  

It was neither deep nor short, and if Evans tried to step in and come over it, the ball would jump up into his chest and he would invariably framed it.  If he moved back, the court would open like a sliced grapefruit, beckoning Sock to expose the now gaping wound that was Evans' forehand corner.  And if Evans tried to slice it, he could get away with it a couple of times, maybe even four or five, but eventually the temptation to exit from that constrictive dance was too much.  He would invariably try to go up the line and either an error, or a short ball would ensue, and Sock would simply put him out of his misery or start the sequence again.

It was almost sadistic:  a lesson in humility that Mr. S(p)ock can impose on his opponents like the Kobyashi Maru.  Time and again, Evans made a choice, and time again it ended in a fatal exercise in total futility.  Strangely, although Evans is not the fittest fiddle in the orchestra, he seemed to grow in efficacy as the match wore on, after very nearly losing the first set to a 20 minute bagel.  But Sock's superior movement, serve and that blood-thirsty sword of Damocles (masquerading as a forehand) he wields eventually dropped right on top of Evans' head.

I have the feeling that of all the players that US has produced in the last 10 years, Sock's game is the most likely to achieve a major title.  At the height of his powers, nobody has an answer to what he can do, which is why it is such a shame that he so rarely reaches that apex.  The likelihood of doing so over a fortnight, which would be required to drink of the immortal ambrosia reserved for his major winning American predecessors, is for the moment, remote.  But ask me if he can do it over the next 3 days, and I would argue that is hardly a bridge, over the Potomac, too far.

So, if I had to place a bet on who wins the Citi Open, I would drop a 10 euro note on Sasha "Fierce" Zverev.  But if the currency must be green, with dead presidents (perhaps poetically, given that we're 6 miles from the National Mall) I'd place it on John "Hitman" Isner.  If (and it's a pretty big if) he can get past the Trojan dark horse, he is a better player with a better serve than Karlovic, who I think will take the racquet right out of Sock's hand in their quarterfinal, rendering his wizardry entirely moot.  Querrey is unlikely to get past Monfils, and if he does, his reward would be a date with Zverev in the semi-final, and I don't see him bringing that Chincoteague pony to heel any time soon.  

The one and only player that can take the racquet out of Zverev's hand is Isner - let's just hope he brings it in what would be his 4th final.  He already holds the record for runner-ups at the Citi Open, and I'm quite certain he doesn't want to pad it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

2016 CITI OPEN PLUS: TENNIS FILES

I met the author of the Tennis Files, Mehrban Iranshad, last year at the Citi Open.  For both of us, this was our first year as members of the media, and we hit it off, culminating with me paying a visit to Episode 25 of his podcast after the summer storm chased us away from the William H. Fitzgerald tennis center last night.

I had an absolute blast, and I hope you enjoy it, as well as his awesome site:  a real treasure trove of information to develop and improve your game.

The Tennis Files

Merhban


2016 CITI OPEN DAY 4: THE QUIET AMERICAN

Last year I generously extolled the virtues of the Mesomorph, Sam Groth - a man with a rocket launcher of a serve and the physique of a man meant to protect a king.  His tournament came to an end yesterday against the best player in his quarter, when he fell tamely in the first round.  Groth's might be the most famous of all his flamethrower serving contemporaries due to his infamous 163mph record salvo, so the temptation to watch him play is a strong as it ever was.  I watched a gaggle of expertly prepared and generously whetted, middle-aged women move from side to side on the south end of the Grandstand 2, to get a feel of what the biggest serve looks like coming at your face.  I guess size really does matter when you may know little about the intricacies of the game, but you can definitely read a radar gun...and boy was it buzzing today.

Unfortunately for Groth, the serve is only one half of the first shot qualities required of a top player.  Whereas he specializes on giving, Nishikori, Djokovic and Murray have shown over and over again, that it is the fine art of receiving that is altogether most likely to distinguish a professional tennis player in his chosen field of endeavor.  That's why the true tennis enthusiast, whether a connoisseur or a novice, should take note of the subtle, almost indiscernible skills of Brian Baker, which you can't tell at first glance, but like the still waters of the Potomac, run very deep indeed.

His story is one of Herculean heights and troughs before he returned to take his rightful place at the table.  In 2003, Baker was as one the best juniors in the world, losing in the final at Roland Garros to one Stan (the Man) Wawrinka.  And with victories over his now more illustrious contemporaries like Marcos Baghdatis, Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, one could have been forgiven for heaping untold American hopes and aspirations on his narrow shoulders.  

But injury plagued him for years to the point where he nearly gave up the game, until 2011 when, while coaching at Belmont University in Tennessee, he entered an ITF future event in Pittsburgh as an unseeded - in fact he was unranked - qualifier...and won the tournament without dropping a set.  That remarkable debut (anew) culminated in a career high ranking of #52 on the back of a victory at Basel over Radek Stepanek and a loss to eventual champion Juan Martin del Potro two years later.  Desperate injuries at the Australian Open of 2013 and just before the same tournament in 2015 genuinely threatened to destroy his prodigal return, and cost him almost the entirety of 2014 & 2015, but the tennis Gods, (who must be crazy) have given him one more bite at the apple, and we're all the better for it.

Baker has the ability to do two things that are essential for any top tennis player:  he can blunt his opponent's greatest weapon, and he can provoke them into destroying themselves.  If his rival likes to hit with a lot of top spin, he can cut a slice that's as flat and straight as a rock thrown side-arm, lightly bouncing off the surface of a lake.  If the guy wants to come to net, he can hit running top spin lobs off of both wings, to go with passing shots that find their way through the scantest of openings like a bodkin.  And if his opponent has an elaborate wind up to his ground strokes, Baker stays on top of the baseline and whips his forehand inside in and out, with equal efficacy, making it very difficult to find your feet, settle in and rip it.  

In fact, I would argue that Baker's greatest weapon is that chameleon quality he has to shift his shape to whatever needs to be done.  He's not John Rambo, loudly blowing shit up in the quiet concrete jungles of the US summer hard court season.  He's not John McClane, yapping on the radio all day and night, and jumping off a burning building shouting "yippee-kayayy, motherfucker!"  

Brian Baker is the quiet American, who will gut you like a fish as he smiles, shakes your hand, and removes your wallet.  He'll disabuse you of any notion of how good you are by forcing you to do exactly what you do worst, if you want to beat him.  He doesn't appear to be physically imposing until you're standing next to him, when you realize you're looking up at a pair of glaring eyes just under the brim of a hat dripping with sweat.  You hit a serve wide in the deuce court that registers 120mph and as the return zips by your chest missing the opposite sideline by 3 inches, you look over at Baker who is furtively excoriating himself for missing a shot you thought had no business reaching, let alone making.  

That's when you realize that you're in for a long day at the office.

It suddenly dawned on me having watched Grigor Dimitrov struggle through yet another early and unexpected loss (to Daniel Evans) in this his second season on the mend, and Donald Young snipe and gripe his way past Ernesto Escobedo in the unforgiving heat and humidity of an afternoon in July in Washington, DC, and Sloane Stephens disappearing into the night, performing a kind of seppuku of unforced errors against a resilient, but underwhelming Risa Ozaki.  

What exactly is competitiveness? 

Is it the ability conjure up the energy to run down every drop shot, stretch for every volley, reach for every return?  Is it the ability to raise your game, and hit that essential passing shot or lob when the moment demands it, and all others would wilt under the pressure?  Or is it just a steel will, at once unbreakable and irresistible, the assassin's tool and the protector's aegis, wielded upon request at the very moment is most desired?  

The truth is that it could be one, none or all three of those things.  But Brian Baker makes one thing clear as his competitiveness muscles its way past one more who would deign to block his path.  It's not fist pumping, or shouting, "Come On!" after you've (finally) done something right.  It's not yelling at that pitiable coterie of supplicants that's still following you around the world as the clock winds down on your window of opportunity. It's not that crumpled mangled mess of carbon fiber and cured animal intestines that used to vaguely resemble a racquet, before it was sacrificed to the God of misplaced anger and bitterness.

Whatever it is not, one thing is certain:  it's quiet...just like Brian Baker.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

2016 CITI OPEN DAY 3: STILL SAMANTHA

The first story from Day 3 at the 2016 Citi Open was the one story that nobody can get ahead of or control the narrative:  the weather.  Mother nature decided the DC area needed a cooling off period absolutely dumped buckets of water on the William H. Fitzgerald tennis center for about 90 minutes.  

Sam Stosur and Yannina Wickmayer, a favorite and a dark horse for the title, were done and dusted before the rains came, with Stosur dispatching of a resurgent Alla Kudryavtseva in straights sets in less than an hour (including a second set bagel), while the Belgian took longer to do the job over American Madison Brengle, who will be disappointed that she wasn't able to break her opponents shaky serve more frequently.  Wickmayer saved 2 of the 4 break points she faced, but Brengle was broken 7 times on 11 break points, which turned out to be the difference in the match.

Stosur, on the other hand, started slowly, but finished strongly.  After finding her feet and her forehand late in the set, she proceeded to break Kudryavtseva one critical time in the first set, before obliterating her in the second - needing just one break point to do the job three times on the trot.  Stosur, the top seed this year, looked relaxed and comfortable from the end of the first set, to the moment she entered the press conference tent.  That is until the rains came, preceded by what felt like gale force winds, appeared to make her more nervous than her opponent. Skittishly glancing around her as questions were drowned out by the sounds of the atmospheric pressure dropping precipitously, Stosur seemed in as much of a hurry in the press conference, as she did in the second set.

I asked Stosur about her forehand, which is a modern forehand more typical of the ATP than the WTA, and hit with the kind of spin and depth that has made some opponents attempt to pay her a compliment by suggesting that she played like a man.  My curiosity surrounded whether there was an evolution to that stroke production or was it something that she and her coach decided, and her answer confirmed my expectation with a twist.  She said she had always had a compact take back on the forehand, but that it had been a very wristy and spinny shot that often landed short, rife for abuse by her opponents.  The revolution began 8 years ago, when she couldn't hit a decent forehand at Wimbledon to save her life, and her coach at the time (presumably David Taylor) convinced her that she needed to make changes to flatten the stroke to finish her opponents off in the rallies, particularly on short balls.  So there was indeed a revolution to her forehand, but it was to make the shot flatter and more penetrating than it had been, which is the opposite of what her forehand is known for.

Next up on the merry-go-round was Alexander Zverev who, despite being very polite, and very poised in his responses, did come across as being every so slightly less patient with his time than he had been the year before.  To be fair, Zverev had just finished a practice set with Steve Johnson, one where the pace and penetration of his forehand was as impressive as it had been during his practice with Monfils on Friday, and in all likelihood had a very necessary dinner and evening with the physio waiting for him.  His answers were to the point, without much elaboration, and though affable, he was very serious, and dare I say, substantially more self-assured than last year.  

For example, he was asked about the upcoming Olympics, initially he responded with enthusiasm and elaborated on the honor and rarity of the event.  But the second question concerning the same subject, appeared to irritate him mildly.  Born of Russian immigrants to Germany, in the context of the Olympics, the question was asked whether he felt more Russian or German.  He began his response by bemoaning (in the general direction of the moderator for some reason) that he felt like this question was asked in every press conference.  After getting that off his chest, he explained that he is 100% German, as German as it gets, and that the only thing that Russian about him is his parents.  

I asked him whether he sets goals for himself in terms of his career progression, and if his performance and accomplishments had so far met his expectations.  He initially responded by saying that he didn't really set goals for himself, then proceeded to say he targeted getting in and staying in the top 40, that he is pleased with career progression, being seeded a majors and such, but that he is still ambitious and expects more of himself.  When asked which of the crop of his American contemporaries impressed him, he mentioned that he had grown accustomed to playing his former junior rivals (like the lurking Taylor Fritz), and that he was most impressed by Francis Tiafoe, who plays very aggressively and goes for his shots.  Incredibly, he bookended that assessment with the perfectly logical, but altogether unexpected qualifier (from a 20 year old, anyway) that "...he's still young and has more to learn."  

From the mouths of babes.

Speaking of Taylor Fritz, the newlywed took the court in the penultimate match on the stadium against Dudi Sela, and managed to break the Israeli veteran in his second service game, the third game of the match, and after only 7 minutes.  It was a straight set victory, but he didn't have it all his own way - Fritz had to show some steel, and that grenade launcher that doubles as a serve did him well as he saved 7 break points to seal the victory.

Daniel Evans booked his place in the second round with an impressive dismantling of Benjamin Becker, who probably suffered some measure of fatigue playing for the 3rd day in a row.  Evans was the better player in the two key departments of the serve and return, and after his initial break of Becker's serve never looked back.  Becker hit 4 aces which which could have been a pivotal statistic, had he not negated the value thereof with 4 double faults.  Evans only made half his first serves, but won 85% of those points, whereas Becker was more like to miss, and less likely to win his first serve points (46% and 65% respectively) which resulted in getting losing 4 of the 8 break points he faced.  Where Evans really made the difference was his second serve points, winning an impressive 65% of them, and not facing a single break point in 8 service games.


That ironically sets up a tricky encounter in the second round against Grigor Dimitrov, whom he practiced with on Friday (and would have met at Wimbledon had he found his way past some Swiss fellow, and if Dimitrov had overcome Johnson).  At that time, he seemed to struggle for rhythm and consistency for the better part of an hour.  But if you just love the 1-handed backhand, that match will do much to satisfy your aesthetic preferences.

Denis Kudla continued an unfortunate record of profligacy at his home tournament - he has played 7 matches at the Citi Open (in singles and doubles) and lost all 7.  He started the match strongly, with deep penetrating rallies where both he and Millman seemed to be testing the resolve of the other.  But Millman prevailed in the end with the wind at his back in the second after breaking twice in the first.  


All results from day 1 are at this link...