Posts Tagged ‘Nadal’

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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