Archive for the ‘Australian Open 2011’ Category


Rajat jain

Head of Tennis, CouchExpert

26 January 2011

 

When a player as great as Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer loses a Grand Slam match, the event goes beyond being just the matter of a player winning and a player losing. It delves deeper than anyone can imagine. After all, there must be a reason why Rafa lost today in Melbourne, or why Roger lost in Wimbledon last year. These two have a winning percentage of more than 80% and probably much more in a Grand Slam, hence the occurrence of a loss is rare.

 

With this, the winner is almost overshadowed in the process (unless it is the other one of them, of course). As a Rafa fan, it was painful to see Australian Open’s update on facebook with all the depressed looking pictures of Rafa. Just like it would have been for Roger fans at the end of Wimbledon, when this picture was flashed ad infinitum on the several pages of media.

Right since he won the U.S. Open, it was rare that any conversation involving Nadal would not include the term “Rafa Slam.” It is another matter, that this feat has not been achieved in Men’s tennis for over 40 years now. The hype is not without substance—Rafa was clearly the best player in the world till now, and has tasted success before. But then, I see things going too far in trying to compare “Rafa Slam” with Rod Laver’s Career Grand Slam. I saw tonnes of articles on the same, and an entire fan base was busy arguing which one is a greater accomplishment.

And then, the small matter of people considering a possibility of Rafa winning six consecutive slams—French Open is his’ for the taking, and probably Wimbledon too.

Everything, today, makes no sense. What we only know is the winner of this tournament alone will have a possibility to run for a calendar Slam, and that would be too remote.

When Rafa publicly told that winning all four Slams consecutively is next to impossible, and that he is not the favorite going in to the tournament, he had a point. He knows his body is fragile, he was battling with a flu before the tournament began, and he is more prone to being upset on a hard court than Federer. Yet, we pondered all over the news as to who will have the upper hand should they meet in the final—Federer or Nadal. The same happened in the U.S. Open during the semis, and the same happened this time (although, to be frank, Ferrer d. Nadal sounds a lot like Federer d. Nadal).

I believe the reason we saw Rafa sobbing during a changeover was not because he unable to finish the ‘Rafa Slam.’ It was probably because for the second time in a row, his journey at Melbourne was being cut short due to factors outside his control. And a part of it, obviously, was because of the hype surrounding this remote possibility. As much as Rafa downplays these records, greatness, and any kind of statistics, all this talk would have gotten into his head, surely.

And yet, the media has nothing to lose. The title “Rafa Slam?” has been conveniently replaced by “Rafa Slammed!” An already big story turned into an ever bigger one. Media is a necessary evil in everything regarding any profession. And it is a small price to pay for such professionals who earn big bucks, anyway. Or is it?

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Rajat jain

Head of Tennis, CouchExpert

25 January 2011

 

The Swiss War between Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka has never attracted anybody’s attention until today. And for good reason. Wawrinka is considered Federer’s whipping baby just like the herd of Spaniards are for Rafael Nadal. The scoreline, 6-1 in favor of Federer, is ample proof, considering that even the solitary victory for Wawrinka came on clay, and at a time when Federer was most vulnerable.

Today was different, however. Perhaps this was the only time—past or future—that Stan-the-man was considered to challenge Federer; many were touting him to finally topple Federer given Federer’s inconsistent form in the first week, and Stan’s hair raising performance against Andy Roddick. Stan has never been more motivated, more energized and more deadly on court, and he had the added advantage of Peter Lungdren—Federer’s former coach—on his side to help him with the specifics. An upset would have been a perfect story for the little Swiss who has played his entire career under the shadow of the Great Swiss.

There were a couple of caveats, though.

First, Federer usually ups his performance in the second week of the major, especially after the quarters.  Second, Wawrinka was coming after an emotional high after his match against Roddick. Even though Roddick is never in the elite group, he is always one of the biggest scalps for a lesser player. After all, he is a Grand Slam champion, and a former world No. 1—his career is much greater than five of the players (even Novak Djokovic has never attained the world No. 1 ranking) above his ranking. Wawrinka was in the zone against him, he was riding a high wave of confidence, which ended with an emotional high after the match.

A letdown was on the cards. The adrenaline rush was missing today, the yells of “Allez” were absent, and as Steve Tignor wrote, his greatest show of emotion was a broken racquet. And of course, Federer is not the same player as Roddick.

Wawrinka cashed in hugely by nullifying Roddick’s serve with a chipped forehand. While that neutralized the rally against Roddick, it quickly gave the more aggressive Federer and upper hand. While Stan dominated the rallies against Roddick, Federer was always in position to give it back. And when Stan’s down the line backhands were going for clean winners on Sunday, they were meekly dispatched by Federer waiting at the net. Wawrinka simply ran out of answers against the in-form Federer and the high flying Swiss back on the ground.

Of course, Federer has too much respect and concern for his countrymen, and partner-in-crime en  route to his Olympic doubles medal, hence there was no visible sign of emotion or celebration once the match completed. Wawrinka was stunned, but Federer gave comfort in the exit.

As for the others, there is no room for comfort. Federer is back in full form, starting the match with a blitz, cooling down in the middle—without any brain wobbles, though—and ending with a flourish. He is back to the top of the favorite’s list for the Australian Open—again.

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Rajat jain

Head of Tennis, CouchExpert

24 January 2011

 

After watching Robin Soderling’s yet another unceremonious exit from the Australian Open (he lost in the opening round last year), I have finally figured out why these courts do not suit this big man. The courts here are fast enough that they give his opponent a good chance to make him run around the court, and expose his fragile movement, and they are slow enough to not provide Soderling with a good enough penetration. Moreover, the relatively low bounce of these courts (compared to the French) do not suit Soderling at all.

Soderling thrives on extremes. The extremely slow conditions at Paris with bounce high enough to allow him to generate his own pace, or the extremely fast conditions of indoors to enable him to hit the first strike. He does not have a good transition game to thrive on these courts. The other stalwart of Melbourne, Andre Agassi, didn’t have that either, but he had the great return of serve, and ability to take the ball ridiculously early to make him a legend at these medium paced courts (in addition to his four titles at Australia, he has also won Miami six times, a record). Soderling has neither.

His opponent, the 22 year old Alexandr Dolgopolov utilized his weaknesses efficiently. Dolgopolov. This was the first time I watched this kid play, and I already like him—especially his last name. I said his name aloud quite a few times during this match, and he gave me enough reason to cheer for him.

In some ways, it is Dolgopolov, rather than Grigor Dimitrov, who reminds me of Roger Federer. He may not have Federer’s aesthetic one handed backhand, but he possesses two of the most important strengths of Federer—the efficient playing style (he hardly looked tired during the match even though this was his second consecutive five setter), and effortless movement around the court. Plus he has a variety of ground strokes to easily trouble Soderling.

He intelligently used his slice forehands to easily return Soderling’s big serves, and robbed him of pace with continual use of slices. When they did not seem to work, he was equally comfortable at being aggressive with his two hander, and he always had the option of running his opponent wide off court with his unique jumping top spin forehand which has enough depth and angle to trouble even the best movers in the game—Soderling was a gimme. In the third set, he was so comfortable with Soderling’s game, that he was routinely stranding Soderling by placing one drop shot after other. Soderling, who normally does not show any emotions on court other than determined fist pumps at his camp, was literally screaming in frustration.

As I said before, his game revolves around efficiency. Just like Federer, he looks like a ballet dancer on court, albeit of a different style. His inexperience showed in the fourth set as he started sensing the finish line after breaking Soderling thrice in the third set, but quickly regrouped in the decider to win the fifth set very comfortably.

This is his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, and his next test will be sterner. Murray has dropped just 22 games so far in the tournament, and will like Dolgopolov’s unorthodox game. He moves far better than Soderling, and has many dimensions in his game which would force Dolgopolov to think over his strategy mid way during the match. Dolgopolov just achieved his greatest victory in a short career so far, but as it is for any youngster, the road only gets tougher. Can he be this year’s dark horse at Melbourne? I would definitely be waiting for that to happen.

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Rajat jain

Head of Tennis, CouchExpert

23 January 2011

The scoreboard says 11-10 in the third set, Francesca Schiavone to serve for the match. The timer reads more than four hours—only minutes away from the longest women’s singles match in a Grand Slam.  But she is looking sick. She has her hand on her heart, trying to control her breathing rate. And at 29, after playing more than four hours of physically draining match, you cannot blame her. She calls for the trainer and takes a medical timeout—that when she was serving for the match.

F_schiavone_23_01

Francesca Schiavone

After her three minutes, Svetlana Kuznetsova called for her trainer too and treat her foot. She had already called for a trainer at the end of the second set, to work on her blisters—she had played the entire third set suffering from blisters.

Before this moment, Schiavone had already saved six match points, and squandered three break point opportunities at 0-40—one of them by tipping over the net while successfully reaching to a Kuznetsova volley! The drama had already reached its unexpected proportions.

And yet, Kuznetsova, the mental widget stroke two courageous forehand winners to keep the match alive at 11-11. And astonishingly, they continue to hold for six more games as the match gets to 4:21 hrs making it the longest match in women’s history. And unlike the men’s longest match—the famous Isner-Mahut saga—it was not a serving contest. They could not serve big, in fact, their serves were in the 120s and 130s by then. It was an excellent display of all court tennis.

They approached the net a total of 126 times out of 358 points played—more than once every three points. And each of those net approaches were constructed brilliantly by heavy hitting from the baseline, and using intelligent approach shots. Kuznetsova was hitting her forehand better than I have seen, and Schiavone’s defense was unparalleled. It was commendable how she was handling the heavy Kuznetsova forehand with her one handed backhand, and returning it back with interest. When she was made to run around the court, she used her supremely cupped slice backhand—one of the best in women’s game, probably better than even Justine Henin—to get back in the rally, or even gain the upper hand by creating ridiculous angles which left a scrambling Sveta reaching for the ball.

At 14-14 with a break point, Schiavone had to reach away two great volleys from Sveta to earn the break, twisting her calf muscle in the process. A trainer was again called to rub her muscles and two minutes later, she was back hustling around the court, and watched to her dismay as Sveta saved two match points of her own. Schiavone finally hit a service winner out wide to earn her third match point, and ended the next point at the net to achieve a well deserved victory.

Four Four Four. Read the timer—at four hours and forty four minutes, Schiavone finally got her reward—tired legs, fatigue and a quarter final clash with the world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

Women’s tennis has come under a lot of criticism, with the absence of Serena Williams, injured Justine Henin, a slamless No. 1, and one-dimensional baseline bashers. This match was anything but that. I hate to use superlatives, especially right after an emotional match, but I have to say this was the greatest women’s match I have ever seen. But it was played between a 30 year old and a 26 year old. We have yet to see such variety from the women in their teens or early twenties.

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Rajat Jain

Head of Tennis, CouchExpert

23 January 2011

Watching Australian Open in the United States is difficult, equally difficult as watching U.S. Open in India. It is nice to have Grand Slams across the world, but it is a given that you will have a nightmare following at least one of them due to difference in time zones. I missed watching the thriller between Hewitt and Nalbandian due of some morning commitments the next day, and many other night matches at Laver (or RLA, as it is called in Australia). I had a firm willpower to watch the teenage sensation Bernard Tomic battle his funky ground strokes with the heavy top spin of Rafael Nadal, but I accidentally dozed off at around 1AM, and when I woke up, Nadal was one point away from victory. Sigh.

From what I have heard, Tomic gave quite a few punches of his own to the world No. 1 outlasting him in winners and the ace count by a healthy margin (and of course, in unforced errors as well, which ultimately made the difference). Even though Tomic claims that he loves to play the funky cat and mouse tennis reminiscent of Miloslav-the-cat Mecir and Andy Murray, he has the ability to turn the heat when situation demands—unlike the two players he reminds us of. Murray is often criticized for the lack of offense in his game, but Tomic showed the willingness to hit a heavy ball after the 6-2 blowout in the first set. And he made Nadal sweat for most part, especially in the beginning when he raced to a 4-0 lead before pressure started to creep in. Will this talent help him to achieve what his predecessors Mecir and Murray (till now) have not achieved?

Of course, as Nadal himself confessed in his interview, it is a different ball game when you are 17 or 18, as you have nothing to lose, even if you lose. He stressed on his own match against Hewitt at the same venue seven years earlier when he impressed everybody at the stadium and declared himself as the future of tennis. I promptly searched for these clips, and it was a very different Nadal than what I have seen in the past five years.

—The YouTube ID of the poster is “federermagic,” and there is a “bonus” at the end of the title. Nice to see some Federer fans being equally appreciative of Nadal. Read the summary of this clip by the poster to get a better picture.

—Even way back in 2004, one of his knees was taped. As he started playing, and winning, more, the pressure on his body increased, and so did the tapes on his knees, which finally crumbled in 2009 after Madrid. Since then, though, it is a completely different Rafael Nadal. He plays more efficiently, is not afraid of losing a few points, and games, towards his path to victory, and hence does not play every point as if it is a match point. Many say that his level of play is not as spectacular as it was in 2008 and early 2009, but he is winning more too. And of course, the knees are no longer taped.

—That forehand! It was not like the one we see today. Very hard, as today, but as flat as have seen much like Del Potro. And he was not only hitting winners when he was on top of the ball, but even when the bounce was low. He was able to generate enough spin to keep the ball above the net, and yet, enough pace to not allow one of the best retrievers in the game (and at his peak), to have a sneak at that laser.

—Back then, Nadal’s technique on his forehand was adept at hitting flat. The massive follow through that goes above his head in a circular motion today, was not there. It was tailor made for hitting fast, flat forehands. And it was this same forehand, which helped him towards his first major breakthrough in the ATP—a win against the no. 1, Roger Federer, at Miami, just a couple of months later. Some time late during the year, he made a decision to add more spin to that laser and that resulted in the development of one of the greatest clay court players we have ever seen.

—This also explains why his transition from a clay court specialist to a supreme all court player was smooth. He always had that flat forehand—that aggressive game—ingrained in him. As he matured, he learned to find the right moment to pull the trigger from defense to offense. It made him a less attractive player to watch, but a much better one.

—I have not watched pre-2009 clips of Nadal for a while now. It was a welcome change to hear the expressive fist pumps and loud yells of “Vamos” once again.  It was never a secret that Nadal is always booming with energy on the tennis court. The utilization of that energy has changed with time. He is still as expressive as 2004, but in a different, mature way.

—Nike had not yet spotted this teenage sensation. The fiery bandana was still there, but the sleeveless was missing. The ‘pirate’ was still an infant, but with the same luxilon strings of Babolat.