Archives for May 2024

After taking Rome, can Zverev win Roland Garros?

Alexander Zverev
Mal Taam/MALTphoto

Almost exactly two years ago, Alexander Zverev fell down hard and in the semis at Roland Garros. He had to retire due to his ankle injury. His body was ruined. It has taken the German a long time to slowly improve again, and finally in Rome, he won the title, beating Nicolas Jarry.

He was very patient, he was creative, and he could mash the ball. Zverev can very controversial, but on the court, the 27-year-old can be calm, and thoughtful. The No. 4  is rising again, so in Paris, he will try to be more focused. He badly wants to win a Grand Slam for the first time.

“Because it’s clay, to start with. It’s the most physical one for me, in my opinion,” Zverev said about the three-out-of-five at Roland Garros. “It’s the physically toughest one.  But I think it’s the one where I have the most memories, good or bad. US Open, yes, I was two points away from winning the title [in 2020]. Of course, that’s also one that kind of sticks out.  Roland Garros, so close to being in the final [against Rafa Nadal] I felt like. I was playing some of the best tennis of my life in 2022. Those kind of things, they are still in the back of my mind. Yeah, that’s the one that I want to do well in.”

At the start of the year, Zverev  looked like that his return was more consistent, and his forehand went deeper, close to the lines. But in the semis at the Aussie Open, he was up two sets, but then Daniil Medvedev began to be incredibly consistent, and then Zverev went back, and he missed some critical shots, losing 7–5, 6–3, 6–7(4), 6–7(5), 3–6.  That was almost heart breaking. But right now, he wants to try it again.

“That’s the one that I want to win. That’s the one that I look forward the most maybe throughout the year,” he said.  “I’m going to do everything I can this year and we’ll see where I can end up.”

It is one thing that Zverev  can beat a bunch of good, but not great players, but can he take down Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, at Roland Garros, or one of them? That is a tough order. He says that he can.

“I’m somebody that I know when I don’t play well, I can lose to anyone, but when I play well, I know I can beat anyone. That’s my mindset,” Zverev said. “That’s how I think about it.  I know I have to focus on myself, to find my rhythm in Paris the way I did here. Then everything is on my own racquet.”

Once again in Paris in 2023, in the semis, he was very formable, but Casper Ruud was super steady, and the Norwegian won. However, Zverev just won Rome, so on the excellent clay, he is thrilled and more mature, when he is thinking. Now he has to drive it.

“Nole is going to be at his best. You’ll see,” Zverev said. “It’s just the way it is. Rafa is going to play a lot better than he did in Madrid and Rome. I’m certain about that. The other two [Sinner and Alcaraz] they just depend on health. If they’re healthy, they’re two of the best players in the world, for sure, and there’s no question about it. Whether or not they are healthy, I cannot answer because I don’t know. I’m not inside their body. I saw Jannik posted a picture of him practicing again, so I’m assuming he’s fine and feeling good on the tennis court. Look, it’s all about health. When they’re healthy, they’re two of the best players in the world.”

Just like Zverev, who is healthly, and the best player, too? That is a  huge question.

Iga Swiatek versus Aryna Sabalenka: another marathon

Iga Swiatek
Mal Taam/MALT photo

Just last week, in Madrid,  in the final, Iga Swiatek  edged Aryna Sabalenka  7-5, 4-6, 7-6(7) in Madrid. That was beyond close, but in the end, the Polish person kept swinging and painting the lines. However,  Sabalenka also can read the ball, where she is throwing it to different places. They both have had a terrific year so far, most of the time, and the No. 1 and the No. 2 can focus almost all the time, point to point.

Will Swiatek go super aggressive early, or will she be more patient? Sabalenka might also leap on the second returns, and try to snap a winner. They both hit some huge forehands and there backhands, down the line, or crosscourt. They can also hit it flat, or spin it. They are very fast when they are running, and they rarely get tired. They know how they play, so they will   have to change it up a little bit, as when it goes close again, someone will chuck in some cool shots.

“Honestly, I don’t think it makes sense to think about these two matches as one continuing story because totally different tournament,” Swiatek said. “Different week, as well. It’s not like it’s going to be the same.”

Sabalenka said that all week, she was thinking why she lost. Madrid is slower, on the court, but Rome is faster. The rallies will be there, but it won’t be so long. Sabalenka might try to hit it even more deep.

“I saw somewhere Swiatek said she’s not really thinking about me when she’s practicing,” Sabalenka said, “but I personally, after so many tough matches that I lost against her, I’m always trying to improve, I’m always trying to get better. So next time I play against her I have something else to bring on court and to put her under a bit more pressure and see how many chances I’m gonna have.” 

Swiatek  won it the last time, but on Saturday, Sabalenka will rise in  another fun three sets, and the Belarus will win it 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Rome: Fritz, Paul win – how far can they go?

Tommy Paul
Mal Taam/MALTphoto

It is somewhat unusual for the American men to go deep in the clay courts in Europe, but this week in Rome, Taylor Fritz  and Tommy Paul are still there. Fritz rose up in the third set and beat  Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 6-7(11), 6-1, while Paul mashed Daniil Medvedev 6-1, 6-4. Clearly, both Dimitrov and Medvedev looked pretty tired, given that the Russian played a very, very long match, and his legs were almost gone, but at least Paul attacked him early and often. Fritz was struggling during the first three months, but he started to be much more consistent, and to change it, more. 

Many of the American men and women don’t love in the slower clay, but eventually, if they want to really understand what they have to do, then they can be to provide.

“I think it was a pretty clean match for me, other than maybe the first or second game in both sets. I played some really good tennis,” Paul said. “I played pretty aggressive, that was the game plan coming in.”

Both of them will have to, as Fritz will take on Alexander Zverev in the quarters, a very tough opponent. Paul realizes that he will have to almost perfect, as Hubert Hurkacz won it again, upsetting the famous Rafa Nadal, and on Tuesday, he edged Sebastian Baez 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-4.  He might be tired, but Hurkacz can  hit very powerful, and to  hit it deep,in the corners.

Danielle Collins is still playing wonderfully, and while she said that she will retire at the end of the year, but she has only lost one time in 2024, winning 18 matches. Her confidence is sky-high. Her forehand and her backhand are rugged, and she jumps on it, almost immediately. However, she has to face against the two-time Grand Slam champion, Vika Azarenka, who will try to dominate it, slamming it, everywhere. But the American Collins can also do the same thing, to be patient.

“I think my physicality and where I’m at mentally right now,” Collins said, “I’m just really dialed into my tactics and what I need to do against each opponent. I think I’m playing really smart tennis right now.”

She must be. The No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka is rarely tired, on the court, even when she had played for hours and hours, on the court, she just likes to run. She has to face against a fine veteran, Jelena Ostapenko, who is still addicted to try and put it away, immediately. It is possible that  Sabalenka is physically hurt, as on Monday, she needed more than three hours to edged Elena  Svitolina. Her  lower back and hip area were pretty sore, but Sabalenka might be recovered on Wednesday.  It seems like that Sabalenka loves Rome: “It’s still one of my dream tournaments.” 

Tabilo over Djokovic, Hurkacz downs Nadal

In just one day, both of the other great champion, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, were gone, losing somewhat early, in Rome. Alejandro Tabilo played a terrific match, beating Djokovic 6-2, 6-3. The No. 1 put together more than a few errors, and he also didn’t crush the ball, with his amazing backhand and his forehand. He has mentally out of it.

Nadal went down again, as he could not re-find where he needed to do,  when Hubert Hurkacz out-stroked him, winning it 6-1, 6-3. Hurkacz played fantastic, but Nadal was almost awful, very rare, that the Spaniard has won so many titles on the clay, but soon, he will retired. His body is going away, soon.

Neither Tabilo or Hurkacz have won a Grand Slam yet, but when they are on, they can beat almost everyone. Yet they have to continue to prove it, and they know that if they want to win day after day, they have to be super smart, and also, really go for it. Tabilo said, “I came on court just looking around, just trying to soak it all in and trying to process everything. I’m just trying to wake up right now.”

Well wake up, on the court, to all of them. The Chilean has to face against Karen Khachanov, a very tight match.

There is two American men still left, when Taylor Fritz beat another guy,  Sebastian Korda 6-3, 6-4.  Fritz  didn’t play great, but good enough, while Korda made some so-so shots, or mediocre shots.  Korda plays almost every week, so maybe he should not play way too much during the year. Maybe he isn’t very happy.

Fritz looks better and better, reaching the semis in Madrid, so he can do it again next week in Rome.  If he does that, his confidence will shine, again, but he has to face against Grigor Dimitrov, who has been playing extremely well in 2024. That should be a long, tough match.

Tommy Paul beat Aslan Karatsev 6-4, 6-2, and while he has been struggling, here and there, at least he is finally liking on the clay. On the hard courts, he can be darn, good. He will face versus Dominik Koepfer, who is also smart, so just try to fool him.

There will 16 women players on the singles, on Monday, when there should be some marathons.

Naomi Osaka has become better, with her backhand, and when she is 100 percent, on the matches, she can pound anyone. However, she had a child, and she could not play for a while, but now she looks more powerful, both sides. She has to face the No. 7, Zheng Qinwen. That should be fascination, as Osaka is starting to understand on the dirt.

“I just wanted to play smart tennis. I wanted to play the higher-percentage ball no matter what,” Osaka said. “I think in that match, when it got tight, I did overhit maybe one or two shots. I kind of realized that and I tried to get back in the groove of things.  For me, I’m very aware that I can’t beat her defensively, so obviously I have to go for my shots. I don’t want to play flat here either.”

Yes, also with some spin, and low, or  really high. The No. 3 Coco Gauff has to find a way against Paula Badosa, who has lost to her three times. The other American, the No. 13 Danielle Collins, played terrific on the hard courts, but over the years, in the clay, she did not go super deep. Now she has another chance when she has to play against another veteran Irina-Camelia Begu. Win another match, and again, and again.

Rome: Alexander Zverev amazed by Rafa Nadal

Alexander Zverev
Mal Taam/MALTphoto

Before they start to play in Rome, Alexander Zverev talked with the journalist whether Rafa Nadal will play in Roland Garros, who will likely be the last time in Paris. Nadal has won 14 Grand Slams at Roland Garros. Zverev was playing terrific, but he fell down and he ruined his leg. He had to retire. Nadal won, eventually, and while Zverev is much better now than he returned when he did, but he still isn’t playing 100% on court.

Yet Zverev does have a few memories. When he started, on the tour, he could see that Nadal is phenomenal.

“I have mixed feelings and mixed emotions obviously about that match, about playing him there just simply because it was one of the best tennis matches I’ve ever played in my career, but it was the worst ending I’ve ever had to a tennis match in my career,” Zverev said. “ [Nadal] ball becomes all of a sudden a few kilometers an hour faster. All of a sudden his footwork and foot speed becomes a lot faster.  It’s more difficult to hit a winner, especially on Philippe Chatrier, which is a massive court, so he has a lot more space. It is very difficult. It’s the biggest challenge that you can have in our sport, playing Nadal on that court.  I would love to do it one more time just simply to kind of have a different ending to those memories, right? That’s just something in my mind. I would love to play him one more time.”

They might in Rome, or in Paris, in the next four weeks. But we don’t know, yet. Nadal has not yet reached into the semis this year, playing three events, when he returned, and the injured man is still not yet healthy. But he said that he could play 100 percent, but he doesn’t sure, yet. Regardless, Nadal will fight on, and hope that he can go deep in Rome. He will face Zizou Bergs, the Belgian, on center court. People will cheer him, every second.

There are a number people who are still there, the Italian men and the women. Somewhat sadly, the world No. 2 Jannik Sinner pulled out, due to another injury, but Matteo Arnaldi can play on the number one court, and the young man will play against Tomas Machac in front of a lot of fans. He really has to feel on the ball.

Over the past year, Jasmine Paolini has added more game. She might not be very tall, but she can drive the ball, corner to corner. She is 28-years-old, which mean that she is a veteran, but she did won Dubai two months ago, so she has to  thrown in some more, aggressive, shots.

“Usually I want to hit more flat, but my coach says to me always to try to play more topspin because it’s good to have a variation on your game. I think it’s something different because in female tennis you see like more flat shots,” she said. “It’s not easy also because you need maybe a little bit more time. But I try to mix it up a little bit. I think it’s good to change a little bit the variation, the speed of the ball,”

There will be three more matches on Thursday with Emma Navarro against Paula Badosa, Shelby Rogers against the No. 7, Qinwen Zheng, and Amanda Anisimova, who just became back this year against to play with the veteran, Sara Errani. Talk about stroke after stroke, for many hours.

Andrey Rublev wins Madrid, edging Felix Auger-Aliassime

Andrey Rublev
Mal Taam/MALTphoto

When Andrey Rublev began to play in Madrid,he was almost lost. The Russian started pretty good in January, when he won a small event, in Hong Kong. Then  he reached into the quarterfinals at the Australia Open and he looked very decent, until  he backer off, and he lost against the soon-to-be champion in Melbourne Jannik Sinner. 

However, they can lose, but they can re-set what they are going. Well, Rublev didn’t do much of anything, as over the next three months, he did not go deep again, until now.

Rublev won Madrid, overcoming Felix Auger-Aliassime 7-5 in the third set to grab it. He also beat the No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz as well as the American, Taylor Fritz. All of a sudden, his huge strokes came back.

“I think it’s normal to have ups and downs because this season I started really well and I was playing amazing,” Rublev said. “Then somehow I started to do a bit worse and then a couple of weeks I could not win a match. I think this is normal to have up-and-downs and everyone go through this, so I guess my focus was not to feel if when I will go back to normal or what is normal.”

Is it really normal? It could, if the player can be very focused, on court. When he runs, Rublev  can be fast, and when he has a decent chance to start to nail the ball, he can crack it, with his heavy forehand and his backhand. He can flatten it out, or he can split it. Also, he can change the direction. 

 Rublev is currently ranked No. 6, and he will have another chance to win a Grand Slam for the first time. Yes he has won a bunch of very good players, but in a three-out-of-five, it is certainly tougher to win seven matches in a row, rather than two-out-of-three. It is a huge difference.

At Rome and Roland Garros, Rublev will have to be even more solid to go super deep, again.

Perhaps that Auger-Aliassime was out of it, all year, until he went to Madrid. He lost almost all of the time, which was unusual, because in 2022 and 2023, he was darn, good. But then he fell out, and he missed so many errors. That was unusual, but in the final in Madrid, he returned, and while he lost in the final, he put together some terrific, calm shots. He has always been super fast, and he also can try to grind it. Now, at least last week, in the clay, he touched some soft shots, with his backhand close to the net. The winners, came. However, at the end of the third set, he was close to win it, but the now No. 20 missed a few critical error and he lost. Auger-Aliassime can be consistent for the rest of the year. He must prove it, going into the summer.   

NOTES

Sinner had to retire in Madrid, and then he couldn’t play in Rome, due to an injury. The No. 2 also said he might play at Roland Garros, but maybe not,  unless he is 100 percent. That mean he won’t become the No. 1 in Paris, unless he gets healthy, which will be tough, anyway.

Four people had a fine week in Madrid with Fritz, Jiri Lehecka, Mariano Navone and Alejandro Tabilo.

Three of the Grand Slam champions are there in Rome with  Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev and Rafa Nadal. Will one of them win Rome again? Maybe not, as Djokovic pulled out in Madrid, Medvedev got hurt, on the court, and Nadal is still trying to play more consistent. 

One of the players, Casper Ruud, won Barcelona, so his confidence is so high. Try to do it again.

Madrid final: Iga Swiatek to take down Aryna Sabalenka

Iga Świątek
Mal Taam/MALTphoto

They have done it before and now, on Saturday, in  Madrid, the No. 1  Iga Swiatek will face the No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka. The two players can bash the ball, side to side, and even hit it down the line, and hope she can nail a winner.

Swiatek can almost be perfect, but she can drop off. However, in the past week, she played terrific, beating Beatriz Haddad Maia in three sets, and then in the semis, she ran so fast, very deep, wiping out Madison Keys 6-1, 6-3. 

Once again, Sabalenka can frantic when she cannot raise her game, enough, but she is very consistent, overall, and her serve has become much better over the past one and a half years. Sometimes, she can revert her serve, but she does turn it around.

Here in Madrid, in the quarters, she pushed the teenager,  Mirra Andreeva, as  she knew how to figure it out and what to do. In the semis, it was a marathon, a great one, when Sabalenka  outlasted Elena  Rybakina  1-6, 7-5, 7-6(5).

The battle is on.  

Swiatek has beaten Sabalenka  6-3 overall, and on clay, it is 3-1. But it is true that Sabalenka can be more patient, and fool her.

The wild thing is that exactly one year ago, in Madrid, Sabalenka won it, beating Swiatek 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 to win it.  This time, she can do it again, but it will be a gigantic challenge.

“I would say [last year’s final] was the best match I ever played, especially on clay court. I think the level was just super high,” Sabalenka. “It was clean, it was intense, powerful game. Yeah, I think that was the best final I ever played.”

Oh really? How about what Swiatek said: “I wouldn’t say we’re trying to figure [the game plan] out, because we kind of know what I should play, but sometimes it wasn’t easy to implement it. “So this is something that I want to improve. So it’s not like we need to change a lot, but we need to stick to the plan and I need to implement it a little bit better, sometimes.”

Swiatek will take it, 7-5 in the third set.

Rublev over Auger-Aliassime
Speaking of this, how about Andrey Rublev, who lost so many matches this year, as he was very erratic. But now, he began to be much more thoughtful, and patient. Over the past nine days in Madrid, he nailed it, over the No. 2,  Carlos Alcaraz in the quarters, and then in the semis, he beat the American,  Taylor Fritz, 6-4 6-3. Where did that come from?

“Mentally I was feeling much better and I was able to perform,” said the Russian Rublev. “Putting emotions in the right direction. For sure it has helped me to reach the final. Without this, I would not be in the final.”

But he did, and now in the final, on Sunday, he will face against Felix Auger-Aliassime, who in the semis, Jiri Lehecka had to retire, in the first set. The Canadian  Auger-Aliassime has not had a very good year, but he did reach into the top 10 in 2022,  so now, the current No. 35 can finally play wonderful. Both of them have to. Rublev leads his head-to-head 4-1 versus  Auger-Aliassime, so the Russian is  better than he is, but it could change, quickly.

“We’ve always had three-set battles, even back in 2018, I was much younger,” said Auger-Aliassime. “He’s always a player that fights hard, that’s always present every tournament, us players have highs and lows but he’s always there.”

Rublev will win it in three sets, taking the third 6-4.