ESPN tennis analysts Mary Joe Fernandez and Brad Gilbert spoke with media today on a wide range of tennis topics. Currently, ESPN3 is providing live all-day coverage from the three main stadiums at the Miami Open presented by Itaú, with ESPN television joining for 25 hours starting Wednesday, April 1, through the weekend’s women’s and men’s championships.
The struggles of Rafael Nadal, and his candid self-assessment:
- “Rafa has always been a very straightforward, honest individual. He doesn’t really mince his words, and what he feels, he pretty much lays it all out there. For him to come out, I think that’s what he is going through right now. He missed a lot with injuries towards the end of last year, and beginning of this year he feels uptight. He needs a lot of matches. He needs to really have the reps. He’s got to practice well on the court and then he’s got to get through these matches to get his confidence back up, and right now because he’s not confident, he’s tight and he’s nervous.” – Fernandez
- “You know, he’s a couple months away from being 29, but he’s a 29‑year old, about to be, that’s played a ton of tennis and had lots of injuries… exactly what Mary Joe said, he needs to play, he needs the confidence, and I think that we’ll know a lot more about Rafa upcoming in the next two months on the clay court season to see where he’s at. But at 28, almost 29, I’m sure he’s still got a lot of good tennis left in him, but just everyone probably just expected, every time he has gotten injured, he’s come right back, and it hasn’t been as easy so far this time.” – Gilbert
The solid play of Sloane Stephens:
- “Her intensity is higher. I feel that she is using her great athletic ability to defend, but she’s also looking to use her forehand, and that’s her big weapon. So it just looks like it’s all coming back together, like she’s playing the right way for her game, she’s playing to her strengths a little bit more consistently, and she seems much more engaged point to point.” – Fernandez
- “One, she’s got her passion back for being on the court. She just didn’t look like for a while that she wanted to be there. Secondly, I think that Madison having the big result in Australia, all of a sudden kind of put the talk that maybe, you know, that there was all these others that were passing her by, and I think that remotivated her because she seems to really have her game, energy, some fist pumping and enjoying to be out there. And lastly, I think a big thing for her is that Nick Saviano, who did a great job last year coaching Genie Bouchard, and I know has worked in the past with Sloane when she was a teenager now is traveling, I believe, with her full‑time. Nick knows the ladies’ game as good as anybody.” – Gilbert
Q- Wondering what either of you makes about what’s going on with Nadal, not just his results but also what he had to say about his nerves after yesterday’s loss to Verdasco.
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: Rafa has always been a very straightforward, honest individual. He doesn’t really mince his words, and what he feels, he pretty much lays it all out there. For him to come out, I think that’s what he is going through right now. He missed a lot with injuries towards the end of last year, and beginning of this year he feels uptight. He needs a lot of matches. He needs to really have the reps. He’s got to practice well on the court and then he’s got to get through these matches to get his confidence back up, and right now because he’s not confident, he’s tight and he’s nervous, and you can tell by when he plays he either stands even further back than usual or his balls are landing short. The forehand that’s a big weapon isn’t firing on all cylinders like he would like. You’re seeing it in his play, in his matches. You know, to me it’s just a matter of time, and now he’s going on to his favorite surface, and I believe that he’ll get it back, but it’s a matter for him to just start to win more matches. Winning in Buenos Aires I think helped him, but then going to the hard and having a couple tough matches set him back a little bit. But the good news is I think that his favorite season is coming up.
BRAD GILBERT: Two years ago when he came back from missing like eight months and he had an amazing quick comeback, I think the expectation is that, boom, it would happen again. You know, he’s a couple months away from being 29, but he’s a 29‑year old, about to be, that’s played a ton of tennis and had lots of injuries. Amazing thing about him, too, is that a lot of times players ‑‑ it’s almost like an NFL report. They won’t really tell you what they’re thinking or about their injuries, and he’s pretty honest and forthright about it, and at least the good part about it is there seems to be nothing physical. He just seems like that he’s struggling to find his form on big points. You know, if you watched how he lost at Indian Wells, he won the first set on Milos and then had numerous chances to break, wasn’t able to break, and lost the second set breaker; and same thing yesterday, drops the first set, rolls in the second set, opportunity early to break in the third and not able to. And I’ve noticed that being the pattern; break point conversions for him haven’t been great, and exactly what Mary Joe said, he needs to play, he needs the confidence, and I think that we’ll know a lot more about Rafa upcoming in the next two months on the clay court season to see where he’s at. But at 28, almost 29, I’m sure he’s still got a lot of good tennis left in him, but just everyone probably just expected, every time he has gotten injured, he’s come right back, and it hasn’t been as easy so far this time.
Q- My question is looking ahead to the WTA finals in Singapore, last year Bouchard and Halep were the two first‑time performers out there. This year as I look at the current standings, where in just three months I’ve got Pliskova in fourth, Suárez Navarro in fifth, Makarova in sixth, Bacsinszky in seventh, Keys is hanging in there at 10th. They could all be first‑time performers. I wonder if you see any of those guys breaking through to make it to Singapore.
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: That’s a good question. I’m a big fan of Pliskova. I started watching her play a little bit more closely in Australia. She’s got a really big serve and powerful ground strokes. I think she’s going to continue to improve, so that’s someone definitely that can make a breakthrough.
Suárez Navarro has been winning a lot of matches. She’s good now on all surfaces; she used to be more of a clay courter, so she’s adapted her game to faster courts, as well.
You know, Madison has a great opportunity. I think she’s struggled these last couple weeks a bit. She’s coming off an injury, as well, but if she can start to get her confidence back, I think she’s going to be doing really well on the grass courts and then the summer hard court series.
Look out for Sloane. It looks like she’s regained her confidence, seems to be playing smarter, more aggressively, and I think she can make a run. She doesn’t have that many points to defend this year, so a little bit of the pressure I think is off her shoulders. So I think those would be the ones that I would look out for.
Which was the other one that you mentioned?
Q- I didn’t mention Muguruza, but she was closer early in the season, and also Timea Bacsinszky.
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: Oh, right, both those players have won a lot of matches. Muguruza lost to Errani yesterday. She’s a little bit more hot and cold. She goes through good streaks and then some bad ones. Bacsinszky has been a big surprise. I mean, she won a couple tournaments and has really picked up her game. She’s a counter‑puncher, but if you give her the opportunity she’ll take advantage of it and has become a really good competitor. I would assume there would be one or two surprises again this year.
BRAD GILBERT: I’m just thinking about the clay court season. You’ve already expediated (sic) to Singapore. I kind of really start looking at that a lot more after Wimbledon because there’s so many points between the start of the clay court season and after Wimbledon. I’ve got to think that there’s going to be at least two on the turnover, maybe three, and obviously I would love nothing more than to see Madison Keys or Sloane Stephens maybe to all of a sudden really step up because she’s really struggled the last couple of years, and now finally finding her game. A few of those other ones, I would think two or three, the Bacsinszkys, a few of these other ones, I think Pliskova has won a lot of matches and really improved the last six months, so of all of those other names, I give her the best chance and really like to see the Americans. I start paying attention to like those live rankings and all that after Wimbledon because I still feel like right now there’s a lot left that is going to happen in the next three months.
- With regard to Pliskova, she has yet to get out of a third round of a major, so I guess in your opinion would that be the stepping‑stone for her because you need big points to make it into the top eight and she’s not getting them in those majors?
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: No, definitely. Madison did that for the first time in Australia this season, so that’s definitely where you get the points and make yourself a big boost and a jump forward, so that would be the next step for her.
BRAD GILBERT: Well, it was the same kind of thing with Halep. Remember, she really hadn’t made a move in a Slam, and if Pliskova is going to make a run, she’s going to have to at least make two quarters, maybe a semi, so there’s no doubt that will be ‑‑ I feel like it’s really hard, you know, to make top eight if you at least don’t make one deep run in a major. And the thing is now she’s going to start getting seeded higher, but for her to have that happen, I definitely think that she’ll have to at least make two quarters or one semi.
Q- I’m sure you know the Family Circle Cup is the longest running tournament on the women’s tour. It’s the oldest one, and I just wonder what you think is the key to the longevity there when other tournaments have had ups and downs or kind of gone by the wayside?
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: Well, I’m lucky I played the Family Circle Cup quite a few times when it was in Hilton Head, and Charleston has been great on Daniel Island, and obviously fans make a big part of it, sponsors. Having that loyalty from Family Circle for so many years has been tremendous. The WTA has delivered. They’ve always had top players. The best of the best have played there through the years, and it’s one of the ‑‑ I think one of the favorite stops for the players. It’s very quaint and charming, and it’s the start of the clay court season. Everybody is gearing up to head over to Europe, and it’s the first big one. A lot of combinations to make it be so successful for so long.
BRAD GILBERT: Well, there’s no doubt it’s the premier ladies’ event possibly left in the States that’s just a women’s‑only tournament.
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: Definitely.
BRAD GILBERT: And I think that maybe that and maybe Stanford. But what they’ve done, to me, the tour has made sure that they get a quality field, and they want to keep the prestige of having this being the longest running tournament. I think that obviously two factors: Support of the tour and support of the players. Then it all of a sudden makes it for the fan base to continue to be what it is. But it’s a great event.
Q- You mentioned a little bit some of the pressure being off Sloane Stephens’ shoulders. What are you seeing at this point? Is she playing looser or more aggressive and how has that sort of translated into her game?
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: Well, I saw her play quite a few matches in California now here in Miami, and I feel like her intensity is higher. I feel that she is using her great athletic ability to defend, but she’s also looking to use her forehand, and that’s her big weapon. So it just looks like it’s all coming back together, like she’s playing the right way for her game, she’s playing to her strengths a little bit more consistently, and she seems much more engaged point to point. So I think once she makes a mistake, she regroups and she goes right back out to work.
I’ve been really happy to see her progress, and she’s building her confidence. Going into the clay court season, I think that’s one of her best surfaces, and I think we’re going to see Sloane do really, really well.
BRAD GILBERT: I think like three things. One, she’s got her passion back for being on the court. She just didn’t look like for a while that she wanted to be there. Secondly, I think that Madison having the big result in Australia, all of a sudden kind of put the talk that maybe, you know, that there was all these others that were passing her by, and I think that remotivated her because she seems to really have her game, energy, some fist pumping and enjoying to be out there. And lastly, I think a big thing for her is that Nick Saviano, who did a great job last year coaching Genie Bouchard, and I know has worked in the past with Sloane when she was a teenager now is traveling, I believe, with her full‑time. Nick knows the ladies’ game as good as anybody. He’s an outstanding coach, and I think that he’s going to really bring a lot to the table for Sloane for becoming a top‑10 player.
Q- I just wanted to follow up on the Nadal point earlier on. It strikes me that where he is now is a little bit similar to where Roger was when he was a bit short of confidence in 2013, and I wondered if you thought that it gets harder to be mentally bulletproof as you get older?
BRAD GILBERT: Well, the one thing, Roger never, ever leads on anything about confidence, about anything about other than it’s going to come around. Like in poker, he doesn’t reveal you anything about negative, anything that could be like that. Rafa will tell you that he’s short of confidence, or he just hasn’t found his rhythm, where Rafa will tell you that, like, I’m nervous out there, I’m not playing the key points. He tells you a little more what he’s thinking, which is unusual for a great player or any player. He’s a lot more honest about it, and where Roger will tell you, like right before Australia, that he’s very close, and at 33 he’s telling you he’s very close to playing his greatest tennis. So like even if he doesn’t think it, he says that, and Rafa never kind of says like that. I think that he’s not ‑‑ he doesn’t like to talk like that as much, and if he is struggling, he’s not afraid to admit it. It’s very unusual, it’s kind of refreshing, but he is honest about how he’s feeling out there.
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: I believe that as you get older, it gets harder, especially with a lot of injuries, to keep coming back, and he’s one of the top players that’s been hit with the most. I think mentally it drains you, and we mentioned it before, Rafa has got the kind of game that he needs a lot of repetitions. For him to feel confident, he’s got to hit a million balls in practice. He’s got to win a lot of matches. It’s just a different game style, different mentality, like Brad said, to Roger’s, but you just see players coming back. They’re all different. Andy had back surgery, took him a little while to feel confident again, and we’re seeing a little bit of that with Rafa now.
But I do believe that the more times it happens and the older you get, the harder it is to get it back quicker.
BRAD GILBERT: And Mary Joe, two years ago, when Rafa came back so easily, I think the expectation was it was going to happen again, but Rafa to me, who’s almost 29, is not your almost‑29‑year old. He’s played a lot of tennis. He turned professional at like 15, so he’s been around a long time, and he’s had 10 times more injuries than Roger has had. He’s had a lot of injuries and a lot of period of time where he’s missed, and we all just think it’s a given that, okay, every time that you come back from these injuries, you will. Just one time that he’s struggled, I think we’ll learn a lot more about Rafa in the upcoming clay court season.
Q- What do you think is the biggest surprise on the tour this season, both WTA and ATP?
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: The biggest surprise? I think maybe seeing so many young teenagers on the men’s side starting to do well. A bunch of them did well in Indian Wells. We saw it with the Australians Kyrgios, Kokkinakis, and you have Coric. We had a few here, right, Brad, in Miami, get through the opening round?
BRAD GILBERT: Yeah.
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: That’s been a nice change, considering that the average age has been so much higher now, doing well.
Q- I wonder if you’re surprised by the success of Venus who’s now into the quarters of Miami, best start to the season for her since 2002 is what I’ve been told?
MARY JOE FERNANDEZ: Yeah, Brad and I were talking about it before the call how at her age she’s playing so well, and she’s managing her condition so well. I guess it doesn’t surprise me just because she’s played well for so long, and even though she’s had dips, last year I think really showed us that she can beat anyone on any given day. But now I guess the consistency is what’s coming through a little bit more, and her run in Australia was great, reaching the quarters there. She just has so much belief in herself and her ability. It is a great story for sure.
BRAD GILBERT: I think in the men’s side that obviously we have an interesting balance right now with the big four. We’ve got some great youth coming on, and I think potentially with these two Aussies and Zverev and Coric, I think that we potentially are going to see some teenagers in two, three years that might be the ones to be the next. I also think that potentially ‑‑ I mean, it’s not a surprise, but I think that Djokovic is in for a monster year, a lot like what we saw in 2011. I actually thought maybe we would have seen that last year or the year before, but what I’m seeing so far early is somebody has to play unbelievably well every match to be able to have a chance to beat him. I’m expecting a monster year.
And on the ladies’ side, I am surprised, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, about how good Venus is playing at almost 35. I know you were talking about who’s going to be in Singapore. I wouldn’t be surprised, I don’t know who’s the oldest person to make the top eight, but I think she’s legitimately going to take a run at the top eight, and it will take for her a good major, a semis or finals, but I’m just blown away at how good ‑‑ I was watching her this morning, how good she’s still moving. I’m saying she’s probably moving in the top five of any person that’s playing tennis, and what she’s been through and her age, it’s just incredible to see.
Q- Brad, I was wondering how Jack Sock looks to you. He seems to be making some strides, at least in doubles, and I was wondering how you see him doing in the singles at this point.
BRAD GILBERT: Well, he just started his year at Indian Wells last week pretty successfully. He got to the round of 16 and wins the doubles, lost yesterday to Thiem in the third round and still going in doubles. I think a really good goal for Jack this year in singles would be to see if he can make a second week of a major and be in the top 25. I think he will compete for being the top‑ranked American, and you know, that’s at 22, going to be 23 this year, that’s kind of like the first goal. Have a decent run in a major and make top 25, and then we can kind of reassess from there.