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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?

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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.

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.

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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).