Remembering S&V at Wimbledon

So yesterday, after looking at the draw for this year’s edition of Wimbledon, I discovered much to my chagrin, that I had nothing to write about.  I’m slowly learning about the little and big implications that come with being a sports writer – blogger if you will.  The sport, more than anything, feeds you the content rather than the other way around.  You could say the draws being made was new content to write on, but I beg to differ.  There’s not really much to talk about… yet.  Maybe that’s what comes with one player being so overwhelmingly dominant, the way Djokovic has been.  I’d pencil him in as the de-facto winner.  For the last twelve months, he’s been that good and everyone else has been well… not as good.

So with nothing better to do, I decided to go on a trip down memory lane.  I backtracked sixteen years and found in the YouTube archives, highlights of the 2000 Wimbledon final, between Pete Sampras and one of his bitter rivals, Pat Rafter.  You can check out the highlights of the first set of that match, by following the link below.

Sampras Vs Rafter – Wimbledon 2000 (First Set)

As I watched the match, I mulled on the subject of Serve and Volley – a dying art of the game.  I wonder if we should change the “dying” to ‘dead’.  We’ll get back to that, later.  A lot of people talk about the clamor for more ‘interesting’ tennis as the catalyst for the slowing down of the courts that took place not long after this match.  That reduction in court speed along with other factors I won’t focus on in this article, was as they say, the fatal blow that sent S & V on its downward spiral.  A new kind of tennis was ushered in at the 2002 Wimbledon games.  The age of baseline tennis had finally arrived.

pete_sampras_wimbledon5
Pete Sampras was famous for his all court game but it was his natural affinity for the net that brought him seven Wimbledon titles in eight years.

However, I digress.  Coming back to the art of Serve and Volley, I cannot describe to you the overwhelming sense of nostalgia I experienced, watching this match.  The first thing that jumped out to me was the location of the foot beaten grass.  By the time the final rolls around these days, the grass near the baseline is reminiscent of a parched desert area.  In the highlights, you’ll see that back then the fore-court was also weathered and while the baseline looks like it has taken some beating, it is not nearly as bad as it will look in two weeks from today.  Rafter is serving now and he goes for the fast one down the T.  It isn’t the most powerful serve out there, but it is well placed and comes with a decent amount of pace.  By the time Sampras looks up from his return, Rafter has carved out a marble of a backhand cross court volley that he can do little about.  In that moment, I can see why the grass thrived under this brand of tennis.  Rafter’s footwork is lithe and watching him approach the net, I get a sense that he is barely brushing the blade tips of the grass.  Now there is a player who should have won this tournament.  Sampras is well known for his movement on the turf and his cat like steps to the net are equally breathtaking to behold.

From both men, the genius at net is lightning – blink and you miss it – fast.  You do not get to appreciate the thought and execution that has led up to the final volley, until after the exchange of furious shots is completed.  The volleys themselves are natural wonders, weaving with dexterity, a combination of conscious purpose and instinctive reflex to create a rather resounding display of attacking tennis at its most glorious.  As equally compelling are the passing shots the two combatants produce.  They rifle through their backhands with conviction and the topspin impacted is furious and dipping… always dipping.  There is a sense of urgency to the serve and volley style of play, and very little room for prolonged decision making.  The serve forms the anchor for the rest of the game, much like it still does today.  However there is a glaring difference.  While most of today’s players use the serve as a bludgeoning weapon, these guys – even Sampras with his vaunted serve – use it as a rapier.  The aim is to either end the point or set up the next shot, with a interlace of placement and power.  Still watching, I felt like going to a local tennis club and showing this clip to young up and comers when they are ready to learn the serve.

How could anyone call this, boring?

Rafter
Rafter possessed one of the finest backhand volleys you may never see again.

But ‘boring’ is a subjective word both to the keen tennis observer and as influenced by the participants of the game.  I do admit that there were tennis matches back then that could make the eyes bleed.  I never particularly enjoyed watching a Krajicek match, for instance and the 1994 Wimbledon final between Sampras and Ivanisevic, was a cataclysmic dud.  Just the same, I wouldn’t want to see a final between a David Ferrer and Bautista-Agut.  I suppose what I’m trying to say is, tennis is a symphony created by two participants, the rackets being their instruments.  The music only gets as good as the instrumentalists play it.  The big difference is, you never know the composition before hand or if you’ll have a crescendo or not.

The volleys themselves are natural wonders, weaving with dexterity, a combination of conscious purpose and instinctive reflex to create a rather resounding display of attacking tennis at its most glorious.

SW19 starts in twenty four hours.  A lot has happened since that 2000 Wimbledon final – and for me, the last exhibition of combined Serve and Volley genius at a grand slam event.  Sampras and Rafter retired, succumbing to father time as they all do.  Federer rose and proceeded to put together a zoned run that has landed him in pole position for that elusive G.O.A.T title, and now Djokovic, a baseline player as pure as Rafter was a Serve and Volley player, will be going for his third straight Wimbledon title.  However, Federer while winning primarily from the baseline, employed the use of an all court game predicated on all court attacking tennis with a propensity to finish at net, as often as possible.  I believe he ushered in a slightly different version of the new era.  We’ll call it Approach and Volley (A &V) – predicated on hitting a strong approach shot, teasing out the weak reply and moving in for the easy put away.  Djokovic might not be as offensive as Federer, but under the tutelage of Boris Becker he has discovered, much to his benefit, that there is great advantage in learning the secrets of the S & V art.

So let’s get back to that suggestion I asked earlier.  Should we substitute “dying” with ‘dead’?  Maybe we should try the word ‘evolving’.

There’s that word again.

The Debating (Part 3): Is the One-handed backhand going extinct?

Hi everyone.  Over the next couple of days I and fellow tennis blogger, Dan Martin, will be debating over a few general and pertinent topics in tennis.  They are picked at random and will offer short back and forth positions on the chosen topic.  

Dan Martin is the author of the blog, tennis abides.  He’s also a proud author, father and teacher.  Oh and he loves tennis.

Today, we’ll be debating on the future of the one-handed backhand.  Is it going extinct?  Is it no longer a shot to be reckoned with in modern tennis?  Will it return to its former glory days?  You can share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


Hi Kel,

The one-handed backhand has certainly declined since the 1990s.  Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek, Gustavo Kuerten, Patrick Rafter, Andres Gomez, and Petr Korda all won major titles.  In 1990 and 1991 7 of the 8 Grand Sam champions used a one-handed backhand.  It is sad to think that the one-handed top spin backhand might disappear.  I believe juniors can get a jump start with a two-handed backhand and then later develop a one-handed slice backhand to use for extra reach/defense.  Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, and a few others still use the shot, but unless junior players use one-handed backhands in increasing numbers the shot will continue to decline beyond its already low levels.

Hey Dan,

I agree that the number of major champions who wield the one-handed backhand has significantly dropped since the 90’s but to be honest, there have been and are still quite a number of very good one-handed backhand practitioners playing the game at the very highest level.  Before I get to that, let me backtrack a bit.  It’s not like back in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s, there weren’t a good number of two-handed backhand champions around.  I could run off a decent list; Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Sergei Bruguera and the like, come to mind.
I believe that tennis more than any other sport, really reflects the evolution of sport.  Over the years, with the advancement of string technology and the homogenizing of court surface speeds, the two-handed backhand has become more of a force, hence more two-handed backhand champions.  However, I’d like to point out that two of the three dominant eras in tennis, since 1993 have been ruled by Single-handed Champions.  Sampras and Federer.  Expanding from that, there have been a number of single-handed champions and top level players that have passed through the game since then.  Sampras, Rafter, Kuerten, Federer, Haas, Henman, Wawrinka, Gonzalez, Joachim Johansson (anyone remember him?), Gaudio, Gasquet and so on.  So while the number of champions (actually winning the majors has reduced), I feel the presence is still very much there.

Hello Kel,

While Sampras and Federer have combined for 31 majors and 11 years spent at number one, that has not resulted in a lot of younger players emulating either of them.  I do think string technologies have made a two-handed backhand more effective than it was in the past.  That is saying something because Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, and Agassi among others had success with a two-handed backhand prior to today’s strings.  It is possible to look at dominant players from both camps of backhands and see some parity.  Borg, Djokovic, and Nadal all have over 10 majors and Connors, Agassi, and Wilander combine for another 23 majors.
The intriguing issue in my mind is that most players on tour use two-handed backhands as their primary backhand and then add a one handed slice as a defensive/change of pace option.  Despite this majority of players using two-handed backhands 1/2 of the Roland Garros semifinalists used a one-handed backhand.  Nowhere near 64 players entered the Roland Garros draw using a one-handed backhand.  So it is possible that a comparative advantage still exists for a player with a one-handed backhand, but because no such advantage exists for young junior players this ground stroke is underutilized. Consider that Australian Open semifinalists.  Murray and Djokovic both seem to be using the right backhand as their two-handed backhands are excellent.   Roger Federer’s backhand, despite being victimized at times by Rafael Nadal, has been a key component to how he sets up points and succeeds.  Milos Raonic is 6’5″/1.96M and has a huge serve.  While a few tall players in the 1990s were big servers who used two-handed such as Goran Ivanisevic and Marc Rosset, an argument could be made that too many of today’s taller players use a two-handed backhand despite it requiring more precise footwork to execute.  Would Milos Raonic, John Isner, Jerzy Janowicz, and some of the other taller players on tour have benefitted from switching to a one-handed backhand as a junior?  That is impossible to answer with accuracy, but what can be accurately stated is that such players coming up in the 1970s-1990s would have been encouraged to switch to a one-handed backhand.  Taller players tend to have a harder time with their footwork.  Learning and adopting a shot that would in theory make footwork easier is an option too few juniors seem to consider let alone make.

Hi Dan,

I was going to point out what you just said.  A lot of players who utilize the two-handed backhand have evolved – there’s that word again – a sort of hybrid backhand.  They incorporate the best of both worlds, even if they use two hands on the drive swing.  Take Andy Murray for example.  He’s got one of the best defensive slices in the game.  In the past, that was practically unheard of for a player who wielded a two-handed backhand.  Mastery of the slice also gives him an edge in the forecourt.  He can hit volleys almost as naturally as a player who uses one hand on the backhand swing.  He’s not the only one, in that regard.  Djokovic, under the tutelage of Boris Becker, has also improved his net game considerably.  These are characteristics most two handed players weren’t associated with in the past.  I think the best example of the hybrid game today, is Jo Wilfred Tsonga.  He flat out switches to a one handed drive from time to time, especially on the backhand pass.  He used it to good effect in his upset of Roger Federer, in 2011.  I never fail to see the irony in that.
But what’s got this hybrid fever going?  I’ve pondered that for a while, and I believe the answer is simple.  These guys were influenced by Sampras and probably Federer.  It is well known that the two handed backhand is an easier shot to master than the one handed backhand, even if it requires better footwork.  Truth is footwork forms the basis for good tennis anyway, so if you are thinking of going professional, you probably have good enough footwork to master either.  The one handed backhand takes time, patience and practice to master.  Pete Sampras famously had a two handed backhand, before switching to one hand.  He was the first to admit that his results dipped dramatically at the beginning of that change.  But he had one goal, Wimbledon.  By extension, I think the quest for that goal made him a better champion than he would have been with two hands on the backhand.  It gave him the edge over his main rival, Agassi.  Not all up and comers today have that sort of patience and I don’t think their coaches do either.  In a sense, the modern game has become even more expensive to compete in and player/coach teams want to develop quickly.  So they go with the hybrid.  However, a few players do go the extra mile, even in the up and coming generation and it appears to be paying off.  The highest ranked player of the younger generation right now, is Thiem at no 8.  He is one position behind Raonic who is fast becoming alumni of that generation.  Oh and get this, there are four one handed backhand players in the top 10 today, all plying their beautiful trade.
3. Federer
5. Wawrinka
8. Thiem
10. Gasquet.
I think the beautiful stroke is in it for the long haul.
Thanks Dan

Follow our blogs for more debates leading up to and through Wimbledon and see you next time!

The Ragnarok

The players sat around the lone table in the dark and dreary room.  There were no card games being played today.  The beer bottles however, were thriving. They took up one third of the table.  Despite chugging down so much alcohol, fear prevented each and everyone of them from being inebriated.

“Four.”  The deposed king started.  “Four on the trot.  He rubbed his recently grown wispy beard and shot the bull sitting across from him a deathly glance, before continuing.

“And what happened to you?  If that were me going for my fourth straight major, you’d bite the ear off your opponents if that would get you in the final, just so you’d beat me.”

The bull pursed his lips, and arched an eyebrow up inquisitively as was his nature, before responding.

“No… not like that.  I injure my wrist… and too bad no?  Better luck for me next time.  But I enter the tournament at least.  You?  I didn’t see you there.”

There was a chuckle around the room.

“Silence!”  The deposed king bellowed.  A hush went about the room, save for a few snickers.

“But you could have played on and stopped him.  This was your turf and everybody knows it.”  The Shaggy Scot continued the assault on the bull.  His adam’s apple oscillated a few times and then stopped.  For some reason, he wasn’t as nervous as before.

The bull shrugged and smiled.

“You could have stopped him too no?  Australia?  France?  You only manage to win two sets.”

Again the snickers went around the room, and even the deposed king forced back a smile.

“This is just… mega.  Hahahaha.”

Everyone’s eyes turned towards the Austrian boy who sat casually with his legs crossed and a chewing gum in his mouth.  He looked about him with a wide grin.

“You certainly had a mega beat down from him in the semis, didn’t you?”  The Shaggy Scot shot at him.

“Hua! Eeeeeeeeeehhhh!”  The Austrian boy shot out of his seat with his racket.

“Why… does he do that?”  The tower of Tandil asked.  Ever a gentle giant, he had been quiet, the whole time.

“He does it in his sleep too.”  The impostor replied.

“Oh hush.  Your ex girlfriend’s a druggie.”  The Shaggy Scot fired back.

“Hua! Eeeeeeehhhh!”

“If he does that one more time, I’ll feed him to the Balkan boy’s rabid fans outside.”  The deposed king threatened.

Idemo!!!

Everyone inside jumped out of fear.

“Hua!…”

Shhhhhhhhhhhhh.  Everyone hushed the Austrian boy.

“He… he believes he is the next chosen one.”  The impostor continued.  “Thinks he’ll beat our persecutor very soon.”

“Weren’t you ordered to hush?”  The deposed king asked.

“Y…yeah but everybody’s talking.  Why shouldn’t I?”

“Cos you are a copy cat.  My arch-nemesis once told me I had as much talent as he had in one finger and I still won eight slams.  You?  You try to hit the forehand like your idol.  You try to hit the backhand like your idol.  You try to serve like your idol and while you clumsily slip and fall around the court, you still try to move as gracefully as your idol can.  Yet you can’t win like your idol.  You are inconsequential.”

Everyone turned to the man who had spoken.  ‘Coach’ he was called.  Even after his diatribe, his face was as plain as an A4 sheet of printing paper.

“Well of course that’s where Shaggy’s newfound confidence has come from.  He re-united with coach.”  The deposed king stated.  “Do you think he can win Wimbledon again ‘Coach’?  Or will it be in another 160 years?”

“It’s possible.”  Came the witty reply.

“What about me?”  The deposed king asked.

IVAN FACE.

“Well… um… I think once I can get my movement back, I can be dangerous.  I can beat the balkan boy again.”

IVAN FACE.

“I’m nice and popular around the world.  My back is good and I’m ready to go.  Stuttgart?  Halle?  They were just tests.”

“Do you realize you haven’t won a title all year?”  Coach asked.

“Well…”

“My student will prevent the Ragnarok that Balkan boy threatens to bring.  You just… rest your back.”

The coach got up to leave and the deposed king fumed in anger.

“I’m still the G.O.A.T! Don’t forget that.  17!  17!”

The coach turned around slowly.

IVAN FACE.

“It’s been four years.  Get over it.”  The coach said and pointed to the Austrian boy.  “Back then, the kid couldn’t vote.  Right kid?”

“Hua!  Ehhhhhhhhh!”

 

 

The Debating (Part 2): Is Wimbledon the Greatest Slam?

Hi everyone.  Over the next couple of days I and fellow tennis blogger, Dan Martin, will be debating over a few general and pertinent topics in tennis.  They are picked at random and will offer short back and forth positions on the chosen topic.  

Dan Martin is the author of the blog, tennis abides.  He’s also a proud author, father and teacher.  Oh and he loves tennis.  


Hi Dan,

I think this is a very good debate to have right now as the Wimbledon fever slowly arrests the tennis world.  For me this has always come down to Wimbledon or the French Open.  I’ll have to go with Wimbledon though.  For starters, every player dreams of winning Wimbledon.  Roger Federer once said his career could have ended right after Wimbledon 2003, and he’d have been happy.  I think that speaks volumes about the power of this grand slam.  It is played on the rare and yet original surface of the game, back when it was known as lawn tennis.  Roger was right.  Wimbledon is so powerful a slam, that we tend to remember its one time winners, more so than we remember one time winners of other majors.  Think Krajicek, Ivanisevic, Cash, Stich, Hewitt.  How easily do tennis fans recall these players when compared to players like Gaudio, Moya, Ferrero or Costa?  You have to admit that this alone already puts Wimbledon in a class of its own.


Kel,
I agree Wimbledon occupies a special place in terms of prestige.  I think the US Open has typically had the highest standard of play of all of the majors due to the surface being pretty fair to multiple styles.  The US Open has not produced many one-time major winners.  I think only Andy Roddick, Juan Martin del Potro, and Marin Cilic are one-time major winners since the US Open went to hard courts in 1978.  Two of those three players are still active even if a second major seems unlikely for either at this point.  Hewitt did win the 2001 US Open so his 2002 Wimbledon title does not leave him as a one-time major winner.
The Australian Open has also offered a pretty fair surface since 1988, but for a long time the Australian Open had substandard fields of players.  Jimmy Connors only played down under twice, Andre Agassi skipped the Australian Open until 1995, and the Australian Open was held twice one year when it switched from January to December and then was not held at all in 1986.  That leaves Roland Garros.  The French Open certainly has a lot of prestige, but in the 1970s it was viewed as holding a position below the US Open and Wimbledon.  In the past decade, all four majors have been played on surfaces that have fewer differences in bounce.  That likely helps Roland Garros not be the play ground of clay specialists in the vein of Muster, Costa, Gaudio, Bruguerra, Gomez, and Coria.
As a fan, I think Wimbledon has the most historical prestige, but I do think winning in New York may be the harder task across the decades.

Hi Dan,

I’ll start by making a correction.  I didn’t refer to Hewitt as a one time major winner.  I referred to him as a one time Wimbledon Champion.  “Wimbledon is so powerful a slam, that we tend to remember its one time winners, more so than we remember one time winners of other majors.”  You could argue that winning the U.S open added to Hewitt’s champion’s aura – winning any other slam would have – but if he had won just the U.S open, he wouldn’t be remembered the way he is now.
As for standard of play, I do respectfully beg to differ.  Wimbledon has produced dizzying standards of play particularly when as a fan, you appreciate it more in the semis or finals.  We’ve had a barrage of memorable finals at Wimbledon both for the historic meaning and the standard of play.  2006, 2007, 2009, 2014, and even last year.  It hasn’t been quite the same at the U.S open.  The U.S open makes up for this with a typical electric night session feel.  The American atmosphere will always be that much more… hype, than the British but there’s a reason the 2008 final in Wimbledon is considered the greatest final ever played.  Keep in mind I’m only looking at the last ten years (2006 – 2016).  The widely regarded greatest final before 2008?  Borg vs McEnroe in 1980.  Guess where that happened.

Hi Kel,

I think Wimbledon had become pretty monotonous prior to slowing the surface and balls down in 2002.  Sampras could serve and do other things.  Krajicek had a nice game to go with his huge serve.  Goran moved well for a guy with a big serve, but his volleys were suspect.  Stich had a nice all-court game.  However, Wayne Arthurs coming from nowhere to hold serve for 3 straight matches due to having a huge lefty serve and finally succumbing to a great returner in Agassi would not happen on another surface. Michael Stich beating defending champion Stefan Edberg at the 1991 US Open Wimbledon Championships WITHOUT ever breaking Edberg’s serve would not happen on any other surface.  Even on the slower grass Ivo Karlovic beat defending champion Lleyton Hewitt in the 1st round.  Had Wimbledon not slowed the surface down the tennis would have become unwatchable.  What we saw in the 2006-present championship matches has been hard court tennis played on a grass court.  Since 2002 players can profitably attack and defend on grass courts.  Prior to that, fans could expect one counter-puncher per decade to win Wimbledon (Connors 1982 & Agassi 1992).  A fair surface produces great tennis more often than super slow or super fast surfaces.  Wimbledon learned that lesson in 2002.  The US Open taught that lesson in 1978.
Post Script – Hewitt beating Pete Sampras, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Andy Roddick during his 2001 US Open run was much more impressive and memorable than his 2002 Wimbledon wins over David Nalbandian, Tim Henman, and Sjeng Schalken.  On this occasion, the better matches round for round were played in New York.  I think the same holds true at a macro level.
Thanks,
Dan

Q: Has any tennis player won five majors in a row (not the same major consecutively)?

A: Turns out one player has won six in a row.  Don Budge won majors starting from Wimbledon in 1937, till the U.S open in 1938.  (Credit to tennismonkey  and DrFitness from the Tennis community, for the answer.
There’s a lot of history waiting to be repeated this year isn’t there?

Follow our blogs for more debates leading up to and through Wimbledon and see you next time!

The Debating (Part 1): Novak and the Greats

Hi everyone.  Over the next couple of days I and fellow tennis blogger, Dan Martin, will be debating over a few general and pertinent topics in tennis.  They are picked at random and will offer short back and forth positions on the chosen topic.  

Dan Martin is the author of the blog, tennis abides.  He’s also a proud author, father and teacher.  Oh and he loves tennis.  


Kel,

I think Novak Djokovic has carved out a unique place among the all-time greats.  Having completed his quest for a career Grand Slam, having won 5 year end championships, and having 12 major titles place Djokovic among the top tier of players in history.  Djokovic has two unique accomplishments that give him a distinctive position within the all-time greats.  Novak has the most Masters 1000/Masters Series/Super 9 shields in tennis history.  Finally and most importantly, Novak Djokovic is the first man to hold all 4 Grand Slam titles since the shift to majors being held on three different surfaces.  This may not make Djokovic the greatest of all time yet, but it certainly gives Novak an accomplishment no one else has matched.
Thanks,
Dan

Hi Dan,

True Novak is the first man to simultaneously hold all four grand slams on different surfaces, which is a remarkable feat. However, he does have a few distinct holes in his resume. The biggest one is topping the all time slam list. He’s still gotta catch Rafa/Sampras, before making the push towards Federer. Next on the list is an Olympic medal. Forget gold. Djokovic is yet to win a medal at the games. He obviously has a chance to fix that, this summer but that’s gotta be top priority for him and takes him up a notch in the all time great discussion, if he achieves it.

Kel


Hi Kel,

Novak did pick up a bronze medal in 2008.  I think Novak holding 5 season ending titles compared to Rafa’s zero as well as having won a Roland Garros title give him some leverage versus both Nadal and Sampras.  He does have two fewer majors, but Sampras never completed a career Grand Slam and Rafa has not won a season ending title.  This doesn’t place Novak clearly ahead of Sampras or Nadal, but he has grounds for an argument.
Dan

Hi Dan,

Oh did he?  I must have overlooked that.  It still lags behind Nadal’s gold or Federer’s silver (in singles) and gold (in doubles).  I think there are little nuances in terms of the stats.  He hasn’t matched Sampras’s consecutive year end #1’s or Federer’s total weeks at number #1.  It’s interesting when you look at all these guys and discover they each have unique records that haven’t been touched.  Each of those, presents grounds for the argument.  However, each generation also raises the ground/bar a little higher than the last.  Is Sampras still a GOAT contender, like he was when he retired in 2003?  That’s a thought a lot of people are going to process differently. If I were to be asked, I’d place him (Novak) as my fifth favorite in that discussion right now behind Federer, Rafa, Laver and Sampras
Thanks for the debate Dan,
Kel

What do Novak fans have to say?  Here’s a fan’s contribution from a Facebook group I manage, ESPNTENNISCLUB.
Shara V Plaza M: “To me Novak is the best player ever, he’s complete , the way he plays, he controls his emotion and a good human be.”
Follow our blogs for more debates leading up to and through Wimbledon and see you next time!

Guess we’ll talk about him after all

Earlier today, I posted an article about Dominic Thiem and his steady rise to the top of the game.  In that article, I briefly mentioned the up and coming teenage German prodigy, Alexander Zverev stating that we may have a reason to talk about him soon.  I never imagined it would be this soon.  If you want to read that article, you’ll find it here.

These two had only met once before, coming into today’s semifinals.  That was last month in Rome, where Federer won a competitive tussle.  Despite Federer’s glaring lack of match form and his struggle with injuries this year, I didn’t think Zverev had developed well enough to take him out on grass.  This was not just any grass court either.  This was Halle.  A tournament Federer has dominated even more so than Wimbledon.  He entered this tournament in pursuit of his ninth title.  Yet all of the presumptions were thrown out the window, once the match got underway.

Since he got on the scene, Zverev has consistently evoked dual images of Marat Safin, and Bjorn Borg, in my mind.  Still a teenager, Zverev with his shock of dirty blonde hair, evokes a certain boyish charm eerily similar to that written about the angelic assassin, when he first strutted into the limelight.  Yet his temperament and the way he lumbers on court does have a Safin feel to it.  He’s confident, he certainly knows he’s good and he believes he belongs on the same court as the best.  Oh and he’s hungry for success.  That makes for a dangerous combination.  I believe I’ve talked about Zverev’s backhand before.  I have never seen a more beautiful weapon.  Even though it is clear his game is still developing, that shot is one of the most effective shots in the game already.  For a two-handed player, the variety he has on that shot is amazing.  Taking a page out of Agassi’s book, when describing Federer’s own backhand, Zverev’s backhand is the greater of two evils in this case.  His forehand can be devastating as well.

He brought all of this to the table today, and then some.  Zverev served brilliantly – there were no breaks in the first set – and that shot set him up for easy winners, over and over again.  He also returned and moved well, putting Federer under pressure and surprising the great Swiss with his defensive game.  In the tiebreaker, it was the young upstart, not the seasoned veteran, who was the steadier of the two.  Taking that first set was key to taking the match, which he later on did by playing a very good third set, and serving it out.

What about Federer?  The all time leader in Grand Slams, has not been having a pleasant season.  It is hard to read into this loss, just as it was last week in Stuttgart.  This is only his second tournament back.  However, Federer looked rather lethargic for long stretches of this match.  He lacked his spry movement and would often let go of shots he has built a reputation for tracking down, throughout the course of his illustrious career.  Even his legendary anticipation was wrong as Zverev consistently sent him the wrong way on short ball situations, with Zverev controlling the forecourt.  It’s easy to put it down to a loss of form after playing so few matches throughout the year, but I suspect that’s only part of the problem.  It is no surprise now that as a champion ages, it becomes harder for him to “get up” for matches, the way he used to when he was younger.  The nerve networks don’t fire up that quickly anymore and the legs don’t kick into gear as early in the match as they used to.  Even the emotional energy levels begin to fluctuate such that in one moment you see an aging champion and in the next, they’ve turned back the clock for one more point, one more game or one more set… never the entire match.

As I watched Federer play, I got a feeling of this fluctuating energy level.  In the first set, his serving lacked its traditional pop and his ground strokes felt more guided than actually hit.  In the second set the competitor in him, alive to the real danger of losing, woke up and we began to see the movement, the dismissive follow through off both wings and the athleticism we all associate with a man widely accepted to be the greatest of all time.  He won that set and yet, as has become a familiar sight, Federer couldn’t sustain it in the third.  Down the stretch, he faltered.  The difference was, this only used to happen with the likes of Djokovic.  Now it appears Federer has become increasingly vulnerable to other players like Zverev.  It reinforces the notion that father time is slowly reeling him in.  We can all speculate about whether or not he’ll win one more slam.  Since it’s Federer, it would be best not to count him out until he’s called it a day.

As for Zverev, he notches up the biggest win of his career and his star continues to shine just that little bit brighter.  He said he’s still trying to process this.  He’ll have to do so quickly.  There’s a tournament to be won tomorrow.  Federer himself knows all too well that while a big upset does wonders for a young upstart’s confidence, nothing caps it better than following up with the tournament win.

As Federer’s star inevitably falls, it appears the younger generations’ rises.  It is only natural.  Though it isn’t goodbye just yet, if the future is anything to go by, the game will be in good hands.

 

The Rise of Thiem

Dominic Thiem moves in to hit a backhand, with little but quick footsteps.  He plants his feet with both hands on the racket and begins to pivot his torso into the shot.  For a brief moment, it looks like he is about to execute a two-handed backhand.  Two thirds of the way into the swing however, he releases his left – guiding – hand and uncorks a lasso of a right hand swing at the incoming tennis ball.  There’s a seventy percent chance that shot won’t be coming back.

I’ve watched Thiem for a while now.  The twenty-two year old Austrian belongs to a new class of talented players that have a uniquely longer gestation period before becoming the grand slam champions we expect them to be.  Thiem however, appears to be a man on a mission to make that period, as short as possible.  2016 has been a breakthrough year for the rising star, and with his semifinal performance at the recently concluded French Open, there’s every reason to hope that he’ll continue to rise to the summit of the game. This time, this just might not be premature.

In recent years, there’s been a rash of promising young stars emerge from the depths of the game, only to fall back into it, or exist on the periphery of true stardom.  Tomic, Dimitrov, Raonic, Harrison, Young, Donskoy, you name it.  They’ve all kicked up a little dust here and there, only to fall back into obscurity.  Two years ago, Grigor Dimitrov was exactly where Dominic Thiem is in his career, today.  He had won titles on all surfaces, and posted a solid semifinal performance at a grand slam – Wimbledon then – losing to… you guessed it, Novak Djokovic.  What happened next was a rather confidence crushing free fall.  I’ll go out of a limb and say it started with a bit of pride.  Dimitrov talks well.  He says all the right things and appears to have the right attitude but I believe he was getting a bit ahead of himself when he decided not to be an alternate at the World Tour Finals.  That was an opportunity for him to play with the best of the best and learn from them.  Watching Thiem who is currently ranked 7th in the world, I get the sense that he’s got a genuinely level-headed approach to his career.  He truly takes his strides, one match at a time and coming into the French Open with a lot of expectations did not seem to bother him one bit.  He rose to the occasion in that tournament.  Not many of the other members of the young generation can say that.

What truly makes Thiem a compelling player to watch, might just be what makes him a great champion, down the river of time – if that is his destiny.  I started this article by describing his unique backhand take-back.  The truth is, Dominic Thiem’s entire game is unique in the sense that it appears to be a hybrid.  His signature backhand can get as big and as deadly as Wawrinka’s.  His forehand is loopy when he’s tentative, like he was in the first set of his match against Gabashvilli at Halle.  However, it becomes spin-deadly akin to Nadal’s, when he’s feeling confident.  His relentless deep strokes are textbook Djokovelian and while his movement may not be Federesque, his variety when he’s zoned in can certainly approach those heights.  Put all of this together, and you’ve got a guy who could rule tennis once the Djokovic era passes.  It is no understatement to say that the next few months and the decisions he takes during that time, will be crucial to making his projected rise to the pinnacle of greatness a reality.

One has to ponder though, if it does happen, what kind of Champion will Thiem be?  Most have touted him as Nadal’s heir apparent – a clay king in waiting.  I’m sure his recent exploits on grass might be forcing a rethink.  However, I do believe he will have more success on clay than grass.  For all his strengths, Thiem’s game still has a few weaknesses that might prevent total domination on the faster courts of the game.  For one, he’s got a big take back on both wings.  That’s great for clay – remember Guga – but not so much for grass or indoor courts.  A natural byproduct of the big swing is that Thiem does not take the ball on the rise.  In fact, he sort of takes it on the drop.  This has led to a Nadal-like natural positioning of a few feet behind the baseline.  In Nadal’s days, that did not help his quest to bag a U.S open title or an Australian Open title.  Thiem’s young however.  At twenty-two, he can still make adjustments to his game just like Nadal did.  Still I don’t see him being the dominant force on all surfaces like Djokovic is or Federer was, before him.  He just might be more like Nadal.  The penultimate force on clay, and a lock to periodically rule the other parts of the game.  That’s a good thing.  In an era when we the fans have been spoiled by consistent champions like Federer and Djokovic, it’ll be good to have a cluster of Champions, each ruling their own domain.  There’s another young player right under Thiem’s shadows.  He plays Roger Federer today in the Halle semis.  Who knows, maybe we’ll be talking seriously about Zverev, very soon.

 

 

The Maria Tragedy

Since reading WADA’S verdict, I have run this through my mind several times and here are my  major takeaways.

1.) Sharapova did not start out cheating, but it is just about evident she continued taking Meldonium after 2012, on less than morally just circumstances.  She better have a genius explanation for why she concealed her use of the drug from the rest of her team (members whose very roles dictated that they needed to know what she put in her body at all times), why she was taking a whooping 500mg, and why her dosage just HAD TO BE before competitive matches.  Most of you know I actually belonged to the school of thought which said “Let’s not jump to conclusions.”  Turns out, we might as well have.  The behavioral patterns (omission, avoidance, secrecy and timing) are all cheating patterns.  What is tragic about this is that if she believed Meldonium was going to give her a competitive advantage, she might be scientifically wrong based on whatever research has been done – admittedly not much.

2.) Though I find the verdict a fair one, it still does not exempt WADA’s process from criticism.  It is clear their process (drug research, notification process and the like) was very flawed and they are going to have to fix that.  The general rule in a test is if too many people are passing it or failing it, there’s a problem with the test.  In this case, 300 positive tests since January, was mega massive.  300+ people couldn’t have been that careless.  WADA’s image was also tainted in this.  Professional players have to be confident in their governing bodies.  Backtracks like the one they had to do on the Meldonium performance enhancing assertion HAVE TO BE avoided at all costs as it erodes the authority of their statements.

3.) It has been a learning process for all.  And no this is not a Sharapova problem.  Tennis has been hit and hit hard.  It is up to all lovers, players, and participants of the game to make sure it fully recovers from this.  No player is bigger than the game, we should all remember that.

4.) As for Sharapova, I must say I am highly disappointed.  Being age mates with her, her breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2004, was a dream and an inspiration.  Her story was a symbol.  Her dad’s joy, an euphoric moment.  I took it as a call to action.  “Dare to dream, move to achieve and you can live that dream.”  So it is disheartening.  I still wish her a recovery from this.  No lesson or punishment should be eternally damaging. So I hope she rights the ship.  We all make mistakes, we all take the wrong turn.  We all fall and we all CAN get back up.

Cheers everyone.

He finally got his ‘Woman’

Last year, I wrote an article titled “The Woman in the Red Dress”, where I discussed the allure and uniqueness of Roland Garros, particularly her choice of champions.  To read that article, just click on the link above.

In the article, I talked about a certain element of courageousness, a Go For It (GFI) factor that Roland Garros relishes more than any atom of exquisite talent or ounce of greatness, her victors bring to her courts.  After all, not all of her victors have been great and not all of them have been uber-talented either.  They’ve just been a little less afraid of the moment, than the opponent across the net.  I remember saying that Djokovic needed to realize this, the next time he stepped onto the court, and he did.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you our 2016 French Open Champion, Novak Djokovic.

As this year’s edition of Roland Garros unfolded, it was clear to see that the tennis gods were finally looking at the great Serb with more favorable eyes than they perhaps did in the past.  For starters, the build up to this year’s French Open was less tasking on Djokovic.  The three clay masters tournaments – Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome had been shared between Rafa, Novak and Andy Murray.  All of a sudden, the tournament had a trifecta of favorites.  The fact that Murray was one of those favorites and Federer was not, made for a rich story-line and the tennis tabloids wasted no time in milking it for its worth.  All of this meant that Novak, despite being the ultra dominant world #1, despite coming into the French open on the back of three straight major title wins, and despite being last year’s finalist, managed to fly under the radar.  His quest for that elusive and Grand Slam resume completing French Open title, somehow took a backdrop to Nadal’s quest for an unprecedented tenth title in Paris, Murray’s quest for a first, and even debates about whether or not Federer should skip the French Open.

Things only got better from there for Novak.  Here’s how things actually played out over the course of the tournament.  Roger Federer DID choose to skip the French.  He pulled out before the tournament’s draw was even released, citing a recurring back injury he needed to tend to.  Rafael Nadal entered the tournament and actually looked good through his first two rounds of competition.  Then he too bowed out, his conqueror being a wrist injury he could no longer manage.  This was circa 2009, with Roger Federer.  Novak’s two biggest rivals had been taken out for him.  This in no way diminishes the remaining threats that were Thiem, Murray and Wawrinka.  It’s just that as dangerous as they can be, they aren’t able to consistently summon the level of play needed to hurt Djokovic.  Federer and Nadal on the other hand, can.  To make matters even better, Murray took out Wawrinka and this time, Novak dispatched Thiem – his semi-final opponent – with considerable aplomb, reserving his energy for a much anticipated final against Murray.

This final was memorable to me simply for one reason.  GFI.  Both Murray and Djokovic went for it.  Murray in the first set, Djokovic in the final three.  It was and perhaps understandable that Novak was tentative, bursting out of the gates.  Here was a man who had been here many times before and had fallen just short of the finish line on each occasion.  Here was a surface that had brought him so much joy, so much promise and yet so much pain.  Once again, Novak stared at the great chasm between greatness and immortality.  For a while there, it looked like he would shrivel before the challenge as he had unfortunately done before.  Novak’s calibration deserted him.  He sprayed balls long, while Murray dropped heavily spun shots splat on the baseline.  He missed the sidelines with his shots, while Murray painted them with more than a few of his own.  His attempt to get to one more ball, ended in lazily floated shots to the center of the net.  Murray’s attempts elicited one more unforced error from the Serbian.  It was the 2012 U.S open all over again.  Murray is a master of pulling his opponent’s down, while slowly but surely, elevating his own game.  He reigned Djokovic in throughout the first set, ultimately taking it.  Somehow, it would be his undoing.

Maybe it was the looming pain of having the French Open, snatched from his grasp again.  Perhaps it was the apparent indignity – for him – of losing to another first time French Open finalist, even if that finalist was Murray.  Or maybe it was a realization that at 29 years of age, his window was closing even if he is currently at the peak of his powers.  Whatever it was, Novak kicked into gear in set two.  What followed was a display of aggressive defensive tennis, the likes of which even the great Nadal would have been impressed with.  Novak locked in on his nerves and in turn they seized control of his muscles.  What’s more, even his mind was completely dialed in.  What they produced in tandem, was a sight to behold.  This was the Novak that just didn’t quite show up in previous finals.  This was the Novak that wasn’t afraid to go for the daring drop shot, or the running cross court forehand.  This was the Novak that was feeling so spry as to execute a leaping two handed backhand – flamboyant by his standards – towards the tail end of the match.  This was the Novak the woman in the red dress had been waiting for.  When he showed up, her courts gravitated to him.  They added a certain immeasurable amount of zip to his ground strokes and deadened his drop shots so effectively that a man possessing Murray’s impressive movement, could not reach them in time.

Roland Garros was finally ready to accept Novak Djokovic as her champion.  As always, she couldn’t have presented herself to a great at a more convenient time, for them.  In 2009, Federer won Roland Garros to tie Pete Sampras at 14 majors apiece.  He would go on to surpass him in the next Grand Slam, Wimbledon.  Djokovic has finally crossed the great divide between tennis greatness and immortality.  This summer, riding that wave of confidence, he has a chance to add a golden finish to it, at the Olympics in Rio.  He’ll be up to the challenge and why wouldn’t he?  He finally got his woman.