MIAMI -- Center Court here on the grounds of Crandon Park was the scene of the first meeting between Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, a yardstick opportunity to judge how two of America's most promising next-generation players would stack up against each other.
As it happened, the match turned out to be an anticlimactic one that betrayed the rankings. The 45th-ranked Stephens dominated her 18th-ranked opponent 6-4, 6-2.
Keys was mistake-prone throughout the 72-minute match, committing 36 unforced errors. She took the blame for not being at her best, refusing to use the windy conditions as an nb excuse.
"Just one of those days where [I] didn't quite have the feeling; couldn't really find it," Keys said. "Sloane played really well."
Many might have eyed the match as a battleground for America's tennis future, but the players insisted that was the furthest thing from their minds.
"I just go out and play my game and stay focused," Stephens said.
Keys echoed that sentiment, saying, "I was just treating it as another match."
No matter. In the end, the match offered us a glimpse into their oft-parallel paths and personalities.
Both Keys and Stephens became surprise Australian Open semifinalists at the age of 19. Stephens did it in 2013; Keys did it this past January.
Stephens has spent much of her life in South Florida, training as a youngster with Nick Saviano. But with family ties in Los Angeles, Stephens spent a lot of time on the West Coast, and in the past few years considered Los Angeles her home base.
Keys, a native of Chicago, moved to South Florida as a youngster to further her tennis aspirations. She now lives the bicoastal lifestyle. When in Los Angeles, she lives with her coaches, former Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport and Davenport's husband, Jon Leach, and their four children.
These days, when they're in Florida, Stephens, 22, and Keys, 20, are bachelorettes with their own apartments. Stephens lives on trendy Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, while Keys is located in the more residential Coconut Creek.
For Stephens, this is her first experience living solo, which became a necessity when she rekindled a coaching relationship with Saviano. In truth, Stephens is still contemplating whether being grown up is a positive.
"I have my own place, but my mom is here more than not," Stephens said sheepishly. "It's definitely interesting to live on your own and be by yourself, but it's boring. I'm talking to myself. That's how boring it is."
Keys made the choice to move away from home two years ago. She still finds it to her liking. Nowadays, her mom and sisters are headquartered in Iowa and her dad is in Chicago. But as Keys says, her circumstances at home came with annoyances Stephens wouldn't understand.
"I actually moved out when I was 18, so I'm kind of used to living on my own now," Keys said. "Sloane didn't have two younger sisters who lived with her, stealing her clothes and hogging the bathroom -- and had to fight over things like that. For me, it's kind of nice."
Whatever the dynamics are between Stephens and Keys, they get along fine. They enjoyed their time as Fed Cup teammates in 2014 and have practiced together through the years. And it's likely that for the foreseeable future, they'll continue to travel in the same circle.
"I know Maddy is going to have a great career," Stephens said. "I am going to see her for like the next 10 years of my life consistently."
Entering Friday, he had played 17 five-set matches, a total robust enough that it's more or less understood we should sit tight, painfully tight, for a long while.
Isner is blessed with a good blend of cool and moxie in his blood, but he's also been haunted by results that haven't always gone his way. Believe it or not, the 6-foot-10 American's five-set record was a dismal 5-12 -- and now ...
You can make it 5-13. With the Americans already down 1-0 in the opening round of Davis Cup play, Isner suffered a 4-hour, 57-minute 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-3, 6-7 (3), 13-15 loss to Great Britain's James Ward, a result that essentially sealed the United States' fate in team competition this season.
The Americans will need something of a miracle to climb out of the 0-2 hole they've fallen into during this best-of-five tie, and they'll need to mount an unlikely comeback in front of a raucous British crowd in Glasgow, Scotland. Earlier in the day, Andy Murray beat Donald Young in four rather uneventful sets.
The Bryan brothers will take the court Saturday and should give the U.S. a slither of life, but with one more loss in the next two days, the U.S. will be relegated to the World Group Playoffs, a competition that is essentially the Triple A of Davis Cup.
Wondering what the likelihood is the U.S. will come back? May we refresh your memory and rewind back to the 1934 Inter-zonal final in London, when American Frank Shield knocked off Vivian McGrath 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 to lift the Yanks, who lost their first two matches, to a 3-2 win over the very team their currently trailing, Great Britain. That was the last time the U.S. completed this remarkable feat. Overall, the U.S. is 1-38 when trailing 2-0.
"History is not kind to teams that go down 2-0, but we still have a chance," United States captain Jim Courier told reporters after Isner's loss. "If we win the doubles tomorrow, we will take it one at a time, and hopefully we will get into the fourth match live and John will let it rip.”
The Isner-Ward battle was the longest U.S. Davis Cup match since the introduction of the tiebreaker in 1989, nine minutes longer than the Dmitry Tursunov-Andy Roddick squeaker in the 2006 World Group semifinals, which the Russian eventually won 17-15 in the fifth.
This plight of U.S. men's tennis isn't a new revelation, far from it, but just as we were starting to harvest a few happy vibes -- Young reached the Delray Beach final and Ryan Harrison sliced his way to the Acapulco semis -- reality hit again, and hard.
Look, we're not going to decry the results from one day and make any blanket statements on what the future holds for the U.S, partly because we've watched this unbending narrative for more than a decade and more or less know what's in the offing, at least in terms of major events. And the other part of it is that the global game has bred some longstanding stalwarts who have impeded the destiny of many hankering nations.
Friday's Davis Cup play was more about Isner and sensibility. We've watched for years as he's played these spine-tingling matches with no end in sight. Hard to believe, but we're a half a decade removed from the longest match in history, when Isner beat Nicolas Mahut in 11 hours, 5 minutes over three days at Wimbledon. Isner famously won that match, but since then he's a doleful 2-12 in five-setters.
Isner served 112 aces against the Frenchman that day at the All England Club, but broke him but twice. Twice! Over 11 hours. Against Ward, Isner forged just one break, and equally disconcerting, the American had only five break opportunities, which means he's not giving himself a chance to succeed succinctly. He didn't against Mahut; he didn't against Ward.
In 2012, all of Isner's Grand Slam losses came in five sets, and in Davis Cup play he's now a futile 0-5 in five-setters.
"James played well," Isner said. "He stayed composed and played a good match. I didn't. There were certain things I could have done better and it turned on me. I have lost a lot of tough matches before. It's brutal. I probably won't sleep tonight. It is awful."
The U.S.-Great Britain rivalry is the oldest in Davis Cup history, with a storied competition that dates back to 1900. And despite the Americans' recent ineffectiveness, they do own 32 Davis Cup titles, the most of any nation in history.
But history is the operative word here. Because the present hasn't been overly kind, and the future will be fraught with concern until that breakthrough performance.
It's just too bad Isner hasn't been the one to deliver that performance.
It’s still too early in 2015 to figure out which end of the seesaw Federer, 33, will fall toward. In Australia, he was floored in four sets by journeyman Andreas Seppi in the third round, but more disconcerting were Federer’s thoughts afterward when he admitted his body wasn’t ready to compete. It sounded remarkably similar to the words you’d expect from an aging tennis player.
But we all know by now that Roger Federer isn’t your average aging 33-year-old. In Dubai, Federer is once again playing like that spry, elite tennis player who takes up copious real estate in the record books. Federer is in the final after a hasty straight-sets thumping of Borna Coric on Friday.
The 17-time Slam champ’s opponent? You may have heard of him. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic dug in to hold off a game Tomas Berdych in three sets. So, yes, we have the top two players ready to go at it again -- this time in the final of the Dubai Championships.
A few observations heading into the finale:
• Biologically, Federer could be Coric’s father, but you wouldn’t have known that by the way the Swiss scurried around the court Friday. Federer, 15 years his opponent’s senior, channeled his inner Edberg with aplomb, attacking the net and ending points before Coric could sink his teeth into the rally. Federer won nine of 13 points at net. This might not seem like many approaches, but given that the 6-2, 6-1 Federer victory lasted all of 56 minutes, it’s pretty significant.
• Djokovic bageled Berdych in the opening set of the semifinal. But for whatever reason, the Serb’s caffeine wore off and Berdych came back from a break down to snare the second set. Djokovic eventually prevailed 6-0, 5-7, 6-4, but what seemed like a routine win suddenly devolved into an unexpected tussle, with the Czech ending points with razor-sharp groundies and a no-fear approach. The one overarching takeaway: Djokovic won 70 percent of the points in rallies that lasted at least nine shots. That means Federer is going to have to take the same approach as he did against Coric: Rush the net and eliminate any chance Djokovic has to get his legs into a rhythm.
• Federer and Djokovic have won the Dubai Championships a combined 10 times, an incredible run of dominance from both players. Federer has six titles there, including a trophy-winning run last year, where he beat -- you guessed it -- Djokovic in the semifinals and Berdych in the final. The Serb owns four titles in Dubai. Believe it or not, though, despite their past successes, this will be only the second time they’ve met in the Dubai final -- the first coming four years ago when Djoker beat Fed in straight sets.
• Federer owns a luxurious Dubai apartment, an abode he’s likely seen a lot of this week. On Thursday, Federer needed only 20 minutes before Richard Gasquet retired with a back injury, and Friday, the young and talented Coric lasted just 56 minutes, giving Federer a lot more time away from the court than even he could have expected. It’s been a remarkably efficient effort this week from Federer, though he did have to storm back from a 4-1 first-set deficit against Fernando Verdasco earlier this week before reeling of 20 straight points. For what it’s worth, that match lasted only as hour as well. Djokovic’s semifinal alone took 2 hours, 4 minutes, just 12 minutes shorter than Federer’s past three matches combined.
• Prediction time. If you look at Federer and Djokovic’s semifinals in a vacuum, this one seems fairly obvious. But we all know that the top players in the world can compartmentalize better than anyone, which is why they’re the top players in the world. Federer understands he can’t get entrenched in long rallies, and Djokovic knows patience will serve him well. Against Berdych, Djokovic won only 45 percent of his second-serve points, which seems low for a player who is widely known as having one of the most efficient second deliveries in the game. Can Federer exploit Djokovic’s serve? My instincts say he will, considering the confidence he's shown this week. I’m going with Fed, who holds a 19-17 career head-to-head advantage against Djoker -- but in three tough sets.
It’s somewhat ironic that Andy Murray went with fluorescent green as his color of shirt this week.
Because his game was anything but glowing Thursday in the Dubai Championships quarterfinals. The No. 3 seed fell ignominiously to one of the game’s rising stars, Borna Coric, 6-1, 6-3 in a hasty 1 hour, 19 minutes.
And so the turbulent existence of Murray trudges on. Just last month, he played miraculous ball in reaching the Australian Open final until falling into the clutches -- once again -- of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. But by all accounts that was nothing short of an auspicious run, considering the Scot had failed to win a single title of any sort until after the US Open in 2014.
For the past year, Murray had stockpiled as much publicity for his wavering entourage -- including the hiring of Amelie Mauresmo and his caustic split with longtime hitting partner Dani Vallverdu, who became dismayed by Murray’s decision to annex Mauresmo -- as he had for his results on the tennis court.
But by now we know the pendulum of emotion that has followed Murray for years is common enough that it’s almost an afterthought. And granted, Dubai isn’t a Slam, nor is it Indian Wells or Miami -- the first two prestigious Masters 1000 events on the calendar next month. But losses like the one Murray suffered Thursday, in which he successfully returned only two of 18 first serves from Coric -- this from one of the better returners in the game -- only reinforced the Scot’s vulnerability factor.
This showing came a week after Murray lost to Gilles Simon in another snappy straight-setter in Rotterdam.
“[Coric] played very solid and he moved well,” Murray told the press afterward. “I made way too many mistakes from the beginning of the match right through to the end, early in rallies, rushing points."
Coric is just 18 years old and, amazingly, made the main draw as a lucky loser, but he played the role of a honed veteran against Murray, winning nearly 90 percent of his first serves and breaking his opponent four times.
Coric is the latest in the successful lineage of Croatian talents and arguably one of the most touted. Just a year ago, Coric, who according to the ATP World Tour became the youngest semifinalist in Dubai since Rafael Nadal in 2006, beat that very same Spaniard in the Swiss Indoors Basel quarterfinals. And though Coric hadn’t won consecutive matches in 2015 until Dubai, he has the makeup, as was evident against Murray.
“[It’s] one of the biggest wins, for sure,” Coric said. “I was just trying to maintain my level, stay in the rallies as long as I can, which I was doing really well. I was also running very well.”
Coric seemed genuinely humbled afterward, but make no mistake, the kid has game -- and he knows it. You might recall that earlier this year Coric audaciously earmarked himself as the best of his generation, telling the Times of India, “When I'm at my best I am more like Djokovic gamewise, when I'm not, I'm more like Murray."
What seemed like ill-timed grandeur at the time now has some teeth, apparently. But be warned, kid, your momentum could hit a roadblock, considering a certain 17-time Grand Slam winner is up next in the semifinals. Roger Federer spent only 20 minutes on the court Thursday before Richard Gasquet retired down 6-1 with lower back pain, easing the Swiss star into the semifinals.
The pre-eminent superstar of this generation versus the self-proclaimed bigwig of the next. This promises to be nearly as incandescent as Murray’s shirt.
Caroline Wozniacki just acquired her “dream sponsorship,” signing with a chocolate company. But she's not the only player licking her lips at the sight of these sweet endorsements. Here's a taste of some of the sport's most delicious sponsorships.
Caroline Wozniacki: Godiva
When Caroline Wozniacki mentioned she wanted a chocolate sponsorship in the Wall Street Journal, it didn't take long for an offer to come in. Two weeks ago, Wozniacki announced that she had signed a deal with Godiva Inc., one of the top premium chocolate companies. Its CEO had seen the story and approached the 24-year-old from Denmark to see whether they could come to an agreement. Presumably, she didn't take much convincing.
It's the first time the company has signed a sportsperson to endorse its product. Though famously fit, Wozniacki plans to be an enthusiastic spokesperson. "I'm going to start at one end of the product line and try every single piece of different chocolate that they make," she said.
Radwanska and Wozniacki have been friends since childhood, and one of their favorite get-together spots is the Cheesecake Factory. But it was Radwanska who secured an endorsement with the company a year ago, when her agent called to arrange a special visit to one of the restaurants and found himself negotiating a million-dollar deal instead. The 26-year-old from Poland wears the restaurant logo on her visor and promotes the company on social media -- something she was doing anyway.
The company went with the soft-stroking No. 8 because she was one of its "biggest fans," making her the first sportsperson to be sponsored by the popular restaurant brand. Naturally, it includes free meals.
He's not only the top earner in tennis but one of the highest-paid in all sports, with deals ranging from cars to champagne, so it's appropriate that one of Switzerland's most famous figures is also connected with one of Switzerland's most famous products -- chocolate. One of the country's best-known brands, Lindt had never signed up anyone to endorse its products until it announced a deal with Federer in 2009, and it has made the 17-time Grand Slam champion prominent in its promotions. The company has used Federer in advertising, publicity events and has even become a sponsor of several tournaments since it began its involvement with the sport.
Maria Sharapova: Sugarpova
Leave it to the savvy Sharapova to not be content with someone else's wares. She started her own candy company, Sugarpova, in 2012 and has turned it into a product that is now known to more than just tennis followers. The 27-year-old from Russia sank her teeth -- and taste buds -- into the project, getting involved in everything from manufacturing to packaging to marketing. She used her tournament schedule to launch the candy lines in various countries, even opening a special store during Wimbledon and the US Open.
Sales have been consistently increasing, and it is said to already be earning her millions. Quite a treat, and not just for those buying it.
From Australia to New York and the virtual transom in between, there’s this not-so-secretive sentiment on who the next first-time Grand Slam winner might be.
They call him Kei Nishikori, who, as it so happens, just won the Memphis Open for the third straight time this past weekend. By fighting his way out of three straight one-set deficits, the Japanese star also showed he might have a future career in escapology.
After the match, Nishikori told ESPN.com he digs playing indoor tennis; it allows him to hit unfettered groundstrokes without ambient obstacles interfering with his game and that the surface also leverages his agility and quickness.
Nishikori glides through the court as if he’s on a pair of ice skates and rips tennis balls from both wings as well as anyone today.
Needless to say, while it’s an Everest-esque reach for any of us to find the same level of success as Nishikori, it certainly doesn’t preclude us from trying. And perhaps the best place to start is by using the same hardware as he does.
In the same interview, Nishikori also told us that he attributes a lot of his recent success to his new Wilson Burn racket.
That said, I recently got my hands on a couple of the new Burn rackets -- the Burn 100 16x19 and 100s. Both frames weighed in at 11.3 ounces (plus an overgrip) with a flex rating north of 70 (meaning it’s very firm). The difference between these two rackets was the string pattern. The 16x19 speaks for itself, obviously, while the 100s was built to leverage spin (ergo, the “s” in the name of the racket) with an 18x16 setup.
It was an interesting juxtaposition. At first, I didn’t find a discernible difference in the rackets. But the more I hit, I realized that I was able to clear the 100s over the net a little higher and it would still land inside my opponent’s baseline. The caveat: I had to make a concerted effort to hit with more height, which isn’t the worse thing. The 16x19 version had a little more raw power, and offensively I was able to drill groundstrokes with more confidence inside the baseline. But these were fairly subtle differences between the two frames.
Overall, the Burn family falls into the vein of modern-day frames. In an effort to streamline its myriad rackets, Wilson recently compartmentalized its brand with what the company calls its “PlayerID system” in which “players and their coaches can easily identify the appropriate Wilson racket model for their game based on their individual style of play.”
Essentially, Wilson split its latest rackets into three categories, the baseliner, the attacker and the all-courter. The Burn series fell into the baseliner, which is exactly right. Both the 16x19 and 100s were eminently easily to wield on both the forehand and backhand. Both are firm beams, which made for heavy hitting, yet consistent feedback.
It should be noted that while many stiff rackets leave a harsh response, the Burn was very comfortable, in large part a result of Wilson’s Parallel Drilling technology, which, according to the company, “dramatically increases the sweet spot, while, providing a forgiving feel.” In the course of my 90-minute hitting session, I found there to be few fly-aways. I was able to hit hard while maintaining excellent control.
The Burn, especially the 100s, was an easy frame to transition from topspin to slice as well. As for the 16x19, I felt confident stepping into the ball and going for the low-percentage shot. But I was equally happy staying behind the baseline and engaging in long rallies without feeling I was being pushed around.
If I had to choose, the 100s was the slightly better serving stick, but I admit I am a player who is still happy playing with an 18-main string setup. It, of course, allows for more control. But what’s unique to this racket is that with only 16 crosses, the space in between the strings is greater, allowing for more spin. In terms of kick serves, I didn’t see much of a difference between the two Burns, but I can unequivocally say they both swing fast and heavy. If you’re looking for a frame that will jack up your ace count, both of these new Wilson frames are surefire winners.
The Burn series is going to catch on quickly, given today’s game is very much about not just blasting from the baseline -- but blasting from the baseline consistently. Look no further than Nishikori as a prime example.
You don’t typically think of Kei Nishikori in the same vein as Keith Richards or Eric Clapton or B.B. King. But judging by the hardware the world fifth-ranked player is racking up, he has the means to join them as a virtuoso musician.
With a 6-4, 6-4 victory against Kevin Anderson on Sunday, Nishikori won the Memphis Open for an unprecedented third straight time. He was then presented with yet another custom-made Gibson electric guitar, the tournament’s version of a championship trophy.
Whether the Japanese superstar has the talent or intrinsic motivation to pursue a career as a composer or artist is unknown at this time, but he was instrumental in bringing tennis to the forefront of a city renowned for its southern soul.
Nishikori has won this event every year since 2013; as a matter of fact, three of Nishikori’s eight career titles have come in Memphis. Soon after his latest victory, Nishikori spoke to ESPN.com via phone.
Why have you had so much success in Memphis?
"I am used to the indoors, playing in this stadium. I can hit harder than when I am outside and am more comfortable indoors. It’s a good tournament. They make it very easy for the players here. I always enjoy coming here."
You had to come back from a set down in every match until Sunday’s final. How difficult was this title run compared to your previous two?
"Yeah, this is the toughest week I had in Memphis of the three years I won. The key was the match against [Sam] Querrey yesterday. I had to really fight through until the end, winning two tiebreakers. It gave me a lot of confidence today. Today was the best match I have played all week. I felt really strong."
In the semis and final, you played 6-foot-9 Sam Querrey and 6-8 Kevin Anderson, respectively. How do you handle competing against players of that size?
"It’s never easy playing big guys. They hit a lot of aces. Yesterday against Querrey and today against Anderson I just have to take chances. I defend well, which helps. I tried to be aggressive especially [against their] second serve. I put as much pressure on the second serve as I can. Once the point starts, I feel like I am in good position to win the rallies."
You had trouble with your racket and/or strings all week. What was going on?
"I was hitting with too much power. In the first match, I went up eight pounds [on my string] tension. I felt like I needed more control. Eight pounds is a lot. Playing indoors is more powerful game, so I have to adjust my strings."
Broadly speaking, what did last year’s run to the US Open final do for you?
"The US Open gave me a lot of confidence. It was a great tournament, but it wasn’t easy mentally. But after that I played really well, but I had to keep my focus. I won two tournaments after the US Open, I think. I played in London [the ATP World Tour Finals] for the first time, which was a great experience. I made the semifinals. Really enjoyable."
How much more difficult is it being a player who is now constantly in the spotlight?
"The players now play very aggressive against me. It’s never easy [when you’re the favorite], but I have to just stick with my game plan and be aggressive. It’s not always [seamless], but I figure out how to adjust and keep the pressure on my opponents. It’s different since the US Open, but as long as I stay strong, I have confidence I will win."
If an eyeball test means anything, and if we’re being honest, it does, then we’ve found the most popular racket of 2015 -- and it’s only February.
A few weeks ago, while rummaging the grounds of Melbourne Park, I couldn’t help but notice a fashionable blue-and-black-colored frame. Turn left, turn right, there was one of Babolat’s latest iterations of the Pure Drive. From a bevy of junior players to the likes of WTA No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 13 Sara Errani to Australian Open doubles champion Fabio Fognini, the Pure Drive was everywhere. And, by the way, it complimented the overall Aussie Open color scheme quite nicely as well.
Yes, this was perhaps the most omnipresent racket on the ground, which makes sense since the Pure Drive is the epitome of the modern-day racket. It conflates power, control and maneuverability into one potent 27-to-27½ inch slice of graphite.
The Pure Drive does it all. Originally made popular by Andy Roddick, the 2015 model makes power even easier, thanks to Babolat’s strategic move to raise the sweet spot higher in the hoop. And in an effort to offset some of the raw power, which at times could reach unwieldy levels in the older versions, Babolat tightened the upper cross strings for greater command.
Some might call that a win-win.
Just before the Aussie Open, I took the standard version of the Pure Drive out for a test run. Upon my return, I gave the plus some ample playing time. The first thing I noticed was how freely they both swung through the air and how heavy the response was in what I would consider two rackets on the lighter side -- though both weigh in at just over 11 ounces.
It goes without saying that the Pure Drives are tailor made for today’s baseline-bashing paradigm. But what surprised me, was the confidence I had to decelerate and transition into a counterpunching game if I felt it necessary. We all know it’s fun to go out there are rip shot after shot, but if you’re going to play competitively, it’s not an ideal (or realistic) strategy to punish the ball unrelentingly if winning is your thing.
I found that in the standard version specifically, I could take unfettered rips or slices, then move my way into the middle of the court and eventually to the net without second guessing my shot selection. In the extended version, it took a bit of an adjustment to get by shoulders turned and make contact inside the baseline without a concerted effort to remind myself to do the basics. Specifically, I was getting jammed on my forehand (my two-handed backhand was unfazed). But after 30 or 45 minutes, I became acclimated and actually found I was hitting the ball deeper in the court.
The one clear advantage in using the extra half inch -- and this will come as no surprise -- was the increase in serving power. I’ve heard various figures when it comes to how many miles per hour a half inch adds, but the only thing I can tell you is that there was a discernible increase. But like groundstrokes, I felt like one of the salient takeaways was the control factor and precision from serving from both frames. My service deliveries were finding their intended corners, while I could kick serves in with heavy-than-usual spin.
The bottom line here is that the 2015 Pure Drive meets the three hallmarks that fashion the modern-day racket: power, control and maneuverability. This current incarnation is a smart update that will appeal a greater variety of players than its predecessors.
Typically, I would end one of these reviews with something like “give this one a whirl, you might dig it,” but since the racket is already a universal standout, we’re pretty sure you’ve used one of the new Pure Drive, if not already own one.
There is once again a familiar look to the ATP rankings, with the Big Four back in the first four positions for the first time in quite a while. Various injuries, off-court happenings and time off have seen Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray all fall down the ranks sometime during the previous couple of seasons, though Novak Djokovic has been a steady presence despite some fluctuations in form.
Following the Australian Open, however, the four are as before. Now they must look to stay there, holding off an increasing number of challengers. Here's how their campaigns are going.
The Serb has not only been the most consistently ranking member of the Big Four, he is now dominating again, having just won his fifth Australian Open and eighth Grand Slam. It has become almost a regular event to see him sweep through the indoor season and pick up again on the hard courts, something he is doing once again. He is scheduled to return to the court at Dubai in two weeks and then is expected to play Davis Cup and defend titles in Indian Wells and Miami.
The only lingering issue from his Aussie victory was the apparent return of some fatigue problems. The 27-year-old seemed barely able to walk at times during his semifinal against Stan Wawrinka and final against Murray, though it didn't prevent him from winning both those matches. Still, it's something that plagued him during his rise up the ranks.
At least he's kept away from the heat since the tournament.
Though winning fewer titles, Federer was even more consistent during the previous season than No. 1-ranked Djokovic, so it was a surprise to see him fall to Andreas Seppi at the Australian Open. But he was coming in off a busy stretch, playing a full indoor season that including reaching the championship match of the Tour Finals (before withdrawing, citing injury) and winning the coveted Davis Cup title. He also made appearances in the International Premier League and an exhibition for his charity. Federer started off 2015 by winning Brisbane.
Federer wouldn't attribute his early defeat at the Aussie Open to fatigue but did say he was now going to take a proper break. Federer also returns in Dubai as the defending champion. He is still deciding whether he will play Davis Cup in an attempt to keep the trophy Switzerland won in his most significant victory of the season.
Unlike the others, Nadal's challenge coming in was too few matches, with the No. 3 hardly playing during the second half of 2014 and then getting just two or three matches before the Australian Open. He did spend a lot of time on court in Oz, including going five sets against Tim Smyczek in the second round, but the No. 3 then got pummeled by Tomas Berdych in their quarterfinal bout.
The Spaniard is going back to basics as he attempts to regain some consistency, returning to his favorite surface to play clay-court events in Rio and Buenos Aires. He told local television that he had been training in Mallorca and is now looking for "confidence and rhythm," not just for these tournaments, but in a bid to resume his dominance on European clay, and especially the French Open.
Reaching the Australian Open final put Murray back at No. 4 in the rankings, but more importantly, it signaled his return to Grand Slam contention following back surgery, an extended comeback and changes to his team. He produced striking tennis in defeating Berdych in the semifinals but admitted to being affected by Djokovic's apparent fatigue in the final and appeared to almost question the legitimacy of the Serb’s behavior. Either way, he let Djokovic run away with the match, which meant Murray left the tournament with some positives and negatives: His game is back, but there are mental question marks.
The 27-year-old has been the first of the Big Four back on court, playing this week at Rotterdam. But first he had to explain his remarks following the final, saying his reaction was played up and seemed "bigger than what it was."
Murray went on to say: "If Novak feels he has something to explain, I’d be pleased to speak with him. But I don’t feel he really needs to explain anything."
Murray will also play the two hard-court Masters events next, followed (reportedly) by his wedding to Kim Sears, his longtime girlfriend, at a Scottish hotel owned by Murray.
The Big Four will be spread wide apart during these next few weeks, playing indoors, clay and hard courts in far-flung locations, but at least in the rankings, they are once more together.
1. Paes' behind-the-back volley
This was hands down one of the most entertaining points of the week, capped by not one but two superb volleys from Leander Paes.
2. Djokovic's backhand smash
He may not have won the point, but Novak Djokovic kept it going with this leaping backhand smash, sometimes called the toughest shot in tennis.
4. Murray's forehand winner
Andy Murray isn't known for going for his forehand, but rather for not going for it enough. He can hit it when he wants to, though, as he showed with this clean winner against Tomas Berdych.
5. Monfils' between-and-retrieve
If anyone was going to combine the two top plays of the tournament, it would be shot-maker Gael Monfils. He hits a forward-facing, between-the-legs shot during this exchange then almost runs off the court to get back his opponent's ball and hit a winning shot.
A selection of the best shots of the first week in Melbourne can be seen here.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- So that was fun.
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray went toe-to-toe in a tantalizing finale at the Australian Open. For a while it looked like we might have to cancel our flights back home and stick around an extra day, considering the first two sets lasted more than 2½ hours.
But then Djokovic decided to play like a world No. 1 and dismantled Murray the rest of the way in a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0 win, the Serb’s fifth title in Oz and eighth major overall.
We can only hope that you had a chance to watch this, because you won’t have an opportunity to watch any more tennis for ... about 24 hours or so, when the Open Sud de France kicks off. I, for one, had a great vantage point right from the Rod Laver Arena media seats.
With that, here is ESPN.com’s first “Observations from Section 13, Row R, Seat 2” of the men’s final.
• As I walked into Rod Laver Arena about 20 minutes before the first ball was struck, the roof was shut over the stadium. It was hot and humid with little to no airflow. Naturally, I came to the court decked out in a flannel shirt (classy) and windbreaker, considering it was barely 60 degrees and raining all day. Needless to say, within two or three minutes after I sat down in my seat in Section 13, Row R, Seat 2, some untimely perspiration began to emanate from my back (classy), and I had to take my coat off. Ten minutes after that, the roof police made the decision to open it, and the temperature immediately dropped by 20 degrees or so, which meant I had to put my coat back on. But the point here is that the sudden wind-strewn conditions were going to be a factor. I felt Murray, who’s a little fussier, would have preferred a closed roof. It wasn’t going to be.
• For a moment, I couldn’t remember if I was in Melbourne or Wimbledon. The geeked-up fans yelled passionately for Murray during introductions, warm-ups and throughout most of the match, which made me pity Djokovic a little, until I remembered he’s a world No. 1 with seven major titles (heading into the match) and gazillions in his bank account. But in all seriousness, I understand that in a global sense, Serbia is a quaint tennis community, and that Djokovic doesn’t garner the same attention as Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It wasn’t until 4-3 in the first set that I heard faint chants in support of Djokovic.
• The first set took 1 hour, 12 minutes, which made me wonder what would happen first: the conclusion of this match or the first ball of the French Open. Murray really, really (really!) needed that first set. Our stat guys informed us that Djokovic is 36-1 in finals when winning the opening set. More so, Djokovic played some shaky ball early on. He moved awkwardly at times (was he suffering lingering effects from his last match against Stan Wawrinka?), and as the set wore on, Murray began to play more offensive-minded. Djokovic, though, won that set, which he probably shouldn’t have.
• Djokovic went up a break at 3-2 in the second set, which included a string of 12 straight winning points. Murray lost focus, and as ESPN.com colleague Peter Bodo tweeted, “Thanks to Andy Murray, ATP may borrow a page from WTT playbook and allow on-court psychotherapy.”
• Hoodlum alert! An hour and 50 minutes into the match, a hooligan attempted to run across the court, but security snagged her well before she could even approach the near sideline. If you’re going to be a daredevil, crazy person, you need a more explosive first step. Action was stopped for about two minutes while said hoodlum was escorted from the grounds. But here’s the thing: Murray broke Djokovic immediately after the incident. Maybe the Scot should foot her bail money.
• After two sets, which took 2 hours, 32 minutes, I began to think about math, which is not exactly the forte of someone who makes a living trying to string together cogent, coherent sentences. But just for fun, I decided to calculate how long Djokovic and Murray would have to play at the current rate to pass John Isner and Nicolas Mahut as the longest match in the history of tennis. The answer ... nine sets. Of course, they had already surpassed Isner-Mahut in terms of quality by the third game of the first set (#ouch).
• Djokovic was broken straight away in the third set, and began to look a little gimpy. But whether he was legitimately ailing or whether it was just histrionics setting in, Djokovic rebounded, broke Murray back and then broke him again at 4-3 in the third. It was at that point Murray took his anger out on his racket -- with a massive overhead smash onto the court.
• Here’s a fun stat: At 3 hours, 19 minutes into the match, my laptop said it had 3 hours, 19 minutes of battery life remaining. Which means nothing, but still, pretty cool, right?
• And here’s a cooler stat: Djokovic lost three total games in the final two sets to nab his Open era-record fifth Aussie Open title. And suddenly the match was over, as was my time in Section 13, Row R, Seat 2.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The two Australian Open finalists have taken very different routes through the tournament. Andy Murray has been carrying a chip of his shoulder, while Novak Djokovic has been throwing bouquets. But it's working for them.
His sense of humor and popularity in the locker room are in contrast to his public persona, but Andy Murray has kept up with his sometimes cranky reputation during this tournament.
-- As Rafael Nadal got praise for his competitiveness in a five-set win in the second round, Murray sent a pointed tweet saying he hadn't got the same reaction at the US Open. (Though it's not clear his is an accurate assessment.)
When I cramped and won in the us open last year I was a "drama Queen, unfit, needs to see a shrink, faker" weird...— Andy Murray (@andy_murray) January 22, 2015
-- Having already beaten one Aussie, Murray didn't endear himself to locals when he defeated new hope Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round in straight sets. The crowd was cheering wildly against him, but Murray is known to like being the bad guy.
-- But it was Murray's semifinal against Tomas Berdych that got things really heated. With Murray's former assistant coach, Dani Vallverdu, now coaching Berdych, a firecracker first set saw Murray pump his fist at Berdych's box and get a stare in return. Berdych then complained about the balls and Murray complained about Berdych's complaining, and an argument about what Berdych said as the two walked by each other at net. Even Murray's fiancee, Kim Sears, got into the act, with television showing her appearing to swear something about Berdych.
-- Following the match, Murray blamed the media for the heated atmosphere, saying, "You wanted there to be tension.
"I sat in here the other day and got asked more questions about Dani than I did about the match I just played. So you wanted there to be tension. When there's a lot of tension surrounding something, which you created, then it's completely normal that, yeah, the whole first set everyone was tight."
-- But Murray also wanted to bring attention to his coach, Amelie Mauresmo. Having attracted attention for the unusual decision to choose a female coach, Murray's choice had been questioned during his subpar season, and he wanted a little credit for the two now that he is playing well again.
"A lot of people criticized," he said in his on-court interview, noting the success of female coaches at the tournament. "We've shown that women can be very good coaches as well."
He's had some nice moments, but it's been a combative two weeks for the No. 6 seed. Perhaps it's just what he needed to get himself stoked up again. Either way, Murray is back in the final and playing some good tennis.
Novak Djokovic's raucous humor behind the scenes is in contrast to his increasingly polished public presence, and the Serb has been sweetly sentimental through the Australian Open.
-- The new father didn't bring his wife and son Stefan with him, but Djokovic kicked off proceedings with this little speech.
"Well, I can say definitely that it's the best, most joyful thing that ever has happened to me and my wife. We are so blessed and grateful to have a child.
"They're not here with me, so I'm trying to stay in touch with them. The technology nowadays helps me to stay connected and see them and watch them on a daily basis. I can't wait to be with them. Everything that you do as a father is very special. Everything that you see, all the facial expressions, changes on a weekly basis, daily basis, as a matter of fact, is quite remarkable.
"It's inexplicable for somebody that hasn't experienced it before. That is what people were telling me before I became a father. They said, 'When it happens, you will understand the feeling.' I do now. I'm completely fulfilled in every aspect of my life. That gives a whole another meaning and purpose to my tennis as well. I'm trying to draw that energy and motivation and love that I have for my family and for my boy into the tennis court as well."
-- He may not be doing diaper duty during the tournament, but Djokovic took the time to make another kid's day with this surprise appearance.
-- It was Djokovic's turn to be surprised when he was shown a tweet with son Stefan in front of the television for the world No. 1's match.
-- His coach is getting some compliments, too. Asked about his unusually big serving during the tournament, Djokovic said, "Now I know what it's like to be like Boris Becker."
-- During the second week, the Serb tweeted that the warm atmosphere is a reason why he's been playing so well.
Djokovic didn't look quite as good in his semifinal against Stan Wawrinka, but no surprise: He's staying positive for the final.
1. Roger Federer
He might have unceremoniously exited in the third round thanks to Andreas Seppi, but when it comes to spectacular shot-making, the old master is still showing the others how it's done. The undisputed king of the traditional tweener shows he can also handle this variation, which requires less technique but more athletic reflexes. Not only does Federer pull it off, but he hits a forehand winner on the line to finish off the point. It had to be seen on Hawk-Eye to be believed.
2. Gael Monfils
No one hits the shot like Gael Monfils, so he wasn't about to leave the tournament before reminding everyone it's still his trademark. In this point, he shows off his legs -- not only by getting the ball back between them, but by running across the court to retrieve the next shot as well.
3. Nick Kyrgios
Young Aussie Nick Kyrgios grew up idolizing Federer, and he emulates him again here with a shot combination similar to Federer's effort during the tournament.
4. Andreas Seppi
It's not just the shot, it's when he hit it. Seppi says he wasn't expecting to even reach the ball, let alone send the ball by Federer at net for a clean winner up the line on match point.
5. Feliciano Lopez
The big-serving Spaniard hits plenty of aces, but catches an extra, painful-looking target here. But to the ball boy's credit, he resumed his duties in a few minutes and got a personal apology from Lopez the next day, as well as a T-shirt and a wristband from the match. "Was very funny because he became very famous at school," said Lopez. "Luckily, he is perfect and he is fine."
MELBOURNE, Australia -- At 6-foot-10, you can sympathize with John Isner when he says he has a leg-room problem on airplanes.
Which is unfortunate, because after a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (6), 6-4 loss to Gilles Muller in the third round of the Australian Open, Isner will be making the long, cramped journey back to the U.S. far sooner than he had hoped.
Isner boasts arguably the most lethal shot in tennis, a wicked first serve, which against Muller reached 139 mph at times. But for Isner, who also hit a remarkable 30 aces, he forged just one break opportunity in the match -- one that he failed to convert.
Combined with Steve Johnson’s four-set loss to No. 5 Kei Nishikori, the U.S. men find themselves in familiar, hollow territory; they won’t have a representative in the fourth round of the Aussie for the fourth straight season -- an unfortunate circumstance for a country that is simultaneously producing a host of talented young women.
Isner came to Australia with new coach Justin Gimelstob, a move largely made to help the No. 19 seed quiet the Grand Slam fire alarm that’s been going off for years and to work on his overarching vice, the return of serve. But as we saw against Muller, Isner’s length can be an impediment. With arms as long as his, it’s a tough ask to first turn your shoulders and then swivel quickly enough to create any kind of offense on returns.
To Isner’s defense, Muller served with chilling efficiency, unleashing 24 aces of his own and winning 90 percent of points on his first deliveries. Muller, it should be pointed out, is somewhat of a feel-good story. The 31-year-old from Luxembourg was out of tennis for nearly a year after undergoing elbow surgery following the 2013 French Open. But he’s on to his first Grand Slam round of 16 in 3½ years.
For the record, Isner has now gone 12 Grand Slams without reaching a quarterfinal and has never, ever made a semi.
As for Johnson, he started off quickly against Nishikori, the 2014 US Open runner-up. Johnson won a lengthy first-set tiebreaker before Nishikori figured out he was in fact Nishikori. Johnson, the two-time NCAA champ from USC, fell 6-7 (7), 6-1, 6-2, 6-3.
At this point, there won’t be any new questions, new concerns or new explanations on the state of U.S. men’s tennis. We’re more or less repurposing the same narrative that has dented the image of the Americans since Andy Roddick reached the Wimbledon final in 2009.
But even though it’s not a new story, it’s still a troubling one.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer was the victim of one of sport’s quirkiest stats. That is, he won more points than Andreas Seppi (145-144) but lost the match.
In statistical circles, this phenomena is known as the Simpson’s paradox, a trend present in different groups that is reversed when the groups are combined -- which is a complicated way of saying sometimes math is weird.
In tennis, those “groups” are sets and the combination, of course, is the match.
But let’s be honest here: This happens all the time in tennis. Player X can blow out Player Y in a set and then lose the next three in tiebreakers. Thus Player X wins more points, loses the match and this paradox is anything but an anomaly. An article last year in The Atlantic pointed out that Nicolas Mahut actually won 24 more points than John Isner in their 11-hour, 5-minute, 183-game marathon at Wimbledon five years ago -- a match that Isner famously won.
So why are we saturating you with a (bad) lesson in statistics? Because numerically, Federer played a competitive match in a 6-4, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (5) loss in the third round of the Australian Open, but from a motivational perspective, he just didn’t always seem to be on his game.
As Chris Evert explained on the ESPN2 telecast, Federer’s fire was missing during key points, which is a product of playing later in your career. Darren Cahill then pointed out that Federer tactical moves were a little flat.
Federer came into the Australian Open fresh off a title at the Brisbane International, where he won his 1,000th career match in the finale against Milos Raonic. That many wins (he’s one of only three players to reach that milestone) is an extravagant achievement but also a product of playing this game for a long, long time. These kind of days happen. Right?
“Oh, no,” Federer said, “this is a feeling I've had for 15 years. To me I don't read anything into those feelings you sometimes have and it's totally not true and you just come out and you play a routine match. Yeah, it was a mistake. And I know the strength of Seppi, especially after he beat Chardy, who I know can play very well. I was aware of the test and was well-prepared. Just somehow couldn't play my best tennis today. It was definitely partially because of Andreas playing very well.”
There were some alarming sounds after Federer’s last previous against Simone Bolleli, in which the great Swiss also dropped the first set. But he quickly recovered, winning the next three sets, and things appeared to be copacetic in the Federer camp.
Against Seppi, Federer served up nine double faults and failed to convert on 21 of his 50 net approaches. Those are not winning numbers.
Hard to believe, but this is Federer’s first third-round loss in a hard-court major since Jan. 20, 2001 -- yes, the very seem day George W Bush took office.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, ESPN crack researcher Alex Kennison dug deep into Internet archives and found out that was also the day Apple first introduced the I-Tunes digital media player.
In other words, it was a different lifetime ago, so long, in fact, that CiCi Bellis was only a year old.
OK, we’ll stop with our journey-back-to-the-past references (“The Wedding Planner” was No. 1 at the box office!) and only point out that what you likely already know: That is Federer’s consistent dominance is something we haven’t seen before. Federer insists we shouldn’t get worked up after Friday’s loss, and he’s right.
Because as he showed us during last year’s fantastic campaign, that the older he gets, the further away from retirement he is -- sort of a paradox in its own right.