Posts Tagged ‘Wimbledon’

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.

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.


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