Roland Garros 2013: Rafael Nadal is Peaking At the Right Time

Jun 6, 2013 1 comment

[By Anand Ramachandran]

The Build Up

The latest edition of Djodal is here. With a cover-story on their current form, regular feature on their rallies and special feature on the meaning of another Slam win for either, it promises to provide another 4 hours of engrossing entertainment.

Are we going to see anything dramatically different from this impending encounter? Both Nadal and Djokovic have probably improved their games to the best levels possible, give or take a few percentages. And both are more or less complete players; which probably means that you cannot analyze the rivalry based on a single shot or two.

It would seem as of today that the rivalry has reached a state of dynamic equilibrium. In the beginning it was Nadal who was dominating, then Djokovic reeled off a set of back-to-back wins, then Nadal turned it around the next year. But it also seems that the number of consecutive wins going to either player is also coming down with time. I, of course, am risking lack of statistical data in calling out such a prediction. If true, though, we are headed for a rivalry whose equality is dead-locked.

Djokovic has the more complete baseline arsenal, while Nadal’s game has non-uniformities – just his forehand would find a place in the Hall-Of-Fame, while his backhand is a rally shot (which takes on a different colour altogether when he is trying to pass). So patterns of play are possible against Nadal, while not against Djokovic, and that helped Djokovic to six consecutive wins. But Nadal could tilt the percentages towards himself using his foot-speed to deploy the inside-out forehand – metaphorically speaking, finding another gear in their encounters last year.

So finally, what are the odds for today?

Rafael will win if …

He takes it point by point. This match is for him, all about breaking the patterns that have helped Djokovic and there is no formula to break patterns. It involves thinking out the points and improving the percentages of counter-play and nobody is a better strategist than Nadal on clay.

He also featured an improved serve and backhand against Wawrinka and one cannot say it was not aimed at the semifinals more than at Stan. A solid backhand cross-court would come in handy in digging himself out of trouble when Novak uses his forehand-inside-out, down-the-line-backhand combination; and a solid serve will help him hold serve against Novak’s barrage of returns.

Most of all, Nadal should not panic when Novak takes huge cuts at his short balls and succeeds. Receding into defence wouldn’t help as Novak is probably one player that Rafael cannot outrun.

Rafael will lose if …

He lets Novak into his head. How much has Rafael gotten over the six consecutive final losses against Novak? The fact of the matter is, Novak can catch fire and run away with a few games, and it will take Rafael a bit more effort than that to string together a set. If Rafael doesn’t treat such phases as just local trends in the match, he can “go back to Mallorca and fish.”

Intangibles

The weather is always an intangible isn’t it? Give Rafael a sunny day with dry-courts and you will spend your time reaching for backhands above your head. Give Novak a damp clay-court and you can have a lesson in transitioning from defence to offence.

Novak is a very emotional player and during the darkest moments of his time on court, he tries to channel what seems to others to be a sense of despair to produce inspired tennis. Would the death of his mentor put a dent in that?

Prediction

Rafael has peaked at the correct time for this semi-final. The chances of a sloppy game are at a minimum. Expect Rafael to turn the tide during crucial moments in the match with some display of clutch tennis.

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Categories: Tennis

Roland Garros 2013: Novak Djokovic Heads Towards the Ultimate Prize

Jun 6, 2013 Leave a comment

The Build Up

After all the pre-tournament analysis, expectations, hype and arguments; show time is upon us. The anticipation for this is enormous — we would have to go all the way back to Wimbledon 2008 when there was such an anticipation around a tennis match, and unlike that match this is not even a final. It is as much a testimony to how far the DjoDal (or RafOle) rivalry has progressed as it is about the growth of Nole himself. He has dominated Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the last three years, and is well on the path to become an all time great.

A win tomorrow will bring him one step closer to his biggest goal for the year — winning his maiden Roland Garros title, and with it, the Career Slam. His is further determined to achieve this goal given the recent demise of his first coach — and a mother like figure — Jelena Gencic.

If Rafa wins however, he will be the first player to win eight major titles of a single Slam — something no one has ever done before. Not Pete Sampras, not Roger Federer. Well, he will not win it, but will be one match away from facing either Daveed Ferrer or Jo Wilfred Tsonga for the championship. The fact that we are even discussing in such a way is a further testimony to the importance of this match, which is being called a virtual final. The winner of this will be the heavy — heavy — favorite to win the title.

So what does Novak need to do to achieve this goal? My friend, Anand Ramachandran, discusses Rafa’s chances in his post.

Djokovic will win if…

He does what he has done against Rafa in the past. Take ball on the rise, push Nadal on the run with his down the line shots and finish the point with his magical cross court backhand. He will further look to stretch Nadal off the court with his short-angled cross court forehand. The importance of court positioning cannot be exaggerated in this match. It is vital for Novak — as it is for Rafa — to occupy the center of the court on or close to the baseline.

He has the match up advantage against Nadal the same way Nadal enjoys the match up against Federer — ironically by taking advantage of Nadal’s weaker backhand wing. Expect Djokovic to hit a lot of serves wide on the deuce court to Nadal’s backhand and take control of the point. He will further look to pounce on Nadal’s weak second serves — that occasionally land in the middle of the service box — with his all-time great return of serve.

Djokovic will lose if…

He is anywhere less than his best. Regardless of his recent victories against Nadal, he has struggled against Nadal when he is at 95 percent as opposed to 98 or 100. This is what happened in 2012 — Djokovic was very good, but not excellent as he was in 2011 and Nadal took advantage of it. As smooth as his game flows when he is confident — transitioning from defense to offense, hitting down the line backhand from cross court — they lead to errors if he is unsure of himself during long rallies.

Moreover, despite all the advantage it is hard to ignore that he is facing a seven time champion at Roland Garros who has lost all of one match in the last nine years at this venue.

Intangibles

The weather is predicted to be in the mid twenties (or high seventies in Fahrenheit) and sunny. This generally favors Nadal which makes his spinning forehand bounce higher, high enough to trouble even Djokovic. This is what happened during the fourth set of last year’s final when sun came out on Monday after a damp and rainy Sunday where Novak ran through Nadal taking eight straight games before rain stopped play. Having said that, Djokovic has won their only clay court match this year, and that at Nadal’s favorite hunting ground — where he is even more dominant than at Roland Garros, if it is possible — at Monte Carlo. Djokovic will go in with the confidence, and as he said, “I’m going to [for the] win.”

Prediction

This match is what we expected when the draw came out, and this is what we have got. Expect lots of breaks, momentum changes, and passages of play where one player will dominate the other. Frustrated looks toward respective camps will be combined with confident stares and fist pumps — or chest bumps — and the court will be left with trails of extended stretches. The time between points will be long, the rallies even longer. History and weather supports Nadal, but match up and — if you believe in it — destiny supports Novak. And for tomorrow, I’ll pick the latter over the former. All good things are supposed to end, and for Nadal, tomorrow might just be that day.

Novak Djokovic in four sets.

Andy Murray: Solving The Final Puzzle

Sep 10, 2012 6 comments

The similarities are uncanny. It starts with their behavior. Both fellows love sarcasm, specially the dark self deprecating ones. Their on court behavior — while as different as night and sky — evoked much dislike among most people, while were a subject of fascination by the select few. Both possessed a style of play that was not received nicely during their respective times. Both had mental demons that to be relinquished in order to achieve the initial success. Both lost four major finals before finally breaking the ice.

While we would remember this as the breakthrough year for Andy Murray, it was also the year of gradual progress. As well as he played in ’10 and ’11, both his success and failures were expected. He did what he did best, and achieved results; he repeated what he did worst, and failed. But at Melbourne, it was the first time that his failure was not criticized. The only mistake he committed in the five hour, five set marathon against Novak Djokovic was to cool off in the fourth set, and that was partially because of physical fatigue, fighting against the fittest man on the tour. For the first time, he did not disappoint in a match of major significance ever since the mountain of expectations was thrown on his shoulders.

The progress continued at the grass season, when he won his first set in a major final. On his fourth try. Again, even though he lost, the loss was not considered a bad omen, because he played arguably his best match of the career, but was simply up against one of the greatest grass court player playing one of the finest match of his career. The common thing about the two losses was not only that he showed mental toughness and great play, but also the takeaways from these losses. After Wimbledon, he said “I am getting closer,” where as after losing to Roger Federer in ’10, he said, “I can cry like Roger, its a shame I can’t play like him.” The attitude had changed, the self belief was creeping in, and his game was no longer stagnant as it was in the previous two years.

He continued taking it one small step at a time. In Olympics, he finally registered his first significant win over the elite top-3 by defeating Novak Djokovic in the semis. It was still not the final, and it was still a best of three, and hence he made it better by defeating Federer on his home turf, in a best of five contest, and by which also securing a gold medal for his country. It was no Slam victory, but in itself, this was an achievement of highest magnitude. He believed. His country believed. From a person constantly under media scrutiny, he had become a national hero.

The continual progress took its final step at the final tennis junction of the calendar year. But it did not come easy. He struggled against the surprisingly consistent Feliciano Lopez, showed each and every trick of his artistic arsenal against Milos Raonic, was a bit lucky against Marin Cilic by winning after being a set and two breaks down. In the semifinal, he again showed his best by taking a leaf from Rafael Nadal — and his loss on a terribly windy day at Indian Wells — by committing less than 20 unforced errors on the windiest day ever at the Open. And yet, the struggle had not ended. It took him six set points to close out the first set, he failed to capitalize a two breaks lead in the second, before winning it through a Djokovic double fault and a botched overhead, threw the two sets lead due to fatigue, before finally saving his best in the set that mattered the most in the Open.

It was a remarkably tough ride for him, and it was his mentor — who struggled much like the mentee — who made him tough enough to handle the challenge. It is no coincidence that the start of Murray’s progress coincided with the addition of Lendl as his coach and he will be the first one to admit it. Sure, there are still times when Murray reverts back to his defensive shell, and others when he will feel yell and curse like the world is conspiring against him, but like the other members of top three, he has learned to deal with it and move on. The one who forever demands perfection, has learned that a perfect match is not where you do not commit mistakes — for it will happen rarely — but one where you do not let the imperfections affect you in the final outcome.

This was the puzzle that Murray had not solved yet, and it was the one which had kept the big three expanding into the fantastic four. And as this year has shown, the big three has finally made the credible transition to the fantastic four. Each of these members won a major this year, and not surprisingly, they won it on their favorite surfaces — Djokovic on slow hard courts, Nadal on clay, Federer on grass and Murray on fast hard courts. Isn’t it ironic that we are celebrating the opening up of men’s field at the same time when we are celebrating the consolidation of the women’s?

Slowing It Down

Sep 3, 2012 2 comments

How can you break Milos ‘Missile’ Raonic? By trying to return his serve. How do you return his serve whose second ball lands faster than many’s first ball? By making the serve ‘seem’ slower. It is hard. Very hard. And Andy Murray did it perfectly. He did it by anticipating where Milos was going to hit the serve, and his impeccable returning skills only made the job easier. As Murray later told in his post match interview, he had played him before (he lost their only match played between them before this), and started to understand his serving patterns better. After three very easy holds from both men, Murray got the hang of Milos’s serve, and it was Murray all the way after that.

As the match progressed, Raonic’s thumping bombs seemed slower and slower even though he was still clocking them above 130. The only difference was that Murray was getting racket to almost eveyr serve. The thumping effect as the ball hits the advertising boards on an ace was reduced to a slow deep return or a wicked sliced return — this was how well Murray absorbed the pace of Raonic’s serve and neutralized his single most biggest weapon which is as devastating as the tennis world has seen.

It was not just Murray’s returning ability at show. It was a complete tennis master class once the ball came into play. He sliced and diced, moved Raonic from corner to corner, brought him forward on some seriously good drop shots — how many times have you seen a player hit a forehand sliced cross court drop shot? — and to top it off, hit shoe laced volleys to perfection when Milos challenged him at the net.

To Raonic’s credit, he was the complete opposite of Bernard Tomic in the third set. He gave it his all, but even when he tried to go on the offensive with his huge forehand, Murray came up with passing shots that only Djokovic, Nadal and himself can claim to conjure up. “Raonic could not have hit this volley any better except for hitting it right on the baseline,” was what an announcer said.

Murray owned Raonic and Ashe today. To such a degree that he did not face a single break point in the entire match and broke the Missile four times in twelve tries. A match that was hyped up as a heavy weight encounter was reduced to a one sided match, but an entertaining one. So entertaining that it even managed to bring smile to the normally poker faced Ivan Lendl late in the third set. Murray has faced a tricky draw in the Open with a tough match against Feliciano Lopez in the third round, but based on his performance today, he looks certain to set up a semifinal date with Roger Federer.

The Bad Boy And The Nice Girl

Aug 30, 2012 5 comments

It is true that the game is greater than the any of the players, but it is also true that the combination of players make the game. In the long run, the game is not necessarily affected by the loss of one player or two as new — and many a times better — players are ready to fill the gap. But for a period of time, the game defintiely feels a little incomplete, if not poorer. The feeling is enhanced when we expereince the loss of two players, and even more so when their styles offer a contrast.

Our game relies on contrast. Bjorn Borg wouldn’t have been as great if not for John McEnroe. Andre Agassi brought out the best in Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer cannot be talked without mentioning Rafael Nadal. Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters weren’t contrasting in styles, but in terms of character. Kim Clijsters is the girl next door, the quintessential nice girl who is universally loved, is affectionately called “Aussie Kim” in Australia, and also considered a local in New York. In fact, she is so nice, that even when she embarrases someone, she does it gracefully and elegantly, and without making the other person feel bad.

But the world would be boring with just nice people. And Andy Roddick is that bad boy in the town. Bad not in terms of … actually being bad, but being blunt and straight forward. One who always kept it crisp and short, and always said what he felt without caring about what the world thinks. To his credit, even though he seemed unreasonable or a brat (even a bully) many times, he was always straight forward. And as much as we like to despise the bad guys and love the good ones, the game would not be interesting enough.

Their retirements, at 30 and 28 years respectively, come oddly at a time when the average age in tennis has increased courtesy of Tommy Haas’s resurgance and Serena’s and Federer’s dominance, but they cannot be faulted for not giving enough. In fact, these two players are the exact examples of success against the odds.

Clijsters showed that it is never late to taste success and make amends for an unfulfilled career. She was the perennial bridsemaid, who was overshadowed by her more accomplished and talented compatriot. She took a break and came back stronger than before and is now leaving (again) being much more fulfilled than when she last left the game. She is the proof that nice guys do not always finish last.

Roddick, on the other hand, showed that hard work trumps talent. Never the one to shy away from the practice courts, he achieved early success, and rather unfairly, bore the expectations of American tennis after they were used to success during their golden 80s and 90s decades. He got eclisped by more talented colleagues, and tournament after tournament faced disappointments which peaked in the semifinals at Australian Open ’07. Still he went back to drawing board, improved his consistency and came back to challenge the most accomplished grass court player in the finals of the holy grail of tennis in his most disappointing loss of the career. But like Roddick said, he is not used to running away from things as he came back and triumphed at Miami in 2010 for one of his more celebrated wins of his career. And it is fitting, that he will go out on a winning note against the man who tormented him the most.

The Marathon Journeyman

Aug 28, 2012 2 comments

Has there ever been a journeyman tennis player as popular as Nicolas Mahut? The closest I could get to was Fabrice Santoro, and even he was ranked as high as no. 17 in the world, and was a winner of multiple major titles in doubles. Mahut is a proud owner of a tennis record, even though he ended on the wrong side of the result. It was no shame losing that match, especially when he had to serve to save the match for … I don’t know how many times. I was browsing through the live scores section on the official U.S. Open website and found his opening round match against Phillip Petzschner locked in the fifth set at five games all. I turned on the stream — this is one thing I like about U.S. Open. I just had to click the “live stream” button next to their score and I was enjoying the live action in high definition.

On surface, it just looked like another match between two journeyman — although Petzschner is more than that, having won two doubles’ majors — but it was much more. Here was a match between two aggressive single handed backhand players, who serve well, use the sliced approach shot and like to hit punch volleys even if they dump them into the net. Of course, we rarely come to know how good they are because usually they are battling against the top pros who don’t give them a chance to show us their full repertoire. They are very good players, have very good movement and are good to watch. They also compete fiercely, although for them it is more about the additional $16000 for moving into the second round. On watching these players, I feel that they show more desire to win a winnable match than the top pros. The extra $16000 is a huge deal for them compared to the top ones who win it more for the glory of holding a trophy.

Mahut portrays you that look which immediately develops an affection to him. Call it past history, or the fact that he was again serving to save the match after relinquishing a two sets to love lead, or just his expressions, you want to win. In addition, you have Petzschner on the other side of the set who has not earned himself a good name recently. Either due to his complaints during his Wimbledon match against Rafael Nadal, or more importantly, his act of unsportsmanship in a doubles match, or even his body language, he gives you that image of a villain, trying to destroy the dream of the helpless protagonist in Mahut. His long socks that go up to the knees doesn’t help, either.

After a routine Petzschner hold, the players changed ends. There was the familiar scene of the ball boys running behind the players with sweaty towels in their hands. Normally I watch this scenario only when watching the top pros, and it feels normal. But in a match of two journeyman on an outer court with sparse crowd and no commentary in the background, it felt weird. The umpire called “Time” and Mahut served it out for a routine hold. The match would have continued to eternity, but the is the U.S. Open where you won’t go 70 games to 68. The fifth set tie-break started. Petzscher started with an ace, but Mahut found himself in a rally. He punched a gorgeous looking single handed backhand straight to Petzscher and headed straight to the net. Bad idea. Petzscher hit his own single handed passing out down the line. Mahut’s stick cracked to the ground and he headed to the chair to take a new one. Just like the pros, he had each of his Wilson sticks packed neatly in plastic, and he picked one. Unlike the top pros, he unwrapped the stick completely and threw the plastic into the bin himself, and slowly marched back to the baseline. The top ones leave this job to the ball boys. They have the prestige and the aura. Mahut doesn’t.

His new stick helped him briefly as he got the mini break back, but another botched volley and he was down again. Petzscher threw an ace and a service winner as Mahut’s desperation grew amids chants of “Come on, Nico!” He tried his best, but Petzscher won another point on Nico’s serve. He then served it out with another service winner as Mahut’s head went down again for the last time in the match. Not unfamiliar with such events, he went to the net and hugged his jubiliant opponent, picked up his bags, and quietly went out of the stadium allowing his opponent to bask in the glory, which itself will probably end after two or four days.

Yet another journeyman completed his journey at New York. Unlike others of his type, though, he is a popular and evokes affection. One that many want to see win a match. Especially after yet another marathon.

The Top Five Contenders At The U.S. Open

Aug 26, 2012 11 comments

We are into the final Grand Slam and into one of the five most anticipated tournaments of the year. The tennis season will not stop at New York, but it is the final junction that this train will stop on after which it will go through numerous smaller stations that not many would be interested in. The U.S. Open is the tournament which usually salvages a player’s year (think Andre Agassi in ’94, Pete Sampras in ’96, Roger Federer in ’08) or it makes it (Andy Roddick in ’03, Juan Martin del Potro in ’09). So just like things happen at New York, we look into the top five favorites for the title on the men’s and women’s side without wasting any more time (and space).

Men

[2] Novak Djokovic: Yes, Federer beat him at Wimbledon. Yes, Djokovic lost to both Andy Murray and del Potro in the Olympics, and was bageled by Federer again at Cincinnati. But this is hard courts. This is Djokovic’s favorite surface. His offense is well known on asphalt, but it is his defense which achieves new levels here. If I were to pick a player with the best defense ever, it would be a toss up between Rafael Nadal on clay and Djokovic on hard courts. He is a wall. And even though it looks otherwise, he is coming into the Open in great form — a title in Montreal and a finalist in Cincinnati.

[1] Roger Federer: The current form indicates nothing but a Federer victory. And if he does win here, I will probably consider it as his best year ever given his age and the quality of his opponents. But it is also true that he has not won the Open for three years now, and has lost matches from winnable positions. In addition, he potentially faces Murray in the semis who just registered his first best-of-five victory over Federer and will come into the Open with confidence after winning a Gold metal for GBR. And finally, two consecutive best of five matches might be tough on him, regardless of how fresh, fit and motivated he is.

[3] Andy Murray: The victory at Olympics is important for Murray on two counts. One, he finally won a tournament of significance (read: A tournament that casual fans would remember a year later) and registered only his second best-of-five win over the top3, and his first in a semi or a final. However, caveats still remain. You can never be considered a favorite to win a major unless you have won one before. Given his early losses in the summer hard court season, and his early rounds vulnerability at the Open, it will be a tough ask from him.

[7] Juan Martin del Potro: He is proudly amongst the “been there, done that” section of the tour in Grand Slams, and at the Open, by beating both Nadal and Federer. He is on a high after winning a bronze for Argentina and finally registered his first win over the top-4 since his comeback from the wrist injury. Tournament after tournament, he is coming close to finding his form he displayed at the Open in ’09, but his recent wrist injury could be troublesome.

[?] The Dark Horse: Unfortunately, there is no sure shot fifth contender for the title. Tsonga, while explosive, is too erratic. Berdych is out of form. Ferrer can’t win a major without an explosive serve, forehand or a backhand regardless of how great his fitness and work ethic is. And Raonic? It would be a great tournament for him if he can even register his first win over Federer or Djokovic. However, the winner of the dark horse award goes to John Isner, who will not have to face any of the above four players till semifinals, and will have a fighting chance against Ferrer.

Semifinals: Roger Federer d. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic d. John Isner
Champion: Novak Djokovic

Women

[4] Serena Williams: Serena won her fifth Wimbledon title on grass, flew across continents and dismantled the field on the hard courts of Stanford, and two weeks later went back to grass across continents and ruthlessly demolished the top two ranked women’s tennis players by losing only three and one games respectively, including a bagel set. In addition, she fired the maximum number of aces at Wimbledon across both men and women! She hit 24 aces in a two set match against Victoria Azarenka, one of the game’s best returners. I can go on, but it is clear that there is a big gap between Serena and the field. If Serena is even close to her best, the title is hers. However, she also have had epic meltdowns at the Open in the past two years, although the Serena this year has been really amiable and charming.

[5] Petra Kvitova: Yes, your heard it right. The woman, who was poised to take over the women’s field, and was 10 points away from the world No. 1 at the end of last year, has deteriorated in results. But she also won her first title of the year at Toronto, reached the semis at Cincinnati and won at New Haven, so she comes in with momentum, confidence and victories on her back. It looks like she has found her footing on this surface (she won just one match in the summer hard courts last year), and with Serena not in her half of the draw, can be more than a handful at New York.

[9] Li Na: I repeat, yes, you heard it right. On her day, she is one of the purest hitters of the tennis ball after Serena and Kvitova. She struggles with her temparent, but seems to have found it after hiring Justin Henin’s coach, Carlos Rodrigues, as evident by his finalist run at Toronto and the title at Cincinnati.

[3] Maria Sharapova: She had a banner year after completing her Career Slam and briefly getting to the top of the rankings, but might be low on confidence after a 6-0 6-1 beatdown at the hands of Serena in the Olympics, and has question marks on her fitness given her recent injury woes.

[1] Victoria Azarenka: She had a great start to the season going twenty six and O. She had left all her mental struggles behind during this run, but those flaws slowly creept back to her game through the European clay season, which carried forward to grass. A return to hard courts would be welcome, but she has also not gone past the third round even once since 2007!

Dark Horses: Angelique Kerber (the sixth seed, finalist at Cincinnati, and the defending semi-finalist at the Open, where it all started), Agnieska Radwanska (finalist at Wimbledon, but fatigue is creeping into her game as a result of overplaying), and because she is the defending champion, Samantha Stosur. And before I forget, Kim Clijsters, who has not lost a single match at the Open since 2006.

Semifinals: Petra Kvitova d. Li Na, Serena Williams d. Angelique Kerber
Champion: Serena Williams