Monday, 5 December 2011

2011 Davis Cup Final Reaction: Spain def. Argentina

So the Spanish Armada sails again, reclaiming the Davis Cup through a monumental struggle against a courageous Argentinian team. Rafael Nadal had the grand honour of clinching the title for his nation, and for the final match of the tennis year, it was a fitting, epic battle replete with marvellous and audacious shotmaking, incredible athleticism and a towering display of willpower from both the eventual victor, and his devastated opponent, Juan Martin del Potro. The atmosphere was more raucous than at any other tournament this year and the Argentinian contingent pound for pound matched the greater number of home supporters in the magnificent stadium in Seville. Each man energised his own support base and they in turn gave the spur to both players to keep fighting and find something extra, a dynamic which makes the Davis Cup so exciting to watch.

Del Potro gave the Argentinian supporters plenty to cheer for when he made a sprint start that knocked Nadal off his feet for the whole first set and at the start of the second. The Tower from Tandil, as he is endearingly called, opened the match with a barrage of cannon ball groundstrokes to hit a flurry of winners past a nervy looking Nadal, forcing the Spaniard far back behind the baseline. It was a firestorm of incredible hitting that carried on without hesitation into the second set where it looked like an unthinkable upset was now a distinct possibility. But Nadal crucially kicked his game up several levels after being broken straight away at the start of the second and managed to start hitting the ball bigger and deeper, dictating more rallies and mentally shaking himself out of the shellshock which had scuppered his game up to that point. Both men traded service holds until 5-4 when Del Potro faltered while serving to stay in it. It was a huge shot in the arm for Nadal and the first sign of nervousness from the Argentinian, who fell off the pace in the third set while the clay maestro dramatically increased his level, upping his aggression and winner count to shut his now flagging opponent out, 6-1. Now rolling along with wind in his sails the Spanish helmsman looked to do the same in the fourth set as he broke immediately. Del Potro looked shattered and overwhelmed by the task ahead of him, but incredibly despite all this he mounted a stubborn comeback, and managed to recoup the break to level at 2-2. However, the deficit was quickly resumed as Nadal broke to go 3-2 up, and by this point it seemed that the match was almost entirely over.

It was last stand territory for del Potro, and he responded magnificently, finding the magnitude of shot that earned him the first set. and smashed through Nadal's defences to break immediately back.. It is a truly terrifying sight to watch him rocket the ball so cleanly and powerfully, and he is perhaps the one player that everyone on tour fears to play more than any other when he is finding the lines. After blasting a forehand at Nadal to force an error on break point he launched himself into the air with renewed vigour, and with the Argentinian supporters making their voices heard as he broke to lead 5-3 he looked poised to force a decider. However the set's see-saw like logic would not permit the set to finish by virtue of a service break and Nadal clawed the break back with a brilliant forehand pass down the line. After holding to draw level at 5-5, he engineered what many would have assumed to be the definitive break of serve, but while del Potro looked like a man who had absolutely nothing left, he refused to yield and struggled his way to force an opportunity to take the set into a breaker, breaking to 30 with his battering ram forehand. But Rafa was not to be denied, and he subsequently ran away with the tiebreaker to secure another Davis Cup for Spain and put the spoils on Argentina's still un-satiated campaign for its first.

Spain is a Davis Cup powerhouse right now, and is arguably pound for pound the best team nation of the last decade. It has a depth of quality that few other nations come close to matching and has proved that even without Nadal it can prevail - as it did against Argentina in the 2009 final, which was also on hard court and not on home territory. But with Nadal as the spearhead it inspires confidence in Spain's ability to clinch future ties in pressure situations. It must have been a huge release of pressure for Nadal after enduring a year of heavy losses to Novak Djokovic, and to have the honour of clinching the Davis Cup over a brilliant effort from Juan Martin del Potro could well provide the impetus for him to overturn his difficulties this year and rekindle the passion he has admitted to be lacking of late. Praise however must also be justly lavished on David Ferrer, who vanquished del Potro two days before Nadal in an arduous five setter and shares the victory every bit as much as Nadal. If Tito Vasquez' strategy of winning the non-Nadal matches worked, starting with del Potro defeating Ferrer, the outcome may well have been reversed. But Ferrer proved like Nadal that he is a man for the big stage and weathered the onslaught to put Spain in a commanding position after the first day, and would have been fully capable of clinching the tie if it went to a fifth rubber. They have a daunting Davis Cup record between them with an untarnished singles resume on the clay, and are undoubtedly the strongest singles pairing in the world right now. For both men it is a humble victory for the nation and not for either of them individually, but simultaneously the victory will give them the confidence to start 2011 as strongly as they ended it. Although for Nadal this year was undoubtedly one of his worst, and he bowed out of the World Tour Finals looking lacklustre, he still won the French Open and the Davis Cup - two tournaments we can say he comfortably owns when he is on form. Ferrer on the other hand produced his finest season to date. He beat two different world no.1s (Nadal in Australia, Djokovic in London), made the World Tour Finals semi-final and helped Spain secure the Davis Cup, as well as performing almost all year round at his highest ability. They are both excellent ambassadors for the sport, and their dedication to find the energy to win the Davis Cup the week after the World Tour Finals was a phenomenal display of sheer mental determination.

To close, it would be an insult not to remark on the tremendous performance of Juan Martin del Potro throughout the Davis Cup and the bright future many have predicted for him. The pressure was all on his shoulders, and for someone we forget is still young, he committed himself admirably despite being on the losing side twice in a row. He pushed both Ferrer and Nadal as far as he could and fought relentlessly to prolong a tie which was skewed favourably towards the Spanish, summoning some his best tennis for the biggest occasion. There were not just flashes of his US Open victory in 2009, but extended examples of how good del Potro could be next year; in the first set against Nadal he played a flawless set of outstanding attacking tennis, and looked convincing enough at that point to have won the match. Against Ferrer he led by two sets to one and perhaps should have closed it out in the fourth set, but was eventually beaten by the Spaniard who has a signature habit of not staying dead. Del Potro was understandably hurting a lot after both losses (mentally and physically) but the signs are encouraging for an immensely talented player many still project to be a future world no.1. His rise this year into the top 20 from outside the top 200  has been nothing short of staggering, and we can read his last two performances of the year as a warning shot to the rest of the tour. Currently ranked 11, he inhabits the position of a danger man no one wants to face in the early stages of a Grand Slam, and he gave both of the two best players in the world a scare at the French Open and at Wimbledon, managing to take a set off Djokovic and Nadal and threatening to pull off a huge upset. He has the ability and the belief that he can return to the heights of winning his first major, and it will provide one of the most interesting narratives next year, one that may even impact on those of the current top 4.

Friday, 2 December 2011

2011 Davis Cup Final Preview: Spain vs Argentina

In a rematch of the 2008 final, Spain will face off against Argentina in front of a home crowd in Seville, Spain. The Spaniards are heavily favoured to raise the Davis Cup again, and for the Argentinians the odds would appear to be stacked monumentally against them. It is possibly the most daunting prospect of defeating a clay specialist nation on its own turf, against the greatest clay court player of all time and his formidable wingman, David Ferrer over 5 sets, and an excellent doubles team in Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco.

Argentina will be relying heavily on Juan Martin Del Potro to make an upset by defeating David Ferrer in the second singles rubber and attempt to put the Spanish doubles team under pressure going into the second day. The coach of Argentina, Tito Vasquez, has already made a bold gamble to front Juan Monaco for the opening rubber against Rafael Nadal instead of the superior Nalbandian, who is scheduled to play the doubles with Eduardo Schwank, and the logic would appear that he is hoping for Del Potro to win, and to take the doubles the following day. One can only conclude that the strategy with Monaco is to draw the match against Nadal out, because it is unforeseeable that he would be able to defeat the King of Clay, who has never lost on clay in the Davis Cup, and to win as many matches around those involving Nadal, as possible. Unfortunately, it is a strategy that doesn't make a lot of sense - the approach should be to win every match, not to build it around calculating the matches which can be won or lost. The efficacy of his strategy will be borne out after the two singles matches  are played tomorrow.

Certainly, the talented, huge hitting Del Potro has an excellent chance against Ferrer, who has admitted to feeling tired, and being forced to extend his tennis season because of the Davis Cup final. The tall Argentinian is a very good clay courter and moves very well on the surface, and with his powerful groundstrokes combined with what has been reported to be a zippy surface, he may well be able to hit through Ferrer. But we should not expect less than everything from Ferrer, who is an excellent clay player and a defensive fortress -no matter how tired the Spaniard is, Del Potro will need to be striking a clean consistent ball against him to have a chance.

It is difficult to envision the Argentinians upending the Spaniards on home territory, but there is a glimmer of a chance, and will depend firstly on Del Potro getting a win over Ferrer - if Spain take the first two matches, the tie could well be over. But even then the pressure will still be on them to secure the doubles on saturday, which is another uphill task against two experienced players in Lopez and Verdasco. I can't see past a convincing win for Spain with the intimidating Rafael Nadal at the helm of one of the strongest Davis Cup teams in recent history.

Prediction: Spain: 4 Argentina: 1

Monday, 28 November 2011

ATP World Tour Finals 2011 Reaction: Roger Federer def. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 6-7, 6-3

He looked the strongest going into the tournament, and Roger Federer once again proved his prowess on the blue courts of the O2 in London, eventually overcoming a threatening fightback from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to set a new record with his 6th year ending championships title, as well as a 70th title. He has not lost a match since the US Open and inhabits the identical position he was in at the end of 2010 after winning at the O2, where many expected him to win the Australian Open. As ever tongues must be held, since coming off perhaps one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory; no one expected Djokovic to go on the tear that he eventually did - but look where we are now. It certainly portends well for Federer, who (as we are incessantly reminded) is in the twilight years of his career, but was able to summon the spark that led him to his first year end championships back in 2003.

The first set was a nervy trade of blows between Federer, until the critical moment came on Tsonga's service game when serving at 3-4 down he let Federer back into a point he should have finished with an easy putaway volley. Federer scrambled brilliantly and managed to put a backhand pass past Tsonga to engineer break point, before breaking to go up 5-3 and secure the first set. From that point on it looked plain sailing, and when Federer broke early in the second set, it looked like the final was over with Tsonga appearing spent. But the Frenchman admirably fought back, capitalising on a weak service game from Federer when serving for the championship and saving a match point in the tiebreaker to force a decider. The mercurial Frenchman had started to gain the upper hand in the rallies, and the match was beginning to resemble his magnificent comeback at Wimbledon. Tsonga must be a a frightening prospect to play against when he begins to snowball in confidence and power, and that's what appeared to be happening late in the second and at the start of the third, as he saved a match point with a crushing forehand, and was sending down booming serves. At this point Federer looked to be hanging on, but as he always manages to do, he picked the right moment to push for the killing stroke and put a stopper on Tsonga's momentum, breaking him midway through the final set and eventually serving it out. Although this was not his best performance of the tournament, Federer did want champions do and seized the moment, this time without faltering as he has done at other junctures this year.

Portents aside, what Federer has done this year is remarkable, even if he has been estranged from a Grand Slam since the Australian Open in 2010. He made four major semi finals and won the World Tour Finals when he could have easily been deflated to some crushing losses, one of them to his stubborn opponent, Tsonga, and showed he still has the game to compete with his younger contemporaries. As for Tsonga, he still inhabits the position of being on the cusp of accomplishing something astonishing, a Grand Slam perhaps, but chances are he would have to go through Djokovic, Nadal and Federer to do it, possibly an unfair ask.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Novak Djokovic vs David Ferrer - Live Close Up Reaction

For the second year in a row I visited the O2 Arena in London to see the ATP World Tour Finals last wednesday, where I observed very fortunately from the front row a group match, between Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer. The atmosphere is as they say, electric, which is appropriate both in terms of the neon blue aesthetic of the games and the sea blue courts, and the ambience of anticipation and excitement of the guarantee that you will see one of the top players in the world. It really is a unique venue and I would encourage anyone who hasn't been to visit it once during the final two years that the World Tour Finals is hosted there.

The first match whichever session you attend is a doubles match, and that day I was lucky enough to see the top doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan in action, who comfortably dispatched the Swedish pairing of Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau. Although only around half the stadium capacity turned up for the doubles, you can learn a lot about technique from watching the doubles, and there can be no better benchmark these days than the almost unstoppable Bryan pair. Both brothers are super athletes with virtually no weaknesses in their respective games; they share phenomenal reaction speed at the net, have incredible court awareness and very rarely err when it comes to shot selection, which in doubles is paramount considering the rallies are generally shorter and frequently require fast decision making. I saw all of that while I was there although the match was over in barely an hour, but it was a pleasure watching them dismantle another very good doubles team. It is often said that either brother would easily make the top 50 if they chose to play in singles, and I fully believe that. Afterwards they both very kindly signed my programme and took the time to talk to their fans, which was great to see.

Another half an hour later and the singles match was about to start, with the suspense slowly being built up for Djokovic and Ferrer. It is superbly done, cinematic in execution and winds the crowd up perfectly for the match. I had a perfect perpendicular court side view where I could see both players with perfect clarity, and I took the rare opportunity to observe what you perhaps can't observe so finely when watching it on television. Both players are explosive movers; Djokovic does so much with his split step and his anticipation of where the ball was going was impressive. Ferrer is similarly fast out of the blocks when on the run, and the microsteps he takes to get in position before striking the ball are phenomenally quick and precise, and a great model for those learning the game to (attempt to) imitate. What particularly impressed me with Ferrer that night however was the depth of his groundstrokes when he was under attack. He keeps an incredible length when under fire, and was able to turn defence into attack or a forced error from Djokovic countless times - as I say to people who I know  me, depth can be every bit as effective as raw power, and Ferrer is a paragon of that game. And it was partly Ferrer's incredible consistency of depth, combined with his willingness to attack, which gained him the victory. He also served superbly, which he has done for most of the year, and that allowed him to get on top of the points early.  For me, it was one of Ferrer's greatest performances, and he convincingly conquered the world no.1 6-3, 6-1. Unfortunately, despite Ferrer's brilliance, I didn't get to see Djokovic completely in full flight, partly because Ferrer didn't let him, but also because he has been for the past month in a state of what he terms 'overload', and he spent the match struggling with his groundstrokes and also his serve (which may or may not be related to the shoulder injury which has hindered him recently). Nonetheless, I was able to observe the motion of his groundstrokes which seem to produce so much easy power, the shots he 'unlocked' this year when Djokovic took over the world and accomplished one of the greatest years in the history of tennis.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

ATP World Tour Finals 2011 Preview

The clash between the top 8 players in the world commences this Sunday in what must be one of the most anticipated year end championships in a long while. What has been dubbed the 5th Grand Slam promises some scintillating clashes and the emerging consensus among tennis commentators is that although the big 4 are the obvious front runners, there is a good potential for some high profile upsets. Most prominently, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have been drawn in the same group and will be playing the most anticipated group match in the World Tour Finals this year, while world no.1 Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will face off in the other group.

The front runner is surely Federer, on a hot streak with two straight titles in Basel and at the Paris Masters - one of the few Masters tournaments to evade the maestro - and playing commanding attacking tennis. It would be a huge shock to see Federer bow out before the semi finals, who seems to thrive during the indoor season, and there will be no obstacle of surface transition as there could be for Rafael Nadal. The 02 is a court that plays very similar to the Paris Masters (slow, low bounce) and that only helps Federer's cause for making an historic win of 6 year end championships, and putting the fear of his name back into the cohorts who have outdone him this year.

Nadal on the other hand is an unknown quantity; he lost early in Shanghai, skipped Paris and as traditionally regarded is thought to be on his weakest surface, and at his weakest time of the year. But Nadal is smart, and the decision to skip Paris was predicated on the upcoming Davis Cup final with Argentina not long after the World Tour Finals. One gets the sense that out of the World Tour Finals and the Davis Cup, Nadal would rather sacrifice a win at the 02 for Davis Cup glory, and that he will be trying to conserve himself for a potentially arduous battle against the Argentinians, who are no slouch when it comes to clay, and are packing the heat of Juan Martin Del Potro and David Nalbandian. If that is the case we might see a looser Nadal than usual who is willing to flatten his shots out and kill matches earlier, and he may be even more dangerous than he usually is in that sense. Lest we forget, he made it to the final last year and played Federer pretty close, and despite the objectors Rafa has shown he has the ability and sheer determination to fight on surfaces that are not quite so propitious to his topspin founded game.

Djokovic, similar to Nadal, is erring on the side of fragility at the moment, and the big question still hanging in the air is over the severity of his shoulder injury which has forced him to retire on several occasions in the past few months (including a premature withdrawal against Jo Wilfried Tsonga in Paris earlier this month). He has however said that the shoulder was at 100% during serve practice, so we'll have to take his word for it, whether he appears to be downplaying it or not.With Novak's year, we can never count him out.

Murray is on a hot streak despite losing to Berdych in Paris last week, and has only lost one matche since bowing out of the US Open to Rafael Nadal, whom he defeated to take the Tokyo title, including a 6-0 final set in which he played superb attacking tennis. Murray seems to thrive in the pressure of playing in front of his home crowd, and will be energised somewhat by his new no.3 ranking accrued during the Asian hardcourt swing. It could well be his his first WTF final, following which the British media will go into its usual hyperbolic frenzy.

Finally, the competition cannot be underestimated and should not be considered as 'the rest'. David Ferrer is a nightmare to play against on his best days and no one should be surprised if he takes some high ranking scalps. Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych are dangerous, powerful hitters who are particularly proficient on indoor hard court, Tsonga having made the final of Paris last week, and Berdych being the winner recently of Beijing. Perhaps the weak link is Mardy Fish, but again, he has a game conducive to hard courts with his big serve and willingness to rush the net.

This is a highly open draw in terms of competitiveness, and don't be surprised if we see more than one surprise semi-finalist. Every man feels he has a chance against the next, and that should provide for some brilliant tennis.

Monday, 24 October 2011

WTA Championships Istanbul Preview

The top 8 WTA players commence their group stage matches for the year end championships tomorrow, and it should prove an interesting end to the year, even if it is lacking in heavyweights such as Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters. It does contain three new slam winners in Sam Stosur (US Open), Petra Kvitova (Wimbledon) and Li Na (French Open) but out of the three only Kvitova has looked in good enough form to possibly take the title, who won her first title since Wimbledon by winning Linz. Disappointingly none of them have built on their grand slam overtures by dominating the field and exploiting the power vacuum that is the absence of Serena Williams, and particularly in the case of Na she has even retrograded from her grand slam winning form, bombing out of her home tournament in Beijing before the semi finals. Of the 8 women, perhaps the one who has looked most impressive is Victoria Azarenka, who recently won Luxembourg without dropping a set, and there is also the tricky, in-form Agnieszka Radwanska, who won back to back titles in Tokyo and Beijing. The groups are as follows:

Red Group:                                                             White Group:
Caroline Wozniacki (1)                                            Maria Sharapova (2)
Petra Kvitova (3)                                                       Victoria Azarenka (4)
Vera Zvonareva (6)                                                   Li Na (5)
Agnieszka Radwanska (8)                                      Samantha Stosur (7)

The Red Group is probably more difficult to call than the White Group. Wozniacki has continued to look unconvincing as the world no.1 and is susceptible to tall big hitters like Petra Kvitova, and I don't see her having an easy match. Radwanska would probably match up best for her as she is not as aggressive as Zvonareva or Kvitova, but what Wozniacki has shown is that you she can lose to players not even in the top 10 this year. Provided Kvitova's game is not error strewn, I put her above Wozniacki as the most likely to make it out of the group stage. 

In the White Group Sharapova's name jumps out immediately simply because even at her worst she is terrifically difficult to put away, although her serve has let her down all year and remains a serious liability. Stosur has disappointed lately, probably as the result of a post US Open lull, but if she finds her A game she has the weapons to beat anyone in the group and I give her a chance to make the semis, if not to win the tournament. Li Na has looked the most vulnerable in the past few months and it is difficult to see her making it out of the group. Azarenka on the other hand should be able to succeed fairly comfortably past the round robin.


Red Group Semi Finalists: Kvitova, Wozniacki
White Group: Azarenka, Sam Stosur

Final: Azarenka def. Kvitova

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Winter Preview

With the Asian hard court swing completed there are only two major events to the year left: the Paris masters, and the World Tour Finals in London. In some ways, this part of the season hasn't been much different from last year's; the players are understandably tired - Djokovic is out recovering from a back injury and Federer skipped the Shanghai masters to rest -, Nadal has entered his late year doldrums with a surprising loss to Florian Mayer and an inexplicable final set rollover in the final of Tokyo against Murray; and like primed clockwork, Murray has torn up the Asian hard courts with titles in Bangkok, Tokyo and Shanghai, and only one loss in his last 26 matches. Murray will be the favourite at the Paris Masters after his recent rampage, and he has been playing exceptional, aggressive tennis in the past 3 weeks or so which will put him in good stead to capture Paris on its ultra fast indoor surface.

However, it doesn't follow necessarily that he can sustain this into the World Tour Finals in November. Expect Federer to get all the practice he needs in Paris, and if Nadal manages to pull himself together I actually rate his chances quite highly to make the semi finals or better at the WTF. Djokovic is harder to ascertain. His recovery from the back injury which forced his withdrawal from the Davis Cup against Argentina could be a significant consideration, as well as his lack of match practice and general fatigue, but he still may have enough left in the tank to top off his golden year. That is not to say that Murray's success is dependent on the rest of the top 3 as in this kind of form he is capable of beating anyone, but it could provide an original ending to the year, should he manage to win the year end finals, and deny Djokovic a final coat of polish to his trophy heavy season.

Friday, 16 September 2011

US Open 2011 Men's Final Reaction: New Champion Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic def. Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1

After just over 4 hours of intense all court, all out conflict with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic has topped off a magnificent year by claiming his first US Open, and his third Grand Slam this season. Over a year that has got better and better for the Serb, the superlatives are becoming quickly exhausted but entirely justified for a season that is in contention for being the best compiled by any tennis player. He is one of only 6 players to win 3 Grand Slams in a year, which includes Rafael Nadal (only last year) and Roger Federer, and extended his dominance over the world no.2 Nadal to 6 straight wins.

All that has taken him to the peak of tennis was on display. His new found physical endurance and mental toughness; his geometrically precise backhand and powerful forehand; his aggressive court positioning and fluid movement; his ferocious return of serve - as well as the finer points which only champions have: bravery and the intangible ability to play clutch at the most pressured moments. It was a very familiar match to their last 5 encounters, following a pattern of play whereby Djokovic pinned Nadal with heavy groundstroke after heavy groundstroke, targeting Nadal's backhand until it broke down or forced a short reply. The first two sets were in all honesty a sedate affair in which Nadal's submission to the scoreline of 6-2 and 6-4 respectively, was borne both of being outplayed, and a seeming tentativeness from Nadal to attack Djokovic. After leading in both sets, Nadal dropped the breaks he had engineered very weakly by playing defensive, passive tennis and with a seeming lack of conviction that he could subdue Djokovic. By the time Djokovic broke to go two breaks up in the first set, he was the puppet master, pulling Nadal about on a string as he soaked up all the groundstrokes thrown at him and hit dropshots as casually as if it were an exhibition match. However, in the first two sets, apart from being up a break in both, Nadal never looked to trouble Djokovic from the baseline and was already struggling to defend his service games against the latter's superior returns. Despite Nadal's avowal to do something different in the final, he inexplicably did everything that he had been doing unsuccessfully against Djokovic all year. As I outlined in my preview of the final, I identified that Nadal's strategy with his forehand would be an important marker of success against Djokovic, as his usual pattern of play whereby he attacks the Serb's backhand with heavy topspin forehands, has proven to be futile in the recent past. Djokovic's backhand is so technically sound, that even Nadal's forehand cannot counter how smoothly he defends off that wing, taking the ball on the rise and being able to hit winners consistently down the line. Nadal continued to go crosscourt with the same play and time after time Djokovic was able to redirect the ball wider to Nadal's forehand and exploit the ground he had given up. Nadal also gave up ground by hitting shallow defensive slices, and although at times it had some effect, it more than often gave Djokovic the license to pick his spots.

Second, I said the serve would be key, as it is for anyone else playing Djokovic, in order to have the best chance to knock him off balance and try to take control of a point before he gets into a rally. Nadal served poorly, and even though Djokovic surely must be considered to be one of the best returners in the history of the game, a serve that lands in the middle of the service box barely travelling above 100mph and with no direction is wont to be returned with all the venom that Djokovic gave them the other night. Nadal's first serve average was a weak 107mph, and at one point he even hit one under 100mph. That kind of tentative, directionless serving is simply not good enough to trouble Djokovic, and Nadal knows it as he admitted in his presser that he had a terrible serving day. A year ago, his serve took him to his first US Open title, reaching speeds in excess of 130mph and ensuring he was only broken on serve a handful of times, but it seems to have regressed, and Nadal knows he has to address it in the coming months if he is to finish the year strongly.

But for all the plaudits Djokovic is deservedly receiving, Nadal must be applauded too. After being comprehensively outplayed in the first two sets, he mounted a ferocious comeback when it seemed as if the match was going to end in straight sets. Crucially, he changed his strategy in the third set, and started to attack Djokovic's forehand with the hugest topspin blasts from his forehand as he could muster. If Djokovic has the best down the line backhand in the sport, Nadal still has the most devastating down the line forehand, and when he began to crush more balls into that corner at around 2 games all it began to yield much more success as he began to hit more winners and force more errors off that wing. Djokovic still managed to break him, but Nadal was far from finished, summoning the legendary strength of will that defines him, and refusing to fall without a titanic fight. What followed was one of the greatest sets of tennis ever played: an astonishing display of some of the finest shotmaking and unbelievable athletic ability which lifted the tennis temporarily to an even higher plane than it is already on. The crowd reaction was indication enough, as many could not stifle their cries of disbelieving awe amidst watching rallies that were truly otherworldly. As with the Federer and Nadal match up, Nadal and Djokovic keep pushing each further and further to produce shots of previously inconceivable excellence. At 6-5 down in the third set, Nadal avoided going matchpoint down by winning what some have dubbed point of the tournament, quite possibly the year; a bruising rally over 20 strokes long in which both were virtually hitting winners at each other, only for either man to send each other's shots back. Earlier in the set, facing break point at 3-4 down, Djokovic finished an extended point almost identically, by hitting a backhand winner down the line. This was the standard of the points, and it was superhuman.

The brutal extended rallies of the third set however had by then run both athletes into the ground. Djokovic took a medical timeout, albeit at a rather contentious point in the 4th set while 1-0 up and before Nadal's service game, and Nadal appeared to have run out of gas completely. He was rolled 6-1 in the fourth and final set in antithesis to the spectacular battle that had preceded moments before as Djokovic managed a sprint finish, finding several forehand winners and ending on a flourish by lashing an inside out forehand past an exhausted Nadal. His fourth Grand Slam, his next target he professes to be the French Open, which would  make him, remarkably, the third man to complete the career Grand Slam within 5 years, along with the men he shadowed for so many years, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Furthermore, the year is not over yet, as how well he finishes the season will determine whether his really is the greatest year, with the World Tour Finals in November the last major title to win. Not just for Novak Djokovic, but for tennis, it has been an incredible year where boundaries have once again been broken and new standards set.

Monday, 12 September 2011

US Open 2011 Men's Final Preview: Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic

Of all the matches the Spaniard and the Serb have played this year, their 6th meeting will be the most fascinating. The year has come full circle, both from a time perspective, and because the US Open final last year was one of the turning points for Novak Djokovic, one of the sparks along with the Davis Cup that produced a chain reaction of wins and only two losses. It was at the US Open where Djokovic rediscovered his real ability. It was also the place where Rafael Nadal completed his career Grand Slam by winning the major which had eluded and seemed destined to elude him, for years. It holds a very strong significance for both men. But in terms of the future, whoever wins could have an impact on the shape of the year to come. Should Djokovic claim his 4th Grand Slam and beat Nadal for the 6th straight time, it will further consolidate his status as world no.1, and ensure that this year is considered one of the greatest seasons to have ever been compiled by a tennis player. Nadal will be left shattered by another loss and no further along in his task of defeating Djokovic. But if Nadal wins, and splits the slams two apiece for the year, he will have proven that despite his consecutive losses, he was able to beat the undisputed best player this year on the highest stage, and on his best surface. It may prove the impetus Nadal needs to overturn Djokovic's dominance over him and reassert his, claiming his 11th Grand Slam in the process and strengthening his already achieved status as one of the greatest to ever play the game. Nadal said he would draw inspiration from his win over Djokovic at the US last year and try to emulate that success tonight, and if he manages to red line his game like he did against Murray, he will give himself the best chance to finally avenge those 5 straight losses.

This is all to assume that Djokovic is still the man to beat. Which he probably is, but not without some caveats. Of all 4 Grand Slams, Djokovic has looked visibly vulnerable in his last 3 matches. Let us not forget that Federer held 2 match points against him in the last round, and that he had considerable difficulty putting away countryman Janko Tipsarevic until he was forced to retire, and looked unconvincing against Dolgopolov. Nadal on the other hand has looked progressively better with each match, and is close to his peak form with an excellent win over Murray. Nonetheless, Djokovic knows he has the weapons to beat Nadal, and feels confident staying with him on the baseline. He is also without doubt the best returner in the men's game at the moment, and will make Nadal pay for any short, predictable serves. The key for both men will be the serve. If Djokovic serves well, he'll put the pressure on Nadal to defend his service games, and if he serves strongly he should manage to stop Djokovic getting into rallies and controlling at the baseline. The onus will be marginally heavier on Nadal to do more with his backhand and try to damage Djokovic with his forehand by changing his mode of attack by targeting Djokovic's relatively weaker forehand wing with inside out forehands. For Djokovic, how well he is hitting his backhand could make an important difference; in the match with Federer he wasn't hitting his patented down the line backhand with as much authority as we're used to seeing, but if he dials it in for the final it will prove as damaging to Nadal as it has done all year. As he has acknowledged, Nadal has to do something different, whilst retaining the elements which armed him well enough to beat the Serb at the same stage next year, and the grit and indomitable will which he is known for.

This will be a fascinating competition of unbreakable wills and pulsating shotmaking; my prediction:

Rafael Nadal to win in 5 sets.

Samantha Stosur: The New US Open Women's Champion

Sam Stosur def. Serena Williams 6-2, 63

Australia's Sam Stosur is this year's ladies' singles US Open champion, and she produced one of her greatest ever performances to do it, beating no less than 14 time slam winner Serena Williams. Stosur, in only her second major final, crushed the nerves that stifled her in the French Open final last year, and similarly crushed Williams in two straight, convincing sets. From the off Stosur declared her intent by attacking Williams relentlessly with her powerful inside out forehand and hitting huge, high kicking first serves which frequently surprised and jammed the strong American up. She did not succumb to the strong start-rapid collapse narrative either as she broke Williams to secure the first set, and kept up the pressure at the start of the second. Her untroubled confidence was threatened in the opening game when Serena engaged in a heated spat with the umpire after she had yelled out before a point was over, and the point (and the game subsequently) was awarded to Stosur. The American crowd, predictably wound up in a storm over the ruling, could have got to her. But in great testament to her unflinching mental determination, she remained as cool as she had done in the first set, and despite being broken immediately after, managed to break Williams to go 5-3 up. She closed the match out, nervelessly, and with a perfect sense of appropriateness by hitting a powerful inside out forehand that sailed past Williams for a winner, and sealed her name as a new Grand Slam champion. There have been 3 new champions this year, but of the three only Stosur has a home Grand Slam in the Australian Open, next January - expect her to be a major contender, and to give Australian tennis the inspiration it has been searching for in the past few years.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

US Open 2011 Men's Semi Final Reactions

Roger Federer vs Novak Djokovic 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5

Federer came into this match as the only man to have beaten Djokovic in a Grand Slam this year, and looked fully confident to repeat the rare feat as he took a two sets to love lead against the Serb after a tight first set tiebreaker. Federer said before the match that he expected Djokovic to come out very aggressive but perhaps disarmingly, the world no.1 played peculiarly passive early on in the match and didn't seem to be striking the ball with the confidence and aggression we've been accustomed to seeing from him the past 9 months. Perhaps it was the sapping effect of having to summon his own energy without the support of a vociferously pro-Federer crowd, who very unfairly seemed adamant not to applaud his finest shots, or the result of a fatigue which has become more apparent this US Open, where he looked off key against countryman Janko Tipsarevic the round before. As the Swiss took control of the match 2 sets up, he looked confidently poised to kill the match.

However, Djokovic's new found champion mentality eventually shone through as he mounted an astonishing fightback, managing to reach the level which has seem him surrender only two losses this year and taking the next 2 sets as Federer's level dropped off. By the end of the 4th set, it seemed as if Federer had acknowledged that he was in a familiar nightmare, one which had seem him lose this year from 2 sets up against Tsonga, but also one which was a mirror image of his loss to Djokovic in the US Open last year. Federer looked determined not to let it happen again. The two men engaged in some bruising, breathtaking baseline rallies at the start of the 5th as they had done earlier, but at this point they looked both to be on the same level, whereas in the first 4 sets their levels fluctuated. When Federer broke to go 5-3 up, it seemed as if he was finally going to put the nightmare to rest, as he manufactured 2 match points. Djokovic had the look of a man staring down the barrel of the gun, as he had done a year ago, accepting his execution. Like last year, he hit out, hard, and crushed a bullet cross court return winner that left Federer stunned. After this single astonishing moment, Federer's belief appeared shattered as he dropped the game. It was the deus ex machina of the match, and a testament to the sheer bravery of Djokovic to repeat what he had done a year prior. He looked to the partisan crowd and lifted his arms to rouse their recognition, if not their support, and 4 games later was holding match points of his own. He closed out without too much additional drama what was arguably the match of the year, and certainly of the US Open.

Rafael Nadal vs Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2

This was the third meeting in a Grand Slam this year between Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the Spaniard twice the victor at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Nadal had comprehensively beaten him on the terre battue, but Murray had come closer at Wimbledon, and on the great levelling surface of the hard courts, which is incidentally Murray's best surface, the Scot would seem to have a better shot than any time of the year to avenge his losing streak to Nadal dating back to the World Tour Finals last year. Entering the US Open, Nadal was a long way from the form which saw him lift the trophy for the first time last year, and much has been made of the 5 straight shattering losses he has taken from Novak Djokovic. Before the match, it would seem Murray had a prime opportunity to make his 4th Grand Slam final and have another shot at taking his maiden slam home. Underestimate Nadal at great peril, however. He was slowly building up momentum after crushing Andy Roddick in straight sets the round previous, and he carried this form forward to devastate Murray's dreams once again. There were no twists and turns as with the previous match between Federer and Djokovic, no heart stopping volte face, and like the exhausted Arthur Ashe crowd, it was a more sedate affair, especially after Nadal took the first two sets with ease. Apart from the fightback from Murray in the third set, it did not approach the drama which had ended around an hour earlier.

Nonetheless, the tennis was far from sedate, and at periods pound for pound matched the intensity and level of shotmaking in the prior match. Murray, as was expected, upped his aggression against Nadal, rushing the net, hitting his forehand bigger than usual and unleashing off his stronger backhand wing. It came at a price however, as Murray sacrificed the consistency linked to his counter-punching style with a myriad of unforced errors which sprayed commonly from his forehand side. Unfortunately for Murray, this shot is still his weakest and doesn't compare to the forehands of the rest of the top 3 players. Murray still needs to work on the forehand technically and learn to be able to consistently take the ball up the line for winners, and until then, he will struggle to beat Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer. For Nadal on the other hand, how well he hits his forehand is a barometer of his confidence, and with the most viciously top spun shot in the sport he produced a flood of winners and mind bending passing shots from that wing. Murray was left several times in disbelief after hitting what appeared to be winners or great approach shots, for them to be sent back, dismissively for proper winners.

Nadal played his best match of the US Open and of the season, and crucially appears to have recovered the form and confidence which saw him win his first US Open last year. He did whatever he wanted to with his forehand; he hit it inside out, up the line, loaded it with topspin and had the option of hitting flat; hit his backhand with more authority than he has done all year; opportunely approached the net; defended phenomenally, and proved once again that despite the semblances of mental fragility in the past few months, is still a mental giant. He'll need his legendary mental fortitude if he is to finally conquer Djokovic in the final, and provided he plays near to this form, who's say he won't solve the Novak enigma before the year's out ?

Murray on the other hand, should not be disheartened by another crushing loss to the Spaniard to this year. Although he could not sustain his level of aggression, and is still looking for the median point between controlled aggression and error strewn meltdown, he, like Rafa with Djokovic, should and will be searching for solutions of his own.