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

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