Roland Garros day 5: American men has little chance

Steve Johnson

Notes on a draw sheet:
Every day in the Grand Slams first weeks, there will be some really long matches and some darn good ones, too. There are marathons that can be fantastic, but also, it could be lousy and with so many errors.

Over too many years, American men rarely reach the second week. Here and there, but the last time was Andre Agassi, who won it in Paris, grinding and cracking the ball. He won it in 1999. He was so brilliant.
Now, it has been 22 years ago and probably, no American will win the 2021 Roland Garros. But, to reach the second week, that would be something.

On Wednesday, John Isner, Reilly Opelka and Steve Johnson won their matches. Isner has always been played very well on the hardcourts. The tall, young man Opelka is smart and he is committed to his game This year, Johnson did very little until this week, so maybe he can be self-assured again. Let’s see come Monday.
The Japanese Kei Nishikori has been around for a long time, and when he is healthy — and that is rare — he is muscular and he has a great set of wheels. He just won two five-setters. So, eventually, he will be sore in the third round. His legs will be very fatigued. But, to win another match … unlikely.

Chilean Cristian Garin won a five-setter. When the tournament ends, he will be ranked in the top 20. He is stellar stuff.

Serena Williams won in three sets, downing Mihaela Buzarnescu. She has always been great, but she is still on and off. Gradually, though, she will be more compatible

Aryna Sabalenka also won. For sure, she has a chance to win it all, but only if she is continues to stay calm. Victoria Azarenka and Madison Keys will clash. That will be a barn-burner.

Novak Djokovic & Serena Williams: ‘It’s just really cat-and-mouse’

Serena Williams

Serena Williams is 39-years-old, and soon enough, she will retire, possibly at the end off 2021. She has a young child, and she wants to be with her daughter all the time. That is reality, and that is a good thing, but at the same time, she wants to win one more Grand Slam.

In Rome, she lost in the first round against Nadia Podoroska. So now, if she wants to go deep at Roland Garros, she has to compete a lot in the next two weeks. She has to be super hard.

“That’s always like a little struggle in the first two matches, and then I’m raring to go. I was struggling a little bit, and just final shots,” Serena said. “I had a lot of opportunities to win, final shots and just kind of missing those. Overall, it was good for me to play such a clay court player, but it’s a little frustrating. But it’s all right. It is what it is. I’m not playing as many matches. I’m just doing a lot of training. So it’s actually really good to get out and to play some matches.”

Williams has decided to play next week at the Emilia-Romagna Open in Parma. It is all about getting in more matches.

Novak Djokovic has a won a huge amount on hardcourts and grass, and also, the clay, too, except when he has to face against Rafa Nadal, who is the best on the dirt ever.

But Djokovic is close, because maybe he doesn’t totally love clay, but he improved over the past 15 years. He is excellent, and he is thoughtful on court. He studie, and rethinks what he can do. He is very thoughtful.

“Well, we all know the clay is a slower surface in the sport. As much it requires more physical energy from a player, but also I think mental and emotional energy as well,” Djokovic explained. “You have to train on clay more than any other surface really to get yourself comfortable playing on it. It is also a very demanding surface in terms of tactics, in terms of just constructing the point. Sometimes it’s just really cat-and-mouse type of play where you have to fight for a better position on the court, sometimes use the shots that you would not normally use on other surface, like this looping forehand or backhand, trying to get back in play, build your position. It is the surface that probably requires from a player to defend better than on any other surface.”

Djokovic rarely gets tired. Even when during at the Slams, he can play for many hours. He is in great shape, but once in a while, he can be feel the effects of the demands of clay.
“I haven’t played a lot at all, so I don’t feel physically exhausted or worn out. I don’t think that’s going to be a case for me coming to Paris. I’m excited to come to [Roland Garros]. That’s obviously the biggest goal of my clay court season,” he said.
The 17-year-old Coco Gauff is getting better and better. She stunned Aryna Sabalenka, who was on a streak. Sabalenka was tired and she missed a lot of balls. But Gauff rose up and smashed the ball.

“I guess a 10 out of 10. I think I played pretty well the whole match. She’s not an easy opponent,” Gauff said. “Sometimes you’re always on defense, so sometimes you just have to scramble a little bit. I played smart.”

On the next day No. 1 Ash Barty retires, up 6-4, 2-1 against Gauff. She is hurt. There are so many injuries, with the women and the men…

There are a few people wo played the Australian Open, who after February, they have to travel all the way through November. That can be very hard, not to see with your parents, your terrific friends. Mentally, it can be upsetting.

John Millman said, “I don’t want it to come across as a bit of a sob story.

“For me really it’s impossible to come home midseason. I knew going away, and probably that’s a reflection of probably my poor form to start off the season was when I went away. I was probably a bit depressed because I knew that I was going away for like 10 or 11 months. I was a bit depressed. I can’t stress the mental side of it, but I’m in a much better place now and have come to terms with a 10-and-a-half month trip.”

It was another big win by American Reilly Opelka, who eliminated Federico Delbonis in the quarters 7-5, 7-6(2). His semifinal opponent was Nadal and predictably, the Spaniard knocked him out 6-4, 6-4. “Clay is not really my thing. [It is] not much of an American thing. Probably just a fluke, but I’ll run with it.”

Any miracles? The U.S. men will go to Madrid

John Isner

Next week, in Madrid, the American men will knock it up in the early rouds, and hopefully, they can go further. But, there is the opposite and they can lose quickly.  

Finally, there are more Americans who traveled to Europe for the clay court season. The current players are so-so. On the hardcourts, they are better, because they can go for the winners early. But, on clay, which is slower, and you have to slide, the matches and points are longer and can mean hours-long matches. But why not test it? Currently, the US men are not in the top-20. But, at least give it an effort.

John Isner is ranked No. 38, and the huge hitter has rarely gone deep on clay. He did win Miami (on the hardcourts), and he has gone into the semis at Wimbledon (on grass), pounding ace after ace. But, in the past year and a half, he hasn’t played much. Now, he has to bear up. He could face Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round, and the Spaniard revels clay. That is a huge challenge for Isner.   

Taylor Fritz is ranked No. 30, and he is still young, but he plays every week. Believe it or not, in Monte Carlo, he lost to Bautista Agut is two sets. OK, that was alright, and while he can lose early, at least he almost upset Novak Djokovic in the 2021 Australian Open, in a famous five-setter. And in Doha, he beat David Goffin and Denis Shapovalov. So he was psyched. Over the past three years, he has only won a couple matches on the dirt. That is problematic. He has to slide more, and go at the net, and put it away. He will face against Pablo Carreno Busta. Ugh?
Two more American guys: Reilly Opelka is very lofty, and he can crack it, but he hasn’t done much this year. He lost to Fritz in five sets at the Aussie Open. Just like Fritz, Opelka does does not like clay, but he did have a some good wins in 2020 on the hardcourts, when he upset Matteo Berrettini at Cincinnati. In Madrid, he will face Dominik Koepfer in the first round, and if he wins — which would be groove — he could face Cristian Garin, who is ranked No. 22. For Opelka, that would be a miracle.

Tommy Paul also travels lot, and he is making an effort. If he beats Pedro Martinez, then will face the red hot No. 7 Andrey Rublev. What a imposing challenge.

Here are four guys who will make it to the end of Madrid: Rafa Nadal (the favorite), Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Young American men: Can they get close to the top?

Taylor Fritz

We are still waiting to see if the young U.S. men can reach into the top 10 at some point. How about in the top 15, instead?

The older American, John Isner, is still there, ranked No. 16 in the Race to London. Can he reach the top 8 towards the end of the year and play the ATP Finals in November? Possibly, but he will have to go very deep, week after week. The 34-year-old Isner has been there before, but maybe his legs are sore.
It appears that the young Americans look pretty good, but are they great and fantastic? Not yet.

At least they are pushing hard. Reilly Opelka just beat Taylor Fritz in Japan. That was a big win for him. The 6-foot-11 Opelka has a huge serve, and if he can stay in close near the baseline, he can slam it. However, when he has to run very fast, he can get tripped up. Opelka will never be speedy, but he can gradually improve. He is ranked No. 53, which is OK. But next year, he has to reach the top 20 at some point. Then we will know that he is getting better gradually.

Another young American, Fritz, has had a good year, but will the No. 31 move up towards the top? He will want to, but he has to think about how he is hitting about the ball, returning, and being more logical with his decisions.

There is only one more American in the top 50 — Frances Tiafoe at No. 46. He looked good during the winter and spring, but since then he has lost a lot. He fell to Alexander Zverev in straight sets, easy stuff. Tiafoe can grind it down, but it looks like he is confused. He was ranked No. 29 early this year. It is time to re-switch.


Outside of the U.S., there are some fascinating youngsters, such as Andrey Rublev, who just bounced Grigor Dimitrov in Japan.

In Cincinnati in August, Rublev upset Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer. Maybe he plays too much, but when he focuses and drives the ball, he is dangerous.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic lost at the US Open, when he retired. But in July, he won Wimbledon. He was injured in New York, but he now he feels good enough to play. Because the US Open champ Rafa Nadal won’t play for the next month, Djokovic will stay at No. 1. I would think that the Serbian will end the year ranked No. 1, but he still has work to do against the top players.