Andy Murray all but ends 2017 season

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NEW YORK – Andy Murray hasn’t officially ended his 2017 season.

But it appears almost certain we won’t see him again.

According to his Facebook post, the world No. 2 has turned the page on Beijing and Shanghai and – most likely – Vienna and Paris as well.

He joins Stan Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori on the sidelines as the ATP Tour continues on to Asia and Europe this fall.

It would be interesting to know why the Brit hasn’t also officially announced his withdrawal from those last two events; there must be other factors involved.

Murray said he has consulted with a number of leading hip specialists over the last week. 

“Along with my own team, we have decided that this is the best decision for my long-term future,” he write.

Murray has already committed to the 2018 season-opening event in Brisbane, Australia, as announced Wednesday by the tournament (and by Murray).

That’s just four months away.

Brisbane tough at the top

The Brisbane event already landed Rafael Nadal. So it will be very strong at the top of the entry list as it completes with Doha (which has three times the prize money) and the old Chennai tournament, which recently announced it was relocating to Pune, India.

Roger Federer already has committed to playing the Hopman Cup again to start 2018.

It sure worked out well for him this year.

Murray will still play an exhibition with Federer in Glasgow Nov. 7 for charity, benefiting UNICEF UK and Sunny-sid3up.

It will be the first-ever trip to Scotland for Federer and people are likely to get quite excited in Murray’s homeland. That’s something he’s clearly willing to accept in the name of a good cause. ?

Nadal wins, and has things to say

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NEW YORK – Rafael Nadal was down 3-5 in the first set of his first-round match against Dusan Lajovic of Serbia Tuesday, as the rain came down outside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

But safely ensconced under the $150 million roof, the new world No. 1 had no problem regaining his composure in a 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-2 victory.

The Mallorcan and either Roger Federer or Frances Tiafoe, who play Tuesday night, will be safely through to the second round.

The rest of their half of the draw were left sodden or stuck in the locker room all day. Play on all the outside courts – including the matches in progress – was called just after 3 p.m.

On Murray’s late withdrawal

Afterwards, Nadal had some things to say – notably about No. 2 seed Andy Murray’s last-minute withdrawal from the tournament.

There’s a self-serving component to this, of course. No. 3 seed Roger Federer, who has won the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year and beaten Nadal three times, ended up in Nadal’s half of the draw.

Had Murray pulled out before Friday’s draw, Federer would have been seeded No. 2 and they would have been in opposite halves.

Nadal thought the decision was “strange”. He assumed, if Murray was on site practicing, it was because he was going to play.

“Was a little bit strange that he retired just the morning after the draw was made. Was something that is a little bit strange and difficult to understand, but the worst thing is, yeah, he is not healthy and I wish him a very fast recovery,” Nadal said. “Normally when you retire on – was Saturday morning? And the draw was made Friday? Normally you want to keep practicing, keep trying until the last moment. You don’t retire Saturday morning. You retire Monday morning or Sunday afternoon, not Saturday morning.”

Nadal said that if you don’t leave it to the very, very, very last minute, you do it before the draw is made. “But of course he has his reason, and for sure the negative – the only news and the negative news was that he will not be playing here,” he added.

On the cacophony of Ashe

The 31-year-old also talked about how loud it gets on Arthur Ashe Stadium when the roof is closed. He said it was loud enough that he couldn’t even hear himself hitting the ball.

And this was a day session, when the patrons are less … well, refreshed and not as loud as they are at night.

“The energy and support of the crowd is massive. I enjoy it and I have unforgettable memories from this tournament and this court, because the energy is different from in other places. But at the same time is true that today, under the roof, was too much. Too much noise, no? I was not able to hear the ball when you are hitting, no?” Nadal said.

“So I don’t know. I understand it’s a show, at the end of the day, and I enjoy that. I feel part of this, of course, but under the roof, you know, we need to be a little bit more strict about the noise, in my opinion, no? Because all the noise stays inside, and this is difficult, no? With the roof open, feeling change a lot.”

Nadal said that there were times during the match when Nadal said he asked Lajovic (who was playing at a sprightly pace) to hold up on the serve. And Lajovic couldn’t hear him. “So difficult to analyze how the ball is coming when you are not hearing very well the sound of the opponent’s ball,” he said.

On being No. 1 at 31

Nadal said he had been practicing a lot better in New York than he had in Cincinnati in Montreal. In the two Masters 1000 events on hard courts this summer, he went down to defeat in surprising fashion.

But he says being No. 1, at his age, is a blessing. 
  

“And today, here I am at 31. If you tell me I will be here with 31 being No. 1 of the world – especially, seven, six, ten years ago – I will not believe you, so I try to enjoy every day without thinking much about what happened or what can happen,” he said.  “I just go day by day, week by week, and I am happy doing what I am doing today. I don’t know what gonna happen tomorrow, and in terms of my tennis career, I not thinking much. I’m not worried about when arrive the day that I have to say good-bye.”

Andy Murray latest Open casualty

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NEW YORK – The way he looked during a practice session earlier Saturday, it was clear Andy Murray was far from fit and hale enough to make a run at the US Open.

And so, when he officially withdrew only a few hours later, it wasn’t a great shock.

“Yeah, obviously had the issue with the hip over what’s actually been since my match with Stan (Wawrinka) in Paris. Did pretty much everything that I could to get myself ready here and took, you know, a number of weeks off after Wimbledon.

“You know, I obviously spoke to a lot of hip specialists. Tried obviously resting, rehabbing, to try and get myself ready here,” an emotional Murray said in what, previously, was to be his pre-tournament press conference but ended up being a withdrawal announcement.

“Was actually practicing okay the last few days, but it’s too sore for me to win the tournament and ultimately that’s what I was here to try and do,” he added.  “Unfortunately, I won’t be playing here this year.”

Murray said he didn’t know if he was going to end his season prematurely, as Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori have done.

“I’ll definitely make a decision on that in the next few days. That’s something that I’ll sit down and decide with my team. But I’ll decide on that in the next couple of days, for sure,” he said.

Men’s draw decimated

Murray’s withdrawal means that five of the 11 best tennis players in the world are missing from the final Grand Slam of the season.

In addition to the four mentioned above, Canadian Milos Raonic pulled out after having a procedure done on his ailing left wrist.

As the No. 2 seed, Murray’s withdrawal after the draw leaves a gaping hole in the bottom half.

It also means a reshuffling of the seeds was in order.

No. 5 seed Marin Cilic moves to Murray’s position at the bottom of the draw. No. 17 seed moves into Cilic’s position, and Philipp Kohlschreiber becomes the No. 33 seed and moves into Querrey’s position in the draw.

The lucky loser is Lukas Lacko (that almost rhymes).

The way the draw shook out, Roger Federer as the No. 3 seed has a 50-50 chance of either being in Rafael Nadal’s half, or Murray’s half.

Unfortunately, he ended up in Nadal’s half. And now, with Murray out, the top half of the draw is definitely the more challenging one.

Needless to say, there are plenty of Federer and Nadal fans who are social-media angry at Murray for waiting until after the draw (which was made early Friday afternoon) to pull out.

Murray, Cilic join Wawrinka on the sidelines

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WASHINGTON – The withdrawal of No. 1 seed Andy Murray, from the Rogers Cup – given his recent hip issues – was only a surprise because it happened relatively late in the game.

But Murray is out. And Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic also is joining him on the sidelines.

Murray played the tournament either in Montreal or Toronto every year for a decade. He kicked it off with a semi-final appearance in Toronto the first time he appeared in 2006, and ended the streak with the title in Montreal in 2015.

Murray defeated Novak Djokovic in the final.

But he missed it last year. And now, he’ll miss it again.

“I am sad to be missing the tournament in Montreal because I have many great memories from my time in Canada. I am doing everything I can to return as quickly as possible,” was the quote from Murray in the Tennis Canada press release.

Looks like it’s Fedal time again

 

 

With Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka also out, that means four of the top six men won’t be in Montreal. It’s been awhile; the top guys, overall, are fairly faithful in attending the tournament.

Those absences essentially turn it into a Fedal vs. Next Gen event.

Rafael Nadal will be the No. 1 seed, and Roger Federer No. 2. Dominic Thiem will be seeded No. 3, and Alexander Zverev No. 4.

You have to wonder if Federer, assessing the health situations of his fellow top-five members, took that into consideration when he finally decided to play Montreal. Neither Federer nor Nadal played it in 2016, so any points gained are net points.

Federer can’t pass Murray (and Nadal) to move to No. 1, even if he wins the tournament. But he could close the gap in a significant way.

If Nadal can make the semifinals, he would become world No. 1 once again. The last time he held the top spot was just before the start of Wimbledon in 2014.

There were other late withdrawals, as the official draw will be on Friday. Gilles Simon and Fabio Fognini, who have been playing the clay-court tournaments post Wimbledon (Fognini even took a wild card into Gstaad last week before playing Kitzbuhel this week) are also out.

Earlier, Martin Klizan also pulled out.  So the cutoff into the main draw, at this point, stands at No. 58 (Joao Sousa).

Given Nick Kyrgios retired from his first match in Washington, D.C. Wednesday night with a shoulder issue, he may well be next.

Americans Taylor Fritz and Stefan Kozlov are among those who have pulled out of the qualifying event with Bryden Klein, at No. 226, the last one in at this point.

On the women’s side, the entry list looks fairly uncluttered so far. The only withdrawals have been Samantha Stosur and Kristyna Pliskova, who suffered a nasty injury to her thumb in an on-court fan (not the human, living kind) incident at the WTA event in Nanching. 

Shelby Rogers, Monica Puig and Yanina Wickmayer are among those out of the qualifying. But the cutoff for the women’s event remains much higher than that of the men, at No. 138 (Barbora Krejcikova).

Still 24 hours to go, though. And the big name, Maria Sharapova, already is out.

Wimbledon Day 1 – What to watch

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WIMBLEDON – It’s finally under way.

And with no first-round byes and some dangerous floaters, there is no breathing room at all before the intriguing matches start coming at us.

Big courts hopping

Some were surprised Rafael Nadal got the No. 1 Court assignment while Stan Wawrinka – who has never won Wimbledon and is seeded lower at No. 5, got Centre Court.

It’s worth remembering that No. 1 also is a ticketed court. And, as at the French Open with Court Suzanne Lenglen, the tournament also wants to give full value to those patrons. 

As is custom, defending champion Andy Murray will open  Centre Court promptly at 1 p.m. And he’ll take on an intriguing customer in lucky loser Alexander Bublik.

There’s no more dangerous player on grass than an unpredictable, rather unknown player. So while Murray theoretically knows what to expect, he can’t truly know until they begin to play. That’s where the best-of-five format is an advantage to the established player.

Whether the loosey-goosey Bublik suffers a case of Wimbledon nerves, or seizes the moment, is part of the intrigue. Making your Wimbledon career debut on the Centre Court against the British defending champion is quite a way to kick it off.

Kvitova back in her happy place

Two-time champion Petra Kvitova, the No. 11 seed, also gets Centre Court as she triumphantly returns from the horrific stabbing incident last December. There surely were times she thought she would never be here on this day. 

On No. 1 court, British female hope Johanna Konta takes on a familiar foe in Hsieh Su-Wei. 

Sometimes the draw gods are cruel. And in this case, Konta’s opponent was the one who came back from a 1-6 first set to defeat her in the first round at the French Open just a few weeks ago.

Different tournament, different surface. But Hsieh (who has aWimbledon doubles title) has a whimsical game that is just as tricky on grass as it is on hard courts when it’s on.

 

No. 10 seed Venus Williams once seem destined to dominate at Wimbledon her entire career but in fact has not won here since 2008. She’s dealing with a devastating personal issue, as she was involved in a car accident resulting in a fatality a few weeks ago. And she’s without her sister (with whom she won the doubles just a year ago). But it’s hard to see her losing to Elise Mertens of Belgium.

Three men’s seeds to watch

[20] Nick Kyrgios vs. Pierre-Hugues Herbert (1st, Court 3)

Kyrgios is an unknown quantity, particularly health-wise. And he’s facing an accomplished grass-courter in Herbert, whose doubles skills help him on this surface.

[31] Fernando Verdasco vs. Kevin Anderson (2nd, Court 18)

Anderson has been seeded before here, but injury has dropped his ranking. With his huge serve, on grass he’s a threat to anyone. And this is a tough first-round matchup for both.

[28] Fabio Fognini vs. [PR] Dmitry Tursunov (3rd, Court 17)

The former top-20 player Tursunov has barely played for a year, using his protected ranking to enter tournaments only to withdraw. Currently ranked No. 715, at age 35, this is very likely his final Wimbledon. You have to think he’ll lay it all out there against new father Fabio.

Three women’s seeds to watch

[4] Elina Svitolina vs. Ashleigh Barty (2nd, Court 3)

Svitolina is up against a grass-loving Aussie who has shown great form during the preparatory season, and who has reached a Wimbledon final in doubles. Just 21, back from a retirement sabbatical, Barty could well pull off the upset.

[25] Carla Suárez Navarro vs. Eugenie Bouchard

A year ago, Bouchard was beating British hope Konta on Centre Court, in an impressive display of timely tennis that belied her poor form coming in. The match is a TBA, which means it will get on a show court late in the day. The specific court will be determined by the length of the scheduled matches. Bouchard has been tough on Suárez Navarro even on the Spaniard’s favourite surface, clay. And they have practiced together often. 

[27] Ana Konjuh vs. [WC] Sabine Lisicki (4th, Court 14)

The German, who lost the 2013 Wimbledon final to Marion Bartoli, returned to action for the first time this season at the grass event in Mallorca. And she did surprisingly well. In this big-hitting battle, the younger Konjuh might be at an experience disadvantage.

Unseeded must-sees

[PR] Victoria Azarenka vs. Cici Bellis (TBA)

The return of Victoria Azarenka to Wimbledon after missing it a year ago is one of the highly-anticipated moments of this Wimbledon.

With baby Leo in tow and a new Yonex racquet, she gets 18-year-old American CiCi Bellis in the first round. That’s not easy. On the plus side, the two have (coincidentally) practiced several times on the grass since Azarenka’s return, so she won’t be faced with some unknown kid who will take it to her.

[WC] Tommy Haas vs. [Q] Ruben Bemelmans (3rd, Court 16)

The 39-year-old Haas gets the lefty Belgian qualifier first up. He can’t ask for much better than that as he undertakes his final Wimbledon campaign

Dustin Brown vs. Joao Sousa (1st, Court 14)

The Dredded One is always a a treat to watch on the Wimbledon lawns. And given he’s on small Court 14, you’ll have to plan it well to get a seat.

Camila Giorgi vs. Alizé Cornet (1st, Court 8)

Watch for Giorgi’s father Sergio on the side of the court if Cornet takes a lead in this one. It’s WTA drama of the best kind as these two quick players battle the grass – and themselves

[WC] Denis Shapovalov vs. [PR] Jerzy Janowicz (1st, Court 7)

The two played at a Challenger in Leon, Mexico last winter – outdoors, at altitude, on a hard court. So they’re familiar with each other (Janowicz won in a third-set tiebreak).

Shapovalov earned the Wimbledon wild card with the combination of his junior title a year ago, and his current ranking in the top 200. He defeated Kyle Edmund in the first round of Queen’s Club two weeks ago and is definitely one to watch. But the former top-15 player is a tough first round, even if he’s unseeded.

The Weather

The Wimbledon forecast is an exercise in brilliant creative writing every day. So we’ll bring it to you each morning.

“A largely dry morning with some brightness and even sunshine at times. Cloud amounts increasing through the morning with the slight (20%) risk of some showers for the start of play until mid-afternoon, around 1600.

Some warm sunshine developing for the end of the afternoon and through the evening where it will feel rather humid.

The light south-west winds will freshen slightly. Temperatures reaching a maximum of 24 Celsius, 75F.”

People watching

The Duchess of Cambridge (a.k.a Kate) will be on hand to open proceedings and see defending champion Murray off in his quest to repeat.

And, of course, HRH the Duke of Kent and HRH Prince Michael of Kent will be on hand.

Andy Murray’s father Williams gets the call in the Royal Box.

No. 2 baby for Murray, as hip improves

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WIMBLEDON – The rumour was true, as it turns out.

Andy Murray and wife Kim are expecting their second child.

“We’re both obviously very happy and looking forward to it,” Murray said during a press conference Sunday. 

Murray said they’d known for awhile and the family knew as well, although he didn’t want to get into specific dates.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the biggest news topic is the state of the defending champion’s hip.

Murray skipped a pair of planned exhibition practice matches at the Boodles, although he has been practicing all week with some younger players, including 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov and 16-year-old Aidan McHugh, the second-ranked junior player in Great Britain.

16-year-old Aidan McHugh is getting his 15 minutes of fame after practicing with Andy Murray several times this week. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Murray not too hip this week

What’s the matter with the hip, specifically?

“I’ve had hip problems since I was very young. You know, it’s not something new to me. It’s just been very sore the last few weeks. It was giving me quite a lot of trouble moving to certain shots and getting into certain positions. So that was why I needed to take the break, to try and give it a chance to settle down, calm down a bit,” Murray said. “It’s felt much better the last few days.”

Murray said he’d not been in this position too often, of having a physical concern just a few days before a Grand Slam.

It’s always risky to jump to conclusions, but as bloomy as Mrs. Murray looked at Queen’s two weeks ago, it wasn’t tough to surmise the big news.

“Obviously this is an extremely important tournament, so you worry a little bit. It’s a little bit stressful if you can’t practice for a few days, you really want to be preparing, you know, training as much as you can to get ready and make you feel better – especially when you hadn’t had any matches,” he said.

“Just tried to think positively. I tried to make the best decisions along with my team to give myself the best chance to feel good on Monday. I feel like I’ve done that.”

The Brit admitted he’s human. Being the one to essentially kick off Wimbledon, on the first Monday, at 1 p.m., when he walks on court as the defending men’s champion, does add a few nerves.

But he’s been in this position before, so he figures he’ll be able to handle those.

As for the baby, if you caught a glimpse of Murray’s wife Kim Sears at the Queen’s Club event two weeks ago, it wasn’t hard to put two and two together. She was, as they say, blooming.

Two Saturday sessions

Here’s how Murray looked on the practice court, in two sessions Saturday.

As he was walking up from his court at Aorangi Park after the first one, he definitely looked to be a little limpy. But since a lot of players look like they’re walking on hot coals when they’re off the court, or between points – and suddenly, when they’re chasing the ball, run like the wind – you wouldn’t read too much into it.

Bubbly Bublik makes Wimbledon debut

As for his first-round opponent, lucky lower Alexander Bublik of Ukraine, Murray will have to feel it as he goes, watch some video to try to make some sense of the 20-year-old whimsical, improvisational game. But he has talk to some people about him.

“He’s obviously a big personality. You know, he’s not a quiet guy. Yeah, from what I’ve heard, he’s pretty entertaining on the court in terms of the way he plays, how he is. You know, quite unorthodox. He plays a lot of unexpected shots, a lot of drop shots, mixes his game up a lot, takes chances, tries some more sort of shots that guys may play in exhibitions, he tries when he’s out there. That’s what I’ve heard,” Murray said.  

When you hit a tweener in the third-set tiebreak of a second-round qualifying match, with only Stefano Napolitano between you and a French Open main draw if you win, you’re loose.

Tennis.Life ran into Bublik along St. Mary’s Walk, after his session with a pack of reporters in a small interview room. You can see a glimpse of that in his GoPro video above.

I asked him if he’d ever talked to that many reporters at once. He laughed and said no, and added they’d probably be there after his match as well.

He didn’t say it, but if he loses, that session is probably going to be a lot less enjoyable. Then again, this kid seems to be enjoying all of it.

Then, unprompted, Bublik asked: “Do you think I can win ?”

My answer, “If you don’t think you can, don’t get on the court at all.”

He stood there, pondered that, nodded, and walked away.

From Russia, to Kazakhstan … to the AELTC

Bublik was born and raised just south of St. Petersburg Russia. But he is now playing for Kazakhstan. He will walk out into the game’s most famous cathedral on Monday promptly at 1 p.m., with the defending champion. 

It will be his first Wimbledon, after his first qualifying effort. And it’s only his second Grand Slam tournament after he qualified in Australia this year, and upset Lucas Pouille of France in the first round.

The crowd will be holding its collective breath (it does that a lot, with British players), hoping Murray’s hip is as fine as he says it is. 

It will be fascinating to see how a kid who is already developing a reputation for being loose as a goose on court, never appearing to take it too seriously, will react to one of the most elegant moments in tennis.

A shocker of a day at Queen’s Club

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It had been nearly a year since the last shocker like this, when the top three seeds at an ATP Tour event all lost their opening matches.

But in that case, on clay at a small tournament in Kitzbuhel two weeks after last year’s Wimbledon, we weren’t talking about three of the top six players in the world – including last year’s Wimbledon champion and runner-up.

On Tuesday at Queen’s Club, the seeds went three, two, one – out. It’s the first time in the Open era that has ever happened there.

No. 3 seed Milos Raonic was the first to take the court, and the first to bow out. After reaching the final a year ago, the 26-year-old Canadian lost 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8) to 21-year-old Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis. He had eight break points in the first set, and converted none. He led the second-set tiebreak 6-3, and lost it 10-8.

Following them onto the court was No. 2 Stan Wawrinka, not a champion grass-court player but still the No. 3 player in the world. He lost to the unseeded 35-year-old Feliciano Lopez 7-6 (4), 7-5.

Kokkinakis had been out nearly two years with an assortment of injuries. He couldn’t have expected such a big win so early on in the process.

Both had 16 aces. Both had 88 per cent success rates with their first serves. But the Spaniard Lopez – unusually, by the standards of his countrymen, an aggressive customer on the grass – handled Wawrinka’s second serve far better than the Swiss did his. And by the finest of margins, he got through.

Murray shocker

Then came No. 1.

For all the British hand-wringing over the last few months about Andy Murray’s form – all of it, months ahead, pre-doom and gloom for The Championships – he played well in Paris. Murray reached the semifinals and it took former French Open champion Wawrinka more than 4 1/2 hours to beat him.

The defending champion came to Queen’s Club with some momentum. But less than 24 hours after announcing he would donate his prize money from the tournament to the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy – he went out.

Murray hadn’t lost at Queen’s since 2014, and won it three of the last four years.

He did not, as expected, play fellow Brit Aljaz Bedene, whom he defeated 6-3, 6-4 in the second round of the same tournament a year ago.

Bedene withdrew with a wrist injury Tuesday morning. The lucky loser, Aussie Jordan Thompson, was ranked more than 30 spots below Bedene. But Murray had never faced him. And Thompson came in with a little grass momentum after reaching the final of a Challenger the previous week.

Nick Kyrgios, forced to retire in his first-round match, stuck around to cheer on his Aussie mates on a very good day for them.

But still … Murray went out 7-6 (4), 6-2 and dealt his Wimbledon title defense preparation a bit of a blow. He hadn’t lost at Queen’s Club since 2014. Thompson played great tennis. But it all went downhill when Murray was up a mini-break in the first set tiebreak.

First, a double fault. Then, one of the worst drop-shot attempts he’ll make all year. Suddenly, he lost both points on his serve. The rest was not pretty to watch.

“This tournament has given me great preparation in the past. When I have done well here, Wimbledon has tended to go pretty well, too,” Murray told the media in London. “But, if I play like that, I certainly won’t win Wimbledon. I can play better than that.”

Worst British effort in 34 years

Murray has won at Queen’s Club five times, including three of the last four years.

He was the headmaster of a seriously futile effort by the British contingent this year. All five of them – Murray along with Kyle Edmund, wild cards James Ward and Cameron Norrie and lucky loser Liam Broady – lost first round.

According to the ATP, it was the first time the Brits went winless at Queen’s Club since 1983.

The carnage in Kitzbuhel a year ago was a blip compared to this.

Top seed Dominic Thiem, at No. 9 ranked just one spot higher than he is now but not nearly the player he has become this year, had played every week but three since the Australian Open. He fulfilled a commitment to his home-country event, but lost to his far more experienced countryman Jürgen Melzer in a tough combination of circumstances.

The No. 2 seed was Philipp Kohlschreiber. The No. 3 was Marcel Granollers.

This was in a totally different league. 

Terrible Tuesday takes the zip right out of a superb event, which added 2,000 seats to its stadium court this year and boasted a terrific field.

Now? The top half is wide open for No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who does have an in-form Gilles Muller playing the best tennis of his long career ahead of him in the second round.

The bottom half? A Grigor Dimitrov vs. Lopez semi-final would be an attractive grass-court matchup. But it lacks the glamour that the tournament deserves.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

RG men’s quarters almost true to form

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ROLAND GARROS – Milos Raonic, the No. 5 seed at the French Open, played spoilsport in what turned out to be a true-to-form final eight.

The Canadian was upset, 8-6 in the fifth set after four hours and 17 minutes, by No. 20 seed Pablo Carreño Busta in the fourth round on Sunday.

But the other seven top seeds made it. And along with Carreño Busta, they make up a top-quality, if predictable, elite eight bracket.

Which is not to say that they all arrived here in thoroughly predictable fashion.

Here’s a look at their twists and turns through the first week of the tournament.

No. 1 – Andy Murray

Murray was in good spirits before the tournament began, and might even have avoided chiding coach Ivan Lendl for wearing the same way-too-big polo shirt two days in a row (he really did). (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The top seed went about it all bass-ackwards. He lost sets to players he probably shouldn’t have (Andrey Kuznetsov, Martin Klizan) and didn’t lose sets to players he maybe could have (Juan Martin del Potro, the powerful Russian Karen Khachanov).

But along the way the Brit appeared to rebuild some of the confidence lost along the way this season – just in time for the pointy end of the tournament.  

He even managed to make jokes!

Fitness for battle: 8

Quarter-final opponent: [8] Kei Nishikori

No. 2 – Novak Djokovic

Much was made of the new face in Team Nole, as Andre Agassi arrived with great fanfare shortly before the tournament began. 

Agassi is reportedly gone now, but promises to be back when and if Djokovic needs him. While he was here, he watched Djokovic navigate some pretty good players routinely. Except for Diego Schwartzman.

The Argentine was right in there until his body failed him in the late going of their five-setter in the third round. He even led two sets to one. With Djokovic’s up-and-down results this season, it would have been an unlikely upset, but by no means an impossible one.

Whether his earlier rounds – he had, by most measures, a good draw – were enough preparation for what his quarter-final opponent will bring to the table is a question that will be answered on Court Suzanne Lenglen Tuesday.

Fitness for battle: 8

Quarter-final opponent: [6] Dominic Thiem

No. 3 – Stan Wawrinka

The only big (Swiss) cheese in the draw this year with the absence of Roger Federer, Wawrinka’s season has been below his standards. But while it’s a cliché to say a player peaks for the Grand Slams, the 32-year-old REALLY peaks for the Slams. Which probably is why he’s won three of them, including this one.

Wawrinka faced two of the more dangerous lower seeds in the tournament in Fabio Fognini and Gaël Monfils, and got through both in straight sets. Again with Fognini, the body didn’t cooperate.

Against Monfils on Monday, everyone was hoping for a blockbuster. But these two good friends made it more like a fun match for beers in their local Swiss public park. 

When it was over, Wawrinka looked as though he almost felt badly that Monfils couldn’t put up more resistance. He knows more than most that his great friend, at 30 but with a fragile body, won’t have many more chances to make a deep run at his home-country Slam.

“It was a mentally exhausting match, I think. We were both tense. And we know each other so well. We knew how important it was, for him or for me, to play well,” Wawrinka said.

On the worrisome side, the Swiss star’s back locked up from the beginning of the match. It’s what he calls the most fragile part of his body, always managed but never worry-free.

 

Fitness for battle: 7

Quarter-final opponent: [7] Marin Cilic

No. 4 – Rafael Nadal

It appeared the nine-time French Open champion was back for real in 2017 after a great start to the season. But who knew to what extent?

His French Open prep was vintage, although stubbornly deciding to play Rome despite already having won three titles looked like a bad call when he was on fumes by the quarterfinals. He lost to Dominic Thiem there, after beating him twice earlier in the clay-court season.

Raonic, slotted to be his quarter-final opponent, might have posed a few more challenges than Nadal’s young countryman Carreño Busta. Nadal is pretty much money when he’s playing fellow Spaniards. And Carreño Busta is coming off a draining, emotional marathon win while Nadal is fresh as a margarita amarilla.

Fitness for battle: 11

Quarter-final opponent: [20] Pablo Carreño Busta

No. 6 – Dominic Thiem

With his efforts during the spring clay season, and with fellow youngster Alexander Zverev winning Rome, it figured these two would be in the mix in the second week in Paris.

But Zverev flamed out in the first round against Fernando Verdasco. And so it was left to Thiem to make his seed. He did so very much under the radar, without dropping a set and ceding more than four games in only two of the 12 sets he played. 

Had he faced David Goffin in the fourth round, rather than Horacio Zeballos, Thiem might have been tested more. But Goffin’s nasty ankle injury, suffered in the first set against Zeballos, took him out.

In the quarter-finals, we’ll find out if he has a Plan B, after getting just one game against Novak Djokovic in the Rome semi-final a few weeks ago. On the plus side, he won’t have to play him the day after he has to play Nadal.

Fitness for battle: 8

Quarter-final opponent: [2] Novak Djokovic

No. 7 – Marin Cilic

With Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem all in the final eight, no one is talking about Marin Cilic.

He’s used to that – especially in Paris, where he is a quarter-finalist for the first time in his career a year after losing in the first round, to No. 166-ranked Marco Trungelliti of Argentina.

Cilic has had a sweet draw, and hasn’t lost more than three games in any set. He caught a break in the fourth round Monday as opponent Kevin Anderson retired in the middle of the second set due to injury.

The last time Cilic faced Anderson was in the third round of the 2014 US Open. For what it’s worth, he won the tournament.

Fitness for battle: 7

Quarter-final opponent: [3] Stan Wawrinka

No. 8 – Kei Nishikori

In the third round, Nishikori caught a break when rain came to suspend his match with the younger, bigger, stronger Hyeon Chung of South Korea. When play resumed Sunday, Nishikori still looked dead on his feet, his stiff back  – or something – limiting his movement to a major degree.

Somehow, he got through that one.

Then on Monday, he faced Fernando Verdasco and looked basically the same in losing the first set 6-0. Somehow, he warmed up the body parts and got through that one as well. Let’s face it, though, he got help from Verdasco.

This is kind of the story of Nishikori’s career; his inability to keep his body as strong as his will has held him back from … who knows what?

Fitness for battle: 3

Quarter-final opponent: [1] Andy Murray

And, finally, the outlier

No. 20 – Pablo Carreño Busta

No one gives the 25-year-old a shot against his much-decorated compatriot in the quarter-finals. Maybe not even the Carreño Busta family, for all we know.

The man himself said after his win over Raonic that if he didn’t think he had a shot, he wouldn’t take the court. He might get his behind kicked, he might pull off a miracle. But he can’t ask for more than playing the clay GOAT and his good friend on a big stadium court in the French Open quarter-finals.

Hopefully his family, who had to leave to catch a flight back to Spain in the third set of his match against Raonic, will fly back to see this one.

Fitness for battle: 5

Quarter-final opponent: [4] Rafael Nadal

Nadal vs. Carreño Busta is on Court Philippe Chatrier Tuesday, while Djokovic vs. Thiem is on Court Suzanne Lenglen. You have to think the champion is going to come out of that group.

Nishikori vs. Murray and Wawrinka vs. Cilic will be Wednesday, with far less fanfare.

Del Potro done in Paris, but optimistic

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ROLAND GARROS – If he had his two-handed backhand of old, Juan Martin del Potro knows that he could have given No. 1 seed Andy Murray a better battle in their third-round match at the French Open Saturday.

But it’s not quite there – yet. So given what he has to work with, his first Roland Garros in five years went well on the whole, despite the 7-6 (8), 7-5, 6-0 defeat.

“The first two sets were really tight, and it was only few points for Andy, and he won both sets. But I felt playing so good for the two hours and a half, and then I was enjoying the match. The crowd was enjoying the match, too. And I think we made a great show for them,” del Potro said. “But in the end, Andy played better in the specific moments, and he won.”

The first set took an hour and 25 minutes. Del Potro had his chances. 

“When you play the best players, they give you very, very few occasions, opportunities. When they do, you can’t make a double fault like I did today. There was this other point. I had a set point. And I was going to win the set, right? Instead of being aggressive, I didn’t really do much. At that point, he won. See? That’s what happened,” del Potro said. “But beyond my tennis and so on, I need to improve my backhand. Andy is one of the smartest guys on the circuit, and he knew what my weak point was. Today, on clay, if I had been in slightly better conditions and with a better backhand, it would have been more difficult for him.”

At the end of the first set, after a ball on set point against him was (correctly) called out, del Potro leaned on the net post for most of the set break.

It’s tough to accept when you put nearly an hour and a half into something, have your chances, and know you probably lost your best opportunity at beating a world No. 1. Because slogging away for another three hours-plus to win three sets against an opponent who’s excellent at slogging away for three hours-plus, on a damp, slow day, is a daunting prospect.

Murray fully realized the significance.

“Obviously his reaction at the end of the first set, you know, he was pretty disappointed. He had some opportunities to close it out, and he served a double fault in the tiebreak on one of the set points. It was an important first set for a number of reasons, but the conditions today were very heavy and tough, not easy to come back from,” he said.

Chess match won by Murray

When two premium players face each other, each knows what the other is going to do. The chess match comes down to who executes it better.

The other aspect – and this is far more true on the men’s side than the women’s side – is that both players often see the chess game the same way.

Del Potro: “I felt I was playing well. I could feel I was hurting him mentally. But it still was extremely complicated, because he was starting to return the balls better. My serve was not hurting him as much anymore later into the match. He was a real No. 1.”

Murray: “I was starting to play a bit better towards the end of the set. I was starting to get a better read on the returns and I wanted to come out and make it really tough for him beginning of that second set.”

Del Potro had been feeling it in his back and shoulder before the tournament even began. So to get to the third round was not so bad, after all. 

So-so clay season – but at least a season

This was to have been the Argentine’s first full clay-court season in five years. But after his first win in Estoril in early May, he withdrew and returned home after his grandfather died. He missed Madrid the following week as well.

To add to his struggles, del Potro sure hasn’t had much draw luck. His ranking is finally high enough to get him seeded, but in terms of Grand Slams he’s still slotted to get a top-8 seed in the third round. “If I want to change that, I need to improve my ranking; it’s the only solutions to get better draws,” he said.

He should already probably be ranked higher. But some of his best results haven’t counted. No points are awarded at the Olympics, where he had a great tournament last summer in Rio. And no points are awarded for Davis Cup, where Argentina won it all in 2016.

Del Potro faced Novak Djokovic, a last-minute wild card, in the second round in Acapulco in March. He faced him again shortly thereafter in his second match at Indian Wells. And then, he drew Roger Federer  for his second match in Miami. With a little better draw luck, del Potro might have been in the top 16 by now.

He plans to play two warmups leading up to Wimbledon: ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands in 10 days and Queens’s Club the week after that.

(Screenshots from FranceTV)

Estoril’s brilliant pitch for No. 1

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As world No. 1 Andy Murray was in the throes of a tough three-setter with Albert Ramos-Viñolas of Spain in Monte Carlo Thursday afternoon, the Millennium Estoril Open posted this piece of brilliance online.

It was prescient. Murray ended up losing his third-round match in three sets. He will have just two matches on the red clay before his next scheduled tournament in Madrid the week of May 8.

As well, Murray had quarter-final points to defend in Monte Carlo. He also has finalist points in Madrid and championship points in Rome to defend during the French Open tune-up season. The Brit is miles ahead of No. 2 Novak Djokovic. But as Djokovic well knows, even the biggest of leads can evaporate in a hurry.

It’s a near-impossible task for 250-level ATP events to survive without a dose of star power. But the tournaments face an uphill battle to come up with the appearance money necessary to entice those players to come. The top guys, who so often reach the weekend at the bigger tournaments, don’t need the money. You can’t get a Federer to show up unless you go sweetly into the seven figures. The players also don’t need the extra commitment weeks.

Nicolas Almagro was a worthy Estoril champion in 2016. But you’d have to think the world No. 1 would attract a better crowd.

Istanbul: from Federer to … Tomic

Look at Istanbul, which is played the same week as Estoril. For its inaugural event in 2015 it got Federer. He was full value for the investment: he won the tournament. The following year the No. 1 seed was … Bernard Tomic. Tomic lost his first match to Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.

This year, the top seed there will be Canadian Milos Raonic, who hasn’t played since pulling out of Miami several weeks ago with a hamstring tear. Raonic, despite his impressive credentials, isn’t the type of player to put bums in the seats.

The video is cheeky, has a sense of humour and clearly was well thought-out. It’s a terrific, creative effort by a small tournament forced to think out of the box.

The problem is that the day before, Murray said he was considering an offer from next week’s event in Budapest to play there.

‘I’ve never been to Budapest before. It’s a new tournament and it’s not as strong (as the concurrent event in Barcelona) in terms of the player field, so there is maybe more chance of getting more matches there. It depends how I get on this week and how my elbow feels,” Murray told the media in Monte Carlo.”

Budapest has big money behind it, from Russian oil megazillionaires Gazprom.

Now, the question is: will Estoril be an offer that Murray can’t refuse? Stay tuned. If it does, Istanbul will be kicking itself for not having come up with it first.