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For years, I’ve admittedly been a little stubborn when it comes to tennis gear. I like what I like. And that’s just how it goes. With tennis rackets in particular, I gravitated toward thin-beamed, knife-like frames because, well, they looked like they were made for competitive players. Rarely did a so-called tweener stick appeal to me. They were clunky, and honestly most looked like something I would be using after double knee surgery or when my legs no longer move.

But like life itself, it’s never a bad thing to take step back once in a while and re-evaluate tennis equipment. It’s ever-changing, and things often aren’t what they appear to be. And this is where the Head Graphene Extreme Pro comes in.

My first reaction was how much of a control-oriented this racket was. I was taking full, confident swings and the ball was staying well within the baseline. Despite the frame’s hefty 11.8 ounces, it was easy to maneuver, whether defending high deep balls or returning flat, powerful serves. More than anything, I really enjoyed how the ball stuck to the string bed for just a fraction of a second -- only adding to the racket’s already surprising comfort.

That said, like most of the rackets I have play-tested, I strung the Extreme Pro with Gamma io18 poly strings, which I find ratchet up spin and produce a lively response. I hit for 90 minutes or so, and my initial fear was that even after a surprisingly good feel in the beginning, the overall weight and bulk would eventually wear me down. But that wasn’t the case. I was able to wield this frame with the same speed and agility as a typical 18- to 21-inch beam.

More so, the overall stability was perhaps the best of any new frame I have used this season, especially on off-center hits. Earlier this season, I tested the Prince Warrior 100 Pro (which is in the same tweener category as the Extreme Pro), and while I was a big fan of the feel, the racket lost a lot of its vitality if you made contact outside the sweetspot. This wasn’t the case at all with the Extreme Pro. Some might even call it … rock solid.

It goes without saying that hitting serving bombs came with relative ease. As a matter of fact, the overall mass of the racket pretty much did all the work. But here’s where I will contradict myself, just a little. Although the width of the frame did not bother me at groundstrokes at all, I did have a hard time coming over the ball to hit kickers. Or at least it wasn’t natural. But once I figured out how to let the racket do most of the work, the spin and kick took off.

Loved sticking volleys. With a stiffness just south of 70, I found it almost seamless to hit touch volleys as well as put away higher floaters.

Overall, I would chalk this racket up to one of the biggest surprises of 2014. I was and still am a big, big fan of the Head Graphene Radical Pro, which has specs right in my wheelhouse. But I actually preferred the feel off the Extreme Pro, and generating spin was significantly more effortless.

So, tennis gear heads, don’t judge this racket too harshly until you give it a whirl -- unless, of course, you’re not interested in building a more potent yet controlled game.

videoIt's quite a way to warm up for a wedding.

Novak Djokovic gave himself a Wimbledon title as a present before marrying longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic this week at a luxury resort in Montenegro. The two are also expecting their first child, so Djokovic has plenty happening both on the court and off it.

Walking in fresh from holding up the trophy at the All England Club, the Serb had laughed at being asked whether he was going to resume training right away.

"Straight to practice," he grinned, joking about finding some hard courts around Wimbledon.

No, he is instead taking a bit of a break from the game.

"I think I can close the chapter of my tennis career just for little bit now," he said. "I think I deserve that for a few weeks to rest, to enjoy, be with my fiancée -- my wife-to-be -- and my family."

But Djokovic will be something of a different player once he returns to the game. Not only will he be a married man, but he will also be No. 1 in the world again, having returned to the top following his seventh Grand Slam victory. The biggest change, however, might be a mental one.

Coming into Wimbledon, Djokovic talked about the effect of not winning a Grand Slam tournament since the 2013 Australian Open, saying three defeats in Slam finals since then had affected his confidence in big moments. He brought on Boris Becker as a coach specifically to help him play better at those times, but he fell to Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open this year and looked mentally and physically drained against Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

Even during the Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, Djokovic had the match well in hand during the fourth set but was broken three times after going up a break. But this time, he was able to gather himself. Like Andy Murray at the US Open two years ago, Djokovic left the court for a break after the fourth set and gave himself a lecture.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic has kissed the Wimbledon trophy and his new bride, and is resting up ahead of hard court action.
"I needed some time to refocus and forget about what happened in the fourth set," said Djokovic. "I had these positive words of encouragement to say to myself.

"I managed to have my convictions stronger than my doubts in this moment and managed to push myself the very last step to win the trophy."

That mental victory, combined with Djokovic's statement that it was the "highest quality" Grand Slam match he has played, led him to describe the contest as the "most special Grand Slam final I've played. At the time of my career for this Grand Slam trophy to arrive is crucial, especially, as I said, after losing several Grand Slam finals in a row."

The coaching relationship with Becker is also on better footing. Following the Australian Open, Djokovic's victories at Indian Wells and Miami were both with his long-term coach Marian Vadja, who was expected to be at tournaments only occasionally. Djokovic also asked Vadja to accompany Becker to the clay-court event at Rome, which is where the Serb says he and Becker finally began to communicate effectively.

"We won the tournament, the three of us, and it was actually the time when I started feeling much closer to Boris and when I actually understood what message he is trying to convey to me," said Djokovic.

Both coaches were at the French Open, as scheduled, and Becker was the only one with Djokovic at Wimbledon. Going on to win the tournament will have given the Serb more confidence in the setup, allowing him to be more settled at other tournaments.

He also expects the win to give him a lift for the rest of the season. "I'm going to try to use it in the best possible way and for my confidence to grow," he said.

All that means the new No. 1 will be the player to beat heading into the hard-court season. Djokovic now has the best winning percentage on the tour on hard courts, his favorite surface, having won 82.6 percent of his matches.

There could be other challenges, though. He has also had physical problems this season, injuring his wrist just before his first clay-court tournament and knocking his shoulder during a fall at Wimbledon, along with the usual aches and niggles. Most of the time it has not stopped him from competing, but the wear and tear could start to show as the season goes along.

For the moment, however, Djokovic has reasserted himself, setting up an interesting hard-court season. There is expected to be a resumption of his rivalry with Nadal, who was in dominant hard-court form a year ago but has produced some up-and-down performances this season.

Other Slam champs like Federer, Wawrinka and Murray will also be in the hunt, as will a group of younger players -- like Wimbledon semifinalists Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic -- who are emerging as contenders for bigger titles this season. It is a bigger cast than in recent years, leading to a more competitive field.

But all that will take shape in a few weeks. For now, Djokovic's attention is elsewhere. Specifically, at a resort in Montenegro.

"I’m very excited and joyful about the period that is coming up," he said.
videoVasek Pospisil has a lot of explaining to do these days. Things like, "what's happening with Canadian tennis?"

"I've already answered this question so many times," said Pospisil, 24, who's already developed a standard version of his answer which begins with, "To summarize, it's a combination of a few things."

That will come in handy, because it's a question he'll probably be getting plenty more of.

Milos Raonic, the country's top-ranked player, has already noticed the increase in interest since he broke through at the 2011 Australian Open and reached the fourth round.

"Yeah, I think there's a lot more talk about it," Raonic said. "When you do media and press questions, it comes up quite a bit more just from people in general, you see a more consistent pouring out of Canadians coming out. Sometimes you'll see a person that's not a Canadian come out to a match with a Canadian flag."

For over a year now, there has been quiet but consistent rise in players with the maple leaf beside their names. But it was at Wimbledon that the country loudly announced its arrival on the tennis scene.

Eugenie Bouchard became the first Canadian in a Grand Slam singles final, Raonic the first Canadian to reach a men's Grand Slam semifinal, and Pospisil joined the USA's Jack Sock in carrying off the men's doubles title.

Previously limited to doubles players and the odd player in the men's or women's top 100, Canada's presence in the tennis ranks has swelled significantly. In addition to established standbys such as former doubles No. 1 Daniel Nestor, the 23-year-old Raonic and 20-year-old Bouchard now are both in the top 10 and the highest-ever ranked Canadians, and both are considered emerging Grand Slam contenders.

Pospisil reached No. 33 in 2013 before experiencing a back injury this season, and is starting to regain his game. And there are more promising prospects coming up, such as the solid 2013 US Open and Wimbledon junior champion Filip Peliwo, and junior girls talent Francoise Abanda.

[+] EnlargeEugenie Bouchard
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesEugenie Bouchard leads a Canadian contingent that is steadily rising up the rankings.
Coincidence or conditions? Pospisil sees it as a bit of both.

"Obviously as much as people would like to say it's not a coincidence, it also is," he said. "Tennis Canada, what they've done is incredible ... Without them, this wouldn't have happened.

"But it wouldn't happen without the talent and the individuals themselves. A lot of things have to happen for someone to do well at this sport. So it's not as simple as changing a few things at the federation."

Tennis Canada, the federation that runs the country's ATP and WTA events and is responsible for the game's development in the country, overhauled its training program in 2007, putting in an extra $1 million per year and establishing a national center in Montreal.

Raonic was full-time at the center as a junior player and both Pospisil and Bouchard have spent periods training there. But the three also have taken separate routes in separate parts of the country.

The Montenegro-born Raonic grew up in Toronto, where he practiced his famous serve early in the mornings before joining the Tennis Canada program. Bouchard is from a well-to-do family in Montreal and went to Nick Saviano's academy in Florida at 12 years old to be able to train year-round. Pospisil, from Vancouver, went to his parents' native Czech Republic between the ages of 15 and 18, and at 20 came to the Montreal center.

Bouchard doesn't see a big connection.

"A few of us have done well around the same time. I think that's a happy coincidence. For example, me or Milos and Vasek, we've succeeded in completely different ways," she said.

"I wouldn't pinpoint a specific common fact. But I think it's a good thing. It's good timing. I think because of that the popularity has grown in Canada."

This year's Wimbledon set television records in Canada, with both finals the most-watched ever in the country. Bouchard's final against Petra Kvitova was seen by an average 2.4 million people, and Raonic's semifinal showing drew 776,000 people. Overall, 10 million -- almost a third of the country -- watched some portion of the tournament, according to sports broadcaster TSN, which shows it in the country.

But circumstances also have been cited as contributing to the recent influx of Canadians on the pro tour. The Lawn Tennis Association recently lured former Tennis Canada CEO Michael Downey as its new head, suggesting it sees a connection.

Raonic speaks well of his experience in the national program and says that his subsequent success will inspire confidence and results from others.

"There is a good program in place, but I believe a big part of it is one person breaks through," he said. "[If] you got to go train, you got to go run, you got to do weights, you got to play on court, you see that somebody is already succeeding through that system."

The most significant aspect, however, might be the country's increased success in taking players from the juniors or lower ranks and getting them to the upper levels. Increased funding and resources from the federation has helped some players take that next step.

Pospisil says that access to coaches though federation funding has had a huge impact and points to Louis Borfiga, a Frenchman who is the head of high performance development at Tennis Canada, as a central influence.

"Especially, I think, when Louis Borfiga came on the scene, when Michael Downey hired him, that kind of set the platform and allowed all this to happen," Pospisil said.

Pospisil has credited his coach Frederic Fontang, with whom he began working in 2012, as an important reason for his recent surge. Raonic went from outside the top 300 into the top 20 with Galo Blanco before starting with Ivan Ljubicic a year ago.

"The coaching decisions, the coaches they brought in, they made a huge difference," Pospisil said. "That's where Borfiga had a big role. He's a very wise man. He really knows tennis, he doesn't seem like it when you don't know him, but he knows what he's doing."

"Borfiga knew that [Fontang] was available, and knew that he was a good coach, and said, 'Oh, that would be a good coach to have.' And so I made a trial with him, and obviously it was great. So that's how I have the coach I have right now, who is very good. The same goes for Milos, they found a great coach for him in Galo Blanco.

"So I think they helped us use our potential and grow."

Now, their own success has the potential to do the same for tennis in the country as a whole.
videoFour double faults.

That was how the most effective delivery in the history of women's tennis went out at Wimbledon. And not just regular double faults, either, but balls that barely got to the net or sailed across the box, sometimes even hitting the same side of the court.

Serena Williams' strange exit from the doubles competition at Wimbledon became one of the biggest stories of the tournament, with the top seed (alongside sister Venus) complaining of illness and retiring from a second-round match after just three games. Serena has not spoken to media since, and a statement released by the tournament said the official reason for her withdrawal was "viral illness".

Whatever was affecting her that day, the unusual display was clearly due to exceptional circumstances. Yet that wasn't Williams' only mysterious serving performance of the tournament. Though it wasn't quite as spectacular as her doubles troubles, a 6-1, 3-6, 4-6 loss to Alize Cornet in the third round of the singles draw also featured deliveries that were lacking their usual punch.

The five-time Wimbledon champion got in 66 percent of her first serves during the match with Cornet, comparable with her previous two rounds, but won only 68 percent of those points, which is 10-15 percent lower than in the first two rounds. And she won just 30 percent of the points on her second serves, less than half her rate in the first two rounds.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Yunus Kaymaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesService issues and the strategy of some opponents have confounded Serena Williams recently.
Some of that was due to Cornet's quality of play, as well as Williams' more error-prone performance. But a drop in the top seed's serving seemed to allow the lower-ranked Frenchwoman get back in the match.

Williams dominated the encounter until serving two double faults and being broken to 2-0 to start the second set, and then seemed to pull back. She started out getting in 75 percent of her first serves during the set, but began sending the ball up the center of the box to Cornet's body. That's where she went on four of the next five points she served, getting broken to 4-0.

In the third set, Williams went back to aiming for the sides of the box, but became predictable in her serving, sending most of her first serves to Cornet's forehand -- the side from which the Frenchwoman can do more damage -- and second serves to the backhand.

Perhaps most significantly, Williams' second serves were measured at an average of 83 MPH, 10 less than against Chanelle Scheepers in the second round. She had little explanation for her serving decline during the match.

"I thought my first two matches I served well," said Williams following her defeat. "Today, I don't know the percentages of my serve, but I do know I didn't hit as many aces. I think my first serve was down a little bit."

Williams hit three aces in the match, but also seven double faults.

"I worked really hard on my serve, so I don't know why it didn't happen today," she said.

Something similar happened during her 6-2, 6-2 second-round defeat to Spain's Garbine Muguruza at the French Open. Williams again seemed to pull back on her serving during the second set, getting in 74 percent of first serves but winning only 47 percent of the points, compared to 64 percent during the first set. Her second serve dropped from an average of 90 MPH to 83, and she won only 17 percent of points on her second serves.

Despite a bad back, Williams' serving performance against Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open was the best during her three Grand Slam defeats this year. But the Serb was still able to step in and attack Williams' deliveries, hitting 16 return winners.

The biggest weapon in women's tennis has now been neutralized at three consecutive majors, which also affects Williams' game as a whole. Each time she has been sent out at a major this season, the other player has come in with a specific game plan and been able to impose it during the match. Muguruza jammed Williams, hitting the ball hard and up the center of the court. Cornet looked to her defeat of Williams in Dubai this season, aiming to hit the ball deep to the center, be creative and stay aggressive.

Tracy Austin, a two-time Grand Slam champion, told the BBC she saw similarities between the way Cornet and Ivanovic had played Williams.

"She wasn't able to get into a rhythm," said Austin of Williams. "Ana Ivanovic did the same thing at the Australian Open.

"Not letting her get into a rhythm ... taking the ball on the rise, going for big shots and not having rallies."

Williams usually uses big first serves and heavy second serves to prevent players from taking the initiative, but was unable to do so against Cornet, Muguruza and Ivanovic, getting broken 14 times in those three matches.

Compare that to Wimbledon two years ago, which was perhaps the best serving performance of her career -- she slammed 102 aces, won 91 percent of her service games, and topped out at 120 mph. Her biggest serve at the tournament this year was 117 mph.

To return to her dominant form of a year ago, Williams will have to start serving as she did before. Since others tend to go for their shots against her, any player having a good day can be a challenge.

"If I'm not playing, you know, a great, great match, these girls when they play me, they play as if they're on the ATP Tour, and then they play other girls completely different," Williams said. "So I just have to always, every time I step on the court, be a hundred times better."

Williams' unsightly double faults ended up receiving most of the attention at Wimbledon, but her performance in the singles also served notice that things have changed for her.


LONDON -- Did you know strawberries are delivered to the All England Club at 5:30 a.m. every day. Every day! But nothing but freshest and most succulent for a crowd that demands the best.

It’s a grind, I’m sure, for the delivery crew, but the consistent excellence has given Wimbledon an unmatched reputation in its produce selection. Turns out, when something works, it works.

Kind of like spin-crazy tennis rackets. Take a gander through today’s write-ups and you’ll notice something conspicuously similar. Although each frame has its own identity, specs and cosmetic scheme, the message being sent to consumers is fairly standard across the board: spin, power and control. Even with so many brands churning out new models annually, if not more, it’s those three pillars that remain the biggest selling point.

And who can blame them? We are well into a modern age of tennis, in which baseline bashing is the norm, and with the proliferation and revolution of polyester strings, this trend is likely to extend for the foreseeable future.

So, then, what’s with the control rackets with dense string patterns that, at least ostensibly, don’t cater to today’s contemporary game? Specifically, we’re referring to rackets with 18x20 string patterns that make it more difficult to generate spin.

I personally hadn’t considered using a racket with a condensed configuration in years. My experience was that these types of sticks generally produced a 2x4 kind of feel with a death of power and spin. But I had heard good things about a couple of new control-oriented rackets on the market and decided to give them a whirl.

Prince Tour 95

[+] EnlargePrince Tour 95
Courtesy Prince Tennis
After about five strokes with this frame, my reaction was nothing like I had imagined. I was moving to ball from side to side with relative ease. And the best part was there was some serious pop. Actually it was a feeling of unrivaled precision without losing depth. It was easily one the of most confident-inspiring sticks I had play-tested in a long time.

The maneuverability was swift for a racket that weighs just north of 12 ounces. Given the frames 95-inch head and 6-point headlight makeup, making quick adjustments was as good, if not better, than a lot of 11-ounce frames I have used. But more than anything with the Tour 95, I had courage to swing out without fearing I was going to hit the ball somewhere outside the SW19 area code. And just as importantly, I wasn’t feeling worn down by the weight, even after 90 minutes or so on court.

The other thing I should point out is the flexibility on this racket (58) works in your favor. I understand why some players shy away from frames that are too malleable -- the mushy response can render erratic results. But the dense string pattern on the Tour 95 helps compensate for the looser feel. This frame actually plays quite a bit stiffer than say the Tour 100 16x18 or rackets akin to that one -- but not so stiff that it feels board-like.

Because of the mass, I felt I could slow my motion and swing down and hit crisp serves to either side without sacrificing a lot of power, which is why this racket would be a good choice for competitive players. Compared to lighter sticks with larger heads, this frame really helped me jumpstart the point behind my serve. Conversely, and again because of the mass, I could be aggressive on service returns without taking colossal hacks.

Spin is in, I get it. But I would highly recommend taking a few rips with this racket before making any decisions.

Prince Tour 100 (18x20)

[+] EnlargePrince Tour 100
Courtesy Prince Tennis
The Prince Tour line and lineage has mass appeal for a lot of reasons: the thin beam, a shoulder-friendly response and the ideal spin/power combination. Actually, I have been walking around the grounds at the All England Club for the past three days, and I’ve seen a lot of players, juniors and even coaches using a racket from this line, whether the 16x18, the Tour Pro or 18x20.

I personally had not hit with the 18x20 until a week ago. Like the 95, I didn’t feel it was suited for my game. But I was pleasantly surprised with this one as well. Compared to the 16x18 version, this stick had less power, for sure, but I noticed I could really hit through the ball with consistently clean and confident strokes. I felt like I could stand at the baseline and hack away all day.

There wasn’t a discernible drop-off in spin, either, which made the Tour 18x20 more palatable. It took me some time to find proper depth for a few minutes, but that’s the only real issue I had.

Like the other frames under the Tour umbrella, the 18x20 was incredibly comfortable because of its flex, and like the Tour 95, the denser string pattern mitigated some the springboard effect you find in open-pattern rackets.

If you can generate your own pace, this is a great frame to try out -- especially if you’re a player with control issues.
videoWhat started out as a wild and wacky French Open culminated with two established champions, Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova, taking the singles trophies.

Now that the clay dust is settling, here's a look at what to watch following two weeks in Roland Garros.

1. Nadal's back
That might mean Nadal's back, as in he just won his ninth French Open, or Nadal's back, which was giving him problems during the tournament and might also have been acting up in the final against Novak Djokovic as well. The issue is which will be the bigger story as the season progresses.

It was unusual to see Nadal and Djokovic both struggling physically in the three-and-a-half hour final, not a long match by their usual standards. Nadal was cramping in the fourth set, and so badly during the ceremony that he could not hold the trophy properly. His team sent for a doctor afterwards.

The Spaniard cited hot weather after the cool conditions at the beginning of the tournament, saying "I felt I was totally exhausted. I don't know if I could have played a five-set match."

Now to see if he can bounce back for Wimbledon, a tournament he has won twice but lost in the second round in 2012 and first round in 2013. On top of that, another injury comes into play on grass -- his knee, which kept him off the tour for seven months starting in 2012. The bending required on grass tends to be harder on the back and knees than other surfaces.

"I hope my knee will have the positive feeling on grass, because I feel my knee better than last year on the rest of the surfaces," he said. "Grass always was a little bit harder for me after the injury."

Despite his fatigue, Nadal will play the grasscourt tournament in Halle this week to prepare for the All England Club.

2. Djokovic's reaction
The Serb has now been denied the career Grand Slam by Nadal for three straight years, and while he says he'll be back to try again next year, there is still the remainder of this season to play.

While Djokovic has not gone away after his French Open defeats in the previous two years, he has not performed quite as well in the big matches after falling at the French Open -- there were lackluster performances against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon semifinals and Andy Murray in the US Open final in 2012, and against Murray in the Wimbledon final in 2013.

His reaction will again be worth watching, because until now he had been this season's most consistent performer and beaten Nadal in both their previous meetings. There's also whether he will be affected by things off the court, with a wedding to fiancee Jelena Ristic and the birth of his first child expected this year.

3. Players 23 and younger emerging
They didn't lift the trophies, but the new guard made its presence felt more than at any Grand Slam in years, particularly on the women's side.

[+] EnlargeSimona Halep
AP Photo/David VincentSimona Halep had plenty to celebrate in Paris, and looks to be poised for more.
Simona Halep romped to the final and went three tough sets with Maria Sharapova. Garbine Garbine Muguruza turned the whole tournament on its head with her upset of Serena Williams in the second round, and was a game away from defeating Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals. Eugenie Bouchard made the semifinals at a Grand Slam for the second straight time, and took Sharapova to three sets (okay, who didn't extend Maria?).

Younger players drew notice during the first week as well. Kristina Mladenovic took out Li Na in the first round, while Alja Tomljanovic defeated Agnieska Radwasnka. Sloane Stephens has now reached the second week of eight straight majors, while wildcard Taylor Townsend made the third round in her first appearance at one.

And there are others -- Caroline Garcia, Madison Keys, Belinda Bencic -- who made little impact at this French Open but are progressing steadily.

Up-and-comers were less visible on the men's side but Milos Raonic did reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, just like Grigor Dimitrov did at the Australian Open, while Jack Sock entered the third round.

It's not a takeover, but at least the next generation has started to introduce itself.

4. Sharapova's opening
More than anything, this French Open title was a victory for Sharapova as a competitor.

The 27-year-old had insisted Serena Williams' exit wasn't affecting her, but her tight performances as the event wore on suggested otherwise. She seemed to be on the verge of defeat the entire second week, going three sets in each match from the fourth round onwards. But the Russian wriggled though, and having already won each Grand Slam once, now finds herself with two on what was once her least-preferred surface.

"If somebody had told me... at some stage in my career, that I'd have more Roland Garros titles than any other Grand Slam, I'd probably go get drunk. Or tell them to get drunk," she said.

She may not have solved Serena, but Sharapova dominated the clay season and showed that she is right back in the mix at the top after her shoulder injury a year ago, and now has very little to defend this season. Back up to No. 5 in the rankings, she could climb right to the top once again if she can keep up the form she showed the first week at the French Open, and the fight she showed during the second.

5. Serena's stumbles
It's not that Williams was defeated as much as how she was defeated. In straight sets, 6-2, 6-2, by an inexperienced 20-year-old Muguruza . It was her most one-sided defeat in a Grand Slam, with Williams showing none of her famed fighting qualities or even her legendary serve. And she took the defeat with remarkable composure, smiling and chatting with her opponent at net.

So are two seasons of dominance finally starting to wear on her, as she suggested at Charleston, or will she return stronger than ever, as with her first-round defeat at the French Open two years ago? Williams has won only three of the eight tournaments she has played this season (with one withdrawal), and taken defeats from Ana Ivanovic, Alize Cornet, Jana Cepelova and now Muguruza. But there's nothing like a Grand Slam defeat to re-motivate her.

6. Federer's fluctuations
Not reaching the second week for the first time in 10 years might have been more noteworthy had Federer's claycourt season not had the (welcome) disruption of he and wife Mirka welcoming their second set of twins in May. While she did the heavy lifting, his schedule did not go unaffected. Federer pulled out of Madrid for the births and fell in his opening match at Rome, entering the French Open with less attention and reduced expectations.

It may be more significant that he continued this season's habit of dropping tight matches, going out to Ernests Gulbis in five sets. The 17-time Grand Slam has gone out in a deciding set in six of his seven tournaments this year.

If he could change that pattern, it would make a big difference to his results.

7. Over-30s stalling
While the French Open was a good tournament for younger players, it was a challenging event for older ones. Only one over-30 made the men's quarterfinals (David Ferrer), and none the women's, countering the recent prominance of the veterans. M

eanwhile, 32-year-olds Serena Williams and Li Na, as well as 34-year-old Venus Williams, all exited by the second round. Federer, also 32, went out in the fourth, while two quarterfinalists from a year ago, Tommy Robredo, 32 and Tommy Haas, 36, didn't get further than the third round and first round, respectively, with Haas retiring during his opener with shoulder problems.

One expection was Guillermo Garcia Lopez, who at 31 made the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time.

While the tendency for players to do well further into their careers looks set to continue, it may be a signal that the recent surge of over-30 success is slowing down.

8. Gulbis gaining
It's happened before. Ernests Gulbis goes on a run, declares he's working harder than before and creates anticipation that he's finally going to make good on his enormous talent. Then, after a few weeks and few broken racquets, it's back to his underachieving normal. Will this time be any different?

It could be, because Gulbis has become more consistent since his previous big run at Delray Beach and Indian Wells a year ago. Once again, he's been on a tear, winning the title in Nice and then reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal with wins over Federer and Tomas Berdych. But his results leading up suggest he's been building up to this, rather than just having one of his occasional shows of potential.

While he isn't likely to start doing well every week, another thing that's different is that the 25-year-old Latvian reacted to his breakthrough by looking forward to playing rather than partying.

"It's not enough. I need to reach more now," he said.

9. Halep stepping up
The Romanian is up to No. 3 in the rankings after reaching the French final, and as impressive as her results have been since a year ago, her play against Sharapova was even more so. Halep managed to both hit and compete on the same level as the Russian for much of the match, showing the potential of her game as she extended the match to three sets after being down a set and a break.

So can the Romanian now establish herself as a top player? Her size and game will make it tough for her to dominate the biggest names, but she has shown herself she can do well at the biggest tournaments, something she had not been able to do before this season.

"Before the tournament, in Grand Slams I could not play my best tennis," she said.

10. Transition to grasscourts
Those who went out unexpectedly early at the French Open, like Stanislas Wawrinka, Serena Williams and Na, find themselves with plenty of time to prepare for Wimbledon, but could enter the tournament lacking match practice. Wawrinka, who had not entered any warm-up events on grass, has taken a wildcard into Queen's Club after going out in the first round of the year's second major.

Those who unexpectedly went deep, like Andy Murray, Ernests Gulbis, Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard, will have to try to make the transition with only a few days in between. Nadal, Djokovic and Sharapova are used to it -- especially Nadal -- but their fatiguing French Opens could leave them drained at the All England Club.

It's tough to say which will provide better preparation for Wimbledon, so it's a question of seeing which group ends up doing better.

Aching joints and muscles are nothing new on the men's and women's tennis tours, but the injury bug seems to be biting even more than usual this year.

Three players who were coming off significant injury problems a year ago -- Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova -- have stayed relatively fit, but a lot of their rivals can't say the same.

Here's a quick recap of some of the problems the top players have been experiencing this season.

ATP Tour
Rafael Nadal -- Suffered a back injury in the Australian Open final, and, although he says it hasn't bothered him for a while, Nadal hasn't played his best since.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic
Susan Mullane/USA TODAY SportsA wrist injury appears to be behind Novak Djokovic, but it is worth monitoring.
Novak Djokovic -- Suffered a wrist injury before Monte Carlo, which was identified by his physiotherapist as an inflamed tendon. Gave him no problems in Rome after two weeks of treatment and rest, but now he must try to avoid aggravating it.

Stan Wawrinka -- Tweaked his back slightly at Rome, although he insists it will not be a problem for the French Open.

David Ferrer -- Experienced a groin injury that kept him out of Indian Wells, but tests showed no tear and he has looked fit since.

Juan Martin del Potro -- Expected to be out for months after undergoing surgery on his left wrist.

Milos Raonic -- An ankle problem affected him at the Australian Open and kept him out of Davis Cup, but he has returned strongly.

Kei Nishikori -- Withdrew from the Miami semifinals with a groin problem and retired in the Madrid final with a back injury that also kept him out of Rome, but is expected to return at the French Open.

Richard Gasquet -- Has not played since Miami with a back problem, which has improved after extensive treatment but only just allowed him to start hitting balls again. Questionable for the French Open.

Tommy Haas -- The shoulder that repeatedly has required surgery is again giving him problems, including a quarterfinal retirement at Rome a week ago.

John Isner -- Went out of the Australian Open with a foot injury and withdrew from doubles at Madrid with a back problem.

Fabio Fognini -- A right quad problem has affected him throughout the season, perhaps a reason for some of his frustrated performances recently.

Mikhail Youzhny -- Withdrew from Indian Wells with a back injury.

Santiago Giraldo -- Had a hip flexor injury at Rome.

Nicolas Almagro -- A leg problem has affected him in the clay season, including a withdrawal at Rome.

Philipp Kohlschreiber -- has been having an elbow problem, although it hasn't kept him from playing.

Florian Mayer -- A hip injury is expected to keep him out of the French Open.

Gael Monfils -- Withdrew at Nice this week with a persistent ankle problem, saying he could not move well enough for singles, and could be hampered in the French Open.

Benoit Paire -- A persistent knee injury has kept him out of tournaments and caused him to withdraw at Nice this week.

Jurgen Melzer -- Had to withdraw from Acapulco after returning from a shoulder injury, which kept him out until the clay season.

Vasek Pospisil -- Has been experiencing back problems since the start of this season.

Lleyton Hewitt -- Had problems with his shoulder after the Australian Open, but has played regularly since.

Bernard Tomic -- Was booed after retiring to Nadal at the Australian Open, had double hip surgery, got defeated in record time in his first match back and hasn't won since.

WTA Tour
Serena Williams -- A back problem affected her at the Australian Open, and a thigh injury at Charleston and Madrid, but then she swept to the title at Rome a week ago.

[+] EnlargeVictorioa Azarenka
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesVictoria Azarenka has been out of action since Australia, and will miss the French Open.
Victoria Azarenka -- Has not played since the Australian Open with a foot injury and has withdrawn from the French Open.

Agnieszka Radwanska -- A shoulder injury affected her in the Indian Wells final, but she has played regularly.

Simona Halep -- Withdrew from Rome with an abdominal injury and is still adjusting her schedule after becoming a top player.

Angelique Kerber -- Retired at Madrid with a back problem but says she is finding her rhythm again.

Sara Errani -- Was affected by a hip flexor injury in front of her home fans when playing the final at Rome.

Caroline Wozniacki -- Withdrew from Stuttgart with a wrist injury and had knee problems in Madrid that kept her out of Rome.

Ana Ivanovic -- Suffered a hip injury in her run at the Australian Open, but has returned strongly.

Sloane Stephens -- Ongoing wrist problems at the start of the year.

Svetlana Kuznetsova -- Withdrew from Rome with hip injury.

Maria Kirilenko -- Returned at Charleston from a knee problem, only to experience a wrist injury that caused her to withdraw at Madrid.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands -- Underwent hip surgery about a month ago.

Laura Robson -- Underwent wrist surgery about a month ago.

Tech It Out: Yonex EZONE Ai98

May, 20, 2014
May 20
10:40
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video

When you try out racket after racket, the results can become blurred. The different technologies -- weight, head size, string pattern, flex -- and then the variables within said specs make each racket unique, but after a while, these various ingredients can blend together when attempting to dissect so many new and different frames. It can get pretty befuddling trying to remember how each racket performed.

But then there’s the Yonex EZONE AI 98.

Perhaps the most intriguing frame I have tried this season, this racket, which by the way happens to be Ana Ivanovic's latest choice, is about as smooth and comfortable to hit with as any new racket on the market. Absolutely nothing befuddling here.

[+] EnlargeAna Ivanovic
Giuseppe Bellini/Getty ImagesAna Ivanovic, who is using one of Yonex's newest frames, the EZONE AI 98, is having one of her best seasons in a few years.
First and foremost, the sweetspot is enormous. And this creates an interesting juxtaposition: The isometric head shape in Yonex rackets (which more or less means square shaped), gives the appearance of a head that is smaller than it actually is, but in this case, the EZONE AI 98 has a sweetspot you would typically find only in an oversize racket. What does this mean? It means you can measure your shots with pinpoint accuracy in a frame that produces unparalleled comfort.

It should also be noted you can take a good crack with the Ezone AI 98 and keep the ball in the court. The racket seems to play lighter than its 11.05 oz frame. I added about three inches of lead tape around 3 and 9 o’clock to help alleviate the temptation of overhitting. This is more of a personal preference; you may very well fancy the stock weight. I found that in this racket, the tape did not detract from the maneuverability or head speed.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature was the feel of the ball off the string bed. There was a discernible pocket upon contact, one that produced a buttery-smooth response. One of my favorite new rackets on the market is the Prince Tour 100 16x18 because the feedback off contact is so friendly. But there is also some unpredictability; balls can fly on occasion, although far less than previous iterations. The EZONE AI 98, however, had a Prince Tour-like feel, but it was much more control oriented. This Yonex actually felt like a hybrid of the best qualities of the Prince Tour (comfort and power) and a Babolat Pure Drive (control, command, plush).

And this was especially obvious, not just in groundstokes, but in volleys, too, in which I had total confidence to stick them where I wanted to. The racket is extremely maneuverable, which made serving easy. There was noticeable mass upon contact, and I was able to consistently hit heavy kickers.

In most rackets I’ve demoed, I’ve found some fault (bad tennis pun), but in Yonex’s EZONE AI 98, none whatsoever. So much so, that I have a pretty good feeling this racket will see more mileage and wear and tear when I’m on the court than any other stick in the coming months.

video Yonex VCORE Tour G 330

If this racket is good enough for Stan Wawrinka, it’s good enough for you. Well, perhaps. The Yonex VCORE Tour G 330 is, by all accounts, a big-boy racket.

The first thing I noticed when I hit with this frame was just how precise and crisp it is, which is appealing on many levels. Just ask your defending Aussie Open and Monte Carlo champ. But it takes work. The racket weights about 12.2 oz strung, and if you, like I, want a leather overgrip and some sort of dampener, tack on a few extra ounces.

I played with this racket twice. The first time I hit indoors and was really intrigued by the effortless power. The key, of course, was to stay ahead of the ball, which we learned in tennis 101. But the modern-day player tends to wait a little longer and then take a massive rip. I am not so sure this racket lends itself to that style, but I also wouldn’t say you need to be a classic-oriented player to make this frame work for you.

[+] EnlargeStan Wawrinka
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesWith his Yonex VCORE Tour G 330 in hand, Stan Wawrinka won the Aussie Open and then Monte Carlo a few months later.
The beauty of the Yonex VCORE Tour G 330 is that the cleaner your strokes, the cleaner the response. One of the first things I look for in a racket is how much do I need to adjust my game to make the stick perform the way it should. With this one, it required very little, except, as mentioned, to make a concerted effort to rotate, get out in front and let the racket do the work. From that perspective, it was great.

The second time I used this frame, I was outside in windy conditions. It was much tougher. There was nothing wrong with power or control (it was actually rock solid), but after a while, I found myself wearing down. I lent this racket to my opponent, who is a one-hander and generally navigates toward heavier frames. He was hitting some really sweet slices off his backhand wing. As a two-hander, this is not a natural shot for me, but if I did have a slice in my arsenal, I might very well have stuck with this racket longer.

Without question, the shot I enjoyed most with the Yonex VCORE Tour G 330 was the volley. The added stability and heft made directing volleys deep into the court with precision. I noticed this even more on low volleys, shots that landed at my feet, which I was able to stick back over the net with deft and placement, which, admittedly, I can’t always do.

And though this frame felt slightly cumbersome off the ground, I didn’t have as much trouble serving. I didn’t exactly generate the power I did with the EZONE AI 98, but placement was fantastic. The VCORE Tour G 330 is a stable stick, and it didn’t require a lot of effort once the momentum of the frame took over.

Make no mistake, this is one of the most durable rackets out there, and it can pack a pretty good punch as the cliché goes. If you’re a big hitter and looking for a stick that yields big results, check this one out. Stan did -- and look what it did for him.


Yonex VCORE Tour G 310

I like to think of this frame as Stan off steroids. In other words, the Yonex VCORE Tour G 310 is simply a lighter version of Wawrinka’s racket, which should appeal to a host of different levels. This racket still has heft. It weighs in at 11.6 ounces, which is ideal for someone in the 4.0-4.5 level.

Aside from the weight, everything else about this stick is exactly the same as its heavier brother, from the stiffness to the beam to the paint job. As a matter of fact, there is not once indication denoting this racket is not the 330 version. So if you want to pick this one up and hornswoggle your opponent into thinking you’re using the same racket as Wawrinka, you’re secret is safe.

All that said, given the slightly lighter iteration here, the one issue that I had with the 330 -- that was consistently taking big hacks off the ground -- was, well, a non-issue in the 310. I could swing away and the ball would stay in the court. It’s a fairly low-powered frame, which I tend to gravitate toward in general. But it has a good amount of mass, meaning the plush effect was pretty sweet. I did not love the feeling when hitting off center (the 310 felt like it had a small sweetspot, especially compared to the EZONE AI 98), but because of the mass, I was still able to keep balls deep in the court.

I wouldn’t say there was anything markedly different between the 310 and 330 when it came to volleys (which were phenomenal), but in terms of serving, I was able to pronate a little more with the 310, generating some more spin. But the differences were almost imperceptible.

All in all, the 310 is a great choice if you’re seeking a lower-powered, but stable, frame that you can take rips with, knowing you’re going to generate a heavy ball that will stay in the court. This one is worth a hit, for sure.
video

When a superstar talks about another superstar and compares said superstar to yet another superstar, it creates enough buzz to call pest control.

Such was the case when Andre Agassi, in a recent interview with Singapore newspaper Straits Times, endorsed Rafael Nadal, not Roger Federer, as the greatest of all time.

First, kudos to Agassi for actually having a steadfast opinion and not going all, um, Switzerland on us.

This debate, Rafa versus Fed, has raged on for years, perhaps over a half a decade. You could make the argument that no two players in any sport have ever been pinned against each other in a GOAT debate as much as these two fellows, at least in recent times. For the purposes of this article, let’s save this duel for another time.

I'm actually wondering if there are any compelling arguments to be made that Andre Agassi was a greater tennis player than Pete Sampras.

Hmmm …

To the board we go:

The Case For Agassi

•  A career Grand Slam: And Agassi did it in an era when no one was winning on all surfaces, not even Sampras. Before Agassi, the last player to successfully wend his way to the trophy table at all four majors was Rod Laver, a feat he completed in 1962, when he actually pulled off the even rarer season Slam. Today, Federer and Nadal both have a career Slam, and Novak Djokovic is a French Open title away from joining this elite group. And it must be noted that Agassi won an Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games, as well, which gives him the Golden Slam.

•  Longevity: Agassi played until he was 36 years old. Today, sticking around on tour into your 30s is more commonplace for a variety of reasons, but in the Agassi era, it was an aberration. Not only was Agassi a viable member of the tour at that dotage, but he was a successful one, too, making it to the US Open final a year earlier, at 35 years old. Agassi won the 2001 and 2003 Aussie Opens after turning 30. Sampras, who at 31, won the US Open in 2001 after a couple of crestfallen years and then called it quits.

•  His getup: One look at Agassi and he was a sponsorship deal waiting to happen. Loud clothes, big hair, just all-around ostentatious attire with an equally large charisma. He perhaps made the tabloids more than he wanted to, whether it was his romantic link to Barbra Streisand or marriage to Brooke Shields or his positive test for crystal meth, which he revealed in his autobiography “Open.” Still, the man made headlines compared with Sampras, who could double for plain Jane in any movie. And that really has nothing to do with anything in comparing their on-court credentials, but still …

The Case For Sampras

•  Success against multiple generations: When Sampras came along and won the US Open in 1990, guys such as Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg were still very much five-star players. Sampras had winning records against them all, young and old. He was 12-7 versus Becker, 8-6 versus Edberg, 5-3 versus Ivan Lendl, and on and on. Then it was on to the next era: 12-6 versus Goran Ivanisevic, 12-4 versus Patrick Rafter, 11-2 versus Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 6-1 versus Tim Henman, and on and on. But against his main rival, Agassi, Sampras won 20 of his 34 matches, simply dominating him in nearly every event they played, except Australia. They played in five Slam finals with Sampras winning four.

•  Time accrued as No. 1 player: Before Fed came along, Sampras set a record for the longest stint as the world’s top player, sitting atop the field for 286 weeks. Sampras finished the year as the No. 1 player on six different occasions, which to date is a record. Agassi reached the top ranking for 101 total weeks.

•  Slam success: Sampras won 14 majors, six more than Agassi. That in and of itself could end this contrived debate without saying a word more. So we’ll leave it at that.

Given Sampras’ overall body of work, including his Slam titles, stint at No. 1 and dominance over Agassi, it’s pretty clear who the more accomplished player was. But it’s fun to talk about, no?

Tech It Out: Prince Tour series

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
6:10
PM ET
video
Never mind all the work that goes into winning a tennis match, the process of selecting a racket can be equally, if not more, backbreaking at times.

Where do you start? Head size, weight, power level? Company? Maybe color? A combination of all. The truth is that there are more permutations out there than you can possibly imagine when it comes to selecting an ideal frame. But Prince, by and large, has separated itself from other companies with its recent production of arm-friendly rackets -- in other words rackets that fit into “flexible” category.

Some folks prefer a stiffer frame, something in the vein of a Babolat Pure Drive or Wilson Juice. There’s nothing wrong with going that route, especially if you like a precise, crisp feel, but these sticks can come at a price, one that very well might require an ice pack after a lengthy hit. It’s true that firm and crisp rackets pack a good punch, but they can often become jolting and uncomfortable after a while. This isn’t an absolute, of course, but it’s certainly a real possibility.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ferrer
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesDavid Ferrer, a longtime Prince user, is currently using the Tour 100 16x18.
That’s where Prince and its latest line of Tour rackets comes in. From the Tour 98 to the Tour Pro 100 to the Tour 100 16x18 (the three I recently play-tested), they are arguably the three most comfortable rackets out there right now. While all three have a unique set of specs, there was one consistent combination across the board: comfort, control and spin.

Each of these Tours, while unique in their own way, felt like, well, butter. I could swing freely and with confidence without any semblance of arm pain, thanks to their lower flex.

So how do these three rackets stack up against each other?

Tour 98

There’s something alluring about the oblong head that this line of rackets have. Before the Tour 98, I used various other iterations of this frame, including the EXO3 Rebel 98 and the new extreme-spin friendly Tour 98 ESP. Because the egg-shaped head creates a more uniform response across the entire string bed, the one commonality I found was confidence to go for your shots. In the Tour 98, however, I also noticed a deeper pocket at contact, a trait I personally like a lot. The ball sat on the string bed just a fraction of second longer, enough so that there was a discernible increase in power. At its stock weight (11.4 oz), the racket has solid plush, but I added a couple inches of lead tape around 10 and 2 o’clock, which really helped in hitting heavier balls. The Tour 98, like the other two rackets I will talk about in a moment, has a nice thin beam, making maneuverability seamless, especially when returning serve.

The bottom line: I had no compunction taking full rips, and the response was cushioned, comfortable and mostly spot on.

Tour 100 16x18

For a good two years, I have kept this racket’s predecessor, the EXO3 100 16x18, in my bag. As new rackets have come and gone, I never was willing to part with this one. It was off-the-charts comfortable. So needless to say, I was eager to try the Tour 100, David Ferrer's choice of rackets, which is essentially the same mold as the EXO3, but with a few slight modifications. If there was one small complaint I had with the EXO3, it was the fly-aways that would pop up on occasion. Given its flex, it was lively, almost too lively, though. We’ve all been there: in the middle of a rally and … whoops, a double off the back fence. (It’s always the racket’s fault, eh?) But this year’s model, the Tour 100, has added just enough stiffness to prevent those ill-times shots while maintaining the comfort of the EXO3. In other words, the Tour 100 has corrected its one small flaw. The first time I used this stick, I had a full bed of poly, but I swapped out the mains to a something more playable, a multifilament string, which though not as durable, provided a smoother feel.

The bottom line: The EXO3 is now gone from my bag, only because something better has come along. A mega-comfortable, lively stick with power and added control. It won’t be leaving my tennis bag anytime soon.

Tour Pro 100

If you’re not a fan of Prince’s o-ports, if you’re a person who prefers a more classic frame, the Tour Pro is certainly worth a hit. It’s crisp, and though its mold is very much on the flex end of the spectrum, the Tour Pro players with quite a bit of backbone. It was extremely maneuverable, but the biggest difference I noticed in this racket compared to the Tour 16x18 was how well it performed on volleys. I was able to stick them with full confidence, knowing the ball was going to drop where I wanted it to. I really enjoyed serving, too. Although I didn’t have a radar gun handy, I felt the Tour Pro produced easy power; more specifically, I didn’t need to overtax myself hitting through the ball to maximize power. The one issue I originally had was good plush. But I swapped in a leather grip and added tape around 3 and 9 o’clock, which made all the difference in the world when it came to swinging out.

The bottom line: Lively and smooth, much more of a classic-racket feel than the other two. Solid power, large sweet spot and great control, making this stick, fittingly, a winner.

Rafa's losses raising questions

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
6:00
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NadalJulian Finney/Getty ImagesFor the first time in quite some time, Rafael Nadal truly looks vulnerable on clay.

As Rafael Nadal slogged off the court last week in Barcelona, something seemed somewhat amiss. Perhaps it was that a certain world No. 1 left town without biting down on another winner’s trophy. Gone was his 41-match win streak and a shot at a record ninth straight title in his beloved home-country tourney.

For the second straight tournament -- oh, and on clay we remind you -- Rafa was booted early. How significant is this? Since 2005, Nadal was 276-12 on clay before falling to Nicolas Almagro at the Barcelona Open. Some might say that’s pretty good.

But now after coming up short during the hard-court Masters swing in Indian Wells and Miami, and foundering on the dirt so far, for the first time in his career Nadal looks like he might have feet of clay -- or at least a foot of clay. Unless things drastically turn around in Madrid and Rome, Rafa will enter the French Open with a few question marks for the first time in a decade. Heck, Vince Spadea was more or less a relevant player the last time Nadal wasn’t considered a lock to win at Roland Garros.

With that in mind, here are some burning clay-court questions we posed to ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert before the tour takes off for Madrid next week:

Concerned about Rafa?

Brad Gilbert: “Not going to say any concerns, but Nadal is about to be 28. The expectation is perfection every time, and it’s difficult to do that. Djokovic has started to play a lot better tennis and the emergence of Stan Wawrinka will be factors in Paris. And it’s just so hard to [win the French Open] a couple of times, so to do this like he does every year is amazing. I’ll just say this: Never underestimate Rafa. He’ll find another gear.”

What about the world No. 1’s confidence?

Gilbert: “He’s pretty honest in that everyone thinks he’s a machine. For him, he’s loses a couple of matches -- it’s not like he’s going to win every one and every tournament -- and he feels the pressure, but maybe that’s what makes him play better. For every good athlete, there are no guarantees, but Nadal puts in the work. There are just variables in tennis and sports we can’t control, but that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with Rafa’s game.”

Whom do you have more faith in: Stanislas Wawrinka or Novak Djokovic?

Gilbert: “[Long pause] Djokovic. But Stan is the third-best player in the world -- clearly. He’s shocked me. If you had asked me about his game at the start of the season when he was No. 9, I might have said his biggest upside was only a couple of spots, but he that he might go backwards. But the biggest thing that has surprised me is how much his forehand has improved. We all talk about his backhand, but the forehand was the side that always went away. Now he’s hitting it incredibly big. He’s improved his movement quite a bit. More than anything else, his success has come at 29 years old, and he’s a much better place mentally that he’s ever been. But Djokovic has played great, and assuming his wrist is healed, he has a legit chance to win the French. And we all know how badly he wants it.”

Who’d you put your money on in Paris, Roger Federer or David Ferrer?

Gilbert: “No question, Federer. I feel like Ferrer, at 32 -- I know he beat Nadal in Monte Carlo, which I still can’t believe -- will throw in a match that can surprise you. He lost in the first round of Barcelona to Teymuraz Gabashvili. I just feel that at his age, if Ferrer wakes up and isn’t feeling great, he’s beatable by less-inferior players. He will have an occasional good tournament or good win, but I don’t see him being a factor in a Slam anymore. Federer has figured out how to reinvent his game, how to handle Djokovic, which he’s done twice. He is still passionate about winning. Ferrer loves clay, but I’d put my money on Federer.”

What’s going on with Andy Murray?

Gilbert: “When he gets [to the French Open], he’ll be 27. Murray hasn’t come back from his injury and surgery like Nadal did a year ago. And Murray’s in the process of hiring a new coach. But as long as he’s healthy and starts getting matches soon, he’ll be fine. He’s too talented, and he’ll right the ship. I am not worried about him.”

Any young players catching your eye?

Gilbert: Milos [Raonic] is still young. He showed us a bit in Monte Carlo. A guy I like in the next couple of years is the Austrian, Dominic Thiem. This kid has a one-handed backhand very similar to Stan Wawrinka’s. I like his potential; he’s a string kid. Look, the Big Four wiped out an entire generation of players in the majors, but there’s talent coming.

If you take Roger Federer at face value, his quest for a title was little more than a backdrop to the spectacle of Swiss tennis that was on display in the Monte Carlo finale Sunday.

After his semifinal win over Novak Djokovic a round earlier, Federer wistfully spoke to the moments the Spaniards, French and even the Americans have had on the same court in recent years. Federer's win put him in the title match against fellow countryman Stanislas Wawrinka, marking the first time in 14 years since there had been an all-Swiss final, when Marc Rosset beat a fledgling Federer in Marseille.

“This one is clearly very special, especially with the way he's been playing the last few months, the number of hours we spent together on court either playing doubles or practice, the times we've talked tennis,” Federer told reporters before the final. “It's nice living a moment like this together in a finals. It's really wonderful.”

But the emergence Wawrinka, the Australian Open champ, has altered the order of tennis’ hierarchy, while giving the Swiss a true intra-national rivalry. Now, four months into the tennis season, there appears to be clear order within the country.

Wawrinka climbed his way out of a one-set deficit to beat Federer 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 to win Monte Carlo, picking up his first career Masters series title. Make that one major and one Masters title for Wawrinka in 2014. MVP so far, anyone?

"Well, it already change last year when I start to first make my first quarter in French Open, final in Madrid, my first semifinal in US Open," Wawrinka told reporters afterward. "I start to realize I be able to beat all the players. That's what I am doing this year and I'm doing well.

"I'm surprised where I am, but I'm not surprised when I see how I play on the court, how I move, the way I'm winning those match."

Wawrinka ended an 11-match losing streak against Federer, just months after he snapped 12- and 14-match losing streaks to Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, in Melbourne. Wawrinka, who is now 6-0 versus top-10 players this season, became only the third player outside the Big Four in the past 37 Masters Series events to win a title.

"I can see that when mentally I'm there and I'm fighting, I can play tennis; I can beat all the player," Wawrinka said.

All four of Federer’s Monte Carlo finals have ended in defeat. From 2006 to 2008, it was -- surprise, surprise -- Rafael Nadal who ultimately quelled the Swiss in those matches. Earlier this week, though, Nadal was bounced by his own countryman David Ferrer, and with Federer taking care of Djokovic on Saturday, the journey seemed a little less obstructed for the 17-time Slam champ.

But behind a barrage of unrelenting groundstrokes, Wawrinka wore down Federer, who, in the third set, looked every bit his 32 years of age. Wawrinka moved closer to the baseline, attacking each shot with aplomb while keeping Federer on his heels. Wawrinka won an astounding 13 of 14 points on his first serve in the final set, while breaking Federer’s serve twice and, ultimately, Federer’s spirit.

"I start to play more aggressive, trying to push him more," Wawrinka said. "Yeah, when you win a match like this, it's only one or two points, especially in the tiebreak. But I think I did a great tiebreak. I was serving big and being really aggressive.

"Then I took the advantage at the beginning of the third set. I saw that he was a little bit tired. Me, I was playing better and better, especially moving better."

Switzerland is a relatively small country, with a population just south of 8 million, and in terms of tennis stardom, the population doesn’t surpass the fingers on one hand. Only four players on both tours are currently ranked in the top 100. Wawrinka and Federer are the third- and fourth-ranked players, while Stefanie Voegele (No. 77) and Belinda Bencic (No. 91) occupy the sub-century mark on the WTA.

A little more than a year ago, it was hard to imagine we'd be speaking of Wawrinka in the same context as Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. He was a solid player with a ranking drifting back and forth between Nos. 10 and 30, but certainly not someone who we'd have picked to win significant tournaments on tour. But after coaching changes and a boost in confidence, Wawrinka is slugging the ball off both wings -- perhaps more ferociously than anyone at the moment.

"I think he served better," Federer said. "He definitely found his range. As the match went on, he started to feel more and more comfortable. I struggled to put him under pressure enough. I think it was a bit of both players: him raising his game, me maybe going down a notch. I think it's a big match, regardless of the opponent, because it's a finals. Playing Stan just adds to the excitement in some ways."

When Wawrinka finally finished off Federer on Sunday, he raised his arms in victory but with a muted celebration in deference to taking down the player who has meant so much to tennis, Switzerland and himself.

"Today it was a personal challenge," Wawrinka said. "Playing against Roger is always very special. He is the one who is really able to mix it up. For me, winning a match is already complicated, but against him it's even more difficult."

With the French Open starting exactly one month from today, based on the way things have gone so far, there’s little reason not to believe Wawrinka won’t be doing some more arm-raising when all is said and done.

"It's normal that I would be a favorite for the French Open, but I don't think so because I'm very far from players like Rafa, Novak and Roger," Wawrinka said. "Anyway, I will not change anything in the way I approach the tournaments."

Good call.

He's 32 years old now, and it's been nearly two years since he won a major, but Roger Federer still has a powerful hold on those of us who care about tennis.

His 2014 results have defied what we all supposedly knew. Coming off a shoddy season a year ago, one with losses piling up against garden-variety players, Federer has produced performances reminiscent of his dominant days. Of course, they’re not quite as frequent or consistent, but he’s fully entrenched himself back into the game’s inner circle of champions.

Apparently, we just didn't listen to Federer when he spoke of his resolve, that this season would engender bigger and better things. Our bad. Federer’s stellar play has continued this week in the first clay Masters Series event of the year. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that after he was done knocking off the hottest player in the game Saturday, Federer wasn't the central focus in the postmatch shenanigans.

After Novak Djokovic's 7-5, 6-2 loss to Federer in the Monte Carlo semifinals, the Serb announced he was going to take time off from tennis to heal his ailing right wrist. This is by all accounts a pretty big blow to Djokovic, given he is coming off back-to-back titles in Indian Wells and Miami. More so, Djokovic is one a steadfast mission to win the French Open, the only missing chunk in his Grand Slam memoir.

“This injury that has been present for last 10 days,” Djokovic told reporters, “and I tried not to think or talk about it; I did everything I could, really; I was on the medications every day; I was doing different therapies, injections, so forth.

“But in the end of the day, the end of the tournament, semifinals is a good result. But I'm disappointed that I could not play as well as I could have. From the end of the first and the whole second, every shot was pain, especially with the serve.”

This setback could go one of two ways for Djokovic: Perhaps the break will give him a breather, one he could use after playing as much tennis as he has. The downside to success is the amount of time spent on the tennis court, running, laboring and taking violent swings at tennis balls day after day. Djokovic played 10 matches between Indian Wells and Miami and, including his loss to Federer on Saturday, another four in Monte Carlo. Clay courts, more than any other surface, demand fresh legs and a fresh state of mind. Djokovic is one of the fittest players on tour, so his laborious schedule could be a moot point. But if we're breaking the season down into four parts, the clay schedule is clearly the most taxing of them all.

On the flip side, you can’t Google wrist injury and tennis without the plight of Juan Martin del Potro monopolizing your screen. The Argentine has been plagued by recurring wrist ailments since winning the US Open in 2009. That’s nearly five years ago, which speaks to the grave nature these injuries can have on players.

“Well, the good thing is I don't need to have a surgery,” Djokovic said. “I don't have any rupture or something like that. I'm going to go see doctors tonight and then tomorrow again have another MRI, see if anything changed in this seven days since I had the last one.

“I just rest now. I cannot play tennis for some time. How long, I don't know. It's really not in my hands anymore. I'm going to rest and see when it can heal 100 percent, then I will be back on the court.”

On Friday, Djokovic needed more than two hours to finish off Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, which at the time seemed like nothing more than a rare bad match from the Serb. But, obviously, something more severe was going on.

During his presser, Djokovic said the transition from hard courts to clay could have played a role in his injury. He also mentioned he “started too strong,” meaning he didn't give himself a chance to properly adjust to the strenuous nature of dirt.

“Listen, I don't regret anything I've done in my life,” Djokovic said. “I thought that at the certain moment it was the right thing to do. Last year, I played with an injured ankle, but I won the tournament. This is the only time I won this tournament that is one of my favorites.”

He went on to say that these injuries just happen, that there is no way to predict something like this popping up. Sadly, he’s right.

But the concern now isn’t exactly how Djokovic contracted his injury, but whether he’ll be healed in time for Paris.
Rafael Nadal stood motionless for a moment or two deep in the second set. He looked confused and vexed, a rare sighting regarding the world's No. 1 player, especially on his oasis of clay.

And when Rafa isn't moving his feet with the vintage intensity that has been a pillar to his success, something just isn't right. Or maybe it was just that his opponent, compatriot David Ferrer, out-intensified Nadal at his own game.

Nonetheless, Nadal suffered a rare loss on clay, falling to Ferrer 7-6 (1), 6-4 in the Monte Carlo Masters quarterfinals Friday.

"I cannot be frustrated to lose a tennis match," Nadal told reporters after the match. "In the life, there is much more important things than a tennis match.

[+] EnlargeNadal
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal, who suffered a rare loss on clay Friday, said he played entirely wrong against David Ferrer.
"But I am not happy with it. I feel that I have to do more than what I did today. So when you feel that you can do more, always you come back home or to the next tournament with not the best feeling. That's my feeling today."

Nadal produced a brand of tennis he's not wont to playing: sloppy. He committed an unusually high 44 errors in what was his earliest exit from Monte Carlo in 11 years. Nadal, who is an eight-time champ at the first clay Masters event of the year, had his 30-match win streak on dirt snapped. His last loss, you ask? Same venue, but that was a year ago in last season's final against Novak Djokovic.

Sounds like a confidence issue, no? Perhaps not, according to Nadal.

"Yesterday, too, I played good, with confidence," he said. "But is not that problem. "The problem is when the match became little bit more to the limit, and not answering the right way as I normally do. So that's it."

We can parse Nadal's loss as much as we want. Was it a bad day? Back issues? Knee? Confidence? Or was his opponent just too good? After all, Ferrer is a clay stalwart in his own right. But one thing is clear: Nadal has not been the same player since sweeping last season's summer run, which included wins in Montreal, Cincinnati and, of course, the US Open. And in January, Nadal suffered a surprising loss to eventual champion Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open final. So what gives?

"I don't know," Nadal said. "I don't know. I think after what happened, not only the loss, the pain in my back that I had; I had to do treatment after Australia, not playing for three weeks. I played in Rio. After Rio, I had to stop for 10 or 12 days again because the back still hurt me. ...

"Physical performance is in good shape. No problems about that. Just keep working to try to find the solution for next week in Barcelona. I going to try to play well in there and fight for the matches."

The good news for Nadal is that there's plenty more tennis on the schedule before the French Open, where Rafa has won a record eight times, begins. So we should have more clarity on whether his Monte Carlo malaise was an aberration of if there is something more grave is going on.

Ferrer is no slouch on clay; it's far and away his best surface. But he had dropped 17 straight matches to Nadal on dirt, which is a staggering number no matter how you slice it. It had to be a special feeling to beat the guy who has eviscerated him time and time again, including last season in the French Open final.

Or not.

"Any final is more important than today," Ferrer told reporters. "Of course, important because I am in a semifinal of a Masters 1000. For me it's only one match in my career. Of course is not the most important."

Despite the long wait, Ferrer became only the fourth player to defeat Nadal multiple times on clay, joining Djokovic (three), Gaston Gaudio (three) and Roger Federer (two), according to the ATP World Tour.

Nadal's loss came a day after he notched his 300th career win on clay. And just how utterly dominant has Rafa been on dirt? His record now? An astonishing, if not near infallible, 300-22.

But like life, tennis is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately trade. After falling short, even if by narrow margins, in Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami and now Monte Carlo, the four biggest tournaments of the year so far, Nadal has done little lately, if we're basing our assessment on winner's trophies.

"No frustration, no drama," Nadal said. "Just a tennis match. But at the end I prefer to win."

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