Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Psychological Task for Novak Djokovic


On one of my frequent visits to tennis.com, I came across Peter Bodo’s article on some comments made by Wilander and McEnroe on the competitive dynamics of the top four in men’s tennis. One insight that I found particularly accurate was Wilanders proposition that Federer would continue to win several majors since there was no indication that this trend would stop. He noted that Federer may be faltering at the masters tournaments but his golden streak in grand slams was still in fruition and his win at the US Open sill suggests most compellingly that the grand slams victories are still coming – albeit with a greater struggle. This comment as penetrating as it was had already struck me after Roger won the US Open so convincingly and it was McEnroe’s comments on the gloominess of Novak Djokovic’s current status in the men’s game that I found most provocative and perhaps even a tad dejecting. McEnroe seems to suggest that there’s a kind of ‘lostness’ in Djokovic’s current game; a kind of dissipating forcefulness; a tiring attitude that manifests in an unwillingness to dig deep and bring forth that great yet very elusive magic that lies within him.

The Problem with Pride:

It is certainly true that Djokovic has lost that spark and vigour that we all saw most glaringly at the Australian Open. However it seems to me that it is not lost in the same way one would loose their heart or soul but rather in the same way one would loose their TV remote. Loosing the TV remote is an annoying event – you can sometimes search strenuously while one of your favourite TV shows is on and yet not find it; it can sometimes take you to the brink of fury but in the end you know its very close and although you loose it, you know you’ll find it if you really want it. This I believe is where Novak is. At Cincy, Djokovic came out in the semi-final against Nadal and played some his best tennis of the year. I watched that match with amazement as his shots in the first set appeared to be getting flatter, faster and closer to the line while Nadal scurried across the baseline struggling to return the shots. Why did Djokovic find the remote here and not at the US Open when it really mattered? Djokovic has always been labelled as being a somewhat haughty and arrogant young man and although I believe that some of these charges are unwarranted, he does have a great deal of pride and it is this pride I feel that has to be challenged for him to play his best tennis. At Cincy, he played so luminously because his pride had been injured by the spotlight having being moved to Nadal and Federer; he was relegated to being a third wheel and that, he could not tolerate and so his response was breathtaking tennis. The problem with pride however is that although it can be very motivating, it can also be unstable and an unreliable source of inspiration. Sometimes it’s worth fighting for and other times unless it’s really been harmed, it lies there waiting for more injuries until it once again regains its rage and ferocity.

Booms and Busts:

Djokovic used this pride at the Australian Open when it was severely harmed at the US Open and again in Cincy against Nadal. However the instability of this source of motivation was demonstrated quite clearly when he was unable to use it to play his best tennis against Andy Murray in the finals. The problematic issue therefore for Djokovic is motivation and where to get it from; clearly victories alone aren’t enough and he needs to look carefully for what brings the best in him. His vigorous and aggressive game against Roddick at the US Open was not only some of the most energetic and bold tennis but also some of the smartest; obviously unless his emotions are rattled, this type of game doesn’t seem to emerge. It is indeed this issue that Novak needs to investigate most tenaciously; why his sensitive emotions need to be provoked for his best game to be released and how to achieve what Federer has over the last 5 years – composed and stable motivation. If Novak fails in this psychological task, his career will always follow the booms and busts of a developing economy. In an age where offensive baseliners have become commonplace, Novak has made it look special and unique with a sleek and jumpy style of play that is so representative of the vitality of youth and it would be a great pity for him to be remembered as just another baseliner just because he was unable to dig deep whenever the score and not just his emotions or pride needed a lift.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Madrid: A Strange Tournament?

in many ways will be considered by many to have been a strange tournament – no Rafa, no Roger and no Djokovic. These three players have been dominating men’s tennis with an iron fist and yet all three were defeated not by each other but by lower seeds. However, looking at Andy as he lifted his second consecutive master’s title, I thought to myself, “yes this tournament has been a bit strange but the final result… perhaps it was to be expected”. Andy played brilliantly against Rafa in New York; for me, it was one of the best performances of the year and in terms of clever tennis, perhaps even the best – yes, yes he lost to Roger so very quickly in the finals but to be fair to Andy, Roger lifted his game to its supreme level for much of that match and lets give the guy a break, it was after all his first grand slam final. But the fact was the same, he beat Nadal, the player that is no doubt playing the best tennis on the men’s tour and what really struck me was how easy he made it look. In the end, considering this performance, perhaps Murray winning was to be expected… maybe it was a normal tournament after all.

Some thoughts on Andy:

Looking beyond Madrid, the top three have much to be concerned about – mainly for next year. Now it may seem a little early to talk too much about Murray’s prospects for next year but I can’t help but think of some of the possibilities. Last year Novak reached the finals of the US Open and then went on to win the Australian Open – he went into the latter with a lot more confidence and determination – this sense that he could win – moreover I’m sure he got tired of everyone saying, “you had your chances”. I believe Murray is going to make quite an impelling push at the Australian Open next year – he knows he has the game, he knows he has the fitness and more importantly he now knows that he can beat anyone in the top 10 – in fact perhaps he even thinks he’s a little smarter than everyone in the top ten. However I think it is at Wimbledon next year that I feel that his presence in the top 4 will really be felt… yes, yes, I know, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself but Andy already showed how good he could be on grass this year and now he has the belief that he can beat Roger and Rafa – that’s right, even on grass!!! Okay, okay, I better stop there and it’s not necessarily that I believe that Andy will do any of these things next year… I mean, he is still up against one of the greatest players in history and the Wimbledon champ but my point is that if Murray keeps going on as he has this season… things can happen. Saying that, let’s all prey and hope for another Roger – Rafa match!!!!

Queries for the Future:

All in all, Madrid was great, not only because Simon showed us a few magic tricks and Andy showed that he’s here to stay but because it does raise some important questions; what impact will Murray have on the competitive dynamics of the top 3? Is Roger back in vintage form or is there still a big difference, perhaps even an enduring difference between the Federer of old and the current Fed? Is Rafa’s fantastic run since Wimbledon still going or has he fizzled a bit since the Olympics? How will Novak regain his strength and motivation going into next year, especially in respect to the defence of his Aust. Open title? Many questions, too many for me, and I think Paris and Shanghai will give us some answers.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Strange Day in Madrid

A Strange Day?

When the Madrid draw was released, I think everyone thought that Rafa had a pretty easy draw; his only obstacle for impressing his home crowd was Novak and although Novak is always a threat to any winning ambition, as soon as he was ousted by the tie-break kid Karlovic, it was probably a universal feeling that Rafa would go on to the finals and perhaps even face-off against Roger – not to be!!! For once since
Wimbledon, the spotlight isn’t on the no1 and 2 and instead the young Simon and Andy have all the attention – no Fed, no Rafa…. it was certainly a very strange day

A Different Simon:

Rafa had everything when you think about it – he had the momentum, he was still pulling of his miraculous passing shots, he had the home field advantage and he had all the confidence in the world so what happened? Well Simon played the match of his life and I think more importantly he enjoyed himself. If you look at Simon’s regular matches, they’re very routine – it’s like his play is pre-programmed and he’s just pressing the buttons – he rarely smiles or seems overly excited, and he just goes on about his business with a kind of mild partiality. Last night was a different affair; he threw his regular play out the window and decided to play with some spontaneity – he truly embraced that idea of “there’s nothing to loose”. His shots down the line were mesmerizing not only because they surprised the ever active Nadal but because of their frequency – there’s no doubt that the question on everyone’s match during that 3rd set was “for how long can he keep this up”? Simon however was impressive for more reasons than this – his ability to get the ball into play and actually draw the error from Rafa was unbelievable – to do that to Rafa?????? One would think that was impossible!! But it didn’t stop there, Simon exhibited great touch at the net – I’ll never forget that point where Rafa had the net closed off and Simon hit a gentle passing shot that passed the narrowest of gateways and landed in the right hand corner of the Rafa court – Rafa just turned around in disbelief and I thought to myself where have I seen that face before – ahh yes, on the face of nearly every one of his opponents!! The fact is Simon had fun, the experience exhilarated him and lets just hope he brings the same bubbly intensity to all his matches in the future.

A Strange Day for Rafa:

It must be said though that despite the brilliance of Simon, Rafa played better tennis- Rafa put greater pressure on Simon during all his service games and did some miraculous things himself – its just that he’s now feeling what Roger must feel, the shots are expected of him. Rafa didn’t win the game because he didn’t do what he does best – play the big points well. He failed to convert 22 break points and he did have his chances – it’s not as if Simon played every one of Rafa break point opportunities brilliantly. Secondly Rafa’s serve was not good enough – Simon got them back in with too much depth and from there, Rafa’s heavy hitting was not good enough. Thirdly and I hate to say this but Rafa just seemed to get a little frustrated in the second half of the 3rd set – like I said, it was a very strange day indeed. In the end it was Simons day, he played the best tennis of his life and now every one of his opponents will play him with just a bit of fear and apprehension in their minds – he’s no longer Simon the counter-puncher, but Simon “the guy that beat Nadal and Federer in the same year” – if that doesn’t strike a bit a fear into your opponent, I don’t know what will.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Federer vs Murray: The Story of a Forehand gone Wrong

A New Script for Andy:

Andy played a poor match against Roger in
New York. Murray served poorly, made too many unforced errors and had no answers for Federer’s exceedingly aggressive game; as one of the commentators while I was watching said, “that’s grand slam winning tennis”. Roger tried the same aggressive game in Madrid and for the first set, the match followed the US Open script. The second and third set was completely a different story – it was as If Andy suddenly got the script in his hand and realized what a bad story it was for him and decided to amend it himself. Suddenly Andy started attacking the Federer serve, surprisingly not just the second but the seemingly untouchable first. Andy changed gears even further in the third set putting Roger under pressure in nearly every one of his service games. If you were a Fed fan, you would have definitely been telling yourself that all Fed has to do is turn it on and break serve unexpectedly and the match for Andy will be over in no time. That line of thought is pretty good – after all that’s what Rodger is so good at; suddenly elevating his game and breaking, even though there was no indication that he would be able to throughout the set – however not this time!!! Andy in the end did everything; he played very aggressively and therefore disrupted every shot Federer was using as a precursor to a winning shot. In short, Andy didn’t allow Roger to construct the points at the same ease as he done against Del Potro. Every time Roger looked like he was on top, Andy would hit an eye-grabbing passing shot. He took the risks when it was appropriate but knew how to confine his play to drawing out the error at other times. Murray has now defeated the top three in all his most recent encounters with them – Djokovic at Cincy, Nadal in New York and now Federer in Madrid – once you’ve achieved that at his age, the sky’s the limit - all I can say for now is, “Novak, watch out”!!!

Vintage Federer vs Clever Federer:

Despite the brilliance of
Murray, Rogers game was very defective in the wing that he adores the most – the great liquid whip – his forehand. Not at any point during the match did Roger feel comfortable with his forehand. Surprisingly his backhand was working perfectly, but against a player of Andy’s quality, he really needed his iconic forehand. Now it must be said that this is not the first time that Roger’s forehand has given him some trouble. During the US Open, in that third set against Djokovic and his epic 4th round five setter, his forehand displayed the same error-prone behaviour. Why it happens…. well I’m not quite sure if even Roger knows himself and the fact is that the problem is not going away. The good news is that this error-prone behaviour lasts only for a set or sometimes as it did in Madrid, a bit longer but rarely does it last for more than two sets. This is why Roger is still quite successful at the grand slams but having a little difficulty in other tournaments where the matches go up to three sets. So what must the great Roger Federer do to overcome this? Well firstly, Roger has to realize that until this problem ‘leaves’, returning to being ‘vintage Federer’ is not really viable; he has to start playing within himself. He can continue to play aggressively but these miraculous shots that he has no doubt got accustomed to over the last five or so years have to be contained and used only rarely… its time that Roger starts to play not like ‘vintage Federer’ but more like ‘clever Federer’…… at least until the magic returns. In the end Roger is such a momentously brilliant player that ‘clever Federer’ is enough to win the grand slams and masters tournaments – there’s no need for magic anymore, he provided us with magic of the most unbelievable and unprecedented kind for over 4 years; victories will do!!! – especially one that will bring grand slam no. 14.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Gulbis vs Rafa… another whippersnapper on the rise.

The Prodigy:

In his first match in Madrid, Rafa showed that it takes much more than a good drop-shot to beat him. But lets face it, nobody realistically expected the Latvian to beat the Spanish bull; we all did however expect him to give Rafa a reasonably tough time and he didnt disappoint. He showed some of that spark that we saw a glimpse of against Roddick in New York when we all told ourselves wow, this guys going places. Along with Cilic, Gulbis is one of those prodigies that havent made top 10 quite yet and he really demonstrated why in Madrid yesterday. He played all his shots yesterday and returned serve exceedingly well. I couldnt even count how many times Rafa had to go backwards because the return went so deep. He went for the risky shots fearlessly and even though he wasnt always successful, he has to be applauded for trying to play his naturally aggressive game against someone like Rafa most players just head for cover against the Wimbeldon champ. Another surprise was the frequency of the Gulbis drop-shot.. he had Nadal running hard and Rafa could rarely get back on top after a good drop shot no matter how well he hustled.

Rafa's 'never give up' attitude:

However it has to be said, Gulbis is just a prodigy for a reason.. as good as the Latvian was, he wasn
t patient enough during some of the points; Rafa kept getting the ball back into play as he always does so relentlessly and Gulbis just panicked now and again and went for a shot that just wasnt on.. if he was a little bit more patient and focused, that first set may have ended differently. In the end, it was Rafas day and although the regularity of the pump fist clearly indicated that Rafa wasnt having the easiest time out there, he came out on top, simply because he does what he does every match he plays every point as if it was a match point. When were all young, theres always someone that tells us, dont give up, never give up”……. Rafa listened, and I think he hears it every point.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Madrid Predictions – Some Fortune Telling

Last years indoor season was a story that Nalbandian will be telling his kids over and over again. That Madrid final between him and Federer is one that Federer fans have long repressed in the deep crevices of their memory – even Freud would have difficulty getting Fed fans to bring the topic to the open and just admit that the great and mighty Roger Federer was out-played. This year, Nadal is the hot ticket – he’s playing in front of his home crown and he’s on the roll of a lifetime – in fact whenever he’s in trouble on a hard-court, he must think to himself, “I won Wimbledon, me, a player that loves punching the ball back into court over and over again from behind the baseline, surely I can win here too”. But then again there’s the 13 time grand slam champ out to get back the no.1 spot, a spot he went to bed with for 237 weeks – that’s not something you let go of easily. Ohh yes what about Novak and Andy, good times they’ve had this year – well one things for sure, mens tennis is an exciting place right now!!!


1st Quarter


Not many players here that seem capable of bothering Nadal too much but Gulbis might give him a run for his money. Gulbis played some amazing tennis against Roddick at the US Open but kind of fizzled out in the last half; he let the crowd help Roddick and he paid the price but I think it’s universally accepted that the first set and a half was pure brilliance. If he can play like that for three sets or maybe just two, Rafa might have to dig deep. Other than him, Rafa’s got Wawrinka and Ferrer. After watching Murray defeat Rafa convincingly in New York, I think we all have a better idea of what’s required to get Nadal on the ropes and I just think Wawrinka’s game is a little too one-dimensional to cause Rafa too much trouble. As for Ferrer, he just won’t be forceful enough point after point to beat the Wimbledon champ. Rafa’s also got Richard Gasquet; I think everyone loves to watch Gasquet when he’s on a roll but he just wont have the consistency throughout an entire match to hurt Rafa - in the end, considering how magical Rafa has been this year, he'll only be troubled by someone who is versatile and can maintain an incredibly high level of play for over two sets or more – in short one of the top 4

Semi-finalist – Nadal


2nd Quarter


The Novak of the Australian Open seems to have gotten lost somewhere between strength and fatigue and doesn’t know which way to go. Novak was certainly very disappointing at the US Open. I knew Roger would pull through but we all expected more from the Serb – in fact the only reason that match went to 4 sets is because Roger seemed to become error prone again in that second set. Novak’s got a few tough ones in his quarter including the tie-break kid himself Ivo Karlovic. He’s also got Davydenko, Blake and his Wimbledon conqueror Safin. In the end however, despite the quality of these players and so long as Novak stays away from a tie-breaker with Karlovic, Novak is just too sleek, speedy and precise to be disturbed by any of these players. His back-handed down the line will get him through even if he is tired but his tendency to get fatigued will cost him as he gets into the business end of the tournament. Let’s just hope for his sake that some New Yorkers haven’t followed him all the way to Madrid.      

Semi-finalist – Novak Djokovic


3rd Quarter


It has to be said, Murray made Rafa look average at the US Open; he had a game plan and he followed it. He played aggressively, he served superbly, he volleyed, he went down the line whenever he could, made Rafa scramble around the baseline and more importantly, he never let himself get pined down. He even served and volleyed on his second serve, such was his resolve and risk-taking – now that’s the kind of aggressive tennis that reveals some of the very few weknesses in Rafa’s game. I remember Rafa starting to serve and volley at one point in the match and you know Rafa knows that he’s being outplayed when he starts doing that. Andy’s got Monfils, Roddick and Gonzalez in his section; Monfils is a great counter-puncher but Andy’s better. Roddick and Gonzalez are both players that seem to have no plan B when they’re in trouble, they just seem to hit harder and as much I enjoy the spiritedness of Roddick, it’s probably not going to be good enough to bother someone as clever and versatile as Andy Murray. There is one player however that might discretely push through and that’s Marin Cilic. I think most tennis fans will remember that match between him and Novak in New York – offensive hard-hitting of the most swift kind from beginning to end. Now this guys going to be big, it’s only a matter of time before he beats one of the big guns and makes a name for himself – could Madrid become his new favourite city??

Semi-finalist – Andy Murray


4th Quarter


Roger’s got the toughest section of the draw. He’s got Nalbandian, Del Potro and Tsonga. If Nalbandian brings his 2007 indoor game, everyone’s in trouble and he did just win a title – a kind of announcement, “I can do it again”. Del Potro may not be the most elegant player, his shots seem aesthetically unattractive even when they’re breathtaking but he plays great non-stop heavy hitting from the baseline and as for Tsonga, lets hope for tennis’s sake that he plays like he did in that first set of the Australian Open final. Despite all this and all the fuss about Federer announcing this indefinite break, Roger just won a grand-slam and what else does a player have to do to be predicted as a semi-finalist???

Semi-finalist – Roger Federer


Semi-final 1 – This ones a tough one.... Rafa vs Novak. Last time these two met it was Beijing and it was heartbreaking for Novak to come so close and yet leave with the bronze. However, looking back before then, there was the masters semi-final in Cincy and Novak made Rafa look quite tired in that first set. He was hitting his shots flat and on the lines, Rafa had no chance – if he can do it again, and he has to do it again, he can beat Rafa. And then there’s the problem of the crowd, they are going to be watering at the mouth every time Rafa gets close to getting on top and Novak has to find a way to retain his composure. If Novak finds his so-called ‘boom boom’ game on this surface, he’ll be the one to come out on top.


Djokovic d. Nadal


Semi-final 2 – Murray did not play well against Roger at the US Open. This is not to say he would have won if he played at his best but he could have taken Roger to at least 4 sets considering his performance against Rafa in the Semi’s. If he finds his serve and doesn’t play miles behind the baseline, he has a good shot of beating Federer. But saying that, Roger is Roger and Andy might have a tough time keeping the ball in play if Roger steps into the court and plays as aggressively as he did in New York. Not to mention that chip and charge strategy in the third set, Andy just seemed bemused by it!!


Federer d. Murray


Finals – I’m not going to say too much on this.. I don’t want to do too much fortune telling. If Novak isn’t too tired and plays as good as he has to, to beat Rafa in the semi’s, he stands a great chance of winning the championship but ultimately, I feel that if Roger gets this far he’s not going to let the momentum fall. If Roger volleys as much he has been lately and doesn’t fall into these strange 5 to 10 game long stints of error prone play, he should take home the trophy.


Federer d. Djokovic