May 6th, 2019 – Madrid: A Question Of ‘Choking’, Dimitrov’s Wanderings, Kvitova’s Layers

THE TENNIS JOURNAL – Monday 6th May, 2019.

TOURNAMENT(S): Mutua Madrid Open, Spain. (ATP, WTA.)

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The clay-court season rushes on without pause for breath. So closely squeezed together are the tournaments that make up this leg of the year, that WTA players were contesting second round matches on a Monday at the Mutua Madrid Open. Main draw action at the event began on Saturday, thus overlapping with the four ATP and WTA events that took place last week.

The turnaround was too quick for some. Powerful Greek player Maria Sakkari – aged 23, and a woman I first took notice of a few years ago on grass for her big-hitting game – netted the title in Rabat on Saturday, but fell 6-3 6-3 to home player and former top ten presence Carla Suarez Navarro in Madrid on Sunday. Sakkari’s Rabat triumph saw her claim a maiden WTA trophy – arguably an inevitable one, given her rankings rise over the past few months – but it was overshadowed slightly by comments regarding Johanna Konta’s “choke” from a set and a break advantage. Media scrutiny of a player who competes under the British flag is the norm, and Konta’s lack of form throughout the 2018 season means that every chance missed can be blown out of proportion.

From my viewpoint, Konta’s recent struggles actually make this less of a big deal. The 27-year-old hadn’t looked stunning in Morocco, and – as the no. 7 seed – was required to save triple match point in the second set of her opening match against China’s Yafan Wang. Simply being in a final, on a surface where she has never made an impact, was a bonus in itself. Losing from a healthy advantage is never a positive thing, but it steals from the fact that Sakkari – higher-ranked, and with a game to match Konta’s, even if her career achievements to date do not – stepped up to take control when the Brit offered her an opening. Which is part of the game, and how many tennis matches are won and lost. The errors mounted with the fatigue for Konta, but the 2-6 6-4 6-1 victory ended on a Sakkari winner.

As the 23-year-old crashed out in Spain, there was a better result for Konta – a 6-4 6-1 victor over Alison Riske. Jill Teichmann – surprise champion at the Prague Open – and runner-up Karolina Muchova do not feature in the Madrid draw, with BMW Open (Munich) finalists Cristian Garin and Marco Berrettini and Estoril Open runner-up Pablo Cuevas are also absent. But it’s worth keeping an eye on how Estoril Open champion Stefanos Tsitsipas (Sakkari’s compatriot) handles the speedy turnaround, having only contested his final on Sunday.

As far as Monday goes, all the seeds survived upsets – but certain match-ups disguised this. The WTA threw in some corking second round clashes. No. 8 seed Sloane Stephens and no. 7 seed Kiki Bertens had Grand Slam champions on their hands in Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Ostapenko, respectively.

Although she would recently have been seeded at such an event herself, 2017 French Open champion Ostapenko’s 6-4 6-3 loss to dirt-genius Bertens is no surprise. Committed to all-out aggression across every surface, the 21-year-old – a semifinalist at Wimbledon last season off the back of iffy form – is probably never going to be totally consistent across the board (and is any WTA player, at the end of the day?) Failing to find her best form at a Premier event shouldn’t just be brushed aside, but her hit-and-miss, come-and-go brand of tennis – coupled with Bertens’ vast artillery and great success on this surface – goes a long way to explaining that loss.

A recently-engaged Stephens’ defeat of Azarenka was big for the confidence factor. For all her talent, the American has been on something of a wander this year: hitting a new low with early, straight sets Indian Wells and Miami Open defeats to Stefanie Voegele and Tatjana Maria. Azarenka is still grinding her way back towards her form of old, having endured personal turmoil and on-court struggles since giving birth to her son, Leo. But the two-time major champion had experienced encouraging runs in both Monterrey and Stuttgart leading into this week, and a 6-4 2-6 6-2 triumph for Stephens not only saw her back up a straight sets defeat of recent WTA trophy winner Polona Hercog in round one, but also put her on a four-match winning streak in her head-to-head with Azarenka – a rivalry she now leads 4-3, having lost their initial three meetings in straightforward fashion. All four of their latest duels have come since the beginning of 2018.

On the ATP side, Grigor Dimitrov’s 7-6(8) 7-6(4) loss to 20-year-old Taylor Fritz is the standout result of the day – but only based on the Bulgarian’s past accomplishments. Dimitrov is no longer the rising star who shocked world no. 1 Novak Djokovic at this event in 2013, nor is he the man ranked in the top three courtesy of an ATP Finals title and big name victories. He is frankly looking a little lost these days – if he is to be looked at full stop. With the teens and young twenties on the rise, and the Big Three as fascinating as ever, the world no. 46 is currently in danger of being lost in the crowd. For a player who was drenched in pressure from a young age, this lack of attention might be a welcome relief for the the 27-year-old – who is surely too talented not to make another splash in either the near or distant future. But the missed backhands during Monday’s clash with Fritz suggested otherwise, Dimitrov over-hitting as he strove for depth and fought to outlast his younger opponent.

Fritz is another player who has been back and forth: once a leader of the Next Gen (who hadn’t been branded as such at that point in time), and then a young competitor injured and searching for form. As the likes of Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric and Denis Shapovalov stepped up, it was easy to forget about an American who many could shrug off as ‘over-hyped’ – as many in the American and British circles truly have been. Yet Fritz has been making a fresh surge in 2019. It hasn’t been stunning, but it has now included upsets of experienced and seriously talented former (and current) top ten players in Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner and Grigor Dimitrov. At 6’4″, he is making good use of his big serve, and that had much to do his ability to edge out a 7-6(8) 7-6(4) first round win on Monday. His reward? The opportunity to replicate Dimitrov’s big achievement here in 2013: A defeat of top seed Novak Djokovic. With the Serb in slightly unpredictable form, this is likely the best shot Fritz will have at the world no. 1 in the near future, and an opportunity to climb the next rung on his 2019 ladder of progression.

On the topic of big names, all eyes will be on Roger Federer as he returns to clay-court action for the first time since 2015 in Madrid, and his opening match is also confirmed. France’s Richard Gasquet will be facing the Swiss no. 4 seed for the 20th time, having lost to him on 17 occasions. The 32-year-old took some time to warm up his forehand during his clash with 19-year-old Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, but was tested to the max as he secured a 7-5 7-6(5) victory that exhibited all-court tennis. The 32-year-old charged the net and opened up the court, but his speedy Spanish opponent challenged him to strike closer to the lines and hit an extra ‘final’ shot over and over again – nailing some sublime passes on the run, not to mention a lob or two.

While he was an ATP Challenger regular prior to his Estoril Open semifinal run last week, Davidovich Fokina is fast becoming one to watch. The teenager injects electric pace into his righty forehand, blasts a slick backhand up the line, and possesses such a repertoire of shots that he is still getting the hang of when to use what. The Spaniard can get visibly frustrated – with the odd racquet bounce not uncommon during his matches, and a whack of the ball into the crowd apparently causing him an injury during that Estoril semifinal clash with Cuevas – and expending unnecessary energy on venting his emotions could become the deciding factor in some close encounters. But for now, the world no. 127 is making strides, and did well to make this one highly competitive on the heels of his run in Portugal.

In closing, a mention should go to Petra Kvitova and Ashleigh Barty – two women who have thrown the kitchen sink at each other in WTA meetings this season. The seeded duo were not facing off in round two, but each backed up straightforward first round victories on Monday.

No. 2 seed Kvitova admitted to not producing her best tennis during a 6-3 7-6(5) dismissal of Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic, but that in itself is a testament to the great place the Czech is in right now. Showcasing consistency that we never could have expected from the once-streaky lefty (meaning there is, indeed, still hope for Ostapenko), the Australian Open finalist is proving that she does not need to be raining down aces and winners to stay in the driver’s seat. Admittedly, Mladenovic is not in her elite form of this stage of the season two years ago, but the world no. 63 came into the encounter on a three-match winning streak – having shown signs of improvement under the supervision of new coach Sascha Bajin. For all her unforced errors (38 in total, compared to 31 winners), Kvitova was still winning the vast majority of points when playing from inside the baseline. and fired unstoppable forehands and backhands from the mid-court. Essentially, she also rose during the crucial points, upping the intensity to the point where she was ripping brilliant angles at the back end of some lengthy rallies. In tennis, it’s all about the timing, and the world no. 2 had that nailed down in her second round match.

Barty’s encounter was a stranger one, although completed by a rather classic WTA scoreline: 6-1 1-6 6-1 over Melbourne semifinalist Danielle Collins. It was a real contrast of styles, with the Aussie’s crafty consistency – complete with sliced backhands and net play, her usual specialities – getting the better of the American’s all-out aggression, which couldn’t find the court enough when it mattered. The triumph put the 23-year-old on an eight match winning streak, with Barty having won her maiden Premier Mandatory event at the Miami Open a few weeks ago, before dismantling countrywoman Daria Gavrilova 6-1 6-2 to get her clay-court campaign underway in Madrid.

Personally, I still get the feeling that this woman can be and will get overlooked, as the WTA continues to churn out rising stars and varied talents by the dozen. Barty has had so much going on in her game from such a young age, that it’s easy to fail to appreciate how special the complete package is. The no. 9 seed in Madrid, Barty has done well to transfer her hard-court form – which has been evident since the start of the year – to the slower surface of dirt with little fuss, and her rise in fortunes this season has changed neither her focus nor her attitude.

Ashleigh Barty is the only player, man or woman, currently ranked inside the world’s top ten of both singles and doubles. It’s a tribute to her all-court ability. And as the weeks of competition on the dirt roll on, she is not to be overlooked.

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