Photograph: Getty Images
As the ATP Tour moved into Barcelona after an action-packed week spent in Monte Carlo there were a couple of things that remained quite clear. Stefanos Tsitsipas coming into Barcelona as the top seed was full of confidence and the question and jury was out, on who was going to be his biggest challenger?
Casper Rudd was down the bottom half but is yet to reach the levels he did last season, Felix Auger-Aliassime seeded three isn’t scaring the very best clay courters on the dirt just yet and Cameron Norrie at No. 4 would rather be on a slow to medium paced hard court then the red clay of Spain.
But waiting in the wings at No. 5 was where the excitement lay. The Spanish sensation that is Carlos Alcaraz was enough to make the top seed nervous and as Tsitsipas saw that indeed Alcaraz was lurking in his half, the Greek's anxiety levels rose. This after a long and successful week in Monte Carlo but Barcelona was about to get more arduous and with little rest, it was going to test the reserves.
The Norwegian star Rudd cruised through to the quarters where he was matched up with the streaky but dangerous Pablo Carreno Busta.
Norrie scrapped his way through to be matched up with Australian Alex de Minaur. Auger-Aliassime progressed to face Diego Schwartzman and up the top, the dream match-up had come to fruition with Tsitsipas to take on Alcaraz.
The Australian de Minaur was having his best tournament performance in quite some time, especially on the clay courts that he grew up on as a junior. At ATP Tour level it hasn’t translated to consistent wins and runs to the latter stages of events so when the Aussie dispatched of Norrie 6-1 in the third set there was magic in the air.
Casper Rudd still searching for his best form in the big matches in 2022 ran out of steam in the Carreno Busta match up going down in three sets after over 3 hours of pain.
Canadian star Auger-Aliassime can’t wait to get off the clay going on his performance where he took the first set but then failed to show the patience and variation needed to win over a seasoned and hardened clay court competitor in Schwartzman. The Argentine was too patient, too crafty and had too much guile for the explosive Canadian.
It left Tsitsipas and Alcaraz to go toe to toe and as fans streamed into the main court there was a feeling in the air that the winner of this match was a clear favourite for the Barcelona title. What transpired in the first two sets had the match up there with one of the best of 2022.
A genuine rivalry is brewing between these two but it is Tsitsipas who is yet to defeat the Spanish wonder kid. The third set showed the confidence and calmness that Alcaraz possesses and the difference in the match was the all important second serve points won where Alcaraz won a remarkable 14/23 points at a 63% clip. Big matches defined by second serve points won. The Greek star has been thwarted by Alcaraz again.
As rain had caused havoc with the schedule, matches were backed up and as Alcaraz and de Minaur were in their warm-up the expectation was an Alcaraz win in straight sets.
De Minaur is much more dangerous on a hard court and big matches on clay haven't been his thing. But over the next two hours plus the young Aussie played a level on the dirt that says that he can impact against the very best on this surface and as Alcaraz tried to wear him down the Australian was tantalising close to causing a boilover.
Match points arrived and match points went and after losing the second set tie break it had slipped through his fingers. A punishing three hour and 40 minute match time, as well as a 6-4 defeat in set three, was all he had to show for it. It was a heartbreaking loss that may have further ramifications as the season progresses. De Minaur can be optimistic as he found the level on clay he had been searching for. But it comes with damage.
Alcaraz was through and as Carreno Busta took care of Schwartzman 6-3, 6-4 in a regulation 1 hour and 40 minutes the question was could Alcaraz back up after the gruelling physical battle he had just been through. Of course an all Spanish final was fitting for the Barcelona 500 title and Carreno Busta had every chance to cash in on the circumstances.
HE DIDN’T. One word to describe this final was dominance. Alcaraz showed zero signs of fatigue as the 18-year-old was as dynamic and explosive as ever keeping Carreno Busta constantly off balance and shaking his head at the arsenal that was coming his way. Alcaraz faced zero breakpoints throughout and was near perfect on serve. The numbers were astounding for a 500 final. 23/26 first serve points won at 88%. 9/12 second serve points won at 75%. A 6-3, 6-2 masterclass where Carreno Busta never got a look in.
It was a look at the future. It was a look at a player who has supreme confidence and swagger. A player who also showed immense hunger, determination and fight during the Barcelona week. A player who now moves into the top 10 in the world in the ATP Tour Rankings. A player who is in a hurry.
A player who has a Masters 1000 win on hardcourt and now a 500 level title on clay in the past three weeks. A player whose game translates and adapts between the two.
A player who appears to have no ceiling. But he is more than a player. He is the next showstopper, the next head turner, the next torch bearer and the next game changer.
He has put his hand up and self-selected while the other so called Next Gen before him have blinked.
Look no further as he is right here. No need to step aside as he will run right over you anyway. The future is here.
Photograph: Getty Images
As the ATP Tour turned its attention to the clay court season for 2022 of course the major prize is the French Open starting May 22. With Masters 1000 events coming up in Madrid and then in Rome there are big opportunities to impact before the second Grand Slam of the year gets underway.
What cannot be forgotten are the smaller ATP 250 events that are wedged in between. Belgrade was back on the calendar with little fan fare but with all eyes on Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic is clearly behind the eight ball when it comes to quality ATP Tour match play. He is behind the elite pack in regards to his fitness and conditioning.
After an early exit in Monte Carlo the Serbian superstar has to be also down on confidence. Coming into the Serbian Open match count, match fitness and attempting to get his performance curve trending up was the basic focus.
As main draw action got underway there were some heavy hitters who had made their way to Belgrade. Russian power hitter Andrey Rublev was the No. 2 seed. Dominic Thiem was making his second appearance back on tour after a long injury break. The Italian maestro Fabio Fognini as dangerous as ever on the clay was lurking as well and the young Serbian star Miomir Kecmanovic who is charging towards the top 20 was looking for more large scalps In his home tournament.
As play got underway in Belgrade the opening two rounds showed that this ATP 250 event was as tough as ever. Conditions were frighteningly slow and damp with the average temperature being a cold 14 degrees Celcius.
Results reflected the conditions that were in play. Round one Goffin was gone, Richard Gasquet destroyed, Cristian Garin crushed by the much younger Holger Rune and Dominic Thiem was on the next flight to Madrid after a two hour 33 minute match time was far too long for him. It was evident early on that it was going to be tough, it was going to be long and it was going to be painful.
As Djokovic set foot on the main court after a bye in round one it was anticipated that the match time would be long. The fellow Serbian Laslo Djere awaited him and it took three hours and 21 minutes with many anxious moments for Djokovic to move to the quarter finals.
Rublev who was down the bottom half powered his way to the Quarter Finals winning 6-2 in the third set against the 20-year-old Czech up and comer Jiri Lehecka. It was evident that to hit through these courts and conditions you needed top-end high octane velocity. Rublev had moved into the title equation in a big way.
Fognini and Rublev looked on a collision course for the semi-finals while up the top Djokovic had plenty of work to do. Kecmanovic was next in line and after he took the first set against the French Open Champion it looked like the Djokovic campaign was over. The Djokovic conversion rate on break points in sets two and three saved the day. He locked down from the baseline and won 4-8 break points at a 50% clip to romp the next two sets 6-3, 6-3 to advance.
Semi-final day had arrived in cold Belgrade and the match ups were mouth-watering. Djokovic had another tough assignment taking on the Russian Karen Khachanov while down below it was the flamboyant Fognini and the powerhouse Rublev.
Djokovic and Khachanov were evenly matched for the first hour of their semi-final until the Djokovic return of serve started to hit its straps. Sets two and three were a cakewalk for the Serbian great 6-1 6-2 based on his efficiency on second serve points where he won the point over 50% of the time that Khachanov missed a first serve. Khachanov missed far too many and it was death by 1000 cuts. The Russian was on the next flight out.
Semi-final No. 2 had the makings of a beauty. The relaxed and casual Fognini facing the super intense and uptight Rublev. It took a little over an hour. Rublev destroyed Fognini in all areas and was especially dominant on serve. 36-45 service points were won when Rublev served either a first or second. The door was shut quickly right in the face of Fognini and he showed little resistance on a day he would rather forget.
Finals day in Belgrade had a familiar feeling about it. Djokovic was back in a final and had gotten just what he was after. Plenty of court time and a run of wins. You just assumed he would find a way to get things done. Playing at home in conditions that he loves in front of a crowd he could manipulate like a magician. Andrey Rublev had other ideas. Rublev came out swinging from the hip like only he can.
The power game that was destructive all week continued and as Djokovic struggled to apply pressure it was Rublev who was striking first and striking often. The cool conditions didn’t bother Rublev. He hit through the court time and time again. First set 6-2 to Rublev in 40 minutes. As the second set progressed it was Djokovic who was holding on. Every time he earnt a break point Rublev had the answer.
He was faced with that nine times and passed the test eight of those. Even as Djokovic ground out the second set tie break win Rublev remained settled and calm. It was impressive from the Russian. He looked in total control the entire week he was in Belgrade and he converted 6-12 break point chances at a 50% clip to power his way to the title 6-0 in the third set.
The Serbian Open represented a number of things during the week. None more then Serbia’s great champion a homecoming combined with quality match play to prepare for the defence of his French Open Championship. But the clock is ticking and May 22nd is approaching fast.
Djokovic was patchy and unimpressive. He lost the first set in each of his four matches and in the end it caught up with him as Andrey Rublev showed that maybe the aura and edge is wearing off. That Djokovic has plenty of work to do to get to where he needs to be. Can he reach that level in time?
Can he reach the fitness and conditioning levels needed to lift Slam trophies? The tennis world were watching and so were the locker room at all the ATP Events. They will continue to observe. They will continue to watch. Is he the same guy?
Maybe he his but maybe he isn’t. What stands out though is that Andrey Rublev didn’t care. Perhaps the rest of the fields and tournament draws moving forward shouldn’t either.
Rublev had the playbook for all to see and it was all to do with the mental approach. Mentality and mindset. Take it or leave it. You have until May 22 to find it.