What Am I Talking About?
Upsets happen at every level of the ATP Tour. This week, the American, Michael Redlicki and the Austrian, Jurij Rodionov, had the biggest wins. Redlicki is ranked #849, while Rodionov is ranked #409, but both jumped more than 100 ranking spots after winning their respective tournament. Players ranked inside the Top 200 make the decision of either being a top seed at a Futures event, a lower seed at a Challenger event, or playing Qualies at an ATP event. The same player is good enough to play in all the different tiers of our sport, only his expectations will be different depending on what event he plays.
Starting at the $25,000 Futures event in Winston Salem, North Carolina, we saw Michael Redlicki(above) win his first ever Futures Title. Along with that personal milestone come 27 ATP rankings points and $3,600 which jumps him up to #695 in the rankings and nearly doubles his year-to-date prize money total. He beat Marc-Andrea Huesler, Jared Hiltzik, Ronnie Schneider, Skander Mansouri and finally Tommy Paul in the Finals. Every player he beat was ranked well above Redlicki’s own ranking of #849. Tommy Paul, Redlicki’s biggest scalp of the week, is one of America’s next top hopes, ranked #183; a massive win for Redlicki. You’ll hear and see a lot of Paul this summer when the USTA starts handing out Wildcards, so remember that he lost to a guy ranked #849 at the beginning of the summer.
In Kazakhstan, Jurij Rodionov(below) has been on an absolute tear at the Challenger level. The 19 year-old Austrian started his two-week swing ranked #409, and ended it ranked #292. Coming through qualies the first week in Shymkent, he got to the Quarterfinals of the main draw before falling to Yannick Hanfmann, the German ranked #111 ATP. Barely missing out on the Special Exempt spot, Rodionov had to hop into the Qualies draw again in Almaty, Kazakhstan the next week. A “Special Exempt” is a direct entry into the main draw given to players who are currently playing the semifinal or final round of another tournament; a great reward for a good week. For a player on a hot streak though, sometimes playing more matches keeps them in form. In Almaty he qualified easily, and faced Hanfmann again in the Semi-finals; this time he got the better of the German, 6-4,7-5. Then he took out the Serbian, Pedja Krstin, 7-5,6-2, to win his first ever Challenger Title.
Upsets happen. Tennis is deep. The minor leagues guys can play. Check in next week to see who got the biggest upsets of this week!
Round three of Roland Garros offers plenty of big names and Blockbuster matchups; we’ve got Djokovic vs Bautista Agut, Goffin vs Monfils, Verdasco vs Dimitrov and the two younger guys Pouille vs Khachanov. But I won’t be watching those(except Monfils vs Goffin, who can resist La Monf on the Terre Battue) The matches I’m most excited for are Zopp vs Marterer and Carreno Busta vs Cecchinato. Let me explain.
Tennis, best-of-five-set clay court tennis specifically, is about two players doing physical, mental, and emotional battle against each other. The life of most pro players, myself included, is not the lavish life of the Top 100 players you see at Indian Wells and Monte Carlo. Most of us spend years in the minor leagues, loving it and working hard, but without much financial or ranking payoff. We dream of playing the Grand Slams. And tomorrow, we tennis fans get to watch the 30 year-old Estonian Jurgen Zopp face off against 22 year-old Maximilian Marterer, the left-handed German. These guys will leave everything they have on the court tomorrow. If you want to see someone within 3 sets of their dream, watch this match. These are the types of matches that lovers of sport, and competition, should watch; the emotions shown on court tomorrow are what should be highlighted in our game.
Then there is the one-handed Italian, Marco Cecchinato of Italy, taking on the newest Spanish dirt baller, Pablo Carreno Busta. I promise you will not be disappointed with what they put on display. Cecchinato, 25 years of age, plays the game with a combination of lightheartedness and focused intensity that is hard to find in another player. His epic 10-8 fifth set win in the first round over Marius Copil was one that should have garnered more attention. On the other side of the net is Pablo Carreno Busta, who is as stereotypically Spanish as they come. A fierce competitor, albeit mild mannered, Pablo is who you’d want your kids to compete like. It’s going to be awesome watching how Cecchinato attempts to break through the tireless defenses of world #11, Carreno Busta.
Of course I recommend you watch all these third round matchups, but I understand people have jobs and other things to do. But if you can only watch one or two, track down any live feed that is showing either of the two I mentioned. They will feature emotion, players with a lot on the line, and a sense of drama that some of the other matches may not offer. The Zopp vs Marterer match may not be the two best players, but it will be the most entertaining if you love competition. And really, no matter what level we play the game at, that’s why we all watch and play tennis, because we love to compete and see what we can come up with when it matters most.
Tennis players are transcendent of time when at their peak. We can’t imagine a player who could overthrow those currently at the top of the rankings; what sorts of weapons would such a player have? Think of when Pete Sampras was dominating the game, no one imagined the young Swiss named Roger Federer would build a career that eclipsed Pete’s. And now we can hardly imagine anyone over-taking Roger; but it will happen. One of the young guys like the long-haired Canadian, Denis Shapovalov or the dapper-punk Austrian, Dominic Thiem will capture all of our attention in the coming years. These guys seem to travel from tournament to tournament wreaking havoc not only on their opponents but also the courts they slide around on. They seem unstoppable; they may lose here and there, and injuries may plague them for a couple weeks, but we know they will have great careers. We are suspended in disbelief as we watch them; they are forever young to us.
But we can count on the coming and going of athletes like we can count on the changing of the seasons. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who need neither introduction nor description, no longer have that limitless, unconquerable air they used to. We see Federer choosing to skip the clay court season entirely; to play the clay season would take so much out of him that he would be ineffective the rest of the year. We are all but trained by the media now to question Rafa’s knees and to wonder which of his other body parts may be aching. These two guys used to be invincible; they were once what Jack Sock and Stefanos Tsitsipas are now. Rafa single-handedly ushered in the most physically demanding era of tennis we have ever seen.
The picture of who Roger and Rafa were going to be was painted early and often. Imagine Roger Federer - never has a player been destined for center court of Wimbledon like he has. I can see him now: freshly Gillette-shaven face, mild-but-noticeable Rolex dangling from his left wrist with his custom-made Nike coat and handbag walking out to play the Wimbledon final as if he were the Royal Prince having tea and a quick hit with the Queen. His silky smooth one-hander and rubberband like arm snapping through shots at ungodly speeds. He has spent his life floating around tennis courts, and our living room TV’s, flicking his hair back into place since he was 19 years old. Federer brings art, beauty and light into the tennis world. Always has, always will.
And then there is the bandana dawning life force that is Rafael Nadal. Sleeveless shirt and capri-wearing Rafa has bullied his way through opponents since his earliest days as a professional. He was prophesized to be untouchable on clay so many years ago, and now, at 31 years of age, he has an 80-2 career record at Roland Garros. He’s won the French Open 10 times, going for his 11ththis year. He is a Spanish bull-fighter tailor made for clay courts, and big moments. He has, seemingly through will power alone, adapted his game from being heavily clay court dominant, while impotent on fast surfaces, to all but overriding on all surfaces. There was never a hint that someone could outlast, outwork, or outsmart him; Rafa is the original Survivor.
As Roger and Rafa’s games have evolved over time, so have our reasons for watching them. We no longer view Rafa as a sinewy ball of entangled energy, muscle, and nervous tics who can play harder and longer than anyone else on Tour. And we don’t really believe that Federer can whip up 15 minutes of magic at the end of a set against anyone in the world the way he once could. Just by looking at Rafa we’re reminded of his imminent retirement; his hair is thinning, his once bulging biceps are now covered by a lame sleeve; Nike has taken his warrior look away and rebranded him as a wise veteran. And Roger? He’s chosen to forgo the clay court season all together. This leaves him to occupy some far off spot in the minds of tennis fans; we know he’s still great, but we also know he can’t move and play the way he used to. He’s conceded to the rest of the field that he cannot beat them physically anymore, but he looms as a major factor on any court where shot-making counts for more than physicality.
We savor watching both men play now the way we enjoy the last days of summer. We enjoyed June and July, but now that August is here we’re making sure to be outside in the sun as long as we can; we want to soak in all that Rafa and Roger have to give us. We cherish watching Federer sling fireballs at his opponents with the flick of his wrist. And we stand and cheer, fists clenched and jaw agape when Rafa hits passing shots from 15 feet behind the baseline. As we recognize their waning days we remember the players who have seemingly always been on the dark side of Roger and Rafa’s full moon. We see the flamboyant Frenchman, Richard Gasquet using his funky technique and mind-boggling grips to make his way to the Semifinals of events every so often. Then there’s the mean-looking-monster-thighed Czech, Tomas Berdych; always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Memories of the absolute bomb-dropper that was Andy Roddick come to us every time we see the grass of Wimbledon. And we see on TV, every so often, the calculated German Philipp Kohlschreiber; the stereotypically French crowd-pleaser Gael Monfils; and the guy who made a career out of taking the hard road, the Spaniard, David Ferrer. These guys are still dangerous, but their time is dwindling. We’d be happy for them to ride into the sunset if they gave us just one more fantastic run of form.
The new guard is here though, and like a waxing moon they seem infinite and ever growing to us spectators. There’s the Belgian, David Goffin, who uses his racket as more of an exacto knife than a sledge hammer; Grigor Dimitrov, the devilishly handsome Bulgarian who slides and dives around the court combining gymnastics with track and field to end up as a great tennis player; the still boyish looking giant from Germany, Alexander Zverev, who is quite literally growing into his body and his game in front of our eyes. There’s the ever-mercurial Aussie, Nick Kyrgios, role-playing more of a mad scientist on court than anyone in recent memory. Not to mention by name the 10 players who have yet to celebrate their 20thbirthdays and are already ranked inside the world’s top 200!
Just as we look forward to the fall as summer comes to a close, we tennis fans have much to look forward to as the Roger and Rafa generation begin to fade away. It’s an interesting time for big time fans of the game – which player is going to replace what Roger meant to us? Who will be the new Tsonga? But remember, we once thought that about James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez. We thought serve and volley was put into it’s coffin when Sampras retired, but along came Mardy Fish, Mischa Zverev, Feliciano Lopez, Pierre Hugues-Herbert, and Nicolas Mahut who almost exclusively serve and volley. There is plenty to look forward to with this next generation of tennis players, we just have to look for them and pick up on what they’re putting down.