Archive for the ‘Tennis’ Category

Graf – Seles 1990 Berlin – when the German wall of women’s tennis fell at Berlin

April 16, 2021

I have written previously about the Graf-Seles Australian Open 1993 final and the Graf-Sabatini 1991 Wimbledon final. The former match left the Graf-Seles rivalry at a tantalizing juncture, where Seles seemed to have sorted out Graf. The latter match saw Graf veer to the precipice of an ignominious choke before rallying back brilliantly to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.

But Berlin 1990 is where the troubles really began for the German who had dominated women’s tennis in the late 80s. Domination isn’t the word. Graf won her first slam at the French Open in 1987, followed it up with an unparalleled-in-the-graphite-era feat of four slams in a single year along with the Olympic gold in 1988 and won a further three slams in 1989. She also defended her Australian Open title for the second year running in 1990. She had ascended to no.1 on Aug 17, 1987 and was still the reigning no.1 when she met Seles at the German Open final in Berlin, 1990. She would only relinquish the no.1 spot on Mar 11, 1991…to Seles.

I chose to write about this match because over the years, Graf’s personal troubles concerning the blackmailing scandal have come to be attributed for this loss, with Graf herself voicing this narrative in an interview with Peter Bodo. However, that is not what I saw when I re-watched the match recently and further I spotted Seles exploiting some of the same patterns of play she would in future wins over Graf.

Coming into this match, Graf had won every match in the tournament in straight sets. She had also been undefeated all year up to that point, winning the Australian Open, Tokyo, Amelia Island and Hamburg. Thus, there was no sign yet that anybody was about to shake up her stranglehold over women’s tennis. Which is not the same thing as to say there was no sign yet that Graf’s level was more vulnerable than in 1988 or 89.

Graf won the Australian Open final that year in straight sets over Mary Joe Fernandez who was contesting her first slam final. But the affair wasn’t as comfortable for Graf as a straight sets score would suggest. Looking at this highlights reel would give you an indication of how laboured the match really was.

If that does not convince you, examining the stats for the match should. Graf made 29 unforced errors against 20 winners. Which sounds like a lot until you consider that Fernandez made the same number of errors against just 10 winners. It was a match in which both players hit not a lot of winners for a lot of errors.

There was then something sluggish and a tad erratic about 1990 Graf. So, no, it didn’t have much to do with the blackmail scandal and if I had to guess, I would explain it as fatigue catching up with Graf; she had worked herself to death to keep winning and ’90 was the first year tennis seemed to feel like a job for her. So why would Graf attribute that to the Seles loss at the German Open? Maybe because what she already saw left her apprehensive? Maybe because it was a convenient explanation retrospectively to adroitly deny the possible impact Seles’ stabbing could have had on her (Graf’s) career?

At any rate, watching Graf quickly win the first two games of the match, you see in fact the picture of regal confidence. Watch her swat the spare ball away at 26:45 after winning the last point of the game with a volley. Yup, there was, if anything, a swagger about her that day. As if telling the upstart Seles to bring it on.

Unfortunately for Graf, Seles did bring it on.

The ways in which Seles troubled her were both tactical and mental.

At both 51:24 and 51:50, Seles showed the courage to attack Graf’s forehand corner. Graf couldn’t get the ball past the net on the first occasion and on the second, produced a short lob that Seles hit a smash winner off. The conventional wisdom had been that one must attack Graf’s backhand because her forehand was so strong. But Seles was able to catch Graf moving to protect her backhand corner. You can hear the commentator point this out too. This used to make it hard for Graf to respond in time to fast and deep shots into her forehand corner, even with her being so quick on her feet. Seles exploiting this had the additional benefit of weakening Graf’s confidence in her forehand. As you can see in this match too, she often pressed and made wild errors at times on her forehand. 37:20 being a particularly bad one.

Seles also found that because Graf had such late preparation on her forehand, she could be rushed if forced to hit on the rise repeatedly. The point at 47:50 demonstrates this. At the first time of asking, Graf converts the half volley with a high but deep forehand. But Seles keeps up the pressure and asks the question again and this time, Graf blows it long. Seles’ brilliant ability to step inside the baseline and hit early and hard repeatedly meant that Graf wasn’t too comfortable engaging her in baseline arm-wrestles. In my post on the Australian Open match, I mentioned an example of Graf losing precisely such an arm-wrestle rally when she mistimed a forehand and let Seles get on top from thereon.

Seles also showed brilliant anticipation which resulted in her winning points in positions where Graf was used to winning the point herself. At 41:10, Seles is caught midcourt as Graf takes on her forehand squash slice with a topspin backhand. A shot she rarely uses so the unpredictability combined with Seles’ awkward court position should have done the job. And yet, Seles reaches at the ball with a one handed forehand and finds the open court for a winner!

Seles was also able to drag Graf wide on the backhand side and open the court up for a winner. So it wasn’t as if she gave Graf a pass on the backhand wing. No, rather, the pressure was relentless from both sides.

Which brings me to the mental aspect of it. Seles brought to bear a different kind of pressure from what Graf had been used to until then. She was used to serve and volley pressure from Navratilova, Shriver or even Sabatini on occasion. Sabatini also engaged her in grinding rallies from the baseline but Sabatini rarely hustled her or shrunk her response time. In those situations, Graf could afford to be patient and wear Sabatini down.

She could also count on the likes of Sabatini to capitulate under pressure on important points. Why, even Navratilova lost the US Open final of 1989 from a commanding position in the second set (having already won the first).

But Seles was both relentless and fearless. The onslaught of fast and deep balls on both sides forced Graf to hit on the rise way more than she enjoyed, forced her to respond sooner than was her wont. She also couldn’t count on Seles to crumble under break point pressure or choke away an advantageous position. If anything, these were the situations in which Seles seemed to thrive and produce her best.

One other tactical piece combined with the above to make Seles already an unique threat for Graf in 1990 – her returning. Graf had a great first serve but her second serve was decent, just getting the job done. Seles pounced on every weak-ish second serve, either hitting return winners or forcing the error anyway. This made Graf doubly anxious on her serve and she ended up conceding serve way more than she liked.

And so it was that after sprinting to a commanding 2-0 lead in the first set, Graf gradually disintegrated as Seles won 6-4 6-3 in barely over an hour.

One does not know if the blackmail scandal still weighed on Graf’s mind when she reached the French Open final later in the same month without dropping a set – only to lose yet again to Seles in straight sets!

While Seles would not win any more slams that year, neither did Graf. Graf also lost at the US Open as well as Virginia Slims finals to Sabatini that year, opening up a period where Sabatini kind of owned Graf.

Not just Sabatini – Novotna, Sanchez, lots of players began to bother Graf in 1991. Somehow, Graf won her only two encounters with Seles that year (neither of them coming at the slams) and with relative ease at that.

But the damage had already been done. Even when she wasn’t playing Seles, Graf no longer had the steely invulnerability, the quiet but cocky confidence of the late 80s. She could and did lose her rhythm frequently and found herself descending into a string of errors that would often lead to her expressing her frustration with herself rather vocally on court. It was finally in 1995 that Graf showed the clutch and wiliness of old as she prevailed in tough matches at the slams again and again (including against Seles at the US Open where Graf bounced back from a 6-0 drubbing in the second set).

That was then. But after the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, 1990 saw the fall of the German wall of tennis. In the space of a few weeks in May, Seles ended the reign of the once indomitable and utterly undisputed champion of women’s tennis.

Graf at Wimbledon ’91 – reluctant champion cheats death

July 29, 2020

Tennis is an intensely personal sport.  It’s played one-on-one (in the singles format) and the time taken between serves and between games gives enough breathing space for the audience to soak in the tension the players are going through.  With close up cam, we get to look at their feelings, their body language in brutal detail too. It thus offers a level of drama that other racquet sports like badminton or table tennis do not, hence its exalted popularity compared to them.

As a corollary, the most engaging matches aren’t always the most ‘high level’ ones, the ones with entire sets full of highlight reel worthy points, but the ones with a lot of drama, with a lot of emotions at stake.  For context:  no, I am a recreational tennis player, not a couch potato.  I am sorry if somehow the above formulation makes me a philistine but when I watch a match, I wear my viewer hat and it’s not only about the quality of the shotmaking or the tactical ins and outs.

Let’s talk about a match now that wasn’t the most superlative on quality but full of emotional context.  It is arguably one of the most important slam bouts of Steffi Graf’s long and storied career.  I am talking about the 1991 Wimbledon final where she prevailed over Gabriela Sabatini.  Final set score of 6-4 3-6 8-6.

Drill down into the break points saved numbers of the third set and you will get why it was so dramatic.  Sabatini saved none of four break points and Graf saved one of four.

Graf broke Sabatini in her very first service game of the third set but conceded it right back.  There was an interlude of service holds up to 4-4 at which point Sabatini broke Graf and served for the championship only to be broken.  Graf, however, failed to hold her own serve and offered Sabatini yet another chance to serve out the championship.  She failed, yet again.  This time, Graf held her serve and proceeded to break Sabatini to win the championship.

That’s as far as the drama is concerned.  To understand why the context mattered so much, we have to rewind a little and look at the juncture Graf found herself in going into this match.

The Graf of 1991 was a far cry from the one who notched up 9 slams from French Open 1987 to 1990 Australian Open.  The signs that the juggernaut was about to reach an end were already apparent in that Australian Open campaign as Graf produced a rather laboured performance in the final, while still seeing off Mary Joe Fernandez in straight sets.

By Berlin ’90, her form suffered further still and Monica Seles, who had already bothered her in their 1989 French Open encounter, bested her at both Berlin and, later, at French Open. A tough loss to a resurgent Zina Garrison followed.  After which, the match that really precipitated the nightmare phase – a straight set loss to Sabatini at the US Open final.  Graf’s whopping unforced errors count of 35 says it all.

That loss inaugurated a stunning streak of losses suffered by Graf at the hands of Sabatini.  Ok, not quite, as Graf beat her at Zurich and at Virginia Slims.  But thereafter, in five straight matches, all in 1991, Sabatini beat her.

Graf wasn’t having a happy time outside of this unexpectedly difficult phase in their rivalry either.

She managed to beat Novotna…at choking and lost a tough three setter at the Australian Open, losing in the quarters for the first time since ’88 and bringing an end to her reign as the three time champion (as well as defending champion) of that slam.

Worse followed at French Open where she coasted to the semis, helped by an easy draw, only to win just two games in a humiliating straight set loss to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario that included a bagel in the first.

So, coming into Wimbledon, the once invincible champion of women’s tennis, the first player (and only to date) to win all four slams in the same year since Margaret Court, appeared to be besotted by diffidence and a mental fragility hitherto not exhibited by her.  It seemed like Graf was a reluctant champion.

After all, Graf was famously shy even during those years of crushing dominance.  Nor was she known to be demonstrative on the court.  If she was, she was usually negatively demonstrative, admonishing herself for mistakes.  But she usually only exulted, say by way of raising her fist, after winning the match and kept it all in till then. And rarely did she smile.  It was if winning was but a job for her.  And bogged down by a combination of poor form, competition catching up with her and personal distractions, the job had become too taxing for her. Or so it seemed.

Cut to 5-6 in the third set, Graf receiving in a must win game to salvage the championship.

At 1:59:40 in the video posted above, Sabatini serving at 30-30.  Graf steps in for the return but it’s a bit too close to Sabatini’s racquet and she blocks it down the line.  Graf has to scramble back to hit a slice and Sabatini uses the opportunity to approach cross court with her own slice. Sensing that Graf will run around to hit a forehand, Sabatini covers well and hits a volley into the open court.  But before it dies, Graf, sprinting across the length of the baseline, stretches to make a down the line forehand pass.  Because the ball is dying on her, she has to dig it out and her pass loops high.  Sabatini makes a high backhand volley off it.

Once again, Sabatini neither gets it to die on the other side of the net nor quite out of Graf’s reach and Graf digs it out with a beautiful drop-slice.  Note that Graf has got to the ball even before Sabatini can recover position from her backhand volley.  And so, Sabatini can’t get to the drop slice at all and it’s break point.  And it is then that Graf raises her left arm with a single finger outstretched in exultation. Her head remains down but there is now a determination in her eyes.

Graf has to serve at 6-6, hoping to hold serve and get into a set-score lead that can be vital in the dying stages of the last set.  In a tough service game, she gets to 40-30.  Point starts at 2:03:27.  After Graf directs a few forehands to Sabatini’s backhand, she changes the play with a skidding slice.  Sabatini reacts with a slice-approach off it, again directed to Graf’s backhand.  It’s a deep approach and Graf, running around her backhand, has to get a couple of feet away from the baseline only to still find herself cramped.

Even so, she makes a screamer of an inside out forehand pass with Sabatini a long way away from it even when she was covering that angle.  This time, when Graf raises her left arm again in exultation, she holds her head high and exults loudly too.  She also permits herself a toothy smile as she walks over to the chair for change of ends, the pressure firmly back on Sabatini.

Even if reluctantly, Graf embraces the part of being champion.  It is as if she instinctively realises that the only way to get out of this jam is to show some ‘swag’ and impose herself.

Sabatini played a timid game at 6-7 and found herself down double championship points.  Serving at 2:07:48.  Graf whacks a forehand winner off her timid serve and leans back before raising the left hand (again) with a big smile on her face.  But the most dramatic gesture is Graf’s parents kissing each other for quite a while, overcome by emotion.

Some players would have been thrilled to win a slam title in the sixth slam after the previous one.  For Graf and her parents, that wait had clearly felt unbearable. The celebration, then, was tinged with relief.  If at all Graf had harboured any doubts over whether she still wanted the burdensome mantle of tennis champion, she had now clearly decided she wanted it by extricating a win from the jaws of defeat…and on two occasions in the same set at that.

Had Graf lost in a tight third set here too, there’s no saying how things would have shaped up for her. It’s possible that a loss here would have sent her spiraling into deeper self doubt and diffidence.  As it happened, this win brought Sabatini’s streak of success against her to an end.

In their first two meetings of 1992, Sabatini prevailed again.  But the circumstances were different now. Graf was just coming off an injury-induced hiatus that had forced her to miss the Australian Open.  Losses to Sabatini at Miami and Amelia Island did not deter Graf from a strong showing at the French Open where she lost in a tight third set to Seles.

And this time, rather than feeling disheartened by the loss, Graf came into Wimbledon newly resurgent and mounted a vintage campaign.  While Graf produced many great slam campaigns after that one, that may have been one of the last glimpses we got of her delightfully exaggerated split step.  At Wimbledon 1992, Graf was simply omnipresent on the court; opponents couldn’t get a ball past her.  Sabatini fared no better as she lost 3-6 3-6 to Graf.  After this loss, Sabatini never won again against Graf.

But the tide turned not at the 1992 Wimbledon but the previous year.  If Graf regained badly needed self-belief, Sabatini seemed to lose hers.  While Sabatini did reach plenty more semi finals, she never reached a grand slam final again after Wimbledon ’91.  And her US Open triumph over Graf proved to be her first and only slam win over Graf in their long rivalry.

Graf grasped ascendancy in a rivalry where she was getting hammered by digging deep and embracing at least temporarily the superficial trappings of a champion tennis player.  The exultation, the swagger, the jubilation.   That makes this particular Wimbledon final more memorable than many others on either side of it.

Tennis tactics – learning from the Australian Open 1993 final (Graf-Seles)

July 3, 2020

TL DR:  It was not Graf backhand breaking down/stubborn slicing that lost her the match but Seles unexpectedly and brilliantly adjusting her tactics by stepping inside and taking the ball very early and Graf’s own inability to replicate that due to her late contact on the forehand.  As well, Seles’ ability to hurt Graf on the forehand corner not only won her points but eventually shattered Graf’s confidence in her trusted weapon.

Detailed analysis follows below.

The Australian Open (AO) 1993 women’s singles final between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles was at the time regarded as possibly the greatest grand slam women’s singles final.  It would still rank as one of the best.  While that has more to do with ‘drama’, the narrative itself was fascinating.  They had split their two grand slam encounters in 1992 (and the only two times they played each other that year), with Seles winning with great difficulty at the French Open and Graf romping to a straight sets win at Wimbledon (which however came under the cloud of Seles being instructed not to grunt).  Whether rightly or not, the Australian Open bout was seen as a ‘neutral’ venue to ‘decide’ the match up.

I put these words in quotes because these are simplistic and fallacious parallels often drawn by tennis fans (and even the commentators at times, in trying to spice up the proceedings) to boxing, but tennis does not operate like boxing. Nevertheless, Nastase himself said in the run up to the Australian Open 2009 final that Nadal was already the king of clay and with the 2008 Wimbledon win, was the king of grass so the question now was whether he could become king of hard court as well.  This, of course, ignores Federer’s two prior triumphs over Nadal at Wimbledon (in fact Fed owns the Wimbledon H2H comfortably at 3-1 over Nadal but you wouldn’t know it to hear the punditry) and also that there is a second hard court slam, US Open, which doesn’t play quite like AO.

Speaking of Federer-Nadal, there is likewise a temptation on the part of tennis fans to equate their rivalry to Graf-Seles.  Right-left, one hander-double hander, the parallels seem obvious.  And yet, they are inaccurate and the differences between their match ups underline how good Nadal had to be to take on Federer on his own turf and beat him there.

I will get to those differences during the analysis but another reason, apart from the ‘drama’ angle, why this match is interesting is such matches have become rare at the WTA.  Due to the lack of heavyweight bouts, players simply play their own game against each other (this isn’t my say so, Evert and Navratilova said so as well). Matches can be exciting to watch but rarely do we come across tactical patterns in the match up in the way there were in Graf-Seles (and likewise in Big 4 match ups).

I will post the best quality full match link I could find on Youtube as also the tennis abstract charts.  After quickly running through the statistical highlights, I will discuss the point patterns and how they related to strengths and weaknesses.

 

I strongly recommend opening the above video in YouTube so that you don’t have to scroll up again and again to look at different stamps.  And below are the stats:

http://www.tennisabstract.com/charting/19930130-W-Australian_Open-F-Steffi_Graf-Monica_Seles.html

From the statistics, it can be seen why this match is highly regarded. Graf had 21 winners to 33 unforced errors and Seles had 29 winners to 37 unforced errors.  A net positive ratio would look amazing but considering the pace at which both traded blows, those are solid numbers. Graf had first serve won percentage of 60.3% and 50% on second serve.  Seles had 65.4% and 57.1% respectively.  Just how often do you see both finalists win 50% or more points of second serve?  Not very often unless it’s a Williams sisters special. Osaka and Kvitova played out a solid final too at the AO in 2019 and their second serve numbers were 45.2% and 46.3% respectively. Kenin had outstanding second serve numbers this year but Muguruza managed only 29.4%. Halep was sub 50% as well in 2018 v/s Wozniacki. My point is made. It was a high quality, hard fought final on balance.

However, let me drill down on these numbers to dispel an oft paraded myth about this match (again, a myth that Mary Carillo herself helped popularise).  People point to these numbers to say Seles beat Graf all ends up in every department in spite of Graf pulling out all stops.  That is half-true and half not-true.  There is a good reason why we look at setwise numbers because the story of each set is different.  That’s the case here too.  Here is a rather big-ass table with the numbers.  You can, of course, find the same numbers on the tennis abstract link as well:

 

First serve in % First serve won % Second serve won % RPW% Winners Unforced Errors
Set 1  
Graf 72.7 58.3 66.7 46.7 7 10
Seles 63.3 52.6 54.5 39.4 12 16
Set 2  
Graf 64.0 56.3 55.6 34.6 6 10
Seles 53.8 71.4 58.3 44.0 11 12
Set 3  
Graf 69.2 66.7 25.0 29.2 8 13
Seles 79.2 73.7 60.0 46.2 6 9

We see a few patterns from this data:

  1. In both sets 1 and 2, Graf got in a lot of first serves but wasn’t winning a particularly high percentage off them.  Whereas Seles got in fewer first serves but won more off it (particularly set 2).
  2. In set 3, both upped their first serve game but Seles to unbelievable levels.  Graf got in 69.2% and won 66.7%, which makes it the most she won off her first serve (if we count all first serves as opposed to just the ones she got in). But Seles got in a whopping 79.2% and still won 73.7% of those first serves.  Basically she shut Graf out of 58.3% of all first serves in set 3.
  3. Corresponding to this, Graf’s RPW kept dropping from excellent numbers in the first set to pretty mediocre in the third while it was the opposite for Seles.
  4. Graf’s second serve won % again was incredible in set 1, solid in set 2 and abysmal in set 3. Seles was solid in set 1 and got better and better, reaching 60% in set 3.
  5. The last interesting aspect is the winners to UEs of both. Graf’s numbers were almost the same in both set 1 and set 2 and her winners were single digit.  She was waiting on Seles to make the play. Seles made the play in both set 1 and 2.  In set 1, she was less successful with a higher gap between winners and UEs but in set 2, she narrowed the difference to a net -1. This seemed to turn the tables and it was Graf who got more desperate to make the play in set 3.  But she only succeeded in slightly improving winners for significantly more UEs, while Seles’ numbers mirrored Graf’s in the first set.

From these data points by themselves, we can conclude a few things that are also corroborated by what we see in the match.  Seles started slow and got better through the match while Graf started strong and struggled to keep up the level throughout the match.  And in the third set, just as Seles peaked, Graf played her worst tennis of the match, resulting in the most lop sided of the three sets.  From the visual of Graf clutching her abdomen and lightly rubbing it at 1:25:52 (among other indications), we can also infer that the prolonged physical and tactical battle had worn down Graf both physically and mentally (OK, sounds kinda captain obvious when I put it that way!). This could also be why she pretty much gave up on the last game of the match (uncharacteristically so), bringing a tame end to an otherwise hard fought and very interesting contest.

Now let’s get to the analysis.  As I mentioned earlier, there are significant differences between this and the Federer-Nadal matchup and hence, applying the ‘Seles attacked Graf backhand to win’ theory is flawed.

  1. Federer is one of the best in the business on the men’s side when it comes to hitting on the rise with possibly only Djokovic and Agassi shading him among the all time greats.  The equivalent early/on the rise great on the women’s side is Seles, not Graf.
  2. Conversely, Graf in fact takes the ball pretty late on the forehand side where Federer takes it early.  This does not make it not a weapon but it does impose some limitations which took a creative tactician like Seles to expose.
  3. Even being the older player, Graf was still a better athlete than Seles.  This was evident especially at Wimbledon ’92, where the rain made the grass slick and Graf had no problems running the entire length of the baseline to cover court while Seles was rushed.  On the other hand, Nadal in his twenties was a panther and certainly quicker than Federer. Related, this is why the outcome of the AO match may not have necessarily predicted a USO duel between Seles and Graf (and while both those were post stabbing, Graf did beat Seles at USO on those occasions).  This is counter-intuitive, but the pace of the court makes it harder for Seles to take it early in the case of Wimbledon/USO while it gives Graf more pace to work with so that her late contact doesn’t necessarily result in weak shots, while at AO she HAS to strike the ball hard every time.
  4. Federer comes over the backhand a lot and while he does often run around his backhand, he doesn’t always park himself in the backhand corner.  Hence, the patterns Nadal needed to employ to hurt Federer were different from Seles against Graf.

Let’s discuss movement a little more as we start to break down the chinks in Graf’s armour that Seles exploited.  In terms of pure physical movement, Graf was monstrously good. I mentioned Wimbledon ’92; check out from 6:05.  Seles has opened up the forehand corner and attacks but Graf manages to hang in there with incredible hustle and eventually wins the point with impossible mobility (note: this is the first and last reference to the Wimbledon match and all timestamps up ahead will be of the AO match again).

HOWEVER, when it comes to tactically using the movement to her advantage, Graf wasn’t the greatest.  For one thing, she tended to lean on moving to the backhand corner all the time.  This meant that sometimes she struggled to move from to the right of the hash mark to the forehand corner to cover an attack into that area.

Watch the point at 16:30.  Seles’ return is into Graf’s forehand side and she hits a reasonably good forehand but down the middle and Seles sends a harder, flatter stroke closer to singles alley.  This time, Graf is unable to cover the two steps she needs to get to the ball in time and is forced to lob. Seles is quick to seize on the opportunity and hits a swing volley off the lob for a winner.

There are two observations also to be made from that point, apart from demonstrating how Seles was able to time and again open up the forehand side even without grinding down the Graf backhand in the way Nadal would have against Federer. The first is that Graf’s shot selection was not always purposeful through the match and she served up many neutral balls with pace for Seles to redirect suitably.  Seles on the other hand targeted the court geometry astutely to set up points.  Related is the second point, which is that Graf didn’t hit a single swing volley in the match.  Graf did approach the net a few times and was successful in her endeavours on balance but the reason she didn’t approach more often is she tended to rush straight to net rather than use transition steps.  This suggests to me that she was somewhere not feeling super comfortable taking forehands early and inside the court on that day (and in general too, I would not say she used the short ball forehand as much as you’d expect an attacking baseliner like her to).

The point at 1:28:34 (facing break point on her serve at 2-3 in the third set) highlights the above.  Seles floats the return.  All Graf has to do is step in and kill the forehand.  But watch her footwork into the shot.  First of all, she is not moving in decisively.  She watches the ball for quite a bit before deciding she has to step in.  And then, she takes several short steps to get to the ball instead of big, ‘dancing’ steps. As a result, she’s both a bit late getting to the ball and also lacking the momentum big steps would give her.  The outcome: she blows an easy forehand way long and walks off in a huff, the decisive, ‘fatal’ break of serve duly handed over to Seles.

Let’s change tacks a bit now.  As we can see from the stats, the first set was very closely matched.  After a nervous start, Seles steadied and Graf assisted her by handing back the early break as she had a brief walkabout in a service game.  But Graf held an edge throughout the first set and Seles conceded the break again, this time down 4-5, giving Graf the set.

It looked all nicely set up for Graf going into 1-1 in the second.  But, against the run of play, she went off the boil even as Seles produced a couple of great returns and conceded the early break.  From there on, the patterns of the first set more or less continued. Graf still seemed to be producing more weight of shot with Seles often standing a little behind the baseline to handle the barrage.  But Graf wasn’t able to create break points coming into the game at 4-3, a Seles service game.  This was a must win game for Graf and for Seles, it was particularly important to shut Graf out of this game.

The very first point of this game, starting 59:26 on the Seles second serve, shows Seles changing the pattern.  Note here: Seles was in the lead but it was she, and not Graf, who chose to break the pattern to grab the bull by the horns. Anyhow, as the rally starts, we notice Seles now staying put inside the baseline. And she keeps boldly attacking the Graf forehand (NOT the Graf backhand) with it. Graf keeps hitting forehands down the middle but is rattled by the time taken away and at 59:34, produces a weaker forehand. It’s not a floater, it’s just a little slower.  But it’s enough for Seles to immediately adjust the angle and pull Graf wide.  Graf copes well the first time around but the second time of asking, she is forced to lob, yet again.  Graf defends Seles’ smash well but Seles steps in again to attack Graf’s forehand yet again.  This time, Seles smashes the Graf lob right on the line and wins the point.

In fact, as a contrast to the above, at 1:02:00 (30 all), Graf returns with the slice and stays on slice throughout.  It’s Seles who ends up pulling her attempted down the line winner long.  What is interesting is Seles persisted with the pattern even though this delivered mixed results.  The reason for this could be that Seles wanted to keep Graf off-balance and not let her get used to one pattern of play.

Two contrasting attacks into Graf’s backhand slice suggest as much.  In the above game, the point at deuce (1:03:12) has Seles trading forehands with Graf’s slice.  But notice she is often dropping the forehands short or hitting them off-pace.  This was intentional; she was softening Graf and lulling her into a repetitive pattern.  Note: Graf did not switch the pattern at any point in the rally to a topspin backhand even though, no, she was not being rushed and it would not have been impossible to come over on the backhand on those balls. Graf also maintains the more conservative court position of the two even though Seles is not rushing her on the backhand. At 1:03:58, Seles baits Graf with a forehand bouncing on the service line.  Graf duly slices it back cross court.  But she has now given Seles too much time and Seles simply steps in and goes down the line.  This shot failed her at 30 all but she didn’t back off; she went for it and this time hit it with a lot of margin.  With Graf now safely ensconced in a comfort zone in the backhand corner, she didn’t even budge even though Seles’ shot wasn’t very deep nor hit at a blistering pace. Seles had masterfully lulled her into ignoring a weak court position.  It’s like chess, pretty much.  Graf was evidently furious with herself and tried to jump all over the second serve on game point, but only managed to deposit the forehand into the net.

Contrast this with another pivotal point, this time from the third set.  1:32:25.  Seles leading 4-2 and serving at deuce, Graf again needing very badly to break her to stay in the hunt.  Seles again worked Graf into a slice handcuff but through a different route this time.  In the point from the second set, Graf had hit a down the line slice return that Seles had immediately gone cross court off, forcing Graf to move across to her backhand corner.

In this point from the third set, Graf, now wise to Seles’ tactics, hits the return inside out (yes, an inside out slice landing only a few feet inside the baseline!). Seles hits it back to Graf’s backhand with Graf now standing in the middle. Graf now pushes the slice much closer to singles alley at which point Seles has her on the run on the forehand. But not hard enough to produce a lob.  Again, Seles is baiting her, offering her a shot at a forehand winner.  Graf doesn’t bite and hits a strong but not lethal cross court forehand. Seles switches back to a backhand attack. We seem to be drifting back into a pattern similar to the point from the second set.

Until, at 1:32:45, Seles ratchets up the pace and depth, pushing Graf on the defensive.  Look at the very next Seles shot, how far inside she steps in to take her shot.  She is going almost half volley and you can see Graf has to hurry to set up her next shot. I wish there was close-up slo-mo of this point (and especially this juncture of the point) but it looks to me as if Graf is kind of scooping up the slice to force a drive on it.  She is rushed and not able to cut through the ball as much as she would normally.

Once again, instead of grinding down Graf with more such on the rise shots, Seles baits Graf creatively.  She offers her a softer ball and Graf immediately switches the line of attack from Seles’ backhand to her forehand.  It is now Graf baiting her to go down the line on her forehand.

Seles duly takes the bait but not in the way Graf would have wanted.  At 1:32:52, Seles hits it down the line with a short-ish length and decent but not extravagant pace.  It’s also not too close to the line.  It’s a smart target, basically. Graf now has to run a few steps across to cover the forehand.  You can tell from her moan she is not enjoying that.

In fact, Seles makes a calculated bet that Graf is hiding her queasiness on the forehand side after previous errors on big points.  She trusts Graf to be tentative on the shot and sure enough, look at the forehand Graf hits.  It’s a few feet short of the service line and yet not short enough to be short-angle.  It’s a nothing-burger basically and Seles easily covers it.  Once more, rather than going for the kill, Seles baits Graf, pretty much inviting her to go cross court on the forehand again.  But Seles’ shot is deeper this time and Graf in her anxiousness to attack, ends up getting rushed.  She has to hit way closer to the bounce than she prefers and she ends up botching the forehand as it sails way long.  The mixture of anger and exasperation on Graf’s face says it all; she has checked out of the match at this point.

In a certain sense, then, the diehard Graf fans have it right.  It was not Seles troubling Graf through 1991-92 and instead, when Graf was able to play her best, her athleticism and power could overwhelm Seles (Wimbledon as well as US Hardcourt championships ’91).  Hence, Seles had to construct a gameplan around outthinking her, not outhitting her.  Seles had to push Graf into a pattern where she would beat herself and that is exactly what happened by the end of the match. Seles also showed great flexibility in making adjustments mid-match and proactively, not reactively.  She could have easily been lulled into repeating the same patterns at 4-3 in the second set.  The result likely would have been Graf breaking her and maybe going on to win the match.  But she stayed one step ahead of Graf.  Likewise, when Graf belatedly started to adjust her returning patterns, Seles was once again wise to the change and adjusted her own attack to keep Graf off-balance.

From a recreational player’s point of view, these are some of the takeaways from this match:

  1.  Rather than pure power, understanding the geometry of where you position yourself in the court and where you hit the ball to is not only more important but more effective as well.
  2. Except when you are defending big hitting from the other side, it is important to be purposeful with your groundstrokes.
  3. This is an elaboration of 2. If you’re inclined to follow a low-risk, defensive strategy, go deep at your opponent’s weakness.  If you want to be aggressive, go wide at your opponent’s strength. That is, make them play the shot rather than try to put it where they cannot make a shot because the latter is not only harder, but involves you taking on much more risk than you may like.
  4. On the return, when coming over, hit deep down the middle to take time away without losing margin. When slicing, go short angle or at least closer to the lines.  It is harder to run towards a low slice and get under it. Down the middle and you’re giving the server too much time to choose an angle of their choice.

Konta-Vekic, thank you for the tennis!

July 6, 2017

IRL (In Real Life), finding tennis fans in India is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Finding those who watch the early rounds of the slams is even harder (ATP 1000? 500?  Forget it!).  The thinking is these matches simply aren’t worth your time; mostly the top seeds sail through in embarrassingly one sided contests.  What’s there to see?

The key lies in the word ‘mostly’ as devoted tennis aficionados will confirm.  There are always exceptions to the rule and us crazed tennis fans bear with the beatdowns because we hope, nay, we know we will be rewarded with a thriller.

Our ilk reaped a rich reward yesterday, thanks to Johanna Konta and Donna Vekic who played one of the most remarkable matches that at least I have seen in women’s tennis.  And I am certain that I have never seen more clutch serving from both players in a women’s tennis (in singles, to be clear).  7-6 4-6 10-8.  And this was Day 3, Round 2 of Wimbledon.  Yep!

Yesterday, Konta and Vekic played a match worthy of a final.  On a cynical note, I dread the possibility that in fact the final may not live up to the quality both women produced.  The numbers speak for themselves.  The two women produced 23 aces between them, with both getting into double digits. Both made a healthy percentage of their first serves and both won 80% (give or take a few percentage points) of those first serves that landed in. Konta hit 55 winners against 21 unforced errors and Vekic hit 42 against 24.  Those are outstanding numbers.  Also, against most opponents, 42 against 24 would have sealed the deal.  So it’s stunning that Vekic in fact fell substantially short of Konta on that count.

As the high percentage of points won on first serve and number of aces indicate, the serving was out of the world.  Except…that it wasn’t really, in terms of pure pace. Konta averaged 105 mph on first serve and Vekic 106.  The average second serve speeds were quite close to that of the first delivery – 91 mph for both.  Anyhow, not mind blowing pace.  But wonderful placement, great angles, variety as well, particularly Konta who threw in the kicker on crucial second serves.  It saved break point at 8-8 in the third set, as Vekic took a big cut regardless, hoping (but failing) to convert the opportunity.  Kick second serves in the clutch, is this ATP?

The match did have an ATP like quality, considering there were only 6 breaks of serve in a three setter with a long third set.  The other thing that was ATP like about it was a purposefulness that is far too often missing in WTA matches (notably the French Open final).  Instead of seemingly random shot selection leading to a litany of errors, both players used their serve to set up a strong second shot and control the point from thereon.  And with many serves going unreturned, there was an unusual degree of pressure in any baseline rally because it gave the receiver a rare chance to grab a point off the opponent’s serve.

Beyond the numbers and the tactical fine points though was the aforesaid tension.  Not drama but tension.  Tension that those who have watched big servers go at each other at Wimbledon would be familiar with.  This match was settled by fine margins, not wild swings of momentum.  Vekic was in a position to serve out the first set and failed to hold.  Konta took it in a tiebreak.  The second set was the only one with a bit of see-sawing, breaks traded before Vekic held her nerve to close it out.

The third was literally an epic unfolding before your eyes.   You watched both players hold tough on serve, determined to out-stare the other into blinking first.  And then there was 0-30.  This was it, you thought.  And then there were two aces.  Poof!  Gone, no sooner than it had appeared, the chance to break.  And then this happened in the next game on the other player’s serve.  And she too served her way out of trouble.  At 6-6, you thought somebody would wilt.  Somebody looked like she might wilt.  Somebody fooled you right and proper; she was going to play on.

At 9-8, the pressure of serving behind Konta finally got to Vekic, who was probably also dwelling on the disappointment of the previous game where she missed the one break point opportunity.  But no, even at 30-40 match point, she served – you guessed it – an ace!  Konta roared right back to create another match point.  And this time, there would be no next time.  At long last, Vekic made an unforced error at an inopportune moment.  Somebody had to.  It was the only way to declare a winner in the contest.

If that evokes Federer-Roddick 2009 Wimbledon final for you, you are not alone.  It is the match I was most reminded of.  As I said at the outset, a match worthy of a final.  A match where two slender, graceful women played like gladiators, conceding nary an inch to each other, in the process smashing (hopefully) many stereotypes.  So…that’s the reason you should watch Round 2 of Wimbledon.  Because when you don’t expect a match like this and you get it, it’s something else.  Something like Konta-Vekic.

Ostapenko stuns clueless Halep

June 11, 2017

In the run up to the women’s final, I remarked on a tennis forum that Jelena Ostapenko seemed to be on the sort of dream run that we haven’t seen in our sport for a long time and could win.   By beating Simona Halep in three sets in the final, Ostapenko ensured I wouldn’t have the foot in my mouth for making this ‘prediction’.   But it didn’t pan out quite the way I had expected or hoped for.

Early in the match, Ostapenko approached the net and was faced with a pass coming into her backhand.  She used both hands to steer the ball into the open court rather than make a conventional volley.  It was effective (on that occasion) but awkward.  And surely any tennis player with their wits about them would have smelt an opportunity right there.  It’s how Federer used to beat giants like Juan Martin Del Potro.  When you are not confident at the net, even wing span cannot help and Fed would draw such players into the net with a short slice/chip and pass them.  He would make sure the pass would dip, forcing the player to volley up (which is much more difficult).  Angelique Kerber used dipping passes superbly against Serena Williams at last year’s Australian Open final; Serena couldn’t volley up if her life depended on it that day.   A player who uses both hands on the volley would likely struggle to volley up.  At any rate, a gambit worth trying.

And yet, Halep didn’t try it.  Didn’t try pretty much anything other than to “play her game”, the cliched expression used these days in women’s tennis. Fans of Halep have often argued that she compensates for her diminutive stature with her brain.  But there wasn’t much evidence of this on Saturday.  Halep kept feeding Ostapenko in the strike zone and Ostapenko swung with all her might.  She committed 54 unforced errors but also made 54 winners.  Meanwhile, Halep made a measly 8 winners which negated her low unforced error count of 10.

The way to negate somebody playing a low percentage ultra aggressive game is to upset their rhythm, move them forwards and backwards rather than just laterally and give them different speeds, spins and bounces.  Things that Andy Murray did against Stan Wawrinka in the semi final on Friday.  He still lost in 5 sets but that was because Wawrinka was wise to these tactics and by the fourth set had adapted well to them.

We do not know if Ostapenko could or could not have adapted.  Because Halep didn’t try.  She didn’t make her hit low volleys or smash high, deep lobs.  Ostapenko won 7 out of 9 net points but these were juicy swing volleys. With Halep’s weak serve coming for some serious punishment at the hands of the feisty Ostapenko, her best bet was to disrupt her baseline rhythm and force her to hit shots she would rather not.

But that wouldn’t fit into Halep’s gameplan, no?  Which appeared to be to wail louder and longer after every shot than Ostapenko and pound every groundie with all her might.  This was in spite of encouraging results when she did fitfully change the play.  There was one fairly long rally (in a mostly extreme ‘first strike’ match) in the first set where Halep resorted to moonballing and it worked.  But these appeared to be more get-out-of-trouble last resort options and not a switch to a slower pace of game where perhaps she may have had more control over the proceedings.  Instead, she left the match entirely on Ostapenko’s racquet.

And full credit to Ostapenko, she took it.  She persisted with her incredibly simple gameplan of hit and hit harder and did not flinch even when she was trailing by a set and three games. Had she, with an eye on the big prize, second-guessed herself, Halep may well have stolen it from her. But she concluded in pretty much the same emphatic, albeit one dimensional, fashion that she started the match.  She broke Halep in the first game of the match and did so in the final game as well to win the trophy.  And, in her own words, Halep was a mere spectator in the end.

Kerber and the pressure of no.1

May 29, 2017

I am writing on tennis after a long while and as I sit to write, the hot topic is the ‘shock’ exit of world no.1 Angelique Kerber in the first round of the French Open, in fact on the opening day.  On a day marked by a one sided win for Grigor Dimitrov and yet another listless display by Bernard Tomic, it was Petra Kvitova who provided entertainment.  If Kerber’s match against Ekaterina Makarova provided something, it was mostly fodder for armchair psychologists.

Let’s start with why I put the word shock in single quotes. Because it was a defeat that many people, be they journalists or amateur bloggers, had smelt the moment Kerber was drawn against Makarova in the first round. Makarova’s current ranking of 44 (which left her unseeded in the French Open) belies her pedigree and with Kerber being woefully out of form, facing an aggressive Makarova with nothing to lose was not the way she would have hoped to launch her French Open campaign.

By now, defeat is hardly a stranger to Kerber, at least so far as 2017 is concerned.  She has a horrific win-loss tally of 19-13. World no.1s do not notch up so many losses in just the first half of the season.  Elina Svitolina, Daria Kasatkina, Elena Vesnina, Anett Kontaveit, many are the players who can boast of having beat Kerber this year.  That she may lose to Makarova was not a surprising outcome.

What was nevertheless disturbing (and which made for uncomfortable viewing) was her resigned air and diffidence throughout the match.  Her movement was sluggish (she blames it on clay, but look at her losses this year and you will find it has generally been a problem and a pretty big one for a counterpuncher like her), her shot making tentative and her body language negative in the extreme.  As Makarova punished a serve that barely touched 140 ks (screaming forehand winners are sometimes clocked at 160 ks), Kerber’s shot tolerance fell off a cliff and she pulled the trigger way too soon way too many times.  In just over an hour, she had been packed off, managing just 4 games in her straight sets defeat.   Her shoulders slumped pretty early in the match (if not from the get go) and stayed that way till the end, much like Eugenie Bouchard in her prolonged slump.

I have written earlier about Bouchard’s own rise and fall and yet to be concluded struggle for form (by the way, even Bouchard beat Kerber this year!).  At least, Bouchard was a young player thrust into the SW19 spotlight against an opponent who outplayed her in all departments.  It is understandable that a player ostensibly pump primed to believe she was the future of women’s tennis would be shaken to learn the reality (which was more unflattering).

But Kerber is no greenhorn.  She has been around since 2007 and made deep forays into grand slams from 2011.  She has on occasion beaten both Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep among other top players.  She is not new to this as such.

And yet, she has increasingly looked tormented on the court  and unable to get on with the business of playing tennis (in one article, she mentioned paying too much attention to where she was in the race to Singapore and such other noise).  Her mental strength has, as expected, been called into question with her ignominious run of defeats this year (she hasn’t won a title in 2017 yet).  But it was her mental strength which was praised when she overcame Serena last year at the Australian Open.  Besides, a counterpuncher cannot consistently remain in the top 10 or so of tennis, as she has, without mental strength because by definition, a counterpuncher doesn’t rely on huge weapons to win.

Instead, the problem is simply that she is no.1.  The pressure of being no.1 is not easy to handle for many players as her travails this year show (or Andy Murray’s for that matter).  In the immortal words of Shakespeare, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and right now, Kerber seems to be more ill at ease than Macbeth himself.

Some players may manage to get to no.1 but only a few of them in turn can hold on to it for a long time.  For one thing, the tour wakes up and starts chasing them and in doing so picks holes in their game.  For another, the weight of expectations, self imposed and external, may become a hindrance to free expression of the player’s talent.   Let me take this opportunity, then, to close with a tribute to the ultimate hustler in tennis and the man who spent more consecutive weeks at no.1 than any other barring Roger Federer – Jimmy Connors.  It’s not easy to stay at no.1 and he stayed there for 160 consecutive weeks (and a career total of 268).  Many great players have left their mark on the game since his time but on these two parameters, he remains firmly in the all time top five of men’s tennis.

Ever since Pete Sampras chased Roy Emerson’s tally of 11 slam titles, slams have become the key factor in determining a player’s greatness.  I do not contend that it is not, but there is a tendency increasingly to forget about how long the player could hold on to no.1.  Because there is no truer measure of domination than the no.1 ranking.  There is also no greater measure of just how much the player thrives (or doesn’t) under pressure.  As Kerber’s 2017 suggests, sometimes no.1 can even be a curse.  For Connors, it secured his place in the pantheon of all time greats and any time somebody scoffs at ‘only’ 8 slams, remind him or her that only a very few like Federer, Sampras and Lendl could vault over Connors in the true test of domination, indeed the ultimate pressure cooker in tennis.

 

Watch out for Belinda Bencic

August 18, 2015

Belinda Bencic, an 18 year old Swiss player, won the Toronto WTA Premier title (equivalent of ATP 1000) on Sunday, beating Simona Halep who retired even as she was falling apart in the decider.  Bencic also beat Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Sabine Lisicki, Caroline Wozniacki and Eugenie Bouchard en route.   The significance of this event needs to be brought home tellingly.

I am not a statistician or tennis trivia expert.  But if memory serves me right, Bencic is the youngest winner of a Premier level title since Maria Sharapova’s Tokyo win in 2005 (she was 17).  The only other 18 year old winner of a Premier level title since then was Ivanovic, who also won the Canadian Open in 2006, beating Martina Hingis in an amazing coincidence.  But if we reckon by months, Bencic is even younger than Ivanovic.

Yes, 10 years.  It’s been that long.  Women’s tennis was once known for churning out precocious teens who struck gold very early into their careers, the Swiss Miss Hingis being one such herself.  But with WTA introducing age eligibility rules and the game itself becoming slower and more physical, favouring tall, well built players on the WTA, we haven’t had any teens breaking through so early to win a Premier Level Title, let alone a Slam.  Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep had all breached 20 when they won their first Premier Level title.  By contrast, Bencic has broken through earlier.  Bencic also made it through a very tough draw to get there and that she should achieve this in her maiden Premier title win is an incredible achievement.

So what accounts for her swift rise to success at the top most level of women’s tennis?  What makes Bencic special?

Basically, the things that made Hingis special, with significantly less finesse.  Bencic’s game looks innocuous on the surface and if you were to watch her now for the first time after she’s created a splash, you would be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is all about.  Her serve is not a great threat and the second delivery is already a liability (shades of Hingis again).  Her groundstrokes are somewhat underpowered and she’s also not the quickest mover on court.  But it’s the way she reads the game that compensates for all these problems.  Observe carefully and you will find Bencic improvising incredibly smart plays out of nowhere to come out on top of baseline exchanges with her opponents.  And while her volleys are definitely not Hingis class, as I already alluded to, she too has a great sense of when to come in and sniffs opportunities where most other players on the tour would prefer to hang back.  Maybe a serve volleyer like Kirsten Flipkens might come in on such occasions, but you get the picture.  And Bencic is just 18, so the fact that she already plays this interesting, hybrid game of baseline and all court strategies must itself come as a surprise to opponents.  She’s also held tough through adversity, not throwing in the towel after a flurry of double faults and fighting on to win.

With the Toronto triumph, Bencic has risen to no.12 in the rankings.  She has considerable upside at the Cincinnati event too where she lost her opening game last year.  This year, in the first round she is slated to play Angelique Kerber who could prove a tough nut to crack.   But Bencic is riding high on confidence after her fabulous winning streak in Montreal and might just put it past Kerber at Cincy.  The fast paced surface should suit a smart counterpuncher like Bencic very well too.  At the US Open, she has quarter final points to defend.  Hopefully, she will go further than that and break into the top 10 of WTA.

It is as yet far too early to tell how good a player Bencic will turn out to be.  There have been players before who shone briefly like a meteorite and just as suddenly disappeared from top flight tennis.  Last year’s hot new talent Bouchard herself is Exhibit A of said phenomenon, currently languishing at no.25, having got as far as no.5 last year.  But early indications of Bencic are very promising.  It does look like WTA has a new star, one who will hopefully entertain connoisseurs and recreational players just as much as casual fans.  Go Bencic!

Halep and Bouchard’s contrasting paths to ignominy

July 5, 2015

Eugenie Bouchard, last year’s Wimbledon finalist, and Simona Halep, the semi finalist who lost to Bouchard in said event, were both knocked out in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon.  Both of last year’s rising stars have had a disastrous last few months but their route to ignominy couldn’t have been more different.

After Bouchard got beaten soundly by Petra Kvitova in last year’s Wimbledon final, I wrote about how she had paid the price for hubris that was not backed by enough game to beat a player like Kvitova.  The very fact that I am able to write about how she has fared in this year’s tournament in the first weekend of Wimbledon speaks volumes.  I had hoped in last year’s write up that she would not repeat Martina Hingis’s mistakes and learn quickly.  Yes, she hasn’t.  She has done much worse.  Hingis at least had/has a great tennis mind and bona fide strokemaking ability; she has found a second wind in doubles partnering Sania Mirza.

It is becoming increasingly hard to believe that Bouchard has either great tennis IQ or great shots.  Her conqueror at Wimbledon does seem to lack the former a lot of times and lost to the crafty Jelena Jankovic yesterday.  That’s what separates the stunningly talented Kvitova from the legend that is Serena Williams, who grits through bad patches and uses her underrated tennis mind to find a way to win. You can get by with one of either qualities to some extent in tennis but not without both.  It also seems that even something as fundamental as adequate transfer of weight has not been fixed in Bouchard’s technique.  With the result that after making the Australian Open quarterfinals yet again (where Sharapova drubbed her), Bouchard has struggled to just win matches…against any player on the WTA tour.

Her now much disliked smugness was on evidence again during Canada’s Fed Cup tie against Romania.  Her Highness expressed her unwilingness to shake hands with her opponent prior to the match, calling it ‘lame’.  Shortly thereafter she limped out lamely, losing both of her singles matches in a humiliating fashion.  From that point on, her slump just plummeted to new depths with a first round exit at Wimbledon capping her woes.  Could it get worse for Bouchard from here?  Who knows.  A 4th round appearance at US Open and finals at Wuhan may still prove too much to defend for her, with the result that she may lose yet more points.  While Bouchard has made a reference to learning a lot through this experience, it is not clear whether she is simply referring to the fact that there would be reversals in a tennis career or to the fact that much needs to be done for her to remain in the top 20 on a consistent basis.  It is worth remembering that she referred to the Wimbledon final drubbing as a good learning experience with evident sheepishness and yet little signs of said learning have been evident a year on.

What of Halep?  She too reached the quarter finals of the Australian Open, where another powerful Russian, Ekaterina Makarova, dislodged her with ease.  But after a good showing in the American slow hard court stretch, Halep has faltered with early exits at both French Open and Wimbledon.

If Bouchard reeked of false swagger and a possibly deluded bravado, Halep seems to struggle to cope with the weight of expectations.  She made a reference to it as early as the US Open last year, where veteran Mirjana Lucic-Baroni beat her.  Since then, it’s not clear if she has made much progress in handling nerves.  Considering that she was a finalist at the French Open last year (apart from making the semis at Wimbledon),  it would only appear that she has regressed further in this regard.

Halep, like Bouchard, is grossly underpowered in the “Strong is Beautiful” era of women’s tennis.  Like Bouchard, she needs to use her brains to select her shots intelligently and scramble to win, as she cannot blow her opponents off the court.  But what is noticeable even in Halep’s wins is her shot selection and court positioning can go completely awry in patches (which is why she often wins in three sets rather than just two).  Many a time, I have noticed her getting caught mid court for no apparent reason and losing the point.  For a petite player like Halep, such lapses can be costly and combined with what appears to be timidness in the face of pressure, it’s going to be one hell of a monkey to get off her back.  The saving grace is unlike Bouchard, she doesn’t seem to have any serious problems with her technique.  It’s just that she can’t possibly hit the ball much harder even if she tried.

Signing off, the media, including commentators who have played the game, made references to attitude-related aspects of Bouchard and Halep in talking them up.  With Bouchard, it was her mental strength and immense self belief and with Halep, it was her feline-like demeanour (which apparently is evidence of aggression).  The problem is an appearance of mental strength or aggression cannot win matches on a tennis court.  I would be the last person to downplay the importance of the mental side of the game, especially at the highest level where thin margins separate winners from losers.

But it is no substitute for a bare minimum level of ‘game’.  Shots struck with a certain amount of power and produced with precision, aiming for the lines, with consistency.  Much has been written about Sharapova’s grit and intensity too, but she basically has two amazing shots that she can rely on to generate winners.  The backhand cross court and the off forehand. She can aim for the corners with these shots relentlessly to break down the opponent.   This is how she’s got to 5 slams, not because she clenches her fist ever so tightly between points or because, ahem, she is easy on the eye.

Hollow, superficial contextualisation of tennis is understandable from media pundits since they seemingly know no better.  But at least former players owe it to us to make intelligent, objective analysis of the game instead of making an utter mockery of women’s tennis by refusing to engage with it deeply.  Whatever Halep or Bouchard may or may not have learnt from their terrible slump, I hope it has also been a learning experience for the commentators.  Else, we are probably better off without having any commentary at all.

Dustin Brown: Triumph of throwback tennis in the modern era

July 4, 2015

Rafael Nadal lost to Dustin Brown in the 2nd round at Centre Court in Wimbledon, making it the third time in four years that he could not even make it to week 2 of the slam of slams. The last time he reached the quarter finals or further is 2011, now appearing distant.

That is, the result was not particularly surprising for those who watch tennis beyond the slams and certainly those who remembered that Brown had beaten Nadal last year at Halle.  Now Halle typically plays substantially faster than Wimbledon but this year the heat seems to have helped make the conditions fast in Wimbledon.  The stage was set for an on-the-cards upset.

What, instead, was surprising was Nadal’s after-match refrain that Brown denied him any rhythm.  Brown too echoed the assessment and said his plan all along had been to deny Nadal any rhythm. Surprising because, fundamentally, Brown’s tactics were predictable and uni-dimensional, unlike modern tennis.

Modern tennis is all about variety.  Nobody serve volleys all the time most definitely.  Nobody goes first strike all the time.  Nobody takes the net all the time.  Nobody pushes all the time. It’s instead a mix of a variety of tactics that cover the whole gamut of strokes but with a baseline bias to keep the percentages in one’s favour.  What may superficially appear as monotonous and predictable baseline tennis is actually rich with variety and tactical intrigue, intended to keep the opponent guessing.  In a nutshell, you don’t want the opponent to be sure of what your next play is going to be.

Dustin Brown’s approach on the other hand harks back to a bygone era.  His strategy can be summed up in one line: take the net away from the opponent.  This is how we play doubles in clubs – take the net away before somebody gives you a short ball that you can’t get to soon enough.  So it was refreshing and tons of fun to watch Brown do something like that on Centre Court, SW19, consumed live by millions of viewers across the planet and evoked Miroslav Mecir in a way (though Brown is incredibly flamboyant and hardly feline-like).  But one would have thought top players in the ATP main draw wouldn’t take long to sort him out.

On paper, it should be easy if you know what’s coming.  What or rather who was coming in was Brown volleying behind the serve – almost every single time.  And I only say almost because I didn’t watch the full match and cannot confirm if he did choose to stay back on occasion.  But as long as I watched it, he was coming in all the time, even behind second serves. Commentators used to chide players not named Sampras for doing so….in the mid 90s.  Brown played with single minded conviction – he was coming in no matter what and would do his best to improvise a volley if not hit a meaty one.  He also took the net quickly when receiving, seemingly confident he could somehow make a shot no matter what.  Thus, in theory, Nadal ought to have known exactly what would happen every single time.  All he had to do was find a way past Brown somehow – lob him, pass him, attack his body, whatever it took.  This was the old school grass court tennis dynamic – serve volleyer versus baseline counterpuncher.  Except, circa 2015 amid the usual moaning about grass playing like green clay, the serve volleyer triumphed.  And notwithstanding the fact that it went to four sets, I would call it a rather comprehensive triumph given how much lower Brown is ranked than Nadal and how much more used to Centre Court the latter is.

That is the real significance of Dustin Brown’s victory over Nadal.  And for this reason, it must be distinguished from Nadal’s earlier losses to Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis  and Nick Kyrgios respectively in the last three Wimbledons.  Rosol and Kyrgios relied on a powerful serve to play high risk tennis and bash the ball mercilessly.  But they were not serve volleyers.  Darcis played fairly solid grass court tennis but again did not serve volley compulsively.  They just took a greater amount of risk while still essentially playing the modern game.  They had nothing to lose while Nadal had everything to lose.  Brown played serve volley and played it with a lot of conviction.  In toto, he serve volleyed 99 times and won the point on a staggering 71 occasions.  Who the bloody hell serve volleys 99 times in four sets!

However that Nadal is now clearly on the decline, it is stunning that he could not tactically figure him out.  Perhaps the sheer shock value of somebody daring to stick to this approach in today’s tennis did the trick?  Nah, you still have players sticking adamantly to serve volley like Michael Llodra or Radek Stepanek and they have not toppled top 10 players at Wimbledon, at least not in a long time. After the dust has settled over this upset and the media is through with convenient pigeon holing of this victory in socio-cultural contexts that may interest philosophers but hardly satisfy tennis fans, the analysts will probably drill the data and find out what exactly made Brown so effective with a style of tennis that, in spite of its exalted place in tennis tradition, has been all but written off as outdated.

The king of clay is dead….long live the king!

June 7, 2015

It is appropriate to write this on Sunday, the day of the men’s final at Roland Garros.  The first final since 2009 not to feature a seemingly permanent fixture of it:  Rafael Nadal.  Then, it seemed to be a one-off injury-driven slump (he missed Wimbledon that year).  This time, it brought an end to an unsuccessful, faltering comeback trail.   It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to see the future and declare that Nadal will win no further French Opens.  But the manner of his defeat to long time thorn-in-the-flesh Novak Djokovic certainly seems to mark the end of an era.  The end of Nadal’s hegemony over the red clay of Paris.

The signs were ominous from the get go.  Nadal actually failed to win a single tournament in the European clay court season, running up to the French Open.  Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome – he tried and tried and turned a blank.  What’s more, he wasn’t just losing to Djokovic but to Andy Murray, Stanislas Wawrinka and, finally, Fabio Fognini.  He only made one final in all these tournaments where he lost to Murray.  Even more worrisome from a Nadal fan point of view was that in his fourth round match at French Open, he dropped a set against Jack Sock.  Reading that again will bring home the full import.  Nadal dropped a set against Sock, who played mostly horrid tennis in the first two sets.  Of course, seeing is believing so nobody was prepared to believe this was the end until it did pan out.

Djokovic was to show no mercy, though.  It should be clear by now that Paris hates the hell out of Djokovic (how often outside SW19 do you see a roaring crowd getting right behind Murray?) and they watched in funereal silence as he buried the King of Clay in a straight set demolition.  At first with some difficulty, as perhaps even he couldn’t believe what was unfolding.  Later, with embarrassing ease as Nadal uncharacteristically threw in the towel and could hardly be bothered to put up a fight.  Seven years back, when he had dethroned Federer at Wimbledon, the latter had mounted a strong fightback and pushed him all the way in a modern day tennis epic.  It was a classic clash of titans and Nadal had to earn the sobriquet of King of Grass from Federer (who still has five more slams at the venue than him, by the by); it didn’t come easy.  By contrast,the third set became a mere formality as Nadal was far too consumed by the demons in his head to think about Djokovic.

After all, what could he do if his once reliable forehand shanked even more embarrassingly than Federer in 2013? Or that he only managed to produce short, weak shots when he did get the forehand into play?  On every front, Nadal was utterly bereft of confidence and to make it worse, he was no longer able to run down one ball more the way he used to in his prime.   This was not the way the changing of hands was supposed to pan out.  But in resisting the moment when it had arrived three years earlier in 2012, Nadal also set himself up for a more painful meltdown in his fiefdom.  No, I am not saying Nadal should in fact have lost in 2012 and that would have helped his cause.  Just that that is how the script unfolds in sport.  By 2015, Nadal was simply too much of a shadow of the player he once was to ward off Djokovic’s challenge.

Instead, Murray in the semi final mounted a much more credible challenge to Djokovic’s bid to complete the career slam.  He too eventually faded away in the fifth set but had the match been completed on Friday as per schedule, there’s no saying what the outcome would have been.  On resumption on Saturday, Murray did well to deny any advantage to Djokovic from the loss of momentum to take the fourth set but the wily Serb fed him deep, heavy balls to slow him down and provoke errors from his otherwise massive forehand.

Fittingly, Wawrinka, the man who has lately bothered Djokovic more than anybody else on the tour will play him for the title today.  Wawrinka, save his graceful one handed backhand, is an outright ball bashing machine.  If he gets going, Djokovic will be scrambling to get balls back into play rather than controlling rallies.  But Djokovic still has ultimately had the measure of Wawrinka 2-1 at the Aussie Open and the odds would have to favour him rather than the Swiss who is only playing his second Slam final.   It is however expected to be another humdinger.

The jaded English media lamented that the premature arrival of the much awaited Djoko-Nadal clash would unofficially bring down curtains on this year’s French Open because it would lack a big match to interest viewers thereafter.  Going by the reactions of the Paris crowd when Murray took the fight to Djokovic in the third set, that has hardly been the case.  The tournament reached its best moment thus far in the semi finals and one would hope for a great final as the proverbial icing on the cake.

Perhaps, given the similarly one sided thrashing Wawrinka handed out to Federer, it makes sense that that should be the case.  The media still cannot think beyond Federer and Nadal but tennis is moving on now.  It has moved past Federer for some time notwithstanding last year’s amazing Wimbledon final and RG 2015 may mark the moment it moved past Nadal too.  Murray and Wawrinka are Djokovic’s toughest opponents now.  Not to fear, men’s tennis, as always, continues to be in great hands and the ascension to the throne would not have been easy for Djokovic should he clinch it today.  The king is dead, long live the king!


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