Insights

A few tips for Clay

As the clay season kicks into high gear, some die-hard tennis fans are already looking for any clay court – it could even be green clay – to play on.  The most common type of court in the world is the outdoor hard court.  So, if you’ve found a clay court somewhere, kudos to you.  Now let’s work on turning you from a “cow on ice” to a bristling desert warrior, complete with the war grunt and the defiant “Vamos!”.  Okay… I over-exaggerate a bit, but there are some tips that could help you top that pesky hitting partner who has your number on clay.

  • Patience is a virtue: And for a tennis player, this has never been truer on any other surface, as it is on clay.  This is an especially difficult adaptation for out and out attacking players.  The clay absorbs the kinetic energy of the ball – upon first impact – so well, that the velocity of a player’s shots are all but stripped off.  Suddenly shots that would have been winners on any other surface, keep coming back.  Time to dig deep and grind out those points.  One of the things clay court specialists do so well is not miss.  Watch their stroke mechanics, it is some of the most consistent in tennis.  If you are a lover of baseline tennis, clay court matches can be a joy to watch as each player pushes the other to errors with consistent shots.

          Side tip: Going for the kill too early, could get you burned, big time.  Remember the             ball slows down on impact.  So that perfect approach shot you played?  If your                     opponent is good enough, he or she has more time for the pass.

  • Top Spin Rules:  There are many reasons why Rafael Nadal is the greatest clay court player of all time, and I can guarantee you one of those reasons is his top spin.  Top spin is deadly for two reasons – and if you’ve played a top spin player, you know these two.  One is the flight path of the ball.  There are so many tiny mechanical adjustments a player has to make as they move to meet a shot.  Perfecting those tiny adjustments is the primary essence of practice, beyond grooving in the basic stroke.  Doing this is tough enough when taking a flat shot, it is harder when predicting the impact point of a top spin ball – and they are fast too so you only have say two thirds of a second to do it.  That’s cause the ball curves so much during mid-flight, it is easy to misjudge and as such more adjustments are needed.    The second reason is what the ball does after it makes impact on the sand.  It hops.  So now a second mental-physical calculations has to take place.  Where will it be after the bounce.  Flat shots are more consistent and as such more easily predictable.  As long as you can get your racket face in front of its flight trajectory, you could get it back.  The flight trajectory of a top spin shot after impact (the bounce) is as predictable as the weather.  It depends on how much spin (RPMs) where put on it at the moment the shot was produced… and you don’t know that.  On clay, that hop/bounce, is wicked.  The combination of these two effects, are why Nadal’s opponents look so gassed out at the end of the second set.  Dealing with a topspin shot on clay repeatedly, is tedious.  Just ask Federer.  Use it on both the serve and ground strokes!

  • Work the Angles: Unless you are dealing with an absolute slouch or you generate absolute bestial power from the back court a la Juan Martin Del Potro, you will rarely ever hit through a strong opponent on clay.  The first bullet point already addresses ‘why’.  So apart from waiting for mistakes, how else can you win points?  Working the angles.  So basic tennis classes lay emphasis on hitting the ball deep.  Down the line!  Cross Court!  Hit it deep!  There’s a reason for this.  Deep shots put pressure on your opponent because of where they land.  They give them less time to prepare their swing and if you do it right, your opponent is left virtually half volleying every shot from the baseline.  Unless your opponent is a top 10 player, this is good.  It also doesn’t allow your opponent impart as much power on the ball via hip rotation and racket head speed.  On clay, while deep strokes are good, they aren’t always productive in setting you up for outright winners.  There are so many other available angles on the court.  Don’t be shy.  Go for them.  That’s where topspin comes in, as it allows more margin for error. Angled shots pull your opponents wide and force them to hit shots outside of their comfort zone.  It also leaves the rest of the court open.  There’s your winner.  Just as with topspin, a well executed wide serve can deal just as much damage as a sweetly struck backhand that lands just inside the service line.

  • Slide baby, Slide: Now you’ve really got your opponent looking at you with their eyes almost popping out of their sockets.  Forget all that hard court sliding you see, don’t do it.  You’ll only hurt your knees.  Clay is a more forgiving surface for this favorite dirt player’s activity.  It is also the only surface that truly rewards forward momentum, as you can slide into shots that you wouldn’t maybe be able to make the extra slides to on a hard or grass court.  Sliding is also important to gain mastery of movement around a surface full of shifting ground.  You don’t wanna be eating dust… literally and figuratively.

  • Drop it like its hot: Okay this is the last one cos these subtopic headers are getting out of hand.  I really had to think long and hard about this one though.  The dropshot has always been attributed to the craftiest, most artistic of clay court specialists.  Those personally sired by the tennis god of touch such as Guillermo Coria.  However, Coria never won Roland Garros, and Nadal while possessing sublime touch himself, surprisingly doesn’t use the drop shot as much and he’s going for his tenth title at Roland Garros.  I’d say use this shot wisely.  The dropper doesn’t stay as low on clay, and if your opponent is a good mover, a poorly executed one will be dealt with accordingly.  Use as an element of true surprise and when your opponent is out of position.

Now that’s done, whose ready to play on some clay?!!!

 

 

Tennis in the Third World

There’s always this lull period right in the middle of the Clay court season, in between Barcelona and Madrid, before it picks up with the latter, moving at a brisk pace through the eternal city and then landing on the hallowed sands of Roland Garros for a clay crushing crescendo.  There’s a lot to look forward to and right about in the following days and weeks, but for now, there’s a lull.

First of, let’s quickly recap the last two weeks shall we? Maria Sharapova made her return to tennis, much to the chagrin of Eugenie Bouchard, who feels like she should be banned for all eternity.  Novak Djokovic continues to say his fine and play like something’s really, horribly wrong with his game.  Andy Murray does seem to be making some progress, albeit slowly.  Rafael Nadal has been having 10 star feast on clay and Federer’s busy gallivanting around the world with Bill Gates, raising funds for Africa.

Africa.  That leads right into my little discussion to fill this lull.  The other day, I was talking with a colleague at work about… work stuff and as I always do when I get a bit bored with a conversation, I started nodding my head mechanically and began streaming highlights of Federer’s rather entertaining match with Andy Murray during TMFA Part 3.  Did Federer fans catch the TMF part there?  I won’t say what it means here, but if you know it, high five.  Okay I digress.  So as I’m streaming the match, my ears which have been partially paying attention to my colleague’s rambling, catch this sentence.

“So do you play too, cos I’ve been looking for someone to play with and haven’t found anybody.”

VIDEO PAUSED.

Safe to say we are planning a hit this upcoming weekend and I’m so excited, I’m literally praying it happens.  It’s been 8 months since I picked up my racket and it’s not due to laziness or anything else along those lines.  In a continent where Soccer dominates like President Mugabe, there isn’t much room for tennis.  It is sad, but true.  It got me thinking of how many times I’d looked for a tennis court while visiting various states in Nigeria and couldn’t find one.  Best place to consistently play tennis is in Abuja.  I used to, when I lived there.  However, Abuja is akin to an oasis in a desert.  In other states, you’d be lucky to find a tennis court in a hotel you lodged in.  You’d be even luckier to find someone to play with.  There just isn’t the same tennis culture in the African continent as there is in its peer continents – Europe, South/North America, Asia and Australia.

The other evening, I did a quick google search of prominent tennis players from Africa.  There’s a decent lot from South Africa – Kevin Anderson, and Wayne Ferreira come to mind.  There’s Younès El Aynaoui from Morocco and even ESPN commentator favorite, Cliff Drysdale (I did not know that).  I could go ahead and claim Roger Federer now, but that might be a bit too far fetched.  I will limit my focus to players who are actually products of some existing African tennis system within some country and once I do that and exclude players with African roots such  as Federer, my list drops (plummets rather) considerably.  It is a sad reality because there are a lot of potential athletic players who never emerged in the tennis world.  I’ve played against a few.

I could rummage through a lot of reasons why the African continent hasn’t produced as many prominent players but I’ll stick with a few key ones.  For starters, tennis is a unique individual sport that requires a lot of self funding.  This isn’t soccer, where a player shows talent, is snagged up by an agent and offered a mouth watering deal.  They don’t even pay their flight ticket to the club training grounds.  I’m not knocking on footballers.  Making it in soccer is hard work but it is by nature a team sport.  If you show promise and are discovered, chances are you’ve got a team looking out for you.  In tennis, the same rules don’t apply.  At least not entirely.  The aspiring player relies solely on the backing of his family or some external support system (an academy perhaps) that they luckily find.  In a continent were poverty levels are sky high, most families struggle to put three square meals on the table.  Any dreams of Grand Slam glory are dashed by the grumblings of an empty stomach.

Of course, poverty isn’t unique to the African continent.  Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and the rest of the Serbian conquerors, emerged from the rubble of a war torn nation.  In some cases, their families put together all they had to help their charges achieve their dreams.  This is possible where there is diversity in the definition of success.  In Africa, education is seen as the key and path out of a life of struggle.  Education is the bar of excellence here.  Most parents and families would rather put together their life savings and ship of their wards to foreign schools than see them off to say a Nick Bolletieri aca

10/10 Vision

Yesterday I clicked the button to start drafting up a new blog post.  My random mind had already chosen a title that I thought was rather cliche.  The King vs The Prince.  I started typing away about how Dominic Thiem’s final match up with Rafael Nadal could be a potential passing of the baton.  The usual tennis writer’s spew when it comes to generational contests.  Somewhere along the line, I deleted that draft and as such, it never made its way on the internet.

Hold on, Kelechi. I thought.  This is Rafa we’re talking about.  It is much too soon.  

After today’s final, I think I made the safer bet and the correct one.  It was much too soon.  For all the praise that Dominic Thiem gets for his clay court prowess, Nadal is and always has been a caliber of dirt devil all to his own.  There’s a reason why he was going for his TENTH championship in Barcelona, barely a week after capturing his TENTH in Monte Carlo.  Yes I had to type “tenth” in bold.  The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it sounded and yet, it is true.

Those reasons were on full display again today.  Rafael Nadal has been stuck in a wilderness of his own since winning his last grand slam at – surprise – Roland Garros in 2014.  A confidence drop here, some injuries there, a lack of form that way, and suddenly tennis’s fiercest competitor was almost becoming tour fodder.  That and the grand slam where he was regarded as nigh invisible, was turning into a place of much grief.  He’d been bested by Djokovic in 2015 and again by his body (his wrist) in 2016.  During that period, Dominic Thiem was beginning to make a name for himself as the dirt devil heir apparent.  Of course it was easy to be lulled into writing something along those lines.

Yet here was Nadal, covering the court like a gazelle, ritualistic tics in hand to boot.  Here was Nadal, spiking dangerous high hopping topspin loaded forehands to his challenger’s backhand and setting up the open court.  Here was Nadal, defending like a mad man on steroids and making gets that shriek pure will power and somehow feel like a calculated attempt to break a hapless opponent’s spirit.  Here was the king of clay, vanquishing yet another challenger, just like old times.

Dominic Thiem for his part, did contribute to a rather entertaining first set.  Whether it was a tactical choice or a disillusioned belief that he could grapple toe to toe with history’s greatest clay court player, Thiem traded topspin bombs with Nadal from the baseline.  From the get go, it looked like a bad idea.  Thiem was holding serve, but it was clear from a few narrow misses, that he lacked the consistency of his more accomplished opponent.  Nadal’s ritualistic tics do not stop at arranging bottles just so, lining his socks and cleaning the baseline of dust before every return game.  That maddening consistency more than seeps into his game.  When he is in form, his ground strokes can take on the nature of a never ending metronome.  On this surface, not even tennis players the likes of Federer and Djokovic can withstand that for more than two sets.  Thiem, cracked at 4 all in the first set.  The mental and physical concentration required to continually fend off topspin assaults that never seem to miss, was too much for him to give and he was broken for the game, the set and essentially the match.

In the second set, a broken Thiem would win just one game and soon those narrow misses became increasingly wider until the Austrian, gassed out, was spraying balls way off the court.  It was a familiar sight and one had to wonder how Thiem thought he could go up against this clay court predator at his own game, and survive.  This is a man who bites his trophies.  With his teeth literally sunk deep into the match, the games rolled on to their inevitable end and Nadal had his second tenth title, in as many weeks.

As for Thiem, there’s still a lot of clay court matches to be played, leading up to the French Open.  A loss to Nadal is nothing to be ashamed about, but if he is looking to make a statement at the French, he might be wise to remember that Nadal is chasing another tenth there.

Any bets the Spaniard won’t get it?  At this point, it is much too soon to christen anybody else a favorite.

The Unsung Rival

Andy Roddick stepped up to the ad court and prepared to serve.  He was facing a break point in the eight game of the third set, Wimbledon Final 2004.  Advantage, Federer.  Roddick tossed the ball up, the fingers of his left hand splayed out, while his knees bent down so low, it appeared he was tucked into a vertical fetal position.  Pop! Snap!  Roddick uncurled and exploded upwards, slapping the ball down the T, towards Federer’s forehand.  It was the classic Roddick service motion, in all its glory.  Today, that serve and the rest of Roddick’s game, had been as good as it ever was.  He was moving well, anticipating well, serving phenomenally well and his forehand had been devastating.  Crushingly so.

Roddick_Federer
Roddick congratulates Federer after the 2004 Wimbledon final.  Picture by gettyimages.

So far, it had appeared the match was on Roddick’s racket and his alone.  He’d overpowered Federer 6- 4 in a first set that was much more one sided than the scoreline indicated, and had narrowly missed completing a brilliant comeback in the second set from 0 – 4 down.  He eventually lost the set 5 – 7, due to a poor lapse in the thirteenth game.  Federer’s yell after smacking a forehand pass down the line only served to underscore how lucky he was.  It could easily have been two sets to none.  However things had taken on a different turn in this eight game.  Roddick was facing a familiar pressure he had not faced all day.  His serves – bullets moving in excess of 130MPH – had suddenly started coming back.  This one, down the T to Federer’s forehand, did as well.  The ball was perfectly placed in the forecourt in that dreaded territory called no man’s land.  Roddick had no choice but to venture forward.  He did what every smart tennis player would do.  He took the short ball and sent it deep to Federer’s backhand – his weaker side.  Federer, who had been scurrying back to the middle with those cat like footsteps, took one graceful lunge step to his left and sent a pristine drive down the line.  Roddick, the gritty fighter that he was – that he would become – lunged to his right and stabbed the volley cross court.  Federer was already there to cover the angle.  There was no need.  Roddick had missed.  Game Federer.  The swiss would go on to win the match 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(3), 6 – 4.  Roddick would not win another match against Federer for a period of four years, stretching eight matches.

Federer had his graceful game, predicated on finesse, strategy and subtlety.  Roddick had his power game, built around one of the deadliest serve – forehand combinations the tennis world had ever seen.  They were the number one and two players in the world.

You might wonder why with all this one sided dominance, this should be considered a rivalry.  It is for a number of historically significant ripple effects the match ups between these two and really this Wimbledon final, produced.  Coming into this match, both Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were entering the kick off phase of their respective championship careers.  They had just traded ranking places with Roddick finishing 2003 as World no 1, and Federer replacing him atop tennis’s apex with his second grand slam title at the 2004 Australian Open.  They also had contrasting styles that made for interesting match ups.  Federer had his graceful game, predicated on finesse, strategy and subtlety.  Roddick had his power game, built around one of the deadliest serve – forehand combinations the tennis world had ever seen.  They were the number one and two players in the world.

Coming into this Wimbledon final, Roddick trailed in the head to head, 1 – 4.  However, he had recently bested Federer in three sets, in the ATP masters tournament in Canada.  While Federer had gotten the better of him in their next contest in Houston, the tennis world knew Roddick was beginning to come into his own as a potential Federer arch nemesis.  Roddick knew it too and so did Federer.  At 4 – 3 in that third set, with Roddick serving to go up 5 – 3, he faltered and Federer broke.  Why?  At this time, Roger Federer was the only player on the planet who could get into a rhythm, returning Roddick’s serve.  There was so much heat on the Roddick delivery, that players struggled to get a racket on it, talk less of returning it.  Federer was not just any player.  With his natural hand-eye coordination and good reflexes, the Swiss was able to get returns back in play that Roddick just wasn’t use to seeing come back.  This was familiar pressure because Roddick had faced it in the Wimbledon Semifinals a year earlier, against the same opponent.  Once that return came back in play, the point was essentially reset.

For all of Roddick’s power and forehand abilities from the baseline, Federer has always been a nullifying factor.  It was the classic case of “anything you can do, I can do better.”  Roddick had a terrific serve fueled by power and made even more deadly by direction.  Federer had a serve that threw you off balance with spins, placement, disguise and accuracy.  He was almost always ahead of Roddick in the ace count, during their match ups.  Roddick’s forehand was big, daring, powerful and an overwhelming force to be reckoned with.  Federer’s was a well timed trigger that he could vary.  It was his slicing rapier to Roddick’s bludgeoning hammer.  As for their court movements and coverage, there aren’t many players who could cover the court like Roger Federer could and still can at 35.  Once the serve came back, Roddick was always up against it.  Yet this match is significant because for about two sets and a half, Roddick’s power game held the upper hand.  That Roddick lost this final, had to be crushing.  However, it was what he did after this final that would define the remainder of their rivalry.

For all of Roddick’s power and forehand abilities from the baseline, Federer has always been a nullifying factor.  It was the classic case of “anything you can do, I can do better.”

Roddick, began to tinker.  Who could blame him?  He could beat the rest of the field except for one player.  Federer would soon face a similar problem when a certain Spaniard emerged on the scene.  The fundamental difference is while Federer stubbornly stuck to his slam winning game, trusting his ability to beat Rafael Nadal without major changes to his play, Roddick felt he needed to improve by adding more dimension to his game, particularly his rallying.  The serve fundamentally remained the same, but the ground strokes slowly lost their pace and destructive power.  Roddick retrofitted his forehand to allow for more spin and re-engineered his slice backhand to accommodate frequent – if not ill advised – forays to the net.  The idea was to give Federer different looks.  To essentially outFederer, Federer.  It had mixed results with the rest of the tour and it certainly proved counterproductive against Andy Roddick’s rival.  Their 2005 Wimbledon final was a grass court masterclass.  The 2006 US Open final, a lesson in weathering an opening storm and outlasting your opponent.  The 2007 Australian Open semifinal, a hard court decimation.  Roddick had discarded the very game that could trouble Federer and occasionally beat him.  Now he was hardly winning sets.  When he did rediscover that power game a la the 2007 US Open quarterfinal, he could not mentally hunker down on the big points.  Yes Federer played phenomenal, but Roddick was too mentally weathered down by previous defeats to psychologically back up his terrific play on the day.

Roger+Federer+Andy+Roddick+Championship+Wimbledon+2009
The Wimbledon 2009 final is regarded as Andy Roddick’s most heartbreaking loss

Again, what makes this a rivalry then?  Federer best put it when he hinted after his 2007 Australian Open semifinal deconstruction of Roddick that he did get up a little extra for that match, as he felt Roddick coming for him.  The Nebraska born baseline whacker had almost upset Federer in Shanghai, the year before.  That’s exactly how their careers and rivalry played out.  This wasn’t a sea-saw battle a la Nadal vs Djokovic or Sampras vs Agassi.  This wasn’t a surface/style rivalry and a late career surge a la Federer vs Nadal.  This was a chasing rivalry with Federer being the chased and Roddick being the perpetual chaser.  Many others did try to become Federer’s nemesis but most of them fell by the way side or simply gave up.  A lot of them were defeated before they stepped foot on the court.  Federer had to be weary of Roddick because the American never gave up, no matter how many times Federer knocked him down.  The Swiss knew that within Roddick lay a dormant game that could be unleashed at anytime.  With a serve like that, anything was possible on any given day.  As such, Federer had to be on his A game even if Roddick wasn’t.  Anything less and it was a coin toss.  That weariness was proven right in the 2008 Miami quarterfinal when Roddick stunned Federer in three sets.  It almost happened again in one of the most unsung Wimbledon 5 set final thrillers – the 2009 classic.  On that day, with history on the line, Roddick rediscovered his 2004 form and pushed Federer to five sets, (16 – 14) in the fifth.  It was a close call but again Federer was reminded that if he took his foot off the gas, Roddick was still waiting.

Federer had to be weary of Roddick because the American never gave up, no matter how many times Federer knocked him down.  The Swiss knew that within Roddick lay a dormant game that could be unleashed at anytime.  With a serve like that, anything was possible on any given day.

In a sense, it is befitting that the American won their last ever professional match, in the fourth round of the Miami 2012 clash.  I remember being shocked at how flat the American hit his forehand that day.  It was circa 2004 all over again.  One could only wonder what the results could have been if Roddick had left his game the way it was.  There are no regrets in this.  Roddick was a gritty competitor who was never afraid to try something different.

At the end of it all, he gave this rivalry his very best and pushed a man regarded as the greatest to step on a tennis court, to lofty heights.  He was the stern test when Federer had to defend his Wimbledon title for the first time and prove his newly minted number one ranking.  He was the juggernaut in the way of Grand Slam #15, when Federer stared at tennis immortality, just within reach.  Through the Nadals, Djokovics and Murrays of this world, there was Andy Roddick.  The unsung rival.

Andy Roddick_Miami Victory
Roddick celebrates his victory over Federer in Miami 2012.  It would be their last professional match.

What’s Mr. 18 been up to?

One of the beauties of reaching the pinnacle of a chosen profession, is the liberation it gives one to try out different things in both their personal and professional space.  I honestly can’t tell you how that feels (maybe you can tell me), but I imagine it to be quite like that feeling you get once you’ve nailed that new job position or finished that oh so crucial project… only a thousand times more awesome.

Whatever that space is, and however it feels, that’s exactly where Roger Federer is right now.  At this stage of his life and career, he’s got nothing left to prove.  Oh and that Greatest Of All Time debate?  I think Federer’s made his peace with it.  Unless some unknown talent somewhere in the world rises up the ranks and rips through 20+ Grand Slams over the course of his career, Federer’s legacy as a tennis player is safe and he will always be in the discussion whenever it does come up among tennis pundits and fans alike.

With his tennis legacy intact and with a liberated free flowing style that is sure to amplify that legacy perfected, it appears Switzerland’s greatest sporting icon is embarking on a mission to cement his legacy as a person.  While it is true that Roger Federer is not new to charity – his foundation has been running nearly as long as his career has – his senior citizen status in tennis, has given him more time to focus on this passion of helping people.  To buttress this point, Match for Africa 4 is set to take place tomorrow, while Federer’s colleagues are busy grinding each other to red powdery dust across clay courts the world over.

While most tennis tournaments would have loved to see him grace their tournaments and fill their stadium seats, what Federer is embarking on has a much greater impact on both the human and sporting levels.  To be frank, I’m not surprised at all.  I always saw Federer as a meld of so many greats of the past.  He’s got the fitness of Lendl, the grace and guile of Edberg, the lightning fast attack of Sampras and with regards to this topic, the charitable heart of Agassi.  In that regard, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see those two hook up more often after Federer hangs up his racket.

Like him or not, Federer has always been a source of inspiration to many around the world.  I do wonder if we’ll see more tennis players publicly embarking on a journey of charity – a journey of giving back, even before they retire.  That’ll be a lovely trend.

Rog, if by some random twist of the universe you get to read this, Match for Africa 5 Suggestion: Federer vs Sampras.

 

Playing Judge, Jury and Executioner

There is nothing more damaging to a professional athlete’s image, than being found guilty of ingesting a banned substance.  In some cases, such an act can be a career ending move.  It has been in the past.  In Tennis, players who have been found irrevocably guilty of doping, have rarely made successful comebacks to tour.  Mariano Puerta and Wayne Odesnik, come to mind.

However, players and fan alike, are more forgiving when it is proven that the player did not mean to cheat and rather was the victim of an unfortunate string of events, leading to more unfortunate circumstances.  Look no further than Richard Gasquet or Marin Cilic as the prime examples of this case.  Marin Cilic put together a fine run to become the US open champion, after his comeback from a very dangerous brush with tennis law.

So what’s different with Maria Sharapova?  In theory, her case should be similar to that of Gasquet and Cilic.  In reality though, it couldn’t be further from the truth.  Speculate all you may, but Maria Sharapova was found guilty of negligence and carelessness, that led to the ingestion of a substance, barely a few days after it made the banned list.  She was subsequently banned from playing professional tennis for fifteen months, and is back.  Yet the reception has been antagonistic at best.  The question is why?

My growing theory has to do with something that has plagued the Russian star throughout her career.  Her popularity with the players and the fans.  Her human connection.  It has been severely lacking, for a star so big.  Sharapova is popular… don’t get me wrong.  She is very popular.  However, she is hardly a personal favorite of many… both professional players and fans alike.  Raised to be the consummate professional, she has distanced herself from locker-room fandom and any other interactions she considers a distraction.  The result has been a hugely successful career with a lot of brooding resentment.  The problem with that is when something like this happens.  That resentment comes to the surface and influences how people have chosen to receive her comeback.

I understand the emotions with Sharapova and in some cases I understand the verbal diatribe she has received (expect for Eugene Bouchard’s which was in my opinion, extreme), but facts are facts.  Sharapova was banned for her carelessness and she has served her time.  She is also a five time grand slam champion and the WTA could do with the consistent star power she brings to the table right about now.  If she gets a wildcard, it is because the tournament sees her as deserving of it.

Besides, everyone deserves a second chance don’t they?  Judges, Jury, Executioners?

Ilie Nastase’s Shard of Hidden Reality

Race in Tennis is not discussed as often as it is in other sports global sports like Soccer, track and field or even… American Football.  It just isn’t.  There’s apparently no room for such trivial topics in “the gentleman’s game”.  Players are at worst, cordial with each other and at best they are bffs who can’t stop taking pictures of every activity they practically do together – ahem Serena and Caroline.  Ethnicity, race, nationality?  All those divides seem to have been long conquered in Tennis’s professional world.

However, what if some of this… camaraderie was only an act?  Call me pessimistic, but when I discussed the subject of race in tennis with a friend a while back, I remember expressing my disbelief that something so insidious and tough – racism has survived over 400 years of modern history – could be rooted out so easily.  Racism is the social virus, man has struggled to get rid off.  It evolves, adapts, and even regresses for a while but just when we relax, it rears its ugly head again.

This is exactly what happened last week, when Romania’s Fed Cup coach, Ilie Nastase made some out of place comments about the skin color of Serena William’s unborn baby.  Not only were his comments and subsequent “if I say” comments hurtful, disrespectful, insensitive and dare I say dehumanizing, they were regressive.  They shelved off a bit of the unifying power of sport – of Tennis.  I am one of those people who believes Serena Williams has taken a lot of unwarranted antagonism particularly from so-called Tennis lovers.  Reading a typical racist or chauvinistic comment from a ‘fan’ about Serena Williams, is rather repulsive within itself.  To read it from a prominent ex-player is quite disturbing.  This isn’t what it means to be ‘human’.  Moreover, one of the sport’s all-time greats, deserves better than that.

Ilie Nastase’s comments might have ripped a tear in the fabric of reality most of us would like to believe.  Racism is still here, underneath the surface, waiting to bubble up at the slightest opportunity.  The viral count might be down, but it isn’t zero and if nothing is done about it, there will be a relapse.  Which is why it warmed my heart to see the backlash the Romanian Fed Cup coach got and still is getting.  It was a joy to see Serena stand up for herself, her baby and her fellow female players, like Johanna Konta.  It was especially rewarding to read about Simona Halep’s honest and defiant stance against her own coach, calling it like it was.  That is the kind of reaction needed to fight this ugly disease in our beloved sport.  I’m looking forward to more players – especially the prominent ones – lending a voice to tell the Ilie Nastase’s of this world that racism has no place in tennis.

The Romanian might be a star bad boy, and maybe a bad man, but in this sport, good gentlemen rule.  Let’s keep it that way.

The Greatest

January 29th, 2017 will go down as one of the most memorable dates – if not the most memorable date – in the history of tennis.  For Federer fans, you might as well make it a public holiday.  After nearly five years of waiting, Roger Federer finally claimed what has collectively been called #18.

By itself, Federer’s capture of another grand slam title is not earth shattering news.  Going into today, the Swiss legend had 17 titles to his name – the most of any man.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to think he could add one more.  However, as mentioned earlier, Federer’s last grand slam victory came five years ago on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon, against a then slamless Andy Murray.  Today, at 35, he was playing in the finals of the Australian Open.  His opponent?  Just a 14 time grand slam singles champion known as Rafael Nadal.  Both men were coming back from long injury lay offs – Federer’s much longer.  To top that all off, there was the teeny weeny fact that Federer had lost 23 of the past 34 matches they had played.

All of this, and the fact that practically no one thought the sporting world would be treated to another Federer – Nadal classic, gave this match an electric feeling.  However, there was one more reason why this match was christened the most important tennis match in the history of tennis.  

3

At the start of the day, that number represented the difference between each man’s Grand Slam haul.  Federer had always been the chased, Nadal the chaser.  This match represented a golden opportunity for either man.  If Nadal could close it down to 2, the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) argument would be thrown so wide open, it would make Brexit and Trump’s victory feel like junior tennis news by comparison.  That conversation would only get louder as the season inevitably marched towards Roland Garros – Nadal’s kingdom.  The way the Spaniard had been playing down under, the chances of him collecting his tenth French Open title, and thus reducing that number to 1, were very high.  If Federer could win however, he would drive home a crucial nail in the coffin of the GOAT debate.  To do it, he’d have to defeat a man he hadn’t beaten in a grand slam match since 2007 – a decade ago.  To put it into context, the last time Federer defeated Nadal in a grand slam singles match, Steve Jobs was still alive and had just announced the first iPhone to the world.

That last line, has been the singular resounding argument against Federer’s claim to the greatest of all time title.  How can he be the best of all time, if he isn’t the best of his generation?  There is a natural counter question to that.  If he isn’t, who is?  Nadal?  Well if we say Nadal is the best of his generation because he has a winning record against Federer: if we are picking the best of this generation based on H2H, then how about those Nadal has a losing record against?  Djokovic.  Davydenko.  Correjta?  Dustin Brown?  Tennis is a game of match ups and Rafa is a bad match up for Roger – especially on clay, the surface they have battled on the most, and is simultaneously Nadal’s best surface and Roger’s worst.

Well what about consistency?  There are many ways to quantify this.  Consecutive finals appearances.  Consecutive semis, quarters… you name it.  You could also up the stakes and consider the number of weeks each man has spent at number one.  Using this barometer, Djokovic (with 223 weeks) sits comfortably in 4th position – two spots above Rafael Nadal (with 141 weeks).  Federer?  He’s miles ahead in that department, with a whooping 302 weeks as the top dog.

There are so many ways to discuss who might be the greatest of them all.  I’ll pick a final one.  Achievements.  Slam victories aside, this includes other must have victories in the sport such as Davis Cup wins, Olympic medals garnered (particularly gold), World Tour Finals wins and the like.  Federer’s got victories in all of these tournaments (he’s got silver in singles and gold in doubles at the Olympics).  Nadal?  One simple stat.  No World Tour Finals wins.  None.  I believe this is telling of the Spaniard’s career.  Against Federer, he’s got the advantage, but Nadal has never come out victorious against the 8 best players in the world, at any given time.  Federer’s done it six times.

We’ll leave this neighborhood of our discussion and stroll back down under.  We all know what happened.  They played and they fought in a manner so reminiscent of their heydays, people are now thinking retirement?  What retirement?  This match was a treat for the older retired legends of the game, and an inspiration for the younger generation.  It reminded us of two aging kings who took our beloved sport to such stratospheric heights that it has inspired a whole set of exciting players ever since.  However, these two are the originals of this generation.  Fire and Ice.  Grit and Beauty.  Finesse and Power.  Ying and Yang.  Like eternal forces, their recent collision reshaped the landscape of the tennis universe once again.  This is not just a legendary rivalry.  It is the rivalry.  This was the match and what a match it was.  The fact that Federer won it playing a gritty Nadalesque form of tennis, overlayed with a Federian attacking style not seen since his glory days – the fact that he did it at 35 – was as resounding a statement as anyone could make.  With a short forehand winner smack on the line, he had his #18.

There are many who believe the debate is still open.  However, here is the fact.  The defining number has changed.

4

That is what it stands at now.  The difference between the eternal challenging force, and The Greatest.

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.