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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.

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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: ,

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?

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

Novak Djokovic: Completing the Domination

Sep 10, 2011 7 comments
Feeling of Invincibility

Feeling of Invincibility

It is no secret that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are the two greatest players of this era and rank at or near the top in the list of all time. It is not difficult to see how Andy Roddick would have won multiple Wimbledon titles, or Andy Murray would have ended the British drought if it were not for these two men. Novak Djokovic himself struggled to compete against the two for a while and has gradually improved himself to the point where he is almost unbeatable against the two — well, everybody. Look at how he monumentally increased his performance at majors this year. First, he beat the defending champion, Federer, in Melbourne. Then he beat Nadal, again the defending champion, at Wimbledon. To top it off he beat both, Federer and Nadal, at New York.

I have mentioned many times that the Miami finals this year was the turning point in the rivalry. Actually, the trivalry. He beat Nadal at his own game — by outgassing him in the final set tie-breaker. Even after beating Nadal four times in the Masters, we still thought that is a different task to take three sets off Nadal in a major final (Nadal had lost just two major finals before this year). He did that at Wimbledon. Today, he completed his dominance over Nadal.

A scoreline of 6-2 6-4 6-7 6-1 loos like a routine four set win, completed somewhere around 3 hours. It was anything but. The actual time of this match was north of four hours spanned over 268 points. Most of those 268 points were contested in brutal, physical rallies of the highest magnitude, ones which we have rarely seen. Each point had to be won two, three or four times. One of these games lasted 17 minutes and rarely was there a game not going to deuce. They battled from the baseline, came to the net to hit volleys, were lobbed and had to scramble back to start the point over …. I can go on. The physicality of this four set match was even more than most of the five set epics that Rafa has played in his career.

In the past, Rafa had made a career on outlasting his opponents. After magically winning the tie-breaker with his extreme fighting ability, he had finally turned this match into a physical battle. Djokovic called for the trainer and did not hit a first serve above 100mph thereafter. Everybody thought Rafa would take the match in five. Except Rafa, that is. Because he used his entire fuel tank to bring cramps on his gulten-free opponent. When Djokovic hit the final forehand winner, Nadal did not make an attempt to reach for it. The tireless opponent was also robbed off every ounce of mental energy by then to fight any longer.

What a difference a year makes. What changed? Nadal said, “less mistakes.” Federer said the same. Djokovic called the change in his “attitude.” But one feels it is more than that. Nadal was broken just five times last year but Djokovic broke him 11 times today. The latter has taken the return of the serve to an entirely new level. Everybody, including Djokovic, felt that he was lucky on the return winner down 15-40 to Federer, but he showed today that it was not

Solutions? Still Looking ....

Solutions? Still Looking ....

mere luck. When Nadal’s signature serves wide from the ad court are blasted for return winners, you know you are witnessing something special. It might not be an overstatement to say that Djokovic did a great job “holding” his return of serve. The most scary statistic: Nadal lost every second point on his first serve. And this was when Nadal was not playing bad himself. He broke Djokovic six times in the first three sets and saved 15 break points. Even though his backhand was no match against Djokovic, he kept himself alive in rallies using great combination of slices, forehands and change of pace. He fought from the deepest hole when Djokovic was serving for the match in the third to extend it for another set.

In the end he kept everything in perspective during the press interview by saying he is closer to finding the solution than he was at Wimbledon. Which he is, considering he kept the scoreline same on his worst surface (hard courts) compared to Djokovic’s worst (grass). Djokovic, on the other hand, is still trying to come back to earth. When asked about his accomplishments this year he rightly said it will take time to realize what he has done. For him, as well as for us. 66-2 and counting …

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