Why were Djokovic and Murray not subject to the same criticism as Klizan and Dolgopolov?

One of the main talking points during the opening days of this year’s Championships was the issue of retirements, with seven retirements on the men’s side during the first round compared to just one in the women’s competition. This issue was brought into particularly sharp focus when the Centre Court saw two out of the three matches curtailed on the second day, as Martin Klizan and Alexandr Dolgopolov bowed out prematurely in back-to-back encounters against Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer respectively. The matches lasted for a combined time of one hour and 22 minutes.

John McEnroe was quick to pile in, saying that there has “got to be a rule for guys who come out clearly not giving or able to give 100 per cent. Ultimately the player needs to be given advice and made to understand what he is doing to his own reputation and to the sport.”

The criticism of Klizan and Dolgopolov was that they came into the tournament carrying injuries, but were happy to pick up the cheque for those exiting at the first-round stage of £35,000 (which is awarded even if you retire injured). The Slovakian and the Ukrainian could have both dropped out prior to the match, giving an opportunity to a lucky loser who would put up a better fight than these two men did, potentially progress far and pick up decent prize money in the process.

This argument definitely holds some merit. Crowds want value for money and you don’t get that if an opponent is clearly in discomfort from the early stages.

However, both men were merely making the most of their opportunity to play on Centre Court. While both have had spells in the top 50, they have not been in the upper echelons of the game for long enough to enjoy these massive moments on a regular basis. The rule is the problem, not the players. By choosing not to dish out prize money to those who drop out, Wimbledon could send a message that only those who are fit can compete.

Which opens up a can of worms. Both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were carrying niggles coming into the fortnight, but they were able to avoid criticism when they eventually bowed out. They also deprived a lucky loser the chance to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, but McEnroe was strangely silent.

The problem that people had with Klizan and Dolgopolov was not that they retired, it’s that they were unseeded and they retired. Murray and Djokovic got sufficiently far in the tournament that they were spared the accusation of making a quick buck (or hundreds of thousands of bucks in this case), despite knowing that injuries were hampering their performance and that the crowd was not able to enjoy a match with two physically fit athletes going hammer and tongs at each other.

There is this perception that the world’s top two were right to expect that they would reach the latter stages at SW19 due to their past success, whereas Klizan and Dolgopolov were not. This completely overlooks the fact that shocks do happen and the latter two men have just as much of a right to prove themselves as the former.

It may be that, as the tournament progressed, different topics began to occupy the minds of the columnists, pundits and tweeters. Certainly, the fact that successive matches ended abruptly on the main show court is rare and will provoke debate. It does seem convenient though that while the integrity of Klizan and Dolgopolov was questioned, Murray and Djokovic’s reputations remained intact and the critics fell silent.

While Klizan and Dolgopolov may not be blameless, they were simply not judged by the same yardstick as Djokovic and Murray. Perhaps if they win a Grand Slam singles title, they will be.

Featured image: Andy Hooper

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Wimbledon: Five men who could make the second week for the first time

 

The grass-court season lasts for only six weeks, perhaps explaining why many top-level pros struggle to make the adjustment from clay. Here are five players looking to make a breakthrough at SW19.

 

Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem

The Austrian has, since 2015, looked one of the most likely contenders to upset the established order and at the age of 23 is playing some of the finest tennis of his career. A grass-court title at Stuttgart in June last year demonstrated that he has the attributes to be successful on the surface, but he has yet to show that at SW19, having only made the second round in the last two years. His preparation for Wimbledon has not been ideal, after suffering a shock defeat on Tuesday to world number 222 Ramkumar Ramanathan in Antalya. However, if the right-hander can rekindle the form that saw him demolish Novak Djokovic in Paris earlier this month, he will be an irresistible force.

 

Alexander Zverev

Alexander Zverev1

The lanky German has already surpassed the achievements of his brother Mischa, who is nine years his senior. However, the 20-year-old has yet to realise his potential in the Grand Slams, with the third round his best-ever finish at the All England Club. Despite his lack of success on grass, Zverev has begun to turn the corner recently, reaching the final in Halle and beating Roberto Bautista Agut and Richard Gasquet along the way. However, he came up against an imperious Roger Federer in the final, who swatted him aside 6-1, 6-3, underlining that he has a lot of work to do before being talked about in the same reverence as the Swiss maestro. One to keep an eye on though.

 

Gael Monfils

Gael Monfils

Amazingly, the miracle man with the elastic legs has never contested the second week at Wimbledon. Known for his incredible athleticism and exuberant shot-making, Monfils has always been a crowd-pleaser, but he has had a tendency to lose his composure in the important matches. The 30-year-old has yet to reach a final on the Tour this year, but could break that duck this week having moved into the last four of Eastbourne following victories over British prospect Cameron Norrie and the rangy Australian Bernard Tomic. Given his unpredictable nature, it is difficult to know which Monfils will turn up, but his semi-final showing at the US Open last year suggests that he cannot be discounted.

 

Jack Sock

Jack Sock

It is a sad indictment of men’s tennis in the United States that their top player lies just inside the top 20, but Sock is certainly a man who has aspirations to reduce that ranking to single figures. The 24-year-old has made encouraging progress in the past few years, with 2017 undoubtedly being the Nebraskan’s high water mark, after scooping first prize in Delray Beach and Auckland. Success on grass has been elusive thus far in his career, but somewhat suprisingly for an elite singles player Sock also excels in doubles and sensationally partnered Vasek Pospisil to the Wimbledon title three years ago, defeating the top-seeded Bryan brothers. Sock and Pospisil were unseeded.

 

John Isner

John Isner

Despite his intimidating serve and powerful groundstrokes, John Isner has found the third round his ceiling at Wimbledon. At 32, the Florida resident is certainly not a youngster, but the likes of Federer and Serena Williams have shown that you can still play at the top of your game into your mid-thirties. The University of Georgia graduate has claimed two grass-court titles in his career, both in Newport, Rhode Island. However, his most well-known achievement on the surface was defeating Frenchman and now friend Nicolas Mahut back in 2010 in what is the longest match in tennis history, with Isner dragging himself to victory in a marathon final set that finished 70-68.

Images (from top to bottom): Julian Finney/Getty Images, Thomas Starke/Bongarts, Australian Open, Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe, Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Featured image: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images

Roland Garros: Five men who could make the second week for the first time

With the second Grand Slam of the year about to begin, it seemed high time to look at some of the players who could break new ground at Roland Garros this year and possibly spring a few surprises along the way.

Alexander Zverev

Zverev

Zverev is in the form of his life and is destined to remain in the upper echelons of the game for many years to come. The rangy right-hander has enjoyed a breakthrough year on the Tour, but there were signs in 2016 that he would be one to watch, when he sewed the title in St. Petersburg last September, defeating Stan Wawrinka in the final over three sets.

Since then, the German has gone from strength to strength, adding three more titles to his collection, two of which came on clay. His ability to raise his game against the world’s elite has been astonishing and was underlined when he outclassed Novak Djokovic to pick his most recent crown in Rome.

Zverev will face a very stiff first-round test in the form of Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, but the 20-year-old has already shown on a number of occasions that he can overcome adversity.

Grigor Dimitrov

Dimitrov

Many who watched Dimitrov blitz Andy Murray in a clinical Wimbledon quarter-final performance in 2014 would have expected the Bulgarian to push on. It hasn’t quite transpired like that, but the 26-year-old is displaying his swashbuckling brand of tennis on a far more regular basis in 2017.

The recruitment of coach Dani Vallverdu, formerly part of Murray’s coaching set-up, was a major coup and the intensive work that took place in the off-season in Monte Carlo has paid dividends. Impressive victories over Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori led the former junior champion at the All England Club to the title in Brisbane and this was backed up with a memorable victory in Sofia.

His first encounter during the fortnight will be against the experienced Frenchman Stephane Robert. Time will tell if Dimitrov can break his Grand Slam final duck.

Lucas Pouille

Lucas Pouille

Pouille was not on many people’s radar heading into last year and his name would have drawn shrugs from many regular observers of the sport. However, that all changed in 2016, when the 23-year-old reached two Tour finals and two consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open, which included a sensational win over Rafael Nadal in the latter competition.

His sole title triumph this year was on clay in Budapest, where he convincingly crushed Briton Aljaz Bedene. At 6′ 1” he is not one of the tallest men on the circuit, but the Dubai resident compensates for that deficiency with a strong defensive game and a searing two-handed backhand.

Pouille’s first assignment at his home Major is against compatriot Julien Benneteau, a team-mate in France’s Davis Cup team. Given his remarkable recent improvement, bettering last year’s third-round performance at Roland Garros seems highly likely.

Nick Kyrgios

Kyrgios

Kyrgios has been beset by plenty of controversies in his fledgling career, but the 22-year-old has certainly matured recently and his scintillating brand of tennis can trouble any player in the world.

The Australian shot to prominence at Wimbledon three years ago, with an all-action display that shocked Nadal and those in attendance at SW19. His explosive groundstrokes, excellent balance and soft hands make him an exciting player to watch and last year saw him develop greater consistency with titles in Marseille, Atlanta and Tokyo. 2017 has not been as successful trophies-wise, but Kyrgios has claimed two notable scalps over Novak Djokovic.

The Canberra-born player’s first test will be against the elegant Philipp Kohlschreiber, who could push his young opponent all the way. A potentially intriguing duel.

Pablo Carreno Busta

Pablo Carreno Busta

One of a seemingly endless number of Spaniards to roll off the production line, Carreno Busta has taken a little longer to bloom than some of his fellow countrymen. However, his game has come in massively in the last year and he is currently nestled just outside the top 20.

The 25-year-old can generate a lot of power off both wings and is not afraid to come in and dispatch the loose ball when necessary, with his delicate touch at the net an indication of his extensive doubles experience. Last year saw him pick up his first ATP Tour titles, in Winston-Salem and Moscow. The Gijon-born player then captured his first clay court title in Estoril just three weeks ago.

Carreno Busta faces German Florian Mayer in round one, with a potential third-round match-up against Dimitrov on the horizon.

Featured image: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe

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Tennis could learn from the FA Cup

The new tennis season is in full swing, with the first Grand Slam of 2016 currently under way in Melbourne. Bar Rafael Nadal, the usual suspects have reached the last-32 of the men’s draw, while on the women’s side things have been a little more unpredictable, with big names like Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams crashing out in the opening two rounds. While Grand Slams are the pinnacle of the tennis calendar, with the winner needing to come out on top in seven often intense matches over the course of a fortnight, there is one qualm I have with the current set-up – the draw structure is biased in favour of the best players.

Understandably, the current system is in place to ensure that, if the favourites win their matches every time, the final of both the men’s and women’s competitions will be contested by the top two players in the world. If you are good enough to be awarded a seeding for the tournament (there are 32 seeds), you will be the guaranteed favourite for at least the first two games that you play. Moreover, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the first and second seeds respectively in the Australian Open, know that the only round in which they can face each other is the final. Djokovic and Murray tend to enjoy fairly comfortable passages through the first two ties due to the fact that they do not face anyone inside the top 32 in the world during these matches.

Contrast that with the FA Cup. The world’s oldest cup competition retains its magic primarily because non-league minnows can pit their wits against Premier League giants. However, it also allows big clubs to face each other from the third round onwards, meaning that established sides can be culled at a relatively rapid rate. If the draws were structured in such a way that a contest between, say, Arsenal and Manchester City could only take place at the semi-final or final stage, it is arguable that the competition would lose its romantic quality. Six Premier League sides were eliminated in the third round of this year’s competition, with five of these teams eliminated by fellow top-flight clubs (the exception being Swansea City’s defeat to Oxford United). If the FA Cup draws were devised along the lines of top-level tennis, there would be no Premier League clashes early on, with the result being that the latter stages of the draw would be dominated far more by the big sides.

Admittedly, Arsenal have won the trophy for the past two seasons, but the semi-final line-up last campaign – Arsenal, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Reading – was fairly refreshing. The 2013/2014 season was even more open, with the Gunners, Hull, Sheffield United and Wigan Athletic making the last four. If a tennis-style draw was used for the FA Cup, it is hard to imagine such a diverse quartet making it through.

It is my belief that despite the thrilling moments provided by the likes of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, predicting the outcomes to tournaments is becoming easier than it should be. Having Djokovic face Federer and Murray in the opening few rounds would certainly keep the Serbian on his toes, and would also allow the lower-ranked players a bit more breathing space, as there would be a smaller possibility of coming up against these sorts of players early on. Furthermore, if the underdogs advance further in more tournaments, they would begin to accrue more prize money, bringing their earnings closer to the game’s big-hitters and creating a more even playing field. While the tournament organisers would not have it any other way, a more indiscriminate draw would certainly add a level of suspense to tennis which, in my view, is currently missing.

Alex Bowmer

 

Featured image credit: AFP