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Remembering Djokovic’s ATP Debut: ‘This Guy Is Really Good!’

  • Posted: Jul 22, 2020

Remembering Djokovic’s ATP Debut: ‘This Guy Is Really Good!’

Volandri tells his memories of playing Djokovic at 2004 Umag

Novak Djokovic made his ATP Tour debut at the 2004 Plava Laguna Croatia Open Umag less than two months after turning 17. Filippo Volandri ousted the Serbian 7-6(5), 6-1, but the teen certainly left an impression.

“Outside the court I was talking with some colleagues and I said, ‘This guy is really good!’” Volandri recalled. “All the players said, ‘Come on, you could have won 6-1 6-1.’ But I was right!”

Volandri, who later that week beat three-time defending champion Carlos Moya in straight sets, remembers leading Djokovic 5-1 in the opening set. He had never seen the teen play before, but things were going smoothly.

“I was winning easily. I was already a good player and he had a reaction that surprised me,” Volandri said. “Even though he was fighting with [his breathing] and he wasn’t breathing well, he had a reaction that you have inside or you don’t. You can work on it, but most players are born with something inside where they never surrender and they always try to make a reaction [when they are down]. That kind of reaction, 1-5 down, was really impressive.”

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Djokovic forced a tie-break in the first set, but Volandri held off the Serbian’s surge. The Italian then used his experience on a hot day to maintain his momentum in the second set. Nevertheless, he saw a lot of potential in Djokovic, who broke serve four times in the 90-minute match.

“Already, physically and in terms of flexibility, he was at a different level. He was so powerful. He was jumping [everywhere] on the court and he put so much spin on the ball without having so much weight [on his body],” Volandri said. “That’s the difference between champions and normal players. They don’t need too much weight to put so much spin on the ball, speed as well.”

Volandri grew up playing in the juniors with Roger Federer, so he was no stranger to competing against elite young talent.

“When someone has something different, it’s tough to explain,” Volandri said. “You see how they are on court, his attitude, his mental power. Djokovic managed the bad moments as a pro when he was really, really young.

“He was playing maybe too far behind [the baseline], but that’s quite normal. When you don’t have so much weight, when you’re young, it’s tough to stay on the baseline. That’s improved so much. He made a lot of technical changes, especially on his serve, during his career. But I think what made the difference is how close he can play to the baseline. Now he plays so, so close.”

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Their first-round Umag clash was the pair’s only ATP Head2Head meeting. Since then, Djokovic has won 79 tour-level titles, 17 Grand Slam championships and finished year-end No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings five times.

“Of course it’s strange. Obviously I couldn’t say from that match he’s going to be No. 1 in the world and he’s going to be No. 1 for so many weeks. Even growing up with Federer… you could see he had something different between him and the others. But you couldn’t say, ‘Okay, this guy is going to be No. 1,’” Volandri said. “[Novak has] one of the best backhands ever, one of the best returns ever. In the most important moments, he’s a champion.”

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Flashback: Del Potro's Los Cabos Run Helps Spark Rankings Breakthrough

  • Posted: Jul 22, 2020

Flashback: Del Potro’s Los Cabos Run Helps Spark Rankings Breakthrough

Argentine finished runner-up in 2018

Good things come to those who wait. Eight years after reaching No. 4 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, Juan Martin del Potro finally reached a new career-high of World No. 3 on 13 August 2018. The Argentine showed fitting form in that year’s Abierto de Tenis Mifel presentado por Cinemex in Los Cabos, his last event before reaching that milestone.

The Argentine arrived in Los Cabos as the top seed and looked to complete the “Mexican Double” after prevailing that February in Acapulco (d. Anderson). But regardless of his performance, Del Potro reaching the Top 3 that week hinged on the Citi Open results of Alexander Zverev. Zverev, the defending champion in Washington, D.C., needed to reach the final in order to remain at No. 3.

After receiving a first-round bye, Del Potro moved past American qualifier Marcos Giron before facing another player outside the Top 300 in Egor Gerasimov. The 29-year-old Del Potro shook off the rust from his opener and won all 19 of his first-serve points to dismantle the Belarusian 6-1, 6-1 in 59 minutes.

Third seed Damir Dzumhur of Bosnia and Herzegovina provided a much sterner test in the semi-finals. Their clash looked primed to go the distance after Dzumhur reached set point at 6/5 in the second-set tie-break, but Del Potro fought back to level the score and closed out the match with a forehand winner to advance 6-3, 7-6(6).

“It was a good fight from him. We played good tennis, especially in the second set,” Del Potro said. “I made some mistakes in the end of the set, but then I played a smart game in the tie-break. I took my chances to win and I’m glad to reach another final this season.”

Del Potro

Standing between Del Potro and his third tour-level title of the year was second-seeded Italian Fabio Fognini. The Argentine was the on-paper favourite, having won their only previous ATP Head2Head meeting three years earlier in Sydney.

It appeared that Del Potro would cruise past Fognini after charging to a 3-0 lead in the first set, but the Italian settled in and began gambling on Del Potro’s second serve, winning 71 per cent of those points (15/21). Del Potro’s game slowly unraveled, including on his usually reliable forehand wing, enabling Fognini to win 12 of the last 15 games in his 6-4, 6-2 victory.

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“It was a good week for me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t play my best tennis in the final,” Del Potro said. “But Fabio deserved to win. He played a very smart game. He took all the chances to win and I think he’s a good winner of the tournament.”

Eight days later, Del Potro moved to World No. 3 after Zverev, defending champion at the Rogers Cup, was unable to defend the majority of his points in Toronto and fell in the quarter-finals. The moment completed a remarkable climb back up the FedEx ATP Rankings for the Argentine, who sat at No. 141 just two years earlier.

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Flashback: At Long Last, Federer Prevails At Home In Gstaad

  • Posted: Jul 22, 2020

Flashback: At Long Last, Federer Prevails At Home In Gstaad

Swiss triumphed in 2004 event

Roger Federer’s 10 titles in Basel make it clear that he thrives at home, but that wasn’t always the case. When he arrived at the 2004 Swiss Open Gstaad, Federer had yet to stand in the winner’s circle in Switzerland.

The World No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings had lost all three finals he contested at home, including a heartbreaking five-set defeat to Jiri Novak the previous year in Gstaad. Although Gstaad held special memories for the 23-year-old as it was the site of his ATP Tour debut in 1998, he historically struggled there and lost in the opening round in each of his first four appearances.

Despite his heartbreak at this event, Federer arrived with confidence. He had successfully defended his Wimbledon crown the week before (d. Roddick) and also prevailed in Halle (d. Fish) to build up a 12-match winning streak.

But after receiving an opening-round bye, it appeared that Federer’s woes in Gstaad would continue against big-serving Croatian Ivo Karlovic, who racked up 15 aces on the slow clay court. Federer came within mere points of defeat, but dug deep to prevail 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(4).

Rain the previous day meant the top seed returned hours later for a quarter-final clash with Radek Stepanek. The unseeded Czech took advantage of a fatiguing Federer to grab the second set and an upset looked increasingly likely. With the home crowd urging him on, Federer stayed with Stepanek and broke late in the third set to advance 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. The Swiss spent nearly four hours on court to complete his two victories and advance to the semi-finals.

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There would be no rest for the top seed as he contested his third match in 24 hours against Italian qualifier Potito Starace. Federer prevailed 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 to reach the landmark of 50 match wins that season, notching the milestone quicker than any man since Ivan Lendl in 1989. Although he admitted to feeling fatigued, he said that his five-set loss in the 2003 final “nearly killed me” and vowed to find energy for a championship clash with Russian Igor Andreev.

“I feel very tired right now, but I hope to recuperate enough this afternoon to play tomorrow,” Federer said. “I am tired, but I feel alright. I am a bit stiff, but that is to be expected. I think I have one more match in me, so I will have to get myself together and do my best.”

Federer came out swinging against Andreev, cracking 16 winners to eight unforced errors in storming to a two-sets lead. Nerves began to creep in for the Swiss as the title came within sight, but he eventually raised his arms in triumph after a backhand slice error from Andreev wrapped up a 6-2, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 win.

The victory marked the first time in Federer’s career that he won three titles in a row. It also clinched his seventh title of the season, matching the number of trophies he lifted in 2003.

”I’ve attempted to win a title in Switzerland three times and now I’ve done it here in Gstaad. It means a lot to me,” Federer said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a boy.”

Federer wouldn’t return to Gstaad until 2013, when he was honoured in a special on-court ceremony and presented with a cow.

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