Fear the Sleeve!

Milos Raonic is playing out of his mind right now.  For a few of you who haven’t noticed, Milos is now 9 – 0 this season, has a title to his name already, and is in the semi-finals of the Australian Open.  He’s neck and neck with Novak.  Would you have guessed this at the start of the season?

To be honest, I’d been watching Milos from the start of Brisbane and I couldn’t help but be impressed by what I saw.  When he won the tournament by defeating a champion like Federer in the finals, I just had to do an article on him.  You can check it out here.  Nearly two weeks later, and I’m still impressed.  Impressed enough to write another article about him.

As I watched a bit of the replay and the major highlights of the match against Monfils – a player as dangerous and unpredictable as they come – I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Here is man who’s come into his own and figured out his grand slam winning game.”  Now it might be too early to say something as profound as that, but if you’ve watched Milos this year… if you’ve watched Milos in this tournament, you might just understand what I mean.  He’s literally evolved right before our eyes and while it might not happen at the AO, below are a few reasons why I believe Milos can go all the way at this tournament or any other from here on out.

The Serve
Yes it has always been there, and yes it has always been a weapon but it’s looked downright lethal so far in this season’s first grand slam.  It’s not just about the pace of shot, for I think Raonic’s serve has gotten heavier, more accurate and more varied.  It has become almost Samprasian, if not in it’s delivery or look, but in the devastating effect it has on his opponent’s game.  It’s been a while since I have since the absolute look of worry on a tennis player’s face, knowing that if they get broken, they are done.  Last time I really saw and felt that from a match was in 2002.  Fourteen years have gone by and it is back.

The Movement
We aren’t just talking lateral movement along the baseline.  While Milos may never reach big four levels with his ability to track down a ball, he has learned to put his gigantic strides to good use, taking smooth languid movements to the ball and using his long reach, intelligently.  So yes, the lateral movement is there, what I’m most impressed about, is the forecourt movement.  I talked about his willingness to attack the short ball in Brisbane.  It has carried over to the Australian Open and dare I say has gotten better.  It’s not reckless aggression.  It is very deliberate, and very much controlled.  I feel that’s what’s made it very potent indeed.  I’ve seen it put back breaking pressure on his opponents cos they are staying on the defensive, constantly.  So far, they’ve all broken.

The Volleys
A lot of things have happened this year that I never thought would happen. I never thought I’d gasp at a Raonic volley, but I have… multiple times.  He no longer looks clumsy up there.  In fact, he looks downright comfortable.  Dare I say he enjoys it, and it shows.  He’s shown the full range of volleys – pick ups, drop volleys, deep drives, carved angular cuts, lunges, you name it.  Again, I get the Samprasian feel of constant pressure.  Milos’s attack game has gone up more than a few levels and these days when he’s at net, he cuts a very imposing and capable image.  Where Karlovic the has size at net, Raonic the has size and the ability at net.  You have to do more than put it out of his reach, you’ve really gotta hit a good pass, time and time again.

The Return
Gone are the days when you idled along just holding your serve, until you stepped it up in a tie-break against Raonic.  These days, you might not get to one.  Why?  Milos’s return.  It’s gotten so much better, it’s insane.  It’s not like Milos never had the ability to take huge cuts at the ball.  He’s always had that.  What he hasn’t always had is the ability to do it consistently and to vary his return in order to achieve different results.  Not anymore.  Milos picks up the serve so quickly these days, it’s almost Federer like and his laser like cross court stunners are nothing short of Djokovelian.  However, Milos does not return to put the ball back in play.  His returns are an opportunity to hit a winner or go on the attack, however varied or direct that attack may eventually be.

Confidence
Now we come to the intangible of all intangibles.  Confidence.  How to describe this one, I don’t know.  For me, the avid club and occasional competitive player, it is that feeling in the arm, or the sleeve in Milos’s case, that let’s you know your shots are gonna go exactly where, and exactly how fast, you want them to go.  It’s not quite being in the zone as it is just not thinking or doubting too much in the swing.  The swing is relaxed, natural, and effective.  I feel like Milos is in that space.  The next level is being in the zone.  That’s where Djokovic has been for the better part of a year.  But confidence and being in the zone are very intangible things.  Very slippery as well.  How long he can hold on to it is anyone’s guess.

For now though, Milos Raonic and his new found, more complete game, are a viable threat at this Australian Open and any other major this year, especially if he keeps playing like this.  Fear the sleeve my friends.  Fear the sleeve.

When will he learn?

Recently there’s been much ado made about Federer’s comments on Tomic in Brisbane, earlier this month.  Most of it has been fueled by the press – go figure – and by Tomic’s own response to Federer.  It was obvious Tomic took a bit of a jab at Federer.  In my opinion, it was immature, brash and served to show that all that talk about maturing, learning, changing and being for real is exactly what it was before and what Federer called it, JUST TALK.  And right on cue, Bernie lost in straight sets to Murray, in the fourth round of this year’s Aussie Open.

But before I go on and skewer Tomic, let’s analyze Bernie’s 2015 season, based on a particular statement Federer made when discussing him in Brisbane.  Before we start, I’ll bring you up to speed on how I analyzed this.  I took each of Bernard’s participated tournaments and noted how far he went in each of them.  I also assigned weights to each round as a way of helping me measure how well he performed, on average.  Here’s how it works:  Each round is assigned a score weight.  1 for a first round showing, all the way up to 8 if a player won the tournament.  7 was a finalist showing.  Oh, before I forget, I also noted who he lost to and what the score was.  It threw up some interesting stats at the end of the day.  But first, here’s the weight scale, below.

R1 – 1
R2 – 2
R3 – 3
Fourth Round – 4
Quarter Finals – 5
Semi Finals – 6
Finals – 7
Winner – 8

Now on to Federer’s statement 🙂

No, he’s been good, but then top 10 is another story. The year is not just one month long or one week long. It’s 52 weeks. It’s every day.

Fact: Consistently, Tomic’s started a season looking strong and subsequently declared himself ready for the next level, only to flame out as the season progresses.  Remember 2013 anyone?  Back then, Tomic was brash enough to claim he could beat Federer in a possible third round match… if he got that far.  To those of you claiming that it was none of Federer’s business TO STATE HIS OPINION, what do you have to say about this?  We obviously know how that went.  Okay so let’s analyze Tomic’s first three months in 2015.

Tomic_2015_First_Quarter
Tomic’s Performance over the first quarter of 2015

As usual he came out of the blocks firing, reaching the fourth round or better in his first seven tournaments.  Despite this start, notice the 8th tournament, the masters 1000 in Miami.  He was knocked out in the third round of that tournament.  It was a trend that would become the norm, more times than not, for the rest of the year.  Think I’m wrong?  Let’s look at the second quarter.

Tomic_2015_Second_Quarter

So in the second quarter, apart from the one spike – a quarterfinal showing in Stuttgart – dear ol Bernie didn’t do much right.  He was shown out of a tournament in the first round, four times, and didn’t make it past the the third around in any tournament, at the others.  This included dropping a two sets to love lead against Kokkinakis at the French.  Oh and we’ll touch more on this losing while leading trend a bit later.  Let’s move on to the third quarter of the year.

Tomic_2015_Third_Quarter

Oh look!  Bernie won a tournament.  Maybe that’s why he felt his year was amazing… cos he claimed Bogota and a grand total of 250 points.  You’re the man.  Okay I couldn’t help the sarcasm.  Bernard Tomic’s performance was only mildly better.  Yes he won in Bogota, and yes there was a fourth round showing in Toronto, but after that it’s the regular first to third round showings.  At least he only got booted out at the first round, once.  Note that Tomic did not enter any tournaments in September during this quarter.  And on to the final quarter.

Tomic_2015_Fourth_Quarter

Bernard actually put in a fair showing in the fourth quarter.  All his tournaments were in October and after that, his season was done.  He still couldn’t avoid the customary first round boot, but he followed it up with an impressive showing in Shanghai and a few solid fourth round finishes in Stockholm and Vienna.  Then he dipped dramatically in Paris.

So let’s look at that Federer statement again shall we?

No, he’s been good, but then top 10 is another story. The year is not just one month long or one week long. It’s 52 weeks. It’s every day.

I’ll say it’s pretty darn accurate.  Yes Tomic’s been good.  Yes he has the talent to do MUCH BETTER and he showed flashes of it last season but it was still fair at best.  It certainly was not amazing like Tomic said in this sentence.

I just would have liked Roger to say, ‘OK, look, he had an amazing 2015,’ Tomic said. Went from 70, 80 to being 16.

Yes Tomic may have jumped up the rankings, but a player’s ranking is both specific to that player’s performance and relative to the performances of all the other players entered in the ranking system.  If you put in a year like this and you jump from 70 to 16, it only proves the theory that men’s tennis these days is top heavy.  There might be depth of field in terms of talent and ability but not necessarily in terms of competition.  Let’s look at some interesting stats of Tomic in 2016.

  • Tomic won exactly ONE tournament in 2015 out of the 27 he entered.
  • Tomic lost a match after winning the first set, NINE times in 2015.  One of those was a two sets to love lead in the second round of the French, over fellow Aussie, Kokkinakis.
  • Tomic suffered SIX first round losses in 2015.
  • Tomic was able to make the fourth round or better in only 13 of the 27 tournaments he entered.  If we are being VERY FAIR and judging making the fourth round as putting you in mild contention for the title, that’s a poor 48% conversion rate of opportunities to go deep and possibly win.
  • Tomic lost to Steve Johnson three times last year, twice in the first round.  Guess Tomic’s nowhere near Steve Johnson.
  • Tomic’s performance at the slams? Fourth round, R2, R3, R3 in that order.  Tomic_Slams_2015
  •   Tomic’s performance at the masters events entered? QF, R3, R3, R1, Fourth round, R2, QF, R2.
  • Tomic_Masters_2015
  • Based on the weight system, Tomic’s average score over all was a 3.29.  His average at the slams was 3, and his average at the masters was 2.8.  So basically he averaged a 3 out of a possible 8 in each tournament.  This equates to an average third round showing, all season long.

So when you look at it, was Federer being rude, inaccurate with his evaluation or unfair?  Think about it from the perspective of being a parent and your child comes home giving you this very detailed report on his academic performance from the school.  Would you say this is an “amazing” score card?  Yes you might be inclined to be supportive, but most likely you’d balance that with being realistic.  I mean if this is amazing, I’d hate to see horrible.  The truth is Federer gets a lot of heat for being blunt and honest with his opinions – mind you his opinion was ASKED FOR – but on this one, he didn’t miss the mark in my opinion.  If I were Tomic, I’d take good advice from a G.O.A.T contender and take baby steps.  He says he’s not that far off.  Let’s see how he does in 2016.

Whom Shall We Send?

They all sat at the round table in a dimly lit room.  The only wash of light was a dying yellow light bulb that dangled loosely at the end of a single wire, dropping from the ceiling.  It cast just enough light for each man to see his hand and the booze in front of him.  Booze was needed tonight, for there were lots of sorrows to drown.

The deposed king cleared his throat, as he prepared to speak.  He took some time to tuck back in a loose strand of hair that threatened to insult the aura of peRFection he had so carefully crafted all these years.

“We’ve got to stop that Balkan boy.”  He said, with the familiar air of neutrality.  Only the most trained ear could hear the anger hidden underneath that illusion.  “How many in a row has he won now?  How many?”

“Matches or tournaments?”  Asked the shaggy Scot.

His Adam’s apple oscillated up and down the length of his noticeably long neck.  It was usually the tell-tale sign, that he was nervous and didn’t completely believe in himself.

“Are you mocking me?”  The deposed king asked.

“Not at all.”  The shaggy Scot replied, nervously.

“I try in Doha… I get roasted alive no?”  The Bull, observed.

“Listen, we have to go over the traps we set for him and why they haven’t worked.”  Mr. Perfect Hair, chimed in.

He was the only one there who wore a suit and a bow tie.  His hair was slicked back with oil, and perfectly combed in place.  If you looked hard enough, you would think he appeared in monochrome, just cos.  He looked around at the others, before continuing.

“When I came into Australia, I slipped in some information to the authorities about possible match fixing, cos I knew about his near miss.  I thought that would destabilize his concentration, but he appears to be unfazed.”  He continued.

“Z…Well…Zzzzz you see it will always be a bit… um… difficile, but I almost had him.”  D’Artagnan said.  “The perfect strategy that works is to allow him beat himself.  I try and try.  100 unforced errors and nothing to show for it.”

The deposed king sighed before glaring at Jetnnis Lee.  The diminutive Asian gave the greatest Lindt truffles ambassador a squinty eyed glare in return.

“And you.  You always get up for my matches.  What happened today?  Huh?”

Jetnnis Lee kept mute and blinked twice before responding.

“You…”  He pointed at peRFection.  “You, no balkan boy.”  He smiled and chuckled before running out of the room.  Down the hallway they heard him let out a yell of anguish.

“Arrrggggghhhh!!  Hamstring!  Hamstring!!”

Shaggy Scot shook his head.

“Guess he’s out for the next five months.”  He observed.

“The usual.”  The little beast agreed.

He had been silent the whole night, as was his wont (ahem Tignor).

“When we get on that court tonight, I’ll show you the usual.”  Shaggy Scot said, keeping his eyes on the little beast.

“We see, when we play.”  The little beast responded.

“Back to the matter at hand.”  Mr. Perfect Hair interrupted.  “Who will stop the Balkan menace.  Whom shall we send?”

The silence was deafening as each man looked at the other.  The deposed king dropped his beer bottle, loudly on the table.

“I’ll go.”  He said, as he stood up proudly.

“You sure?”  Shaggy Scot asked.  “I mean the last three times he’s…”

“Shut up.”  The deposed king commanded.  “I’ll show you how a real player deals with this adversity.”

“Good Luck!!”  Shaggy Scot called after the deposed king, as he walked out of  the room.  “You’re gonna need it!”

 

 

 

 

Still Got It?

The Australian Open is underway!!

If you are a DIE HARD tennis fan like me, the Australian Open, makes it feel like Christmas comes in January.  It’s not dubbed ‘the happy slam’ for no reason.  The weather’s usually warm – sometimes scorching – and the people are nice, spirited and very astute when it comes to their tennis, as they should be.  Australia is one of the power houses of tennis after all.  Heck, even the players are nice, this time of the year.  Some are in such a giving mood, as to gift away their rightful spots in the next round of the slam to overwhelming underdogs, who happily grab their moment in the spotlight.

Okay I kid.  Fact is there is nobody left in the draw who does not deserve to be there.  Unless of course you believe Rafa was paid handsomely to lose to Verdasco.  I’ll most likely do an article on the match fixing storm that has hit this year’s Australian Open, but that will be later.  Three years ago, I wrote a similar article – about performance drugs in tennis – and if you wanna read it, follow the link below.

Beware The Lance Armstrong Moment

In the meantime, I’d like to draw your attention to this video, all of thirteen years ago on the lawns of Wimbledon.  You really only need to watch the first twenty one seconds.

In his first ever speech as a grand slam champion, Federer belted out the memorable words “Now I have it!”  How appropriate that phrase was then.  Federer had long been seen as the mercurial talent who hadn’t quite expressed the latent greatness anyone who’d watched him play, believed he had.  He’d come into Wimbledon that year, following a disappointing performance the previous year, where he’d been bullied off the court by that long serving giant, Mario Ancic.  But in 2003, Federer played like a man who was searching for something.  That something, was more than a Grand Slam title.  It felt like he was slowly discovering a place or state, where his new found mental calm could allow his physical and kinesthetic gifts to flow outwards unperturbed, and as naturally as the exhalation of a breath.  “Now I have it!” sounded as much like a celebratory cry as it did, a cry of relief and recognition.  That was when Roger Federer, the tennis player, stepped aside and RF the icon, stepped forward.

Over the next sixteen slam victories, Federer told us time and time again, that he still had it.  And by it, I mean the earlier mentioned ability to enter a will not lose zone for seven consecutive best out of five matches.  Thirteen years on, and it is official.  No male tennis player has ever been able to rediscover it, this many times.  The result is the reason why many tennis pundits consider the Swiss Icon to be the greatest tennis player that has ever graced the courts.  However, as with all great champions, age and an ever improving group of younger, hungry players, have slowly but surely diminished Federer’s ability to get into that zen-like state that all but guaranteed him a title by the time the fortnight rolled around.  Federer hit a low point in 2013, a year he failed to make a Grand Slam final for the first time in a decade.  The media, and indeed most tennis pundits, were ready to sing his swan song, when something happened.  Federer bounced back the following year, reaching the Wimbledon final and pushing Djokovic to five sets in an epic final.  He backed up his 2014 season, with an even more impressive 2015, where he reached both the Wimbledon and U.S open finals, and ultimately was denied by Djokovic.

This brings me to my next question.  Does The Fed still have it?  He’s come close to answering in the affirmative, these last two seasons.  Were it not for Djokovic and we might be discussing Federer’s 20 slams right now.  That number would most likely have all but end the grand slam haul hunt, and at least quieted GOAT debaters for a while.  Instead, Federer after tearing through the draw, found himself completely flat against Djokovic in the final.  While it was evident that Djokovic raised his game for all three matches, it was also clear that Federer could not sustain a level that matched that of the Serb’s.

If Federer strolls into Wimbledon slamless, it would have been four years since he last won a slam.  Four years since he last reminded us that he still had it.  However, Wimbledon is still far away.  Winning the Australian Open would send the message loud and clear, to the tennis community.  So what do you say Fed?  Still got it?

A Serve and then some…

When Milos Raonic first burst on the scene some three years ago, more than a few tennis analysts pointed out that the young Canadian’s game was comprised of a cannon serve, an atomic forehand, and nothing more.  His footwork and court coverage were sub-par at best, his net game was courageous but technically off and his return game was virtually non-existent.  To play Raonic, was to take care of one’s serve throughout the set, and then sneak in a few mini-breaks in the tiebreak… if you could.  The general consensus was that his game would have won him a slam in the eighties or nineties perhaps, but he needed much more than that to truly be reckoned with, in this era.

Well guys, it seems Raonic got the memo.  Over time, the Canadian has been particularly vocal about his quest to improve his game and the areas he’s identified as paying particular attention to.  Over time, the results have shown in slow but steadily improving performances on the ATP tour.  The new and improved Raonic that showed up to this year’s Brisbane tournament was a sight to behold.  One word reverberated in my mind, as I watched him play.  Impressed.  Raonic displayed an improved movement, particularly a running forehand that could keep him in the rally and was slightly reminiscent of Del Potro’s running forehand at the U.S Open in 2009.  The improved movement has opened up a ton of attacking options he just didn’t have access to before.  Beyond that, it’s dramatically improved his defensive game.

Another great dimension Raonic has added to his game, is his net play.  On a side note, is it just me or is a new version of S&V evolving out of the ashes of the old?  I might do a piece on that later in the year.  However, I digress.  Raonic was not playing an out and out serve and volley.  But he showed a willingness to attack the short ball and move forward, that I haven’t seen before.  What’s more?  He did it very well indeed.  Forget Federer’s talk of being under the weather.  A healthy Federer would still have found this Raonic, a handful.  It was interesting to see that Raonic’s game appeared to frustrate the great Swiss, who dropped his racket at one point, looking completely bemused.  One could say he was frustrated at his own performance, but I believe his performance or lack thereof had something to do with Raonic’s game on the day.

Oh, and before I forget, the serve was also there.  Despite evening out at 6 aces and 6 double faults, Raonic allowed Federer one look at breaking his serve, and he shut that opening down.  It was the best I’ve seen Raonic play against Federer.  It was the most purposeful I’ve seen him play, period.  If his celebratory scream at the end is anything to go by, there’s a lot of fire beneath that prim and proper boyish look he’s got going on.

How far he’ll go in 2016?  We’ll let his serv…ahem game, do the talking.

Finesse or Power?

Watching Azarenka and Radwanska this week, was like watching the two polar ends of a spectrum.  Let’s call this spectrum the power/finesse spectrum.  Let’s also established the fact that just about all the WTA players are polarized between the two ends.  There are hardly any players in the middle.  This brings about the question of choice.  If you were coaching an up and comer today, how would you shape their game?  Would you mold them into a power player like Azarenka or a finesse player like Radwanska?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of an out and out power hitter like Azarenka.  That sort of game has never struck me as vintage tennis.  I will not deny the fact that her game has been effective throughout her career.  She’s got two AO titles to prove it.  There’s just something about power baseline tennis that doesn’t do it for me.  It lacks dimension.  I believe tennis is at it’s best when both players are using the angles, moving each other around, incorporating the deft touches while periodically injecting that explosive pace that leaves the spectators gasping in their seat.  But that’s just me.  Realistically speaking, power tennis has been the dominant tennis playing style in the WTA for quite some time now.  Sharapova, Davenport, the Williamses, Clijsters, Kvitova, Li Na, Azarenka are players who have two things in common.  They are multiple Grand slam champions, and they all play the power baseline game.  The problem with the power baseline game?  It’s just one wrinkle.  So on a day the shots aren’t finding the lines, there is no fall back plan.

On the other hand, you’ve got the finesse players such as Radwanska, who have not won a slam yet, but play a much more traditional brand of tennis, that is very appealing to the eye.  They don’t try to outhit the other player, they try to outplay and to some extent outwit the other player.  Where a match between power baseline players feels like a first person shooter game, a match involving a finesse player feels like a chess contest.  Before you go saying I’d rather take results over appeal, I’d like to jog your memory about a certain finesse player, of Belgian origins.  Justin Henin.  Like Radwanska, she was lightly built, and covered the court gracefully.  Like Radwanska, she also had to deal with Serena, Venus and a host of other power players vying for Grand Slam titles as well.  Like Radwanska, Henin had a very tactical game and she was comfortable stalking the baseline or attacking the net.  Unlike Radwanska, Henin took an impressive haul of seven Grand Slam titles, home.

The difference? Henin had a weapon.  Okay I’ll rephrase.  Henin had weapons.  Both her forehand and backhand were dangerous when she was on.  That was most of the time.  Her forehand, in particular her inside out forehand, was a go to point ending shot that was both feared and respected in the WTA.  It is important to note that much like Radwanska, Henin didn’t have a killer first serve.  It was primarily a set up shot, used to put her in an offensive position.  However, what she lacked in power, she made up for in placement and decent pace, so that her serve couldn’t be attacked the way Radwanska’s is.  Maybe the Polish player is beginning to figure that out.  In Shenzhen Radwanska was slightly more offensive than I’ve seen her in the past, willing to strike on chosen opportunities rather than outmaneuver  all the time.  Meanwhile, in Brisbane, Azarenka was back at her measured powerful best and simply overwhelmed Kerber in a shootout match.

Which game to model after?  Power or Finesse?  Honestly writing, I’d much rather mold a finesse player with a go to weapon, than a power player with very little finesse.

The Djokovelian Riddle

How do you beat this guy?

I’ll start this article by posting a snapshot of my comment earlier today on Tennis.com, about the then, upcoming Djokovic vs Nadal final, in Doha.

Kel87_comment

Everything – recent history, recent form, gut feeling, – told me Djokovic was most likely going to win this match.  Nothing prepared me for the manner in which he would do it today.

This match was supposed to be different from their most recent tussle at the ATP World Tour Finals, last year.  In that match, Djokovic had comfortable dispatched Nadal in straight sets.  The score was 6 – 3, 6 – 3.  Despite the slightly one sided nature of that match, there were a few reasons I thought that loss was not significant in anyway, looking forward.

To start with, the match was played indoors, Nadal’s worst surface and arguably, Djokovic’s best in recent years.  Secondly, Nadal was just beginning to find his form after an abysmal season.  I won’t be surprised if I wasn’t the only one who thought that the next time they met, it would be a firecracker of a match.  Weren’t we wrong?  Djokovic destroyed Nadal in a very comfortable 6 – 1, 6 – 2 final.  Let’s slice this another way.  He allowed Nadal, exactly half the number of games he won in London, late last year.

Watching this match, I couldn’t help but notice once more, just how unperturbed Djokovic looked throughout.  His eyes never betrayed fear, doubt or worry.  Instead, he exuded calm and focus, and it showed.  His movement was akin to the smooth acceleration of a powerful Ferrari, and his shots were sublimely struck with depth, pace and angle.  This quality never let up and Nadal for all his greatness, just couldn’t raise his game high enough to match Djokovic today, let alone beat him.

With the win over Nadal, Djokovic takes the lead in their fantastic rivalry, for the first time.  It’s no surprise.  If you’ve been watching tennis since 2011, you probably get the feeling that this was a long time coming.  This begs the question, just how did Djokovic become the riddle that he is today?  It’s no secret that the Serb went to great lengths to improve his physical conditioning.  That singular move began to pay quick dividends for him, as he was able to tap into the full potential of his talent in ways his previous physical conditioning did not allow him before.  But what has really raised Djokovic ahead of his great rivals, has been the subtle improvements he’s made to his game, particularly under the tutelage of Boris Becker.  His serve has become a more potent set up shot and sometimes, a point ending shot in itself.  This shot, put a lot of pressure on Nadal today.  Remember, Djokovic’s return/break game is considered one of the best of all time.  That means, going into a match against him, there’s already a lot of pressure to hold serve.  Now there’s pressure to break serve.  It really introduces a whole new set of challenges over the course of three to five sets.

The last two wrinkles Djokovic has carefully crafted into his game are the length of his strokes – particularly on the forehand side – and his net game.  Djokovic has always been a very good base-liner, able to go toe-to-toe with Nadal since the beginning of their rivalry.  But Djokovic had a go to weakness then.  His forehand.  It wasn’t necessarily weak, but it was the side that would gift a few errors or yield to a few winners.  Over the last five years, that Forehand wing has slowly evolved into a potent weapon, capable of hitting with spin, finding acute cross court angles, and even flattening it down the line or with a bit of air for blistering winners.  Then there’s Djokovic’s recent ability to stalk the net.  At first he looked out of place in the forecourt, preferring to execute drop shots or drop volleys while at net.  These days however, Djokovic naturally spins off well placed volleys and punches through drive volleys at net, reminiscent of his coach’s glory days.

So in essence, Djokovic, has gone more offensive, without losing any of the defensive gifts he’s always possessed.  It’s a particularly lethal combination.  There are no weaknesses to the entirety of his game.  If Djokovic has another multiple slam year in 2016, a certain whisper of a question will start growing louder.  Could he be tossed into the GOAT conversation?  That is left to be seen but 2016 will definitely define a lot.

In one of the breath taking rallies between Djokovic and Nadal today, Nadal was at his most stubborn, defensive best.  He strained and groaned, as he continually rifled back top spin missiles from Djokovic, that were landing splat on the baseline.  It was your typical Nadalesque rally and if you were watching like me, you probably were holding your breath waiting for the Nadal shot that would turn that rally around.  Instead Djokovic glided around his backhand and slapped a short ball away for a winner, at an acute angle.  The crowd roared, and Djokovic pumped his fist in the air with the authority of a king.

How do you beat this guy?

 

The Highlights Analysis: Federer vs Dimitrov (Brisbane 2016)

This match up has always been a juicy one since Dimitrov burst unto the scene with all of 17 years under his life-belt.  He quickly evoked strong comparisons to the great Swiss, with his free flowing tennis and his even freer flowing one handed backhand.

However, the young Bulgarian also showed gaping differences between their games and over the years, many have agreed he still has a bit of improvement to make, in order to catch up with Federer.  This notion has been punctuated with their head to head, which up until today, had been an abysmal 0 – 3 against Dimitrov.  Even more disappointing, was the glaring fact that Dimitrov had played 6 sets against his great Idol and won exactly none.

Today, however, We finally got a match with these two playing some of the high octane tennis we’ve imagined they would against each other.  The serving was like a storm of thunderbolts, the rallies frenzied, fierce and often punctuated by a sizzling array of furious winners, caressed deft touches and lunging cat-like volleys.  And what’s more, Dimitrov won a set.  Make that 1 – 7 Federer.  Ha!  No one wins eight sets in a row against Grigor.  Unfortunately, Federer made it four matches in a row.  Let’s take a look at what set them apart today.

1.) The Serve: Both these guys serve very well and place their deliveries close to the lines.  Heck, even their service motions are similar.  However, Federer was broken once, while Dimitrov was broken thrice.  Once in each set.  It showed a fundamental difference with these two players.  Federer serving is clutch.  Dimitrov’s is not… at least not yet.  It’s not like this is new with the Bulgarian.  Against Djokovic and Murray especially, Dimitrov has built a reputation of putting himself in a position to serve out a set, only to be broken then.  The other players won’t miss that trait and Federer knew exactly when to get himself back into the second set.  However, this… mental lapse… Dimitrov is prone to, can happen at anytime during a set.  He may be able to get away with it against the second tier, but not with guys like Federer.  It cost him today.

2.) The Return: Dimitrov managed one break today and while that had a lot to do with Federer’s serving, it also had a lot to do with Dimitrov’s return game as well.  I mentioned in yesterday’s highlights analysis of the Federer-Kamke match, that Federer has subtly incorporated a bit of the Agassarian essence in his return game.  It showed again today.  He was taken aggressive wacks at Dimitrov’s serve, particularly the second serve.  Everything about Federer’s return game appeared deliberate.  Dimitrov’s returns were more instinctive and reactionary.  There were reflex returns, wild slap returns, lunging gets and very few precise returns aimed at striking a winner or taking control of a rally.  The result?  Not many looks at the Federer serve.

3.) The Net Play:  Now this was a big one.  It also showed how Federer is more adept and more experienced at using his multi-faceted game, than Dimitrov is at using his.  Federer repeatedly attacked the net, and was successful with it, throughout the match.  How big was this?  It was a chip and charge return that got the decisive break in the third.  Dimitrov was largely unsuccessful passing Federer today.  He never really had the set up time and the occasional net rushes by Federer, seemed to catch him off guard and throw him off his rhythm a bit.  It made a world of difference.  I wonder if Dimitrov will add that to his tool kit.

All in all, I think both players will take positives away from this match.  For Dimitrov, he’s got some good wins under his belt already and he played his best match by a mile and a half, against Federer today.  For Federer, well he knows where his game is at and he’s gotta be feeling optimistic about the performance, considering he hasn’t been feeling 100% for a few days now.  Once he recovers, his game should go up and up.  That’s the logical thought process right?  Let’s watch the tennis do the talking.

The Highlights Analysis: Federer vs Kamke (Brisbane 2016)

This one was as one sided as they get.  That’s generally the norm with Federer matches at this stage of any tournament.  Tobias never really had a chance from the word go.  Let’s see what made this match such an express for the Fed.  The match highlights are here.

1.) The Serve: Nobody builds their game around the serve and yet draws your attention away from its importance, the way Federer does.  He has without question one of the most overlooked, underrated and deadliest deliveries of all time.  His placement and variation of pace and spin on that stroke is nothing short of phenomenal and he used it to good effect in this match.  Kamke unfortunately, did not have a very good serving or returning day.  That was in part, due to Federer’s serving, which set up the rest of the game.

2.) Constricting Time: This was said about Federer’s game, early on in his career and it still rings true in his twilight years.  He just takes time away from his opponents with his quick strike rallying technique and his uncanny ability to take the ball early and on the rise.  Kamke on the other hand, has a bit of an elaborate and big swing (particularly on the forehand side).  This means he is definitely capable of taking big cuts at the ball… if you give him the time.  Federer didn’t.

3.) The Return:  Yes there was an attempted Saber (Sabre), but Kamke faulted and so we could not witness it.  Saber or no Saber though, it is clear Federer’s return (break game) has improved recently.  He takes more cuts at the ball, especially with the backhand, than he did during his golden years.  The advantage of this return style is it prevents you from being in a defensive position, at the start of the rally.  Andre Agassi was a master of the full swinging return.  Federer brought it back in this match and the results speak for themselves.

Extrapolating from this match, Tobias Kamke, definitely needs a weapon.  He lacks a point ending shot and that has probably cost him his entire career (he’s 29).  However, if Wawrinka is anything to go by, it is not too late to start retooling something.  As for Federer, one could not have asked for a better start.  However, a stiffer test comes next.  Dimitrov.  Judging by their performances in this match, I’ll go with Federer on that one.

The Highlights Analysis: Dimitrov vs Troicki (Brisbane 2016)

Going through the highlights of this match was a drag for me.  There was one… exactly ONE interesting point and that’s the one where Troicki hits a tweener.  As exciting as that point was, it was a microcosm of this match in general.  Here’s a breakdown of some of the key elements that defined the Victor (no pun intended) and the vanquished.  If you wanna checkout the highlights, you can do so by clicking here.

1.) Errors:  Yes, both these guys threw in their fair share of unforced errors, but Troicki was the more giving player in the end.  Dimitrov needs to clean up his act before his next match, and for good reason too.  He’ll be facing his idol, Roger Federer.  They’ve met three times on tour.  Three time’s Federer’s grabbed the win, each one being easier than the last.  Dimitrov… I see a double bagel in your future.  Kidding.

2.) Playing Style:  One of the benefits of modeling your game after the great Swiss star’s game is – if you are doing it right – that you get to have a very diverse toolkit at your disposal.  Dimitrov, despite the lack of results to back it up, has a very diverse game and can hit a dizzying array of spectacular shots within the same rally, talk less of an entire match.  He used this well in bamboozling Troicki and taking the Serbian out of his comfort zone time and time again.  Troicki is a watered down version, and one dimensional version of Djokovic.  He moves decently, and hits a clean flat ball.  Such an average game can do damage on occasion (it almost did in this match) but diversity usually has the upper hand.  It did today.

3.) Aggressive Attacks:  Dimitrov is nowhere near Federer in terms of his level of controlled aggressiveness, but he is up there.  His frequent charges to the forecourt were enough to earn him enough free points to edge his nose ahead of Troicki in this dogfight.  You can chalk it up to variety as well, but it was more than that.  It was a willingness to hit through the ball on both wings and take the forecourt away, whenever possible.  He might not look as catlike as Fed looks all the time, but it was very effective in this match.

All in all, Dimitrov was good enough… or not as horrible enough to lose today.  I’d like to add that I do tire of seeing Dimitrov lay emphasis on hitting a pretty ball rather than winning.  Federer has often said he never set out to win pretty.  It’s just a natural by-product of his game.  He always wanted to win in a sport he loves.  I don’t get the same vibe with Dimitrov.  Sure he wants to win and he often talks about that, but I think he tries too hard to win pretty.  On many occasions during a match, I’ve caught him ‘ball watching’ and I almost want to scream “Stop admiring your shots man and play!!”.  This I think is the major difference between the Bulgarian, and Federer.  It’s the difference between being the king of the hotshot reel and the king of the slams.