Tag Archives: Novak Djokovic

Ending Tale of Roland Garros 2014

Clay Court Sweep
Roland Garros ended with two usual characters holding the winning trophies. Ironically, it will remain as one of the most upset-filled Slams in recent memory. Through all the upsets and the unexpected twists, the men’s number one and two seeds kept coming to a collision that all tennis fans expected since the beginning of the tournament. On the women’s side, once the top 3 seeds, Williams, Li Na, and Agnieska Radwanska, lost in the early days of the tournament, Sharapova and Halep were the two names that they predicted for the finals before any other name.

No need to go into details of each match, since most tennis fans have either watched them or read about them. It is worth noting however that for the first time in many years of worth of Slams (and yes, it’s “Slams” and not “Grand Slams”, a whole write-up needed for that mistake that keeps getting repeated over and over), the final weekend of the women’s draw witnessed as much excitement as the men’s, contained more dramatic matches with extremely tight finishes. The semifinals on Thursday – Sharapova vs. Eugenie Bouchard and Halep vs. Andrea Petkovic – undoubtedly provided more thrills for the spectators than the dull Friday of the men’s semifinals in which both matches remained sub-par in quality, and above-par in disappointment in terms expectations. Ernests Gulbis and Novak Djokovic played mediocre tennis for the most part, piling up the unforced errors. Djokovic’s physical condition deteriorated as the match went on and Gulbis could not raise his level of play to take advantage of it. The second match between Nadal and Andy Murray went from start to finish at maximum warp speed as Nadal totally outclassed Murray for a one-man-show that lasted 1 hour and 38 minutes.

On Saturday, Sharapova and Halep brought their “A” games to Philippe Chatrier and provided the crowd, as well as the millions in front of their TV screens, with a spectacle to be remembered for a long time to come. It made me think back to the last three-set-final at Roland Garros, some 13 years before Saturday, when Jennifer Capriati confirmed her comeback year that started at the Australian Open with a thrilling victory, 1/6 6/4 12/10, over the young newcomer Kim Clijsters of Belgium. It was a high flying period for the WTA with the Williams sisters in the beginning of their dominance, with Capriati and Martina Hingis challenging them, the Belgian duo Clijsters and Justine Henin joining the race and Sharapova getting in the mix in the mid-2000s. That match on Chatrier between Capriati and Clijsters was the stamp on the envelope that contained the sealed confirmation that WTA was a highly popular product among tennis fans. Around late 2000s, the product got old and stale, with many of the stars who built it, retiring or losing their skills. Yet, the new crop of players never managed to take over the few remaining names that kept dominating most tournaments. Saturday’s final match was not only a thrill in terms of quality of tennis played but also the stamp that the WTA desperately needed to confirm that it is on its way back. Sharapova may have lifted the winner’s trophy but the fresh crop of players such as Halep, Bouchard, Garbine Muguruza, Ajla Tomljanovic, Sloane Stephens, Caroline Garcia, and few others are not going anywhere, and will stay around for a long time. WTA has a golden opportunity to capitalize on a new, radiant group of players, and it could not have asked for a better Slam final match to launch their product.

The men’s final lacked nothing with regards to hype. The two best players in the world met at the highest stage of clay court tennis. The first two sets matched the expectations in quality and competition. Djokovic and Nadal traded blows, with each attempting to gain control over the other’s baseline game through aggressive shots. In the first set, Djokovic managed to stay inside the court and push Nadal around. In the second set, Nadal began going for winners much more often and succeeded in taking the middle of the court away from Djokovic. With the first two sets split, everyone expected a thrill ride the rest of the way. It never happened, due to two things. First Nadal completely found his rhythm and remained on high gear for the next hour, only to come land from space down to earth for the last few games of the match. Second, Djokovic’s physical state rapidly deteriorated from about 4-3 in the second set to 2-0 in the third set, to the point where he began shaking and stretching his legs and arms between points to relax and recover, stretching for balls to avoid extra steps, and as the usual result of fatigue, increasing the number of unforced errors in abundance. It was only after the middle of the fourth set, when the clouds came and the wind picked up, that Djokovic found a way to get back into the match – and Rafa had a hand in it too, with a few unexpected unforced errors. Yet, it was too little too late, as Djokovic did not have enough reserve in the tank to match the quality of his tennis from the first set. Nadal remained the king of clay and the number one player in the world, improving on his record of French Open titles and adding a new one to his expanding resume: he is now the only player in tennis to have one at least one Slam title for ten years in a row.

That being said, the stars of the last weekend of this Slam were the women. It was the first time in many years that women’s matches outclassed the men’s matches in excitement, thrill, and in quality. Unlike in men’s matches, there were no ‘empty moments’ in the three women’s matches of the last weekend, no one-sided shows, and plenty of quality shot making. Unlike in the men’s matches, each of the three women’s matches remained hard to predict all the way to the very last few points. Roland Garros 2014 was the recipe that the WTA desperately needed, the injection that rejuvenated a stale product.

I hope you enjoyed the series of updates from Paris.
Let the grass court season begin…

2014 Early Season Notes…

2014 season has begun with several unexpected events that set the stage for a terrific year in tennis. The Australian Open, although by now it seems to be a distant memory, provided a number of spectacular matches and ended with a surprise women’s final in which Li Na captured her second Slam and her first Australian Open titles, defeating Dominika Cibulková in the finals. She also went through the draw without facing a single top 10 opponent. On the men’s side, Stanislas Wawrinka did a couple of things that he has never done in the previous 12 meetings against Nadal: win a set, and then win the match. He also defeated the world number one Novak Djokovic en route to the title. His win was overshadowed by Nadal’s injury in the second set which caused the Spaniard to play the rest of the match at less than one-hundred percent; however it should take nothing away from the Swiss’ well-deserved title, especially considering that he was dominating the match when Nadal injured his back in the second set.

On the one hand, Djokovic’s early form produced a couple of disappointing losses and no titles, putting question marks next to the Nole-Boris collaboration that began two months ago. I find it premature to question the partnership based on two losses to two in-form players, Wawrinka and Roger Federer. While Nole has not necessarily looked to be in top form à-la-2011, he has certainly not played poorly either. The Indian Wells and Miami tournaments should shed more light on the direction of the partnership. On the other hand, Federer seems to have found his good form. He played better in the Australian Open, even in his semi-final loss against Nadal, than he has played throughout 2013, and performed impeccably in the Dubai tournament, especially in the third sets against Nole in the semi-finals and against Thomas Berdych in the finals, before capturing his 78th career tournament victory.

Like Djokovic, Serena Williams has suffered couple of unexpected losses, first to Ana Ivanovic at the Australian Open, then to Alize Cornet in the semifinals of the Dubai tournament. Unfortunately, her after-match comments following her loss to Cornet once again showed the stunningly wide gap between the amounts of class that exist amongst the elite of men’s tennis and that of women’s. John Isner pointed out after his victory against Juan Martin Del Potro in Cincinnati several months ago that the top guys in men’s tennis were all class acts, and it shows in their comments about each other in the post-match conferences as well as how they handle the fans and the media. What do the elite women have to show in comparison? Bunch of players who never talk to each other, who do not acknowledge some of the lower-ranked players in the locker room, and who, like Serena did following her loss to a lesser-ranked opponent, cannot find the magnanimity to simply say “my opponent was better than me today, all the credit goes to her.” instead, Serena sarcastically chuckled and laughed through the questions saying how embarrassed she was to have lost (to Cornet) and that she has not played that poorly since three or four years ago. There is no need to wonder why women’s tennis is losing audience while men’s tennis is flourishing: if I were the WTA, I would desperately search for ways to make the top faces of the tour more identifiable to fans. There is more to being a ‘complete’ player on the tour than shrieking on the court as loud as possible and grimacing as if it was a miracle when an opponent hits a good shot.

Davis Cup also produced the unexpected so far, with Spain, minus Nadal and David Ferrer, losing to Germany, and Serbia, minus Nole, losing to Switzerland that featured both Wawrinka and Federer. With teams like Kazakhstan, Japan, and Great Britain in the quarterfinals, the last one making it to this stage for the first time since 1986, the weekend of April 4-6 promises to be an exciting weekend. If Andy Murray plays, the tie between Italy and Great Britain in Naples, Italy, looks to be the most compelling tie of the quarterfinals.

I close this article with an “I told you so” anecdote. For years, I have been saying that I found it disingenuous that the players constantly complained about the length of the season and argued that the season should be cut shorter so that they could have time to recuperate from a grueling season of tennis. I did not believe in their candidness at the time because many of them scheduled exhibition matches, and traded trips and days in the hotel to pocket more money instead of resting and staying home like they claimed they desired to do. Now the hypocrisy is official. The International Tennis Premier League (ITPL) is set to begin its first year of competition at the end of this year, and just about every top player in women’s and men’s fields, as well as some legends such as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, have signed up for the event that will occupy half of the period of the so-called 7 weeks of rest following the WTA and ATP year-ending championships.

The competition will take place in Asia, putting players like Nadal, Djokovic and Williams in traveling mode and hotels for over three weeks at a time that they supposedly need their rest. Yes, the matches are supposed to be one set only per match, and yes maybe the intensity may not be what it is in the Slam tournaments, but when there is money to be made, you can bet that the competition will not be taken lightly either. It will certainly require an intensity level that is higher than that of an exhibition match. I am simply curious to see how Nadal, Nole, Murray, Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Caroline Wozniacki will answer the tough questions by the press about the need for “rest.” If Roger Federer were to win the 2015 Australian Open, and Maria Sharapova and Li Na were to play in the women’s finals, I will certainly not want to hear about how well-rested those three were because they chose not to participate in the ITPL. The “worn-out” excuse will not carry much weight at that time.

SAM_1417

No more tired legs excuse in the end of 2014!

Invented Categories: Diluting the Greatest Player of All-Time Debate

Is it Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, or Roger Federer? Will Novak Djokovic soon be added to the list? In any case, the Greatest of All-Time (GOAT) debate has been alive since the mid-1990s and furiously kicking since the second half of the 2000s. While the debate has mobilized some intriguing research with regards to the history of men’s tennis in the Open era and stirred considerable passion for the sport, the partisanship in the debate has in many ways hurt the objectivity of the public opinion.

The most glaring examples of this “my-guy-must-be-the-greatest” anxiety come in the form of invented or overrated categories that have, in reality, no business in the GOAT debate if reason and objectivity were to prevail. This article will not make a case for any one player; instead, it will attempt to foreground the problems of partisanship’s over-involvement in the debate by pinpointing to a few of those artificially created measuring sticks.

Davis Cup Titles

This is one category that has no place in the GOAT debate, yet through the “if-repeated-enough-people-will-swallow” tactic, it has made its way into the debate as many times as it should have never been a part of it. First of all, no player wins the Davis Cup, officially or unofficially. In the tennis record books, you don’t see that “Borg has won the Davis Cup”; instead, it reads that Sweden has won it. Second, this category is not only inaccurate, but also non-existent. It was born out of the desire of John McEnroe fans back in the early 1980s to lift their player above his main American rival, Jimmy Connors, who regularly snubbed the Davis Cup, and further strengthened in the late 2000s by the wishes of the fans of players other than Federer, with the aim to place their chosen player ahead of Federer in the debate.

There is no doubt that when a player wins both his singles and doubles matches, he plays a major role in his team’s march to the Davis Cup title (for example Borg in 1975, and McEnroe in 1982); but “he” does not win the title!  There are four players and a captain on the team, contributing to the victory, and the country’s name goes on the records as having won the title.  A player wins two matches maximum by himself, which is neither enough to win a single tie nor to win a title.

The fans of this category somehow try to paint a portrait that shows their man winning the tie/title by themselves, which shows disrespect to the team and the country since on the Cup the country’s name is carved and not the player’s name. It also inaccurately assumes that a particular doubles competition — that of the Davis Cup encounter on the middle Saturday — somehow has more value than any other doubles matches or titles. Doubles play no role in the GOAT debate. If it did, one would need to include Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan individually in the debate since they would then have more Slam titles to their names than Sampras or Nadal and more Grand Slams to their names than any other player in the Open era (not to mention their Davis Cup titles — not the USA’s!), and John McEnroe would be looking better than ever with a total of 16 Slam titles and several Davis Cup titles.

But this is not how the GOAT debate operates because doubles’ results are not included in the debate. McEnroe’s doubles titles do not get weighed in when discussing his GOAT status versus Borg or Andre Agassi. Whether doubles should be included or not, that is a debate for another day, but the way the GOAT debate is conducted today, doubles are basically a non-factor, thus so should the doubles match in Davis Cup, effectively erasing any illusion that a single player wins the Davis Cup. But again, one does not have to go that far to see that Davis Cup titles have no place as a measuring category in the GOAT debate. As noted earlier, it is a category that does not exist. A country, not a player, wins the Davis Cup, and so it goes into the records, period.

Slam Titles

This is the most ironic category in the sense that the same group of experts who pushed this category’s rise to the dominant category in the determination of the GOAT probably now regret that they ever did it. While this is certainly not an invented category and should definitely contribute to determining the GOAT, the impression that exists today that this has always been the determinant category could not be more false.

In the 1970s and 1980s, accolades such as the number of Slams won in succession, the amount of time spent at No. 1, and achieving the Grand Slam outclassed the number of Slams won as far as the players and fans were concerned. From mid-1970s to mid-1980s, most top players did not even play the Australian Open, simply because its timing was odd and it was considered too far away. Borg openly said that he would only consider playing the Australian Open if he won the U.S. Open and had a chance to complete the Grand Slam. He never won the U.S. Open, thus he never played the Australian Open, except one time in 1973 as a youngster. As a result, he won 11 Slams in eight years, playing only three Slams per year. McEnroe played the Australian Open for the first time in 1983, and Jimmy Connors never played it after 1975.

The importance of Slam titles got put on a pedestal when Pete Sampras began collecting Slam titles in the 1990s.  The American media galvanized its viewers once they saw that one of their own could come out of the shadows of Borg and Laver that Connors and McEnroe could never quite surpass, and grab the GOAT title by focusing on the number of Slams.  The likes of Bud Collins, Brad Gilbert, Patrick McEnroe and Mary Carillo quickly reduced all statistics-related discourse to the number of Slam titles.

In this tactic, they saw the means to quicken the process of officially naming their man the GOAT.  As soon as Sampras surpassed Borg’s 11 Slam titles, he was essentially declared the GOAT; the 13th and 14th titles were the icing on the cake.  The American media clung on the number of Slam titles as long as it could, in the name of keeping an American as the GOAT.  The reality was that by the time Roger Federer won his 12th and 13th Slam titles, his list of accomplishments was already superior to that of Sampras, including titles on a surface that Sampras never came close to mastering.  But all that mattered was the number 14, and the American media reminded the public at each opportunity, through eye-catching graphics and colorful vocabulary, that Sampras was still the GOAT due to his 14 Slam titles.

The irony is, several years later, what Federer fans considered a farcical tactic to keep their man behind Sampras in the GOAT debate became their biggest asset when their man began collecting loss after loss against his main rival Nadal.  It seems that in the next couple of years, the number of Slams will remain Federer fans’ biggest ally.  Once again, the partisanship in the GOAT debate has accorded a category more importance than it deserves.  The number of Slams was not the most important category for two and a half decades into the Open era.

Even after two decades of a powerful push by the American-led tennis media, the number of Slams should still not be the central factor in determining the GOAT.  Sampras should not have kept the GOAT status when Federer had 12 or 13 Slam Titles, and Federer should not keep the GOAT status simply because Nadal’s titles (possibly) remain below 17.  On a similar note, I would not hesitate to already put Nadal ahead of Sampras, albeit by a small margin, even though the latter has more Slam titles to his name.  Nadal’s ability to win on all surfaces and his career Grand Slam, along with his record as the most Masters Series titles should at least be enough to trump Sampras’ one more Slam title over Nadal.

Head-to-Head

While this category shows who you may pick in a match between two players if your life depended on it, it does not say much about which player should be considered in a higher status than the other in the GOAT debate.  A given player becomes great not by consistently beating one player, but by consistently outperforming the rest of the field against which he is competing.  Once again, this is an invented category that Nadal fans cling on to due to their player’s fantastic head-to-head record against Federer.

Currently, it will matter in roundtable debates since both players are active and their fans can banter on message boards and blogs.  But tennis historiography shows that, twenty years from now, it will matter very little.  Guillermo Vilas, the player that history considers as one of the top 5 clay court players in the Open era had a 5-8 record on clay against Manuel Orantes, with one of the five wins coming in a walk-over, and another on an abandoned match.  Despite this one-sided head-to-head record, history would hardly consider Orantes a better clay-court player than Vilas.  Would anybody consider Vitas Gerulaitis ahead of Ilie Nastase in the ranking of the best players in the Open era?  I hardly doubt it and so would most tennis historians.  Yet, Gerulaitis had a crushing 10-1 record against Nastase, simply because he would endlessly chip-and-charge to Nastase’s backhand force ‘Nasty’ to use his weakest shot to pass him, the one-handed backhand topspin off of a slice that stays extremely low.  The bottom line is that history accords, and rightfully so, very little importance to the head-to-head record between two players.  Tennis rankings are not determined by how well a specific player does against another specific player; they are determined by how a player performs against the rest of the ensemble of ATP players.

I am sure others can find more frivolous, overrated, or invented ‘false’ categories if needed.  The truth is that partisanship consistently hurts the older players on the hand – how many ‘Laver fans’ or ‘Borg fans’ remain today compared to Nadal, Federer, or Djokovic fans? – and hinders analysis based on facts by diluting the debate with unhealthy emotions and inaccurate (and sometimes false!) data on the other.  It is understandable that fans of particular players fall into this trap.  After all, they have the right to be emotional, which is a major component of fandom.  However, it is utterly worrisome that the leading figures in the tennis media fall into this trap and wrongly influence the public opinion.

The US vs. Serbia Davis Cup Tie Aftermath: A Closer Look with Jim Moortgat

It’s done. The unthinkable happened. No, I don’t mean that it’s unthinkable that Serbia led by the world’s number one player Novak Djokovic would defeat U.S.A led by number 20 Sam Querrey and number 23 John Isner in Davis Cup, but that the world’s number one ranked doubles team Bob and Mike Bryan twins would lose on Saturday to a doubles tandem composed of Nenad Zimonjic, and some guy named Ilija Bozoljac (many pundits nicknamed him “Bozo”) who is ranked number 1150 in the ATP doubles rankings, and a mere 335 in singles! But anyone who has watched the matches over the weekend and who has read about it is aware of the headline tidbits. So, let’s go beyond the doubles upset or the retrospective obvious.

I caught up with Jim Moortgat, an old friend who currently runs a tennis academy in Boise, Idaho where the tie took place. He resides in Boise, thus he attended the Davis Cup weekend and was in charge of the ball kids. Jim is a well-known figure amongst tennis coaches and circles at the national level. Since the late 1970s, Jim has been involved in tennis as a competitor for a few years, and since then as a coach at many levels, including a successful career as a college coach, and a 5-year stint with the USTA Player Development Program. Tennis is an essential component of his life, and coaching is his passion. I asked him to reflect on what happened during the weekend, and below is what he had to say.

Jim what was the most striking memory of this Davis Cup tie for you?

JM: What struck me most actually happened before the weekend, and it has to do with Novak Djokovic. But before I get to that, let me add this: we live in a soft culture in the USA, and when you add the tennis arena into it, it becomes even a softer culture. There are no other sports where the player “drives the bus” so to speak. Everything revolves around what the player wants, the player tells the coach what he wants to work on, the coach is the player’s employee in a sense, and the coach can’t “bench” the player for bad play as is the case in many sports. American professional tennis players subscribe fully to this notion.

Then, you have a player like Novak Djokovic, head and shoulders above the rest of the players involved in the weekend. He is the earliest one to come to Boise to get used to the altitude. In Miami the week before, he stayed in the tournament longer than Isner, and lost in the same round as Querrey. Yet he gets to the site days before any Americans and starts training Monday night. He wants to run EVERY stadium stair here at Boise State stadium. To have access to the stadium, one has to get special clearance, and get the security personnel to open the doors. He actually takes the trouble to arrange all that, just so he can get in his necessary workout. I see this, and I am wondering what the American players are doing on Monday night wherever they are, but they are definitely not in Boise. Novak is out the next morning for practice again. If you want to be like everyone else than do what everyone else is doing. If you want to be #1 in the world, than be an outlier! That is the lesson to learn from Novak’s pre-weekend preparation. His training is very different from the Americans, both outside the top 20. We have a guy like Jim Courier at the helm who used to outwork everybody in his days, and yet there is not one American guy who works as hard as the other top guys.

That brings me to my next question: with all due respect and in all fairness to Jim Courier, how much influence the Davis Cup Captain has in the development of American players? To what end does the buck stop with him for this weekend’s loss?

JM: I am not sure how much of the blame/credit can be placed on the Captain. If there is blame, it certainly does not lie with Courier alone. Courier has the players for less than a week. He could demand that they come a bit earlier, but again, that goes back to what I was saying previously. The players drive the bus. Jay Berger is the head responsible of USTA Player Development program. Technically, he is Courier’s boss. All coaches in the program should demand more from the players, and in my opinion, they simply do not. When Courier was a player, the knock on him was that he did not have “enough talent”, similar to Ivan Lendl when he played. Yet, both of these guys rose to number one and overachieved through sheer determination, will, and pure hard work. Since 1968, this is the first time we have never had a player in the top 20. Perhaps we need to realize that “working hard” is also a talent, perhaps the most essential one. The buck stops with the governing body.

It seemed that the American’s hopes of defeating the Serbs rested on winning the doubles point. It was a massive upset win for the Serbs. What do you make of that?

JM: This relates a bit to the previous question’s comments, but before I get there, let me tell you a quick story. There are very few people that I really look up to with their tennis knowledge and the guy that shared the first-hand knowledge of this story was a friend of mine named Steve Smith from Tampa, Florida. Steve told me that long time ago, when Gabriela Sabatini was number two player in the world, she asked Jack Kramer to evaluate her game. Kramer bluntly told her that her serve was terrible and that she did not know how to play the court. He added that he would not help her because he felt that it would take a year of adjustments to add those aspects to her game. Sabatini replied that she was number two player in the world, so she must be doing something right. Kramer said that rankings had nothing to do with it, either you can or not. The implication was that she could either rest on her ranking based on a comparison to the players below her, or take the extra step.

Now, why do I bring this up? Because there are very few coaches, hardly any, who are willing to do what Kramer did, i.e. demand the best player to do something ‘more’ regardless of how well they do many other things compared to the players below them. They feel like leaving them alone on certain things is the safest way to go. Jim Courier fell into this trap during doubles. His team may well be the world’s best doubles team but on Saturday, the best doubles player on the court was Nenad (Zimonjic), and the second best one was his partner Bozoljac. Why? Because our team made them play well. Mike and Bob kept serving to Bozoljac’s backhand and he was on fire with the returns. In a crucial point in the first set, the Americans served to his backhand he once again hit a scorching backhand return winner. You would think that Jim Courier would notice that, but yet, they kept serving to his backhand and through his returns, Bozoljac’s confidence soared and he started serving and stroking the ball in a zone. Then comes late fifth set, and once again on a crucial point, another serve to the backhand and another return winner. When you are on the bench, even if you coach the number one team in the world, you have to demand more, still strive for perfection. That includes sometimes that the coach demand his team to do something out of their Plan A but one that will make the opponent uncomfortable and take them out of their zone. Courier and the Bryans never did that. As a result, their opponents who, under normal conditions, are not as skilled as the Bryans in doubles, found their perfect rythm and overachieved.

Any last thoughts?

JM: Yes, there is one more area where they overachieved, or we underachieved, depending on one’s perspective. The Serbians wanted it more than us. Their awareness of what a Davis Cup tie means was tremendous. On the bench, they had 18-20 people, always invested emotionally in the match, vocal and enthusiastic, creating extra energy for their players on crucial points. Djokovic was eating inside when the second set tiebreaker began, and he ran to the bench with his food to encourage and cheer his teammates because he knew how primordial that tiebreaker was to the outcome of the tie. The Serbians sure as heck knew who they were playing against and what was needed. In contrast, our bench was subdued for the most part, except on few important games and the extension of the fifth set tiebreaker, and we never had more than 10 people on our bench who were far less vocal than their counterparts. The tie was held at an 11,000+ seat arena. There were around 100 Serbians in the crowd, yet several times in the match, it felt like we were playing an away game. Our approach to Davis Cup paled in comparison to how the Serbs approached it.