Archive for the ‘Tennis’ Category

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.

 

 

ATP 2014: Natural order reasserting itself?

August 3, 2014

For the last few years, older fans or younger fans of the old tennis have lamented the increasing uniformity in tennis.  They have decried the domination of baseline tennis (and along with, the decline of serve and volley) across the board , be it hard court, grass court or clay.  Some go to the extent of saying only clay court specialists play on all surfaces.  Which is pretty extreme when you apply it to players like Roger Federer.

 

On the other hand, the ATP has appeared to be on a mission to ensure long rallies don’t go anywhere, no matter what.  There have been feelers of caution whenever any big serving player starts to win a few matches.  This, I must say, is stretching things to another extreme and such paranoia over big serving players wasn’t there even as late as say 2006-07 when Federer dominated the field…beating big serving opponents most of the time.  It would be myopic to the core to completely deny the attacking dimension of tennis but that, however, was (is?) what seemed to be happening over the last few years.  Rafael Nadal helpfully chipped in to express his utter disdain and dislike of the Pete Sampras brand of tennis.  I am not sure he would like it very much if somebody bashed his brand of defensive baseline tennis as dismissively as he wrote off Sampras, one of the legends of the game.

 

As much as I have written to support the current era of tennis, even I had begun to wonder if things were not drifting too far in one direction.  Because it IS tennis at the end of the day and tennis is a game of shots, not a long distance running race.   To pretend that shots somehow ruin the game and make it boring (because  outright winners nip rallies in the bud) would be extremely naive to say the least.

 

However, change seems to be at hand this year.  It began with Stanislas Wawrinka lording over the field with, shock and horror, a one handed backhand at the Australian Open.  More shocking was his success with a judicious use of the serve and volley tactic against Nadal at the final.

 

Normal service appeared to have resumed when Nadal pocketed yet another French Open title, sealing his clay court invincibility if at all it needed to be bolstered any further.  But Wimbledon proved this was not quite the case.  Nadal,as has been his wont the last couple of years, exited without reaching even the quarters.  Actually, his fourth round exit was an improvement over the last two years.

 

What had changed was this time, he did not play badly to lose.  He had in fact managed to overcome initial hiccups to dismiss his 2012 nemesis Lukas Rosol.  But he was up against a 19 year old wildcard from Australia, Nick Kyrgios.  Kyrgios blasted 37 aces and 68 unreturned serves against Nadal.  Indeed, the sound of the ball landing on the wall after Kyrgios’s darts would have evoked sweet nostalgia for old timers – boom, boom, boom.  There was not much, if any, serve and volley but the approach was certainly more reminiscent of an older style of tennis.  It was attack from the word go.  In fact, Nadal got the farthest in the draw of all clay court specialists in the tournament, with compatriots Ferrer and Verdasco perishing much earlier.  No clay court specialist reached the quarter finals of Wimbledon this year.

 

So Kyrgios wasn’t the only one.  Raonic reached the semis, beating Kyrgios en route.  Grigor Dimitrov was the other first time semi finalist at SW19 and the other to have not yet won a slam.  To put that in perspective, we haven’t had two ‘slamless’ semi finalists in the men’s event at Wimbledon since 2010, when Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray made it to that stage.  And even they were more fancied names than either Dimitrov or Raonic.  Perhaps 2007 when Djokovic and Gasquet were thought of as promising players but not quite ready to take the next step.

And on cue, Federer and Djokovic reached the finals this year as well.  For good measure, Federer took a dig at the all the youth brigade talk and claimed the Big Four were good to dominate for a few more years.  But in order to underline this, Federer and Djokovic had to dig deep into their reserves of talent and produced, in the process, the first truly memorable Wimbledon final since 2009.  If that last point is debatable, I will not dwell on it further as I need to move on to…Washington DC!

 

At Washington DC, the boom boom brigade has once again asserted itself.  Admittedly in conditions that suited them as the court is one of the quicker ones on the tour.  But that’s kind of the whole point as we seemed to be getting into a phase where no court was fast enough for the power oriented players to win.  Anyhow, Richard Gasquet was the only one of the more recognised older names to reach the semi final even as Berdych was knocked out.  Raonic once again and the big hitting Vasek Pospisil have made it an all Canadian final.  There is a promise of plenty of aces and unreturned (unreturnable?) serves in the final once again.  In other words, back to the very thing that the ATP appears to dread (by the by, injury will keep Nadal out of Toronto and Cincinnati this year).

 

But should they, really?  There may have been a time when the audience felt weary of non stop power hitting, lightning fast tennis but that time is not now.  For now, at least going by crowd reactions, they seem to find it fresh and exciting.  Besides, even though somebody like Raonic may volley behind the serve from time to time, nobody still does it as often as in the 90s.

 

Should the ATP really be so paranoid about this aspect of the game?  Shouldn’t they simply accept that this is the natural order of the game?  Attacking players are bound to have their day, especially on relatively faster surfaces, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Besides, it adds an exciting dimension to the game.  It is in trying to take risks to finish off a point that the players have to improvise and come up with great shots on the spur of the moment.  And the act of doing so adds some much needed unpredictability to the contest.  If all players had all the time in the world to choose their shot and predictably chose the optimum option without fail, it might keep the percentages in their favour but it would make for very boring viewing.

 

Today, men’s tennis still retains an exciting technical edge.  Players, including the much reviled baseliners like Djokovic, exploit different angles with their serve.  They try to change up things with slices and drops to save time and effort for themselves and also to win tactical mini-battles within the war.  The Djokovic-Nadal finals that ageists dread are brilliant tactical exhibitions of almost chess-like finesse. The same cannot quite be said with as much certainty of women’s tennis.  This year’s French Open final was a case in point.  It was appalling to see how few times both players even did something as elementary as attempting a wide serve.  Both players showed quite an incredible reluctance to break the pattern and move away from set strategies to find a way to win.  It was as a contest more closely fought than the men’s final but from a tennis fan’s point of view quite painful to watch, frankly.

 

If men’s tennis is to not go down that road, then perhaps the ATP needs to take a leap of faith and…just let things be.  Constantly attempting to manage the product that is finally consumed by TV viewers may not produce desirable results in the long run.  Attack and defence represent in equal measure the natural order of tennis.  There is no point in denying the natural order of tennis and, in fact, painting it as an evil to be warded off with heavier balls.  What next, should players have to hit shotput balls to make sure the rallies never end?  ATP should, like most of us fans, just sit back and enjoy the tennis.  The game will find its own level, as it always has.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bouchard: Construction and deconstruction of hubris

July 6, 2014

In tennis, it is rare that a former champion, especially one in her mid-20s and at the peak of her physical prowess, flies under the radar as the less fancied contender for the title while her opponent, contesting her first grand slam final, becomes the hot favourite.  One would ordinarily assume this to be on account of the extraordinary quality of tennis already displayed by the latter, turning conventional wisdom on its head.  But perhaps in the modern world, perceptions and PR management can be added to the list of possible reasons.  Such is the curious case of Eugenie Bouchard.

 

Long before Wimbledon 2014 got to the business end, the Bouchard army was steamrolling all opposition in the PR sweepstakes.  We kept hearing of how Queen Genie, as she is referred to, was a champion and future star in waiting.  By the time she got to the quarter finals, she was all but crowned as the new champion.  It was, or so it seemed, only a matter of time before she completed the last remaining formalities.  She duly egged on the media managers with statements like “I feel like I totally belong” and “It’s (greatness, presumably) been years in the making”.  That just about every reasonably successful professional tennis player has worked for years to get to wherever they are, irrespective of their slam count, is another matter.

 

But as it was, Bouchard was and is an advertiser’s dream come true.  Young, outspoken, eerily confident and, last but most certainly not the least, attractive, she will probably be soon seen endorsing popular sporty footwear brands if she isn’t already.  Since overly talking up a glamorous tennis player without great results on court has at times attracted flak from spectators, Bouchard presented an ideal balance of beauty and talent.  She seriously upped the ante after the semi finals, saying she had expected to win and wasn’t particularly surprised with the result.  Her steely confidence in choosing such bold words without resort to an appearance of modesty must have left more than a few observers awestruck.

 

And then along came Kvitova.  In less than an hour (but not a minute too soon to beat the rains), she demolished the champion in waiting in straight sets to win her second Wimbledon title.  But it wasn’t just the fact that she won in straight sets.  At 3-2 in the opening set, as Kvitova closed out a long and well fought rally with an incredible backhand crosscourt passing shot, John McEnroe declared on air that if Kvitova kept playing shots like this, it would be a long day or rather a short day for Bouchard.  McEnroe declared during the 2003 men’s final that Federer reminded one of somebody who had won the title 7 times.  McEnroe often calls it perfectly and this time too, he was spot on.  The second set was even more one sided with Kvitova gifting a grand bagel to Bouchard.  Defeat seemed to leave Bouchard shell shocked, flustered and upset rather than just disappointed or sad.  But, really, should she have been shocked?

 

In their only previous meeting at Toronto last year, Kvitova had prevailed in straight sets.  Kvitova serves and returns powerfully, moves well for somebody of her height and hits sweetly timed classical groundstrokes rather than bludgeoning the ball. Lately, she has begun to hit behind the opponent so she is developing tactical nous as well.  Bouchard’s groundstrokes are on average nearly 20 mph slower than Kvitova’s. Her second serve sat up to be treated to punishing Kvitova returns.  Her movements on grass were less than perfectly balanced and she relies heavily on hitting the ball early rather than timing.  Should Bouchard really have been so surprised by the defeat?

 

It is not so much the defeat itself as the thought that perhaps Bouchard looked underdone, underprepared for an event as important as a Wimbledon final.  I don’t know if she actually did say it or not, but at least in the excerpt of the press conference after the semi final uploaded on the Wimbledon website, Bouchard did not acknowledge Kvitova as a former champion. She only mentioned vaguely that she knew of her weapons on grass. In her head, she seemed to be the favourite. As a contrast, Federer, the 7 time Wimbledon champion, mentioned Raonic’s serve as something he would have to counter, by taking care of his own serve games.  He did exactly that, clinically, on Friday.  It is interesting to note the difference in approach between one of the greatest players in the history of the game and one who is, as yet, an upstart.

 

This is not to say that self belief is a bad thing, as Bouchard fans have argued is being insinuated by critics.  No player can get to the top of the heap without self belief.  But there is a thin line separating self belief from hubris.  Where does believing that you can make it end and believing you already have arrived begin?  The problem, again, wasn’t that Bouchard lost.  The problem was she simply tried to play her usual game when it seemed evident to most serious watchers of the game that that wouldn’t work if Kvitova hit her stride.  Kvitova was quick off the blocks.  Bouchard should have tried something else, maybe use a lot of slices to keep the ball low and slow down the game.  Kvitova thrives on pace and rhythm.  Bouchard didn’t do anything to take that away from her.  Surely someone as certain of success as she appeared to be would have also prepared a strategy that would attain it and execute said strategy well on court?  Instead, Bouchard looked shaken even halfway through the first set, as if this wasn’t part of the plan.

 

After the defeat, Bouchard said in the presentation that she didn’t know if she deserved all the love she got from the audience.  Later in the press conference, she said the defeat was a good experience for her and she would learn a lot from it.  Without reading too much between the lines, it was perhaps a tacit acknowledgment that she had been a bit too sure of success without yet possessing the weapons she needed….to beat a former champion and one who at her best can blow away many players on tour.  She beat Venus Williams in a tough match in the run up to the final, in case the Bouchard army noticed.  Against Sharapova in the French Open semi final earlier this year, Bouchard had the consolation of walking away a gallant loser.  Kvitova didn’t even afford her such pyrrhic victories.  It was complete and utter demolition in full public view.

 

The Bouchard episode is a good demonstration of the highs and lows of hubris.  People, especially those working in the media, enjoy a quote-worthy star.  And they also enjoy taking her down when she cannot live up to her own boast.  In 1999, Martina Hingis, having earlier claimed Steffi Graf was over the hill, walked off in bitter tears from the French Open final, not only facing defeat but finding the crowd firmly against her.  When she broke through in 1997, Hingis was hailed as a precocious talent and a genius in waiting.  In the end, though she did win plenty of slams, she fell some distance short of meriting comparison with Graf, Evert, Navratilova or the Williams sisters.  It is perhaps fortunate that Bouchard’s bubble burst before, rather than after, she had won a major.  She should hopefully return a bit older and a lot wiser and fulfill her tryst with destiny at a future date.  Tennis is richer for the presence of talents like her and a shrewder Bouchard will only make the game more exciting, more interesting to watch.

 

 

Murray comes of age, Nadal disappears – a mixed outlook for 2013

September 29, 2012

There’s still the year ending indoor court season to come, where big serving power players finally get a chance to bash the defenders and steal some limelight….IF indoor king  Roger Federer lets them.   Nevertheless, this is the time of the year that tennis generally looks to the year ahead and starts speculating.

The year began with hopes of an encore or better for Novak Djokovic at the slams and ended with the top four splitting the slams between them one each.   Which would suggest a more open men’s draw than in a long time, before you consider that, like 2011, the rest of the top 10 and 20 failed to make any of the Grand Slam finals.  In fact, Tommy Haas beating Federer at Halle, John Isner making the finals of Indian Wells and Berdych at Madrid were among the few highlights for the rest of the field.    It was a year full of contradictions, with some grinding, physical battles at Australian Open and Roland Garros but lots more net rushing and slices at Wimbledon for those who cared to notice.   More like ‘old’ tennis in a way, perhaps, with each slam bringing a different flavour rather than appearing homogenized.

The big news of course was that Andy Murray finally banished his Grand Slam voodoo.   It might be said that it was unfair to hold him prisoner to lofty expectations and as a young player, he was entitled to take some time to find his range.   But it was Murray’s struggle to convert on final appearances that sparked questions about his attitude.   Djokovic, for instance, converted on his first Grand Slam final as did Del Potro.   Murray’s career was beginning to resemble Tsonga’s and Berdych’s when he had been expected to achieve more.

But in a hard fought five set epic at Flushing Meadows, he banished these doubts for good and in the process vindicated his choice of coach.    80s legend Ivan Lendl may have been away from the game for a long time but he did have what it takes to overcome the toughest of opponents on the biggest stage.   Murray had all the shots, he just needed to know which ones to use under pressure.   Murray’s subdued reaction after winning his maiden slam title summed up the measure of influence Lendl has exerted over Murray.   It might make him more boring for audiences to watch, but could help him win more, and more, at the Slams.

I say this because the other big news of 2012 was Rafael Nadal’s prolonged hiatus due to injury.  He is not very optimistic about returning in time for Australian Open 2012 either, so this is his longest break from tennis.   In 2010, he silenced detractors emphatically with 3 Grand Slams on the trot and an improved, devastating serve but circa 2012, it once again appears as if those who cautioned against the physical demands of his playing style had a point.    Or maybe, he was always racing against time, playing with modified shoes to counter congenital problems.   If that is the case, his 11 slams with 7 of them on clay feels like an even more staggering achievement.

But at the moment, he is not going to be there for sometime and that is a crushing blow to the draw.   Nadal’s tremendous fighting spirit brought an element of theatre to what used to be tennis matches.   With Nadal, the point was simply never over till it was really over and players who got passed after a complacent approach or smash volley would have known this rather too well.   While the physical nature of the game today is ‘blamed’ on slow courts and heavy balls, we forget that before Nadal, tennis was not particularly different from what it used to be, with the distinction that Federer seemed to be playing in a different time and space.  It was when  he began to run down Federer winners and convert defensive positions to strike a few winners of his own that a different approach to the game began to emerge.   Djokovic certainly seems to have imbibed some of Nadal’s indomitable spirit and there were glimpses of a Nadal-like urge to retrieve impossible balls in his US Open quarterfinal against Del Potro (by both players, that is).  Perhaps, irrespective of if and when Nadal returns to the game, his legacy is here to stay.

Meantime, Djokovic’s aura of invincibility has taken a knock this year with losses to each of the top three at the slams and also to Del Potro at the Olympics.   At SW19, Federer appeared to roll back the years as he won his seventh title at the venue and regained the no.1 spot.  But his lacklustre display against Murray at the Olympics and Berdych at the US Open brought to mind the low moments of 2010 and 2011.   Perhaps, the reliability of his serve is never going to be what it used to be in outdoor conditions.    But Federer is more respected than feared these days and expect more reversals to sub top four opponents in the years to come.

That is…is the field really open or is it all falling in place for Murray to build a streak of his own, just like Djoko’s in 2011?  On grass and hard court, Murray arguably faced fewer problems against sub-top 4 players and he also has the most reliable serve of the top four at the moment.   It could be his moment…or we might see Djoko reclaiming his turf.   As much as I love watching both of them, I have to say a grand Fed or Nadal comeback looks much more unlikely to me.  Djoko-Murray might be the next big rivalry.   Or, maybe there’s that dreaded ‘unknown quantity’ lurking in the shadows….somebody who might do a Boris Becker on the field.

Plenty of possibilities, some exciting like Murray’s rise and others more saddening like the feeling that the Fed-Nadal era is on its last laps.   I made a prediction for 2012 which failed disastrously.   I don’t mind repeating the mistake for 2013, but even if  I wanted to, I really cannot make a call on 2013.   Whatever happens, it’s NOT going to be more of the same in 2013.

 

Goodbye and good riddance to India’s Olympic hopes in tennis

August 5, 2012

I cannot bring myself, generally, to feel glad that a top notch sportsperson failed, more so when said sportspersons are Indian.    But as Leander Paes bowed out of the Mixed Doubles event, I could not help chuckling at the mighty fall of Indian tennis’s big egos.

Mahesh Bhupathi expressed regret that people would write off years and years of commitment to the Indian team after just one spat.  But it is indeed one grave mistake or miscalculation, real or perceived, that can make all the difference in the public eye.   Disagreements with the AITA are nothing new and not unwarranted either.  But it takes some remarkable suspension of logic to hope that people would continue to stand by the participants of a rather unsavoury verbal arm-wrestling bout.

When Leander Paes won the Australian Open mixed doubles title, I said that he was a doubles legend and deserved a lot more credit than he gets in this cricket-crazy country.   After the latest episode of Hesh v/s Lee, I can perhaps see why he doesn’t.  The Kapil-Sunny spat or the Dravid-Sachin cold war (more media made than real) have nothing on this never ending soap opera starring two of India’s most celebrated tennis champions.

Bhupathi harped on the fact that the combination AITA wanted to send to the Olympics had consistently failed to win a medal and a new combination should be tried out.  I have to agree; Bopanna and Vardhan or Devvarman and Vardhan were probably better bets.   Following Bhupathi’s logic, they couldn’t have done any worse than the pairs that India did eventually send to London 2012.

No, I am not being unrealistic.  I know very well that Vishnu Vardhan is not the doubles force that either Paes or Bhupathi was.  And that is why I have hoped, much like AITA perhaps, that they would keep personal differences aside and do what was in the best interests of Indian tennis.

It is often said that the Indian Govt is just not interested in promoting sporting excellence in the country and conveniently panders to the pervasive cricket mania than recognize unsung heroes – until they somehow win a medal against all odds or even then.   But the Lee-Hesh soap opera perhaps demonstrates that even if the Govt did deliver all that we expect them to on the sports front, it would not necessarily ensure a flurry of medals.

It is not even that Paes or Bhupathi may be insufferably selfish and egoistic performers.  Their success with, ironically, doubles players from other countries suggests otherwise, if anything.  It rather points to the country’s poor sense of priorities and inability to focus on the long-range perspective when attempting to resolve conflicts.

We are too quick to pacify hurt egos and too anxious not to offend sensibilities and far too reluctant to confront tough questions and chart out and implement a roadmap for success.   Success per se does not even figure very highly in our priorities; rather, the identity of success does.   It is apt that this country has, apparently, 31 crore Gods and Godesses because it has a similar number of superstars in different spheres of achievements and a disproportionately low magnitude of achievement in comparison to these numbers.    Everybody is his own God in his magic bubble and, as you well know, God only helps those who help themselves so it’s every God for himself in this immensely populated country.

Bhupathi is in a way bang on about his assessment of the failure of the Lee-Hesh combine; India has successfully written the epitaph for the most successful doubles pair it ever produced.   Voila!  Its chances of winning those bagfuls of tennis medals have disappeared until such time as a similarly talented bunch stokes hopes of success yet again.

Years later in the future, perhaps the media will reflect on the lost opportunity of the Lee-Hesh years and curse the Govt and AITA and lament the failure of our institutions to do what is necessary.  There may be a good deal of truth in that, but would it be the whole story?

 

Chip comes charging back to tennis?

July 15, 2012

 

The Australian Open 2012 final was received with much fanfare.  It had a battleground-esque ferocity and ruthlessness rarely seen in tennis, especially outside the Davis Cup (the Del Potro-Nadal match in the Davis Cup final last year was similar in terms of electrifying atmosphere).   At the same time, it got some people, mostly traditionalists worried about the direction of tennis.  If this was how much top players had to punish themselves physically to win a slam, tennis would see too many injuries, they reasoned.  I guess the sight of such supreme athletes as Djoko and Nadal feeling too tired to even remain standing during the presentation must have been scary.

Whatever….what seems to be unfolding, instead, is a renewed thrust on forward movement, on attacking the short ball.   If you think tennis has gotten even more brutal since that Australian Open final, you probably missed either or all of these moments:  (a) Federer chipping a return to take the net against Murray and smoothly drive volley his weak second shot (Wimbledon) (b) Tsonga bravely coming in behind a second serve in a crucial hold against Murray (Wimbledon)  (c)  Nadal going for a drop shot from the baseline against Djokovic! (French Open).

This last Nadal exhibit is especially interesting, as he has always preferred to play the percentages.  He reasoned after losing the Wimbleon 2007 final narrowly to Federer that he ought to wait longer in a rally for an opportunity to make a winner than to take a risk or attempt something uncharacteristic.    As he subsequently turned the tables on Federer on hard court and grass court, Federer too began to cut risk and play the percentages.   Working an opponent out of court became the magic mantra rather than strokemaking.

Instead, players are ‘going back’ to a more aggressive approach in terms of court position.   I put the words going back in quotes because I cannot remember when last Nadal hit a drop shot off the baseline.  It’s something I expect from Djoko or Federer but not Nadal, especially not at his fortress in Paris.    And it’s not just those three exhibits; both French Open and Wimbledon saw many passages of attacking tennis.   Players serve-volleyed, albeit intermittently, on clay…and I mean, clay court specialists like David Ferrer, not a Sampras going for serve volley because it was his best strategy.   At Wimbledon, the one handed backhand slice made a grand comeback and was frequently put to use.  Players took to the net more often and also flattened out the ball for outright winners from the baseline (instead of going for heavy topspin).

So…what happened to percentages?  To the new brand of brutal tennis that both Djokovic and Nadal claimed to love and hoped to repeat in many more encounters?  The players themselves would obviously be in the best position to give an answer. But my guess is that, simply, tennis has a set of well known formulae and strategies and there comes a point when (a) players know the current strategy too well and it starts to lose its effectiveness and (b) old, abandoned strategies catch players by surprise when resurrected and suddenly become the ‘new strategy’.

Hand in hand, Nadal’s defeats at Halle and Wimbledon and Djokovic’s to Federer at Wimbledon might point to the resurgence of serve as a crucial weapon to win, especially on hard and grass court.   There have been indications of this in the last few months, as Isner reached the Indian Wells final and Raonic consistently stretched top ranked players.   For the last couple of years, the return of serve and baseline depth seemed to have become the most crucial weapons for a tennis player and serve, much less so.   The first mentioned attributes would still remain important to top players but the serve might just regain a bit of the balance.  For that matter, Nadal served really well throughout the clay court season, which was one of the reasons for his near-total domination of it.

Irrespective of whether the prospect of even more physical, brutal tennis had you invoking George Orwell or licking your lips in anticipation, MAYBE it won’t be the future direction of tennis after all.  Perhaps, serve, strokemaking and risk taking will increase in importance to reduce the need to play grinding tennis.   As usual, I am dead neutral about this.  If it’s Federer/Tsonga-like brilliance to watch out for, that would be great…and not so much if it means a Roddick-like ace battery.   I will stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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