Former US Open winner and Australian tennis legend Fred Stolle runs his rule over this year’s Flushing Meadow championships.
“Rafa doesn’t like it, but I think it’s good for the game,” Fred Stolle said this week as the tennis world prepares for the final Grand Slam of the year in New York.
“Nadal has always been under fire when it comes to timing, he’s even blamed the ball kids – and then placed two towels, at either side of the court to try and save time at the French, but I like the idea.”
Stolle, 80 next month, looks at lots of the innovative ideas that have helped increase the popularity of tennis since his splaying days 50 years ago,
“Yellow balls and Hawkeye has taken all the argument out many a situation,” he says.
“Not 100 per cent all the the players have accepted it and I hope the other grand slams use the stop clock.”
For those wondering what impact this ’new’ idea may have on the game here’s a brief introduction:
- This year the US Open has agreed to implement a shot clock in an effort to help speed up matches.
- The clock will be used to monitor how long players take during their warm-up and between points. As soon as players walk onto the court, they have 60 seconds before they must be at the net.
- After the coin toss, another five-minute timer will be used to countdown the warm-up.
Then while the match is under way, a 25-second countdown will be visible for players to follow. Should they break the allotted time, players could to be fined by officials. Nadal has been an opponent of the idea.
His argument has been that by rushing matches, it may have a negative impact on the quality of rallies that take place.
Serena Williams is not a fan, saying in Cincinnati last week: “I’m just not a fan because I play so much faster than the shot clock that when I first played with it, I felt like I had to play faster and I don’t, really.
“So I just need to still play at whatever pace I play at even if it says 20 seconds right before I’m about to serve.”
Stolle though believes it is here to stay.
“They used it in Canada recently and I know (Novak) Djokovic likes it.” “And as for Rafa? Well, he’s going to have to hurry up.”
Rafa ‘hurrying up’ is an interesting thought, given the Spaniard is a firm favourite to win again in New York. But reigning in New York may take on a different meaning if current weather forecasts are to be believed.
“They’ve had a lot of rain – and more is forecast,” Stolle, a keen observer of the weather, says.
“That could have a major effect on the tournament and many players.
“In New York it’s tough hanging around waiting for your game to start – and it will be wet, and humid, so we could see some upsets.”
The hugely likeable Stolle, despite his advancing years, still has a remarkable memory of the game – both past and present – and it doesn’t have to be teased from him. His laconic, Aussie wit shines through as we discuss who might and who might not win in New York.
First up is Andy Murray, for no apparent reason, but Stolle is worried.
“Murray has currently lost his struggle for fitness, last week he was in trouble. He faces a tough battle to get back among the elite. I wish him well.”
Next, and the obvious candidate for favourite is Nadal.
“Nadal is at his peak but he needs to learn from Federer,” Stolle assures me.
“Roger knows now how to extend his career and be ready for the majors. He’s smart.”
“And at his age he has now developed a way to keep himself at the top without playing in every tournament.
“Rafa needs to pace himself if he wants to emulate Federer. You don’t have to play every week in the modern game. There’s more than enough money to be able to manage and extend your career.”
More than in Stolle’s day. He laughs, “Oh yes, for sure. $80m a year’s not bad today is it?”
Federer and Nadal will obviously be the two favourites but Stolle believes Novak Djokovic is peaking at the right time.
“Wimbledon has seen him bounce back and he got through that ‘longest day’, the semi against Nadal, so he’s looking good and peaking at the right time – that is important.”
Stolle’s only US Open victory, on grass in 1966, was also a ‘long day’. After losing in 1964 to Roy Emerson, he made it to the winners’ rostrum two years later with an epic 4–6, 12–10, 6–3, 6–4 win over fellow Aussie John Newcombe.
As an ‘underdog’, he also knows what it’s like to be someone like Kevin Anderson, the tall South African pipped by Djokovic at Wimbledon in July.
“Anderson has had a super season and is another peaking at the right time. He’s aggressive in his game and has the ability to do well.”
Anderson and Isner are two big hitters performed well at Wimbledon. Could they again?
“At Wimbledon it was hot and the courts were hard – that favours big hitters,” Stolle believes.
“If we have hot and humid weather, as forecast, at the US then big hitters could well come to the fore again.”
Stolle has also cast his eye across the ‘young guns’ , the up-and-coming stars beginning to make a pitch to replace the establishment of Nadal and Federer, and to a lesser extent, Djokovic.
He likes a few – Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev are two to definitely keep tabs on once we reach week 2.
“Zverev has talent and could go along way. Thiem does as well although I’m not yet convinced. Chung Hyeon of Korea is another to watch out for.
“Any one of them could cause an upset – if they pace themselves.”
But the ladies tournament, according to Stolle, is a different bag.
“Nine out of the top 10 at Wimbledon didn’t make it – it’s wide open,” he says. “It really is up to Serena (Williams).
“She desperately wants to get Margaret Court’s record in majors.”
Court has 24, Serena one less, but Stolle agrees it will be down to her and her mental state and fitness to achieve that.
“She’s stuttered a bit on her comeback but again, if she carefully picks her events and take time, she will get there. She’s aggressive on court, no one more so, I just think she maybe needs to be fitter, especially against some of the younger stars coming through.”
The other – and main contender for New York is Simona Halep, the current world No.1.
“She’s a gutsy competitor, i’ll give her that,” says Stolle.
[quote] “She doesn’t hit the ball hard like others, but her counterpunch is very, very good.” [end quote]
“The Williams sisters changed so much in women’s tennis how they hit the ball so hard and others have followed suit – except Halep. “I know her coach (Cahill) has worked very hard with her to develop that, so we might see a more hard-hitting Simona in New York.”
The comments are enforced by the view of Cahill last week when describing the work he has done with her.
“She’s a little Rafa on the practice court. we just have to make her a little Rafa on the match court.”
Stolle agrees that women’s tennis has seen a massive step forward in serving, especially with helices of the Williams sisters, but in others too.
“Kerber is a fantastic athlete with a superb serve and when she has it perfected on court, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop her,” he says. “Sloane Stephens (last year’s winner), has to know what to do to win regularly and I’m not sure she does.
“Sometimes some of the younger players get a little too much (success) too quickly and then los their way. “But if they stay hungry, then can win.”
Stolle is still hungry for the game he has served so well for six decades, he watches closely from his Florida home, analyses with a professional eye and is passionate about the young stars coming through in his Australian homeland.
“He’s been around for decade but Matt Ebden is playing the best I have ever seen of him,” says Stolle.
“And I like the look of Alex De Minaur, recently ranked 45 on the ATP rankings. “He’s a big hitter and a miniature Lleyton Hewitt. He has the same attitude.”
That ‘other’ Aussie enigma then comes into conversation – Nick Kyrgios.
“Kyrgios has more talent than all the others combined,” is Stolle’s frank assessment. “It now down to how he put’s it together – and only him.”
Kyrgios has teased his audiences with glimpses of his ability over a number of seasons only to blow it with on court misdemeanours. Can he overcome them?
“Look,” says Stolle, in matter of fact manner not shown before in this interview.
“Kyrgios can be whoever he wants but i think he needs some help. It’s whether he’s prepared to accept or not that’s the issue. “Off court he can be the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, then on court a switch flicks and he loses it. He then gets people offside because of his behaviour and that’s not the Australian way.
“He needs someone he can trust to manage him – and then he could be the best we’ve seen for long while.”
Australian tennis is likely to go through many changes in the next year or so, with the Hopman Cup looking increasingly on the danger list, something Stolle is sad about.
“I worked the Hopman Cup for 17 years in Perth, it’s a great tournament and it would be sad to lose it, it’s a special event for me,” he says.
“And the changes to the Davis Cup are an issue. Its always home and away but smaller nations can’t afford to stage the events, so I understand some of the thinking, but tradition tells me it has to stay as it is.”
Stolle said there had been a world cup in Dusseldorf some years ago and other exhibition team tennis before that and was was not convinced plans put forward in Orlando last week would benefit the game.
Convinced or not, for Fred Stolle, two times major winner, legendary TV tennis anchor, the game still has so much to offer.
“What does frustrate me though, is it sometimes goes from hitting the tennis ball to ‘BS’ about hitting the tennis ball.”