Their 45th meeting. Melbourne. Semifinals. The stage doesn’t get much bigger. Those of us in North America (who were crazy enough) stayed up late or crawled out of bed. Before we could barely get the coffee finished brewing or the tea finished steeping, the first set was over. Still scratching our eyes from what we had seen, and only half way through our coffee, the second set was over.
Federer did well to take out some of the pace in the rallies to give himself more time on the ball, changing the rhythm of the match, forcing some errors out of Djokovic and stealing away the third set. But after a long delay for roof closing, Djokovic got back on course, pushed the pressure back on to Federer, used some insane defence to hit some fantastic shots and was safely through to the final.
The first set really stands out, but at 3:40am, I was barely awake. Let’s go back and explore what the heck Djokovic was doing to dominate the first set in a speedy 22 minutes, 6-1. Read the rest of this entry »
The Bakery is your one stop shop for quick hitting match reports. Bagels and breadsticks may or may not be included.
Juan Jose and I talked about the crazy, bizarre yet fascinating Djokovic/Simon match at length on the latest podcast. Simon played the perfect match – junk balling, keeping things central, lengthening points and coming up with some crazy backhand winners. Djokovic’s inability to create pace and break down Simon looked troubling, nevermind the fact that he hit 100 unforced errors. Novak was clear that he wouldn’t be tired and had experience being pushed in long matches and being forced the very next day, nevermind two days later.
Nishikori would be a very different proposition. Kei would hit with pace, hit with angles, open up the court and bring the madness. From the get go, Djokovic looked back in his comfort zone. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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.
Novak Djokovic wasn’t always this good. Much has been made about his switch to his gluten-free diet, which in return has seemingly helped all physical parts of his game; endurance, breathing, agility and power. In turn it has boosted his confidence and concentration as well as his self belief, turning him into a super being in 2011 and finding continued success in 2012.
While all of these things are true, they have also helped boost his shot making. His backhand has turned into the best in the game. In turn, this has set up certain patterns of play that Djokovic likes to use to get ahead in points. Here is a short breakdown of a strategy that Djokovic consistently uses against Federer. It was on full display in their match at the London World Tour Finals.
It is no secret that Federer’s backhand side is a vulnerable wing. Djokovic targeted this wing heavily, and has in many other matches in the past. However, simply hitting to Federer’s backhand is not enoug to defeat him, and the following style and pattern of play is how Djokovic often takes advantage of Federer and other opponents’ backhands.
As seen, let’s first assume that Djokovic and Federer are caught in a cross court, backhand to backhand rally. This might not necessarily be from the beginning of the rally (though it often was with Djokovic serving), but at any point. Djokovic’s cross court backhand may be his best shot, he makes few errors off of it and consistently hits it deep, pinning his opponent into the corner of the court.
If Djokovic hits a decently well placed cross court backhand, Federer essentially has one of three options. He can a) run around the forehand and try to hit it down the line b) hit a cross court backhand (or forehand) back to Djokovic,, or c) hit a backhand down the line.
Choice a) is a rarity, as Djokovic tends to do well to pin the ball into the corner, and doesn’t serve the purpose of this exercise, so we’ll forget about that for now. If Fed hits a backhand cross court to Djokovic, presumably the first image will continue on. In this match, and in many matches against Federer, Djokovic is incredibly patient. He simply rips the ball back at Federer’s backhand, hoping it will break down and force an error, or a weak response.
However, at the same time, Djokovic is simply daring Federer to hit his backhand down the line, or into a more central area. Fed’s backhand isn’t quite what it used to be, and he’s not exactly closing the shoulder and ripping Wawrinka or Haasesque backhand winners down the line with tons of pace. Regardless, Federer often realized that he was trapped on the backhand wing in a style of rally seen above, and instead of hitting it to Djokovic’s backhand repeatedly, knew he was going to have to try to hit it down the line and make something happen in the stalemate (as seen below).
Novak Djokovic not only turned the tennis world on its head last year as he won three of four majors, he turned the seedings we’ve become so accustomed to upside down. Regardless, it was the same old as Federer continued to draw Djokovic and Nadal drew Murray. Nadal/Federer could be a possible semifinal, however being the second and third seeds, and it was exactly that for the first time in ages.
It’s been said so many times in tennis circles it’s become a cliche. The left handed, physical, unconventional, clay master Spaniard. The right handed, smooth, elegant, gentleman of Wimbledon Swiss. We’ve heard it all. Hell, books have been written on it. Yet, late in the first set, I believe we all realized once again how palpable those differences are, and indeed how special this rivalry continues to be.
It is the type of extreme difference nigh on impossible to achieve let alone see in team sports. It’s also such an extreme difference rarely accompanied by such greatness and regularity in tennis.
It may have been the perfect stage. With Djokovic now a slight step above all, Nadal and Federer were allowed to fight among themselves and show off just how relevant not just their rivalry is, but how relevant and close they remain.
In reality, this match was an audition. A reminder of perhaps the greatest rivalry tennis has ever seen. Yet it was not the final, it was a semifinal. The old rivalry versus the new. And so it was fitting that once again Rafa was dragged around court by the master, but outlasted him and eventually outplayed him quite handily.
Due to Federer and Nadal’s large chasm in styles and approaches, their matches turn into wildly entertaining cat-and-mouse affairs that are largely based around trying to hit the ball to the other’s backhand. Once that happens, one uses lazer like precision, the other relentless physicality, to push the opposing player around the court and win the point. This is all wonderful for Nadal, and has been for years. Nadal’s wildly unconvential matches up perfectly against Federer’s convential, albeit effortless and precise, style.
But what if Nadal were to meet his match? A player who’s game matches up in the exact perfect way to tear down the war machine that is Rafa. You know where I’m going with this. Of course, Rafa has lost many matches over the past several years. But when pre-2011-Nadal was healthy and played his best, he simply did not lose.
It has to be noted, that Nadal met his match, a player playing at the top of his ability, and a player with the exact type of game to tear the Spaniard’s down. And it was’t Novak Djokovic.
Fernando Verdasco pushed Nadal to the absolute limit in 2009 and foreshadowed the type of play that could defeat Nadal. Verdasco and Djokovic aren’t the same player, but there are similarities. First off, Verdasco is left handed, Djokovic is right handed. However, Verdasco’s forehand is incredibly flat, (on that day) reliable, and able to expose Nadal’s backhand by firing cross court from any spot on the court. This is all true of Djokovic’s backhand. Much like Verdasco’s forehand and left-handededness “cancelled out” Rafa’s largest weapon, his forehand, it also dismantled his reliable approach to point construction. Nadal is finding the exact same difficulties in this area due to Novak’s backhand.
Breaking It Down and Breaking Down
The Australian Open final will be remembered for what is now the longest major final ever played. This largely implies that the match was incredibly close to have dragged on for so long (after the epic Isner-Mahut, it is difficult not to jump to this conclusion). In reality it should be remembered for not being close at all.
After winning the first set 7-5, Djokovic dominated what was a series of pretty junky tennis, winning the next two sets 6-4 and 6-2. In reality, he should have wrapped it up in four. It is almost as if these two are resigned to the fact that they’re in it for the long haul, and it is going to be gruelling, regardless of the scoreline.
Now would be the time to throw in the old cliched tennis to boxing analogy. Sure, it is a nice one. Both are individual sports, both involve breaks between periods of action, and it makes tennis look pretty damn good. The difference is, despite being punched in the head repeatedly, boxing matches don’t take six hours. If Nadal/Federer is a fencing match, Nadal/Djokovic is a Medieval bloodbath with battle axes. If Nadal/Federer is judo, Nadal/Djokovic is the UFC.
The two of them pushed the level of physicality in the US Open final to a point rarely seen. Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Both players move so well and play such good defense, they rely purely on instinct at the end of long points (and eventually, long matches). In the end, this is what makes the difference. Djokovic’s muscle memory, right now, is at an insane level. The smoothness and accuracy he was finding off both wings late in the match was incredible. The footwork wasn’t there, but he was still able to just his upper body strength to move the ball and keep the backhand flat.
For Nadal, it is not quite the same. The most obvious point is his missed backhand passing shot at 4-2, 30-15. Despite Nadal’s efforts to work on his backhand, and it has improved mightily over the past couple of years, old habits die hard. The power goes, and so does some of the accuracy and craftmanship. It becomes a “get me over the net” shot. Maybe it’s because Nadal is a natural right hander, but plays lefty? I’m not sure.
This makes life incredibly difficult for Nadal. Dictating points from the forehand is not as easy, as it is cancelled out by Djokovic’s backhand. To make matters worse, Nadal’s own backhand tends to fail him in long matches whereas the fitness and muscle memory of Djokovic’s largest weapon continues to tick and give him a slight upper hand.
Losing the Battle, Winning the War
Nadal and Federer’s rivalry has long been talked about, analyzed, and cliche’d into oblivion. It’s one of the greatest rivalries sport has ever seen. But what a treat to have, with an outgoing Federer, a new rivalry for the ages. The reasons for one man’s success and the other man’s failure are only now beginning to simmer in the minds of hardcore tennis fans. This rivalry is another that has never been seen before, dares to push the sport to the edges of physicality, athleticism, and endurance, and should be celebrated as such. As tennis fans, we should line up our water bottles, tug at our shorts, look to the heavens, tear off our shirts and jump in.
Over the years, the schedule for the ATP has been revised to try and save the health of the top players and prevent injuries, including finishing off the year earlier this year to create a longer off-season.
The schedule did not anticipate a single player going eight months without losing, however.
It’s been difficult to look for the relevancy of other players this year when week after week only one man remains on the top of the podium in the biggest events. In what feels like a struggle of man vs. tour as the defeated look to find a way to overcome the unbeatable, both have collapsed under the weight of themselves.
Djokovic looked tired at the end of last week, make no doubts about it. But when you’re striking the ball so well and so cleanly, and moving nearly as well, it doesn’t much matter. Boat loads of confidence in your ability doesn’t hurt either. For me, this week was all about the collapse. Playing day after day in Montreal and then traveling to Cincinnati to try and do it all over again was simply not going to happen.
First it looked like Monfils would do it. Down a set, Djokovic was having trouble on the return and his footwork look like he had a pair of iron shoes on in comparison to the energy he’s given off in previous tournaments. Instead, Monfils once again imploded under the pressure, frustration, and passivity of his own goofball patterns of play. Next? Berdych, the big serving Czech who saw a resurgence in Montreal last week. Up 5-3 in the first set, he mentally and physically checked out as his shoulder betrayed him and he was forced to retire after losing the first 7-5 due to a bum shoulder.
Then came the final, where Djokovic, propped up only due to the failures of his previous opponents, was forced to take on a relatively fresh Murray.
Murray’s path to the final looks nearly comically similar. A recently returned Nalbandian (who I believe has now had more hip surgeries than all four of my grandparents combined), American journeyman Alex Bogomolov who defeated a worn down Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who was injured trying to defeat, you guessed it, Djokovic the week before. Beyond that, a not so healthy Gilles Simon, an equally mentally and physically exhausted Mardy Fish who was ground to a dust by Djokovic in the Montreal final, and who defeated a brain damaged Rafael Nadal (mostly thanks to Djokovic) in the Cincinnati quarterfinals.
The moral of this story? Djokovic’s presence is being felt in more places than just those who he defeats round after round. Injuries aren’t helping anyone either, and while you can’t say that Djokovic’s dominance has pushed other guys to their physical limit, it sure feels that way.
If Djokovic dominance, injuries, crazy weather and other surprises continue a week from now, it is going to be one crazy ride in Flushing Meadows.
Djokovic’s Tournament So Far: Defeated Tomic, Llodra, Baghdatis, Anderson, Chardy.
What Djokovic Needs To Do: It’s been a bumpy ride through Wimbledon for Novak. Struggling with Baghs and Tomic after a couple of sets has tested Novak and forced him to raise his game despite some frustration. What is really going on here, no one can know. Is he physically tired? Mentally tired? Over confident after winning two sets? Tough to know. Regardless, Nole is going to be in tough against and is going to have to play his best tennis of the tournament.
I think the real key for Nole is just his head, but in terms of play, definitely his return and his backhand. Jo was able to exploit Fed’s backhand, both in rallies and on the return, and his cross court forehand was just deadly. Nole’s backhand is a lot better than Fed’s, and he’s also a better returner, which he will need with Jo’s serve being brutal this tournament.
Tsonga’s Tournament So Far: Defeated Federer, Ferrer, F. Gonzalez, Dimitrov, Soeda.
What Tsonga Needs To Do: Keep doing what you were doing! Jo’s level of play in the last 3 sets against Fed was absurd. The serve was crushing, he was looking to move in, looking to be aggressive, and then crushing the crap out of the forehand to boot.
One of the biggest problems I tend to have with Jo is his how he becomes so passive. Jo moves incredible well front to back, but not as well side to side. He also has a solid forehand in terms of power and his placement with it, but often chooses to just get the ball back with it a bit too much. When he beat Fed, he went for nearly every forehand, and because of that, was staying on the aggressive. It was insane. Jo absolutely needs to do that against Novak. He has the ability to dictate play, and he needs to be looking to do that every point. Novak is too solid not too.
If Jo can play like he did against Fed, he’ll win this tournament. I like him to win in 4 sets.
For those who missed it, I asked on Twitter for people to send in their thoughts on who would win both semifinals, and how many sets it would take. Here’s the results. Whoever correctly picked both winners and respective total set count will get a follow Friday! Here’s the results from this match.
Novak in 5: 6 total: @tenniswatch, @GVTennisNews, @ruthlesscourt, @EllieFM, @Daszmarreli, @emmaphickey Novak in 4: 7 total: @DancingPanda1, @omes_tennis, @RacquetRequired, @mitchjos, @DiscoDebMKE, @Sheilokavieira, @anna_tennisfan Novak in 3: 2 total: @marpal38, @r0si
Jo in 5: 5 total: @jeannab64, @delpotweeties, @BraveThinkSol, @AdjustingTheNet, @clairetennisfan Jo in 4: 10 total: @nidssserz, @ljkingy, @omygravy, @jonscott9, @ember_42, @sharapovanovic, @Ms_Art_House, @elliejackson1, @zbrain, @MindTheRacket Jo in 3: 3 total: @stephinNZ, @rosso_neri, @Daily_Scores
Weapons: Forgot how to lose, upped the strength of his ground strokes, dealing with low bounces incredibly well Weaknesses: Not as powerful as other top guys
Amongst the madness of another Rafa RG and Fedal final, people seemed to have completely forgotten about Nole in the mean time. He’s only lost once all year and has looked nearly flawless in every part of his game. However, grass has never been his best surface, and he’ll face a real test here. Luckily, his return and his ability to handle lower balls and bounces when coming towards the net has been exceptional. I’d look for this to be the best Wimbledon Nole has ever had.
Weather, resilient opponents, court changes, continent changes, the kitchen sink… it really doesn’t matter what you throw at Novak Djokovic right now. He extended his winning streak to 8 gazillion and is looking as confident as ever. (OK, 29 straight wins this season, equaling Lendl’s record for consecutive wins to start a year.)
A lot of love must be sent Daveed’s way, who despite going down a set and a break, fought back to reclaim the break and then broke at the end of the set to force a third. He looked as aggressive as I’ve seen him in a while. Not content to play defensively, he was clearly looking to get in as many forehands as possible and go down the line when available. He was getting balls deep and was changing directions effectively. Unfortunately for him, Nole turned up the heat in the third, stretched Ferru wide and the errors started to creep into his defense.
It was impressive to see Nole fighting off his inner demons in the third after some close calls and tough games. You could almost feel the glue melting and the pieces separating, but Nole kept his snarl and shook them off (literally). Before you knew it, the match was over and the streak was very much alive.
Nole takes on Bellucci in the semis, who deserves a serious shoutout. The kid has real talent on clay, and if he can keep his confidence up and head straight, he’s likely going to be a serious force on clay for years to come, especially as many of the Spaniards age.