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Roland Garros 2013: Novak Djokovic Heads Towards the Ultimate Prize

Jun 6, 2013 Leave a comment

The Build Up

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

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

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

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

Djokovic will win if…

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

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

Djokovic will lose if…

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

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

Intangibles

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

Prediction

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

Novak Djokovic in four sets.

The Top Five Contenders At The U.S. Open

Aug 26, 2012 11 comments

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

Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

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

U.S. Open 2011: The Super Saturday

Sep 9, 2011 Leave a comment

The weather Gods have created havoc at Arthur Ashe, controversies were raised due to the schedule and the playing conditions, while a revolt was threatened surrounding the prospect of playing four matches in four days. Despite all this, the tournament has survived and the Super Saturday is upon us. Whether or not the players like it, whether or not the fans moan on the repercussions of playing back to back best of five set matches, it is hard to deny that a marquee line up like tomorrow’s makes us forget everything and anxiously wait for the day to begin.

For the second time in a major this year, the top-4 men have lived up to their seeding to secure all four semifinal berths. And it took extreme circumstances — Rafael Nadal’s injury and Jo Wilfried Tsonga’s magical comeback after being down two sets — to make sure that the remaining two majors didn’t end up this way. Each pair among the top four have set mini rivalries among them (and Federer-Nadal rivalry is already considered one of the greatest), have scores to settle, mental battles to win, and points to prove. The only downside of this is that a thrilling first match soaks out all your emotional energy and the second one usually turns into an anti-climax as it happened at the French Open. Regardless, this always ensures that tennis takes precendence over other television shows on the day and it is good news for the game.

If this is not enough, the women’s side also has enough drama awaiting. The top-half semifinal between Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams will answer a definite question — Is Serena still head and shoulders above the womens’ tour or is Wozniacki the real No. 1? The other half will answer us whether Sam Stosur has really laid the demons of her French Open defeat or not. Lets have a look at all the semifinal matchups.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs Roger Federer (3): Courage Under Fire

I have rarely seen the five time US Open champ look towards his camp right after the victory. One was when he defeated Nadal in Madrid ’09 and other when he won the World Tour Finals in ’10. It is even rare that he looks towards his camp during the match. Yet his camp received a lot of fist pumps and “Come On!”s yesterday when he played Tsonga. Clearly Federer has a point to prove, if not to the world, then to himself. The last time he was in such a position, he played the best match of this year and handed Novak Djokovic his only loss for 2011. The French Open semis was a near flawless performance and he will need to repeat this tomorrow.

Although Novak Djokovic has not looked at his best this tournament and one can sense fatigue finally creeping through the gulten free muscles of the Serb, he should have enough motivation to raise his level for the two final big shots of the year. As it has been the case for their last two encounters at the majors, the first set will be critical. Both times it went to the tie-breaker and both times its winner went on to win the match. Can the fans be third time lucky?

Prediction: Federer in four sets

Andy Murray (4) vs Rafael Nadal (2): Survival of the Fittest

They have played some great matches in the past even if they may not have gone the distance. Even though Nadal leads Murray 4-2 in majors, both of Murray’s wins were on hard courts. The situation is different this time as both players will play their third consecutive match tomorrow and physical fitness would come into play. Both of them are incredibly fit and can chase balls all throughout the day, but Murray will be at a slight disadvantage as he was stretched by Isner today while Rafa cruised through a semi-injured Roddick.

As comprehensive as Rafa looked against Roddick, his backhand still lacked the usual depth. The venomous cross court backhand winners were absent, and down the line was landing in the mid court. Roddick was not able to take advantage of it, but Murray will. Of course, it will depend on how fit Murray will be, tomorrow. Remember, he has a minor back pain too.

Prediction: Nadal in five sets

Caroline Wozniacki (1) vs Serena Williams (28): Best on Paper vs Best on Court

It is astonishing that a player who was out of the tour for more than a year, and who has played only two tournaments heading into the Open was the overwhelming favorite to win this tournament, and is the overwhelming favorite against the world No. 1. But that is how big a champion Serena is, and that is the level to which Wozniacki needs this Slam to shut her critics. Not that she cares about what the critics have to say, but her recent tirades against the media — self conferencing in Australia followed by the kangaroo bite incident, and most recently the mimicking of Rafa’s cramps — show that there is some insecurity deep down inside the Dane.

A win against Serena will definitely go a long way in proving her credentials as the world’s top baller even if she fails to win this tournament. If she loses, though, it will further distance Serena from rest of the tour.

Prediction: Serena in straight sets

Angelique Kerber (unseeded) vs Sam Stosur (9): The Other Semi

It might be easy to forget among the battle of the heavyweights that there is also a fourth semifinal taking place. Perhaps that is why this is the only semi which will be played at Louis Armstrong as opposed to Arthur Ashe Stadium. Not that both the women will mind this negligence. Sam Stosur is not particularly known to thrive under pressure, while lack of an arena like setting will suit the German as well, whose run is among the more suprising results seen in the recent past. Stosur will be the huge favorite to win this match, but so was the case last year at the French Open. Although, neither is this a major final, nor will she play at Phillippe Chatrier or Arthur Ashe.

Prediction: Stosur in three sets


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.