Posts Tagged ‘Federer’

Konta-Vekic, thank you for the tennis!

July 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tennis v/s cricket: busting myths from a playing perspective

December 27, 2014

Around end of March, I began to play tennis, having watched it since at least 1994, maybe 93.  I have been following cricket (or used to, rather) for roughly as many years.  The IPL spot fixing fiasco combined with the unsavoury Big Three takeover of cricket did it for me and I finally gave up on a game in which my interest had been waning over the last few years.  On the other hand, what with my now playing the game, my interest in tennis has only increased.  A comparison of cricket and tennis has been running in my head from the time I started playing the latter.  I used to play street cricket and was reasonably good at off spin (for the amateur level) but never put in dedicated effort to get better at it.  I have already upgraded to an intermediate racquet in tennis and I have voraciously devoured amazing youtube tutorials on the different aspects of the game, wanting to keep on improving at a game which I initially found frighteningly difficult to play.  The culmination of it was an ITF women’s singles match at the NMSA club, played on 20th December.  It was won by 18 year old Serbian player Nina Stojanovic, presently ranked 461 in the world.

After I watched Stojanovic beat Russian Natalie Dzalamidze (no. 348), comparisons with the two IPL matches I was able to watch in the stadium, I once again began to compare the two games and the level of play I had seen in this ITF match v/s IPL.  I know what the objection to that (from a cricket purist point of view) is going to be.  IPL is not cricket.  It cannot be compared with the pure form of tennis.  Sure, but I am talking women’s tennis and I am talking about a $25000 ITF tournament played, in tennis terms, between Ms Nobody and Ms Nobody.   So the comparison is not really unfair.  In the IPL matches, I saw players who represent the team at the highest level, like Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan, play, for instance.  So with that out of the way:

1.  Complexity:  The biggest myth held up by cricket lovers is that it is the most complex sport in the world and that there’s absolutely nothing else that compares.  This is a superficial view based on armchair observations and possibly a not very unbiased perspective of other sports.  Here’s what I think.  First off, yes, it’s true that a cricket captain has 9 fielders at his disposal and 4 specialist bowlers, at the minimum, to choose from.  So in terms of number of tactical options, yes, cricket is one of the most complex sports.  But let’s look at what it is like to play the game.  The thing is, there is a lot of inertia in cricket, phases where all players are in resting position.  I don’t mean literally resting but they just have to hang back in their chosen positions as the bowler runs up to the crease to deliver.  Likewise, the batsman just has to stay put in the crease.  It is in the bowler’s interest, if he desires to get him out, to make him play the ball.  So the batsman may have to use some footwork to get to the pitch of the ball at times, yes, but mostly the ball is directed such that the batsman can play it from the crease.

Perspective:  the only shot in tennis that you hit from an initial inert state is the serve!  That’s the only time in the entire point that you get to absolutely dictate play.  If you hit a great serve, you can force the opponent to make the shots you want him/her to and thus dictate the pattern of play.  But even so, and especially when your serve gets the treatment from the receiver, you have to anticipate where the opponent is going to hit the ball to.  How short or how deep is it going to be, how quick is it, where in the court you ought to be to receive it and what shot would be your best response to it.  Based on this, you may have to move forwards or backwards or sideways and prepare to hit a forehand or backhand drive or a slice or a volley. All this information is processed in a matter of mere seconds even at the amateur level of the game.  You do not have the luxury of time.

Additionally, unlike cricket, you do not have the option of leaving the ball unless it’s sailing long or wide anyway.  You have to make a shot.  And if you don’t make a good shot each and every time, you will lose the point unless your opponent makes a mistake.  One may have fewer options to process in tennis but the processing has to be done very quickly.  In top flight tennis, it’s basically done on the move.  He who hesitates pays the price.  To believe this does not require great sporting IQ is sadly deluded.  It is not my case, again, that cricket is not a complex sport. But so is tennis.  Just in a very different sense.

2. Skill and repertoire:  Cricket fans also love to boast about the skills and repertoire in the game vis a vis other games.  The different kinds of delivery and the wide variety of shots available to the player.  This involves a sleight of hand in oversimplifying (and thus diminishing quantitatively the repertoire of other games).  If you say the only shots in tennis are the drive, the slice and the volley, then likewise, the only shots in cricket are the drive, cut and pull.  Now if you distinguish between an along the ground drive and a lofted shot or a square cut and a late cut, then let’s talk about top spin forehands v/s flat.  Let’s talk about a deep slice v/s a short, knifelike one.  Let’s talk about drive volleys v/s drop volleys.  And how about grips?  You can hit the same shot, say a forehand, with a Continental, Eastern, Semi Western or Western grip.  This is not exotic jargon; rather each grip has a different purpose and acts differently on the ball, starting from the flattest and easiest grip (Continental) to the most extreme and top spin based (Western).  Oh, how could I forget down the line, inside out and crosscourt?  Nope, just like Tendulkar possessed a rich array of strokes to target every part of the ground, so too Federer possesses an incredible variety of shots for every part of the court.  You may rue the increasing dominance of baseliners and the decline of all court tennis but so too dextrous wristmasters and the merchants of timing are making way for bashball batsmen in cricket.  That has more to do with the improvement in equipment than the nature of the game.

3. The effect of equipment:  However, if the argument of equipment is going to be made against tennis, its effects have been far more deleterious on cricket whereas the jury is out on tennis.  Understanding this requires watching the game in a stadium as opposed to television.  TV does not do justice to how intensely tennis is played at the professional level.  I dare armchair serve and volley ageists to try net rushing against the powerful groundstrokes of Stojanovic and Dzalamidze.  Even the decline of the one handed backhand becomes easier to explain when you see the power and bounce with which players attack the backhand corner.  I can only hypothesize as to how good Wawrinka’s one hander must be if he could take on heavy topspin strokes from Nadal and beat him at the Australian Open.  A one hander that incredible is out of the grasp of most mortals and accordingly most tennis players choose the double hander.  When you watch a tennis match in the stadium, you are not whining about the lack of volleys (by the by, Stojanovic did produce a few volleys that extracted gasps from the spectators, most of whom were recreational players themselves).  You marvel at the extreme athleticism and precision with which players are able to play the game today.  In cricket, since the advance in equipment has been lopsided with the ball staying the same as bats have improved exponentially, the contest has become increasingly one dimensional and the thrust ever more on the batsmen than the bowlers.

4. Physicality:  Cricket is a game with  much English baggage.  Not surprisingly, cricket watchers look for an underdog angle all the time.  So, the argument goes, cricket rewards the underdog.  A player does not have to be supremely strong, physically, to play cricket well because it’s all about skills.  While tennis is all about physicality (so, in theory, a gigantic dumbo could pick up the racquet and win grand slams).  There is no doubt that tennis has a pronounced bias in favour of tall players.  Not necessarily giants (most 6 foot 5 plus players don’t win the big titles) but the 5’10” to 6’2″ range.  This is lately noticeable in cricket too so it’s not completely immune from it.  Tennis does require a high level of athleticism because it is played at much higher intensity.  But it’s not all about physicality.  How hard you can hit a forehand largely depends on your swing, your hip rotation and your transfer of weight.  If this were not the case, giants like Del Potro would not be applying the same fundamentals of technique that Federer or Djokovic adhere to.  So, no, he is not exempt from it either just because he is much taller.  Justine Henin could out hit much taller and stronger players than her because of her technique.  I am 5’6″ and very overweight and I often hit bigger forehands than really tall and athletic opponents.  If anything, the advancement of equipment has only made players go for even more extreme grips and more torso roll, more bodily momentum in hitting the shot.  Tennis today is played at a higher level technically than in the days when a continental grip was de rigeur.  Whereas the improvement in bats has allowed for more of “see-ball-hit-ball” batting and long held conventions of footwork and position have been ditched as outmoded.

5. Live experience:  It is often repeated, almost as an article of faith, that cricket is meant to be watched in the stadium.  In terms of the almost festive atmosphere what with fans screaming at the top of their voices, maybe.  But the sport as such does not translate well to stadium spectating.  The long periods of inertia I referred to, as in the time taken by the bowler to get back to his mark or for fielders to change ends at the end of an over, take their toll and leave the spectator yearning for action.  And unless the bowler is a real tearaway, the experience of watching a pace bowler deliver the ball is not particularly exhilarating.  At times, what I saw in the IPL matches may have captured my imagination but it wasn’t anything that made me go “How is this even possible?”. It was not jaw dropping stuff.  On the other hand, the lowly ITF match I watched produced many such moments, almost throughout.  When the match was over, I was left wondering what it would be like to watch top 10 players play each other and realised why tennis is such a brutally elite sport.  The sad part is Dzalamidze is probably already too old to ever make the cut in premier WTA tournaments.  Stojanovic has a chance if she has a great 2015 and 16.  Else, she’ll get ‘timed out’.  At 18, she’s already running out of time to make it at the highest level of tennis.  Rank 461.  In cricketing terms, that would be a Ranji level player deemed unworthy of playing for India or maybe somebody who plays for the likes of Bermuda (and even that is being too charitable).

In spite of its punishing system, tennis has great depth at the grassroots level.  I was left to wonder whether the same can be said anymore about cricket.  It is time for cricket lovers to consider these questions and shake out of their complacent “cricket is the best ever game” illusion, which by the way is not true.

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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