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Posts Tagged ‘Andy Murray’

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 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

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


Chip-n-Charge, Slice-n-Dice. A Lost Art?

Sep 6, 2011 Leave a comment
An aggressive slice is almost becoming extinct these days

An aggressive slice is almost becoming extinct these days

The fact that serve-n-volley is practically dead today has been a common discussion point among tennis afficianadoes. While it is true that it is now an extinct art, I do not miss that aspect of the same so much. There is still great baseline tennis on offer and the spectacular winners from the far court than makes up for that. In fact, I enjoy the occasional serve-n-volley points that players do today as an element of surprise, which is why I enjoy watching players like Roger Federer, Mardy Fish, Jo Wilfried Tsonga (coupled with Michael Llodra).

The side effects of the above has been more telling, in my opinion. One of them is the slow decay of the backhand ‘slice’. I know what you are saying. Don’t players today use slices a lot? Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have a great slice, Novak Djokovic does it sometimes, and Andy Roddick has modeled his backhand purely on the slice as the zip on his two hander has declined over the years. In fact, youngsters like Dolgopolov use it heavily, and yesterday’s match against Djokovic was a great example. The Ukranian troubled the Serb for the greater part of the first set with the lack of pace generated through the slice.

But the common pattern among all of these players is the exclusive use of defensive slice. Most of them use slice only when they are not in a position to hit a strong two hander. In fact, the aggressive slice down-the-line, one of the more difficult shots in the game, is almost absent in the game. There were countless times in yesterday’s match, when I yelled from my seat, “Slice to the forehand!” It never came. Or it came only when Djokovic was present mid court, and was in a great position to make a decent pass. Just like the backhand down-the-line is used to open up the court, the slice up-the-line was a great ploy used by serve-n-volley players which either resulted in some of the best running forehands or in a makeable volley at the net.

Dologopolov used heavy cuts on the slice, which were devoid of any pace and stayed very low even on these courts which have more bounce than in the previous years. For some time it troubled Djokovic, but it was only a matter of time before this pattern became routine, and Djokovic, with arguably the best backhand of all times, started handling it easily.

The other side effect has been the inability to recognize a good approach shot and closing in on the net. The sight of Roddick becoming a dead duck at the net against Federer occurs frequently in their encounters. Yesterday, Kuznetsova was passed time and again against Wozniacki. Part of it was because she made wrong approaches by hitting to Wozniacki’s stronger wing, the backhand. The inability to hit a good slice up-the-line to Wozniacki’s forehand was clearly exposed. And because she was passed so frequently, she became cautious and did not come forward on a potentially good approach. The other part of it was the lack of confidence to take the net which resulted in her being in no (wo)man’s land in the mid-court. She had to take  a lot of difficult half volleys as a result which were easy pickings for the Dane.

The very fact that even Federer, the best aggressive player of this era, has hired Paul Annacone to improve his chip-n-charge proves that this part of our game is fast becoming extinct.

U.S. Open ’11: Mid Week Wrap Up

Sep 4, 2011 4 comments
The first week of U.S. Open had everything to offer ... except Irene

The first week of U.S. Open had everything to offer ... except Irene

Biggest Upsets

It was unfortunate (or does it further proves the presence of chaos in the WTA?) that the three women slam winners of this year all were out of the U.S. Open after the very first day. Kim Clijsters already pulled out with an injury, while Li Na continued to show her inconsistent form this year. She lost five straight matches after Australian Open, and has won only a couple of them after French Open. Of course, her run to the finals at Australian Open and the maiden Slam victory at French Open more than compensates for all her other failures. The Wimbledon champ, Petra Kvitova, is still looking for solutions to her hard court problems as she crashed out in the very first round as well.

Meanwhile, the men’s side has sailed pretty smoothly, barring the biggest shocker of the tournament, as the Mumma’s boy, Donald Young, finally became a man by defeating an ATP heavyweight in Stan Wawrinka. He came from two sets to one down, failed to serve out the match in the fifth, and then dominated the final set tie-breaker which brought the crowd to its feet. While such big upsets are usually followed by tame defeats, Young avoided that by upsetting the 24th seed, Juan Ignacio Chela in a very routine manner. Is this finally the arrival of the Donald?

Biggest Disappointments

Marin Cilic was a part in both of them. First he defeated the upcoming American youngster, Ryan Harrison, in a dominant fashion. What was disappointing was not that Harrison lost, but the tame manner in which he failed to put up any fight. All the hopes generated after his successful U.S. Open series were shattered barely two hours after the tournament commenced. Cilic continued his manhandling of youngsters, by surrending a mere three games to Bernard Tomic, who had raised a lot of hopes after his success at Wimbledon.

Biggest Positives

Donald Young, in all likelihood, will fail to win a set against Andy Murray in the fourth round (even though he had beaten him in their last encounter at Indian Wells this year), but the manner in which he held his nerves to beat a top seed in the final set tie-breaker was more than praiseworthy.

On the women’s side, the American teenager Sloane Stephens reached the third round of a Slam for the first time in her career. While she did not have a run like Melanie Oudin had in ’09, she does not show signs of fading like her, either. At 5’8″, she is considerably taller than her compatriot and will go stronger with time.

Bakery at Flushing Meadows

NewYork is known for bagels and breadsticks, and for good reason. While bagels are common on the women’s tour, this time it was prominent on the men’s tour too. Novak Djokovic almost created history when leading 6-0 6-0 2-0 against Carlos Berlocq, as the latter barely avoided the embarrasment of a triple bagel by winning a couple of games. Tomas Berdych also served a couple of bagels to Fabio Fognini. The others who cashed in includes Dolgopolov, Cilic, Tipsarvic (twice), Murray, Davydenko, Gasquet, Sela, Anderson, Hasse, Ferrer, Mayer, Mahut and … suprise surpise, Berlocq himself. In fact, it was pretty ironic for Berlocq, as he himself had a dominant first round victory that included a bagel and a breadstick.

David towers Goliath

At exactly six feet, Gilles Simon is half a foot shorter than Juan Martin del Potro and a good 30 pounds lighter. Del Potro has the massive serve and forehand, while Simon is just a hapless counterpuncher. Del Potro is a champion having won here in 2009 (and how!) while Simon is a now a father, and a former top-10 player. And yet, when the giant from Tandil met the diminutive Frenchmen, the roles were reversed. Simon hit four times as many aces as Del Potro (thirteen against three), committed half the number of double faults, and hit 11 more winners as he marched towards a four set win. Del Potro was hitting bigger during most of the match, but Simon outhit him when push came to shove. David downed Goliath once again.

The Great Escape

After the disappointment at the Aussie Open, Andy Murray has been tentative throughout. He has dug a lot of holes for himself through the year, and got out of them in fine fashion as well. A lot of times he was down a set and a break, but came back to win the match. In a lot of matches, he routinely went 4-0 or 5-0 down, only to win the set 7-5 or 7-6. It seems he needs the fear of embarrassment or upset to bring out his best. Turns out, that exactly was required against Robin Hasse, as he won the match despite being down two sets to love.

Searching for Nails

The exuberance and charisma of Gael Monfils against the consistency of Juan Carlos Ferrero. The acrobatics of Monfils, the calm of Ferrero. The over-the-top winners of Monfils, the clay-feet of Ferrero. A spectacular eighty one winners and twenty one aces from Monfils. Eighty one unforced errors and ten double faults from the same guy. Only two aces from Ferrero, yet one of them when he was 30-0 up in the final game. Difference of just one point between the two players. Five tough sets over four hours and forty eight minutes. What’s not to love?

… And some Drama

Andy Roddick, when asked about how he handled criticism from the media, gave them a dose of their own medicine. Djokovic, tired of impersonations, showed some of his dancing skills. Venus Williams’ outfit did not spark a controversy. Nadal had no injury problems during his matches, but collapsed with cramps during a press interview. Roddick later clarified saying, “Every single player in there has had that happen before. Every single one. What we do—we run around, run miles and miles and miles and miles on the tennis court in nasty weather—(and) you throw nerves in there. I mean, it happens. As long as it doesn’t happen during a match, you’re fine.”

Crystal Ball

Men’s Semifinalis: Djokovic d. Federer, Murray d. Roddick

Men’s Champion: Novak Djokovic

Women’s Semifinals: Serena d. Petkovic, Stosur d. Pennetta

Women’s Champion: Serena Williams