Sunday, January 30, 2011

Of Murray's Tribulations and Djokovic's Joy

[Also posted at:]

Every time Andy Murray enters a Grand Slam tournament, the expectations are immense. These, of course, are only partly his fault. Murray has never been keen to be seen as an icon of his country, yet ‘Britain’s Number One’, they croon, an irrelevant statistic uttered with an air of superiority that couldn’t have been more misplaced – as if a Briton has an inherent right to hold a Grand Slam title. The country hasn’t had a men’s singles Grand Slam champion since Fred Perry won the U.S. Open in 1936, making the utterance especially inappropriate.

Yet, in Murray, more so than it did with Tim Henman, Britain has a tennis player blessed with skills that are certainly worthy of a Grand Slam victory, making the expectations that much starker. Whether this weighs heavily on Murray’s shoulders and represents the cause for his frailties in the biggest of stages, we may never know. Regardless, it can serve as little excuse for his capitulations in the three Grand Slam finals that he has competed in. The latest, a 4-6, 2-6, 3-6 trouncing at the hands of Novak Djokovic only aided in highlighting the depth of the Serbian’s talents and the infirmities that continue to haunt Murray’s game. Overcoming expectations is a vital step in achieving sporting greatness. In Murray’s case, though, it is perhaps his own lack of self-confidence rather than the burden vested upon him by 60 million people that he needs to address. He only needs to look at the women’s singles champion at the Australian Open this year – Kim Clijsters – who lost her first four Grand Slam finals before winning the U.S. Open in 2005. So, Murray’s dream is not unattainable and the good thing for him is that he has all the assets that make a Grand Slam champion.

Now, though, is not a time to harp on Murray’s failings and prospects, but to celebrate the supreme talents, scintillatingly showcased by Djokovic, over the course of the two weeks at Melbourne Park. Losing only a set through the course of the tournament – in the second round to Ivan Dodig – Djokovic most significantly cruised through the quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals, against Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer and Murray respectively, with consummate ease. The Serb, constantly behind the shadows of Federer and Rafael Nadal, in spite of his victory in Australia in 2008, has made staggering improvements to his game, which when exhibited as it has been in the last week makes for thrilling viewing.

Djokovic tends to excite in an unusual manner. He doesn’t have a booming serve with which he can serve aces at will, or ground-strokes with which he can readily kill, but he does boast a supreme ability to convert defence into attack, which by itself makes for an awe-inspiring spectacle. His innate sense of the geometry of a tennis court coupled with an astute on-court nous means that he can scamper and retrieve seemingly unreachable balls before finding angles of dazzling brilliance.

Each of his opponents in the last three rounds constituted a distinct threat. The big Czech, Tomas Berdych possesses easy power with which he often dismantles opponents in terrific fashion. Djokovic, though, on a relatively slow surface – the Australian Open is played on one of the slowest hard courts – was able to negate Berdych’s threat with a combination of excellent service-returns and neat use of all the perimeters of the court, taking the match 6-1, 7-6, 6-1.

With Rafael Nadal nursing an injury, ousted by David Ferrer in the quarter-finals, many felt that the Slam was Federer’s for the taking. Yet, the Swiss was outclassed by an imperious Djokovic, who unrelentingly attacked and exposed weaknesses in Federer’s backhand that even if always perceptible had never been so cruelly laid bare. Also apparent in the straight sets victory, was the extent of improvement that Djokovic’s serve has undergone – his ability to find accuracy on the big points was particularly noteworthy. But most astonishing was his athleticism. Very often after retrieving balls on his backhand side with his left foot sliding past the tramlines, he still managed to muster the racquet-head speed necessary to send the ball back with purpose. Even when it seemed like Federer was in the ascendancy, Djokovic was able to find the resilience to stay with the Swiss and ultimately hit strokes of resounding excellence.

In the final against Murray, right from the offing, Djokovic set out to attack – striking his ground-strokes with scintillating pace and depth – never once allowing Murray to settle into any rhythm. In the first four games, he was hitting the ball at an average of 20 kilometres faster than Murray, and at the same time finding sharper angles and greater depth. The crucial point though came on 15-30, when Djokovic serving for the first set at 5-4, played a rally that showcased the complete array of his most vital skill – an ability to convert defence into offense with ridiculous simplicity – he scurried to reach both corners of the baseline on numerous occasions before stroking a backhand past his hapless opponent with remarkable pace and alacrity. All through the match, he displayed elasticity in footwork that allowed him to defend even the most searching of Murray’s strokes, invariably culminating in an error from the Scot, an imposing winner or an irretrievable blow from the Serb.

In the second set after racing to a 5-0 lead, Djokovic, possibly showing the first hint of nerves, allowed Murray a little peep, losing two straight games before breaking again. The third set was slightly more topsy-turvy with both players exchanging breaks of serves, but ultimately Djokovic exerted his superiority. Leading 4-3, he broke Murray and went through some jittery moments on his serve before a Murray forehand crashed into the net to give him the championship.

Nine victorious sets of tennis in the final three rounds of the tournament, played against three of the top players in the circuit, means that Djokovic’s success couldn’t have been more deserved. His 2008 win at the Australian Open had already proved his Grand Slam credentials, but with Nadal and Federer dominating almost all Grand Slams since, few expected Djokovic to triumph here. And in doing so in a thoroughly convincing fashion, he has brought to light the prospect of a shattering of the duopoly at the top of men’s tennis.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Of Tennis, Backhands, Henin and Gasquet

[Also posted at:]

Tennis is a glorious sport, one in which two players maul, with ferocious vigour, at each other from the opposite sides of a small rectangular court. Add to that the mass of spectators engulfing the arena; a tennis match can easily be mistaken for a gladiatorial battle. John Winkler had noted in a 1926 New Yorker article, The Iconoclast of the Courts, that “under [Bill] Tilden’s transforming touch, tennis has become a smashing, dynamic test of speed and power where stamina and quickness of brain, courage and the closest psychological probing for the weaknesses of opponents must all be fused into the mental and physical makeup of a champion.”[1] And this was a description of a pre-professional era, in which only amateurs were allowed to compete in Wimbledon and Davis Cup championships as only they could play for the true glory of the sport. With the escalation of pressures, the modern day game is unimaginably more searching than it was – players are under the constant public glare.

Yet for all its physical and psychological challenges, and for all the power hitting and vicious ground-strokes, the sport remains one of grand beauty. Its majesty does not lie merely in the format of the competition, but also in the sheer mechanics of its stroke-play. Within the myriad maze of wonderful strokes, though, some provide more joy than others. The single-handed backhand, which for periods in the last two decades had been relegated to the archaic, is perhaps more beautiful than any other stroke in the game. And nobody in recent times has played it more splendidly than two players who were ousted from the Australian Open today – Justine Henin and Richard Gasquet.

The Belgian, Henin bowed out to Svetlana Kuznetsova who played in a halcyon state almost unbecoming of a Russian, bar the two games where she served for the match and in parts of the second-set tiebreaker. Henin’s backhand was not on showing in all its magnificence and she often mistimed it, a rarity, which would have been startling if not for the news of her struggles with an injury to the right elbow. At most times, though, it remains a thing of entrancing brilliance. The bent knees, the right arm flowing in a perfect arc, the ball met at the sweetest of spots on the racquet and the resultant, prodigious angle have made Henin’s backhand one of the finest in the history of the sport. A petite girl, by tennis standards, it is quite remarkable that she gets the kind of pace off the racquet that she does. It does, though, make for spectacular viewing. The stroke helped her to seven Grand Slam titles, before she most unexpectedly retired from the sport at the age of just twenty five, days before the French Open in 2008. A return to the circuit last year, like most other such comebacks hasn’t quite gone to plan – an injury at Wimbledon saw her miss rest of the season. It will doubtless take her a while to get back to groove, but if she does stay injury-free, I’d expect her backhand to propel her towards greater deeds.

France’s Richard Gasquet is an enigma. He boasts some very obvious gifts, none more dazzling than his single-handed backhand. But he was found wanting, yet again, against Tomas Berdych, in the third round, losing in straight sets. A former Junior No.1, Gasquet appeared on the cover of French Tennis Magazine when he was only nine, but his talents have failed to translate into success, with mental frailties often the product of his downfall. Tennis, certainly probes more than just the talent and flair of its competitors. When it comes to natural flair, though, few can better Gasquet and no shot beguiles in the manner of his backhand. Stroked with pristine technique – looped backswing, eyes over his right shoulder, his upper half uncoiling as his knees bend and a transfer of his weight onto the front foot – the backhand makes for captivating showing. It is not, though, his only strength. He has an intrinsic understanding of the dynamics of a tennis court, able to find remarkable angles from both wings and his touch at the net can be quite sublime. If only he can find the perfect amalgam of ‘mental and physical’ factors that make a champion. The game would be the better for it.

[1] Cited in Marshall Jon Fisher’s book ‘A Terrible Splendour’, set in pre World War II times.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Where are the next Federers and Nadals?

The eras of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are doubtless far from over. Greatness in big, chunky scoops is constantly served to us and yet I wonder – where are the upstarts? Where is the next Federer? Which teenage sensation is going to put a spanner in their works?

The current group of also-rans look hugely unfavoured to make a sustained dent on the duopoly at the top. Novak Djokovic – a former Australian Open winner – and Andy Murray are both exceptional talents, who will win a few Grand Slams between them. But will they dominate tennis in the manner of a Sampras, Federer or Nadal? I think not. David Nalbandian and Lleyton Hewitt, who fought a cliff-hanger in the first round of the ongoing Australian Open, secured in the fifth set by the Argentine, are players, who much like Nikolay Davydenko and Andy Roddick, looking to find a second wind to their career, and are unlikely to upset the apple cart.

Frenchmen Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet were heralded as future greats during their junior years. But neither Monfils’s extraordinary athleticism nor Gasquet’s precocious talents have taken them too far. Tomas Berdych and Robin Soderling, both enjoyed a tremendous 2010, with their hard hitting approach affecting Federer, in particular. But they look more probable to disturb the best of players on occasions rather than enjoy any sustained success. Juan Martin Del Potro, who defeated both Nadal and Federer en route to the U.S. Open title in 2009 seemed the most capable of breaking into the very private club at the zenith. An injury to his wrist, though, saw him miss most of 2010, forcing him to now rebuild his career, virtually from scratch. Only twenty-two years of age, the gangling Argentine still has time on his side, but the impact of the nearly year-long absence from the circuit could have more than mere physical consequences.

There are of course a host of other players good enough to be near the top, but not quite capable of reaching exhilarating heights – David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco, for instance. The analysis, therefore, demands a look into the Junior Championships, which albeit isn’t always the route to professional success – Pete Sampras, consciously avoided junior-level events to focus on peaking at the highest of stages. Roger Federer and Stefan Edberg, though, are notable examples of players who have come through the junior ranks. The latter, in fact, famously secured the Junior Grand Slam – winning all four Grand Slams in a calendar year – in 1983.

A gaze, therefore, into the Junior events over the last two years throws one particular name into the reckoning – Bulgaria’s nineteen-year-old Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov, lost yesterday in the second round of the Australian Open to 19th seed Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets. In evidence, though, was the teenager’s sound and consistent game with no apparent weaknesses. His single-handed backhand, however, does seem his strong suit – often hit smoothly on the rise, it looks a more complete stroke than Federer’s was at that stage. A winner of the 2008 Wimbledon and U.S. Open Junior Grand Slams, Dimitrov has risen to 108 in the world, from the wilderness of a ranking outside the top 300 in a span of just six months. Whether he can transform his obvious talents into persistent success will depend on many factors, including his ability to carry the burden of being heralded as the ‘next Federer’. Expectations, though, are a part of sport, and greatness does not ensue unless one surmounts these pressures.

Surmounting pressure was exactly what eighteen-year-old Bernard Tomic did today against the 31st seed, Spain’s Feliciano Lopez in the second round of the Australian Open. An Australian of Croatian and Bosnian descent, Tomic boasts a game that belies his age. Standing six-foot four-and-a-half-inches tall, Tomic’s style is reminiscent of Del Potro’s – covering the court with a casual air of confidence, he musters oodles of easy power from the baseline. But his game, unlike Del Potro's isn't dependent on power. He has inherent sense of the geometry of a tennis court, and likes to feel his way into points rather than look for the booming forehand at the earliest opportunity. Today, he dismantled Lopez in three, straight sets – 7-6, 7-6, 6-3 – never once looking fluttered and constantly trying to innovate. His double-handed backhand, in particular, worked like a dream, whether hit up the line or cross court, it was often timed and placed to perfection. Having been accorded a wild card into the main draw – a controversial choice after he had withdrawn from a play-off with other Australians, on grounds of illness – Tomic had earlier polished off 44th ranked Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, in the first round with imperious authority – 6-3, 6-2, 7-6. A meeting with Rafael Nadal on Saturday now beckons for Tomic. It would be unrealistic to expect the youngster to conquer the force of Nadal. The real test, therefore, lies in whether he can mould his palpable potential into a consistent game that it richly deserves.