The Rally: Transition Time

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

After a two-week hiatus, the Rally is back with a last look at the French Open, and a first look at Wimbledon. 

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Richard,

I think this French Open was notable in two opposing ways: We had a group of young breakout players on the women's side, which gives us hope for new blood in the future; but at the same time we saw how hard it is to count on new players to succeed consistently. On the plus side, there were positive results from Garbine Muguruza, Taylor Townsend, Ajla Tomljanovic, Eugenie Bouchard, Anna Schmiedlova, Andrea Petkovic, and of course Simona Halep, who's still only 22. On the minus side, there were disappointing losses by Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov, and Ana Ivanovic, three players who had promised a lot recently. And the two Aussie Open women's finalists, Li Na and Dominika Cibulkova, also went out early. It seems hard for anyone outside the very top to sustain a run of longer than three or four months.

Which of the young women, if any, do you think can sustain something longer in the future? Bouchard and Muguruza seem most likely to succeed to me at the moment.

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Steve,

An encouraging sign for the WTA is that the young players play disparate games. Of the women you mention, I'm highest on Halep because she's currently the most complete, she’s good on every surface, and she's smart—you see her figure out solutions as the match progresses. But taking her out of the equation, as she's already reached in a major final, I'd say Townsend is the most fun to watch because of her variety and the fact that she's so skilled shifting between power, finesse, and angle—sometimes all within the span of a single point. But I think Bouchard may have the most immediate success. Players talk about attacking; Bouchard does it—even on clay.

I also like Belinda Bencic's game, and after seeing her reach the Charleston semifinals I thought she might do some damage, but her serve needs a lot of work, as Venus showed by shredding it in opening round in Paris.

Before his run to the semifinals, Ernests Gulbis had failed to survive the second round in 20 of his last 21 Grand Slams. He was often viewed as a teaser—a guy with great talent incapable of putting it together in a major. Which players are most overdue for a deep Grand Slam run?

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Richard,

As far as Taylor Townsend goes, she does seem to be crossing over into the mainstream in the States already, even if it's not for the best reasons. Her story of fitness and weight loss, and the controversy with the USTA, has brought her to the attention of a lot of people in the States who don’t normally follow tennis. If she succeeds, that will only make her story sweeter, and more high profile. It also doesn't hurt that Taylor is thoroughly likable.

Like you, I think Bouchard is for real. She'll never be as smooth or natural a player as Halep, but there's something Evert-esque in her cool-headed persistence. That's just as important as ball-striking talent.

And you make a good point that Gulbis did defy his reputation as a teaser in Paris—though he lost yesterday in Queen's to Kenny de Schepper, so maybe we can't pencil Ernie into the second week at the majors just yet. In the past, he hasn't dealt well with success, but I think this time it will be different. He's been improving for more than a year now.

The player who seems to me to need a deep run at a major more than anyone is Kei Nishikori. He's cracked the Top 10, and he looked virtually unbeatable in Madrid before he got hurt, but he's 24 and has only made the quarters at a Slam once. That has to change at some point, don't you think, Richard? The biggest question, of course, is his body; he’s has been injured a lot. But sometimes I also wonder if he’s driven to go higher.

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Steve,

When I think of Nishikori, I think about what Rafael Nadal said after they played for the first time at Queen's Club in 2008. Rafa had rampaged through Roland Garros without losing a set, and after Kei took a set off him on grass, Nadal said, "He is very, very good. He’s gonna be Top 10 for sure, Top 5. I am 100 percent sure. He play very easy. Very talented player. When he has a little bit time with the forehand, he kill you every time."

Hearing a guy with one of the best forehands ever say that about another guy's forehand is like hearing Pete Sampras say a guy's serve is unreturnable. Nishikori has the strokes to beat almost anybody on most surfaces; I just think his body may be too brittle for him to do it consistently over best-of-five-set matches at a major. He's already had several lower-body issues and movement is critical for him, so perhaps Michael Chang can help him strengthen that area. I think Grigor Dimitrov, who followed his first Grand Slam quarterfinal with a first-round exit in Paris, is more likely to reach a major semifinal first, but Nishikori is more likely to win a Masters title first.

Speaking of first-time quarterfinalists, Milos Raonic is fresh off his first major quarterfinal in Paris. Is he the next non-Big 4 player most likely to reach a Grand Slam final? If so, where is that most likely to happen?

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Richard,

You're right, Raonic is the logical place to go when we talk about the game's future right now. And of course, I just watched him lose to Peter Gojowczyk 6-4, 6-4 in the second round in Halle. He has been tapped in the past as a future Wimbledon winner—Richard Evans, the British journalist, predicted three years ago that he would win it in 2015. But Raonic has had more success on clay recently than anywhere else, making the semis in Rome and the quarters in Paris, losing to Novak Djokovic in both places.

Raonic has generally made good on his promise, Richard, but would you look forward to a future with him winning Grand Slams? I respect what he does and how he goes about it, but I can't say I find his game entertaining.

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Steve,

Movement and shot-making excite me more than power and service winners, so I don't get the same buzz watching Raonic as I do from Nishikori or Dimitrov or Dominic Thiem. I enjoy Raonic most when we see his point-killing power pitted against a shotmaker. Raonic vs. Nishikori in Madrid last month and Raonic vs. Dimitrov at the Australian Open in January were both really entertaining matches for me because of that contrast.

I would agree Raonic seems closer to a major final breakthrough (or future Davis Cup final), but he's got to improve his return game and tiebreaker performance to get there. He's been good, not great, in breakers this year, and since breaking serve is a challenge for him, he's likely to find himself in a few more.

Grass has been Raonic's least successful surface, but he's played only 19 grass-court matches in his career, so I have to think he'll adapt. He improved his movement on dirt, and I think he's got to be more assertive on grass. Look at what Jerzy Janowicz, a better mover than Raonic but one who doesn't play nearly as high-percentage tennis, did in reaching the Wimbledon semis last year. Why can't Raonic, particularly if he plays a few times with the roof closed, make a run there?

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Richard,

That's a good point about Raonic being more fun to watch when he's playing a shot-maker. In that way, he's a little like David Ferrer for me. If they're playing a grinder, both Milos and Ferru can be dull, but paired with a guy with some flair, they make for good straight men, or drummers keeping a beat. 

So now that we're on to Wimbledon and possible winners, I'll put you on the spot, Richard: Who are your picks for the men's and women's champions this time? To me, it seems virtually impossible to say right now on either side.

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Steve,

Preliminary picks beat me up as bad as pub crawls, but let's do it.

Serena, despite her listless defeat to Muguruza in Paris, is my pick on the women's side. She's still the best player, her first strike plays bigger on grass, she usually swings more freely when not defending at a major, and she won Wimbledon in 2012 just weeks after the only Grand Slam opening-round loss of her life.

On the men's side, I'd go with Nadal or Andy Murray, depending on the draw. People talk about the pressure of Murray defending, which will be intense, but it can't be worse than the pressure of winning Wimbedon for the first time. Nadal has less mental stress because he can only gain points during the grass season, but he's arguably under more physical duress after a demanding clay season. If he's physically sound and finds his footing, he can win. His down-the-line forehand is a confidence shot, and he was cracking that in Paris, which is a good sign. 

Roger Federer's best shot at a major is Wimbledon, in my opinion. And since Djokovic's Australian Open loss to Wawrinka, he has made at least the semifinals in every event he's played, which you'd expect that to continue. His footwork and front-court play are not always as sharp on grass, so I'm interested to see how Boris Becker can help him.

I may well go all-in on Hingis-Zvonareva in women's doubles, depending on the draw. Hingis was really dynamic in Miami, so that's my preliminary upset pick.

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