Is Djokovic Done With Number One?

by John on January 21, 2017

The tennis world is still trembling in the aftermath of Novak Djokovic’s seismic loss to Denis Istomin down under on Thursday. Although the aura of Djokovic’s invincibility had taken some serious hits since the Serb completed his career Grand Slam at Roland Garros in June, the new year had given some indication that he had righted the ship and turned things around. Rumors of his demise were for certain prematurely exaggerated. Istomin blew that supposition right out of the water. Djokovic, by his lofty standards, had had a poor six months. Upsets by Sam Querrey in the third round at Wimbledon, Juan Martin del Potro in the first round of the Rio Olympics, Stan Wawrinka in the final of the U.S. Open, Roberto Bautista Agut in the semis at the Shanghai Masters, Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters, and Andy Murray in the ATP World Tour Finals made for a not so very great body of work. For Djokovic, that is. All but the Querrey and Wawrinka losses were in straight sets to-boot. Of course Djokovic had played at such a superlative level during his 122 week reign at No. 1 that any loss was considered an upset. That’s the rarefied territory he lived in. Two weeks ago, when Djokovic defeated Murray in the final of the Qatar Open, it seemed there might be a return to the old order. New year, new hope, new direction! Not so. Speculation abounds as to what’s led to the decline in Djokovic’s performance level. Some blame the influence of spiritual guru Pepe Imaz, others surmise there’s something going on at home that has diverted his focus. Djokovic himself had hinted at the need to take care of personal issues over the summer after the Wimbledon loss. Other theorists even think it’s his diet, since they say he appeared to look thinner in Melbourne. Personally, I think, as the majority do, it’s burnout — finally hitting the wall after such a phenomenal run. Physically, there’s nothing wrong with Nole. Said former Wimbledon champion Australian Pat Cash: “If we were doubting it before, we confirmed he’s not the same player he was six months ago. [Thursday’s defeat] just shows that Novak has absolutely lost his edge, there’s no doubt about that.” Such a subtle thing is holding an edge. We are used to seeing Djokovic push the pedal all the way to the metal whenever he’s in trouble and grind his way out of danger. Thursday, as on other occasions over the last six months, he failed to floor it when necessary. Didn’t give it enough gas in the clutch moments “When you see someone play as well as Istomin did, it’s usually because their opponent has invited them to deliver their best stuff,” said Craig O’Shannessy, lead analyst for the men’s tour. “When Novak was playing his best, he shut you down, hit the lines, hugged the baseline. There was no space to work in. Now he’s just backed off a tiny bit and he is creating the conditions for the other guy to prosper.” Evidence of dialing it back is the observed decrease in the speed on Nole’s forehand in rallies. In his straight-sets win over Murray at last year’s Australian Open final, official stats noted Djokovic averaged 80 mph on his forehand ground strokes, with a max of 105 mph. Murray’s numbers by comparison were 72 and 92 respectively. Recently, Nole has seen his forehand speed drop to an average of 74 mph and a max of 95. Giving your opponent more time is not a good thing. Erstwhile coach Boris Becker, whom Djokovic departed with in December, offered some insight on the mental side of his former charge after watching his play in Melbourne. “I did not recognize him, his mentality,” Becker said. “He always was very nonchalant about it, and that is not the Novak that I know. I’d rather see him break a racquet or pull the shirt or something, for him to get emotional. I thought it was very even keel the whole match through. That was unusual, and I don’t know what to make of that. I felt he tried, and he played five sets and four-and-a-half hours, but I didn’t see the intensity; didn’t see the absolute will to win, didn’t see him mentally going crazy.” The big question now is whether or not Djokovic will get his mojo back and have the desire to reclaim the top rung in men’s tennis. For someone whom talk of GOAT was being bandied about just six months ago, it’s hard to believe he would pack it in at just 29 years of age. Something tells me he’s going to flip the switch and fight like hell to get it all back again. And in reality, he’s not that far off. Todo esta la cabeza.

 

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Qualifier Alexander Bublik, ranked No. 207 in the world, pulled off the biggest upset of Day 1 on the men’s side of the draw at the Australian Open Monday afternoon. The 19-year-old Russian, now playing for Kazakhstan since November, thoroughly took it to No. 16 seed Lucas Pouille 6-0, 3-6, 6-3. 6-4 in one hour and 43 minutes. Bublik struck quick before Pouille even knew what hit him, bageling the Frenchman in the opening set in just 18 minutes and winning 26 of the first 36 points. It was mostly downhill for Pouille from there. The 6-foot-4 Kazakh’s power and aggression stunned the Frenchman from the get-go and he never quite recovered. Pouille, ranked No. 16 in the world, has now lost in the first round all four times he’s played at Melbourne. The 22-year-old Frenchman was voted the ATP Most Improved Player of the Year in 2016 by the players. He won his maiden ATP Tour title at Metz in September, three weeks after knocking out Rafael Nadal in the fourth round at the U.S. Open, and has continued to climb up the ladder since then. Bublik pounded 16 aces and won 86 percent of his first service points, while hitting 38 winners. The youngster saved three of six break points. Pouille served six aces, hit 20 winners and saved four of 11 break points. Next up for Bublik, who had to win three qualifying matches to reach the main draw, is Tunisia’s Malek Jaziri.

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The long wait is finally over. Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller defeated Brit Daniel Evans 7-6 (5), 6-2 in the final of the Apia International Sydney Saturday night, capturing his maiden ATP Tour title 13 years after reaching his first tour final. The 33-year-old Muller had been unsuccessful in five tour finals until his victory over Evans. “It means a lot. I was waiting a long time. Played my first final in 2004 (in Washington DC). We are 2017 now, and I waited 13 years to win my first title. I’m just very happy,” Muller said. “I couldn’t have imagined, when I arrived here, to be in the final. And then to win it now is just, yeah, it’s crazy.” The sixth-seeded Muller, ranked No. 34 in the world, had ended the 10-match Sydney winning streak of two-time defending champion Viktor Troicki in the semifinals on Friday in a tight 6-3, 7-6 (6) victory. In his first two matches earlier in the week Muller was stretched to three sets, including saving a match point against Alexandr Dolgopolov in the opening round. Muller had a confident start, holding at love to open the match, while Evans double-faulted twice in his first service game, but still managed to hold. Service prevailed throughout the set, although Evans needed to save break points in the 10th and 12th games to force a tiebreaker. Evans led 4-2 in the tie-break, but then fell behind 6-5 when Muller captured mini-breaks on the seventh and 11th points. Muller served it out, winning the final point on an overhead smash. The 6-foot-3 left-handed Luxembourger, with momentum and confidence in hand, broke in the third game of the second set, and then again in the seventh to lead 5-2. On the precipice of his first tour title, Muller toed the service line and jumped out to a 40-love lead. Evans erased two match points, but a swinging Muller serve sealed victory on the third. “I think the most important thing was to stay calm,” Muller said, “(and) not to let the frustration come up too much and just focus on what I had to do. I think I did pretty good.” Muller served 12 aces to seven for Evans and won 87 percent of his first service points. The Luxembourger saved his only break point, Evans erased five of seven. “I don’t think I lost it. I think he won it, to be honest,” Evans said. “He served too good. Obviously the first-set tiebreak was a big one. It would have sort of been tough for him to regain focus and go again if I’d won the first set, but I didn’t. He was good front runner.”

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Sam Groth tennis matches are not things of beauty. Mostly they’re affairs of smash and bash. Wednesday afternoon was no exception. The big-serving Australian battled gusty winds, 97 degree temperatures and an in-form Gerald Melzer, as well as his temper, to defeat the second-seeded Austrian 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) in the second round of the Canberra Challenger. The win was the second come from behind victory of the week for Groth. Monday he fought off match point against Vijay Prashanth of India to win in three sets. Melzer, ranked No. 84 in the world and younger brother of Jurgen, was coming off an impressive performance at Doha last week after giving Andy Murray a major scare in a second-round loss. Groth appeared out of sorts for most of the first two sets, perhaps frustrated by the wind , but also the smooth, lefthanded service delivery of Melzer. The big Australian was spraying balls all over the court and never even had a sniff of an opportunity to break serve. Groth did serve well enough to stay in it, though, except for the seventh game of the first set when three misssed volleys and a double fault led to the only break of the set. Both players held serve through the first nine games of the second set. Groth earned his first break point opportunities in the 10th game, cashing the second one to even the match at a set apiece. As if flipping a switch, the third set featured a different Groth. The Australian’s shots started to land in. Hitting winners off both wings, Groth broke in the fourth game and jumped out to a 5-2 lead. Melzer saved a match point in the eighth game, leaving it to Groth to serve for the match. With the wind gusting, Groth squandered the opportunity, double-faulting three times and dropping serve. A subsequent racket smashing led to a code violation for Groth. The Narrandera native steadied his nerves to force a tiebreaker. He played it superbly with two mini-breaks to seal the unforeseen win in two hours and 11 minutes. “It was tough conditions today, really gusty with the wind and not easy to control the ball but thankfully I managed to get over the line,” Groth said. “I felt like he had the momentum in the match until that last service game in the second set and I felt like I really swung it around.” Both players served 11 aces, but Groth had 10 double faults to four for Melzer. Groth saved two of four break points, Melzer three of five. The Australian will now face Israeli Dudi Sela, the No. 8 seed, for a spot in the semifinals and hopefully keep his temper in check. “I try not to break too many rackets, it’s not ideal but I had to let a bit of frustration out,” Groth said. “It’s better letting it out I think than carrying it and end up losing the match.”

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Defending champion Novak Djokovic defeated Czech qualifier Radek Stepanek 6-3, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of the season-opening Qatar ExxonMobil Open at Doha late Thursday afternoon. Battling the wind as well as the 38-year-old Czech veteran’s crafty and unorthodox style of play, Djokovic, seeded No. 2, won a spot in Friday’s semifinals against Spaniard Fernando Verdasco. Djokovic improved to 13-1 against his good friend Stepanek. It was a steady and solid performance. “He has my utmost admiration and respect.” Djokovic said of Stepanek. “At his age he’s still battling.” Stepanek was bidding to become the oldest ATP semifinalist since a then 40-year-old Jimmy Connors reached the semis at a San Francisco tournament in 1993. Nole started fast, breaking Stepanek in the second game of the match, and raced to a 4-1 lead. Stepanek’s play stiffened as he started to find his groove, breaking in the seventh game to get back on serve. That was the last time in the match he was level with Nole. Djokovic broke back immediately in the eighth game and served it out to take the opener in 54 minutes. With a head of steam, Djokovic broke to open the second set and then again in the ninth game, when Stepanek double-faulted on match point. A nice, perfunctory win in one hour and 31 minutes. About the windy conditions, Djokovic said: “It’s the same for both players, so there is not much you can do. The force of the nature is like that. You have to accept and try to embrace it, really be one with the wind, otherwise it’s not going to be a good day for you.” Stepanek won 76 percent of his first serves to 74 percent for Djokovic, but it was second serves that really told the story of the match. Djokovic won 57 percent of his second serves, Stepanek just 21 percent. “It’s exciting, you obviously want to start the year off in the best possible way, that’s three wins out of three,” said Djokovic of his week so far.

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Popko Whips Reboul to Win Thailand F6 Futures

by John on December 31, 2016

Top seed Dmitry Popko of Kazakhstan ended his season on a high note Saturday morning, defeating French doubles specialist Fabien Reboul 6-4, 6-2 in the final of the Thailand F6 Futures in Hua Hin. The title was the 20-year-old Popko’s fourth of the year and seventh of his career, all on the ITF Futures circuit. Reboul, just 21, bagged his 15th career Futures doubles title last week in the Thailand F5 Futures. Popko, a rising star and a native of Saint Petersburg, is one of a handful of Russian born players who play for Kazakhstan. Fellow Russians Mikhail Kukushkin, Andrey Golubev and Alexander Bublik are others also contributing to the rise of the Central Asian nation as a fledgling tennis power. The Thailand tournament was one of the final two events of the 2016 tennis season. The other, the Hong Kong F5 Futures, concluded an hour or so after Popko sealed his win in Hua Hin. Popko, ranked No. 223 in the world, landed a sterling 75 percent of his first serves in the contest and kept Reboul on the defensive with his bullet-like, flat ground strokes. Reboul, ranked No. 559, gave Popko a real test in the opening set. The Frenchman, who won his first Futures singles title two weeks ago, traded breaks with Popko in the fifth and eighth games of the opener before losing his serve in the ninth to trail 5-4. Popko served it out, but only after being pressed to two deuces. The second set was all Popko, with the Kazakh racing to a 5-0 lead, courtesy of three breaks. Reboul got one of the breaks back in the sixth game, but ended up succumbing in one hour and 29 minutes. Popko saved one of three break points, Reboul seven of 12. The 2016 tennis season is now officially over. Bring on 2017.

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daniel-altmaier

Add another teenager to the growing ranks of young #NextGen stars on the rise. German Daniel Altmaier, displaying a complete all-court game and Richard Gasquet-like backhand, convincingly defeated Brit Jonny O’Mara 7-5, 6-3 in the final of the Qatar F4 Futures at Doha Saturday afternoon. The 18-year-old German won his third title in five finals this year, and improved to 60-24 in 2016, all on the Futures circuit. Altmaier, a model of consistency, has also reached the semifinals twice and the quarterfinals nine times in his 27 tournaments this season. The No. 448-ranked youngster served 15 aces, won 86 percent of his first service points, didn’t commit a double fault and saved three of three break points on the afternoon. At 6-foot-2 and 174 pounds, Altmaier reminds one of a younger Dominic Thiem, both in physical stature and game. One can certainly see potential for a great future for the youngster. The German breezed through his first three service games, winning all 12 points. O’Mara, 21 and ranked No. 544, held his own most of the first set, saving a break point in the third game and then forcing three break point opportunities on Altmaier’s serve in the eighth. The German erased the breakers with strong serving and broke through in the 11th game to lead 6-5. Altmaier served an ace on his first set point to take the opener. Swinging freely and pounding his backhand crosscourt and down the line for winners, Altmaier was in complete command in the second set. He parlayed service breaks in the seventh and ninth games to take the match in one hour and 23 minutes. O’Mara had knocked off top seed Ramkumar Ramanathan in the quarterfinals.

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vanni

Italian journeyman Luca Vanni, ranked No. 182, won his second tournament in a row, defeating fellow countryman Matteo Berrettini 5-7, 6-0, 6-3 in the final of the Andria Challenger Sunday afternoon. The 31-year-old Vanni won at Brescia last week and today’s win now gives him four career Challenger titles. Vanni, seeded No. 4, served 17 aces in a strong serving performance and totaled 88 for the week. Berrettini, 20 and ranked No. 680 in the world, was appearing in his first Challenger final. The first set was highly competitive, with the two big guys (Vanni, 6-foot-6, and Berrettini, 6-4) blasting away from the baseline and at the service line. Vanni pressured Berrettini’s serve in the seventh and ninth games of the opener, but the 20-year old saved all three break points (one in the seventh and two in the ninth) to hold firm. The first-time finalist stunned Vanni in the 12th game by cashing his only break point opportunity of the match to go up one-set to love. The break of serve proved to be Berrettini’s last hurrah. Vanni broke in the first, third and fifth games of the second set to level at a set apiece. The more experienced Vanni piled it on in the final set, breaking in the third and ninth games, to seal the win in one hour and 44 minutes. Vanni landed an impressive 77 percent of his first serves and won 86 percent of those points. He won 53 percent of his second serves. Berrettini served 15 aces and won 73 percent of his first serves, while saving five of 10 break points. With the win, Vanni should climb to No. 157 in tomorrow’s updated ATP Rankings. His career high of No. 100 was reached in May of 2015. Today’s finals in Andria and Columbus (Ohio) bring an end to ATP Challenger play for 2016.

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murray-atp-finals

Andy Murray ensured that his two-week reign as world No. 1 would continue by decisively defeating Novak Djokovic 6-3, 6-4 in the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in London Sunday night. Murray won his 24th consecutive match and fifth tournament in a row to become the 17th player to hold the ATP No. 1 year-end ranking. The 29-year-old Scot, appearing in his first ATP World Tour Final, was rock-solid and relentless in beating the four-time defending champion and improved to 11-24 against the former No. 1-ranked Serb. Djokovic, now No. 2, needed to win the final to regain his top-ranked status which he lost two weeks ago when Murray won the Paris Masters. Murray’s win also prevented Djokovic from winning a record-tying sixth ATP World Tour championship. Djokovic won his first season-ending title in 2008. Roger Federer holds the record with six. “I’m very happy to win and to be world number one is very special,” Murray said. “It’s very special playing against Novak in a match like this. We’ve played Grand Slam finals and in the Olympics before, but I am very happy to win.” Murray played with far greater resolve than Djokovic, who made 30 unforced errors in an unusually erratic performance. Impenetrable from the back of the court, Murray turned defense into offense in an instant. The Scot, who had been on court nine hours and 56 minutes for the week, including the longest match (3 hours and 38 minutes) in the tournament history yesterday against Milos Raonic, showed no signs of fatigue. Djokovic, by comparison, had been on court three hours and 23 minutes less, but it didn’t matter. Murray started slow, double-faulting twice in the first game, but still held. Djokovic won his first nine service points and then began to struggle, needing four deuces and two saved break points to hold in the sixth game. Murray got the deciding break in the eighth game and served it out at 15 to take the opener in 46 minutes. With Djokovic playing tentative and tight, Murray broke immediately to start the second set, and then again in the fifth game to go up 4-1. Virtually on the ropes, Djokovic relaxed and began to hit out, breaking in the next game and holding to trail 4-3. The Serb pressed Murray the rest of the way, but it was too late. Murray sealed the win on his third championship point after one hour and 42 minutes of action. “I expected Andy to play on a high level,” Djokovic said. “As I said yesterday after my semifinal, I didn’t expect him to be too tired. I just played very poorly, made a lot of unforced errors from the backhand side. It wasn’t my day. On the other hand, credit to Andy for being mentally tough and playing the right shots and making me play extra shots in every rally. He definitely deserved to win.” Murray won 84 percent of his first service points and 48 percent of his second. Djokovic won 59 percent of his first deliveries and 65 percent of the points on his second. Murray failed to save his only break point, while Djokovic defended six of nine.

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rublev-for-mouilleron

Russian teenager Andrey Rublev withstood 22 aces from big-serving Benoit Paire to upset the top-seeded Frenchman 6-3, 7-6 (13) in the semifinals of the Mouilleron Le Captif Challenger Saturday afternoon. The 19-year-old Rublev, playing with aggressive abandon and ice in his veins, saved nine of nine break points, while never losing his serve and breaking Paire twice. Rublev, one of the youngest of the #NextGen gang, battles one of the old guard, 34-year-old Julian Benneteau of France, in the finals tomorrow. The No. 171- ranked Rublev will be playing in his second Challenger Tour final. He won at Quimper in March. Rublev came out of the chutes with guns blazing. He forced three break points in the opening game, all of which Paire, ranked No. 47 in the world, successfully erased for a face-saving hold. Rublev broke in the third game and saved two break points in the fourth before holding for 3-1 lead. Serving at 4-3, Rublev fell behind 0-40 and then rallied with five straight points for the crucial hold. He broke Paire in the next game to take the opening set in 32 minutes. The second set proceeded on serve to force a tiebreaker, but not without some perilous moments for each, particularly Rublev. After forcing a break-point opportunity on Paire’s serve in the fourth game, Rublev had to escape another 0-40 predicament in the next game, and then an additional break point, before holding for a 3-2 lead. Paire needed four deuces and an erased break point to hold for 3-3. Each held serve with ease their next three service games. Rublev won it in the tie-break on his third match point when Paire opened the door by double-faulting at 13-13. It was over in one hour and 35 minutes of bang-bang tennis. Rublev served six aces and won 78 percent of his first service points and 67 percent of his second. Paire had four double faults and saved seven of nine break points. Rublev had no double faults.

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