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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

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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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Sunday Bloodbath at Roland Garros

Jun 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Roland Garros had been enjoying lovely weather throughout the first week so far. It just did not feel right. Something had to give. And so Paris awoke to thick clouds, heavy winds and cold weather. Suddenly, the bright orange gladiatorial arena of Phillip Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen had changed its color. At dark red, it gave the familiar look of the graveyard which had once soaked up Roger Federer two years ago at the hands of Robin Soderling. The signs were ominous.

Victoria Azarenka had looked grumpy and cranky all week. Despite not winning any titles throughout the European swing, she had still played well enough to reach two finals, losing only to the best in Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. And now she faced another opponent, against whom she had never felt comfortable despite having a stellar head to head record. Dominica Cibulkova has been the Tomas Berdych to Azarenka’s Rafael Nadal. She nearly slayed the champion at Miami, and the heavy conditions today gave her the perfect opportunity to complete the unfinished task. She hit through Azarenka not afraid to go for her shots — she won the match point with a classic drop shot followed by a fierce backhand cross court winner — which she later affirmed, “I was proud of the way I went for my shots even in the tiebreaker.” As for Azarenka, she looked grumpy, cranky, tried to break her racket, then did break her racket (after four painful attempts) and the mindset carried over to the press, “I’m going to kill myself.” when asked how would she recover. Azarenka is not exactly comfortable on grass, and now without any grass court tune up for her, it is going to be equally tough for her at Wimbledon. As for Cibulkova, with Stosur, Stephens, Kerber and Errani left in her part of the draw, she must be fancying herself to one up her semis performance in 2009.

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The bloodbath continued at Chatrier. Novak Djokovic did not look at home. Thick blocks of mud popped up loosely from his shoes — rather than smooth sand granuels in sunny conditions. The court was left with deep patches of foot marks when he slided and it was trouble for him right from the start.

Andres Seppi plays a lot like Murray. He has short, compact swings, lacks pace on his shots but creates heavy angles, has good consistency and movement on clay. In short, exactly the kind of game that bothers the world no. 1. Coupled with the wind, it was hard work for the Serb as his slices floated long, the lack of pace did not allow him to take those fast, authoritative swings on backhand as he usually does, and even his return game went off. But unlike his counterpart on the women’s side, he never was baffled by the uncharacteristic calm — during the points and between points — of his opponent and bided his time even when he went down two sets to love, looking ripe for an upset. Despite being under the weather, he showed his Djokovician moments for a good part of the last three sets, and fought hard — against the opponent, weather, crowd and himself — for the rest. He was subdued right from the start till the end. His loud roars and chest pumping were absent, instead his acknowledgment after the match was more an expression of relief. He knew that 77 — seventy seven — unforced errors will not exactly get him the Djoker slam. Thankfully, every day is a new day in tennis. The important thing is to remain alive to experience the new day. Which Djokovic did.

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Side by side, Federer was battling it out, too. He said it is “strange” to play somebody who calls him his idol, even though “it has happened before.” It becomes even more difficult against someone who has nothing to lose, and bravely goes for his shots. It worked as David Goffin took the first set — yet another set Federer has lost this tournament — and led 5-4 in the second. At 15-30, he had an open court to put away a short backhand. A set point for yet another 2-0 lead against a heavy favorite was apparent. Goffin, the lucky loser — as John McEnroe reminded us at least 100 times during the match — must have had a thought of it too, as he put that backhand into the net.

The thought was there, but the hope vanished away after that. Federer won the second set 7-5, and cruised through the next two. Goffin played as well as he could in those two sets, but one could sense that neither he, nor Federer believed that the lucky loser — there, I said it again — had even a slight chance. Goffin delighted everybody as he fought valiantly. He even drew an extended applause after winning a point he should have lost at least three times, and then enjoyed it to the fullest by acknowledging the crowd for about half a minute. Even the maestro was “impressed”, as he gave him a great handshake and unruffled his hair after reaching his 32nd straight quarterfinal in a major.

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Lots of blood was shed on the two show courts today. One champion fell to it. Two others, while still alive, were heavily wounded. It wasn’t pretty to watch. One would hope that this was the only customary graveyard setting that Roland Garros has to show every year. And that it would bring back the bright orange gladiatorial arena come Monday.

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

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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


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.