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U. S. Open 2011: Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer: Genius and Greatness

Aug 29, 2011 Leave a comment
Grigor Dimitrov

Grigor Dimitrov

I will not blame somebody with a bird’s eye view who was watching the simultaneous matches of Roger Federer and his baby clone Grigor Dimitrov and confuse the latter with the former. The service motion, the fluid footwork, the one handed backhand, the powerful down the line punch and the hands at the net. They all look identical, including the Nike logo on their attire and sporting a single wrist band on their respective right hands. It is not difficult to envision how Dimitrov has clearly modeled himself like his idol (he was even coached by Federer’s former coach, Peter Lungdren).

However, today was the exact day where you would be taken back to your childhood days when you solved comic puzzles involving two nearly identical pictures placed side by side and you were asked to spot ten differences between the two pictures. The moment Dimitrov lost to Gael Monfils in three regulation sets, I switched my telecast to Arthur Ashe stadium where his idol was on the verge of winning the first set against Santiago Giraldo. Just fresh after being entertained by Dimitrov’s elegance and Monfils’ acrobatics, it was much easier and much more obvious to compare the difference between the fresh raw product and the extremely finished one.

—The most obvious difference was how Federer could stay in the rally for 10, 15, 20 shots and still manage to win the point. Dimitrov often threw up an error once the point went beyond six or seven shots.

—At one point, Dimitrov came forward of an approach, but Monfils hustled to put up a great lob. Dimitrov, going backwards, was visibly off balance and promptly spilled the overhead two feet beyond the baseline. On another such shot Federer was pushed back to the baseline as the ball soared in the air. Federer seemed to have more than enough time to see the side where his opponent was leaning,  added the precise amount of slice to the overhead, and hit it for a winner.

—Monfils, crowd pleaser that he is, tried a poor drop shot that stood up. Dimitrov judged it a split second late, but still reached on time. He hit a beautiful backhand down the line (which made me go “Awwwww Yes!”), but imparted more spin than needed which not only allowed Monfils enough time to react, but also to dispatch it past the Bulgarian. When Federer was presented with such an opportunity, he nicely got on top of the ball, and hit it flat past his hustling opponent for a clean winner.

—Monfils hit a serve striaght at Dimitrov’s backhand and approached the net in style. Dimitrov had enough time to dispatch a backhand down-the-line passing shot winner and make the Frenchman look stupid. Monfils applauded and tried to challenge in vain for a ball which clearly looked in. Turned out, it was not. It was a couple of inches out. In a similar position, Federer hit a down-the-line but short enough so that the ball landed closer to the service line than the baseline. A great passing shot.

—I lost count of the number of instances where Federer non-chalantly returned a half volley from the baseline with enough depth. Dimitrov on the other hand invariably returned it short enough to allow the acrobatics of Monfils to come into play.

—When a return was short, Dimitrov was found struggling on what to do. Should he go forward enough to take a volley, allow the ball to bounce and hit a forehand winner, take a half volley, or just stay safe at the baseline? Almost always, he was found in the mid court at the mercy of Monfils. It was good to watch as Dimitrov had enough talent to take the ball from anywhere and return it back, but Monfils always had the advantage and mostly he ended up winning the point. When Federer approached the net, he knew exactly where to punch the ball. Even if it was returned back, Federer was there at the exact position to hit the next winner. No theatrics like Dimitrov were required and he rarely lost such a point.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer

—Federer saved break points with service winners. Dimitrov lost service games, twice, with double faults on break points.

If I was to select just one stark difference between the two, it was the surity in their court positions, which was like north pole (Federer) and south pole (Dimitrov). Of course, while it is unfair to compare an upcoming 20 year old with a veteran and probably the greatest player ever, it shows how subtle the differences are between a top three player and one ranked below 50. Dimitrov is far from being the finished product that Federer is, but is showing signs of progress. Even during the end of the third set, he was showing committment by hustling and running around the court, sometimes a bit too much as he pulled a couple of hamstrings, and hitting some great first serves in tricky positions. He needs consistent match play in order to convert his genius into greatness.

U.S. Open 2011: Top Men Contenders

Aug 23, 2011 Leave a comment
Djokovic and Murray are among the top contenders for the Open

Djokovic and Murray are among the top contenders for the Open

The U.S. Open series is over, and there is a lot to look forward to in a week from now as the final grand slam of the year begins in New York. The two masters before the Open are usually supposed to give us a fair idea of who are the players to look up to during the Open. Unfortunately, Canada masters is usually the first tournament after a month long layoff (for the top players) and hence are looking to shake off the rust. In Cincinnati, the conditions are extremely hot and humid, and hence the players are cautious to not over exert themselves ahead of the Open. The quality of tennis does take a hit, as was evident by the lackluster performance of all the top-4 this year. So who are the top contenders for the trophy two weeks from now?

Novak Djokovic(1): The sub-optimal form of the Serb was still sufficient to make him end up as the best player of the two masters. Even though he sustained a shoulder injury in the final, it is the mental fatigue that would worry him. He looked disinterested during both tournaments, and this was after he had a month long break post-Wimbledon. How much would that be a factor going into the Open? And what about the shoulder injury? It would have been serious enough to make him pull off a match for the first time since Jan 2009. More importantly, will it effect the confidence on his serve which has become such a potent weapon this year?

Rafael Nadal (2): The five losses to Djokovic has made a huge dent in Nadal’s confidence this year. It is not that he lost early in both tournaments, because he has not done well here historically. It is the way he played in these tournaments–a third set tie-breaker against Dodig after having a break lead twice during the third set, and the error-prone three hour slog against Verdasco. In addition, he faced problems with his foot during Wimbledon, burned fingers here, and some more blisters in the feet. The physical issues, while genuine, will definitely impact him even more. Despite all this, he still managed to reach the semis in 2009, his worst year. I would expect at least a repeat of that if not more.

Roger Federer (3): Federer loves playing in New York … period. And if anything, his form in these masters is not indicative of his performance at the Open. He won Cincinnati in the last two years and failed to make the finish line at Open, while he lost in the first round in 2008 and yet saved his year by beating Murray in the finals. The difference being, during 2008 his losses were brushed off as one-off, while now they are becoming a pattern, like with Berdych and Tsonga. This definitley eases the pressure on the rest of the tour and makes them more confident.

Andy Murray (4): Murray last reached the final here in 2008. He has improved a lot in these three years. The problem for him is that his peers have improved even more. These are his peak years as a player, and with each passing major, the pressure on him to win that elusive one increases exponentially. Historically, he has not played well here in the last two seasons going down to big hitters not afraid to compromise on their shots, but one has to agree this is his best chance to win a major given the possible mental burnout of Djokovic, phsyical problems of Nadal and the natural decline of Federer.

Mardy Fish (6): There is no doubt that Fish is the best American player at present, and he deserves it. His new found all court game is exciting to watch and so is his eagerness to improve. Even with all this, he is miles away from the top-4 as the best game of Fish was still unable to beat a 50 percent Djokovic at Montreal, while he lost yet again to Murray at Cincinnati. Even though the win against Nadal was progressive, even he knows the Nadal he might face at New York will be vastly improved from Cincinnati. More than winning the title, his first step should be to make his maiden semifinal appearance, and given the recent form, he is definitely in contention for the same.

Juan Martin del Potro (19): Given his giant leap in the rankings in the first five months, the summer hard court series was supposed to be a bonanza for this gentle giant from Tandil. However, uncharacteristic losses to Cilic and Gulbis, and the retirement at Cincinnati does not bode well for him going to the Open. If not, it would be a huge disappointment given how the tour desperately needs somebody to step it up and challenge the top-4.

Other players to watch out: Bernard Tomic who showed some real promise during Wimbledon, Jo Wilfried Tsonga who is showing renewed enthusiasm on court, Grigor Dimitrov and the local boy Ryan Harrison.

U.S. Open 2011: Top Women Contenders

Aug 22, 2011 Leave a comment
After winning the title at Cincinnati, Maria Sharapova is one of the top contenders for the U.S. Open

After winning the title at Cincinnati, Maria Sharapova is one of the top contenders for the U.S. Open

Now that all the mandatory tune ups for the U.S. Open are over and it is only less than a week before the Open commences, lets have a look at how the top women contenders stack up for the last Grand Slam of the year.

Serena Williams (29): Few would argue against Serena as the favorite going into the Open. Her wins at Stanford and Toronto, and her utter demolition of top ranked players, including Maria Sharapova, does not give a single hint that she was out of courts for almost a year before Wimbledon. In fact, her being seeded at the Open would be a blessing in disguise for the top seeds as they’ll avoid her at least till the third round. The absence of the defending champion, Kim Clijsters, will only make her contention even stronger.

Still, as the 29th seed at the Open, Serena will be the most dangerous floater in the women’s draw.

Maria Sharapova (4): Can you imagine what this Russian blonde can achieve in her second stint if she solves out her issues around her ridiculously unreliable serve? She committed 11 double faults in the final at Cincinnati, and still managed to beat Jankovic 6-4 in the third. In fact, her past few results—Rome winner, French Open semifinalist, Wimbledon finalist, Toronto R16 and Cincinnati winner—have been the most consistent of all the women save Serena. Despite all the uncertainty in the women’s tour, Sharapova is someone who can be relied to make a deep run at the Open. Of course, if she does not commit 15 double faults in a match.

If she ends up winning the Open, women’s tennis will have found their marquee face again.

Petra Kvitova (6): Was her slump at the North American tournaments just a one off or will she suffer the post-first-slam-victory-slump that engulfed players like Ana Ivanovic? It would probably be too much to ask her to repeat her Wimbledon feat at the Open. However, it would not be too far fetched to expect her to go deep into the draw, possibly a semifinal apperance.

Li Na (7): Ever since her historic victory at Roland Garros, she has not done anything special. However, she had not done anything special between her run to the final at Melbourne and victory at Roland Garros, either. In fact, she lost five straight matches during this period. This suggests that her form in the smaller tournaments is no indication of how she will perform at the grandest of stages.

Caroline Wozniacki (1): It is a bit baffling that the world’s top lady baller (at least on the computer) is fifth on the list of contenders for the Open. But lack of a major coupled with dismal performances in recent smaller events—something which she was great at!—do not give good indications ahead of the Open. To her credit, she has taken criticism sportingly and always has a smile on her face. But lack of a coach would hurt her chances at the Open, given how deeply she relied on her father for on-court coaching during the premier tournaments. Failing to win a single match during the North American hard court series will definitely rob her of confidence and a second week showing here would be a good start to her new career without the coaching services of her father.

Victoria Azarenka (5): Always considered a threat in every tournament, she is also at the stage where the question “when will she win a major” will turn into “can she win a major”. She has no apparent weakness at the back of the court, but she doesn’t have a strength either. And lack of a solid weapon is usually her downfall to an opponent who either has more firepower, or is more consistent than her. She finally reached her first major semis at Wimbledon this year, but to expect anything more than that will likely result in a disappointment.

This more or less wraps us the preview on the top contenders for U.S. Open. The other faces to look out for will be the fast rising Andrea Petkovic, with Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ana Ivanovic, Dominica Cibulkova and Sabine Lisicki being the dark horses.

Next, we’ll look at the top contenders on the men’s side.

Cincinnati Masters: Monfils Sparkles Against Djokovic … But Not For Long

Aug 20, 2011 2 comments
"Not a shot from the back of the court that he doesn't have." Patrick McEnroe said this about Novak Djokovic just-like-that today, but I suddenly realized how much truth it carried. The lack of any weakness from the back of court—and that also includes the incredible defense and supreme movement—makes it virtually impossible for any player, including Federer and Nadal, to trade ground strokes with Novak.  Of course, it took a while for the world No. 1 to get into that mode where he becomes impossible to play. Partly because he was down mentally—he just seemed uninterested to compete for the first half of the match—and partly because Monfils knew only a vintage Pete Sampras can compete against Djokovic. Monfils tried to take out the baseline out of the equation as early in any rally as possible. He followed almost all his first serves to the net, tried chipping and charging even when he was a standing duck to Djokovic's passes, and hit flat, clean, winners from the baseline.  Vintage Monfils. The Monfils we know can come out some times. The Monfils we wish will come out every time.  His quality of the volleys would have even made Sampras, if not Edberg, proud and combined with Djokovic's lack of mental focus, it seemed it would be the first time since Montreal Masters, 2009, when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic would lose on the same day.  However, this was another one of those matches in which Djokovic reaped the advantages of being …. Novak Djokovic. The world No. 1. Out of nowhere, and I don't know why, Monfils started trading groundies with the Djoker—the very thing he had avoided doing for till then, even if it meant he would lose the point tamely. He waited for Djokovic's errors—which didn't come—and traded two brutal rallies, both exceeding thirty shots. After the second one, he lost his breath, just like it happened to Tsonga and Fish in Montreal, and looked completely out of the match after that. It also gave the necessary impetus to Djokovic to get back his mental focus.  After winning the second of those brutal rallies, he faced the crowd, open chested, with both arms flexed forward and roared loudly. The lion had woken up again, and just came out of his den. And the wolf was panting heavily, waiting to be preyed by the king of the jungle. Djokovic played it easy after that, slowly killing and enjoying the prey, rather than finishing it off in a hurry.  This match further proved his credentials as the top player and why I feel he is going to stay here for some time. Throughout this tournament, I felt Djokovic lacked the physical and mental energy to play at his inhuman level. And it is understandable given how hard he has played, and won, so far. However, it just took him two points to get back his focus. Once the match ended, he let out another roar towards his camp, and sprinted towards the net to complete the formalities. He is back in this tournament, and means business. For him, that means going all the way and winning the tournament.

Djokovic came from a set down to beat Monfils in a thrilling contest

“Not a shot from the back of the court that he doesn’t have.” Patrick McEnroe said this about Novak Djokovic just-like-that today, but I suddenly realized how much truth it carried. The lack of any weakness from the back of court, in addition to his incredible defense and supreme movement, makes it virtually impossible for any player, including Federer and Nadal, to trade ground strokes with Novak.

Of course, it took a while for the world No. 1 to get into that mode where he becomes impossible to play. Partly because he was down mentally—he just seemed uninterested to compete for the first half of the match—and partly because Monfils knew only a vintage Pete Sampras can compete against Djokovic. Monfils tried to take out the baseline out of the equation as early in any rally as possible. He followed almost all his first serves to the net, tried chipping and charging even when he was a standing duck to Djokovic’s passes, and hit flat, clean, winners from the baseline.

Vintage Monfils. The Monfils we know can come out some times. The Monfils we wish will come out every time.

His quality of the volleys would have even made Sampras, if not Edberg, proud and combined with Djokovic’s lack of mental focus, it seemed it would be the first time since Montreal Masters, 2009, when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic would lose on the same day.

However, this was another one of those matches in which Djokovic reaped the advantages of being …. Novak Djokovic. The world No. 1. Out of nowhere, and I don’t know why, Monfils started trading groundies with the Djoker—the very thing he had avoided till then. He waited for Djokovic’s errors—which didn’t come—and traded two brutal rallies, both exceeding thirty shots. After the second one, he lost his breath, just like it happened to Tsonga and Fish in Montreal, and looked completely out of the match after that. It also gave the necessary impetus to Djokovic to get back his mental focus.

After winning the second of those brutal rallies, he faced the crowd, open chested, with both arms flexed forward and roared loudly. The lion had woken up again, and just came out of his den. And the wolf was panting heavily, waiting to be preyed by the king of the jungle. Djokovic played it easy after that, slowly killing and enjoying the prey, rather than finishing it off in a hurry.

This match further proved his credentials as the top player and why I feel he is going to stay here for some time. Throughout this tournament, I felt Djokovic lacked the physical and mental energy to play at his inhuman level. And it is understandable given how hard he has played, and won, so far. However, it just took him two points to get back his focus. Once the match ended, he let out another roar towards his camp, and sprinted towards the net to complete the formalities. And this is what champions do. This is what they are known for. Djokovic is back in this tournament, and means business. For him, that means going all the way and winning the tournament.

Montreal Masters: Djokovic’s dominance, Tsonga’s resurgence, Fish’s continual success

Aug 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Is this how predictable the Men’s field has become these days? Yes. Was there any real contender for Montreal Masters apart from Novak Djokovic? No. Nine titles, two majors, five masters and a solitary loss against 51 wins, only 18 sets lost against 122 won; these are numbers that even Roger Federer was not able to conjure up in his glory days of ’05 and ’06.

Djo-fish

Djokovic is playing like a much improved version of Andre Agassi. The same punisher’s attitude, moving his opponents from side to side and wearing them out. Of course, with a much better first serve, and supremely better movement. In his semis and final against Tsonga and Fish respectively, at a point when the matches were even (4-4 in the first set in the semis, and the opening game of the third set), Djokovic launched his famous assault. He played, and won, a brutal 27 shot rally against Tsonga, and a 33 shot rally Fish. Both players couldn’t continue at the same high level thereafter. The only weakness—if it is indeed a weakness—in Djokovic’s game currently, is that he has managed to lose at least one set in each of his nine titles this year.

Djokovic’s victory was the only predictable event that happened in Montreal. Rafael Nadal bowed out in his opening round, so did Andy Murray. Federer himself could only win a single match before bowing out spectacularly to Tsonga in a match that provided a lot of moments for the highlights. These losses further strengthened the fact that the outrageous consistency at the top is good for the game. If some opponent is to beat these top guys, they have to play out of their skin for three hours—and that means great tennis on offer.

Jo Wilfried Tsonga—the underachiever—has been on a different level after the grass court season started, and he looked in ominous touch in this tournament too. Perhaps breaking up with his coach has given him the license to play tennis in the way he wants to play: good, first strike, aggressive tennis with lots of athleticism and flair. Federer may be the artist, Nadal may be relentless, and Djokovic may be the punisher, but its hard to find anybody who pleases and works up the crowd more than Tsonga.

If the Frenchman is slowly starting to live up to his enormous potential—he will be back in the top ten from Monday, Mardy Fish is continuing to surprise us with his success, and making further claims that he deserves to be American’s top baller and a top ten player. If his consistency and fitness shot him into the top-ten last year, it is his intelligent mix of aggression and patience that was paramount to his run here at Montreal. It is not merely that he is serving and volleying every now and then, or approaching the net at the first opportunity that has been enjoyable to watch. It is the fact that he is starting to think like a pure serve and volleyer.

Throughout the tournament, he has shown great variety on serves. An ace down the T is followed by a kick serve off wide, or by a medium paced serve on the body. His opponent is constantly kept honest, which invariable has led to weak replies. Even his volleys are reminiscent of the serve-volley players of the 90s as he constantly throws down punch volleys deep into the mid court to rob his opponent any chance of angles—even for Djokovic. At one point, he had to throw three straight punch volleys at Djokovic, but lack of an angle resulted in a weak reply from Djokovic eventually, as Fish punched it for a winner. Fish has made three straight finals now, and is definitely one of the contenders for the semifinal spot at Arthur Ashe three weeks from now.

Amidst all these success stories, it will be easy to forget the failures of Rafa and Andy. Is this the start of the decline of Nadal, or is this is psychological effect of losing five straight finals to Djokovic? I remember the Rafa of 2008 or 2010 always had the edge once the match went the distance. Yet, Rafa has already lost two matches this year in a third-set tie-breaker. More worrying for him, though, is he is easily relinquishing a lead. Against Dodig, he was up a break twice in the third set and lost 7-6. Against Federer in the final of the French, he was up 4-2 in the third set only to lose five games in a row. Same against Djokovic in the second set of Madrid finals. Whether these patterns continue to affect him in future is something that I will watch with interest.

On to Cincy now.