Veteran doubles specialist Rajeev Ram spotted NextGen rising star Reilly Opelka 13 years and seven inches of height and still came out on top in a second round matchup at the Dallas Challenger late last night. The 32-year-old Ram edged past Opelka, 19, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (1) to earn a spot in tonight’s quarterfinals against No. 2 seed Taylor Fritz. Ram, seeded No. 7, was a smooth operator all evening, serving and volleying well and blunting the 6-foot-11 Opelka’s power with deft touch and superb placement. Although the score would indicate an extremely tight match, the contest wasn’t as close as it would appear. Ram, who has won 10 ATP Tour doubles titles and 27 on the Challenger circuit, totaled 16 more points (82-66) and was never in trouble in either tiebreaker. The 6-foot-4 American also has two Tour singles titles on his resume, both on the grass at Newport. Opelka was one of three up-and-coming 19-year-old Americans in the draw, Fritz and Frances Tiafoe being the others. Ram struck first in the opening set, breaking in the third game and cruising to a 3-1 lead. Opelka answered with a break of his own in the eighth and then both held twice to force a tiebreaker. With Opelka serving at 4-4, and neither having dropped a point on serve, the towering Michigan native crowded the net only to have Ram lift a superb lob over his head for the mini-break. Two strong serves from Ram and he had the opening set in his pocket. There were no breaks of serve and no break point opportunities afforded in the second set, but the tiebreaker was vastly different from the first set. Ram captured three mini-breaks and held throughout to take it easily. It was over in one hour and 29 minutes. Ram won 91 percent of his first service points and 62 percent of his second, while saving two of three break points. He only lost 14 points on his serve, while hitting six aces. Opelka had 12 aces and saved one of two break points.

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Lucky loser Uladzimir Ignatik of Belarus edged NextGen teenage star Andrey Rublev 6-7 (6), 6-3, 7-6 (5) in the final of the Rennes Challenger Sunday afternoon. Ignatik lost in the final round of the qualifiers last Sunday, but was the lucky pick into the main draw when Enrique Lopz-Perez withdrew. The title was the 26-year-old Ignatik’s fourth Challenger crown and first since October of 2012. Many only know of Ignatik for his ignominious distinction of being on the receiving end of the fastest recorded serve ever – Sam Groth’s 163-mph ace at the Busan Challenger five years ago this May. However, in addition to his four Challenger titles, Ignatik has 16 Futures titles on his resume. Clearly he knows how to win. Today’s match was a real cliffhanger with the outcome in the balance until the final point. Both players served big and engaged in punishing rallies from the baseline. If there was any real difference it was that Ignatik came to the net more often and ended points quicker. Ignatik had 27 aces to 21 for Rublev. There were no breaks of serve in the opening set, with the only chances coming on Rublev’s serve. The 19-year-old Russian saved a break point in both the ninth and 11th games. Rublev served aces on his first three service points in the tie-break and led 4-1 after capturing a mini-break on the third point. Mini-breaks occurred on the eighth, 10th and 12th points with Ignatik garnering two of the three to get back on serve. The Belarusian stumbled, though, serving a double fault at 6-7 to cede the set to Rublev. Ignatik bounced right back, serving four aces in the opening game of the second set and breaking in the second before racing out to a 4-1 lead. With Ignatik serving for the set at 5-3, Rublev put up strong resistance, forcing five break-point opportunities, but the Belarusian erased all five to level the match at a set apiece. Rublev broke for a 2-0 advantage in the third set, but was broken back in the fifth game. Service prevailed from there to force another tiebreaker. Ignatik captured a mini-break on the first point, but gave it right back on the second. Serving at 5-6, Rublev overcooked a high forehand volley and slammed his racket on the court. It was over and Ignatik was victorious in two hour and 17 minutes. The Belorusian won 82 percent of his first service points and saved five of six break points. Rublev won 75 percent of his first serves and defended six of eight break points. Both move on to compete at the Quimper Challenger, also in France, starting tomorrow.

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Russian Andrey Rublev defeated Duckhee Lee 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in a quarterfinal battle of NextGen teenage tennis stars at the Rennes Challenger Friday afternoon. The 19-year-old Rublev, who had knocked out top-seeded Jeremy Chardy in the first round on Wednesday, used his powerful serve and punishing ground game to wear down the pesky and tenacious Lee. Both players had competed at the Australian Open last week, where Rublev won four matches (three in the qualies) before losing to Andy Murray in the second round. Lee, an 18-year old from South Korea, lost in the third round of the qualies. This was the pairs first meeting. Rublev lost but six points on his serve in the opener, capturing the lone break of the set in the ninth game to take a 1-0 lead. Lee dialed in on Rublev’s serve in the second set as the Russian’s first service percentage fell off to 52 percent after a sparkling 64 percent in the first. The Korean broke in the fourth game for 3-1, saved a break point in the fifth, and forced three break-point opportunities on Rublev’s serve in the sixth before the Russian staved off going down two breaks. Lee held twice more to level the match at a set apiece. Rublev got his serve back on track in the third set, holding four times at love and yielding just three points. Lee saved four break points in the sixth game and two match points in the 10th, but Rublev prevailed by closing it out on the third match point after one hour 51 minutes of high-octane action. Rublev served 12 aces, won 85 percent of his first service points and saved six of seven break points. Lee won 74 percent of his first serves and erased seven of nine break points. Rublev will take on Blaz Kavcic of Slovenia in the semifinals tomorrow.

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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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