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The Out-Nadaling of Rafael Nadal

July 4, 2011 Leave a comment

This has to count as a first! Me writing about tennis when Federer isn’t in the mix! Had to happen one day… my love for tennis isn’t going to suffer the demise that any one man’s dominance on top of this beautiful sport was bound to eventually experience. Folks – this post is going to be bereft of the tears and the drama that is inevitable when writing about a Federer victory (or loss) these days. I’m going to pontificate on yesterday’s match and its technicalities in a tediously verbose manner, sounding like I know what I’m talking about – dispensing analysis while still seated snugly in my armchair of amateur tennis mediocrity.

Still reading? I’ll take that as evidence that you love me unconditionally *and* have tons of time to spare.

Many things in life provide a pleasure vastly disproportionate to their discernible importance (or lack thereof, as the case is). The preening sense of triumph with which one gives in to the temptation of saying “I told you so” must rank very high amongst these pleasures. In my last post in September last year, I heralded (rightly, I have to point out) the arrival of a new force in men’s tennis and events this year have proven me right :). This new force has emphatically underlined his presence by grabbing both the #1 spot, and the Wimbledon crown from Rafa in three days. But how? How in the world did Djoker manage this gargantuan feat? I think I know. He just out-Nadaled Nadal! We saw Djokovic take Nadal’s playbook and execute it much better than the man himself.

Let’s deconstruct the dismantling of that which was hither-to resistant to dismantling. Djoker seemed so goddamn self-assured on the court. Sports an aura of invincibility these days, if you will. He no longer seems intimidated by or in awe of Nadal – which was a marked difference in his demeanor from last year’s US Open finals. Djokovic betrays absolutely no weakness off either wings. His ability to rip winners seems to emanate from both the forehand and backhand side – which is something Federer cannot consistently do from the backhand side. With Roger, Rafa found his kryptonite and attacked his backhand relentlessly till it broke down. With Djoker, he is up against someone who has no apparent weakness – other than having the odd “off day”. While Rog does play some incredible single-handed backhands, one always gets the feeling that the next dump-into-the-net or shoot-off-the-frame-into-the-tramlines backhand, is around the corner when he plays Nadal. He simply cannot deal with the high ball to his comparatively weak backhand. In sharp contrast Djoker can actually hit clean winners off this otherwise potent weapon of Rafa’s. He takes the ball early and his perfect double-handed technique neutralizes Rafa’s top-spin and renders any threat from the looping backhand pretty mild if not entirely non-existent. And thanks to being absolutely on top of his game on both wings, Djokovic has the ability and confidence to disguise his shots until the very last minute – denying a defensive genius like Rafa that all-important read on where the next ball is going – which can make the difference between looking like you can get to every ball – and looking like you’re a milli-second slower than usual. All tennis players are taught the all-important “split-step” before they make their journey towards the ball. Against most players whose moves he can easily read, Rafa combines the split-step and the start of the journey towards the ball into one physically impossible twisting-turning-moving motion. With Djokovic, his split-step was just that and no more – robbing him of that extra millisecond of movement in the right direction.

The Djokovic of old had a decent serve, but one that was readable and not remarkable in any way. After a tumultuous period of change where he brought in Todd Martin to fix his game, ended up worse for the coaching and barely clung onto his #3 ranking for most of 2010, he seems to have found all the answers rapidly in the second half of 2010. His serve has more bite now – and he can place it anywhere in the box seemingly at will without giving the positioning away in his toss. Nadal, who thrives on reading what people are going to do with the ball, was left flatfooted on Djoker’s serve and many other shots. On the deuce court, Djoker’s serve was pretty much always placed wide to Nadal’s backhand. And since Rafa doesn’t usually dictate play with his backhand, Djok was able to dictate terms the minute the return came floating in. In sharp contrast, Djok was able to oftentimes jump all over Rafa’s wide-slice serve and denied him the setup Rafa so often relies on to pretty much never lose his service games.

Djoker’s speed, never shabby to begin with, is astounding now – as is his ability to hit while on the run. He tracked down pretty much every ball that Nadal hit yesterday, seemed to be everywhere all at once and messed with Rafa’s gameplan in much the same way that Rafa messes with all other hapless opponents. For me, the play that broke the camel’s back was at the end of the first set, when Djokovic ran down a phenomenal Rafa drop shot – and put it out of reach of the man who gets to every ball.

We now move on to the hard-court season, to what is Djokovic’s supposed strongest surface. After what I saw yesterday at Wimbledon, if I were Rafa or Roger, I’d be afraid. Very very afraid.

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Bring on the waterworks, there’s a new GOAT in town

June 12, 2009 Leave a comment

If you are among those who heaved premature sighs of relief (and thanked that dastardly flu bug for laying me low) at the fact that Roger’s monumental victory at Roland Garros didn’t result in more than a whimper of appreciation from me, your joy was short-lived. I’m sorry folks, it isn’t in my nature to shed a silent tear of joy at my idol’s stupendous accomplishment. Especially not after being harshly subjected to that old adage that “a fool and his money are soon parted” when I was public about gambling on Rog’s chances!

I must confess, like a majority of Federer fans, I suffered from extreme hand-wring-itis. Hand-wringing about his apparent loss of confidence, his inability to out-think the new kids on the block, inability to come up with new tactics, his cockiness in not hiring a coach, his propensity to weep buckets and whatever else. In fact, I had all but thrown in the towel on ever witnessing title #14 as evinced by a rather pessimistic previous post: (https://gurubhat.wordpress.com/2009/02/09/feet-of-clay/). I think this latest victory has cured me of my ailment. I shall be a fickle and doubting fan no more. Sure, he is still going to lose to Rafa more than he is going to win, but heck, it doesn’t matter anymore. #14 is in the bag, the French isn’t a holdout any longer and he has surely earned the right to share the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) tag with the other candidates – if not own the tag outright. Frankly, it won’t bother me much if he loses a whole lot in the future. Frighteningly for his opponents, if Roger adopts this attitude and plays freely, he’s going to be a lot more dangerous.

Was his victory a result of divine intervention – maybe. I would certainly have found a hard-fought victory against Rafa a far more satisfying culmination of the quest for #14, than this rout of Soderling. But still, I wouldn’t asterisk this victory in any way. The man had to fight very hard to get it – and showed amazing courage and character to come through stern tests from Haas and Del Potro. His tennis was not of the oh-so-sublime quality we have come to view as our birthright as fans, but he got the job done.
In the recent past, Roger has seemingly suffered from a form of denial. Instead of adapting his game to the fact that folks like Rafa and Murray had his number, he kept returning to the same old forehand formula. He continued to play his usual game because – heck, he seemed to think, it isn’t possible that his perfect game could be taken apart! Not so anymore. Against Del Potro and Soderling, he displayed a refreshing new quality of being willing to try some dreamy drop shots. I suspect the drop shot was tailored specifically to take on Nadal – not that a drop shot would ever be a surefire winner against Rafa – nothing is. However, a drop shot that dies upon landing sure beats feeding Rafa mid-court forehand gimmes. In fact, a bunch of the patterns he seemed to have worked out for Rafa ended up nearly bringing him down against the likes of Haas and Del Potro. In moving away from working his favorite forehand pattern, Fed-Ex did so because Nadal had the right kryptonite in his two-handed backhand. Being naturally right-handed, Nadal’s backhand can rip the fur off the ball. And when Nadal hits a backhand full of juice, Federer can only play a defensive mid-court ball that Nadal, with his excellent footwork, can run around and punish with more topspin than humanly possible. Federer, over the years has suffered mightily with this pattern and has worked hard to come up with a tactical reply and keep the ball as low as possible. When Soderling did him a huge favor by bouncing Rafa from the draw, Roger had to regroup and reacquaint himself with his old point constructions. And on Sunday, he blended the old with the new to perfection.

Onward to Wimbledon now and I’m still putting my money on Roger. Say what you will about the guy – someone who has the chops to get to the semifinals in 19 of the last 20 slams (or the finals at 15 of the last 16 slams) isn’t someone I’m betting against!

Feet of clay

February 9, 2009 4 comments

If you aren’t into tennis 24×7 like I am, then this post can safely be ignored.

During the past month or so, a large portion of my consciousness has been consumed by the recently concluded Australian Open. The results are out, the man’s once inexorable march towards assuming the mantle of permanent greatness has been stopped yet again and his tears have been the subject of much derision and have been seen as the final nail in the somewhat self-made coffin of emasculation.

A friend of mine, after seeing my public statements of mourning on Facebook, pointed me to an old article in the New York Times on the unstoppable march of Federer. The article can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=1&_r=5&ref=playmagazine

Truth be told, I wish I had read this in 2006 – not today. With whatever remained of Federer’s aura of invincibility firmly and undeniably dissolved in that bucket of tears he wept on Sunday, the article’s idolatry of Federer’s prowess comes across as a bit dated and hollow. I have had several “Federer Moments” during the past years. As an avid tennis player and an even more avid fan, there are few matches of Federer’s that I haven’t watched. His game still leaves me breathless and amazed. For sheer shot-making genius, his ability is unparalleled. That his game is poetry cannot be denied. However, during the recent years, I have had “Nadal moments” in equal measure. The man astounds me with his ability and athleticism, to seemingly convert a surefire winner from the opponent into a winner of his own, to put one extra ball back, to break the will of the hardiest of opponents. Strange as it may seem, I am a big fan of both players. I have to profess greater admiration for Nadal’s work ethic, the strength of his psyche and his sheer will to win. As far as mental strength goes, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone stronger – period. The stats show this facet – the man, it seems, simply cannot be broken. The GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) debates will rage endlessly (and pointlessly) on. For now, I am willing to shed a quiet tear or two (while Roger weeps) that my idol has feet of – *irony alert* – CLAY against one and only one player and enjoy the unbelievable quality to which the two have elevated the game. I cannot grudge Nadal his victories, the way he has adapted his game to all surfaces and how hard he works and how gracious and humble he is as a champion leads me to conclude that he is also definitely one of the greats of all time.

That said, poetry his game is not. I hope poetry trumps practical a few more times. I’m rooting for Roger “Tears” Federer all the way at Wimbledon – that grass needs watering, win or lose.