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.