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Virtanen Making Vast Improvements On Challenger Tour

  • Posted: Nov 21, 2022

Virtanen Making Vast Improvements On Challenger Tour

The 21-year-old is the Finnish No. 2

Planes, trains, and automobiles are a weekly theme for ATP Challenger Tour players as they work hard for points, prize money, and trophies. The travel schedule can be gruelling at times, but the players stay determined as they persevere towards a similar goal: becoming the next professional tennis star.

Finland’s Otto Virtanen recently had an extensive trip that saw him collect two Challenger titles and win 10 matches in 11 days (singles & doubles). After winning the Brest Challenger doubles title (w/ Viktor Durasovic) in October, the 21-year-old quickly departed for the Bergamo Challenger, where he advanced through qualifying en route to collecting his maiden Challenger singles crown.

“I flew after my doubles [in Brest] to Paris, from Paris to Milan, then Milan to Bergamo by car,” Virtanen said. “I had a very late first match and I played really well. I just went day-by-day and kept playing well. Every day I kept gaining confidence and in the [Bergamo] final I just tried to focus on what I was doing well and tried to treat it as a normal match. It was my first final and I think I handled it well.”

Now at career-high No. 174 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, Virtanen is among a strong list of champions in Bergamo including the previous three titlists: Holger Rune, Jannik Sinner, and Matteo Berrettini.

<a href=''>Otto Virtanen</a> wins his maiden Challenger title in Bergamo, Italy.
Otto Virtanen is crowned champion in Bergamo, Italy. Credit: Antonio Milesi

Virtanen, who started the year as No. 395, made his initial Challenger breakthrough this summer as a semi-finalist at the Surbiton and Liberec Challengers. The Challenger 90 event in France was his first Challenger final and the Finn didn’t flinch. Virtanen didn’t drop a set all week en route to the title and maintained his high level in the championship match against former World No. 29 Jan-Lennard Struff.

“I didn’t change anything [about my game plan], I just played solid, maybe a little safer,” Virtanen said. “I was putting more balls in and playing high-percentage tennis. Then when it was a good time, I played more aggressively. I found a good balance to my game.”

The Hyvinkää native is just the second player from Finland to win a Challenger title in the past 10 years and the first since Emil Ruusuvuori in 2019.

Ruusuvuori, 23, is a four-time Challenger titlist. At the 2019 Helsinki Challenger, Ruusuvuori was crowned champion on home soil and defeated Virtanen in the round of 16. This season, Ruusuvuori reached his first Tour-level final in Pune and climbed to a career-high 40. Ruusuvuori and Virtanen have fond memories of growing up together and are now carrying the torch for tennis in their home country as the highest-ranked Finns.

ATP Challenger Tour 

“I’ve known Emil since I was a kid,” Virtanen said. “We played the same tournaments. He’s two years older than me so we were in different age groups but same tournaments in Finland. We practised at the same club. We spend some time together off court as well but we both are busy travelling for tennis, so it’s tough to find the time when we are both in Helsinki. When we both are home, we practise together. It’s good to catch up and see what he’s doing well, take something from him.”

After a second-round exit at his home Challenger this past week in Helsinki, Virtanen closes his season with a 23-14 Challenger-match record. The #NextGenATP youngster has been building upon the lessons he’s learned since graduating from the ITF Futures events and now shifts his attention towards offseason training before aiming for an even stronger showing in 2023.

“It was a rollercoaster [season],” Virtanen said. “I’m happy with this year, where I started and what I’ve achieved. I’m quite happy with the results.

“It’s always a pleasure to be at home. Last tournament of the year, it’s nice to finish here [Helsinki] even though the results this week weren’t that good. But I’m happy to finish the year and now I can focus on next season. I’m really excited.”

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Brain Game: Djokovic Gives Ruud The Run-around

  • Posted: Nov 21, 2022

Brain Game: Djokovic Gives Ruud The Run-around

Serbian backs away to find a path to victory

Run-around forehands > backhands. 

Novak Djokovic defeated Casper Ruud 7-5, 6-3 in the Nitto ATP Finals title match Sunday in Turin, with his run-around forehand proving to be the difference-maker from the back of the court. Djokovic is widely thought to have the premier backhand in our sport, but it stood second fiddle to his run-around forehand when he was playing out of the Ad court.

This final was always going to be about control of the Ad court, as that is how Casper Ruud loves to organise his baseline patterns of play. According to Infosys ATP Second Screen, Ruud directed 75 per cent of his backhands cross court through the Ad court and 41 per cent of his forehands. 

His goal was to lock Djokovic in the backhand cage and overwhelm him with a copious amount of backhand groundstrokes. It’s a strategy that often frustrates opponents and provides them with few offensive options. It has been a key pattern of play in Ruud’s run to the final in Turin.

Djokovic’s run-around forehand was the perfect antidote.

Overall, 67 per cent of Djokovic’s forehand and backhand groundstrokes were struck standing in the Ad court, which is a testament to Ruud’s Ad court intentions. Djokovic hit 81 backhands standing in the Ad court and 51 run-around forehands. Here’s how they performed:

Djokovic Groundstrokes
Backhands = 81 (10 errors/5 winners)
Run-Around Forehands = 51 (3 errors/4 winners)
Normal Forehands = 65 (6 errors/5 winners)

Djokovic’s backhand performed solidly, ending up -5 with 10 errors and five winners. In the second set, Djokovic only committed three errors from 37 backhands. In fact, he only made one error from his last 25 backhands while collecting one winner and forcing four errors. 

Knowing that the run-around forehand was doing the heavy lifting in the Ad court, Djokovic’s backhand came to life late in the match and he hit with more freedom and velocity, particularly down the line to cleverly change directions against Ruud.

The analytics of Djokovic’s run-around forehands were eye-opening. He ended +1 with three errors and four winners from 51 shots. The run-around forehand only committed one error from its last 37 shots while amassing four winners and forcing three errors. It was the engine room that constantly repelled Ruud’s baseline barrage.

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Ruud’s baseline game is built on owning the Ad court with a combo of rock-solid backhands and marauding run-around forehands that pull the opponent wide off the court. Djokovic was able to throw a wrench into Ruud’s plans by cracking 51 run-around forehands and switching strategic gears to actually be the one hunting his opponent’s backhand. 

Djokovic’s master plan to secure victory at the finish line was to not donate any free points to Ruud. The Serb made his last 10 forehand groundstrokes (normal & run-around) as well as his last 10 backhand groundstrokes. With history on the line, Djokovic has built his legend on smothering defense as well as finding ways to inexplicably draw errors from his opponents.

It felt like the match was on a razor’s edge from start to finish but Djokovic ended up winning a commanding 57 per cent (64/112) of points to Ruud’s 43 per cent (48/112). Djokovic won more points serving (44-37) and more returning (20-11). 

Overall, Ruud played to his strengths and employed the same game plan that got him to the final. The problem for the Norwegian was that person standing on the other side of the court knew the playbook and had an ideal counter plan.

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Djokovic: 'Huge Hunger' For Trophies Remains

  • Posted: Nov 21, 2022

Djokovic: ‘Huge Hunger’ For Trophies Remains

Serbian defeats Ruud in the final

Novak Djokovic made more history on Sunday when he captured a record-equalling sixth Nitto ATP Finals crown in Turin. Following his straight-sets victory against Casper Ruud, the Serbian revealed that the fire within him burns as bright as ever.

“I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that what I hold in my mind is a huge hunger still to win trophies,” Djokovic said in his post-match press conference. “[To] make history in this sport, compete on the highest level all around the world, bring good emotions to sports fans, tennis fans. That’s what drives me a lot.

“I have a lot of different motivational factors, and I don’t lack any motivation for the moment. Of course, we all have bad days or bad weeks. But generally the feeling is still there.”

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The 35-year-old, who is up to No. 5 in the Pepperstone ATP Live Rankings, dropped just one set en route to the title in Turin to become an undefeated champion. Djokovic admitted that he felt close to his best at the prestigious year-end event, leaving northern Italy high in confidence.

“I always see myself as the best player in the world,” Djokovic said. “I have that kind of mentality and that kind of approach. Regardless of who is across the net, regardless of what the surface is, regardless of what season it is, what number of the professional season in my career we’re facing. It’s always the same. The ambitions are as high as possible.

“I had an amazing finish to the season with most of the tournaments that I played indoors I won,” Djokovic later added. “Indoors has been historically very successful for me. Playing in Italy, in a country where I love to play, where [I] have really special connection with people, makes this trophy and this win even more special.”

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Djokovic’s victory against Ruud, which tied him level with Roger Federer on six year-end titles won, felt extra special for the Serbian with his family watching courtside. The 91-time tour-level champion has relished the opportunity to spend time with his son Stefan and daughter Tara this week in Turin and feels that their presence was crucial to his on-court success.

“I’m very grateful to my wife and my children for coming. I don’t get to have these moments on the Tour with them so much, so I of course try to enjoy it as much as I possibly can,” Djokovic said. “I took both of my children, particularly my son, to a lot of the tennis training sessions, warmups and matches. He was very loud [during the final]. I was very surprised. I could hear his voice the entire time. He was very much into it.

“They make my life on Tour easier. The pressures, the expectations, the tensions that you normally go through in a big tournament like this, when they’re around, it lowers a bit so I can have that time off, quality time with my family. That really soothes me and gives me serenity in order to recalibrate and play my best tennis the next day. I cherish these moments a lot. Hopefully, as they grow older, they’ll realise even more what special moments we’re living together.”

Djokovic ends his season holding a 42-7 record. The Serbian lifted ATP Tour titles in Rome, Astana and Tel Aviv, while he won his 21st Grand Slam crown at Wimbledon.

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Ivanisevic On Djokovic: 'He's Still Going To Be Even Better'

  • Posted: Nov 21, 2022

Ivanisevic On Djokovic: ‘He’s Still Going To Be Even Better’

Former World No. 2 reflects on his charge’s sixth season finale title

Goran Ivanisevic revealed a scary concept for the rest of the ATP Tour on Sunday evening. After Novak Djokovic won a record-tying sixth Nitto ATP Finals trophy, his coach said the Serbian will still improve.

“He’s practising even harder than when he was 22. That’s why he’s still so good and that’s why he’s still going to be even better,” Ivanisevic said. “The will to practise, the will to improve, the will to be better is amazing. He’s taking care of his body. In my time we stopped tennis [aged] 30, 31. You were already [an] old guy ready to leave. But now [it is] unbelievable.”

The 35-year-old shattered the record for oldest champion in tournament history. Roger Federer previously held that record having triumphed aged 30 in 2011.

“Look at Roger couple years back. Look at Rafa. Look at him. They all talk about, yes, young players are coming. It’s great for the tennis… You have [the] youngest No. 1 in the world who made unbelievable things this year, Carlos [Alcaraz],” Ivanisevic said. “But look at Novak. He’s still hungry, he’s still winning the tournaments, playing unbelievable tennis. He’s still already thinking now about preparation for next season.”

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Djokovic is known as a relentless baseliner and magnificent mover who often finds his very best tennis under the most pressure. But the Serbian’s serve was dominant Sunday against Casper Ruud, against whom he did not face a break point.

“His serve was [a] very underestimated shot all through [his] career. If you look so many matches, five, 10 years ago, his serve always saved him somehow,” Ivanisevic said. “But now he’s even better. Now he always wants to improve. Especially this week, amazing percentage, amazing precision of the serve. Every time he needed, he hit [an] unbelievable first serve. His second serve is much better.

“But his serve is one of the best shots which people, they don’t talk [about], because they have so many other things, they forget to talk about his serve. He has one of the best serves. Especially when it’s tight, it’s tough, especially this week he was hitting unbelievable serve under pressure.”

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Djokovic finished his season with five titles, highlighted by his triumph at the Pala Alpitour, his 21st major at Wimbledon and 38th ATP Masters 1000 crown in Rome. According to Ivanisevic, with the way the sport has continued to move forward, Djokovic is set on continuing to evolve with it.

“He’s [a] guy who wants to improve all the time. He’s taking care of his body. Look at how he moves on the court, slides. He’s amazing,” Ivanisevic said. “It’s always something that now the world offers you to be better, to improve. I think in that case players are playing in much older age, and they’re playing well. Maybe some of them, they’re playing best tennis. They’re looking unbelievable.”

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