Archive for January, 2013

29 Jan 2013

Sorana Cirstea AO 2

1. Business as Usual at the Top

I noted last year that while it felt like a bit of an odd season for the ATP, it was really incredibly predictable. Each of the top 4 men won the major title that they typically do well at. While Murray’s defeat of Federer is a significant note towards Federer’s incredibly slow but inevitable decline, it was really business as usual. Without Nadal in the top 4, the void was filled by Ferrer, without a doubt the most consistent guy out of the big 4, and the door was essentially slammed in his face by Djokovic. This top 4 thing doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to it’s finish.

2. Azarenka Enters Eliteness

Arguments about the drama aside, both the mental strength and physical strength shown by Azarenka to come through and defend her title really was “the stuff of champions”. When Azarenka’s name used to be mentioned, it was game first and mental strength second. Her collapses against Serena in Australia were the stuff of nightmarish legends. Suddenly, the fact that she’s still number 1 and finding ways to win difficult matches is the story. Very few people are talking about the fact that Azarenka is playing some incredibly top tennis at the moment and smoking the ball with little remorse. Embrace her in the discussion amongst the top, everyone. Vika and her grunt aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

3. Ball Don’t Lie: Jo and Rasheed Works

I’ll fully admit that I am a massive Jo fan. He’s one of those “five tool” guys who can literally do anything on a tennis court. Yet, his overall tactics, and at times, attitude or mental strength tend to fail him depending on the situation. His controlled aggression and ability to get down and find another boost of energy against Federer was refreshing. Jo was fighting and finding new ways to win points. There was a self belief there. Commentators noted that Tsonga said he enjoys working with his new coach because of the language barrier, and he really has to stop and think about what Rasheed is saying. Jo definitely seems like one of those guys who can act a lot without thinking (at times his aggression is insane, other times he looks like he just learned how to play tennis a week ago), and obviously there are a few key things that he is really taking to heart. A balanced Jo is a winning Jo, and I hope we get to see more of that in the clay season.

4. Li Na Here To Stay

I refused to buy into a lot of the Li Na hype being thrown around the past couple of years, mostly because I’ve been largely unimpressed by her game, and her age worried me. It’s becoming very clear that neither of these things are much of an issue, suddenly. Nails missed a lot of time earlier in her career, and the regular wear and tear hasn’t taken it’s toll to the same level as a regular 30-something tennis player. Li Na’s movement has always been her biggest issue, leading to her game to be incredibly erratic at times. It appears to have really improved under Carlos, particularly on the backhand wing which has almost instantly gone from, at times, a liability, to a super weapon. She’s making small adjustments on tough balls to play some defense instead of the one way train of “crush everything possible”. It’s another dimension that her game desperately needed, and will serve her well on the clay of Paris.

5. Andy Murray Still Not Over Final Funk

Listen. Tennis is great for narratives. Murray’s win in the gold medal final was fantastic, and he won the US Open title. But it shouldn’t be ignored that Djokovic played terribly in the first two sets of that final, turned it on, won two sets, and then basically collapsed. Murray failed to break Djokovic a single time in the Australian Open final. If Djokovic, Federer or Nadal played in a slam final, four sets, nearly four hours, and failed to break their opponent there would be serious questions being ask. Djokovic is receiving praise for this win, as he should, but Murray was incredibly impressive, and still lacks an ability to create in sticky situations.

6. Sloane Stephens is Legit

I always had a feeling Sloane Stephens was going to break through before Robson, Watson or McHale. Raw power goes incredibly far in the WTA, and players who can use that power to both 1) hit it inside the lines with some sort of consistency and 2) make decent decisions with it are going to win considerable amounts of matches. Along with the other three, Stephens has a great head on her shoulders, isn’t getting ahead of herself, and seems to be comfortable with the media. She turns 20 in March. Suddenly, she is no longer a “player to watch”. She is a legitimate player who could be knocking on the door of the top 10 before you know it. I think she’s that good.

7. Grigor Dimitrov Needs Some Work

Lordy. Remember when we were all GRIGOR DIMITROV HAS ARRIVED!…? I bit my tongue. The way Dimitrov hits the ball is eerily similar to Federer, and it’s nice to look at. Yes, his face is nice to look at too. But Dimitrov still lacks something essential, and that’s depth. It seems to be getting better, but some good wins in Brisbane does not make a top 10 player. One handed backhands are pretty things, but they need to be effective. Dimitrov’s backhand still hovers around in the Gasquet school of loopy yet ineffective backhands. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of positive signs in Brisbane, and I think he could be poised for a good year, but let’s not all claim him as the next big thing quite yet.

8. Delpo Where Art Thou?

Similar to my Jo love, my Delpo love is well documented. He had a great season last year to get back into the top 10 and really get fully healthy. Now is the time to go for it. He’s been pretty notoriously crap at the Australian Open and this year is along the same disappointing lines. It’s not easy, but an opportunity to challenge the top 4 is definitely there. Delpo is incredibly underrated on clay, and it would be lovely to see him crush some balls and get back into the groove before the hard court swing starts.

9. Azarenka’s Media Skills Come Back To Hurt Her

If you’re reading this, you know what happened with Azarenka and Stephens. Azarenka took a medical timeout which may or may not have been legitimate at a questionable time. Stephens’ coach called it “cheating within the rules”. Afterwards, Azarenka was hammered. Regardless of what you make of it, there is something much deeper to this whole situation.

Some have claimed that Azarenka has been “interrogated” and mistreated by the press. This may be true. It needs to be said, however, that Azarenka has done herself zero favours. I’ve been in those rooms, and I hear things. It’s simple human nature. It’s hard not to love a player like Petkovic, who comes in, gives good answers, and understands that the people in the room are there to do a job, and a job that is ultimately good for the sport that she plays. She once asked at the end of a press conference that I was in “are you guys good?”

Azarenka is largely uninterested in press. She often defers to her support group and is cold and mistrusting of the media. The media is not always the most lovable of group, but they will definitely warm to those willing to help them out. The fact that Azarenka may have been so affected by the media and others calling her out for medical timeout should teach her a harsh lesson about the power of the media and of fans.

10. Tennis Fans and Their Drama

Perhaps this isn’t something learned, but the amount of off court drama that came with this year’s first major was at times staggering. The Azarenka story above, the courts being too slow, players slipping and sliding, Tsonga’s comments… and now, finally, as more information comes out about doping in cycling and baseball, the spotlight somehow turns to tennis. Tennis has come a long way in a short time, along with other sports. The major difference of tennis to other sports is the technology. The rackets players use today have next to nothing in common with the wooden rackets of days gone by. Yet baseball players still use wood, football players still use their feet… Suddenly, the word “superhuman” has come to imply “unnatural”, as if there is no way top tennis players could have come this far so quickly without performance enhancing. A quick look on the changes of tennis’ racket technology, surfaces, and sports science and nutrition on a whole will see that this curve is entirely expected in a sport relatively young in its professional growth. So please, before you start throwing around steroid allegations, particularly those not as familiar with tennis, stop and think for a moment.

Deconstructing Djokovic

Posted by Brodie under: Australian Open, Nole

28 Jan 2013

Djokovic Australian Open 1

Sunday’s final was a weird one.

A day’s perspective has done little to change my mind on things. That match, along with the 2012 US Open final, was neither of the drama nor the quality of men’s major finals clocking in well past the three hour mark. Yet, it was the manner in which Djokovic managed to win that is most interesting.

Djokovic has firmly cemented his position as the man to beat once again. While he “only” won one of the four major titles last year, he was the number 1 for the entire year, and finished in that position. Slowly but surely, Djokovic is moving into a domination of Australia approaching that of Nadal’s at Roland Garros or Federer at Wimbledon.

While it doesn’t feel like it, Djokovic now has four Australian Open titles, three of them coming in a row; becoming the first player in the open era to achieve that feat. The number isn’t the same, but the level of dominance is.

Djokovic’s defeat of Wawrinka was tennis drama at its highest. Djokovic refused to back down in his aggression, and Wawrinka held pace deep into an extended fifth set. Yet, somehow, there was always that feeling that Djokovic would pull it off. Surely, he would hang tough. Not just mentally, but tactically, he would continue to play his style, ripping backhands crosscourt, and go for it.

It was Federer-esque on many levels. Federer has often been accused of not being the greatest “match player”. In other words, he doesn’t always play the bigger points better, or perhaps that he doesn’t adjust his game according to the circumstances or the opponent. The truth is, he rarely needs to. The same can now be said of Djokovic, particularly on this blue surface. Djokovic’s win reminded me of a long forgotten first round win of Federer’s against Igor Andreev at the Australian Open. Andreev was punishing Federer on the backhand wing and pinning him into the corner. Fed was often left with little answer but to scoop it crosscourt. Try as he could, despite running around plenty of forehands and generally destroying the poor ball, Andreev could not get an early, significant blow. Calmly, Federer stuck to his guns and rode it out. You knew he would win.

While Djokovic’s win over Wawrinka showed off his willingness to continue to be aggressive, his game plan against Murray was much more defensive and tentative. Criticize the entertainment value of it, the plan worked. Djokovic was equally as tentative in the US Open final, but the difference in that match was that he was missing. On Sunday, with the exception of the first set tiebreak, Djokovic was not missing, and was never broken. Djokovic knew he needed to keep the court wide open against Stan, and he knew he needed the opposite against Murray; playing an aggressive, side to side style would break him open to Murray’s counter punching. Murray’s inability to create in tight points caused him to collapse under the weight of himself when it mattered most.

Perhaps it’s the confidence instilled from saving match points against Federer at the US Open, where he said after the match that he simply closed his eyes and ripped it, and if it fell in, it fell in. This has become a larger metaphor for Djokovic’s game on the hard courts of Australia. He’s sticking to the plan, and when closes his eyes and rips it, it falls in. 21 matches in a row, and counting.

23 Jan 2013

It is that time of year again! Last year I believe I missed the final semifinal predictor game, but I plan on hitting all four this year.

For those who don’t know it, it’s pretty simple. Comment below or tweet me at @MindTheRacket your winners of BOTH men’s semifinals including the NUMBER OF SETS it will take to win BOTH matches. Eg. Djokovic in 4 and Murray in 4. or Ferrer in 5 and Federer in 3, etc. I’ll record all of the picks here, and we’ll have a/some winner(s) at the end of the second semifinal.

Got it? Go!

Ferrer in 5, Murray in 4: @nidssserz

Djokovic in 3, Federer in 3: @imthi78
Djokovic in 3, Federer in 4: @babblingbrat, @everythingtaboo, @ITakeTheeTennis, @ParkUpdates
Djokovic in 3, Federer in 5: @Danielle_TW_Dee, @anna_tennisfan

Djokovic in 4, Federer in 3:
Djokovic in 4, Federer in 4: @MichalGradziel, @TheSixthSet
Djokovic in 4, Federer in 5: @naterzzz, @MattF15

Djokovic in 5, Federer in 3:
Djokovic in 5, Federer in 4: @akexova41
Djokovic in 5, Federer in 5:

Djokovic in 3, Murray in 3:
Djokovic in 3, Murray in 4: @AaronH02056, @thetonyjones, @rosso_neri
Djokovic in 3, Murray in 5: @KojakJr, @Curtos07

Djokovic in 4, Murray in 3:
Djokovic in 4, Murray in 4: @ZezeAM
Djokovic in 4, Murray in 5: @MindTheRacket, @mzemek, @walterPalena, @Jvandem

Djokovic in 5, Murray in 3:
Djokovic in 5, Murray in 4: @Hog_Tennis
Djokovic in 5, Murray in 5: @_supertiebreak

20 Jan 2013

Stan Wawrinka Australian Open 1

When coming against a stronger opponent, there are usually two immediate reactions one might take. The first, is not a reaction at all. “The only way I can win is if I execute what I do at a top level”. This is a fool’s plan, and only works if the opponent defeats themself.

The second is to take the “nothing to lose” attitude and go for broke. Dodig and Rosol versus Nadal, Tsonga’s 2 sets down comeback against Federer all come to mind. These players threw their hands in the air, said “screw it”, and decided to punish the ball as if it had killed their families.

While the second plan is great in theory, it is difficult to sustain that kind of power. Not to mention while there can be high reward, there is also high risk.

What was truly remarkable about Stan Wawrinka’s near defeat of Novak Djokovic was his ability combine the two attitude mentioned above.

To start, Stan took part of the things he does well. Stan’s backhand is always very good, it is just rarely talked about because he is not a player that people watch a ton of, nor is he known as a particularly flashy player. The technical ability needed to rip one handed backhands, particularly those down the line, is immense. It could be argued that no one in the world could hit flat, devastating down the line one handed backhands like Stan could last night. Not Federer, not Gasquet, not Almagro. Even more incredible was his ability to adjust on the fly with the shot. I remember one specific point where he hit a loopy, short, cross court backhand (similar to a Gasquet style) that dragged Djokovic out of position due to its extreme angle. This set him up for a signature flat backhand down the line that could not have been any more opposite of the previous shot.

On the surface, Stan may have looked like the second type of player: a player going for broke. This is not exactly true, however. Counterpunching isn’t a word often used with the men’s game, but many points were examples of excellent counterpunching, similar in the way Andy Murray can play. Stan was not playing like a Rosol or a zoning Tsonga; he often let Djokovic make the first move and open up the court. This meant Stan was dragged out of position. At the same time, this can open up an angle, and bring about many of the side to side rallies that we saw, and Djokovic typically accels at.

The problem for Djokovic was that moving Stan side to side often failed. His backhand would not break down, and would be even more punishing to Djokovic as he himself was on the run. Stan was patient and realized when opportunities arose. In points where he clearly got on top, he recognized Djokovic’s interest in keeping things side to side, and played many excellent balls behind Djokovic, particularly to the forehand wing. These shots often looked like the wrong shot, with acres of space to Stan’s right. But they kept Djokovic honest, and also made it difficult for him to adjust back, much preferring to run to a backhand. Even though Novak could get these back to the centre of the court, Stan recognized the situation brilliantly and often punished him with a ripping backhand, even from the centre of the court.

For many, this was their first experience with a top level Stan Wawrinka. The truth is Stan has been a top 20 fixture for many years, and is a great tennis player. This was clearly one of the best matches he has ever played, and his ability to cope with Djokovic’s interest in pushing him side to side was magnificent. His decision making and patience up against a tougher opponent was perhaps the most important and impressive thing, outside of his pure desire to compete.

Well done, Stan. Enjoy those new fans.

15 Jan 2013

Serena Williams Australian Open 1

I wasn’t always this way.

I always loved tennis as a kid. The slow drain of August was often fought off with mid-day matches (and a heartbreakingly pathetic Anna Kournikova crush); sick days tolerated with cinnamon toast and Mary Pierce’s madness. I was 10 years old when I saw Marat Safin crush Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open final, and not even years of university drinking could kill off the brain cells holding some of the detailed memories of that match.

In high school, it became increasingly difficult to keep up with the sport, and I fell out with it. However, upon rediscovering it, I got obsessed. Not only did I forget how much fun the sport was, I got fully immersed in the personalities through the now immortal Forty Deuce blog, and eventually Twitter.

It was a combination of hanging out with an old friend with whom you forgot you had so much in common with, and a 17 year old who has recently discovered booze, and is drunkenly raging around a party with two large bottles of booze in hand. I was addicted.

The Australian Open was the perfect cocktail. A 7pm start time in North America meant I was well awake when play started, and I could cackle over having three streams open at once like some sort of self destructive mad scientist. If I could have seen every court at once, I would have.

The opening days of the Australian Open continue to be a mad tennis binge. How are the top seeds looking? How are my players doing? Where are  upsets brewing? Which matches are up next? What day is it? When was the last time I showered? Eventually we all collapse in a wide eyed mess that leave our friends wondering whether or not they should send us to a large padded room.

This mad rush to watch a zillion matches at once is always the temptation for the first six or so days of any major tournament. There is nothing wrong with this, and many of us still consume tennis in this insane way. It doesn’t always have to be this way, and there may be another way to maximize the nurturing of your tennis love through a much more sane, relaxing way. Consider this:

At the very least, tennis is a relaxing sport to watch. Last year I wrote about a seemingly ignorable Harrison/Lu match at Wimbledon. The tactical battle between the two was not only reteaching me about the way I think of grass as a surface, it was highly enjoyable (and obvious). Beyond that, it was competitive and all around just a fantastic, intriguing match.

These matches can often be written off at first glance. Neither of those players (or players of their like) are going to trouble top names, and neither are going to go incredibly far barring some miracle performance. The temptation is to watch a couple of bigger names duke it out, and see how the top names are getting on.

Every once and a while, find one of these matches. Turn off the other matches. Make yourself a good cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy. And think. Watching matches between players ranked around the 50 somethings is like turning off Twitter and reading a good book. (While I’m at it, turn off Twitter, too.) It’s not as fast, it’s not as immediate, and it’s not as knowledge quenching. But beyond teaching you about those two players, it will teach you something about the game, and your own knowledge of the game.

These kinds of players often have very inherit weaknesses. They don’t serve for power, they don’t move incredibly well, they struggle hitting backhands down the line – anything. And that’s what makes these matches so fascinating. The tactical battles, even if not always intentional, are incredibly obvious. Players must continually attempt to cover up their weaknesses, and hopefully exploit their opponents weaknesses.

Furthermore, these matches really mean something to these players. Ranking points and money are massive for lower players at the biggest tournaments, and playing in these winnable matches can often be the highlights of their year. Just because the winner might get crushed by a top 4 seed in the next round does not make it any less important. It’s winning for winning’s sake.

So next time you find yourself staring at your four feeds, tweeting and 90 words per second and accidentally drooling over your live scores, close them up and enjoy an outer court, good old fashioned tennis match.

11 Jan 2013

Andy Murray 2013

More and more, team sports are having the Grand Narrative stripped away but advanced statistics, critical thinking, and maybe a bit of common sense. Words like momentum seem trivial and silly in the face of statistics, and wins typically come down to the better team winning, and maybe just pure luck.

Tennis will forever be a place of great stories. To deny the idea of confidence in a team of 12-50 individuals is sensible, to deny the idea of confidence in an individual is impossible.

Last year, after winning the gold medal in London on the hallowed ground of Wimbledon, Andy Murray sat before a Toronto press room after a whirlwind of attention back home. While he insisted nothing had really changed, there was a calm, exhausted relief to his demeanour. It wasn’t a grand slam title, but it was a major break through, even more so as a representitive of the United Kingdom in an international competition.

That he went on to win the US Open will go down in tennis lore. Rebounding from a crushing defeat in the Wimbledon final, Murray battled his demons to win the gold medal on the very same court, and harnessed the momentum to a US Open title. It all fits nicely into a shiny box, and why shouldn’t it?

With that said, 2013 is a new year for Andy Murray. Writers and commentators will continue the story with ease, and may make Murray the favourite to win the title in Melbourne.

These assumptions would go against all of what we have learned about Andy Murray, and the years of evidence that exist outside of a stretch of success that brought him to his first grand slam title. Murray is still a player prone to mental lapses and bouts of frustration. He can at times play down to an opponents level. He can crack under the pressure of big moments (he nearly did in the US Open final before Djokovic collapsed under the weight of himself).

While 2012 was the biggest year of his career so far, when all is said and done, 2013 may end up being the most important year for him. Right now Murray is a great player, but must make his stamp on history through major titles won, not weeks in the top 4 of the rankings. While he will remain a long shot for Roland Garros, he has a legitimate chance at the other three major titles. It is not ridiculous to say that it would be a disappointing year for him if he did not win at least one of these.

Sweeping generalizations of a “new era” of men’s tennis are a bit much, but we have most definitely come to a time where Murray can swoop in and begin to pluck at some of the major titles he has most desperately (and patiently) waited for. First stop: Melbourne. Show us what you’re made of, Andy.

Mind The Racket Podcast:

Episode 7 – US Open Week 2 Wrap-Up