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Envisioning the future: Rafael Nadal will be World No.1

Jun 24, 2012 3 comments

You wake up in the morning being second best. Not that it has not happened before – there was Roger Federer, of course whom you trailed for a long while. But this time, it is different. You are second best in your own mind, second best to what you believe you can actually be. No, not a Grand Slam winner, or the World No. 1, but a player who plays so perfectly within himself that he is not aware of the crowd, his box, his opponent (of course there are tactics, but that’s as far as your cognizance of him goes), and even the score-line; a player to whom, on entering the playing arena, the concept of playing a point and the concept for fighting for survival become isomorphic with each other. It is a fault in your mind, and a fault that coercion from every quarter has succeeded in planting there. The fault that seemed only like an aberration has been brought more and more into focus, has become sharper, after each of the 7 successive defeats at the hands of Novak Djokovic. “It’s real, it’s certain – Rafael is never going to defeat Novak at the Slams again.”

There were the unmistakable signs – you take a lead only to give it up, you get too defensive and run more than you should and tire yourself out before your opponent – it was a losing bargain, but a bargain you took anyway, you cannot handle his return of serve – for him, the service returns were even more favourable than his first serves, you lose the long rallies … Second best on every front on court, and second best in your own mind, never destined to win.

How does it sound to remain motivated after being demoted for life by all objective measures? Incredible? Stupid? Well, maybe the solution is to go back to your fundamental premises and see why you started off on this career in the first place. For Rafael Nadal, that is his ground zero. Winnings have not constructed luxuries and blocked out his view of his roots. “Maybe Novak’s level will drop … I will keep getting chances …” Well, what if you don’t? If I don’t “I will keep working with an illusion to improve  …”

A few months after that Australian Open final defeat, which might have left anyone else in shambles for a long time, Rafael Nadal finds himself having beaten Novak Djokovic, albeit on his favourite surface. If nothing else, these victories will show him that even though there is no place of comfort for him in their exchanges, he can play to minimize the effect of Djokovic’s brand of playing with fire. He has removed the certainty out of their equation with his service, with how he deals with Novak’s returns, with how he deploys his own forehand. This will result in a marked improvement in his confidence levels the next time he faces Novak.

What about the rest of the field then? Going by his 2011 record, he was definitely better than the rest of the field, reaching all four Grand Slam finals and playing in 6 finals with Djokovic. That dominance would most probably continue. What will be different is that he will now give himself a fair chance in winning those Grand Slam finals. Having lost two of the three Slams he won in 2010, he finds himself in a position to only gain by winning the Slams.

Look for a confident Nadal to retake the World No. 1 rankings from a Novak Djokovic close on his heels.

Note: Quotes from Rafael Nadal are not verbatim.

Categories: Tennis Tags: ,

Envisioning the Future: Novak Djokovic’s New Challenge

Jun 24, 2012 Leave a comment

What Novak Djokovic has achieved in the past year and a half is phenomenal. It is not just a hall-of-fame worthy effort, but it is worthy of its own chapter for the history books. And yet, as unfair as it may seem, history is what he will be judged against. Five Grand Slam titles, and a year on top of the rankings is just not enough to compete against the guys who are his contemporaries.

Djokovic is already close to being a tier-2 great. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are one step ahead in the top tier of greats. It is a hard step to take—to jump a tier. John McEnroe endured years of frustration at the hands of Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl, Lendl skipped majors in his unsuccessful quest for Wimbledon, and Agassi had to completely reinvent himself just to get to the second tier. Federer had to sustain years of excellence. Nadal had to overcome a plethora of disappointments, and keep reinventing his game. For Djokovic, it will be a combination of both.

He has already found that there will be periods where he will not play at the level he did in 2011. He overcome that in Australia, but couldn’t do that in Paris—despite making it clear right from the start of the year that winning in Paris was one of priorities. Even though he was on the edge in Paris, this is a devastating loss, the same way as it was last year when he dominated the year, and the clay season against the greatest clay court player, only to lose out on the biggest prize of them all. He skipped the tune up tournaments ahead of Wimbledon, and the rest is history. That was Djokovic’s first test towards greatness. He passed it with flying colors.

The next few months—with Wimbledon, Olympics and US Open ahead—will be his next biggest test. Will he overcome the disappointment of losing out on a golden opportunity of achieving the “Novak-slam?” Will he be relieved now that the pressure is off, or will the motivation fade away?

Nadal always says that losing is not something that is an aberration. It is a norm. For a player of his caliber, it may not necessarily mean on the match to match level, but more at a tournament level. But it is true. In the open era, only Federer has been able to maintain long streaks. Greatness is established not by creating a streak, but by creating a second one when the first one ends. And a third when the second one ends. Or to give it all to maintain an existing streak. This is what Federer has done for so long. This is what Nadal is striving hard to do.

As you may have noticed, Djokovic’s future of tennis, like this article, is tied to those of his successful peers—Federer and Nadal. No matter how much he achieves, he is in an era where there will always be comparisons—many times unfair ones. And this is what is in store for Djokovic. From being somebody who is always compared, to become the source to which all the future comparisons are made.

Categories: Opinion, Tennis Tags:

Rafael Nadal: Enjoying the Suffering

Jun 11, 2012 7 comments
Nadal celebrates his record breaking seventh title with his camp

Nadal celebrates his record breaking seventh title with his camp

When Novak Djokovic was serving at 5-6, 30-40 in the fourth set, one must have thought that Djokovic had Rafael Nadal right where he wanted to — up a match point. After all, the world No. 1 has saved a total of eight match points in the last two years, spanning over three matches, two of them against arguably the greatest of all time, and four of them against an energised crowd favorite. And he came back to win all three of these. Given that Novak had made a run of eight straight games after being two sets and 2-0 down, it was sure that he wouldn’t give it so easily. And yet, he did. He, hold your breath, double faulted.

Was this the only way one could defeat Djokovic in a major? Nadal would disagree. Throughout his defeats against Djokovic, he was realistic in accepting that Djokovic was playing at a superhuman level, a level which was never seen before, a level probably would not be seen again — at least for some time. Throughout he said that despite losing one final after the other to Djokovic, he was there to face Novak, by reaching one final after other. In essense, he was playing well, just not good enough to beat Djokovic.

How did Nadal turn it around to beat Djokovic three straight times after those seven beatings? A combination of a lot of factors — Nadal returning to his beloved red clay (emphasis on the word red), Djokovic not being able to sustain the level he showed in 2011, and most importantly, Nadal raising his level considerably. During the eight games run, Djokovic shunned all signs which were pointing to the return of Novak 1.0. As rain made the court soggy, and the balls heavy, Novak feasted on Nadal’s inefficiency to generate spin and bounce and dominated him from the baseline just like he did all of last year. And yet, he lost a total of three service games in the final itself to double faults (including the final game). He made almost double the number of unforced errors as Nadal and hit five less winners than him. It was usually the opposite in 2011 when Novak had forgotten how to miss.

And this brings us to the third factor above. Of Nadal raising his level — both in strategy and in implementation. It started with his serve, a remarkable improvement from the last year, through which he gave Novak less opportunities to jump on the return and dominate the play, his ground strokes, which were deep and penetrating the court, and hence controlling the court for extended periods using his inside-out and down-the-line forehand. By attacking Djokovic’s forehand, he stopped Djokovic from setting a campground on his strong backhand side, and using his exquisite backhand down the line, which was the biggest headache for Nadal last year. And consequently, the errors started flowing in.

He is now the undisputable King of Clay, and the greatest ever to play the game on this surface, and achieving it by overcoming by far the toughest rival that he has ever played. He later said that he managed to make this turn around by enjoying his game — and the suffering that came along with it. He has always enjoyed the suffering. In fact, it seems that he _needs_ this suffering to keep improving himself. Which brings me to talk about the man he dethroned today — Bjorn Borg.

In hindsight, Nike’s nickname of Rafa’s outfit, “Scarlet Fire” was apt. Rafa — the in-your-face-but-humble competitor — is the fire to the “Ice Man” Borg. While they employed similar styles of play which were built around heavy topspin, Nadal plays with a fire and energy — all the while looking for that “colm” — while Borg never gave even a hint of emotions or weakness with his ice cool demeanor. But yet, when the “Ice Man” was faced with another firy youngster from New York, he allowed that fire to melt him down. He allowed that fire to break him down so much that he was left with no mental energy to compete once he felt that he could no longer be the best.

And this is why Nadal has truly managed to eclipse truly today. It is not just because of the number seven as opposed to Borg’s six. Or because of equalling Borg’s 11 with the career Slam. And it is certainly not because of the fact that he achieved these results by going through Roger Federer or Djokovic (or both) towards winning these titles. It is because he kept that fire inside him burning. He never let it dwindle when his parents got separated nor when he was forced to battle injury after injury. And most importantly, he not only kept that fire alive when he had finally found a competitor who could do everything better than him on a consistent basis, but enjoyed the suffering and found ways to end it.

As Alfred in Batman Begins said to Bruce Wayne, “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Thats the true, no?

My Name is Red

Jun 9, 2012 2 comments

Things used to be that players had certain shots or traits which were more pronounced than the rest of their game. Pete Sampras had his athleticism and his second serve, Andre Agassi had the best hand-eye co-ordination and the best backhand, Goran Ivanisevic could aim the serve on a dime, Pat Rafter had his net-game …

Then racquet technology started maturing and started playing the “great equalizer” along with court-speed adjustments. But we have Federer who has a game that could work everywhere on court, but who has his strength in his forehand and serve. Rafael Nadal, maybe the best athlete among the greats after Pete Sampras, has his forehand and foot-work. Of course these “strenghts” of the modern players do not have as much a lead on the rest of their games as did those of the players of the 90s – but still if we had to pick, we could.

So, Nadal and Federer are arguably, still the products of a process of equalization, rather than the products of the culmination of it. So, does a player exist who is ahead of them in this evolution? The automatic pick is Novak Djokovic. Wait! What about his backhand return? When you are just about to pick that up in triumph of disproval, he hits a couple of blistering forehands on the rise, on the lines. Serve, backhand, forehand, athleticism, net-game – everything dissolves into a homogeneous whole in Djokovic. There is no clear place to go if you want to hurt him. The only way in which you can beat him is to play lights out in all departments of the game.

Which is why Rafa has had a problem with him. Rafa is a player of rhythm and pattern, and set-pieces that he dominates make him impossible to beat in a match. He is easily able to direct these such that the climax ends on the opponent’s backhand in the case of Federer. Against Djokovic, he finds them, time and again, ending on his own backhand. Given the fact that Djokovic can hit any ball from anywhere on the court from either wing, Rafa would have to dig deeper and depend on finer aspects of Djokovic’s game to gain an upper-hand in a rally, which is exactly the kind of thing that Rafa loves – problem solving. Though Djokovic may look complete from a cursory look, no one is perfect. A great player can spot weaknesses and exploit them where others do not. A “weakness” that is too difficult to exploit is not really a weakness – so until you actually take advantage of them, they are things you tell yourself for consolation.

We have already seen glimpses of it happening – serve to Djokovic’s body rather than backhand, directing the ground-strokes deep into Djokovic’s forehand in the middle of the court asking him to create the angles, and working extra hard to ensure a healthier percentage of inside-out to cross-court forehands. On a hard-court, Rafael would have to play at his absolute best to beat Novak. It would boil down to execution.

What about clay? Would clay act like a magnifying glass does on light, and blow-up the possbilities for either player? Would Djokovic be able to direct more deadly down-the-line backhands or would Rafael find himself hitting more inside out forehands?

A backhand as good as it can come, is not the best generator of power. Djokovic’s down-the line play would have a bit of it’s sting taken out of it for two reasons – clay exacerbates the effect of spin on the ball, and takes a bit of pace off it. Djokovic would have to content with a slower, bouncier, spinning ball – which is not a very great friend of the down-the-line backhand. It would also allow Rafael more time to redirect the ball to Djokovic’s forehand. The game in a state of equilibrium would seem to be titled slightly in Rafael’s favour.

However there are the initial conditions to content with – the serve and the return. If Rafa has a bad serving day, Novak could take the upper hand from the first ground-stroke. However Rafael is still the best defender on clay. The question is how effective would his defence be in grinding out a player of Novak’s tenacity. If Novak gives Rafael too many looks on a forehand return, Rafael could win all the ensuing rallies.

As far as Djokovic is concerned, it’s probably the most ambitious that anyone could get – hold all four Slams at the same time, and beat Rafael Nadal on clay to win the final one (he would also have beaten Rafael in all of the four slams – I don’t know how this would reflect on either player). This would add Djokovic’s name to the list of all-time greats and he would start frequently making appearances in the Greatest-Of-All-Time debates.

On the other hand, winning Roland Garros for the 7th time would seat Rafael Nadal on a throne higher than Borg’s. Rafael Nadal on clay would arguably become the most feared creature to pick up a racquet.

In the final reckoning, one would likely find out that, this is clay, there is a ruler, and that his reign is far from over. Rafael is the better thinker on court, and the better mover on clay. He has the single bigger weapon between the two – his forehand. Also, he has been able to swing the percentages in a more than satisfactory manner in their past two encounters on clay.

The money would be on Rafael in a four setter.

(“My Name is Red” is a novel by Orhan Pamuk, Literature Nobel Prize Winner).

Silencing the Crowd

Jun 5, 2012 2 comments

In what was a remarkable turn of events, the two champions were again pushed to the limits by two of the best second tier players.

Federer trailed by two sets of love before del Potro’s issues with knees came up — although he denied his loss to his health — but he knows the art of coming back from two sets to love. This was his seventh occasion of such a comeback. Federer celebrated in the end as rain drops fell down, giving a very familiar picture of what happened here three years back — when he raised the Coupe des Mousquetaires.

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We all the passion with which Federer plays — even when he has achieved everything can be possibly achieved. But he showed a lot of it today. He was visibly annoyed with himself for a good part of the first two sets, and even asks the crowd to “Shut Up” — in English — when they mistakenly called a ball out during the crucial second set tie breaker.

 

 

In another remarkable match which was happening at the same time as this one — Dear French, can you please not schedule two blockbuster matches at the same time next year? Thank you, very much — Djokovic saved off — yet again — four match points to topple a largely pro-Tsonga crowd. And just like the two times he did against Federer, his opponent did not lose those match points, he won it. Won it with some clutch drop volleys, fearless forehands, and accurate serving. Can one not win against Novak without reaching a match point?

Only Djokovic can show these two polar opposite expressions in the same match.

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Sunday Bloodbath at Roland Garros

Jun 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Roland Garros had been enjoying lovely weather throughout the first week so far. It just did not feel right. Something had to give. And so Paris awoke to thick clouds, heavy winds and cold weather. Suddenly, the bright orange gladiatorial arena of Phillip Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen had changed its color. At dark red, it gave the familiar look of the graveyard which had once soaked up Roger Federer two years ago at the hands of Robin Soderling. The signs were ominous.

Victoria Azarenka had looked grumpy and cranky all week. Despite not winning any titles throughout the European swing, she had still played well enough to reach two finals, losing only to the best in Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. And now she faced another opponent, against whom she had never felt comfortable despite having a stellar head to head record. Dominica Cibulkova has been the Tomas Berdych to Azarenka’s Rafael Nadal. She nearly slayed the champion at Miami, and the heavy conditions today gave her the perfect opportunity to complete the unfinished task. She hit through Azarenka not afraid to go for her shots — she won the match point with a classic drop shot followed by a fierce backhand cross court winner — which she later affirmed, “I was proud of the way I went for my shots even in the tiebreaker.” As for Azarenka, she looked grumpy, cranky, tried to break her racket, then did break her racket (after four painful attempts) and the mindset carried over to the press, “I’m going to kill myself.” when asked how would she recover. Azarenka is not exactly comfortable on grass, and now without any grass court tune up for her, it is going to be equally tough for her at Wimbledon. As for Cibulkova, with Stosur, Stephens, Kerber and Errani left in her part of the draw, she must be fancying herself to one up her semis performance in 2009.

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The bloodbath continued at Chatrier. Novak Djokovic did not look at home. Thick blocks of mud popped up loosely from his shoes — rather than smooth sand granuels in sunny conditions. The court was left with deep patches of foot marks when he slided and it was trouble for him right from the start.

Andres Seppi plays a lot like Murray. He has short, compact swings, lacks pace on his shots but creates heavy angles, has good consistency and movement on clay. In short, exactly the kind of game that bothers the world no. 1. Coupled with the wind, it was hard work for the Serb as his slices floated long, the lack of pace did not allow him to take those fast, authoritative swings on backhand as he usually does, and even his return game went off. But unlike his counterpart on the women’s side, he never was baffled by the uncharacteristic calm — during the points and between points — of his opponent and bided his time even when he went down two sets to love, looking ripe for an upset. Despite being under the weather, he showed his Djokovician moments for a good part of the last three sets, and fought hard — against the opponent, weather, crowd and himself — for the rest. He was subdued right from the start till the end. His loud roars and chest pumping were absent, instead his acknowledgment after the match was more an expression of relief. He knew that 77 — seventy seven — unforced errors will not exactly get him the Djoker slam. Thankfully, every day is a new day in tennis. The important thing is to remain alive to experience the new day. Which Djokovic did.

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Side by side, Federer was battling it out, too. He said it is “strange” to play somebody who calls him his idol, even though “it has happened before.” It becomes even more difficult against someone who has nothing to lose, and bravely goes for his shots. It worked as David Goffin took the first set — yet another set Federer has lost this tournament — and led 5-4 in the second. At 15-30, he had an open court to put away a short backhand. A set point for yet another 2-0 lead against a heavy favorite was apparent. Goffin, the lucky loser — as John McEnroe reminded us at least 100 times during the match — must have had a thought of it too, as he put that backhand into the net.

The thought was there, but the hope vanished away after that. Federer won the second set 7-5, and cruised through the next two. Goffin played as well as he could in those two sets, but one could sense that neither he, nor Federer believed that the lucky loser — there, I said it again — had even a slight chance. Goffin delighted everybody as he fought valiantly. He even drew an extended applause after winning a point he should have lost at least three times, and then enjoyed it to the fullest by acknowledging the crowd for about half a minute. Even the maestro was “impressed”, as he gave him a great handshake and unruffled his hair after reaching his 32nd straight quarterfinal in a major.

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Lots of blood was shed on the two show courts today. One champion fell to it. Two others, while still alive, were heavily wounded. It wasn’t pretty to watch. One would hope that this was the only customary graveyard setting that Roland Garros has to show every year. And that it would bring back the bright orange gladiatorial arena come Monday.

Heart Felt in Paris: Sixth Time Lucky

Jun 2, 2012 4 comments

There is a reason why we play the first week of the Slam. As far as the top players are concerned, it is only of academic interest — how many games have they lost? How well are they serving? Are they expending too much energy? You get the point. It is about warriors like Isner, Mahut and Mathieu — yeah, Matheiu battled bravely to take the match to the decider after being two sets down, and that after playing the marathon against Isner. It is about scrapers like Juan Monaco, who battled the giant serving Canadian, Raonic, in five. It is about feel good stories like Brian Baker.

It is also about some ridiculously frustrating stories. Like the one involving Kaia Kanepi as she played the former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

It was classic dirtball tennis of the 90s. It involved long, endless rallies. Not exciting ones like Djokovic and Nadal, but exhausting ones like Bruguera and Berasetagui. It involved moonballs in the middle of the court. It did not involve winners, not many of them, if you will. And when it comes to the classic dirtball of the 90s, either the more powerful one wins, or the more consistent one. Consistency was the hallmark of Wozniacki in her glory days, as the commentators like to say, “she was so consistent that it had an arrogance to it.” But it has rapidly faded away since Australia this year, as her ranking has plummeted to 9 in a mere five months. And so the power of Kanepi was doing the trick. In no time, she was up a set, serving for the match at 5-2 in the second.

What I didn’t know, though, was Kanepi’s history. At the very moment, John McEnroe reminded us that Kanepi has had a long history of failing to pass the finish line. Just two years back, she blew away five match points against Petra Kvitova. She is like the poor (wo)man’s Dementieva. Sure enough, it was true. She waited to get to a match point. Blew it away with an error. Wozniacki broke eventually — as she had often done last year — and that fierce look in her eye. Kanepi’s shoulders slacked. Everybody knew what was coming. Wozniacki held for 3-5. Broke Kanepi for 4-5. Held for 5-5. She then took it to the tie-breaker, and easily won it 7-3. The writing was on the wall for Kanepi.

In fact, I did not know she had such a long history of blowing away matches. In another match, when Granollers, with his own history of blowing away matches, was up 4-1 in the fifth against Matheiu, John McEnroe exclaimed, “he is the Kaia Kanepi of men’s tennis!” Despite all the exaggeration, I had to laugh out loud at that. Mary Carillo informed McEnroe that Kanepi was now 4-1 in the third set. McEnroe snapped back, “I’ll give her a 20% chance of winning.” I had to laugh again.

The games in the middle of a set are not a problem for Kanepi. She broke Wozniacki for 5-1 and served for the match … for the third time. She went to 40-30 (her third match point), and double faulted. She got down a break point, and saved it with a winner down the line. She again got to match point, and shanked a backhand. Unable to digest all this, she got broken again. Just to rub it in further, McEnroe reminded us that Kanepi was up 5-1 in all three sets. Oh, what a tragedy if she loses again.

Wozniacki held, and Kanepi went back to serve. She raced to 40-15. The rally went on and Wozniacki took control. It was destined that Kanepi could not win the match. Hence, Wozniacki decided to lose it. The uber consistent Dane shanked her forehand long and Kanepi raised both her arms in the air. I couldn’t believe it. Neither did she. Neither did Wozniacki.

Kanepi tried to do a Guga by drawing a heart on the dirt. Nobody cared. The TV camera did not even zoom into it. But Kanepi did not care the ignorance, either. It was her moment, and she had given us another of those memorable first week stories. Well, the story which we will likely forget the next week.