2014/09/18

Notes From the Front – Milos Raonic Three-Peats at the Final SAP Open

Raonic trophy (1 of 3)

( February 17, 2013) SAN JOSE

By Kevin Ware

Notes from the Front – Milos Raonic Three-Peats at the Final SAP Open

 

[1] Milos Raonic (CAN) d [4] Tommy Haas (GER) 6-4, 6-3

Milos Raonic completed a week of dominating tennis by defeating Tommy Haas in straight sets to become only the third man to three-peat in the SAP Open’s 125 year history, and the first in the Open Era. Though some great players have won this tournament 3 times or more, the three-peat hasn’t been accomplished since Tony Trabert (1953-55).  With this win at the final SAP Open, Raonic has indeed joined the ranks of an elite few.

The term “dominating” is actually an understatement for Raonic’s play when you look at his accomplishments at this tournament.  He won without dropping serve the entire week, and only faced one break point in 39 service holds. Additionally, Raonic has never dropped a set during his three year run at the SAP Open, winning 24 sets in a row. These are remarkable numbers from a player who’s won three of his four career titles in San Jose, and who jokingly said that he should “roll up the court, put it in his bag, and hope that it doesn’t get lost” on his next flight.

THE X’S AND O’S

Serve

Raonic’s first service game set the tone for the match with four aces, ranging in speed from 123mph to 148mph. By the end he would have a total of 19. Many expect Raonic to ace his opponents with pace, but many of his aces in this match came on serves between 115-120mph with great placement.  By contrast, Haas had 1 ace in the third game of the second set; his only ace of the match. It’s tough to overcome that many free points in a match that might be decided by only 5. (Raonic had a total of 58 aces for the week.)

Return Game

Raonic has talked a lot this past week about the work he’s put in on his return game, and the results were evident in today’s final.  Whenever Haas served out wide to the Raonic backhand on the ad court, he ran the risk of getting burned by Raonic’s backhand down the line.  It was a risk that hurt him greatly.  But there weren’t many other options open if he wanted to avoid the Raonic forehand, which could hurt him worse: either as a crosscourt return from the deuce court or an inside out shot from the ad court.

Break Chances

Raonic put Haas under pressure with an early break in the third game, and finished the match with a total of 7 break point chances while facing none on his own serve.  To put this into the larger context of the tournament, Raonic faced (and saved) one break point the whole tournament.  It happened in his match with Denis Istomin. His opponents (Michael Russell, Denis Istomin, Sam Querrey, and Tommy Haas) faced a total of 27. It’s impossible to take a set off of someone if you can’t break their serve.

Ground Game

Unlike his match against John Isner, Haas had to face an opponent with a strong ground game on both sides who also wasn’t afraid to come in and attack the net. In his post-match press conference, he referred to Raonic’s strategy as “taking risks” and being rewarded.

I understand Tommy’s need to chalk this up to a player rolling the dice and getting hot.  But that would be unfair to Raonic, because it’s not possible to explain the Raonic game in such low-percentage terms, especially given the consistent execution. Raonic didn’t have one spectacular day of shot-making.  He’s had three years of spectacular shot-making, so it doesn’t seem like there was much risk-taking involved.

It should also be noted that Haas didn’t play badly.  In fact, his play in the final was very much on a par with his play against Isner in the semifinals. He served decently, hit his backhand well and tried to finish points at the net when possible.  But as the match wore on and the pressure wore him down, Haas’ execution suffered. Either he cut his margins too fine when going for the lines, or was forced to block shots back in the hope that they would stay in and prolong rallies. More often than not he was left watching shots whiz by with a plaintive look on his face.

Sadly, his reactive tennis seemed more of a risky strategy than the Raonic’s game.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Milos Raonic

Did you feel any pressure today?

“Yes, at the beginning.  But I made a conscious effort…to hit harder to get the energy out.”

Even with your dominant level of play in the final, is there one thing you could have done better?

“When I’m playing well and my opponent is playing well, mixing it up a bit more.”

Tommy Haas

Did Raonic’s play how you expected him to play today?

“Yeah, he didn’t give me too many looks on his serve. He served extremely well and has a lot of confidence in that serve. He played risky when he had to and he got rewarded for it. That’s his game and what’s so tough. It puts pressure on me trying to hold serve, and he was feeling it.”

Doubles Championships

[4] Xavier Malisse (BEL) / Frank Moser (GER) d [WC] Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) / Marinko Matosevic (AUS) 6-0, 6-7(5), 10-4

After falling to an embarassing 6-0, 4-0 deficit, the Aussies made a match of it; winning the second set but ultimately losing the match tiebreaker.

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Notes from the Front – SAP Open 2013, Day Six Semifinals

Haas d Isner semifinal (1 of 5)

Notes from the Front – SAP Open 2013, Day Six Semifinals

By Kevin Ware

Day Six Semifinal Results

[4] Tommy Haas (GER) d [2] John Isner (USA) 6-3, 6-4

[1] Milos Raonic (CAN) d [3] Sam Querrey (USA) 6-4, 6-2

Match Notes

Semifinal #1

After watching Tommy Haas and John Isner the past few rounds, I had an uneasy feeling about Isner’s chances against the resurgent German in the first semifinal.  Isner needed to start aggressively, serve well, and keep the points short. Haas needed to challenge the Isner second serve, take his chances, and work the big man over with baseline play.  The Haas strategy proved to be the winning one, as he took out the No. 2 seed in straight sets.

When asked about his success in seeing the Isner serve, Haas said, “I mean, that’s the key against somebody like John, obviously. I think early on in the beginning he didn’t hit his first serves in so I tried to jump on the second, tried to make something happen, get it back in play, and then take my chances in the rally.” That’s exactly what he did; getting balls back into play and making the big man hit the proverbial “one more shot”.

“You have to play aggressive and play the type of tennis that you want to play.  It can be tricky, but I did see his serve really well today and that obviously helps.”

For his part, Isner missed on all aspects of his “key to the win”. He started slow, missed some first serves, and found himself caught in baseline rallies he had little chance of winning. Lack of rhythm on his serve was at the top of the list in Isner’s honest assessment about his difficulties in this match.

“Yeah, that’s really what decided the match. I feel like normally I serve better than I did.  And against a guy who is and was playing really well in that match, I need to serve better.”

The serve was just one aspect of Isner’s loss. When Haas drew Isner into baseline rallies, his speed and movement gave him a huge advantage over the taller Isner.  When asked how he felt his ground game held up against Haas, Isner admitted, “It let me down a little bit. This court it stays low and it skids. I would prefer the ball to get up a little bit higher for me.  But still I got a ways to go with just my game and going for my shots, and trusting my shots a little bit more.  I just didn’t have it today.”

With this win, Haas reaches his 25th ATP World Tour final and has a chance to become the first German winner of the SAP Open.

Semifinal #2

Milos Raonic completely dismantled Sam Querrey, breaking the American’s serve in the very first game of the match.  From there, he never looked back as he gave Querrey a comprehensive lesson in “big boy tennis”.

Raonic dominated Querrey with big serving, big forehands, big backhands and, most importantly, solid returning that kept Querrey under continual pressure in his service games.  Every aspect of Raonic’s game was working in the match, and it became clear after a few games that Sam had little chance of stopping the Raonic juggernaut.

It can’t be overstated just how dramatically Raonic’s off-season work on his return game impacts a match like this.  The stats tell much of the story for these two big servers.

Aces: 12 for Raonic, 7 for Querrey
Double Faults: 0 for Raonic, 4 for Querrey
Break Points Saved: 0/0 for Raonic, 6/9 for Querrey

By breaking Querrey early, Raonic put him on notice.  Instead of the 20 aces that he hit in both of his earlier matches, he only got 7 against Raonic.  That’s a ton of free points on which he usually relies that were no longer available.  On top of that, pressing on his serve led to more double faults.  Raonic had, for all practical purposes, taken the Querrey serve out of the equation.

When your weapon is no longer a weapon, and you can’t break your opponent’s serve while defending yours in each service game, the odds of success drop dramatically.

Raonic’s continually improving game is the result of hard work in the off-season, and the confidence it’s given him on court is palpable.  “(I’m) returning well, moving well, getting into position to hit the shot and when I have the opportunity I’m going forward and I’m pretty successful. And I’m serving well.  So sort of everything’s on the right track, in that sense.  Then confidence comes with that. The work’s paying off.”

Sam acknowledged what was painfully obvious to all in attendance.  “He served unbelievable, and I was never even really close to getting a look on his serve. On my serve I wasn’t getting a ton of pop and he was doing a good job of putting the pressure on me.  He returned hard and deep and I felt like I was under pressure the whole time.” “He hit the ball big all around. He was really sharp today.”

To the contrary, Raonic has been sharp for the past three years. Two of his three career titles have come at the SAP Open, and he’s never dropped a set in San Jose.  If he wins this final SAP Open title, he will be the first man to three-peat in the Open Era, and the first since Tony Trabert in the fifties.  Judging by his play so far, this outcome appears likely.

Final Notes/Pick

[1] Milos Raonic (CAN) vs [4] Tommy Haas (GER)

Head-to-head: Raonic and Haas have never played.

Keys to the match: Raonic just needs to keep doing what he’s been doing in order to lift the trophy. But in order for Haas to have a chance in this final, he needs to do everything that he did in his semifinal match against Isner, and do it all BETTER!  That’s a formidable task for most players, let alone a guy who’s spotting Raonic twelve years before they even step onto court.

Raonic can pressure Haas in ways that Isner couldn’t.  He serves as big if not bigger than Isner. In addition to the big forehand, he also possesses a stronger backhand. He scrambles well to short balls and isn’t afraid to take the net. To make matters worse, he really likes the court surface and feels that it suits his game nicely.  To say that this is an uphill battle would be the understatement of the day.

The good thing about tennis, however, is that titles aren’t handed out to the winners because it looks good on paper.  Even though Raonic is the overwhelming favorite, he still needs to win the match.  And lest we forget, Isner was the overwhelming favorite over Haas in the semifinals.  His odds aren’t good, but there’s always a chance for the upset.

Pick: Raonic for the win in straight sets.

Kevin Ware is in San Jose covering the SAP Open as media for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

All photos by David Sweet

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Notes from the Front – SAP Open 2013, Day Five

John Isner-2

Notes from the Front – SAP Open 2013, Day Five

by Kevin Ware

Day Five Quarterfinal Results

[4] T Haas (GER) d [WC] Steve Johnson (USA) 6-4, 6-2

[2] J Isner (USA) d [8] Xavier Malisse (BEL) 7-6(8), 6-2

[1] Milos Raonic (CAN) d [6] Denis Istomin (UZB) 7-6(0), 6-3

[3] Sam Querrey (USA) d Alejandro Falla (COL) 6-3, 4-6, 7-5

Match Notes

Steve Johnson bemoaned his lack of aggression in losing to Tommy Haas in the first quarterfinal of the day, feeling that he let Haas take control too often at key moments.  For his part, Haas is feeling good and grateful to be playing some of his best tennis towards the end of his career.  He’s especially happy to be able to do so in front of his 2 year-old who’s here in San Jose with dad.  “I know she probably won’t remember watching me play today, but maybe I can continue on playing and she’ll get to be around a couple of these tournaments and see me play competitively at a high level.”

John Isner didn’t play his best tennis in his quarterfinal match against Xavier Malisse, but he raised his level when needed to get by an opponent who was more than capable of a big upset. This was especially true in the first set tiebreaker after Isner dug a 0-3 hole with a mini-break on the first point.  The tide turned with a monstrous return on a Malisse serve to level at 5-all. He closed out the tiebreak with some mad scrambling on the baseline before flicking one final running forehand winner that was netted by the Belgian. First set to Isner.  Malisse’s level dropped off quickly in the second set.  Isner, with the first set in his back pocket, kept up the pressure on the slumping Malisse to close out an uneventful second set for the win.

The quarterfinal match between Milos Raonic and Denis Istomin turned out to be almost a carbon copy of their match in last year’s SAP Open final. Both men held serve easily and played to their strengths for most of the first set, with Istomin looking to be the stronger from the back court.  But once again, the tiebreaker was the deciding factor with Raonic sweeping all seven points for the first set.  After that, Istomin’s resolve slipped and Raonic’s confidence soared, and it was only a matter of time until Raonic closed it out.

Sam Querrey‘s win over Alejandro Falla was easily the best match of the day! It looked to be on track for a routine straight sets win by Querrey after a 6-3 first set.  No one told that to Falla, however, as the Colombian left scrambled with even more intensity in the second set.  In tennis, anything can happen when you make your opponent hit “one more shot”, and that was the case for Falla. Querrey’s level dropped, and a few key misses gave the set to Falla.  The tension was high for both guys in the third set, with neither giving an inch until the eighth game when Falla broke Querrey for 4-all, then held serve for a 5-4 lead.

A straight-sets victory was a distant memory with Querry playing loose shots on the deuce court to find himself at match point, 30-40. A crucial 133mph ace out wide to Falla’s backhand saved the point, and lit the fire under Sam that he needed to hold serve, break Falla for a 6-5 lead, then serve out the match.   That’s not to say that Falla didn’t have his chances, because he did.  Two netted shots for a game point at 5-all could easily have put the pressure back on Querrey’s serve to stay in the match. But it was not meant to be for Falla, and a chance for a huge upset.

Semifinal Notes/Picks

[4] T Haas (GER) vs [2] J Isner (USA)

Head-to-head: Isner leads 3-1

Quick Keys to the match: Isner needs to start aggressive and keep Haas from feeling like he has a chance.  He must serve well to blunt Haas’ return opportunities, and keep the points short by coming forward as he’s done in other matches.  For Haas, if he can get a handle on the Isner serve and make this a running match, he will have the edge for Isner.

Pick: Sticking with Isner for the win.

[1] M Raonic (CAN) vs [3] S Querrey (USA)

Head-to-head: Querrey leads 2-0

Quick Keys to the match: Raonic is going to come out firing on all cylinders with high intensity.  Conversely, drops in his intensity level have been Querrey’s main issue in both of his previous matches. For Querrey to win this match against the two-time defending champion, there can be no drops.  He has to maintain focus, serve well, and stay strong on the baseline.  If Raonic can maintain focus and intensity from first point to last, something that Querrey typically can’t do, he’ll have the edge.

Pick: Sticking with Raonic for the win.

Kevin Ware is in San Jose covering the SAP Open as media for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

All photos by David Sweet

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Notes from the Front – SAP Open 2013, Day Four

MilosRaonic

By Kevin Ware

Notes from the Front – SAP Open 2013, Day Four

Day Four Second Round Results

[6] Denis Istomin (UZB) d Benjamin Becker (GER) 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-2

Alejandro Falla (COL) d [7] Marinko Matosevic (AUS) 6-4, 6-4

[8] Xavier Malisse (BEL) d Matthew Ebden (AUS) 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(1)

[WC] Steve Johnson (USA) d [Q] Tim Smyczek (USA) 6-3, 6-3

[3] Sam Querrey (USA) d L Hewitt (AUS) 7-6(6), 1-6, 7-6(4)

[1] Milos Raonic (CAN) d Michael Russell (USA) 6-2, 7-5

Match Notes

Xavier Malisse might be past his best days on tour, but the Belgian can still do damage given the right draw.  He could also make things easier for himself by not putting so much energy into griping during his matches.  Everything and anything from ball kids to the officials to his shots, you name it. It was a mutter-fest out there in his match against Matthew Ebden. He’ll need to be much more positive in his output if he plans on getting by John Isner in the quarters.

The battle of young Americans fizzled early as Tim Smyczek started strong but couldn’t stem the tide of unforced errors in going down to defeat against Steve Johnson. Johnson didn’t play particularly well either, but he played well enough to capitalize on Smyczek’s errors.  Smyczek is a small, wiry guy who “redlines” his game to produce the pace needed to compensate at this level.  Now he needs to figure out how to do that and find the court on a much more consistent basis. Johnson moves on to face Tommy Haas.

Sam Querrey got through a tough and very “losable” match to Lleyton Hewitt with the help of some last-minute errors by the Aussie in the final set tiebreak; notably a double fault on match point.  Querrey started strong, but then struggled mightily with shot consistency after an initial 5-2 lead in the first set. Hewitt battled hard to take the first set to a tiebreak, but was done in by a close call he couldn’t challenge because he used up his allotment.

The second set was a wash for Querrey with Hewitt raising his game to easily sweep and take the match to a third. The third set was by far the best in terms of quality.  Both men served well, defended admirably, and stood toe-to-toe in great rallies that tested each man’s resolve. To end such a great set on the aforementioned match point double fault was disappointing. A win is a win, though.  Querrey now faces a much easier opponent in Alejandro Falla for a spot in Saturday’s semifinals.

Michael Russell did well to make it to the second round by defeating Donald Young.  He didn’t play great tennis to beat Young, but then again he didn’t need to. Milos Raonic was a different story. Russell, like Olivier Rochus and a few others, is at a considerable disadvantage when playing larger and stronger guys like Raonic because he doesn’t have the weaponry to match up from the baseline. Russell scrambled well to get balls back but couldn’t do nearly enough in terms of moving the ball around to keep it out of the Raonic strike zone. With the win, Raonic moves on to face Denis Istomin in a quarterfinal rematch of last year’s final.

Random Notes

Every time I pass John Isner in the hallway, I’m astounded by his height.  Ivo Karlovic, Sam Querrey, and Milos Raonic are all tall players as well.  But none of them give me the same sense of height as John. It’s like I’m looking up a small tree. I wonder what the court looks like from up there?

The Hewitt kids are pretty gosh darn cute, and it’s a good thing too. After his disappointing loss to Sam Querrey, which ended with a double fault on match point, I tweeted, “Hopefully they’ll put a smile back on dad’s face tonight”. Sure enough, about 20 minutes after the match I passed Lleyton, his wife Bec Hewitt, and the kids as they were heading out to eat.  And yes, he was smiling.

Observation of the day? After watching Hewitt lose a match that was within his grasp because of an awful third-set tiebreaker, I had the sense that I’d seen something like this before.  I did: two weeks ago in the Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick and the 49’ers last possession.

Odd sighting of the day?  Sportscaster Vern Glenn standing outside of the HP Pavilion trying to get his work laptop to connect online.

Quote of the day? Also from Vern Glenn but attributed to Ronnie Lott, and in reference to working in the sportscasting biz: “Always make sure they keep you on scholarship!”

More after Day Five quarterfinal action.

Kevin Ware is in San Jose covering the SAP Open as media for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

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Notes from the Front – SAP Open 2013, Day Three

John-Isner_Miami-Tennis-Cup-e1354390274784

John Isner

By Kevin Ware

(February 14, 2013) SAN JOSE – Here are some more courtside impressions from an eventful Day Three at the SAP Open.  It was mixed bag of fun matches and dramatic wins.  But let’s start with the sad and unsettling loss by Donald Young.

  • I don’t know what to say anymore regarding the sad and curious case of Donald Young. With each shot he makes, you see the talent that took him to No. 1 in the juniors; yet with each unforced error and pained aftermath, you’re reminded of the reasons that his pro career has hit the proverbial wall. His loss to Michael Russell during the day session was about as ugly as it gets. Neither guy played well, but Donald’s lack of confidence at crunch time was the tipping point.  Every gaze over to his box is filled with agonizing pleas for help that isn’t arriving anytime soon.  It’s tough to watch.  Even though us in the “media” should maintain some semblance of neutrality, it doesn’t stop me from hoping that Donald comes back from the brink.
  • Lleyton Hewitt and Marinko Matosevic are quite an entertaining doubles team.  Lleyton is the clear leader, but Marinko holds his own pretty well. Best part is they look like they’re having a great time playing together.  We should all be so lucky with our partners, right?!
  • Steve Johnson continued to make the most of his wildcard with a stirring 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 win over Ivo Karlovic. After losing a tough first set by playing a horrible tiebreaker, Johnson stood toe-to-toe with one of the best servers in the game and found a way to break for the second set. In the third set tiebreaker, Karlovic served an ace to go up 6-4 in the tiebreak.  With two match points in hand, Karlovic inexplicably ran off the rails; committing three consecutive unforced errors to give Johnson a match point.  Karlovic followed a strong approach to the net, and all Johnson could do was toss up a high defensive lob.  Out of the blue, Karlovic was struck by a case of “tentative overhead-itis”.  He smashed the ball weakly back to Johnson, who happily thundered a hard and low forehand to Karlovic at the net. The big man could only muster a flubbed volley response.  Game, set, and match to Johnson, who had no business winning that match but did anyway.
  • The night session pitted American John Isner against Canadian Vasek Pospisil.  John is 27 and Vasek is 22, but they both look no older than 14 (plus/minus a year or two).
  • Isner was slow in finding his game for the match, but didn’t blame any of it on his knee.  However, he did admit to having back issues because of his flight.  With all of Nemo’s canceled flights, he lost his upgrade seat and had to fly coach in a window seat to San Jose.  The ATP website lists John’s official height as 6′ 9″.  Just think about that the next time you complain about being in a middle seat! FYI, if John flies coach and no exit rows are available, window seats are his only option to save his knees from the battering they’ll inevitably take with the cart going up and down the aisle.
  • Bay area actress Diane Amos was in attendance tonight at the HP Pavilion to watch the evening session at the SAP Open.  Or as I put it more succinctly in one of my tweets at the start of Isner’s match, ” Random fact: the Pine Sol lady is in the house tonight for the Isner match.”
  • When asked what he did to pay back Sam Querrey  for bailing the US team out of trouble in Davis Cup action after his own 5-set heartbreaker to Thomaz Bellucci, Isner said “I think he took some of my money in cards that night actually, and I didn’t do it on purpose.”

The tournament action heats up on Day Four with a day session featuring young Americans Tim Smyczek and Steve Johnson battling for a spot in the quarterfinals, as well as the anticipated match between Sam Querrey and Lleyton Hewitt.  The night session features the return of the defending champion, Milos Raonic, as he takes on Michael Russell; plus more doubles action with the Bryans.  I will save my Raonic/Russell “tall and small” jokes for after the match…

 

Kevin Ware is in San Jose covering the SAP Open as media for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

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Notes from the Front – SAP Open Day Two

 

Ryan Harrison

Ryan Harrison

By Kevin Ware

(February 12, 2013) SAN JOSE, California – One of the great things about watching live tennis in a tournament setting is that you get a better feel for the character of the match and the players.  Here are some courtside impressions from Day Two action at the SAP Open.

  • I arrived at just after Lleyton Hewitt’s dramatic 3-set victory over Blaz Kavcic to find that no one was surprised to see this match go the distance.  Even though he’s one of the older guys on tour, long grinding matches still seem to be Hewitt’s preferred method of advancing through the draw.  His next opponent is Sam Querrey, making his tournament debut after receiving a first-round bye. It will be interesting to see if Sam’s late tournament start against a cagey veteran who’s “into” the tournament has a factor on the match outcome.
  • Though he was suffering from low energy due to illness, Ryan Harrison lost a winnable 3-set match against German veteran, Benjamin Becker.  It wouldn’t have been a particularly spectacular win under the circumstances, but it was doable.  Unfortunately, Ryan couldn’t keep his focus on the important points in the second and third sets the way he had in the first set tiebreak. This was especially true when he got broken at the end of the second set.Illness aside, Ryan is a talented and thoughtful player who can sometimes makes things complicated for himself in his matches. He’s struggled in 2013, and his ranking has dropped from last year’s high of 43.  Because he’s defending a semifinal appearance in last year’s tournament, his ranking is going to take a pretty big hit. Hopefully he can turn things around in Memphis.
    (NOTE:  He’ll be playing doubles with his brother Christian)
  • As I was watching Jack Sock in his match against Marinko Matosevic, I tweeted, “While Ryan Harrison sometimes thinks too much on court, Jack Sock maybe needs to think a bit more…” That about sums up Sock’s match strategy, or lack thereof.  Sock is a big strong guy who hits a heavy ball, but that’s pretty much where it ends. Even when Sock broke Matosevic to serve for the first set, I had the feeling that the veteran Matosevic would find a way to out-think his younger opponent, and capitalize on the nerves of the moment.  That’s exactly how it played out, with Matosevic going on to take the first set tiebreaker before sweeping the second set 6-1.I don’t begrudge the big hitting, because the younger guys on tour definitely need big games in order to be competitive. But they also need to think clearly and give themselves options.  Sock’s not there yet, and I’m not sure that he sees the need for options and nuance.  I also look at Sock’s football player-like build and can’t help but think that maybe if his fitness were improved, it could pay dividends in the development of his game.  He’s young though, so he’s got time to pull those pieces together.  At least, I hope he does.
  • It was a rough day for young Americans, and Ryan Sweeting’s straight-sets loss against last year’s finalist, Denis Istomin, did little to stop the bleeding.  But then again, Sweeting was always going to have a tough time of it since he doesn’t have the weapons needed to trouble Istomin.
  • The world No. 1 Bryan brothers weren’t as dominant over their younger American opponents as one would expect. Jack Sock and Steve Johnson played well with no signs of intimidation at the Bryans credentials as one of the greatest doubles teams ever. But once again, experience and mental toughness won out over big hitting as the Bryans took the match in two tiebreak sets. I hope the young guys are paying attention to these lessons of strategy/mental fortitude!
  • Fernando Verdasco, with coach/dad by his side, seemed to have a decent on-court warm-up prior to the start of the doubles match.  But something must have happened to him between the warm-up and his match.  That would be the only explanation for his flat performance against an inspired Tim Smyczek.  Fernando played without purpose.  Smyczek, on the other hand, played as though his life depended on the win; and it showed.  The difference between the two couldn’t have been starker, with Smyczek looking much more like a higher-ranked player than Verdasco.There might have been an injury with Verdasco, who seemed to pull up on shots as the match progressed.  But it was still a disappointing match for a former Top 10 player who at one time, challenged for Slam titles against the top guys. Disappointing, that is, except for Smyczek.  At least one American young gun made it through!

That’s all for now.
More after Day Three action with Donald Young, John Isner, and Tommy Haas.

Kevin Ware is in San Jose covering the SAP Open as media for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

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Raonic Looks To Make History At This Year’s Final SAP Open

 

Milos Raonic

Milos Raonic

By Kevin Ware

(February 12, 2013) SAN JOSE, California -This is a bittersweet moment as I prepare my preview for this year’s SAP Open.  The SAP Open, the second-oldest tournament in the US, is ending its’ illustrious run with this final week at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, CA.  Many great and legendary players have hoisted the trophy through its’ various names and incarnations.  But whether it was the Siebel Open, the Sybase Open, or whatever, it didn’t matter to those of us in the Bay Area who were grateful for a chance to see world-class tennis. This tournament will be greatly missed!

This year’s edition promises one final hurrah with a great field and the addition of a mixed doubles exhibition match on Saturday, featuring longtime SAP Open stalwart Andy Roddick, 3-time Slam champion Lindsay Davenport, and 22-time Slam champion Stephanie “Steffi” Graf.  Defending champion Milos Raonic is also back to try for an historic SAP Open hat trick.  So even though this is the final SAP Open, it definitely promises to go out on a high.

Main draw action started Monday night with Xavier Malisse and Jesse Levine winning first-round matches. With qualifying rounds completed, the action starts in earnest on Tuesday with main draw matches for both singles and doubles.

Here is my breakdown of the quarters as I look for Raonic to make history for the tournament with his third straight title.

 

Milos Raonic [1]

The top quarter features top seeded Milos Raonic, who has a chance to pull off a rare “hat trick” win at this year’s SAP Open after title runs in 2011 and 2012.  How rare is it? No player has won three straight SAP Open titles since Tony Trabert accomplished the feat with wins in ’53, ’54, and ’55.  This includes greats like Ashe, McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi, and Roddick. a win in this final SAP Open would certainly put Milos at par with this very select group of players.

Milos likes the conditions in San Jose, and has played some of his best tennis on this center court over the past couple of years.  His serve has been off the charts, both in terms of pace and placement, and his ground game has been damaging off both his forehand and backhand wings. There isn’t much that’s likely to stop his march to the semifinals; not even a potential quarterfinal rematch against his 2012 finalist, Denis Istomin.

Sam Querrey [3]

The second quarter features Davis Cup hero, Sam Querrey.  It would be easy to peg Querrey as the favorite to make his way through to the semifinals, but he will have his hands full with his most likely second-round challenger, former champion Lleyton Hewitt.  While Hewitt has a first-round encounter with Blaz Kavcic to help him settle into the tournament and get used to the conditions, Sam has a first-round bye.

Most players will tell you that there’s nothing trickier than playing an opponent who’s “into” the tournament when you’re still trying to get used to the conditions. And even if they haven’t played since 2009, Hewitt’s 2-0 head-to-head over Querrey doesn’t help matters much either.  But if Sam settles into the match quickly, he should be okay for the win. On the other hand, Hewitt’s success at this year’s Kooyong exhibition showed that he’s a legitimate contender in best two out of three matches with significant wins over Raonic, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin Del Potro.

After Hewitt, seventh seed Marinko Matosevic of AUS will likely be Querrey’s last hurdle for a spot in the semifinals.

Tommy Haas [4]

Speaking of best two out of three set matches, the combination of the format and the quicker indoor court gives the number four seed a decent shot at making the quarterfinals. Once he gets there, however, he’ll have a tough battle to get by Fernando Verdasco [5] for the third semifinal spot.

Tommy has a 2-1 head-to-head edge over Fernando on tour, but they haven’t played since 2009.  In many ways, it’s either player’s match to win or lose.  If Tommy’s body and game hold up, it could happen for him.  Fernando is no slouch, though.  He’s one of three former champions in the field (along with Raonic and Hewitt), and knows what it takes to win in San Jose.

Also, I’m sure Fernando would like a chance at redemption for the title he felt that he wrongly lost in the 2011 final after a fan’s yell on match point distracted him while returning Raonic’s serve.

John Isner [2]

In spite of recent knee issues that kept him from performing his best in Australia, Big John looks to be moving decently and serving at close to his best level.  He lost a five set heartbreaker to Thomaz Bellucci in Davis Cup, but should be okay in San Jose even though he hasn’t played there since 2009.

With a 2-2 head-to-head record, veteran player Xavier Malisse might cause Isner some issues in their probable quarterfinal match-up.  But I’d be hard-pressed to see him not make it through to Saturday’s semifinals.

Semifinal Picks

Milos Raonic [1] versus Sam Querrey [3]

Head-to-head: Querrey leads 2-0

Querrey might have the advantage in the head-to-head numbers, but Milos has owned this court for the past two years.  In a battle of evenly-matched big guys with big serves and big groundstrokes, I have to give the edge to the guy who has won back-to-back titles in the past two years.

Raonic in straight sets.

Tommy Haas [4] versus John Isner [2]

Head-to-head: Isner leads 3-1

Make that 4-1 after this semifinal battle.  Isner has way too much firepower for Haas.  He will make the big guy work for it with smart shot-making, but it won’t be enough to counter Isner’s untouchable serve unless Tommy has a great returning day.

Isner in straight sets.

Final Picks

Milos Raonic [1] versus John Isner [2]

Head-to-head: Isner leads 1-0

They’ve played only once before on a Canadian hard court in last year’s Rogers Cup, with Isner winning a close 7-6(9), 6-4 match.  Serve dominated the stats, as one would expect.  But while Raonic served more aces than Isner, Isner won 91% of his first serves as compared to 78% for Raonic.  In a close match that can make all the difference.

I expect this match to go the distance, with the winner being determined by the same factors i.e. winning serve percentages.  If John keeps his percentages high, he’s got a good shot at thwarting the Raonic three-peat.  If not, Raonic has a “slightly” better ground game on which to fall back than Isner.

For all practical purposes, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top.  For history’s sake at this last SAP Open, I’ll go with Raonic for the three-peat.

Raonic in three sets.

Kevin Ware is in San Jose covering the SAP Open as media for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN.  Follow his personal twitter @SFTennisFreak.

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Sights and Sounds From the SAP Open

By Marissa Lackey

The forecast for the marketing of American men’s tennis is… cloudy.

As I arrived at the tournament site, I was greeted by a huge banner with Andy Roddick’s image hanging from the side of the arena. Given that Roddick was not among the dozen or so American players entered in the tournament, this was a sobering reminder of Roddick’s impact on the coverage and marketing of tennis in the U.S., and the uncertainty of the post-Roddick landscape.

Fernando Verdasco’s hot pink Adidas kit is a design triumph.

Make no mistake, Verdasco’s kit is violently, seizure-inducingly loud, but it looks great on camera and in person, it just works. Between the blazing colors, the suggestion of crown feathers created by his faux-hawk, and his impeccable, proud-chested posture, Verdasco reminded me of nothing so much as a brilliantly plumed peacock.

Juan Martin Del Potro is a mind-altering substance.

If seeing him back on court, running around and hitting “That Forehand” made me feel giddy, watching him slowly and languidly move around the court between points took me back to my college days and black lit rooms and lava lamps. On television, his Eeyore demeanor and sloooooooow stroll can be maddening; in person, it is hypnotic.

Milos Raonic is a big kid.

I knew this, but seeing him up close, with his sturdy build and the disarmingly youthful face took me by surprise.

Watching tennis live is tougher than it looks.

For me, watching tennis on television is an exercise in multitasking — at any given time, I’m tweeting, emailing, looking up match statistics, muting/unmuting the television commentary, and anxiously shifting on the sofa. Surprisingly, there are only slightly fewer distractions when watching a match in person.  Between the Jumbotron, arena announcer, crowd noise, note-taking, and simply observing the constant activity on court, much of the action was a blur. It became even more difficult during the final, when I had to do all of those things and maintain my media presence.

An apology to the (serve) speed freak American television commentators.

My lasting image from the men’s final is of seeing a Raonic serve whiz by and hearing a collective whistled exhale as thousands of heads swiveled in unison to glance at the radar gun. I used to watch Roddick matches on television and roll my eyes at how a big serve could inevitably send Patrick McEnroe into raptures and cause Brad Gilbert to speak in tongues.  After seeing Raonic in action, I understand the impulse completely.

Poise. If there is one enduring word from the weekend’s tennis, it is “poise.” In the Verdasco/Del Potro match, I was struck by Verdasco’s poise and professionalism. He served well, played smart and controlled, and acted like he expected to win. As a longtime Verdasco observer, I was… not accustomed to this. I kept waiting for the rash of double faults or kamikaze forehands, the signs of a signature Verdasco breakdown.  They never came. Less than 24 hours later, I watched as Verdasco was out-poised by a twenty-year old playing in his first ATP final.

Raonic is a GREAT big kid.

Raonic’s style of play didn’t win me over, but his postmatch interviews did.  He was earnest, thoughtful, and refreshingly grounded (or, as I tweeted at the time, like “Roddick without the edge”).  I walked out of the interview area with a smile on my face and feeling proud of Raonic and that much more optimistic about the future of the ATP.

Ramblin’ Man.

Postmatch media interviews with a losing player are always a bit awkward for me, as I’m never quite sure where to look.  Making direct eye contact can feel intrusive, even accusatory, so I end up averting my eyes from the wreckage, almost involuntarily. In his media conference after his loss in the final, Verdasco, who is a chatterbox under normal circumstances, talked like a man accustomed to a therapist’s couch.  He began the media conference obviously still smarting from the loss, soon turned reflective, and was even cracking a few jokes by the end.  I guess confession truly IS good for the soul.

Marissa Lackey was in San Jose covering the SAP Open. She has been following tennis for 20 years, fanatically for about five.  She’s lived in California for about 9 years.  She’s a native (although she prefers to use the term “recovering”) Texan.

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