Getty Images

Turning 29, Djokovic still chasing elusive French Open

Leave a comment

PARIS — Novak Djokovic will be celebrating his 29th birthday when the French Open starts on Sunday. If nothing else, it underlines just how frustrating it has become for the top-ranked Serb to win the only major to elude him.

Djokovic, who has lost the past two finals here and three altogether, is playing his 12th tournament and would set a record for most appearances at Roland Garros before winning the title in the Open era. Four players – Stan Wawrinka last year, Roger Federer in 2009, Andre Agassi in 1999 and Andres Gomez in 1990 – all won on their 11th appearance. Goran Ivanisevic holds the Open era Grand Slam record of needing 14 attempts before winning Wimbledon in 2001.

Although Djokovic insists he is not “obsessed” with winning the elusive title, he may never get a better chance, because nine-time champion Rafael Nadal is still finding his best form on clay, Wawrinka has been erratic and the 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer is skipping the tournament to protect his troublesome back. Second-second Andy Murray could pose a serious threat, having beaten Djokovic in the Italian Open final last weekend.

“Of course I anticipate myself, as everybody else (does), to try to get my hands on this title this year,” Djokovic said. “Even if my career was done tomorrow, I made some achievements that I must be proud of. So that’s how I approach things. I don’t try to approach them from a point of view of being obsessed with this tournament or with any other tournament, for that matter.”

Federer has always been a huge fan’s favorite, wherever he plays, and the hard-to-please Parisian fans have warmly taken Nadal to their hearts since he won for the first time here as a scraggly-haired teenager in 2005.

Perhaps seeking that extra bit of energy to take him all the way, Djokovic clearly wants to get the French fans on his side.

This was evident on Saturday when, before starting his practice, he goofed around wearing a beret as he played the traditional French game called “petanque” – albeit with yellow tennis balls instead of those heavy metallic ones – and jokingly played around with a violin.

Or perhaps Djokovic is just trying to reduce the pressure and expectations. It’s not hard to see why because, since the start of 2015, he’s 119-9 overall, winning four majors and 16 titles – including a tour-leading five this year.

He has won 11 majors and could yet equal Nadal’s haul of 14 by the end of the year.

When Djokovic lost the 2014 French Open final to Nadal, the Spaniard was still the player to beat on clay.

That’s now changed. Despite Nadal winning the Monte Carlo Masters for a ninth time in April and following up with a ninth success at Barcelona to equal Guillermo Vilas’ record of 49 career clay-court titles, he is in Djokovic’s shadow, even on clay.

Djokovic has beaten him seven consecutive times since that 2014 final – crushing him in three sets in the quarterfinals here last year and beating him twice more on clay, most recently in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open.

Enticingly, they could meet in the semifinals this year, which would be their 50th meeting and on Nadal’s 30th birthday – not that Nadal needs any extra motivation.

Djokovic leads him 26-23 in head-to-heads and this is his equal-best winning streak against Nadal, having previously beaten him seven consecutive times – all of them in finals: six in 2011 and then the 2012 Australian Open.

Nadal’s first-round opponent will be big-serving Sam Groth, an Australian ranked 95th.

“He’s a difficult one,” said Nadal, who has never played Groth. “I know he’s going to be difficult to have breaks against.”

Djokovic faces 100th-ranked Lu Yen-hsun while Murray opens against veteran Radek Stepanek, and Wawrinka has a tricky first match against hard-hitting Czech Lukas Rosol.

Defending champion Serena Williams is bidding for her fourth Roland Garros title and needs one more major to equal Steffi Graf’s record for the Open era, and three more to match Margaret Smith Court’s all-time mark of 24 majors.

The 34-year-old American, who will open against 76th-ranked Magdalena Rybarikova of Slovakia, has never won back-to-back French Open titles.

Sunday’s first-round men’s play features fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan, No. 8 Milos Raonic of Canada and big-hitting Australian Nick Kyrgios, while on the women’s side, No. 5 Simona Halep of Romania, 11th-seeded Czech Lucie Safarova – last year’s runner-up – and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are playing. Also, No. 15 John Isner and No. 19 Sloane Stephens are among nine Americans in action.

French Open 2017: 30 is the new 25 in men’s tennis right now

Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARIS — The very top of men’s tennis has never been this old.

For the first time in the history of the ATP computer rankings, which date to the early 1970s, the men sitting at Nos. 1-5 are all 30 or older, the latest sign that the current crop of stars has enviable staying power.

It’s also the latest reason to wonder when a new face will emerge among the elite, because there eventually will come a point – yes, there really will – when the group that was once known as the Big 3, then came to be called the Big 4, and now is considered by some to be a Big 5, is no longer running the sport.

With the French Open starting Sunday, No. 1 Andy Murray, No. 2 Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka and No. 4 Rafael Nadal (No. 5 Roger Federer is skipping Paris) all have designs on another major trophy. But could someone such as Alexander Zverev, who just turned 20 last month, or the supremely talented – and supremely enigmatic – Nick Kyrgios, 22, or Dominic Thiem, 23, make a breakthrough for the up-and-coming kids?

“We’re probably coming to the end of one of the greatest eras of tennis that, certainly, I’ve ever seen,” ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode said, “and what we need to do as a sport is look to the next generation of players.”

Federer is 35, Wawrinka is 32, Nadal turns 31 on June 3, and Djokovic and Murray turned 30 this month. That quintet has won 46 of the last 48 Grand Slam titles, a dozen-year stretch of dominance.

Zverev’s victory over Djokovic in the Italian Open final last weekend might have symbolized coming change. Zverev was the first man born in the 1990s to win a Masters 1000 title, the youngest champ since Djokovic about a decade ago.

That title also pushed Zverev into the top 10, making him the youngest member since Juan Martin del Potro in 2008.

“It’s nice … for the tour, as well, to have a few younger guys, few younger girls, as well, to be able to play at the top,” said Zverev, who is German. “As I said many times, unfortunately for tennis and unfortunately for the spectators, the top four cannot play forever. So it’s good that younger players are starting to get through.”

So then the question becomes: Why has it taken so long?

Why does someone such as former player and coach Brad Gilbert, now an ESPN commentator, say, “Today’s 30 is like 25 used to be,” as he did this week? Why have these 30-somethings had such staying power? And why is it taking so long for newcomers to make a mark?

There is a similar situation in women’s tennis, where Serena Williams has kept winning Grand Slam titles into her 30s and is the oldest No. 1 in WTA history. Current No. 1 Angelique Kerber was the oldest woman to make her debut at that spot.

“Tennis has changed in the last 15 years … since they slowed down surfaces and there is not much difference in speeds of the surfaces,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach. “You rarely have many easy shots now. You have to work the points much more, and one of the consequences is you need to be physically much better and able to play long rallies.”

He points out that when Wimbledon’s grass courts, for example, used to play much faster than they do now, a player could succeed there hitting aces by the dozen and going for one winner after another, because “you don’t need the same maturity and understanding of tactics” that are required today.

Gilbert points to Andre Agassi – a man he used to coach, and who is assisting Djokovic during this French Open – as an inspiration to the current old-timers still in charge.

“It used to be, you turned 30, you were completely on the downside of your career. A lot of these guys can remember Andre making a deep run at 2005 at 35 years old. I think that was the turning point in belief, that guys could play a lot longer,” Gilbert said. “You’re seeing Tom Brady be the best quarterback in all of football, maybe ever, and he’s approaching 40, which is dinosaur for a quarterback, but not anymore. Athletes are pushing the envelope all year round. There’s no offseason. Offseason is for more training, diet, technology.”

Nadal leads Djokovic, Murray, Thiem on French Open odds

Leave a comment

The overarching presence of Rafael Nadal, who has won a record nine times at Roland Garros, has inflated prices on the other top men at the French Open.

Nadal is listed as a better than even money -125 favorite on the French Open men’s champion board at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The Spaniard has won 17 of 18 matches on clay this year and will not have to worry about longtime nemesis Roger Federer, who’s saving himself for the grass and hard courts. The event begins in Paris on Sunday.

While Nadal is undoubtedly the most consistent clay-court player in the world, many threats loom. Novak Djokovic (+300) might be ready to come out of his lull now that he has swapped out his support staff, bringing on Andre Agassi as a personal coach. Nadal and Djokovic are on the same side of the draw, so either would benefit if the other falls prey to an upset.

Dominic Thiem (+900) could also be undervalued, given that he defeated Nadal in the Italian Open, one of the tune-ups for the French.

Top seed Andy Murray (+900) has not won an event on clay this season and his place on the tennis betting lines might reflect the notion that some bettors will always go for a big name with a track record of winning Grand Slams. In terms of someone who is coming into the tournament playing well, Stan Wawrinka (+1000) has had an impressive run at the Geneva Open after having so-so output for most of the clay-court season. Wawrinka is also a recent champion, having won in 2015.

It seems like it is just a matter of when 20-year-old Alexander Zverev (+1400) will win his first Grand Slam singles title. Zverev turned heads when he extended Nadal to five sets in a third-round defeat at the Australian Open in January, and he defeated Djokovic in the Italian Open final to become the youngest player in 10 years to win an ATP Masters event.

As far as the women’s champion board goes, Simona Halep (+450) has top odds but is battling an ankle injury. World No. 1 Angelique Kerber (+1600) has also been inconsistent throughout the season. Young Ukrainian Elina Svitolina (+700) is an intriguing possibility by virtue of her results (four singles titles already in 2017) and her strong return game, since the soft clay at Roland Garros dictates having longer rallies.

Garbine Muguruza (+900) is the defending champion, but it’s a little glaring that she has not reached a Grand Slam semifinal in three tries since that 2016 breakthrough.