The Desert King

I remember watching Nadal when he first burst onto the scene with bulging biceps, a shaman war cry and a ferocious forehand that bit into the sand harder than a crocodile clamps in on its prey.  His combination of raw power, unfettered will, ridiculous spin and unmatched movement, fetched him a landslide of clay court titles from 2005 till 2014.

It was well known that the bull – despite becoming a champion of repute on those surfaces – could still be taken out on grass and hard courts.  All it took was a hard-hitting opponent playing lights out tennis, or a Nadal off day and any one of those power houses was in with a chance.   On clay, the story had always been an entirely different matter.  Particularly at Roland Garros – other than a Soderling blip in 2009 – no one, not even the widely accepted G.O.A.T, Roger Federer, could dislodge the Spaniard’s dominion over the dirt.  This remained true, until 2015.

For a few years leading up to 2015, Nadal had been struggling on the other popular surfaces, particularly grass.  Yet it was a generally accepted fact that when the tour moved to the shifting sands, Rafa’s game would awaken once more.  Yet 2015 seemed eerily different.  Coming into the clay court season, he had been proven vulnerable in all tournaments played, including those in the South American clay swing.  He would go on to the French Open without any European silverware for the first time since 2004.  Still, most pundits reserved judgment.  This was after all, the French Open and that lone Soderling blip had come on the heels of stormy waters within the Nadal household.  Even with the draw released and a red hot Novak looming, only the bravest would predict a Serbian victory.  Yet it happened and it was a dismissive straight sets victory by Djokovic.  Nadal?  He barely put up any resistance.  In the months that have followed, we have all wondered what happened to the Shaman warrior.  His battle cry was there, but it lacked conviction.  He wailed away his buggy whip of a forehand but it nibbled rather than bit the dirt.  He would accelerate into a scurry, only to get to his opponents shots a second too late and his famed mental fortitude had all but deserted him.

Coming into this season, we all knew how important it was for Rafa to begin the march to rediscovering the form that has made him one of the most feared tennis players to ever grace a court.  It hasn’t been easy – in fact by the end of the Australian Open it looked like it was more of the same.  We should have known better.  Rafa slowly but surely played himself back into contention during the American hard court swing and by the time Monte Carlo rolled around, the desert king was ready to reclaim his rightful throne.  What a reclamation it has been.  With Barcelona done and dusted, make that two out of two for Rafa in the Euro clay swing.  All of a sudden, whispers of “he’s back” have permeated the tennis air.  This does not bode well for Nadal’s closest rivals, particularly Novak.  If Rafa is really and truly back to his clay court imperiousness, then the Serbian might be really ruing a missed opportunity to complete his grand slam portfolio, last year.

Since Nadal’s slump last year, a few possible heirs have made their statements – none more than Dominic Thiem.  He might have to wait a little bit longer to take the throne.  For now, the desert king is here to stay.

 

Meet Jiri Vesely, The Riddle Solver

Watching Jiri move on clay, I couldn’t help but recall embattled tennis star, Maria Sharapova’s self deprecating description of herself on the same surface:

Like a cow on ice

If there was one word to describe his movement, it would be ‘clumsy’.  He lumbers around the court, threatening to trip over his big 6’6″ frame at any moment.  Rather than move, it feels like he is an assembly of parts all hurling themselves in different directions and yet miraculously achieving the effect of motion towards a common destination: the tennis ball.  But when he’s on, combine that movement with the rest of his game, and he is ridiculously efficient.  Don’t believe me?  Just as Novak.  He found out the hard way.

There were a combination of factors that led to what has become a very, very rare occurrence in tennis these days.  A Novak Djokovic defeat.  An interesting observation of mine was that not many of those factors had anything to do with Novak himself.  In fact, I’d say there was only one and we’ll get to that in a bit.

When you really get down to it, Jiri simply took it to Novak.  However, it’s not what you think.  He didn’t try to blow him off the court, much like his fellow big guys are wont to do whenever they play and he didn’t try to out-rally him like Novak’s fellow movers try to.  In both cases, he would have failed.  Novak has – for the past five years or so – reinvented himself into the ultimate aggressive rallying machine.  He does not do anything stupendously well, but he is solid all around and as such, there are no glaring weaknesses to get to.  It is this reinvention that has made Novak so lethal to the likes of Nadal these days.  He can out-rally the Spaniard in his sleep it seems.  As for the Brit, he’s not gonna miss against him even if he is the more aggressive player.  Jiri took a page out of Federer’s playbook against Novak.  He quite literally flummoxed him.

Rhythm is the key to Novak’s game.  He is at his imperious best when he is in control of the rallies, attacking and defending at will, and coming to net of his own volition.  Take that out the window, and he is in a bit of a pickle.  But this is Novak we are talking about here.  He has been so good that even this game tactic only serves to frustrate him and maybe take a close set off him.  What Jiri had, was the divine combination of power, depth and touch.  Vesely’s shots have weight to them, much like Sampras’s serve did in his prime.  As Patric McEnroe would say, there’s a bit of late movement to his shots.  For any one of you club players like myself, if you’ve played against such an opponent, you know how difficult that can be to fend off.  It almost feels like your opponent is pressing down on your racket strings with their palms and control goes out the window.  While Djokovic is no club tennis player, neither is Jiri and it was evident that his weighty shots were throwing off Djokovic’s timing.

If that wasn’t enough, Jiri played with ridiculous depth as well.  What’s more, he mixed it up with the occasional sharp angle here and there.  Being a lefty, this was an even more problematic proposition for the one they call the Serbinator.  Not only did he have to time his shots perfectly each and every time, he was stuck making half volleys off the baseline most of those times and couldn’t lay into his shots the way he so beautifully does.  The result?  Novak was perpetually on the defensive and this opened up the opportunity for Jiri’s final playing card.

The cat and mouse game is not one you would expect a giant like Jiri to repeatedly win against Novak.  However that’s exactly what happened in this match, in part due to the elements listed above.  He timed his drop shots to perfection, wrong footing the Serb or sending him scampering to make up the fore ground, over and over again.  Djokovic’s claim of the second set, as insulting as it may seem, was almost a gift from Jiri due to a drop in his level.  That’s how much this match was on the Czech’s racket.

As for Novak, he didn’t do much wrong other than not bring his A game from the start.  Can you blame him? He hasn’t needed it to win in quite some time.  His riddle has been good enough for the best out there.  With Jiri’s blueprint an open secret, he might need to make that riddle, the best once more.

And tennis came back…

Tennis is a beautiful game to watch.  I’ve always believed it to be the perfect sporting analogy to a person’s life.  You get into a race and a prize is right at the end, but your journey is anything but smooth.  You work hard, sweat, and push yourself to the very limits of your mind and body just to give yourself that slight advantage that might make all the difference between victory for you, or defeat at the hands of the challenges – the opponents – you will most likely face on the way to the finish line.  You will do this over and over again in front of a ‘watchful crowd’ – spectators they are called.  Some are there to see you win, others to see you fall and a few for the love of the competition you and your challenge(r) provide.  Yet there will be those firmly in your camp.  They are your inner support circle and will seldom desert you in victory or defeat.  Win more times than not, and slowly you will become a star, then a champion, and who knows… the stuff legends are made of.  Sound familiar?

Tennis has produced its fair share of legends.  These men and women did more than win grand slams.  In truth, when one considers the grand scheme of tennis, winning a slam or a couple of slams is relatively easy.  Legends define the game.  They show you tennis, they play it and win it in a way you’ve only dreamed of.  That’s the sort of air Roger Federer enjoys these days.  If you were looking to get a feel of tennis after the great Swiss hangs up his racket, then you got it when he hurt himself given his daughter’s a shower.  Somehow I find that both ironic and expected at the same time.  Isn’t it always the least lethal of elements that brings down a great?  Federer has stretched, leaped, turned on a dime, sprinted, and thrown his body repeatedly into shot after shot for the better part of 18 years and a simple knee turn finally did him in for months?

Roger Federer of Switzerland kisses the winners trophy after defeating Andy Murray of Britain in their men's final tennis match at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London

Win more times than not, and slowly you will become a star, then a champion, and who knows… the stuff legends are made of.

Like all greats however, this one did not stay down.  While he was nursing his wounds and getting himself race ready once more, tennis – much like life – did not wait.  It moved on to the beat of its schedule but it hardly felt the same.  I doubt this was unique to just me.  There was an element of raw tennis that was missing, and a very important one at that.  Maybe it was the lack of creative genius, or the classic chess master’s game of angles.  It could have been the reduced visual appeal caused by seeing that perfect blend of finesse and power, or the dissection of a match by deconstructing an opponent’s weaknesses, rather than trying to outhit or out “not miss” them.  At this stage of the game, Federer is basically a throwback and that’s a good thing. Sometimes throwbacks can be frighteningly effective against the contemporary.  What’s more, sometimes throwbacks are missed.

I don’t think tennis is ready to let go of Federer just yet.  Watching him play against Garcia, I was amazed at how different the rallies were played.  It was an athletic, yet thinking man’s rally with furious, fast paced and yet controlled shots aimed at setting up the winner rather than wearing down the other.  It still leveraged on the physical gifts of a strictly followed training regiment, but in a different, much truer form.  Tennis came back yesterday and it was good to have it again.

Maria and the Meldonium Saga

Was a tennis doping scandal like this a long time coming?  I believe it was.  The signs have been there for a while now.  The largely unfounded accusations hurled at Rafael Nadal, the HGH ruckus with American, Wayne Odesnik, Richard Gasquet’s French kiss with a little dash of cocaine? I’ll go ahead and lump in Andre Agassi’s crystal meth confession in his book, Open.  While the last incident may be viewed under the factual context that crystal meth absolutely does not enhance an athlete’s competitive ability, all of the above incidents had served to underscore a glaring truth.  There was a hole in tennis’s drug testing system.  It had been there for a long time, and it was a big one.

In the aftermath of these revelations, tennis’s governing bodies moved to step up their game with increased testing and soon a few mid-sized ‘fish’ were caught; Victor Troicki and Marin Cilic.  These incidents caused minor ripples in tennis’s fabric though.  Troicki was a mid-ranked player at the time and Marin Cilic, was a talent that was yet to fulfill his potential.  There were murmurs of a big catch coming up, but the buzz only simmered and never really boiled over… until now.

Fast forward to 2016, and the familiar stories were in full flight.  The Australian Open had produced another surprise women’s champion, in the form of Angelique Kerber.  The buzz was around Djokovic and Serena having dominant seasons once again, Federer’s yearly quest to get that elusive eight major and Nadal’s continuing doldrums.  He’d crashed out early in Australia and the R word was beginning to rear its ugly head again.  It was business as usual and then… Hiroshima happened.  On March 7th, Maria Sharapova held an unexpected press conference.  I’m willing to bet everyone thought she would be announcing her retirement from tennis.  Instead Maria Sharapova told us – rather painfully – that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open.  She had tested positive for a recently banned substance known as Mildronate or Meldonium depending on where you live.

This didn’t cause a ripple.  It caused a tsunami.  With all due respect, this was no journeyman, or mid-ranked player.  This was no unfulfilled talent or one major wonder.  This was Maria Sharapova.  A perennial top ten player with five time grand slam champion and former world no 1 player.  But just as with the other cases, this one has been anything but straightforward.  In her press conference Sharapova was quick to take responsibility for being careless and not noting the updates made to the banned list.  She was maybe even quicker to emphasize that she had been taking Mildronate on a prescription basis for health complications that had arisen ten years earlier.

And there in lies the problem.  On the surface, Maria’s reasons check out.  Meldonium does address the challenges she claims to have been facing at the time.  However, there are some inconsistencies that need to be ironed out.  For instance, were these conditions in anyway chronic?  If not, how come Meldonium was found in her system, ten years later. What were her dosages?  Were they high enough to grant her an unfair advantage against her fellow WTA players?  These questions and a whole lot more, will most likely be answered during the hearing.

Just as well, WADA does have some answering to do as well.  Maria’s claim that the notification process was convoluted, may not be unfounded.  There were over two dozen more athletes who tested positive to the same substance.  Could they have also failed to read their emails?  Why did it take ten years for WADA to determine the performance enhancing benefits of Meldonium?  Surely they would have detected it repeatedly in Maria’s system over that period of time.  Let’s keep in mind that Maria in a sense, represents the ‘disposable champion’.  She is above the likes of Ivanovic, Li Na and even Azarenka when it comes to star power and tennis legacies, however she’s no Serena Williams.  All this makes her the ‘perfect’ example for WADA’s new no nonsense approach.

Let the saga continue.