Archive for the ‘Tennis’ Category

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!

Fed back to no.2: Is the weak era theory overrated?

October 13, 2014

Roger Federer won his 23rd ATP Masters Series title at Shanghai last Sunday and en route overtook Rafael Nadal in the rankings to reach no.2.  At 33, Federer is the oldest no.2 since Andre Agassi in 2005.  That period (i.e 2003 to 2007), we were told, was one of the weakest in men’s tennis and Federer apparently was lucky to feast on this era and hog slams by the bagful.  So what happened now?  How did Federer manage to get back to no.2 so late in his career in the golden age of tennis?

There will be suitable explanations, no doubt.  Andy Murray is not the same since back surgery.  Rafael Nadal has been waylaid by injury frequently this year too.  Wawrinka didn’t step up after Australian Open.  Milos Raonic is still ’emerging’.  That leaves only Novak Djokovic and he too has been less than robotic when it comes to consistency.  Which means Federer could, with some more helpings of the great good luck that God has been kind enough to grant him, even finish the year ahead of Djokovic if things go totally pear shaped for the latter and Federer slam dunks the indoor swing.  Just a one off, freak year, will be the explanation.

Which is exactly the point.  There is a term for it: law of averages.  The entire weak era/strong era myth has been based on the unsupportable assumption that the rest of the Big Four would be able to maintain their level forever and unstintingly.  It was assumed that they would, year after year, dominate the tour so successfully and consistently that, in an alternative version of history where Federer was just the same age as Djoko or Murray, he wouldn’t have amassed even close to the number of slams he has.  2014 has proven, once and for all, that this was never going to be the case.   What goes up must come down.  Murphy’s Law cannot be defied for very long, when all is said and done.

The point, to now spell it out even more baldly, is that even in that alternative version of history, there was surely going to be a point when the highly physical version of tennis that the rest of the Big Four have played would catch up with them and wear them down.  Not permanently, maybe, but surely forcing temporary lulls or even hiatuses.  During 2011-12, Djokovic began to lord over Federer though he still did lose at both French Open and Wimbledon in different years.  By end of 2012, Djokovic had even usurped Federer as the king of indoors.  At that time, Federer was still prepared to slug it out from the baseline.

But on Saturday at Shanghai (a tournament Djokovic won last year), Federer played a more high risk game built on serve volley and net rushing to beat him in straight sets.  While the match was a lot, lot closer than the scoreline suggested, the fact that Djokovic could only earn 1 break point (as against 10 by Federer) shows how dominant Federer was in his service games.  The best returner in the game could not find a way past a charging Federer.  At the age of 33.  It bears repeating.  Earlier this year, Federer beat Murray at Australian Open with similar tactics.

In other words, it is highly questionable whether Djokovic and Murray truly gained a lasting edge on Federer that they did not possess earlier.  The popular argument has been that early in their career, their game was not yet developed enough to take on Federer while later on they had matured enough to demonstrate their superiority over him.  Federer’s victories over both Djokovic and Murray this year (as also, for instance, his victories over both at Wimbledon in 2012) do raise serious doubts over that notion.

What or rather who remains is, of course, Nadal.  There is no question that Nadal was the proverbial bee in Federer’s bonnet from the beginning.  And the bee morphed into a frightening monster as the years rolled by, casting a shadow over Federer’s glorious legacy.  Pete Sampras did not face Richard Krajicek and Lleyton Hewitt (players who owned a favourable head to head against him) often enough for them to dent his aura of invincibility.  Federer unfortunately had no such ‘luck’.  At aforesaid Australian Open, Nadal beat Federer even more easily than Fed beat Murray. Perhaps, with Nadal’s double backhand getting weaker and weaker, Federer may finally make up lost ground in the rivalry.  Colour me skeptical, though.

Which brings me to the last part of the write up.  That is that Nadal was already there in those so called weak era years.  And rose to no.2 in 2006 and troubled Federer greatly in the 2007 Wimbledon final.  Nevertheless, in both 2006 and 2007, Federer still bagged 3 slams each anyway.  As I observed in an earlier write up, it has really always been about Federer-Nadal rather than Big four.  With the greatest respect to Djokovic, he has not been as influential a force as they were and are.  And with two slams, Murray even less so.

Give or take a few years, but it would still have been largely Federer and Nadal battling for the slams.  Of course, there’s no way to prove it but then, the whole weak era theory itself is based on cherry-picked stats and favourable, biased interpretations of what-if scenarios to suit a certain narrative that seeks to discredit Federer for reasons best known to those who pursue said agenda.

Besides….if Federer had indeed had the benefit of being a bit younger, he would not have had to go past not one but four top class serve and volley players at Wimbledon – Sampras, Tim Henman, Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic.  In 2001, a  19 year old Fed did dethrone the then reigning champion Sampras but fell to Henman at the next hurdle.  In 2003, against a weaker field, Federer cruised to the title.  So, what if Federer had only been 19 in 2003, with a bunch of formidable fast court specialists out of the way.  Maybe he would have held onto his Wimbledon fiefdom for longer as also his US Open dominance.  In 2008, Federer perceptibly slowed down and gradually slid off his peak.  In the process, he ceded ground to new champions as also more slams for Nadal.  It is a point that, of course, the weak-era camp would like to believe has nothing to do with the discussion.  But in this alternative scenario, that slowing down process would have been postponed, thus keeping Federer in contention for more slams.

Anyhow, the above was to demonstrate there is no end to what-ifs.  At least this latest feat of amazing longevity should hopefully seal the debate over Federer’s greatness once and for all.  He may not be the greatest of all time and it may be up for debate as to whether he is greater than Nadal.  But to pretend he does not deserve every one of his 17 slams is deluded and, I am afraid, reeks of jealousy and spite as also blind denial of history as it actually unfolded.  As an advocate of free speech, however, I do not grudge the right of people to feel jealous of a great tennis champion if they wish to.  Carry on, wayward haters. ,

Del Potro v2: Return of the ultra-power hitter

September 9, 2014

Five years back at the US Open, Juan Martin Del Potro created a major splash by denying Roger Federer a 6th straight title at the venue.  In the process, he also became the first player to beat both Nadal and Federer in the same tournament. A feat, by the way, that has only been replicated by Djokovic (at The Open again in 2011) since then.  He had commentators gushing over his groundstrokes which breached new levels of brutality.  What was refreshing about his style of play was that he relied on offensive, extremely flat striking, bucking the move towards attritional tennis. Since then, inexplicably, he hasn’t made another Grand Slam final.

But on Monday (and perhaps more so on Saturday when he beat Federer), Marin Cilic brought back memories of the Del Potro miracle.  Only, he delivered a more refined and even more lethal version of it.  Let’s call Del Potro v2.  Del Potro’s wooden feet and preference for a rally position way behind the baseline would later be exposed and exploited by opponents, halting his progress to further milestones.  But where DP failed to step up, Cilic took over the mantle of the ultra power hitter of his time.  

I say ultra because he is by no means the only player of the current crop trying to play this kind of game. Berdych, Tsonga, Raonic, Kyrgios, Pospisil, Rosol, arguably even Wawrinka all play variations of this approach (which is not to say they only play it as well as each other, no), which is to basically take on a higher percentage of risk and strike the ball really hard from the baseline and overpower the opponent rather than tactically work him out of court (a la Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, etc).  But none of them, barring of course, Del Potro play it in a way that looks so intimidating in its power and ferocity, like an unstoppable gale force.  

Cilic not only had such an impact on those who watched him play but also refined this approach, as I mentioned earlier, by using his feet better.  He was more willing to use an aggressive court position and also seized opportunities to move forward and take the net away from his opponent.  Interestingly enough, Federer had opined that Raonic would fare better if he learnt how to get to the net more often and more quickly and that he wasn’t getting forward enough.  Again advice that Cilic seemed to heed with telling effect.  Little would Federer have known. Cilic arguably served better, with more imagination and variety, than the aforementioned power hitters as well.  It was never just the outright power that brought down the opponents of successful power hitters.  It was the depth and quality of their shots, be it their serves or their groundstrokes.  Something that Ivanisevic likely impressed on Cilic for he served better this year than before.

The question now is, where to for Cilic from here?  Can he do the unthinkable and sustain this or did he have to give more than 100%, as Tsonga said after winning Toronto, to get the lone slam he is going to have in his cupboard?  The example of Del Potro is not very encouraging.  Nor that of Richard Krajicek who bearded the great champion Pete Sampras in his den and won the Wimbledon title in 1996, only to never make another slam final. 

History tell us that the ultra power hitting slam miracle is not repeatable because it’s too high risk.  But history is created not simply piled upon by great players.  Whichever way Cilic goes, he has time on his side.  He is yet 25.  Opponents would certainly hope he never again produces the kind of devastating form he did this year at The Open.  But if he can, he will be more than just a thorn in the flesh of competition.  

 

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Dawn of the Big Four-free era?

September 8, 2014

BJP, the current ruling party of Central Govt in India, had in their election campaign promised a Congress-mukt sarkar where mukt means free and sarkar means govt.  They delivered.  When the first slam of 2014 produced the first non-Big Four (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray) champion, Wawrinka, since Del Potro in US Open 2009, talk of a new Big Four-free era in men’s tennis began.  The whispers grew into chatter by the time of Wimbledon, when Kyrgios upset Nadal in the fourth round.  And on Monday, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic will contest the first non-Big Four Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open, where Marat Safin beat Lleyton Hewitt.  Yeah, waybackwhenarchives stuff, right?

 

Since then, all the way until US Open 2014, either of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray have always contested every, yes every, grand slam final.  And you can count the no. of non Big Four finalists on the fingers of your hands. 

 

If that astounding stat says something, it’s more a reflection of the longevity of Federer and Nadal.  In 2005, the then young sensation from Spain who had already surprised Federer before at Miami in 2004, began to provide the first serious opposition to the seemingly unstoppable Swiss champion.  It would over the years prove enough to give him a comfortable upper hand in the rivalry.  But that would be later.  Nadal was the first player to perform consistently at a very high level, not just in tournaments as such but specifically in matches against Federer.  And the two kept winning more and more slams as they fought each other on clay, grass and hard court.

Along the way, Djokovic joined the party, breaking through in 2008 but only achieving consistency in 2011 and onwards.  The more fancied and hyped Andy Murray would have to wait a little longer to join the Grand Slam club but he duly did so in 2012.  Nevertheless, by regularly contesting semis and finals against the other members of the Big Four, he became very much a part of it, if to a lesser extent.   

 

But all good things have to come to an end.  By 2013, admiration for the consistency of the Big Four had turned into faint moans of protest at the sheer monotony of it all.  It didn’t help that often two players from the Big Four broke away from the pack and met each other in finals regularly…even in consecutive finals.  For instance, Djokovic and Nadal played four straight finals against each other from Wimbledon 2011 to French Open 2012.  Murray and Djokovic then played each other in US Open 2012, Australian Open 13 and Wimbledon 2013.  In the middle of this, Federer and Murray twice met each others in finals at Centre Court – first in Wimbledon and then in the Olympics.  

When Wawrinka beat Nadal at the Australian Open this year, there was renewed hope of a new order in men’s tennis.  If Djokovic and Nadal resumed their rivalry at French Open, seeds tumbled once again at Wimbledon with Dimitrov also accounting for Murray.  Federer and Djokovic made it to the final, though, and played one of the great finals of the tournament.  Federer went on to play down, with a hint of hubris, the chances of the young brigade in the near future, claiming the Big Four looked good to dominate the tour for another three to four years.  

 

That, it has to be said, was rather optimistic.  There have been signs throughout this year of an ebb in the domination of the Big Four.  Federer himself is a weak link; age has caught up with him and brought with it uncharacteristic inconsistency as well as losses to players he used to cream just three to four years back.  Murray has not been the same player since undergoing back surgery and may have perhaps invested too much emotionally in winning Wimbledon to find new goals particularly exciting.  Only Djokovic and Nadal remain and Nadal continues to be haunted by injuries.  

 

So, for all practical purposes, US Open 2014 was gift wrapped to be handed over to Djokovic, notwithstanding media hopes of an 18th slam for Federer.   But it didn’t quite pan out the way, beginning with an off colour hard court season for Djokovic.  It was expected that he would peak at the right time, that is, right in the middle of The Open and go on to win.  Except, he perhaps found his peak in the engaging mini epic he played against Murray in the quarter finals.  Even though Nishikori, his conqueror in the semis, had come through back to back five setters, it was Djokovic who looked more drained and less enthusiastic of battle.  As for Federer, he was blown off the court by Cilic’s power tennis.  

 

While I would personally love to see a Nishikori win, Cilic with his powerful serve and booming groundstrokes on both wings has a game that is tailormade for these conditions.  If he keeps his head together, The Open could well be his for the taking.  At any rate, for the first time in years, there is suspense and anticipation as fans grapple to call/predict this final.  It’s a toughie, pitting an offensive baseliner who does well on grass against a classic Hewitt-like counterpuncher. 

 

And the media have already voted with their feet.  Today’s newspaper noted that Nishikori-Cilic would not be the marquee final that fans and the media had been hoping for.  Ha!  So much then for wishing away monotony.  

The Slams of the Grand Old Veterans

August 29, 2014

It’s US Open time. And among the hot favourites to win are: Roger Federer, aged 33 and father of four, Serena Williams, aged 32 and Venus Williams, aged 34.  Some may dispute the last mentioned name but if you have watched Venus play in the North American hard court season, you’d know that she’s back and that alone is enough to threaten competition.  

That’s not all, though.  Mirjana Lucic Baroni, who, you might recall, beat Monica Seles and Nathalie Tauziat en route to the 1999 Wimbledon semis, is through to the third round.  If she does beat World No.2 Simona Halep, I dare say that while mainstream media might term that an upset, a lot of regular tennis watchers wouldn’t be overly surprised.  Peng Shuai, 28, beat world no. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska too.  In the men’s circuit, while Federer is the only remaining grand slam champion in the draw from the 30-somethings club, Tommy Robredo and Feliciano Lopez plod on.  Interestingly, Robredo is scheduled to meet rising star Nick Kyrgios in the third round.

That match could tell us a lot about how this battle of the thirty somethings versus the emerging stars will pan out.  But, meanwhile, just to put things in perspective, Pete Sampras was 31 when he won his 14th and last Grand Slam at the US Open in 2002, having been dismissed all too easily in the previous two US Open finals by then hot talents Marat Safin and Lleyton Hewitt.   Steffi Graf was just short of 30 when she won her last Slam at the French Open in 1999.  Both retired, for all practical purposes, that same year, perhaps realising it would be a fitting swansong not a moment too soon to avoid being shown up by upstarts with younger limbs.  Among Sampras’s rivals, only Andre Agassi played on well into his 30s.  But he was never ranked in the top 5 again after 2003 either and Agassi had serious endurance so Federer has already begun to rival that kind of longevity.  Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter fought out an epic duel for an elusive Wimbledon title in 2001 where Ivanisevic prevailed and neither got another shot at the title.  The very next year, it was Hewitt v/s David Nalbandian at Wimbledon and by 2003, Gen Next had more or less taken over notwithstanding intermittent challenges by Agassi.  

So how and where did tennis get back to allowing middle aged veterans to have respectable if not sensational runs in the slams?  Think back to when Martina Navratilova trounced Graf in the 1991 US Open final. Or Jimmy Connors going all the way to the semis in the same tournament at the age of 39. Given all we hear about the ever increasing physicality and athleticism of tennis, one would have thought that veterans would eased out the exit door smoothly without a moment to lose.  Instead they are hanging around and helping ATP and WTA respectively to draw crowds to the slams by cashing in on nostalgia and star power.  And hey, if the next big thing of women’s tennis Eugenie Bouchard does indeed get drawn against Venus or Serena,  um, you can complete the rest of the sentence.  So why bother?

So is it that with increased attention to fitness, players are able to remain in good shape longer than before?  I remember John McEnroe himself explaining his loss of form since 1985 as down to the fact that his limbs kind of gave away and he lost a bit of pace.   In 1985, McEnroe was 26.  At the age of 26, Federer still dominated the tour quite comprehensively, winning three slams in that particular year (2007).  Djokovic and Nadal too were in their prime at that age.  

While that could certainly be a factor, another could also be the racquets.  A common apprehension expressed in tennis circles is that modern racquets favour brute power and will leave room for only gigantic super athletes in the tour.  That might hold true in terms of the amount of running required, but in terms of strokemaking I would say it has the opposite effect. Today’s racquets have made it much much easier to generate serious pace on the ball and without necessarily having to hit very hard.  Earlier, a former champion out of touch would have found it difficult to re-enter the fray.  A Lucic coming back and threatening players much younger than her (she ousted young ‘hope’ Garbine Muguruza in the first round at The Open) was out of the question.  

I can add my personal experience of learning tennis at the ripe young age of 28 to this.  I am a horrible athlete, my shoulders are pretty weak too.  And I found that even I could hit the ball fast enough that the guy on the other side would find a riposte difficult…and that’s just with a Wilson Advantage.  In that case, modern equipment would help the older set keep up with the young.  Especially since they may know more about strokemaking.  

Which brings me to the last part of the write up.  What stood out in the way Peng dislodged Radwanska was the former’s strokemaking.  She just hit the sweeter strokes, time and again.  It wasn’t even particularly epic hitting or anything.  She was just going for much more daring shots that Radwanska was hesitant to attempt and she had the technique to pull it off.  Players from an older generation would have grown up using much more ordinary racquets.  Even the racquets they used in their early years on the tour would be much inferior to the equipment at their disposal now. This would have forced them to learn more technique to be able to pull the trigger and make a winner and also make sure more of these shots landed in than not.   They were trained to move well, transfer their weight better (you will see the older players lean into their shots more nicely when, perhaps, it ought to be the other way round), and hit the ball sweetly with adequate accuracy.  And that is why any time Serena decides to really focus on her task, she seems to blow away the competition with disconcerting ease.  Even if she gets older, the young aren’t getting better soon enough to trouble her.

Perhaps, the advantage offered by good racquets pampers younger players too much and they can get to the highest level with a possibly weaker foundation than their predecessors.  I don’t know, I cannot say for sure and it’s not for me to anyway.  What I do find a bit puzzling is that the big draws at the biggest events in tennis, the slams, continue to be the thirty-somethings with the late-twenties (say Djokovic and Sharapova in this case) getting somewhat more grudging acceptance.  Did somebody say tennis was a young man/woman’s sport?   Here’s hoping that Kyrgios will in fact have a great run at this year’s Open and prove that it still is, very much so.

 

 


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