In search of his swing

As many times as it happens, it never ceases to amaze me – the falling out of form, of a great player.  That process is generally a creeper.  It starts with an inexplicable loss, the likes of which just wouldn’t happen in that great’s prime.  Watching Novak Djokovic recently, I get the sense that he is entering that phase of his career.  The beginnings of a long and arduous decline, that many before him have had to go through.

The match that jump-started the chain reaction, will go down as one of the biggest upsets in the history of tennis.  Coming into this year’s Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic was seeking a fifth straight victory at a major.  He had torched any and everyone who crossed his path since losing to Stanilas Wawrinka in the finals of the the 2015 French Open.  Djokovic was in a stratosphere of his own and the level of his play left most tennis pundits with one question.

Who can stop him?

Little did we know that it wasn’t a question of ‘who’ but a question of ‘what’?  It was something that should have been obvious to us all along.  Time.  After losing to Novak Djokovic in an epic five set final at the 2012 Australian Open, Rafael Nadal famously noted that Djokovic could not keep up that dizzying level of play for long.  He was right.  Djokovic lost the iron clad grip he had on the sport since 2011 and it allowed Nadal and Federer to a certain extent, reclaim pole position in tennis for a while.  Djokovic regrouped and re-established his dominance over the sport, starting in 2014, and this time he didn’t let go until he had captured his most elusive title – Roland Garros.  What we didn’t see was just how much playing at that level consistently, took out of the Serbian.  He’d given tennis the best of him… at the cost of him.

Djokovic has since repeatedly cited fatigue and a lack of inspiration as the reason for his poor string of performances, and I do believe him.  The laser sharp precision to his ground strokes have been missing for a while.  Watching Djokovic play these days, I see a certain hesitancy – or is it laziness – to his movements, and a perplexing inability to expend the energy needed to pull out the best of his talents.  The dogged fighter has been subdued, and the killer instinct has certainly dulled.  All of these have led to embarrassing defeats, over the last three or four months.  The lowest of these moments came in the recently concluded Shanghai masters, where Djokovic lost in straight sets to Spanish grinder, Robert Bautista-Agut.

The loss itself was not the most shocking thing to happen in that match.  Bautista-Agut is a versatile and solid player who despite severely lacking in the size and big weapon department, has slowly built a reputation for grinding out his victories.  What was surprising was the way Djokovic unraveled over the course of the match, culminating in a temper loss that cost him a racket and a shirt.  It was clear the world number one was searching for something that he possessed before and not finding it was irritating him… annoying him.  Just ask Carlos Bernades and the ball girls who were a part of the match.

As we head down the final stretch of the season, and look ahead to 2017, it has become clear that Djokovic needs to ask himself what he wants out of tennis.  It is easy to forget that life has changed for him in a number of ways.  He is now a husband.  He is now a father.  Even for the most focused of champions, priorities do begin to shift with the arrival of their own family.  This is in no way a bad thing, but it will be frustrating for Novak if he doesn’t make that mental adjustment now, and be true to himself about where his passion for the game lies.

Who knows, he just might find his swing there too.

Ban for Misbehavior?

That question grew roots in my mind as I watched Nick Kyrgios distastefully tank his match against Mischa Zverev.  Bans are deterrents used to punish athletes whose actions go against the rules of the sport.  However those rules are created to do one basic thing: ensure the sport’s image, integrity and quality isn’t damaged by an errant players actions.  That being said, are there bans for players like Nick Kyrgios?

When he burst into the tennis limelight at Wimbledon, two years ago, everyone saw in Kyrgios the kind of engaging personality and electric talent needed to take the game forward.  His big stage personality and his firepower were heralded as the intrinsic qualities of a different kind of champion to what had become the docile norm of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.  Boy were we wrong.

Kyrgios has been a prolific controversy gift bag since then.  He’s gone from brash and fearless, to tennis brat and finally with this tanking stunt to a downright disgrace.  I thought John McEnroe was a bit over the top when he suggested Kyrgios consider another career or buckle up.  Now I know he was just being honest.  Even JMAC – the handful that he was – did not sink to these depressing lows.  He did and continues to contribute immensely to the sport, while inspiring tomorrow’s champions.

Tennis doesn’t need a Nick Kyrgios undermining all the work of the great champions before him.  Tennis doesn’t need Nick Kyrgios shaming the sport.  In the end, he’s right.  He doesn’t owe the fans anything, so let’s just not have any more of him.

The Latest from the Tennis World

Tennis’s fall season has always been notoriously slow with regards to events or major talking points and for the most part, this fall hasn’t been any different.

Nevertheless, the fall usually gives tennis’s up and coming stars, and at times those who have lost their a chance to make a final impression on the season and build up some momentum towards the next season.  On that note, this fall hasn’t failed to disappoint either.  The biggest difference from last year has been the controversial doping scandals that have plagued tennis, all year.  Here are a few thoughts on some of the latest happenings in the tennis world over the last few weeks.

  • In pursuit of Inspiration

Novak Djokovic hasn’t been feeling particularly spry lately.  The top ranked Serb has a red hot Scot – Andy Murray – breathing down his neck for that treasured number one ranking, and real reason to worry.  Murray just swept through the field in Beijing, and is still showing the kind of consistency, late into the season, that has marked his campaign all year.  What’s worse?  Djokovic has cited a lack of inspiration for most of his recent sub-standard performances.  Let’s hope he finds it soon.  Murray and the rest of the field are feeling very inspired at the moment.

  • Man on a Mission

Like I said earlier, Andy Murray is feeling pretty inspired.  He is still on course to putting together his most impressive season and by far his most consistent.  Working out the clay court performance bugs have boosted his game immensely.  It also helps that he’s got Ivan Lendl back in his corner – the coach he’s historically, had the most success with.  Anyone thinks it’s coincidence that Murray won his third grand slam title right after Lendl rejoined the team?  Nevertheless the ultimate goal will be to claim the World Number One ranking.  A feat the Scot has never achieved before.

  • Signs of Progress

It’s old news.  Grigor Dimitrov stormed the tennis world in 2009, inspiring comparisons to the great Roger Federer.  He continued to do so and steadily worked his way up the rankings until 2014 – his best season till date.  Then he inexplicably lost his way.  Maybe it was the pressure of finally knocking on the door of stardom.  Maybe it was the expectation that got to him.  A lot of people have varying theories, but I still believe that Grigor’s biggest undoing lay in the fundamental purpose of his game.  For a long time, it appeared that purpose, was to hit a terrific shot.  If it was, he definitely achieved his goal.  Dimitrov was a perpetual lock for hot shot of the week, and not much else.  Recently his game has started to take on a different look.  The exuberant and unnecessary displays of talent have largely reduced and there is a slight improvement in the construction of his rallies, particularly on big points.  The result?  A solid finalist display in Beijing last week – he defeated Rafael Nadal on the way to the title match.  He’s not there yet, but at least it is something to build on.  With Dimitrov, we’ll take it week by week.

  • The Escape Artist

Maria Sharapova is not the most well-liked tennis player at the moment and some would argue, for good reason.  Not only did she publicly admit to positively testing for Meldonium earlier in the year, she went through an equally public case with WADA, the ITF and eventually CAS.  The end result?  A 24 month ban was reduced to 15 months by WADA – some of which had already been served.  Most of the players haven’t been too happy about the final decision, even as it is respected.  While the general consensus has been that the decision undermines the integrity of the Anti-doping system, it is by far not the only factor in this integrity erosion.  A lot of questions still surround WADA’s drug classification system, as well as the lesser issue of TUEs.  Major or minor, these incidents have all served to carve out a rift between the sporting authorities, the players and the fans.  Let’s hope that just as the Maria doping scandal marked the beginning of a large doping misadventure, the final ruling ends what has been an ugly distraction in the world of tennis, this year.

As the tennis world moves on to another popular Chinese city for the Shanghai masters event, one can only hope so.

 

Hear my voice

Last week, Serena Williams penned a powerful post on Facebook titled “I will not be silent”.  If you haven’t read it yet, you can find the full post here.

To be quite honest, as a fellow black, I was really moved by this post, which succinctly and accurately touched upon the recent spate of violent black shootings by police cops.  The truth is we all have our varying opinions on the unfortunate distrust that has built up between black men and police cops.  However, one thing is clear from each and every recent shooting.  No one had to die, including the cops who have been victims of retaliatory ambushes.  No one had to die.

I share in some of Serena’s thoughts and worries.  Amidst the spate of killings, I’ve often wondered if we are moving forward or backward.  Black-White relations have come a long way and many people see the culmination of this in the 2008 election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States – your personal opinion of him aside.  We can all agree that such an event was not possible four decades ago.  While we blacks praise and laud the efforts of influential black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Park and many others, it is important to remember that progress is made when both sides come together.  So where one race found a voice to shout out the injustice, there were members of the other race who found an ear – and a heart – to listen.  Safe to say, we’ve all been better for it.  That includes tennis.

Althea Gibson, Malivai Washington, Arthur Ashe, James Blake, The William Sisters, Gael Monfils.  The sport has seen a host of great champions and electrifying tennis players come out from the black race and their accomplishments cannot be understated or ignored.  The same goes for their contributions to the game in general.  Last year, James Blake was unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time and was the focal point in a huge case of mistaken identities.  However, he was a victim of police brutality, in the way he was manhandled.  This is taking into consideration that he was clearly unarmed, was not running and was not resisting the police officer that approached – attacked – him.  Much like Serena, he used his position and his voice to let the nation  and the world, know about it.  I respect James Blake for not making it so much a race issue as it was a police brutality issue.  Over a year later, I believe it safe to make it a race issue.  And much like James Blake and Serena Williams, I would like to see other leading tennis players black, white, Hispanic and the like, come out and let their voices be heard.  I just hope that there are still ears and hearts today, that will listen.

To love each other will always bring about a beautiful thing.  It will produce spectacular moments like Federer vs Monfils, Agassi vs Blake, Nadal vs Tsonga, Serena vs Azarenka.  To hate each other is to destroy what future we might have created together.  Unfortunately it is much easier to hate and takes a lot of courage to love someone different from you.  Maybe that’s why it is worth it.  Nothing good comes easy after all.