Archives for September 2018

Game changer: Davis Cup reforms could produce big shake-up

While the Davis Cup semifinals were underway last week, a bigger contest for control of the sport’s team events was unfolding behind the scenes. The ITF’s recent vote to transform the competition into a one-week, 18-nation event in a single location, coupled with the ATP’s decision to re-start its own, similar World Team Cup, has opened up a battleground that could have far-reaching repercussions across the tour.

Having two national team competitions — and having them just six weeks apart — seems “insane,” as even ATP CEO Chris Kermode put it, and it is puzzling that things even got to this point in the first place. But when soccer player Gerard Pique made his initial approach to the ITF about a World Cup-style tennis competition, its change-adverse leader at the time, Francesco Ricci Bitti, would not hear of such radical reform. Rebuffed, Pique went to the ATP and found it receptive at first, rummaging up its shelved Dusseldorf-based event as a potential vehicle. Then that also broke down, prompting Pique to return to the ITF, which was now led by the change-oriented David Haggerty and eager to bring him on.

The ATP, though, still pursued its idea, finding a Chinese investment group and getting the backing of Tennis Australia, which saw the World Team Cup as an appealing lead-up to the Australian Open. The ITF announced an agreement to reform the Davis Cup with Pique’s investment group, Kosmos, worth around $125 million annually.

Talks were attempted by the ITF and ATP to avoid an obvious clash, but did not go anywhere. That became apparent when the ATP declared plans for its World Team Cup just before Wimbledon, followed by the ITF approving its reforms in a highly contentious vote at the organization’s Annual General Meeting.

Now the potential for conflict seems far higher than the potential for co-operation, and is also drawing in the game’s other major constituencies. Here’s a look at the lines of contention.

Finding ground for the two sides to work together is difficult. A combined ITF and ATP team competition is geographically unlikely. Tennis Australia’s involvement means the World Team Cup is committed to being in Australia, while the ITF has pledged its first two finals to Europe, likely Madrid or Lille.

There could be some movement on the dates, but juggling the packed tennis schedule is far from simple. There are currently four Davis Cup weeks in the season, so on the surface it seems like the new competition would lighten the load. But perhaps not.

While new Davis Cup has been slotted into the final week in November, the timing is not very palatable to the players, who do not want it to interrupt their off-season break. That might be why Pique told Le Figaro he wants to organize with the ATP to move the competition to September.

There is already a Davis Cup round in September, but not in a good spot — it is played the week following the US Open. But if it were moved to the following week, as the ITF likely wants, it would conflict not just with ATP events but also with the Roger Federer-created Laver Cup, which technically an exhibition, but an event with deep pockets attracting most top ten players.

“We have our dates. We’re not moving,” Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick, told as an aside at the US Open.

On top of that, there’s talk of a ten-day Davis Cup, which would require two weeks in the schedule. The ITF could give the ATP one of its other three weeks in return for a two-week spot, but it has allocated a week to a compromise round of home-and-away ties, and Haggerty has told The New York Times that the ITF has plans for two new events in its other weeks. That could lead to ITF events taking up four or five weeks during the regular season, to which the ATP would object loudly.

If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, the tour could start scheduling ATP events at the same time as Davis Cup and the other planned ITF events. And it might not stop there — if the ATP gives more favorable scheduling and ATP points to the World Team Cup while refusing to do the same for Davis Cup, the ITF could file an antitrust lawsuit, throwing the game into protracted conflict. Conversely, the ATP could also accuse the ITF of imposing its own requirements on players. If either side goes to the courts, it is likely to be hugely expensive and damaging for both organizations.

Even if that does not happen, it seems obvious that just having two national-team events side-by-side will produce confusion and impede each other. The Davis Cup has more history, while the World Team Cup is more convenient, but it is yet to be seen which will be more successful in winning players and popularity in these new forms.

Both plan to offer around $20 million in player prize money, but the ITF’s agreement with Pique and his group is by far the more lucrative — so lucrative, there are questions about whether the group can break even and whether it will keep ploughing in funds if it does not.

Haggerty, speaking in an interview at the US Open, explained the ITF had done a “due diligence” process with a top accounting firm, in addition to assigning four board members to look at the offer and provide an assessment to the federations.

”It’s essentially a licensing agreement where we work together on the operations of the Davis Cup finals. So they have broadcast and sponsorship rights, they give us guarantees, but again, it’s a collaborative effort,” he said.

Haggerty also said funding has been provided along with bank guarantees, but a letter from Tennis Europe before the vote suggested that some federations were told the total amount of the guarantees was around $82 million.

Several of the large tennis nations were split on the reforms, both internally and externally. While top player participation has declined, the Davis Cup still has a tight hold in large corners of the sport. Among those in favor of reform was the United States, along with the French Tennis Federation (FFT) president — despite opposition from French players. Tennis Australia, which has an interest in the World Team Cup, was against it, as was Germany. The UK’s LTA also announced that it would be voting no, against the expressed preference of Wimbledon, but there are still some questions about whether it actually did as said.

Still, Haggerty is insistent the federations “are aligning together” following the vote, with nations like Germany, Serbia and Poland pledging to now back the reforms. But there are lingering concerns about improprieties around the securing of votes — there are allegations or admissions of various offers around more than 43 votes — sufficient to swing the balance required — and it is rumoured some nations have even spoken of an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

This is not just about the ITF and the ATP — there are also issues within the ATP itself. Billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns Indian Wells, recently became an investor in Kosmos, which came with a commitment to eventually hold a Davis Cup finals at Indian Wells.

The tournament had apparently been interested in holding the World Team Cup before the ATP went with Tennis Australia.

The ATP in turn has contacted Indian Wells, informing them that holding the Davis Cup finals could be a violation of its contract with the ATP. But, considering Ellison’s involvement in tying up the America’s Cup yachting competition in such disputes, that might not be a good move.

The ATP has been getting more involved in running events, and now has the NextGen Finals and the World Team Cup along with the season-capping ATP Tour Finals. That could increase tension with other tournaments in its role of running the men’s tour.

As it is, ATP players and tournaments are at odds about prize money increases, especially at the Masters level.

The player representatives on the ATP board, notably Justin Gimbelstob, are demanding a 19 percent annual increase for the Masters 1000s, according to L’Equipe, having already received double digit increases in recent years. While some events, like Indian Wells, want to provide even more, most are digging in their heels. The ATP board, which consists of three tournament and three player representatives along with the CEO, is almost at a standstill on this issue.

It appears Novak Djokovic is leading the charge for more pay from the Player Council, like by publicly calling for the ATP Tour Finals to look at moving to other locations. There are cities, especially in Asia, willing to offer extravagant sums to hold events — something the WTA Tour has taken advantage of, while the ATP has held back from going largely with the highest bidder.

While competing at the Dubai tournament in 2015, Djokovic peculiarly suggested the tournament should become a Masters event, even though the event itself does not want to do so and the tour has no plans to increase the amount of Masters events.

A few weeks ago, he said that he would like the Grand Slams to be the best of three sets rather than five, and argued that the sport needs more innovation. This contradicts the sport’s experience that the old-fashioned events have been the most successful.

“But comparing to other sports in this modern times, tennis, I think, hasn’t fulfilled its potential,” said Djokovic at Cincinnati. “Tradition and history and integrity of the sport is something that is very important, but that has held us back.”

Rank-and-file agitation has had other effects. The ATP board recently refused Gstaad’s request to become a combined event, and previously looked at splitting Washington, D.C. Further back, the combined event at New Haven has had the ATP tournament go to Winston-Salem, though it is not known whether any preference was expressed by the ATP.

Some — though not all — male players, stung by criticism for their questioning of equal prize money and tired of scrutiny around court assignments and scheduling given to male and female players, have become increasingly opposed to having dual gender events.

But, combined events have generally been the most successful in tennis, with tournaments held together getting more spectators than men’s or women’s events on their own. Indeed, two ATP events — Atlanta and Newport, whose facilities would not allow the adding of a WTA event — have begun holding a women’s exhibition during the tournament and brought in big crowds.

“I don’t know if it’s the next best thing, but it’s the next best thing we could think of, is to have an exhibition and give the fans some diversity of experience while they’re with us,” said Todd Martin, tournament director of Newport, in an interview during the US Open. “I think our sport has demonstrated it’s greatest when it’s aligned. Tournament vs. tournament, or gender vs. gender, or tour vs. tour, or entity vs. entity, is counterproductive to the betterment of our sport.”

Nevertheless, it isn’t going away. The largest sticking point is equal prize money at the bigger combined events. There has been frustration among some ATP players that their prize money rise has been limited by having to share half of any increase with the women — particularly, they argue, since they collectively earn more for the tournaments and because WTA players have not joined them in the calls for more prize money.

The ATP looked a couple of years ago at establishing a special Masters category with higher prize money for some events like Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Shanghai — these are also, apart from Dubai, the equal prize money events — but nothing has come of it yet. In the meantime, Beijing is looking to convert its ATP 500 event to a Masters, to run alongside its WTA Premier event.

The WTA — now with its big TV contract, a lucrative new location for the WTA Finals, and potentially also a new title sponsor, according to Sports Business Journal — should now be more capable of holding its position on equal pay for the top combined events. But these contrasting sentiments are having effects on the scheduling and organization of tournaments.

ATP vs. Grand Slams
The Grand Slams are unlikely to consider moving away from equal prize money, and do not seem to be inclined to offer more big prize money increases either. The Australian Open might be more amenable than the others, but their general stance is that they have done plenty, as prize money at the Slams has doubled in recent years, reaching $53 million at the US Open.

Yet, Grand Slams have also seen their earnings rise sharply, and players want another round of increases, complaining that they still get too small a portion. They have also pointed to problems with communication, saying they were not properly consulted about the introduction of the shot clock.

Although members of the ATP board, player council and representatives have been organizing the conversation with the Slams, the Slams have become increasingly reluctant to have the ATP involved. That could produce more talk of a player union, which Djokovic brought up at the player meeting at the Australian Open. But whether the players can even agree among themselves on any form of collective action is another issue altogether.

The Slams, on the other hand, appear willing to assert themselves if there is any confrontation.

The changes to the team events add another layer of friction. The chairman of the All England Club, Philip Brook, backed the Davis Cup reforms simply as a counter to the ATP’s — and Tennis Australia’s — plans, according to The Telegraph.

Grand Slams vs. each other
It is also a reflection of the fissures between the Slams themselves. Under Craig Tiley’s leadership, Tennis Australia has become involved in both the World Team Cup and Laver Cup, along with being a voting member of the ITF and vocal opponent of the Davis Cup changes. The other Slams are wary of its ambitions, and of it potentially breaking ranks on prize money.

Tennis Australia, on the other hand, has seemed unwary of the conflicts that it has got into, and could find itself in some awkward positions as its partners tussle with each other.

The USTA is also a partner of Laver Cup and a proponent of the Davis Cup reforms; it could be similarly conflicted in any scheduling argument between the competitions. That is on top of USTA Chief Executive, Professional Tennis Stacey Allaster’s questionable campaign for rule changes like on-court coaching and the shot clock, some of which have exasperated the others.

The Davis Cup reforms have exacerbated the crisis at the FFT, where unpopular president Bernard Giudicelli voted for the changes despite strident opposition from French players and those involved in the game. Giudicelli also benefited from an ITF rule adjustment that allowed him to stay on the board despite what in France is considered a criminal conviction, a move which has also been highly questioned. The federation’s influence and effectiveness will be hampered while all this persists.

As far as the game’s team competitions are concerned, the intrigue is as high off the court as on it.

The top 5: the cool Naomi Osaka beats Serena

naomi osaka
Naomi Osaka, the Japanese who lives in Florida, won the US Open, and  arrived as one of the best players this year. Yes, the 20-year-old wasn’t perfect, but slowly, she got better and better though the fortnight. At the US Open, she fought. Her big serve was unbelievably good, her forehand was powerful, and her backhand was vicious. She returned pretty well, too, and she hustled.

Even in the last game, when it was 5-4, and Osaka had to serve it out, she wasn’t very nervous and took her time. She won match point with a hard serve into the corner. Yes, she cried, because there were a lot of people who were booing, but at the end, she smiled, a few times.  The now No. 7 could win a number of majors over the next 15 years. Osaka is that good.     

The Others

Serena Williams
At the US Open, Serena played six matches, and she looked darn good, knocking off a bunch of strong players. But in the final, against Osaka, she was mediocre, half and half. She served OK, but it’s not like she needed to bring in her massive first serves, and her second serve was up and down. She rarely came into the net, which she should have. When she belted her backhand and forehand, they would fly out, and there were a number of errors.

Obviously, Serena was very angry during the match. She was very, very ticked off. She yelled, she screamed, she busted her racket, she was very frustrated. She argued with the chair umpire, asking for an apology, time and time again. The fans were surprised by the code violation. They didn’t really know why. But many people love her, so they booed with the the umpire.

Serena lost it, on court and off court, she argued some, and she defended herself. OK, yes, it’s all about tennis, and she really wanted to win. But, if she stopped yelling, after a few minutes, and played, it could have had a different outcome. She had to be super calm, but she couldn’t, and perhaps she would have overcome Osaka.

As Serena said, Osaka played great and she deserved it. Good for Serena for saying that. But she has to be honest, and should have said, “Sorry, I messed it up, apologies.” She hasn’t done that yet. We will see whether she dowa it during the fall— if she is going to play for the rest of the year. Everything is questionable now. Ugh.   

Anastasija Sevastova
The 29-year-old Sevastova showed off her incredible variety, upending Elena Svitolina and Sloane Stephens before going down versus Serena pretty quickly. But, her amazing drop shots, her very quick feet and variety were in full display. Yes, she needs to improve her serves, and her returns, but she will remain dangerous.  

Madison Keys
For the most part, Keys played well, even better, because from January through most of August, she was so-so. But at the USO, she was aggressive, more accurate and she focused, a lot. However, Osaka served huge, and Keys couldn’t break her. She has to find some consistency. Hopefully, during the fall, she will be healthy and move up the ladder.

Carla Suárez Navarro
The veteran Spaniard beat Caroline Garcia 5-7 6-4 7-6(4), then she beat Maria Sharapova in straight sets. She did lose against Keys in the quarters, but still, the-30 year-old decided to hit her shots hard and deep, spin it, slice it, and smack the ball when she had an opportunity. She has been around for a long time, and she has yet to win a major, and maybe she won’t. But, given that she has been better this year, the No. 22 has a long shot at a Slam.

Spectacular Novak Djokovic wins the US title

novak djokovicFROM THE US OPEN – Before Djokovic walked on the court, he knew that if he played well, he would win the title again. He is better than Juan Martin del Potro, he knew that coming in, but he realized that the Argentine was rising, very gradually. If he was very consistent and powerful, he would win.

 And he did, 6-3 7-6 (4) 6-3. In the second set, DelPo had a few chances, to grab it, but Djokovic stayed in there, out-hitting with his backhand, moving so well, returning a lot, which he had to, because DelPo was crushing his first serves.

The Serbian stayed strong, he didn’t play great with his serves, but his backhand beat the Argentine down, especially crosscourt. Plus, his forehand was hard. He wouldn’t allow DelPo to come into the net hardly at all, unless he decided to bend him down, pull him over, and pass him. DelPo crushed his huge forehand a lot, and in the second set, there were times when it appeared that he was getting better and better. Had he won the second set, then who knows? But in the breaker, Djokovic focused, and he locked in, and when he won the second set, it was essentially over.

While the No. 3 DelPo has had a terrific year, still, if he wants to win a major again — and to stay healthy — he must continue to work his backhand and his return. Other than that, he is a darn good player. Djokovic is a fantastic player, because he is now won 14 Grand Slams, tied with American Pete Sampras. Surely, next year, the No. 2 Djokovic can win another title, possibly at the 2019 Australian Open. That would be something else.   

The others

Rafael Nadal

The No. 1 played three marathons, before the semis started against DelPo. After the first set, he became injured, and after he lost 7-6, he told the umpire that he was going to retire soon. In the second set, he pulled out. He was sad,  and a little upset, but the No. 1 Nadal knew that you cannot win all the time.

He will always remember in the quarters against Dominic Thiem, winning it 7-6(5) in the fifth, which ended in four hours and 49 minutes. It was spectacular. But after that, his body and his leg  was exhausted so there was no way he could continue. He did win Roland Garros, plus four more ATP Masters 1000, so in the fall, assuming he is feeling better, he will continue to push, and try to win it again. The last time he and Djokovic played against each other, he lost 10-8 in the fifth at Wimbledon. That was super close. Maybe they will clash at the ATP Final in London, or early. We all hope so. 

Kei Nishikori

The Japanese looked great heading into the semis, beating Marin Cilic in five, running fast, leaping in the sky, and punishing with his forehand. He returned pretty well, too. But, once again, Djokovic is better than he is. His first and his second serve, and he can grind him down, also with his phenomenal backhand. I am not sure that Nishikori can upend Djokovic ever again, maybe once, or twice. In a five-setter at a Grand Slam, he can’t take a quick win. In the two out of three sets, sure he can lock in and upset Djokovic, but he couldn’t do anything on Friday, losing 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. That was a good US Open for Kei, but not good enough to win the title.     

Dominic Thiem

The Belgian played well as he could, especially on the hard courts,  because he has won a number of titles on clay, but the 25-year-old wasn’t ready for long, hard-court contests. At the US Open, he knew he had be very aggressive, with his huge first serves, and his heavy spin, with his forehand and his backhand. He did, and he battled, and he fought, and he pumped his fist, but he couldn’t make it.
After he lost, the No. 8 Thiem said that he will always remember this defeat. But, perhaps in the fall, he can shake it off, and during the fall, he will add more variety. I would think that we will reach the ATP Finals in England. But that is a toss-up. It’s all in his head now.

US Open picks: day 14: Novak Djokovic vs. Juan Martin del Potro

Novak Djokovic, by Mal Taam
FROM THE US OPEN – Without a doubt, Juan Martin del Potro has played as well as he can over the past 13 days. His serve in gigantic, his forehand is extremely fast, his backhand is getting better every day, and he is pretty clean at the net.

So how is he going to upend Novak Djokovic, who he has lost to 14 times, and he has won only four contests? I am not sure how he is going to unearth him.

Djokovic is on top of the ball, very cool, and very efficient. His backhand is the best ever, his forehand in pretty deep and solid, he can return from way back in the court, and he is so fast. That is why he has won 13 Grand Slams and counting.

He is healthy again, and two months ago, at Wimbledon, Djokovic finally felt that he can go for the lines, and he can be patient until he sees an opportunity. Then he strikes, time and time again.

In 2017, they played three times, at Acapulco, Indian Wells and Rome (on clay). Djokovic won all of them. Two years ago, the Argentine won it at the Rio Olympics 7-6, 7-6. Delpo was thrilled with the victory on hard courts. So, maybe on Sunday, he can really focus and break him.

I doubt that, because Djokovic generally knows where he has to move, or stay in the middle, and return deep and compact. But on occasion, because DelPo can hit his serve around 130 mph, a blaster, and crush his forehand at 100 mph.

In 2009, at the US Open, DelPo won it all, knocking out Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer. That was really important. But in 2012, when DelPo hurt his arm, he lost in straight sets against Djokovic in the quarters. 

Yes, Novak wasvbetter than the Argentine, and remains so. However, two days ago, DelPo looked much better against Rafa Nadal, running fine and smashing his forehand. He won’t go backwards.
There should be some wonderful rallies. DelPo will not be nervous, but Djokovic will serve hard and guess correctly on his returns and dominate backhand versus backhand. It’sd all about angles and depth, and Novak will push him back.

Djokovic will win it in four sets, the third time at the USO. He is one of the best players ever.

US Open picks: day 13, the women’s final

Naomi OsakaFROM THE US OPEN – Noami Osaka is playing almost lights out. She has a big first serve — 120 mph — she runs fairly quickly, and she can rip her forehands and her backhands. She has been very focused over the past 12 days, and while she almost lost against Aryna Sabaenka, she had to bear down and she did, grabbing it 6-4 in third.

Then in the semis, Osaka played substantially better, hitting the corners, showing some variety and out-hitting Madison Keys.

We all know that Serena Williams getting better every match. Her  forehand is hefty, and her backhand is blunt. Plus, her serve is vicious.

Serena has won the Grand Slams 23 in titles and she is very close to tying Margaret Court, If Serena wins it on Saturday, then she might be the best player ever.

However, she hasn’t won it yet, so she has to wait.

Two months ago, at Wimbledon, Serena reached the final, and it looked like she had a legitimate chance for getting no. 24, but Angie Kerber beat her, as the German controlled her and she was faster and stronger.

However, Serena is practicing a lot, so she can move her feet, and sprint when she needs to.
But so does Osaka, who is pretty swift. The 20-year-old does like the 36-year-old, and she really wants to play her.

“It feels a little bit surreal,” Osaka said. “Even when I was a little kid, I always dreamed that I would play Serena in a final of a Grand Slam. Just the fact that it’s happening, I’m very happy about it.”

I am sure she is, but when she walks on the court, then she will lock in early, or she can become very nervous, as this is the first time that she has reached at a Grand Slam final. She knows that she needs to go toe-to-toe, as much as possible. I would think that she will, but she has to return against Serena. Serena can handle the Japanese’s servers while Osaka won’t be able to return enough of Serena’s bombs. It could be close, but Serena will win it again, in two big sets.  

US Open men’s semifinal pick: day 12

FROM THE US OPEN – Well, that was some kind of a match. We’re talking about the quarterfinal clash between Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem.

The Spaniard was so close to losing, but he kept hanging in there, running and running. He simply never gives up. He may not play particularly well, but he will continue to push himself to a level beyond other players.

At the end, against the now fantastic Thiem, Nadal looked in deep down and found the solution, winning 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5). Good enough.

Now, the 17-time Grand Slam champion has to face Juan Martin del Potro, who won it nine year ago, in 2009. 
The 32-year-old Nadal has also won the US Open three times in 2010 and 2013. Last year, he won again over Kevin Anderson, somewhat quickly. 

Recall back in 2009, when DelPo crushed Nadal in the semis. The Argentine was red hot, as he shocked the famous Roger Federer in five sets in the final. At that time, Nadal said that DelPo played amazing tennis, but it won’t happen again. Well, he has, once in a while, but not against Nadal again. The Spaniard has beaten him 11 times, while DelPo has won five. 
Last year at the USO, in the semis, Nadal beat him 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2. Clearly, DelPo was exhausted after a couple hours, but Nadal nailed his forehand all the time. 

This year at Wimbledon, in the quarters, on Nadal edged him, 7-5, 6-7(7), 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. That was a toss-up, but Nadal served extremely well.

However, DelPo has improved this year, a lot. He is now ranked No. 3 and he could go further. He now can hit his two-handed backhand, where for many years, he couldn’t, because his left leg was almost destroyed and broken. It is hard to predict how long he will continue to be healthy. Hard to say month to month. No one really knows, but on Friday here at Flushing Meadows, he shouldn’t be tired or hurt when he walks on the court. 

DelPo does love to slice his one-hander. When he is on top of it, he will hit it very low. But look, Nadal can knock it with his huge forehand, time and time again, and that is why he has won many matches. He belts the ball.

Nadal has played very long contests in the last three matches. His serves are very good, but over the past 11 days, he is not crushing it. I am not sure exactly why, but against DelPo, if he can, Nadal has to nail it on the Ts. 

DelPo has to find away to break him, which means that he has attack on his backhand, and keep him off the baseline. Even if he does, he has to be patient. Of course, this will go five, with a long service game. In the end, DelPo will figure him out and win it, say 6-3 in the fifth. Just one break and hold on.

US Open picks, day 9: Serena vs Sevastova, Keys vs. Osaka

FROM THE US OPEN – Serena Williams is pretty locked in now. Over the past 10 days, she has been focused and moving well. She is concentrating, and her big serve and returns are very sharp. She has had some errors, here and there, over the first four matches. When she had to play extremely well, she has. That’s why she has won 23 Grand Slams. Serena focuses, takes a long, deep breath, and then raises it up, and punches until she knocks them down.

Anastasija Sevastova is having a blast, when she is in to it. She mixes it up, all the time, everywhere, especially her with her amazing drop shot. She might have the best one in the field. She can run, and she has a lot of creativity.  
She did upend Sloane Stephens, but the American was pretty ill. Still, Sevastova played a fine match. Can she out-hit Serena, or really bother her? Possibly, yes, if she is on track and she can confuse her, but Serena will knock on her early and win in two simple sets.
Keys vs. Osaka
Well, well, look at Madison Keys, who was up and down all year, but now, she is being assertive and thoughtful. That’s why last year at the USO, Keys reached the final, beating Elina Svitolina, Kaia Kanepi and Coco Vandeweghe, before she became super nervous and she was crushed by Sloane Stephens. But, this time around, she should be calmer.

The 23-year-old Keys has been doing it again over the past 10 days. Her huge first serve, as well as her forehand and backhand have all been reliable weapons. 

The same thing goes with Naomi Osaka, who is so forceful. The 20-year -old can hit her first serve around 115 mph, and she can bomb her flat forehand and backhand. Yes, all players can spin it, but still, when she want to pull off a winner, she can flat it out and smoke it.  

Keys and Osaka have played each other twice. Two years ago here, in the third round, Keys edged her 7-5 4-6 7-6(3). In 2017 at Indian Wells, Keys won in straight sets.

However, Osaka has become much better. This year, she won the title Indian Wells title.  

Is this a tossup? No, not yet. While I realize that Keys was hurt a lot this year and she was struggling mentally, right now, she is healthy and driven. Without a doubt, there will be many short, hard rallies. At the end of the third set, Keys will win, happy that she will go to the final once again.


US Open picks, day 8: Stephens vs Sevastova, Nadal vs. Thiem

FROM THE US OPEN – Can we call Tremendous Tuesday? Sure were can, with four fantastic matches.

Let’s start with the 2017 US Open champ Sloane Stephens, who will face Anastasija Sevastova. In her last two matches, Stephens was super steady, strong and fast. Mentally, she is focused. When she gets an opportunity, she runs forward. Sevastova has incredible variety, especially with her drop shots. She can be fairly quick, she can run ahead or back, and she is very emotional. They will split sets, they will have numerous rallies, and then it will be finished, with Stephens raising her arms and smiling. She will advance into the semis.

Who knew that John Isner was able to take down Milos Raonic in five sets? The American is playing so much better than he did last year. Currently, he is analyzing his options and he is going for it, with his huge serve. At the net when he is on top of the ball. However, he has to play against Juan Martin del Potro, who is on fire, and his backhand is substantially better than he was a couple years ago. His serve is massive, as is his gigantic forehand. Like Isner, del Potro is pretty clean at the net. He bends down to put it away. This has to be a five-setter, and both of them want it very badly. There won’t be a lot of rallies, but here and there, they will go side-to-side and hope they can strike winner. To me, the former US Open champ del Potro has been better over the years — when he wasn’t injured — and this week, the Argentine is playing amazing ball. He will win 7-6 in the fifth set. 
Serena Williams is playing better than she has since she returned in March. Her serves are very hard, her first serve and the second serve are bombs, her backhand down the lines is very clean, and her forehand is deep. Almost out of nowhere, Karolina Pliskova is confident again and she is cracking the ball. Pliskova has had a mediocre year, but when she feels good, she will put together her first serves, ace after ace, and she will immediately go for the lines. Two years ago, the Czech beat Serena 6-2, 7-6(5) in the semis. That was then, that is now. They have changed, both of them got married last year, and Serena had a baby. Times change, and off court, they are very happy. Pliskova will immediately attempt to out-hit Serena, but the American is steady now, and she is returning very well. Serena will win 7-6, 7-6, but it will be a tough contest. 

Rafa Nadal is the No. 1. In the last two matches, he looked very good at times, and so-so at other times, too. The thing is though, even when he is not serving the right way, his backhand is too short, and he isn’t attacking enough when he was returning, still, he is so smart and he readjusts. The key is that he wins. 

Can he best Dominic Thiem on Tuesday night? I would think so, because Nadal has beaten him seven times against three losses — all on clay, especially at the 2018 Roland Garros final, when the Spaniard won 6-4, 6-3, 6-2. Nadal is just better than he is. However, Thiem played well last week, he likes to hit heavy spin, he has a terrific first serve, and he is fast, too. But on the hard courts, I just can’t see a Thiem victory. Nadal has won Flushing Meadows three times, while Thiem has never reached the semis. It should be a fun match, with some wonderful rallies, but Nadal will win in straight sets.


Sharapova ousts Ostapenko; the picks, US Open, day 7

Jelena Ostapenko
FROM THE US OPEN – Maria Sharapova went on the court and she knew that she had to focus all the time, or she would lose. She didn’t, and she was very smart, beating Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 6-2.

It appeared this could be a close contest. In fact, it should have been, because in Madrid in May, Sharapova outlasted her 6-7(6), 6-4, 7-5. Both of them are huge hitters, from the forehand and the backhand, down the line, deep, and right on the lines. They are incredibly powerful, but this year, both of them have produced a lot of errors. On Saturday, Ostapenko had a ton of errors, and that is why she lost. She lost her concentration, and she sunk.
Believe it or not, Sharapova has won the night sessions at the US Open, 22-0, and counting. She has only won the title just once, in 2006, defeating Justin Henin. Since then, she has had a few chances, but she didn’t convert.

Can the 31-year-old do it again? Perhaps, but this year, I would be pretty surprised if she grabbed it. She has been hurt a lot this year and, while there are days when she looks very good, but there are also events when her serves are surprisingly weak, with many double faults. But she was fairly clean on Saturday night. She can nail her forehand and backhand, but she still can be erratic, and a little bit slow. 
Sharapova always practices; she loves the sport; she wants to add to her game. Maybe she will, but her right shoulder is sore. It has been for years, and she cannot use a lot of spin when she is serving. But once the rallies begin, she can rake it.

Ostapenko swings away, blasting her strokes, crosscourt, extremely hard, and down the line. The Latvian has won one at a Slam, at the 2017 Roland Garros, but now the 21-year-old makes so too errors and she insults herself. Eventually, though she can calm down and she can return to the top 5 very soon. 

Sharapova was pleased after she won and now she will face Carla Suárez Navarro<, who topped Caroline Garcia 7-6 in the third. The Spainard has lots of topspin with her heavy, one-handed backhand. However, Sharapova can hit threw her, and knock her onto the wall. Sharapova will win in two sets. 

More picks
American Madison Keys rose up when she had to, and she jumped over Aleksandra Krunic in three sets. Last year, she reached the final. Keys has not played extremely well this season, but now, she is forceful. She will face Domi Cibulkova, who overcame Angie Kerber. That’s a toss-up, but I think that Keys will take a breath in the third and win it.  

On Sunday there are two tight matches: Ash Barty versus Karolina Pliskova, and Sloane Stephens against Elise Mertens. Pliskova is totally unpredictable, but she can hit a little hard against the Aussie. However, Barty can grind her, but Pliskova will out together a number of huge first serves and win in two sets.  

Mertens is very steady, but Stephens rarely misses the ball, that is why she won the US Open last year. She will pound Mertens into the ground.

Here are two fine contests: Kevin Anderson vs. Dominic Thiem, and John Isner versus Milos Raonic. The tall Anderson is mentally stronger now, all the time. Thiem is battling, trying and push himself forward, but I am not sure that he can return frequently. Anderson will win in four sets.

Do you want a fifth setter? Well, here it is, with Raonic versus Isner. Neither of them return well, but they can serve hard and smoke their forehands. Isner will pull it off, 7-6(7) in the fifth.