Canadian’s Get an “Eh” for Effort Halfway Through Rogers Cup

Yes, I hate myself for that joke. Just not enough to change it.

Annnyways…

We’re through to the quarterfinal stage in Rogers Cup, and so far the biggest storylines in tennis have involved those who aren’t even at the tournament.

On the men’s side, three of the big four didn’t even lace up in Toronto, with Andy Murray, Rafa Nadal, and Roger Federer pulling out of the tournament the week prior.

The news worsened on the Fed front, when he announced on Tuesday that the knee injury that has been nagging him since the Australian Open will keep him out of the Rio Olympics, as well as the rest of the 2016 season.

For a guy who has been known to defy much of the wear and tear of the game, especially for someone playing in to his mid-thirties, this six month departure from the tennis world will no doubt feel like an eternity to him, as well as his legions of fans across the globe.

On the women’s side Serena Williams pulled out with a shoulder injury. No doubt she has her eyes set on the Olympics and then the US Open. I imagine we’ll see less and less of Serena in non slam tournaments as the years go on.

French Open winner Garbine Muguruza also withdrew from Rogers Cup shortly before her first round match due to a stomach virus. With Vika Azarenka and Maria Sharapova both out for the remainder of the season as well (for very different reasons), the women’s draw is pretty wide open.

Which brings us to the two main stories actually occurring within the tournament: Canadian players and Novak Djokovic’s first tournament since Wimbledon.

Since Canada has the home court advantage, I’ll be talking about them today, and assess Novak’s performance after the quarterfinals.

Since the Rogers Cup is held in Canada, obviously much of the excitement (at least for the home crowd) lies in how well their fellow countrymen and women perform at the tournament, and so far, it’s been mostly good.

Milos Raonic is looking fresh coming off of his first grand slam final appearance a few weeks ago in Wimbledon, and is easily through to the quarterfinals. Junior star Denis Shapovalov upset Nick Kyrgios in the first round before succumbing to a fairly in form Grigor Dimitrov in the second, and Vasek Pospisil continued his singles struggles losing in the second round, but is still alive in doubles with fellow Canadian Daniel Nestor.

But perhaps the most attention thus far has been placed on Eugenie Bouchard. A native of Montreal, Genie has never played her best on home soil. And after a tumultuous 2015 that saw the one time Wimbledon finalist struggle to even string a few wins together, 2016 seems to be one in which the 22-year-old is starting to get back on track.

All eyes were on Bouchard as she took the court in Montreal to a packed stadium for her first round match against quality opponent Lucie Safarova. Bouchard played some stellar tennis to win that match in a third set tiebreak, and the vibe in centre court on match point, felt a lot more like championship point than a first round victory.

Bouchard followed that up with an absolute thumping of a very solid player, beating Dominika Cibulkova 6-2, 6-0 and in doing so making it to the third round of the Rogers Cup, the farthest she’d ever gone in the tournament.

She looked well on her way to making it to her first quarterfinal as well, jumping out on Thursday to a quick 4-0 lead against qualifier Kristina Kucova. She managed to win the first set 6-3, but things started to unravel after that. In the second set, Bouchard went up a break two separate times against Kucova, only to be broken back right away in both instances.

Bouchard ended up losing the second set 6-4, ultimately losing the match 6-3, 4-6, 3-6. She confessed to nerves  and understandably felt intense disappointment losing a chance to advance against a player she absolutely should have beaten. Overall though, she played a solid two matches and is starting to put the pieces together in terms of finding her game again. I think her hometown fans would be proud.

 

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Disappointment at Davis Cup for USA

 

While not an entirely shocking loss, this will definitely be a big disappointment for Captain Courier and Team USA, who got off to a great start on home soil taking a commanding 2-0 lead against Croatia on Friday.

The highlight of the first day came when American Jack Sock (playing his first home rubber) came back from a 0-2 set deficit to beat Croatian number 1 Marin Cilic in five sets.

This was the second time in as many weeks Cilic had surrendered at 2-0 lead (he lost in the quarterfinal of Wimbledon to Roger Federer in similar fashion), and after John Isner (USA) took out Borna Coric in straight sets in his match, all the momentum was with the US.

A lot of fans were predicting (hoping?) that USA could wrap things up on Saturday with a win by doubles greats and Davis Cup stalwarts Bob and Mike Bryan. But a determined Cilic substituted for Marin Draganja, and he and Ivan Dodig played superbly to defeat the Bryans 6-2, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4.

The US still seemed well positioned, with many thinking that even if Isner couldn’t overcome Cilic, if it came to a fifth and decisive rubber, Jack Sock would have no problem beating Borna Coric, as he defeated him easily in their last meeting at the French Open in 2015.

I was able to catch a bit of the pre-show on Tennis Channel before Isner and Cilic took the court and the confidence was definitely brimming from the American commentators. Justin Gimelstob (formerly Isner’s coach) even said of the Sock/Coric matchup, “I don’t like Sock in this match up. I love him.”

Welp.

Things started off somewhat promising for the US. Isner was serving like a beast in the first set, often holding Cilic to love. While Isner holding serve is nothing new, it was an especially impressive display, even for him.

Cilic on the other hand looked a little out of sorts. You thought maybe his confidence was lacking from the previous two five set losses, and Isner managed to make inroads in most of Cilic’s service games, even creating a few break points. Though he never managed to convert any.

Then, like so often has happened with Isner this year, after playing a really solid set of tennis (he was absolutely the better player in the first set) he faltered in the tiebreak.

After that, Cilic was energized, Isner was deflated, and Cilic went on to win easily 7-6 (11-9), 6-3, 6-4.

Depressing for US fans, sure, but not shocking. Before their matchup today Cilic was 5-0 against Isner, and even when lacking in confidence Cilic remains the slightly better player, overall.

The fifth and final rubber was a slightly different story. Both on paper and in terms of skill and experience, Jack Sock is the better player, and probably, definitely should’ve won the match. And if it was a regular tournament, I bet he would have. But it wasn’t.

He was playing a deciding Davis Cup rubber, in his home country, after probably thinking his win on Friday made it so he would never have to be in this position. Sock was clearly nervous and shaky, and visibly frustrated with his play. The margins between Sock and Coric are not enough to where Sock could get away with playing an uneven match, and it ended up costing him.

Coric on the other hand was steady, and rejuvenated after his team had fought from the brink to even the score. He seemed the calmer and more positive player. Sock played some incredibly athletic and impressive points, but he wasn’t able to sustain any kind of momentum throughout the match, and seemed to face break points in practically every service game he had.

In the end Coric took the match in four sets, and with it a ticket to the Davis Cup semifinals, making it only the second time since 1981 that the US lost a Davis Cup tie after being up 2-0.

So, that is unfortunately it for the American men this year. I think our guys gave it a good effort. They had a great Friday, but the Bryans are 38 and played two stellar opponents during their doubles match. Isner lost to a higher ranked player he had never beaten, and Sock can be excused for being overcome by the pressure of having to win it all for his country.

For my part, I’ll be watching to see if Andy Murray decides to play in the semifinal against Argentina, and gearing up for another year of #BackingTheBrits.

Cheers.

 

 

Drink Every Time You Hear “The Lendl Effect”***

Wimbledon’s over and Andy Murray walked away with his second title at the All England Club, and third major overall, by dispatching of Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 in a crisp and routine fashion.

As a huge fan of the surly yet endearing Scot, I was thrilled to see him win.

In an era dominated by Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, Murray’s superb talent and dedication to his sport have often been overshadowed by the superior accomplishments of the other three. Adding another major gives more credence to the notion that he’s earned his rightful spot as a member of “The Big Four”.

Murray’s win is already igniting (probably premature) speculation that he might be in form enough to seriously challenge Novak Djokovic’s dominant reign as world number 1 by the end of the year.

Much of this enthusiasm comes from the belief that reuniting with his old coach Ivan Lendl at the start of the grass court season has given Murray that extra edge and motivation to finally start winning majors again.

More notably there exists a belief that Lendl’s presence makes Murray a fundamentally better player.

I don’t necessarily agree. Or at least, I think it’s premature to make that case.

On paper, that theory seems to be somewhat solid. After all, Murray won his first two slams with Lendl by his side, and never lifted another major trophy until winning the first slam he played with Lendl back on his team. So if we’re keeping score at home Murray/Lendl = 3 grand slams, Murray/every other coach = 0 grand slams.

But these slam wins only tell part of a much larger, more nuanced story.

However, if you watch enough sports you’ll find that sports media is much like any other media, with a preference for simple, repeatable storylines that often overlook the finer details.

During ESPN’s Wimbledon coverage they frequently posted up side by side statistics of Murray’s record with Lendl, as well as his last two years without Lendl, when he was mostly under the guidance of Hall of Fame player and Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo. Commentators regularly noted the “clear difference” Lendl’s presence made.

Again, while it is true that Murray never won a slam with another coach, the rest of stats tell a less lopsided story.

Murray won a total of seven titles with Ivan Lendl (pre-return), and eight in the two years after Lendl departed. He reached four major finals with Lendl, but then managed to reach three more after him.

His overall win/loss record with Lendl was 113-26, winning just over 81.2% of all matches during that time. In the two years after? 144-35, winning right around 80.4% of all his matches. For anyone lacking basic math skills, that’s less than a 1% difference.

Murray also managed to do several things he’d never done while Lendl was his coach: Win a clay court title (three to be precise), make it to the finals of the French Open, and finish with a career high year end ranking of number 2 in the world in 2015.

Two other things to consider when examining Murray’s record pre and post Lendl:

Injury:

Murray had back surgery after the end of the 2013 season, and noticeably struggled for much of the next year. Lendl departed from the team in March of 2014, and Murray partnered with Mauresmo after the French Open that same year. His form improved as the year went on, but wasn’t really playing at the top of his game again until the start of the 2015 season.

 Novak Djokovic:

You know that guy I mentioned a few paragraphs above? The reigning world number 1? Yeah, turns out he’s pretty darn good. In these last 18 to 24 months he’s been nothing short of phenomenal.

Before his shocking third round exit at Wimbledon at the hands of American Sam Querrey, Djokovic had won the last four majors in a row, and six of the last nine since Lendl left Murray’s camp.

Dude hasn’t given up a lot of real estate to anyone in the slam department (or Masters 1000 department for that matter) in quite some time. Those three finals Murray made post-Lendl? All losses to Djokovic.

In fact, since 2015 up until the 2016 French Open, Murray’s results have been: Final, semifinal, semifinal, round of 16, final, final.

The round of 16 loss was an upset at the US Open to South African player Kevin Anderson. Other than that, Murray has had five losses in the final stages of slams. One coming at the hands of Roger Federer (also pretty darn good), and four coming from Djokovic.

So all of this raises the question: Did Murray magically win a slam again because of the elevation Lendl’s mere presence brought to his game? Or did Murray rightly take advantage of a draw where he didn’t have to face a player he wasn’t just straight up better than?

No offense to Milos Raonic, who is a very good player and who I believe will win slams some day. But as Sunday’s final showed, he still has work to do to truly challenge the likes of Murray (and Djokovic) in a best of five sets match.

To be clear, I think reuniting with Lendl is a solid move on Murray’s part. I think the fact that Lendl agreed to return, especially when he was reticent to coach other players on the tour (sorry Berdych) really gave Murray a psychological boost and a wave of increased focus and motivation. Not to mention, at this stage in Murray’s career it’s much easier to start up again with someone you already know and who knows you, as opposed to having to start from scratch with someone new.

I also think at the level Murray is playing right now, the margins are so small and any extra confidence and psychological strength Lendl brings to the team can be helpful.

But I also think it’s a little premature to be giving Lendl the amount of credit he’s getting in the press.

If Murray had the draw at any of the slams he played under Mauresmo that he did in this year’s Wimbledon, chances are he would have won that tournament.

Likewise whoever his coach had been coming in to this year’s Wimbledon, the luck of the draw favored Murray. It is exceedingly likely he would have seized this opportunity regardless of who was there sitting up in his players box, suffering from allergies.

***Thoughts On Balls is not responsible for any alcohol related injuries you might sustain if you take this literally. Seriously though, don’t do it. You will die.