Sunday, 28 December 2008

Why I've fallen out of love with the French Open (Pt 2)...

After my bleak assessment of Roland Garros, you might be forgiven for thinking that my disinterest stems from a dislike of clay court tennis or Nadal's unique set of physical talents that have thus far proved so intractable to everyone.

I'll admit that when it comes to witnessing the Champions really go to work on their opponents, I much prefer Federer's 'killing me softly' styled assassinations or the 'death by a thousand drop shots/slices' so often meted out by Murray .

There is however a lot to be admired in Nadal's (maybe less subtle) preferred method of execution and whilst his seeming invincibility on clay has in part brought about a certain sense of predictability to the last four years at Paris, that's not what has caused my interest to wane; far from it - what after all is there to complain about in a performance that is as flawless as it is unprecedented? And truth be told I find it quite irritating to hear (what by now in tennis circles at least, should surely be recognised as) the really quite trite observation that tennis has somehow been rendered boring by the, at times unfathomable levels of skill on show in the performances of Sampras, Federer or in this case Nadal.

There's two reasons I believe I've been left less than impressed by Roland Garros recently.

1. A scarcity of talented dirt-ballers

This affects Roland Garros, but is also true of clay court tennis in general. You know the type of clay courters I mean: physical specimens that seem to relish the prospect of sliding around as much as they enjoy prolongin
g the rally at your expense and which in most cases only serves as a stay of execution.

Let's be clear: Nadal would have probably hacked and slayed his way to victory whatever the competition (nobody, quite frankly has
ever been that adept on and so well suited to a surface), but the ease with which this has sometimes been accomplished recently only accentuates for me the mini drought we're now in.

What's more, you don't have to go that far back to get a sense of this: just five years back we had Kuerten, Coria and Canas - we now have Robredo, Ferrer and Acasuso (and a more ramshackle Canas). I know who I prefer to watch.

The last truly great clay court match we had (in my opinion) was at the final of Rome in 2005 when Nadal (then just announcing himself) and Coria gave us a soberingly honest account of clay court tennis the way it
should be played. Two of it's very best practitioners putting on at times, an outlandish exhibition of guile, patience and fitness with Coria only succumbing after a mere 5 hours and 14 minutes.
The only clay court match that really 'did it' for me after that was Federer v Nadal, again at Rome in the final a year later. But Federer is not a 'clay courter' in the conventional (and sometimes disparaging) sense of the word, and that (ins
pring as it was) most certainly not a clay court match.

The 'competition' for Nadal now comes in the form of Federer, Djokovic and perhaps this next year Murray: not a clay court player amongst them - just such extraordinary levels of skill and command over their game that they're able to tweak it to suit the demands of clay: it's what Federer's been doing for the last few years and I was one of those who thought he'd finally cracked what I term the 'Fermat's Theorem' of tennis, during that final in Rome'06: how a single hander could cope with Nadal's intense and relentless pummelling of his backhand (made more of a problem by the high and imperfect bounce on clay), or whether that was even possible.

During that final, even though he lost, Federer still managed to take Nadal to five sets (and a couple of match points). He maybe only sliced back around 10% of those backhands - the rest were returned heavily with a very special class of backhand topspin. We saw more of it during the Masters Cup of 2006 (especially that final against Blake) and of course the Aussie Open the following year when his 'killing me softly' dispatch of Roddick in the semis was effected so artfully and with such little effort, that it was likened by Chris Bradnam (commentating on Eurosport) to a Beethoven symphony, and caused Roddick at one point to start high fiving the linespersons, when they made multiple incorrect calls in his favour. I consider that spell of tennis (Nov'06 - Jan'07) to be Federer's best ever - we may never see anything like that again.

A more closely fought final should then have followed that year at Roland Garros, but never alas, materialised due in large part to Federer's adoption of a quite bewildering change of tactics. What possessed him to revert back to the backhand slice at Paris in '06, I'll never quite understand. The rejection of a strategy that enabled him not just to go toe to toe with Nadal, but to also hold a couple of match points with, in favour of one that he'd already tried and failed with many times over is one of the most perplexing of Paradoxes of recent years and ought to be the subject of a special investigation.

2. The proliferation of the Hard Court Generation.

I strongly believe that the Fabulous Four have enough 'did he really just do that?' shotmaking amongst them to keep us entertained and inspired over the next few years. But I remain dissatisfied, as it's just not cricket (read clay court tennis).

Federer is just a unique phenomenon, who if he was born in the Middle Ages would have his own Minstrel to compose and perform those medieval (and very hammy) ballads in praise of his elegance and mastery as he entered court; and Nadal really is a Clay Court phenomenon (and I mean that in the best sense).

So my point is perhaps underlined more clearly in Murray and Djokovic's case.
Djokovic certainly for me, epitomises the best of what is possible in a generation (mostly of Russian and Eastern European descent) brought up on and particularly suited to the hard courts.

At the beginning of the year Nole could do no wrong - he seemed capable of pretty much anything and everything. But as the year progressed and as he lost his Midas Touch, we saw him stripped bare of his veneer of confidence, and it's then that some of the less efficient aspects of his game came to the fore.

The reason for this is that this style of play, though quite effective, is really quite inflexible when (as we saw from Wimbledon onwards) the cards have not been dealt in your favour and you're unable to play the match on your terms. The rigidity, a by product of that style just doesn't lend itself to reinvention the way Federer's or (to a lesser extent) Murray's does; this is no indictment of Djokovic nor a disparaging commentary of his game, and it's really a testament to his ability that he's able to, even on a bad day, bring forth the type of performances we see from him on all surfaces (he reached at least the semis of all four slams from May'07 - May'08 ) - in fact players like this can prove to be almost unbeatable when they're playing their best.

But I do feel, particularly as Murray's confidence on clay improves, that this slight shortcoming in Djokovic's game will become more evident; that Djokovic is able to perform (so far at least) so well on clay is because he's simply a very special class of player - most all other hard courters these days are pretty benign on both clay and grass.

This is because clay court tennis, just like grass is an art-form born out the needs of an imperfect surface: where you can't rely on the luxury of a perfectly careering ball (at just the right pace and height) a hard court affords you - it requires you to (in a manner reminiscent of The Matrix) almost warp your game and yourself, as you attempt to attune yourself into becoming one with (and as imperfect as) the surface; or to otherwise like Nadal, be so well suited to playing there that you are considered something of a monstrosity (in the best sense of the word).

Is it possible to go a step further and consider Hard Courters as the new Clay Courters? Just as the term 'Clay Courter' was (sometimes undeservedly) synonymous with inflexibility and a one dimensional grinding style of play, is not the same true of the current Hard Court generation?

Some Clay Courters were quite rightly criticised for being unable to produce anything outside of the clay court season. Some wouldn't even bother to enter Wimbledon. I don't claim that to be true of these guys (and girls) - they're certainly more well rounded in that respect; but though they may enter the draws of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, don't you find them a little wanting in the ability to remould their game to suit the needs of the more imperfect surface?

So whilst my relationship with the French Open isn't exactly on the rocks (the problems I've outlined are not beyond rectification: we just need the involvement of more quality Clay Courters - a successful comeback by Coria for example, would be very welcome), we really do need to talk...

Nadal image by The Eternity
Kuerten image by jeanma
Federer image by Abdou.W
Djokovic image by bourgol


Friday, 19 December 2008

Why I've fallen out of love with the French Open (Pt 1)...

Ever had that feeling that the magic has gone from a relationship?

It doesn't happen all at once of course. Your affection instead trickles away bit by bit, usually unbeknownst to you, until one day you hit upon the realisation that the connection is no longer what it once was - where there was warmth, you can now only find indifference; where there was fire and passion, there is now only a dreary type of stoicism.

I don't remember exactly when I stopped caring about Roland Garros. It just sort of happened in a way that I still don't profess to understand. Well maybe I do, just a little. I don't mean of course, that I stopped following it or caring about the results. Rather leading up to it in recent years, I just wouldn't find myself with the same degree of anticipation that I hold for the other Slams.

This was rather worrying as I'd always attached a very particular significance to the two non hard court Slams - a chance for a very different sort of tennis or players with very particular talents to strut their stuff...

And though that's exactly what's happened with the advent of the Nadal era of clay, I began quite soon to be aware of an anomaly at Paris, a kind of minute imperfection within the grand tapestry of the venue and the tennis that's expected of it. I wasn't sure what it was at first, but it got me thinking; and though there was no Eureka! moment, I was pretty soon aware of a cold and rather harsh fact: I couldn't think of a single defining match there in the last 4 years!

I should point out that I'm excluding from this most of the Federer-Nadal match-ups (including this year's three set rout of Federer which was defining only for the type of reasons Federer would sooner forget), which do at least exhibit the type of quality you (quite reasonably) associate with the semi/final stages of a Slam - though even here I would argue that we've seen them put on a better show elsewhere (and not always at a Slam).

But aside from these encounters, nothing really stood out or garnered my interest the way Safin-Federer Aus'05, Agassi-Federer US'05 or even Gasquet-Roddick Wimbledon'07 did - there seemed to be very little for Tennis Heads to really scream about in the coming years: just a slew of pretty good matches that wouldn't pass the test of time (or even a couple of years).

I've got a few reasons why I think this has come about...

Chatrier image by Nawal


Tuesday, 16 December 2008

"Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String...": James Blake

In my recent series on 2008, I promised to make more positive postings on James Blake.

Though I've made the odd passing reference to him, there simply haven't been that many opportunities at doing the man justice in the off season. So I began this post with the intention of doing a one off profile on one of my favourite players.

It then occurred to me how there's so very many and varied
likeable (and dislikeable) aspects about players, events, venues that don't often get mentioned in the frenzy of opinions on Slam results, rankings, form, technique and surfaces.

So here's my first post in a series entitled '
Brown Paper Packages...' (taken from the song 'My Favourite Things') in which I attempt to put that right by bringing to you some of my favourite things about a chosen player, personality, event,...

Unlike the 2008 series, it's not going to be a serial; it'll be longer running, and more likely to crop up when something particularly poignant has happened, or
I just feel the need for a super-extended, 'beyond the call of duty' style vent-off on someone or something that's particularly ruffled (or tickled) me.

The less favourable opinions will be kept in a conversely titled '
Things I Can't Stand about...' type of series for which I hope to come up with a better name(I'm open to suggestions).

So what do I like about James Blake? Well...

  • He's got probably the flattest forehand in the game.
  • His athletic style of play.
  • Could he possibly be the fastest man in Tennis?
  • Along with Roddick is a shining example of dignified and sportsmanlike conduct - and a great ambassador for American Tennis
  • He's got a single handed backhand - Yeaaahhh-I-seddit!
  • I underestimated him and his style of play and he surprised me by extending his stay in the top ten.
  • That band style twirly thing he does with his racquet when waiting to receive.
  • His middle name's Riley and there's just something Coppish or 'Streets-Of-San-Francisco' about that. Picture it: 'Chief' Pat McEnroe giving A-Rod his Davis Cup orders in a dimly lit back office: "Some young dirtballer named Rafael's been running rings round us in Paris - I want you to see what you can do about it... <Roddick begins to leave> And take Riley here with you!"
  • He "lost everything and won his life back".
  • He made the final of Queen's in 2006, the only recent American (aside from Roddick) to have accomplished that.
  • His great run of 2006 that led him to qualify for his first and only Tennis Masters Cup; he went right through to the final there and although was given a matrix-like dose of reality by Federer, took his defeat remarkably well.
  • Looks vulnerable and lacking in confidence - not winning but endearingly human traits; but with the backing of his peers (which he got in bucketloads during that Davis Cup Tie against France earlier this year, where he was playing Mathieu) can truly deliver awe-inspiring, top drawer tennis.
  • His intensity and pace on court; a sort of stubborn insistence on doing things 'his' way
  • Looks great (with or without dreadlocks)
  • Shortens his backswing and takes the ball ridiculously early.
That's all I can come up with right now...
In the words of that annoyingly monotonic history teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day off: "Anyone...Anyone?"

Blake image by James Marvin Phelps


Friday, 12 December 2008

The Black Rock Master Class...

I've never really followed the Black Rock Masters that closely, which is quite surprising considering:
  1. I have a vested interest in one handed backhands.
  2. It's held in the Royal Albert Hall just yards away from from my old University and just happens to have been the venue for my Convocation Ceremony. Some resonance then, when I see Pioline and Rusedski squaring off there? Oh yeah.
The Black Rock Masters was first held in December of 1997; had it been a year (or even three months) earlier and I can easily conceive of myself skipping the odd lecture on Moment-Generating Functions in favour of a slightly different and more thrilling type of education.

The tennis this year (like others I imagine), didn't disappoint. Yes everyone's a step slower, the maximum amount of play is limited to 2 sets (one set each and a first-to-ten tiebreak) and it does at times feel that although they're all great serve and volleyers, it is perhaps a little too taxing for most there to hold a rally of more than about 6-8 balls and nigh impossible to recollect themselves immediately after it.

But here's the thing: not only is the brand of tennis on offer drastically different to anything you see nowadays - that much is to be expected; it's more that the players somehow
still exhibit the complex set of skills that that style of play demands.

The way for example, players like Jeremy Bates were able to nonchalantly (and at times with the air of irritation one might adopt when swatting a fly) pull off shots at the net that would befuddle all but a handful of players today.

Jeremy Bates is my countryman, but I'd be lying if I said that I had much time for him in the early 90s. He reached his career best ranking of 54 in 1995 but was little more than a curious afterthought (if that) as I would review the days play at Wimbledon.

But it wasn't just the net play (where most of these guys are after all specialists) I found enriching. It was the thought that went into, and the execution of the resultant shots from the baseline (particularly from Forget) that really proved captivating, and little by little I found myself questioning certain aspects of the quality on offer these days.

It's not just the fact that their tennis is sometimes easier on the eye, and believe me it's got
nothing to do with attention to things like 'classical form'. It's just that apart from a very few players at the top, there's a certain type of thoughtlessness and over reliance on physical endurance that characterises much of what we see on court these days: a kind of uber confidence in one's physical abilities that gives rise to the idea that you can continue to run balls down without much of a game plan and will eventually find a way to win the point - and when you do see someone trying to shorten a point it often results in an unforced error.

Much of this is of course, to do with the way tennis has become more physical - the athleticism of this age is frankly light years ahead of what it was even 10 years; and we all know of the impact that
racquet technology has had. But has it also unwittingly encouraged a certain type of mental lethargy in players - not the Federers and the Nadals but in the rank and file of the game? They're not always capable of shortening points at will, because they're more inclined to want to 'muscle' their way through a gladiatorial style of rally and are as a result, well, out of practice.

It's not that the talent is not there - it's more to do with players being less desirous of their tennis evolving that way, which in today's more physical game is not altogther surprising.

A large number of them (though not all) also tend to be spent after around three sets of this gruelling style of play, and so quite predictably suffer a premature drop in quality. Contrast this with the more 'lightweight' style of years gone by that lends itself to a process of pacing oneself more effectively over 5 sets.

I don't often have these thoughts - I like most of what I see these days and frankly found serve and volley a little boring at times. Old, I find is
quite often, but not always gold, but that doesn't mean that there aren't things to be learnt from that era.

Take for example the way Forget uses his backhand slice: not just as a way of staying in the point, not
even as it is mostly used today to confuse and disrupt your opponent. You often hear about backhand slices being 'knifed' back into court - the warlike metaphor giving rise to colourful imagery of pierced hearts and bloodied battlefields.

Well it's no
exaggeration to say that at times, Forget uses his backhand slice to 'torpedo' his opponent - its not just kept low, its well struck and an extremely aggressive passing shot that usually lands close to the baseline; and it's usually timed to convert defence into offence.

That's just one example of the kind of thought process largely missing today. I tried hard and could only think of
one player capable of producing that kind of stroke (his name begins with 'F' and ends in 'R').

I've often had nostalgic 'what-if' recollections of my time at University and sometimes (rather impractically it has to be said) thought of possible reasons to return - funnily enough, until now, a chance at witnessing quality tennis has never featured amongst them...

Thursday, 4 December 2008

2008: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Pt IV

Olympics - Federer/Wawrinka Doubles Victory

Important for two reasons:

1. It acted as a turning point of sorts in Federer's markedly less distinguished season - he went on to win at Flushing Meadows of course, but also I felt, appeared a lot more confident in
all of his subsequent matches (even the losses).

2. That....thing they both did after winning. Rugby has the New Zealand All Blacks and their Haka ritual and the World Cup is replete it seems, with ever more creative Goal celebrations.
Tennis now has 'Federinka' and what can only be described as a Human Barbecue.

A little too much boy love for some, it was refreshing though, to see Federer beginning to enjoy his season.

US Open - Nole gets fiery with Roddick

It began with Roddick having a swipe (in jest apparently) at Djokovic's list of physical ailments, and ended up with Nole getting booed off court after choosing to retaliate rather personally, with impeccable timing I might add, during an on court interview conducted right after beating the American #1 in the Ashe Stadium in front of a mostly All-American crowd.

The contrast to last year's reception could not have been greater.
You can read about it here, but two things stand out from this episode:

1) As Roddick said, if you're going to impersonate other players, you've got to be accepting of such informal criticisms when they come your way - or at least to feign the appearance of it.

2) Nole was quite within his rights to respond; but why didn't someone on his team persuade him to do so in the post match presser? A calculated yet disarming riposte was all that was required, and would have gone a long way towards both answering Roddick's concerns and keeping him in most of the publics good books.

US Open - Federer Wins a Slam (without quotes)

Well we were all waiting for it to happen - and just think how different things would look if he went both Slamless and without a Masters Shield.

It was unfortuna
te for Murray, that Federer chose this moment to reemerge and bring some of his most decisive (although not nearly as elegant) tennis of the year.

Many have gone as far as to say that this may be his best win yet, as it came after Federer's own Season of Discontent and was brought about not with the cloud-9 tennis of preceding years but with a more earthy, heartfelt performance which may be a more common feature of his remaining years on tour.

US Open - Murray runs Rafa ragged (Or Andy Ruffs Up Rafa)

Two moments more than anything else for me, announced Murray's entry to the big time of tennis this year; and they don't include that 'Getta-Loada-My-Biceps' moment at Wimbledon, nor his very convincing set of back to back wins over Djokovic.

For me, the first of his two crossover moments came in the way he brutalised Nadal (particularly in that last game) in that US Open Semi.

There's very few players (other than Federer and Djokovic) who can cope with the curious (and unprecedented) blend of pace, topspin and unbridled physicality that Nadal brings to the table. There's one or two that have been able to take their game to Nadal: Blake (there I knew I could find something good to say - no it'll get better I promise) and Youzhny have both posted good wins over him on hard/indoor courts.

But to my knowledge, no one has ever worn down Nadal quite like Murray did during that super charged semi. It even sounds wrong. Nadal wears you down - that's what he's about.

As if to sum things up in the ultimate game, Nadal having lost a rally in which he was literally run ragged, bent over double and took well over the prescribed twenty seconds to return to the baseline.

US Open - Jelena's Runner Up Speech

Oh Jelena...

You may have gathered that I don't always think much of her ancillary antics. It's just she seems to be stricken with a particularly vicious strain of the 'Anything-lest-they-think-I'm-boring' virus.

I'm all for more colourful displays of emotion and personality on court, and more creative responses to the press. But don't let's get carried away please, and (perhaps more importantly) stop letting it get in the way of your tennis.

We had the whole stopwatch thing in Stuttgart and at the US Open it seemed Mary Carillo (the on court interviewer) had to practically prise her away from the mic after her runner's up speech.

I can't bring myself to fault her too much for wanting public support, I just wish she would find a more balanced and 'less is more' kind of a way of expressing it.

Madrid - Murray Beats Federer

This is my other big Murray Moment.

His victory here was decisive, measured, mature and aggressive. It not only confirmed Murray's (now justified) positioning within the 'fabulous four', but also demonstrated his uniqueness within that group.
I previously made the point that prior to Wimbledon, Murray's much-lauded winning record over Federer didn't really stand up to scrutiny, when you consider Federer's poor showing in each of those wins. Maybe that was a little harsh and Murray probably deserved a little more credit.

However I said it then and continue to believe that this victory was the first (perhaps of many) to truly be on an equal footing; and if Team Murray is looking for a deeper understanding of his very enviable record against Federer, they would do well to study this match rather than Cincinnati 06.
(Murray image by Oscar Alonso Algote)

Three in a Row for Jelena

Despite my critique of her desire for popularity, I'm never short on praise for her game and in any event, it's difficult to argue against three back to back titles that included a win over Venus Williams.

In a season where most of the leading ladies were unable to really take advantage of Henin's sudden departure, Jelena took titles in Beijing, Stuttgart and Moscow securing a season ending position at the top of the rankings; who cares if she didn't win a Slam? It is now surely only a matter of time before she does. I'm going with the French Open next year.

Marat Misfires in Moscow/Kuznetsova loses her 10th final in a Row

Ever seen the film Copland? In particular the scene where De Niro's Internal Affairs Investigator lays into Stallone's small town sheriff for failing to make the most of an opportunity he afforded him.

Aside from being one of De Niro's finest moments, it expresses perfectly how I might have responded to Marat and Svetlana's attempts at explaining their latest offering in what is now fast becoming a long running (and badly written) soap of mental collapses (and torture).

Marat blew his best chance at securing a first title (and some much needed confidence) in three years when he (not so uncharacteristically) folded against world number 71 Igor Kunitsyn.

And Svetlana, well, will she ever make good on my (I'm now thinking rather ill placed) faith in her?

WARNING: The clip below features some strong language....

I'm not quite done with either of them, but something has to change fast.

Keep facing the wall, both of you!

Tsonga wins in Paris

Tennis Talk, Anyone? has this great piece on Cedric Pioline this week, and how he squares up against other French tennis greats (both past and present). It ends by presenting Tsonga as the natural inheritor to Pioline, and most likely to be Frances most successful player of the Open Era.

I can't disagree with this. I did this piece on Tsonga a couple of months back and my take on on him remains unchanged: after Federer, he's probably this generation's most complete (and explosive) player and aside from injury (which he is very prone to), I can't think of any reason he shouldn't win multiple slams on different surfaces.

Venus's Indoor Season

Let's just say it was encouraging to see Venus playing (and winning) on a surface other than grass. I've often wondered why she plays so very little outside of Wimbledon (particularly on fast indoor courts, where she should frankly be laying waste to the rest of the competition): I can only put it down to a desire to protect herself from injury which really knocked the stuffing out of her from 2003-2005.

TMC Announcer

For those finding Tennis wanting in terms of the razzmatazz we so often find in the world of Heavyweight Boxing, we had Don King this year referring to the US Open final as the 'Grapple in the Apple' and Andy Murray being as 'loose as a goose'.

But was there anything cooler than the Court Announcer at the TMC this year? I particularly
found amusing, the stark contrast between the efforts of the announcer ("...AND NOOWWWW WELCUMMMMMM, WUURRRRLD NUMBER FOURRRRRR - ANNNDAAAIIII MURRAAAAAIIIIIII!!!!!!!!") and the understated and slightly po-faced entrances not just of Murray but Davydenko and even Federer...

And no I wasn't expecting either of them to get all 'Apollo Creed' on us, but come on guys, at least strut your way on court!

Black Rock Masters - Who needs Hawk Eye when you've got Sampras?

I'll soon be posting some of my observations on the Black Rock Masters, but this incident during a match between McEnroe and Sampras struck me as a perfect end to the year and a great way of concluding this series of postings.

As always, McEnroe was challenging a line call - in particular one of Sampras's Aces (more on Forget and Sampras's showcase serving later). After not getting much joy from the umpire (no Hawk Eye here remember), McEnroe appealed to Sampras himself ("What do you think Pete?").

Instead of answering directly, Sampras provided us with his very own reenactment of Hawk Eye where, carrying the ball, he manually traced (climbing over the net in the process) the entire trajectory of the ball as he saw it.

Needless to say Sampras found the ball 'in' and McEnroe for once, could find nothing to say.



All images on this site have been found in the public domain.
Credit has been given wherever possible.
If you feel your copyright is being infringed upon by any particular image, please contact me and I'll have it taken it down.

You Said...

Powered by Disqus

Receive Updates by Email...

Enter your email address:

  © Free Blogger Templates Spain by 2008

Back to TOP