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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.

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?

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

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?

Silencing the Crowd

Jun 5, 2012 2 comments

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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