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    To Beat the Best at the ATP Finals, Players May Have to Mix Things Up

    Analysts say it is a good strategy against strong defensive players, which can put them in an uncomfortable position.The ATP Finals, scheduled to run from Sunday through Nov. 19, is more than the most prestigious men’s tournament outside of the Grand Slams, it is also an existential conundrum.The exclusive singles draw features the eight best players in the world, leaving no easy wins and raising the question of whether a player must change his game over the course of the week to best the best of the best.The answer is a highly qualified “yes,” with a giant “but” attached. Paul Annacone, the Tennis Channel analyst who coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, said changes should be minor, especially since the early matches are round-robin, meaning a player can lose one match and still survive.“I’m a big believer in figuring out your own identity and trusting what got you to the year-end championships,” he said. “Then you just have to do it just a little better than the guy on the other side of the net that day.”Charging the net, which can shorten rallies and help players take control of the action, is one tactic that the players can use against the game’s best defenders, like Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev, or against power sluggers like Jannik Sinner and Andrey Rublev, but it’s precisely those players’ skills that make coming up to the net after hitting a groundstroke such a risky move.Still, Jimmy Arias, who is also a Tennis Channel analyst, said it’s one way to survive the week.“It’s so hard to hit through base liners like Alexander Zverev and Medvedev, especially on a slower court,” he said, “so if you don’t come to the net against Medvedev, you’re kind of an idiot. If he hits a ridiculous passing shot from the stands, just clap and say, ‘Let me see you do that again.’”Daniil Medvedev charging the net to return a shot during a tournament in Vienna last month. Medvedev has gained a reputation as one of the top defenders playing today.Eva Manhart/APA/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThe danger comes, Arias says, if you simply try to force your way to the net against an opponent who is dictating the points, though he adds that, given the quality of the opponents in Turin, Italy, that may become the only option.Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst, agreed, saying that “the ability to finish points, especially at the net, helps exponentially” against such elite defensive players. Medvedev, who is known for stubbornly staying extremely far behind the baseline, gives himself time to reach almost any deep shot. The best plan is to come to the net or hit short-angle balls against him, McEnroe said, but noted that Medvedev succeeds because many players (Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz excepted) cannot execute that tactic well enough to beat him.McEnroe added that the court in Turin, which is indoors, was low-bouncing (forcing opponents to lift attempted passing shots) and relatively slow, though indoor courts felt quicker because there were no elements like wind.“That favors the aggressive player, but not to the extent that it did back in the day, so you need more versatility now,” he said. “That’s why Federer and Djokovic have dominated there.” (Federer won six times; Djokovic is seeking his seventh title.)He emphasized that changing strategies can be more nuanced than simply charging in. He suggested using the forecourt more often and hitting drop shots, low slices and short angle balls.“It puts the other player in uncomfortable positions and allows you to then take the initiative on the next shot,” he said, adding that this is something they now stress at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, the school launched by his brother, where he is co-director.Carlos Alcaraz playing a drop shot against an opponent in Ohio in August. According to the ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, Alcaraz has been playing these kinds of nuanced shots “at least since he was 13.”Matthew Stockman/Getty Images“This is the biggest thing that has changed with Carlos Alcaraz, who has been playing those shots at least since he was 13,” McEnroe said. “He has the huge firepower and athleticism that these other players do, but now you’re seeing the need to move better and use that part of the court strategically. You’re seeing shots you never thought about, and players are using them consistently.”Arias said that breaking down an opponent by making him change his positioning so he felt uncomfortable — something Federer would do with a short, low slice and that Alcaraz does with the drop shot — was essential.“It’s not just needed for this tournament, but to beat the best you need that all year, but it’s something that’s slightly lacking in the game today,” he said.While Zverev and Medvedev tend to camp at the baseline and let it rip, the analysts cite Rublev, whom Annacone called “so dominant from the back of the court,” as the most one-dimensional of the top players. Arias said Rublev and Sinner “play straight ahead, hitting it hard without opening the court much.”But Annacone and McEnroe said Sinner was improving in this regard because of his coach Darren Cahill. “He’s getting better at playing with subtlety and nuance,” McEnroe said, adding that Holger Rune also “has the potential to play that sort of game.”All three analysts say that when Stefanos Tsitsipas is in top form, he is versatile and one of the better volleyers.Annacone said that a player like Sinner or Rublev could win most matches during the year with their firepower, but that “each of these top players, aside from Novak, can be vulnerable on any given day against other elite players.”Djokovic, as always, remains the exception, even among the exceptional. He has lost just five times this year and is 33-1 on hard courts; since 2012 he is an astounding 108-15 indoors. (Alcaraz would have slotted in there with Djokovic, but he has scuffled a bit since Wimbledon.)So Annacone acknowledged that while players can’t overhaul their identity for this tournament, when they reach the semifinals and possibly face Alcaraz and Djokovic, “you need to be creative and think outside the box,” adding that changing tactics midmatch was easier now that coaching is allowed between points.“You have to be confident enough to do things a little differently, to adjust and adapt on your feet,” he said. “Try it, sometimes you’ll miss, but that’s life.” More

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    The Power and Speed of Jannik Sinner

    Sinner, 22, has dominating talent and has already beaten many of tennis’s top players.It wasn’t long after Darren Cahill began helping to coach Jannik Sinner last year that he started pulling out videos for his young charge to watch.Cahill knew the extraordinary speed that Sinner already possessed off both wings. He was aware of Sinner’s ability to maneuver around the court at speed and of his work ethic. But Cahill felt that Sinner could benefit by studying the ground strokes, particularly the backhand, of a former Cahill pupil, the eight-time major champion Andre Agassi.“Jannik’s lanky and tall, so he’s got a big wingspan and can generate a ton of power,” Cahill said by phone of Sinner, who is about 6-foot-2. “Andre was revolutionary in the way that he hit the ball back in the day, especially on the backhand. There’s so much to learn from a lot of the older-generation players. Because of the equipment and technology that they had, they really simplified a lot of things, especially the great players.”Sinner, 22, has been one of the most talked-about players since he won the Next Gen ATP Finals in 2019. He was also named the ATP’s Newcomer of the Year that season.“He’s got some of the hardest ground strokes I’ve probably ever had to deal with,” said Alex de Minaur, who lost to Sinner in the final in Toronto in August.“A couple of years ago, in a lot of matches, he was breaking down physically,” said Darren Cahill, left. “He was a late developer, so he just needed to make sure that his body could deal with the rigors of playing at this level week in and week out.”Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBut is Sinner a genuine threat to do damage, or even win, the ATP Finals, which begin on Sunday? Goran Ivanisevic, Novak Djokovic’s longtime coach, has thought so.“Jannik Sinner, that’s the future,” Ivanisevic said on the ATP Uncovered show in 2020. “For sure, top-five player, maybe No. 1. I can’t say that far, but the kid is 18, hits the ball amazingly quick. He is the deal.”Cahill, along with Sinner’s head coach, Simone Vagnozzi, whom Sinner has also worked with since last year, has helped Sinner grasp the concept of not just hitting the ball hard, but of also using dips, spins and off-pace shots to open up the court and force his opponents to run until their legs give out.The lessons, via video and on court, have paid off. Sinner, an Italian, is ranked No. 4 in the world, up from No. 15 a year ago. He has won four tournaments this year, including his first Masters 1000 at the Canadian Open in August, as well as two of his past four events, in Beijing and in Vienna.Sinner withdrew from the Paris Masters last week after finishing his second-round match at 2:37 a.m. and then being scheduled to play his next match against de Minaur less than 15 hours later. He complained that tournament organizers were not allowing him enough time to recover, leaving his body vulnerable before the upcoming ATP Finals and Davis Cup Final, where he will compete for Italy.After making his ATP Finals debut in 2021 as an alternate, Sinner has qualified on his own this year. He goes in as the fourth seed behind Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev and ahead of Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Holger Rune. The tournament is at the Pala Alpitour in Turin, Italy, about 300 miles from Sinner’s Northern Italy hometown.Sinner has a winning record against Alcaraz, including victories at the Miami Open and China Open this year. After losing his first six matches against Medvedev, including in the finals in Rotterdam and Miami this year, Sinner has beaten him twice in the last month. In a three-set Vienna final, Sinner saved two set points in the first-set tiebreaker, one with an ace up the middle and flummoxed Medvedev with frequent forays to the net.The only players in the Finals that Sinner has not beaten are the world No. 1 and six-time ATP Finals champion Djokovic, and Rune. Sinner fell to Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals this year and in the quarterfinals last year. In the 2022 match, Sinner led by two sets to love before falling in five sets. Against Rune, Sinner lost in Monte Carlo this year and retired because of injury in a match in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2022.After suffering through some injuries over the past few years, Sinner has dedicated himself to strengthening his body through off-court work with his fitness coach, Umberto Ferrara, and his physiotherapist, Giacomo Naldi.The only players in the Finals that Sinner has not beaten are the world No. 1 and six-time ATP Finals champion Djokovic and Holger Rune. Wu Hao/EPA, via Shutterstock“This year, we made a lot of tough decisions to not play a couple of tournaments because it is very important for me to get a lot of gym work and strength and mobility to get better,” Sinner said. “I feel it on the court that the more the match goes on the more comfortable I feel.”Cahill also sees the value in putting the training first and the tennis second.“A couple of years ago, in a lot of matches, he was breaking down physically,” said Cahill, who is also an ESPN commentator. “He was a late developer, so he just needed to make sure that his body could deal with the rigors of playing at this level week in and week out.”Sinner has, admittedly, struggled mentally with closing out matches, his nerves often getting in the way. At last year’s United States Open, he held a match point while serving at 5-4 to the eventual champion, Alcaraz, in the quarterfinals, but lost the five-hour, 15-minute match 6-3 in the fifth set. The match ended at 2:50 a.m., the latest finish in U.S. Open history. Then, at this year’s French Open, Sinner held two match points in the fourth set against Daniel Altmaier, who saved one of them by hitting a net-cord winner. Sinner lost the second-round match in five sets.Sinner does not travel with a full-time psychologist like many players. Instead, he works with Formula Medicine, an Italian mental-training program sometimes used by Formula 1 drivers.“It’s not like I call them and we talk,” said Sinner, who admitted to being overly competitive in everything from tennis drills to playing cards to go-kart racing. “They give me some exercises to do on the computer. It’s fun to work with them, but you also have to show it on the court. It’s all part of the process.”Cahill sees his role as part technician, tactician and mental guru, often overseeing the work of Vagnozzi, Ferrara and Naldi and helping the team see when Sinner needs to work harder and when he needs time off. Cahill also recognizes the challenge for Sinner at the ATP Finals, especially given that he is the only singles player competing in his home country.“I always encourage my players to have a good look around, to take in the atmosphere, to enjoy it, put a smile on your face and to take the fans for a ride,” Cahill said. “Because, ultimately, that’s all we’re there for. If you think about winning and losing too much, it can be like an anchor around your ankle.”As a child, Sinner played soccer and was a top-level junior skier in Italy. He won a national championship in giant slalom when he was 8 years old. But by 13, he had quit skiing to devote himself exclusively to tennis.“In skiing, it was more that if you make one mistake you cannot win the race, while in tennis you can make some mistakes and still win the match,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest lesson that I have learned from skiing. Obviously, they are two different sports, but maybe the coordination, the balance and the sliding helped me a little bit to play tennis.”Cahill is keenly aware of the pressure that Sinner is facing as he enters the ATP Finals. They have been working on simulating stressful situations and critical points, including using deep-breathing exercises and encouraging Sinner to look across the net and take note of the stress level of his opponent.Two things that Cahill would like to give Sinner, but knows he can’t, are John Isner’s powerful serve and John McEnroe’s meticulous volley. He can, however, give him advice.“Jannik has earned his place in the ATP Finals, and everybody’s there to see him,” Cahill said. “Every single player is an incredible tennis player. So go out and put on a great show and don’t think about the end result. Just be brave and play your type of tennis.” More

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    Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic, the Winning Couple of Tennis

    They are ranked No. 1 in doubles and took the gold medal at this year’s Olympics.In tennis, doubles pairings are like marriages. A good one requires constant communication, flexibility, understanding and an ability to operate under pressure. When it works, magic occurs.Such is the case for the Croatians Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic who teamed up for the first time this year and are ending 2021 ranked No. 1 in the world. Together they won nine titles this year, including Wimbledon and a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and will be playing at the Nitto ATP Finals in Turin, Italy, which starts on Sunday.Mektic, 32, and Pavic, 28, have had great success with other partners. Mektic has won 17 ATP doubles titles with seven different partners, including six Masters 1000s and last year’s ATP Finals with Wesley Koolhof. Pavic has won 26 tournaments with seven partners. In 2018, he won the Australian Open with Oliver Marach and in 2020 he and Bruno Soares captured the United States Open. Pavic, left, and Mektic and won the gold medal in men’s doubles for Croatia at the Tokyo Olympics in July.Edgar Su/ReutersSometimes teams play together for years, enacting great success. And sometimes, despite the best efforts of both participants, partnerships, like marriages, simply run their course.At the end of 2020, Pavic and Soares were ranked No. 1 as a team. He was also No. 1 alongside Marach in 2018.Mektic also had a solid 2020, winning the year-end ATP Finals with Koolhof, reaching the finals of the U.S. Open and the semifinals of the French Open.But while they were still in London for the ATP Finals last November, Pavic approached Mektic, told him that he was breaking up with Soares and asked if he wanted to team up in 2021. Soares has since teamed up with Jamie Murray and they, too, have qualified for the ATP Finals.“I was the one that stopped playing with my ex-partner, even though we finished as No. 1,” said Pavic by video. “We were just thinking differently about some things, like the tournament schedule. I was 27, he was 38 then. We were at a different stage of our careers. But we finished No. 1, so there was no reason to think we would not continue playing together.”Mektic, who began to focus on doubles five years ago, was also surprised.“I still feel bad when I talk about it because I had a great partnership with Wesley, and I would have continued to play with him,” Mektic said. “But when [Pavic] asked me, it was just one of those things I couldn’t say no to. He’s the best player in the world and I thought this partnership could be the best team in the world. And I was kind of right looking at what we’ve seen this far.”Mektic and Pavic won their first 12 matches together before being stopped in the semifinals of the Australian Open. They then notched an 18-match win streak from June to August.According to both players, there is a fine art to playing doubles.“It’s a completely different sport,” Pavic said. “The singles guys are obviously better tennis players. They hit the ball better. But their understanding of the game, positioning, being in the right place at the right time on the court, it’s just not the same in doubles.”“It’s not all about forehands and backhands,” Mektic said. “Tennis-wise and personality-wise some guys are very individual, and they have problems working together with someone. Having good communication with your partner definitely helps.”Mektic and Pavic are aware that top singles players earn more prize money, get prime-time court exposure and receive greater sponsorship perks. But in some ways being No. 1 in doubles is better than being Novak Djokovic, who is ending 2021 ranked No. 1 in singles for a record seventh year.“It’s a different kind of life that Novak and the other guys have, and I can’t even imagine how it is,” Mektic said. “For us, you reach the top of your sport, but you still remain the same person and you’re not that popular. People are not going to stop you on the street and make you uncomfortable. In that sense, I like it this way. I like that I can just live a normal life.” More