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Redemption or Reiteration

Jan 28, 2012 1 comment

Hello mate,

How is the winter on the other side of the world? Here it’s sort of a dry cold, but the breeze is the best. One could step out at midnight on the door-step and the wind might cool the skin and the cold might chip away at the bones. It can be a tantalizing equilibrium between pleasure and discomfort, and what with Zimmer’s Time running crisp and sweeping on the speaker, it could be, pardon the cliche, an epic sensation.

Well, tantalizing is the word I have for my feelings about the finals this time. You would be damn right to tell me that the outcome is more or less certain, after what happened last year. But it’s Rafael and the name evokes that image of his that lives and dies for the competition, and this is none like he has ever had. I should probably leave the technical aspects to you, who would do it better, in your reply.

The seeding has held, though barely. Either that lob of desperation could have gone off, or one of the break-points in the fifth could have been converted, and we may never know what would have happened then. Tignor says that though both Rafael and Nole came close to parity and lag respectively, neither was likely to have lost. Pretty interesting sentence, and here’s the article (which I guess you might already have read) http://blogs.tennis.com/thewrap/2012/01/some-pain-some-gain.html.

Being a Rafael fan, a true-blue Rafael fan, and I might be flattering myself here, who is a fan of the adjectives associated with him rather than himself, there is no better prospect in his regard, for me, than for him to have a shot at Novak for the Melbourne final – well any final for that matter. It might make better sense if I also said that, of late Rafael has failed his adjectives. Or has seemingly done so. For if he were to find out a way around his insecurities while facing Nole ultimately and be successful at it, all of last years’ struggles would become an ornamentation embellishing a fantastic second autobiography, and those adjectives would gain new meaning.

Well, you probably believe as much as I do that all of the top-4 and Rafael especially, has that gift on a tennis court, to out-maneuver the guy on the other side of the net. That takes some brains and when playing a good top-ten opponent, that fabled forehand of his might not just be enough. Many a time I have seen him put in an off-pace, no-spin backhand in the middle of a rally, and the opponent miss it. I might be wrong, but I have always believed this to be intentional. Anyway, my point is, whatever Rafa’s thinking on court is, it has a scrappy quality to it. It never shows so spectacularly as Federer’s or Tomic’s, while it is not so simple as say, Daveed’s. He can out-think his opponent in a gritty sort of way, especially when he has more options than him. The most clearly I can put it might be to say that, Rafael uses the text-book in a most brilliant way. This is why he outplays those big-hitters who supposedly have his number like Soderling or Berdych, or even Del Potro. As much as you would think that the depth of the shots are at the heart of his confidence, I agree with Tignor again when he says that his clarity of thought on court also has a big part in it. I probably have not put my finger on the exact spot, but I leave that business to you.

In Rafael’s tennis universe, it is OK to have a player immensely more talented than he is. Well, that is the principle that he probably was brought-up on by Uncle Toni, and countless are the times when he re-iterates that Federer is that player in his era. But he has not been able to make his peace with another player that never misses, and can endure whatever is thrown at him. From his view-point, he must have been that guy for a long while. But now there is someone better at it. Hell, a LOT better at it than he. Now, as I said, I believe his game has never been about flashiness. It has been about working a point up to when he could get a good shot at a safe winner. But with Nole on the other side, there is never a time when you can say that this is that moment, and that distresses him more than anything else. It’s the root of every plan he has, whether it be plan A, or B or C – that ability to distinguish the chosen moment that gives him the comfort of percentages. Up to some point that particular moment, when it comes up, will call out to you. But when it’s a little too late in arriving, you start looking out for it, with a tinge of panic at first. And the pundits say, well, Sachin Tendulkar says, it’s never a good idea to start consciously thinking about an aspect of the game that has so far taken care of itself. Rafael probably needs to zoom into the point a bit more, get lost in it to such an extend that he loses sight of his pre-conceived notions. He needs to dial back a few months and start fresh and maybe let his spider-sense call out to him rather than look out for it. To put it simply, he has to root Nole out of that upside-down perch inside his own head.

Well, you probably believe as much as I do that all of the top-4 and Rafael especially, has that gift on a tennis court, to out-maneuver the guy on the other side of the net. That takes some brains and when playing a good top-ten opponent, that fabled forehand of his might not just be enough. Many a time I have seen him put in an off-pace, no-spin backhand in the middle of a rally, and the opponent miss it. I might be wrong, but I have always believed this to be intentional. Anyway, my point is, whatever Rafa’s thinking on court is, it has a scrappy quality to it. It never shows so spectacularly as Federer’s or Tomic’s, while it is not so simple as say, Daveed’s. He can out-think his opponent in a gritty sort of way, especially when he has more options than him. The most clearly I can put it might be to say that, Rafael uses the text-book in a most brilliant way. This is why he outplays those big-hitters who supposedly have his number like Soderling or Berdych, or even Del Potro. As much as you would think that the depth of the shots are at the heart of his confidence, I agree with Tignor again when he says that his clarity of thought on court also has a big part in it. I probably have not put my finger on the exact spot, but I leave that business to you.

In Rafael’s tennis universe, it is OK to have a player immensely more talented than he is. Well, that is the principle that he probably was brought-up on by Uncle Toni, and countless are the times when he re-iterates that Federer is that player in his era. But he has not been able to make his peace with another player that never misses, and can endure whatever is thrown at him. From his view-point, he must have been that guy for a long while. But now there is someone better at it. Hell, a LOT better at it than he. Now, as I said, I believe his game has never been about flashiness. It has been about working a point up to when he could get a good shot at a safe winner. But with Nole on the other side, there is never a time when you can say that this is that moment, and that distresses him more than anything else. It’s the root of every plan he has, whether it be plan A, or B or C – that ability to distinguish the chosen moment that gives him the comfort of percentages. Up to some point that particular moment, when it comes up, will call out to you. But when it’s a little too late in arriving, you start looking out for it, with a tinge of panic at first. And the pundits say, well, Sachin Tendulkar says, it’s never a good idea to start consciously thinking about an aspect of the game that has so far taken care of itself. Rafael probably needs to zoom into the point a bit more, get lost in it to such an extend that he loses sight of his pre-conceived notions. He needs to dial back a few months and start fresh and maybe let his spider-sense call out to him rather than look out for it. To put it simply, he has to root Nole out of that upside-down perch inside his own head.

I don’t know what that comes out to be shot for shot. Should he go for more inside-out forehands? I believe that a mind-set can be changed in a way independent of the stroke-level strategy.

I probably won’t have any questions on Novak though I will know that for sure only after I complete the next two paragraphs. But here are a few that you could probably answer them. I haven’t been following tennis for a few months now, and the only play that I have seen of Rafael recently is his game against Federer. I got to admit that he looked sharp, but against Roger, he looks sharp more often than he doesn’t. What has changed in Rafael’s game since the US Open last? Is there any take-away for Rafael from his losses last year? His existing patterns of forehand-to-backhand is probably not working very well. Do you see Rafael changing up this set-piece?

And now, Novak. Well, he has been the clear-cut favourite for over a year now, and there is less to talk about him. I may as well let Veejay throw in his usual rant here, for the only words that come to my mind are “brilliant,” “glorious forehand,” “an amazing backhand” etc. Well, his game is clearly winning against Rafael, and he probably shouldn’t change anything until Rafael makes a move. One impression about him that I have right now, after his show last year is that, Novak has always had a spirit of adventure about him. I don’t mean an all out slam-bam risk-taking approach – he hardly does that. But such an approach is warranted when you do not fully understand your own game. Probably Novak knows his game and his body too well. Maybe he knows every aspect of it, and estimates himself more accurately than anyone ever has. A risk-taking approach wouldn’t be an adventure in such a case, but a fun-killer and maybe out-right stupid. In more clear words, maybe Novak is too good to have to take risks! But there are moments when he trudges that dividing line between boldness and risk, like those forehands down match-point against Roger. I guess such moments might have been there in his match against Murray as well?

You probably get a hint that he is living that adventure to the fullest when he smiles at his own errors at times. I also feel that he is capable of taking losses better nowadays. You could put that down to confidence. Or you could put that down on a difference in priorities – where there used to be a desire to win a Slam, and prove himself to others, now there is an intention to be happy (yes an intention) and enjoy his own game. Novak seems to be a man fulfilled, or at any rate one who knows what he needs to do to get it, and such a man is difficult to beat. Rather, you may beat him, but not defeat him. I will probably close on Novak with a rather far-fetched image – when Novak drives himself hurtling after those balls that even Rafael might let end-up among the crowd, he reminds me, or rather, evokes the mental image of a guy who knowingly jumps off a cliff overhanging the sea, to catch the gulls that fly off it, fully confident that he will get a hold on some protrusion or another on the sheer drop, and be able to climb back up.

Will Rafael be waiting on the edge of the cliff as well, with his boots ready to stamp him out and throw him off the edge? Will it be redemption for Rafael or a reiteration of Novak’s supremacy?

Well, I have in the refrigerator, half a bottle of Old Monk (very Old Monk, I should say). I would very much like to share it with you over the match, but it’s probably asking for too much, of a happily married teetotaler.

But in the “spirit” of the rum,
My cheers to you,
Anand

*************

Hola Anand!

As a fellow Nadalian, I prefer Hola over Hello and I know you would appreciate the same. The winter here is pretty bad as it gets dark at 5PM, although it is a lot worse for my friends on the east coast who are busy clearing snow from their cars and slipping on ice on the pavements.

The seeds have indeed held their position. But is that a surprise? Their dominance has become so common that even Tignor, who is famous for making some ridiculous predictions, stopped waiting for an upset and picked the top-4 for the semis and top-2 for the final. As Daveed said, there are the top-4 and then everybody else. More specifically, the top-3, Murray and everybody else. Although, Murray did close this gap, and would have closed it further if not for “The Shot” of Melbourne — the forehand down the line by Djokovic down a break point at 5-5 in the final set.

Rafael is coming into the final in better form than Novak, but tennis is all about match ups. The same has been usually true in our FeDal finals (or the semis this time), when Federer was in better form, but the match up killed him. On paper, I see the same happening tomorrow. Having said that, I have liked what I have seen from Nadal so far. The changes have not been major, but at this level you cannot really expect Federer to change to a two handed backhand, do you?

It is no longer 2011. It is a fresh, new year, and it does bring in an extended time off from the Slams, time to work on your flaws, retrospect on your shortcomings and get a new perspective going forward. Rafael must have felt that, too, for his body language is definitely more positive than what it was at New York. And you are absolutely right that Nadal; the mindless top spin player he may seem at a high level, is actually a thinking player.

And that is the biggest change I have seen in Nadal — he has started thinking again on court whereas he was just following the motions in 2011. Be it the fact that he came out attacking Federer’s forehand right from the start even though he got burnt, or the fact that he still engaged in his forehand-to-backhand rallies (the third set tiebreaker comes to mind) to wear down the maestro, he was thinking all the time. Unlike in 2009, he did not went all out to serve on Federer’s backhand, but persisted with it enough so that he could still keep his server to the Federer’s forehand effective; in fact, very effective.

Because he is thinking on court, he is able to make those minor adjustments, like moving back to return Federer’s serve, when the aggressive return stance did not work, and move closer again once he felt comfortable. All subtle changes, and nothing that Nadal hasn’t done in 2008 or 2010, just the result of a clear thought process.

Of course, none of this is going to work against Djokovic. He can direct Nadal’s topspin forehand either cross court or down the line equally well. Moreover, I am not sure how effective his subtle adjustments would work because there is no apparent weakness in Djokovic’s game. However, despite all this, Nadal’s biggest challenge ahead is not how to break Djokovic’s improved serve — he did it quite efficiently at New York and London — but how to mask his weaker serve against the game’s best returner. The tactic of serving 70-30 towards backhand would not work tomorrow for Novak would, to use the cliche, eat those up for breakfast, lunch and dinner with his backhand.

All in all, Novak or Rafa, this match is going to be worth staying up the whole night. Yeah, rum or spirit is out of question, but I will prepare some tea with fresh ginger and cardamom. Your beer or rum will pale in comparison to its warm essence.

Cheers,
Rajat