Federer, Del Potro, Isner...The tennis merit list

A review of how both the established and the rising men’s stars have fared in the first quarter of the year and what may portend for the rest of the year.

Federer has wisely skipped the gruelling clay-court circuit.   -  Getty Images

The reigning Old Guard keeps getting older, and the aspiring Young Guns keep getting closer. But, during the first quarter of 2018, players aged 29 and older still took home the three most prestigious trophies — and three of the next four biggest.

READ: Women's Report Card

Roger Federer

Grade A

Federer didn’t match his sensational start in 2017 when he grabbed the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami. But Jolly Roger still won Melbourne, his record-extending 20th Grand Slam title, and Rotterdam. He also made the Indian Wells final. There he inexplicably choked on two championships points when serving for the match at 5-4 in the deciding set and choked again in the tiebreaker to lose 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 to Juan Martin del Potro. (Fed is human, notwithstanding the paeans and panegyrics of author David Foster Wallace.)

After seizing his record-tying sixth Aussie Open at an age-defying 36, Federer shed tears of joy when he told the rapturous crowd, “I’m so happy. It’s unbelievable. Winning is an absolute dream come true. The fairy tale continues. After the year I had last year, it’s incredible.” Indeed, it is. Amazingly, the living legend has captured three of the last four majors he’s played.

As he did last year, Federer has wisely skipped the gruelling clay-court circuit, and will try to repeat at Wimbledon where he claimed a record eighth crown in 2017.

Juan Martin del Potro

Grade A

 

Injury-plagued del Potro returned from near-oblivion when he grabbed a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. By winning two titles this March and boosting his ranking to No. 6, resurgent Delpo indisputably rejoined the elite. At Acapulco, he knocked off always-tough David Ferrer, No. 6 Dominic Thiem, and No. 5 Alexander Zverev before stopping No. 8 Kevin Anderson in the final. The popular Argentine then captured Indian Wells, his first Masters title, with his seventh career win over Federer. On the debit side, Delpo lost in the third round at the Aussie Open.

As former doubles star Mark Knowles averred, “In men’s tennis, you have to have a weapon and be able to play defense.” Delpo boasts two potent weapons in his forehand and serve. But, alas, his relative lack of speed and agility hampers his defense. And that will prevent him from winning his second major title, though he will come close.

Marin Cilic

Grade: A-

Cilic keeps knocking on the door to capture his second major title, losing to Federer both in the 2017 Wimbledon final and the 2018 Australian Open final. When Cilic reeled off the last five games of the fourth set and had two break point chances in the opening game of the fifth set Down Under, an upset looked quite possible. The Mighty Fed had to summon his A game to stave off the 29-year-old Croatian.

Though the low-key, hard-working Cilic lost early in three tournaments after that memorable Melbourne, his sustained power game makes him a threat on hard and grass courts.

John Isner

Grade: B+

 

You had to be happy watching John Isner win his first Masters 1000 title on his 72nd attempt. Nearly 33, the euphoric Isner danced and pranced around center court after finishing off favoured, No. 4 Alexander Zverev 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 with three straight aces in the last Miami Open final in Key Biscayne, Florida.

After a dismal 2-6 start with neither win coming over a top 80 player, recently married Isner totally turned his season around by capturing his most prestigious career title. “That’s how tennis goes,” Isner said, referring to the vicissitudes of the sport.

But don’t expect the bullet-serving, 6’10” Isner to win a Grand Slam title, or even reach a final. He’s reached only one major quarterfinal in 11 years, and he lacks athleticism, stamina, and strokes (backhand and volley). As he once candidly admitted, “If I didn’t have this serve, I wouldn’t [even] be a professional tennis player.”

Kevin Anderson

Grade B

 

The South African, a late-blooming, 31-year-old, turned in solid results everywhere except for the Aussie Open. There, the 6’8” South African was ambushed by Edmund in five sets in the opening round. Elsewhere, he won the inaugural New York Open, reached the Acapulco and Tate Open Maharashtra finals, and the Indian Wells and Miami quarterfinals.

Ranked a career-high No. 8, the 2017 US Open finalist plays best on fast courts. To reach another major final, Anderson, an explosive server, must improve in two key “Return” categories: break points converted percentage, 35.6, which ranks 84th on the ATP Tour; and percentage of return games won, 16.6, which ranks 74th.

Borna Coric

Grade: B

 

As a cocky teenager, Borna Coric likened his game to Djokovic’s. The comparison seemed reasonable after he shocked Rafael Nadal twice (2014 Basel and 2016 Cincinnati) and Andy Murray (2015 Dubai), all in straight sets. Murray offered that Coric could be “the next Djokovic.”

The stunning upsets were islands, though, in a sea of ordinary results. His rankings stalled in the 40s from 2015 to 2017. Until this year. With an improved serve, faster and deeper groundstrokes, and occasional angles, the 21-year-old Croatian took some pages out of the Djokovic playbook.

After a slow start, Coric peaked at Indian Wells, defeating No. 22 Albert Ramos-Vinolas, No. 16 Roberto Bautista Agut, and No. 9 Anderson. In a semifinal thriller, the new and more aggressive Coric, played brilliantly to lead Federer 7-5, 4-2 before going down 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. “This kid is on the brink of greatness,” praised Paul Annacone, a leading Tennis Channel analyst.

Alexander Zverev

Grade: B-

 

It’s too soon to panic because Alexander Zverev ranks No. 4 at age 20. But the 6’6” German loses the plot too often at crunch time in big matches. Exhibit A: Zverev won just five points in the deciding set of his 5-7, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 Australian Open third-round loss to No. 58 Hyeon Chung, the eventual semifinalist. Exhibit B: Almost as confounding were his tentative, error-prone ground strokes and lack of tactics during his 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Isner in the Miami final.

After his collapse against Chung, Zverev confided, “I have some figuring out to do, what happens to me in deciding moments in Grand Slams. It happened at Wimbledon. It happened in New York. It happened here.” And it happened again in Miami.

Rumor has it that Ivan Lendl, whose shrewd coaching helped Andy Murray win major titles, may join Zverev’s team. The Big Z clearly needs savvy guidance to refine his Big Game to become a champion.

Dominic Thiem

Grade: C

 

Don’t be misled by No. 7 Dominic Thiem’s 17-4 match record and Buenos Open title. The affable Austrian with plenty of power and potential scored no wins over a top-25 opponent. Even more disappointing, Thiem was upset by 97th-ranked Tennys Sandgren in the Australian Open fourth round and No. 34 Pablo Cuevas in the Indian Wells third round (after getting a first-round bye). He retired because of an injured ankle against Cuevas and hopes to return for the Monte Carlo Masters starting April 15.

The 24-year-old Thiem has captured seven clay-court titles. His wicked topspin ground strokes and kick serve should fare much better this spring on European clay if he plays better percentage tennis and positions himself closer to the baseline.

Grigor Dimitrov

Grade: D+

 

The Bulgarian finished 2017 with a terrific victory at the ATP Finals, his biggest career coup, to rank a career-high No. 3. That raised expectations that the immensely talented Bulgarian was on the verge of winning his first Grand Slam or his second Masters title. Neither felicitous result came close to happening.

Instead, the handsome 26-year-old with the vulnerable one-handed backhand was upset by much-improved Kyle Edmund in the Australian Open quarterfinals, and then lost in the Indian Wells second round and the Miami third round. Dimitrov did reach the Rotterdam final where Federer trounced him 6-2, 6-2.

Novak Djokovic

Grade: D

 

Whither Novak Djokovic? Last week he split with full-time coach Radek Stepanek and consultant Andre Agassi. Last year he dumped his entire long-time team of coaches, physios, and trainers. Djokovic’s search for a way out of his prolonged existential crisis continues.

Nearly two years ago, The Djoker achieved his long-time dream of winning the French Open. He looked almost unbeatable as he claimed his fourth consecutive and 12th major. Since then, aside from reaching the 2016 US Open final thanks partly to an easy draw, he has become shockingly beatable.

Has Djokovic plummeted because of a recurring sore elbow, personal (marital?) problems he’s hinted at, classic burnout from years of competition, or all of the above? Only the extroverted but introspective 30-year-old Serb knows for sure. But his abysmal 3-3 match record this season and revolving door of coaches suggest his prolonged slump may continue.

After losing apathetically 6-3, 6-4 to No. 47-ranked Benoit Paire in the Miami Open first round, Djokovic said, “I’m trying, but it’s not working. That’s all. That’s all it is.”

Yet another cryptic comment after yet another mystifying performance in his mysterious fall from the top.

Rafael Nadal

Grade: Incomplete

 

Everyone in the former Big 5, aside from Federer, has been seriously hampered by injuries this year. Rafa sported a retro look — pink shorts with a sleeveless white shirt — at the Australian Open. It was fitting after his retro year in 2017 when he captured two majors, his 10th French Open and third US Open. But hip pain forced the 31-year-old Spaniard to retire in the fifth set of the Aussie Open quarterfinals Marin Cilic.

Nadal didn’t play another match until the Davis Cup last week against Germany. Not to worry. The King of Clay looked like his old irresistible self, demolishing Zverev and Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Conclusion

Height makes might. The April 2 ATP rankings revealed that a record five players in the top 10 stood 6’6” or taller. Interestingly, the top 2, Nadal and Federer, are shorties at only 6’1”. This tennis trend mirrors the ascendance of super-sized athletes in American football, ice hockey, basketball, and baseball.

Unfortunately, none of the towering tennis players display great athleticism or versatility. The Isner-Del Potro semifinal and the Isner-Zverev final were replete with booming, unreturnable first serves, many over 130 mph, and rocket forehands, some over 100 mph.

Extended rallies were infrequent. And exciting rallies were rare. Is this the tennis of the future? Is this the tennis we want to see?