Court Report: Who's going to London for the ATP Finals?
Among the elite eight players assembled at Milan this week for the Next Gen ATP Finals, the young man to beat is irrefutably Stefanos Tsitsipas. The standout from Greece is ranked No. 15 in the world. He is the overwhelming favorite to succeed in this round-robin event for the tour's best 21-and-under players. But he is surrounded by a cast of sterling competitors, including the beguiling American Frances Tiafoe and Poland’s surging Hubert Hurkacz in his Group A. Group B features the fast charging Australian Alex De Minaur, American Taylor Fritz, Russia’s Andrey Rublev and the Italian Liam Caruana.
But today Tsitsipas opened his campaign against another young star with a strong will, soaring talent and a deep supply of determination. Jaume Munar, 21, is the youngest Spaniard currently ranked in the Top 100 on the ATP World Tour, residing at No. 76. He will be the youngest Spaniard to finish a year in the Top 100 since 21-year-old Rafael Nadal concluded 2007 at No. 2. Since the end of 2017, Munar has moved up 112 spots in the rankings, the third biggest leap of any Top 100 player appearing in Milan behind De Minaur (175 spots), and Hurkacz (152).
Munar has worked inordinately hard to make substantial inroads over the course of this season, thoroughly earning his chance to compete in Milan and relishing every moment of the process.
“The main goal for me at the beginning of the year was to finish the year in the Top 100," Munar told me on Monday. "I did it in July already, and it led the way for me to be here in Milan for the first time.
"I am really happy to be in Milan, sharing the courts with guys I have known from a long time ago, when we played each other a lot of timers in the 14 and 16 and under tournaments, and also ITF Juniors. So this is special. It is my best year so I am looking forward to taking part in the whole event.”
All photos courtesy Peter Staples/ATPWorldTour.com
The Next Gen Finals features some audacious experimentation with the rules of the game. Matches are best of five sets, but the sets are shorter than usual, with the winner of four games prevailing and tie-breaks occurring at 3-3. No-Ad scoring keeps the contests moving along swiftly. Lets are eliminated on serves. Electronic line calls take linesmen out of the equation and remove the need for player challenges. A 25-second shot clock and five-minute warm-up are strictly enforced.
How does Munar feel about playing under these different competitive conditions?
“I really like to have these new changes," Munar says. "ATP for me is doing very good work with innovation. I don’t know if this is going to go through to the Tour Finals or not, but anyway this is a special part of the tournament in Milan. All the rules are maybe not fantastic for the game, but at least they are different. I am really excited to be trying new things in the sport. It is for sure going to be fun.”
Over the past several days, Munar had the opportunity to get a feel for what it will be like to experience rules that vary so dramatically from normal procedure.
“When I got here I started to do it, and today we had the first real practice matches with all of this stuff, it was fantastic. I am feeling really comfortable with it. It makes the game more exciting for the people who are watching so I am pretty glad about all of that.”
He is also content with a productive 2018 season that enabled him to be in a position to compete for a lofty prize in Milan at the end of a long and debilitating year. Although he had some slumps, he enjoyed more than his share of uplifting performances.
Munar started the year with an encouraging Australian Open, qualifying for the first major of the year before losing to Gael Monfils in the opening round of the main draw. For a variety of reasons, Munar hit a rough patch during the rest of the winter and on into spring. At one stage he lost seven of nine matches. But he recovered his equilibrium during the clay-court circuit, toppling the experienced Joao Sousa in the first round of Barcelona. He then won matches in Estoril and Madrid, setting the stage for a memorable French Open.
At Roland Garros, he qualified, rallied from two sets down to oust countryman and former Roland Garros finalist David Ferrer in the opening round, and then acquitted himself well before falling in a straight-set, second-round meeting against Novak Djokovic.
“I played a really good qualifying after being match points down against Duckhee Lee," Munar says of his third-round qualifying match, which he won in a final-set tiebreak. "Then I played Ferrer in that difficult match. I was proud of me because of the fight I made from two sets to love down. I was just trying to go point by point and set by set.
"Ferrer has been an idol for me since childhood. Winning that match was a turning point in my career. He is a great player not just for me but for everybody who plays tennis, especially in Spain. That match helped me reach a good level, which I did also playing Novak on Suzanne Lenglen.”
The impressive tennis Munar showed in Paris paved the way for back-to-back Challenger tournament triumphs on clay in the Czech Republic and Italy. But the sustained workload gave Munar no time to get ready for the lawns of Wimbledon, where he was beaten in the qualifying.
“I wasn’t prepared for Wimbledon after playing so much on clay before that," he says. "Then I had some physical problems and my feelings were not the best ones, but I was still working hard with my team and believing in my work.
"I turned things around in Gstaad. I won a match and then lost to Roberto Bautista-Agut. I played good tennis there and then in Kitzbuhel.”
In that tournament, Munar defeated world No. 38 Robin Haase on his way to the semifinals—“Winning against a guy like Robin made me more confident. He is a better player than me.”
Now Munar was decidedly on the move again, reaching the round of 16 in Winston Salem on hard courts, where he won decisively against Rublev. At the US Open, Munar reached the second round in New York, taking the tenacious Diego Schwartzman to four sets in an honorable defeat.
“The characteristics of the Grand Slams play in my favor," Munar says. "I am feeling comfortable in long matches and five sets gives me more time to be ready. I am confident in these kinds of matches. I did well in the Grand Slams this year. They are the biggest stages where everybody looks forward to playing well. I feel really excited when I am there in a big house with everybody watching.”
Meanwhile, Munar has someone watching over him—who just happens to be one of the greatest players of all time. For the past 18 months, he has been training at the Rafael Nadal Tennis Academy, and his interactions with the renowned man in charge have been entirely inspiring.
“At the beginning when I started at the academy, Rafa was just like a work planner, but now he is a friend to me, helping me as much as he can," Munar explains. "It is very special for me to have someone like Rafa behind me.
"He thinks first of all that the most important thing is to be a simple person like he is, and then to work as much as I can and dream as far as I can. He is just helping me a lot to show me how far I can go. Since the first moment I was at the academy I am feeling really comfortable. I am from Mallorca and I have my family there. It is the best decision I ever took to come back home after being in the Spanish federation for many years.”
Being around Nadal will inevitably rub off favorably on Munar in many ways. While Nadal is clearly his largest inspiration as a man and a champion, Munar’s temperament resembles that of Jimmy Connors in some respects. That is why some of his closest associates in tennis refer jovially to Munar as “Jimbo”.
“It comes from my character and my way to be on the court," Jaume says. "A long time ago, a coach of the Spanish Federation said to me, ‘Jimbo, Jimbo” like a joke. Now most of the people are calling me Jimbo. Jimmy was a great player, so why not be compared to him?”
Greatness is what he aspires to attain. But Munar knows he must maintain the highest of standards, learn from his setbacks, and realize that there are a multitude of other players who share similarly lofty goals.
One of them, of course, is the gifted and polished Tsitsipas. Heading into their confrontation today, Munar understood that he was facing a formidable adversary.
“It is going to be tough," he said about the match yesterday. "I know he is the favorite here in Milan, not just against me but against everybody. He did a wonderful year and he is a guy working a lot and doing great things. He showed it to everybody that his level is just growing and growing. But the court in Milan is fast and the characteristics of the tournament are different. The format helps the player who is not the favorite. We will see what happens.”
Munar acquitted himself well against Tsitsipas, but, ultimately, could not contain his accomplished adversary. Tsitsipas prevailed, 4-3 (5), 4-3 (3), 3-4 (4), 4-2, playing the big points unswervingly. And yet it was not a bad start for Munar, who is respectful of the rest of the field yet not intimidated by his peers.
Despite losing his opening round robin contest, does he think he might be able to win the tournament?
“Of course. Why not? I am here to play my best tennis and compete against anyone. As for the rest of my group and the other group, they are all very good players. Anyone could get the title. It is going to be very tight.”
Such is the nature of top-flight tennis—an almost indistinguishably thin line can separate the victor from the vanquished. Be that as it may, Munar is not looking too far into the future at the moment; his mind is entirely on what he is doing right now. He can worry about what is ahead later.
“I am still focussed on 2018 and the Next Gen ATP Finals," he says. "That is the most important thing for me right now. I will see how I finish my season and then speak with my team about 2019.
"I know I have to be more regular in my tournament results during the years ahead. I can improve everything in my game, from my forehand and backhand to my serve. Physically I can get stronger, too. I know I will always try to improve.”
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