Olympics Roundup: Murray, Delpo on the Rise

Aug 7, 2012 2 comments

Everyone’s a critic. So, following a stellar Summer Olympics for the sport of men’s tennis, what are they saying about …?

 Andy Murray: Roger Federer was tired from his extended semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro and had nothing left for the Wimbledon final. Rafael Nadal’s absence cleared the route to the final even before that. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray’s penultimate Olympic conquest, has been on a mini-dry spell and he lacked the usual self-assuredness he had shown even in the tensest moments of 2011.

And, frankly, it was about time. Lost in the successes of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer over the past few years is the fact that Murray has put up some remarkably consistent results. Four grand slam finals since the last Olympics. A streak of five straight GS semis that didn’t end until the quarters of this year’s Roland Garros. His trip to the Wimbledon finals, giving him final round appearances at every major save the RG.

Through it all Murray has been upstaged by that unique trio of men, all of whom had achieved GS success before him, putting him at a disadvantage before the first ball was even struck. And through it all the Scot, who probably has a better all-around game than anyone who played before 2000, has had to endure criticism of his mental strength and questions about whether or not he had the game to win a big one.

Well now he has. While the London Olympics may not be on par with a slam in terms of prize money or ranking points, their infrequency, the stage they took place on this year and the audience Murray played in front of mean that he’s created a memory exceeding that of, say, one of those Australian Open titles he lost. For the time being, it should mean that he has given himself breathing room from questions regarding his ability to win the majors.

So what of the summer ahead? Murray has points to defend in Cincinnati, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t win there following this expedition. Where this result is going to matter is in events like the US Open, a place where Murray has been surprised early in recent years (by Marin Cilic in 2009 and Stanislas Wawrinka in 2010). This is a win that should give him the confidence to get through results such as that, and possibly through a player of Nadal or Djokovic’s caliber in the semis.

It doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win it all, but his odds have definitely gone up.

Roger Federer: His recent resurgence, just like the one he experienced in 2009, coincides with a lengthy absence of Nadal. His semi with del Potro suggests that, even with the Wimbledon win, players he could once intimidate now can stay with him. And the final shows that age catches up to even the most graceful and most prepared.

Still, what’s it going to take to beat Federer at the US Open? Nadal will be on his least favorite surface and lacking the kind of momentum he had in 2010, even if his knee is healed. Djokovic, for the first time in what seems like decades, will probably not await him in the USO semis and won’t be bursting with the confidence of ’11. And Murray may find it harder to seal the deal after playing best of five for two weeks.

All in all, Federer’s sitting in a good position going into the USO, and we know he’ll schedule enough off time going into it not to jeopardize his chances there.

Then again, there’s …

Juan Martin del Potro: His movement, while good for a big guy, is still problematic when competing against the best in the world. He’s had spurts of greatness since returning from wrist surgery, but hasn’t shown the kind of play he did when winning the 2009 USO.

Nonetheless, this tournament means more to him than any he’s played, or even won, in a long time. Sure, he couldn’t make enough of an impact on Federer’s serve in the third set of the semis, but the fact that he held serve 16 times in that set alone while facing that kind of pressure (not to mention a guy quite adept at returning big serves on grass) says his mental strength is approaching 2009 levels.

Even more impressive than the semi? He came back and won the bronze from Djokovic despite the mental and physical letdown he had to be feeling. That win didn’t just net him the prize he wore around his neck; it was his first non-injury-aided win over a top 4 player since 2009.

Novak Djokovic: He hasn’t won a title since April. Nadal, Federer and now Murray have all lined up since then to show him that his 2011 aura has faded.

While his win over Andy Roddick suggests that his strokes are still plenty sharp, there’s little denying that the Serb’s psychological edge over the tour is long gone. He still has the game, but will that be enough? Can he rebuild his edge?

I’m betting not before the Open.

Andy Roddick: He’s getting old. Age softens the hardest of serves, and without that Roddick has little chance against the best.

Well, maybe. Still, he had won two of three events going into the Olympics, and there was a sudden change of surfaces, and continents, involved. This need not portend an inability to win hardcourt titles, but his chances at the majors don’t look good.

Olympic tennis: It was a venue with an unusually strong connection with the sport. Future Olympics won’t be played in nations with such an extended tennis history, nor will they have such an extraordinarily consistent crop of top players. The debate over whether tennis belongs in the Olympics will return.

Yes, but that’s many years away. I was among those with memories of Massu-Fish epics and of past triumphs by Marc Rosset and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, questioning the relevance of Olympic tennis today. The Federer-Delpo semi, the coronation of Murray, plus the career capping wins of Serena Williams and the Bryan Brothers definitively answered whether the sport belongs in the games.

Barring a plague of devastating injuries that razes the players who competed so well in London and hinders their performances in New York, I was wrong about Olympic tennis.

And happy to say so.

Categories: Tennis

The Top Male Grass Court Players of the Open Era, Part II

Jul 16, 2012 2 comments

Wimbledon in many ways is out of step with the modern game: As clothes get brighter and crowds become more boisterous, Wimbledon clings to its all-white tradition and on-court silence. As grass courts disappear around the world, giving way to hard and clay, Wimbledon maintains its lawns (but has not been above varying the speed it plays at).

Through it all, Wimbledon has not ceased to produce the greatest matches of recent memory, and its most successful champions remain the game’s most accomplished, and most recognizable, practitioners.

Last time we started with some of the grass surface’s most successful players. As we reach the end of this list, you’ll find that the best grass court players rank among the best of any surface, country, or era.

Let’s begin with …

5: John McEnroe

Three Wimbledon titles, twice a runner up

As is the case with Arthur Ashe, our No. 10, the image of John McEnroe continues to overshadow what he accomplished on the court. That their images were opposite is well known, though, as Johnny Mac will forever be associated with a sense of bratty entitlement and a competitive mindset that thrived on conflict, be it with his opponent, the officiating, and anyone else in ranting range.

As a result, he’s one of the most recognizable players among the general public, but not for the brilliance of his play in the early 1980s. This is a shame, because his winding left-handed serve, his magical feel around the net and early ball-striking made his Wimbledon final with Bjorn Borg in 1980, a long-time favorite in the greatest-match-of-all-time debate. A year later, it made him the first player since 1975 to beat the Swede on the lawns.

McEnroe added another two Wimbledon titles by 1984. His last crown there was captured with the most dominant Wimbledon final among men in the Open Era, denying Jimmy Connors all but four games. In doing so, he proved his game to be almost as sharp as his tongue. It’s just a shame he is not better remembered for it.

4: Boris Becker

Three Wimbledon titles in seven final round appearanced

Youngest-ever Wimbledon champion (1985)

After John McEnroe carved up the competition, Boris Becker bludgeoned it.

1985 was a year of the big serve, as the Kevin Curren blasted both Johnny Mac and Jimbo off the court on his way to the final round. Unfortunately for him, something even bigger awaited in the final, as the 17-year-old Becker won the duel of unreturnables to become the youngest-ever winner of a major (he’d later be overtaken by Michael Chang at the 1989 Roland Garros, but retains that designation at Wimbledon).

But Becker was more than just a prodigy. Remarkably for one so young, he was back in the final a year later, overcoming both Ivan Lendl and the pressure of defending his title. As he grew older the competition grew tougher, and while Becker won a third title in 1989, he stumbled at the last hurdle in 1988, 1990 and 1991. These losses, coupled with his shock upset in the second round in 1987, have left many to wonder how many he might’ve won, if only he’d responded to adversity differently.

But 10 years after his first title there, an aging Becker revived his career in the majors by beating world No. 1 Andre Agassi to reach the Wimbledon final in 1995. Though he fell to Pete Sampras in the final, this springboarded Becker to an Australian Open title in 1996, making him one of the very few players to have won his last major more than a decade after his first.

But he’ll always be identified with his early success at Wimbledon, the place he called his living room. It’s also the place where he reached seven finals, a record he shared with Pete Sampras, at least until this year.

3: Bjorn Borg

Five consecutive Wimbledon titles (1976-80)

Six consecutive Wimbledon finals (1976-81)

Between 2008 and 2010 Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer pulled off the “Channel Slam,” capturing Wimbledon and Roland Garros crowns in the same year three times in a row. These were extraordinary efforts, requiring five-set matches, a spectacular level of play and some fortuitous turns of events. If there’s a downside to their success, it’s that they may make Bjorn Borg’s Channel Slams appear less special.

But they were out of the ordinary: Borg’s endurance, unerring groundstrokes and patience made him as natural a clay court player as has ever played the game. Yet early on he identified Wimbledon as a goal, leaving his contemporaries to wonder how he’d prevail on a speedy surface whose short points seemingly neutralized his greatest strengths.

There were bigger weapons under the surface, though, including a remarkable (and adaptable) athleticism, height that could translate into effective serving on the lawns and an internal cool that could not be shaken. This was evident whether Borg was being challenged early in the event when he was still adjusting to the speed of the grass, or at the end of the fortnight when his toughest contemporaries were trying to take the crown away from him.

Over and over again they failed, and by 1980, the question had evolved from “Could Borg win Wimbledon?” to “Who could beat Borg at Wimbledon?” John McEnroe would eventually answer the question, but not until after pushing the Swede in one of the tensest matches in Grand Slam history … and falling short.

After Borg finally fell to Johnny Mac in 1981, he left the game, his icy façade shattered by disappointment. Still, his reputation would endure: It would be two decades before anyone would win more Wimbledons than Borg did, and nearly three before anyone duplicated the Channel Slam.

And even today, no one has won the RG and Wimbledon in the same year three times.

2: Pete Sampras

Seven Wimbledon titles

Four consecutive titles (1997-2000)

Three consecutive titles (1993-95)

Many of his records have since fallen, overtaken in much less time than it took for him to break them. Still, Pete Sampras remains tennis’ most successful experiment.

He started his junior career as a baseliner with a two-handed backhand, thriving on the asphalt and disliking grass. No matter; he and coach Pete Fischer decided early on that, as Wimbledon was the game’s biggest event, he would be trained to win Wimbledon. So one hand had to be taken off the backhand, forcing him to come to net more often. The serve had to be trained, as raw pace would have to be coupled with variety, reliability, and especially disguise.

Still, the first two years he played in London he didn’t win a single round, as he hated the movement on grass and struggled with returning skidding serves. Only with the help of another coach, Tim Gullikson, did he learn the efficient strokes needed to thrive on the lawns and the calm required to wait out the serving barrages that would come from the Ivanisevics and the Philippousi across the net.

Those lessons, coupled with the programming Fischer had written decades earlier, made Sampras unbeatable on the lawns in seven out of eight years. For a time, this made him both the most decorated Wimbledon champion and the king of Grand Slam titles. When he set both of these marks at the beginning of the new century, it appeared these records would last a lifetime.

It would certainly take someone special to match them.

1: Roger Federer

Seven Wimbledon titles

Eight finals

Five consecutive titles (2003-07)

He started off coming to net behind every first serve. That’s how he ended Pete Sampras’ Wimbledon run in 2001, and how he won his first title at the All England Club in 2003. He was to be the successor to not only Sampras, but to every guy from Laver to McEnroe to Becker who excelled from every part of the court, equally comfortable picking up half volleys as he was belting inside-out forehands.

But then returns got more accurate, and groundstrokes more reliable, ushering out most remnants of the serve and volley approach. Wimbledon recognized this, seeing a chance to immunize itself from ‘90s-era complaints that points were to short and matches too boring by slowing down its grass and fluffing up the balls. Where would this leave Federer, already a traditionalist though still in his early 20s?

No worse off, actually: Federer anticipated the change, started staying back on both serves and coming to net primarily to finish off points his textbook groundies had set up for him. His game had greatness to spare, and it wasn’t long before he was in position to equal Bjorn Borg’s mark of five Wimbledons in a row.

Much as was the case with Borg, Federer had to overcome a stiff challenge to tie that mark, as Rafael Nadal served as his McEnroe in 2007. As with Borg-McEnroe at the start of the ‘80s, that challenge grew stiffer and became too much for the great champion to overcome: Federer n 2008 and Borg in 1981 both saw their quest for a sixth straight title end in a final-round disappointment.

Borg responded to this impediment, along with his failure to win a US Open, by giving up at age 26. Federer had been similarly frustrated at Roland Garros, but proved more durable than not only Borg, but his younger rivals: When Nadal stumbled in mid-2009, Federer finally took the Paris title that had eluded him and captured yet another Wimbledon, breaking Sampras’ Grand Slam mark in the process.

Age, the resurgence of Nadal and emergence of Novak Djokovic had left The Great Swiss slam-less and outside the top of the rankings for much of the last two years. But this year, a modern update contributed to revival of grass court traditionalism, and the ever-durable Federer was there to capitalize.

Nadal, whose game has always required more of an adjustment to grass than Federer’s, finally met an early challenge this year that he could not overcome. Before the rains came before his semifinal encounter with Djokovic, the Serb’s solid baseline play looked a stiff challenge to Federer’s quest, but the closing of the roof sent the Swiss’ serve zipping through the court and his volleys slicing through the Djokovic’s defense.

The same thing happened Sunday, as Federer faced Britain’s own Andy Murray, an inspired opponent backed by the hopes of an entire nation. Federer responded by making 69 percent of first serves, by attacking Murray’s second deliveries with sliced approaches, and by hitting the ball earlier than all but a few of the game’s greats are capable of.

When Murray’s last shot landed wide, the man who earlier tied Borg’s streak had match a few other designations: Like Sampras, he has seven titles, but had a record eight finals to his credit.  Connors won his last Wimbledon eight years after the first, but Federer’s most recent came nine years after his maiden title.

And with that, the man who was supposed to preserve traditional lawn tennis in the age of baseliners became the most accomplished grass court player of them all. When the next great player with a traditionalist bent appears, it’s Federer he’ll be playing successor to.

Categories: Tennis

The Top Male Grass Court Players of the Open Era, Part I

Jul 9, 2012 9 comments

As long as tennis is played, there will be grass courts, and those who specialize in them. Yes, the surface no longer plays faster than all others, and racket technology has made serving big and charging the net less effective there, but its unusual footing and unpredictable bounces make it a unique discipline even now.

In the Open Era, since the game’s four majors became the metric by which tennis greatness was defined, a few players stand above the rest. This week we count down 10-6, with an honorable mention thrown in. Can you guess those in this section?

Honorable Mention: Goran Ivanisevic 

One Wimbledon title

Four Wimbledon finals

Goran Ivanisevic’s run in 2001, in which he won his only Wimbledon title despite being unseeded and having not reached so much as a tour final since 1998, wasn’t just a miraculous, feel-good story. Without that one title, much of his achievements on the surface would have felt like promise not met, and the massive serving that intimidated even Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi would have not received its just reward.

He’d already been to three Wimbledon finals, with only Agassi and Sampras, the most accomplished all-surface players of his era, denying him the championship. But in 2001, thanks to a wildcard from tournament organizers, seven rounds of inspired play and a little luck, the player who helped make ‘90s grass court tennis what it was enters the record books not as a disappointment, but as one of the most accomplished grass court players of his era. 

10: Arthur Ashe 

One Wimbledon, one Australian Open title, one US Open title  

Arthur Ashe is best known for fighting apartheid and for changing how AIDS was perceived even as it claimed his life. Many still call him the greatest ambassador the sport ever had. 

If there’s any downside to his advocacy work, it’s that it gets more attention than his numerous merits as a player. Going into the 1975 Wimbledon final, he’d already won a couple of grass court majors in New York and Australia, but was considered a heavy underdog against the proto-power baseliner Jimmy Connors, winner of three major titles the previous year. However, the thoughtful Ashe played the quintessential tactical match, employing service placement, chipped returns and off-speed groundstrokes to drive his younger, stronger opponent mad. 

Though Connors would spend the next two decades building his reputation as an all-time great and tireless competitor, Ashe shattered his image of invincibility, while furthering his own as a champion. In doing so, he achieved a broader platform for his later fights against racism and fear of HIV/AIDS.

9: Stefan Edberg

Two Wimbledon titles, once a Wimbledon runner up

Two Australian Open titles 

Whenever tennis watchers say they miss serve-and-volley tennis, what they really mean is that they miss Stefan Edberg.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s the game was starting to bifurcate along power lines, as hard and clay courts were being taken over by overpowering baseliners and grass courts by towering servers. Edberg had neither of these weapons, but still found great success in disarming both styles with his swift feet and great hands. While his high-kicking serve and elegant backhand helped put him in contention, it was his swarming of the net that made his rivalry with Boris Becker at Wimbledon in the late-’80s and early ’90s great viewing.

His early Australian Open successes made him an accomplished grass court player, but it was his those three Wimbledon finals that made him a legend. One of those watching the Becker-Edberg trilogy on Centre Court was Roger Federer. That Edberg won two of the three finals against Boom Boom during that stretch showed that feel and movement could overcome size and power, a lesson the Great Swiss would apply decades later. 

8: Rafael Nadal

Two Wimbledon titles, three times a runner up

When he followed up his first Roland Garros title in 2005 by falling to Gilles Muller in round two of Wimbledon, few could have imagined the journey Rafael Nadal would tread across England’s lawns over the next few years. In fact, few would have guessed that only one year later the Spaniard with the loopy groundstrokes, iffy serve and deep court positioning could make the necessary adjustments to reach his first Wimbledon final.

His exemplary athletic ability certainly helped, but it was his careful planning that made his three consecutive finals appearances possible, and his incomparable heart that made his victory in 2008 the greatest match in the Open Era. 

He’s added an additional title and runner up appearance since then, emerging from the shadow of the Great Swiss and carving his own legacy on Wimbledon’s list of champions.

Not bad for a clay court player.

7: Jimmy Connors

Two Wimbledon titles, four times a runner up

One US Open title on grass (five on all surfaces)

One Australian Open title

Arthur Ashe’s 1975 triumph wouldn’t have meant nearly as much without Jimmy Connors’ 1974 season, one of the great performances in the history of men’s tennis.

At the game’s three grass court majors Connors prevailed that year, and it was perhaps nothing more than bureaucratic feuding that kept Jimbo from matching Rod Laver’s 1969 calendar-year Grand Slam. We’ll never know for sure, but we do know how he dominated the events he did play.

And no one knows that like Ken Rosewall. Already a legend of the game, a former No. 1 with eight major titles to his credit, Rosewall added to his stature by reaching the finals of that year’s Wimbledon and US Open despite turning 40 later that year.  In those finals, though, Rosewall had no answer for Connors’ crushing returns and underrated net play, winning just six games in England and only two in New York.

Connors reign would be short-lived, though, as Ashe disrupted it the following year, and starting in 1976 Jimbo would be overmatched on the lawns of London by Bjorn Borg: Though he won his share against the Cyborg Swede, particularly in at the US Open, Borg defeated him three times at Wimbledon’s latter rounds.

Of course today Connors is better known today for his undying hunger, and not his early dominance, and he demonstrated this in 1982. Eight years after his first title there, Connors outlasted John McEnroe, the man who’d finally beaten Borg the year before, in five sets.

It was a longer journey than expected, but in retrospect, the one that feels most appropriate for Jimbo. As he would later say: “(T)here’s always somebody out there who’s willing to push it that extra inch, or mile, and that was me. I didn’t care if it took me 30 minutes or five hours. If you beat me, you had to be the best, or the best you had that day.”

And hunger is essential on the one surface that some creatures consider food.

6: Rod Laver

Two Wimbledons, one Australian Open title, and one US Open title (as a pro)

Two Wimbledons, two Australian Championships, and one US Championship (as an amateur)

Some questions can never be answered, and that’s especially true when comparing the pre-Open Era greats with those who came later. It makes the career of Rocket Rod Laver especially hard to analyze, as the Grand Slam-centric Open Era started in 1968, about three years after his status as the game’s top player started and at least two before he was dethroned.

Sticking to the criteria of measuring the players strictly by their Open Era achievements, though, Laver still put up some remarkable numbers. In 1969 he swept the game’s major titles when three of the four were played on grass. Given that he’d also won Wimbledon the year before, and would win 77 titles after 1968, many of which came on lawns, his status as one of the Open Era greats is assured.

When lumped together with his pre-Open Era achievements, including another calendar-year Slam as an amateur in 1962 and 200 singles titles, there are many who consider Laver the greatest of all time.

That’s debatable, but his position as a universally admired player and person is beyond questioning, as is his impeccable grass court acumen.

Coming soon: The top five grass court players in the Open Era. Can you guess them?

Categories: Tennis Tags: , , , , ,

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).