Monday, February 1, 2016

THE EVOLUTION OF THE DJOKOVIC SERVE

The single most important stroke in tennis by far is the serve:  it is the only time you have a chance to hit a ball in hand.  There's nothing in the rules saying you have to give yourself an overhead smash on your serve - you could legally hit it underhand, but as it were, the evolution of the game means that the serve is taken when the body can generate the most racquet head speed, imparting the most power, the most spin and the most acute angles.  
But what about one serve in particular, that of Novak Djokovic, has made it so good after it was so bad for so long?  Years ago, back when he used to lose to the top players more often than he beat them, Djokovic's serve was his albatross.  It wasn't the only problem in his game, but it was by far the most glaring.  After all, how could a player with such great hand-eye coordination (as evidenced by the second most important shot in the game - the return of serve) be so bad at hitting a ball in hand?
Well, the secret to his success is no secret at all.  Like Rafael Nadal, Djokovic hired a coach that worked on his serve and turned it from a liability to an asset.  Today, the tactical acumen of the serve, imparted by (who I must begrudgingly admit has done wonders for that stroke and his game in general) none other than Das Wunderkind Boris "Boom Boom" Becker, is as impressive as any other aspect of his game.  That's saying a lot, given how good he is as so many other things.
But in order to use the serve effectively from a tactical perspective, it's got to go in - and that's something that he had trouble with back in the day.  There are those who bemoan the "lost" year that Novak Djokovic spent with Todd Martin in 2010 as a colossal waste of time.  Martin, for his part, has not returned to coaching ATP players, and Djokovic has gone from strength to strength.  As such it's easy to dismiss any possible positive impact Martin had on the Djoker's game.  
But video doesn't lie.
First, some background:  when Marian Vajda was stopped by veteran tennis journalist Ubaldo Scanagatta, in what appears to be an airport lounge in 2011, he dispensed with the stupidity and inadequacy of the "belief" gibberish that Djokovic had been spouting all year about his game, and insisted on a technical explanation for his renewed success, after 2 years of profligacy in the majors.  Scanagatta (himself a former University tennis champion in Italy) didn't allow Vajda to perpetuate the ruse, or at least was unsatisfied with it and went shot by shot to discover how Vajda (a mediocre player, but an outstanding coach) transformed his game.  In this video, he explained how Djokovic wasn't that far off technically, but among the many issues to be addressed, the serve was chief among them.
Jump to this analysis, which explains how the serve has improved:
Again, few are prepared to give Martin any credit for Djokovic’s serve in 2011, but they worked on that serve for almost a year before it improved. Before Martin, his serve was a disaster (again, not my words, Vajda’s).  Don't believe me, or don't remember?  Here is the monstrosity that is was in 2009 with the stiff arm, the over-rotation, and a reluctance for his body weight to carry him into the court:
Now there weren't too many people who were able to explain what was wrong with his serve, but it's worth noting that Djokovic didn't address it until he took on Martin as a coach.  In this clip, from Indian Wells in 2010, he’s making Djokovic hold two racquets to compel the arm to come straight up to trophy position – without the straight arm:
That solved the problem of the racquet head taking too long to arrive at the point of contact, requiring him to over-rotate.  Among the many problems with over-rotation, it typically results in a player not actually watching the ball hit his strings as he serves, as well as putting the momentum of his body straight into the ground following the serve, rather than into the court.  Doing so both diminishes the power into the serve and eliminates any reasonable possibility of serving and volleying.
Here, also in 2010 at Indian wells, Martin has Djokovic serve from his knees to compel wrist pronation:
Because he's serving from his knees, he cannot finish with the racquet down at his feet - he'd break it every time.  Instead, by shortening the distance to the ground, he compels Djokovic to pronate the wrist after the point of contact, maintaining racquet head speed through the point of contact and allowing him to hit down on the ball.  This also alleviates the likelihood of over-rotating, since doing so would land the serve in the ground in front of the net.  The wrist pronation not only eliminates any unwitting deceleration prior to the point of contact, it also compels forward momentum into the court.
And finally here is what the serve looked like in 2011 – the stiff arm is almost gone and the racquet head comes almost straight up to trophy position:
As far as the stroke production is concerned, Djokovic’s serve became solid in 2011, just after his parting with Todd Martin.  The motion remains largely unchanged, but tactically, he establishes the wide serve in both the deuce and ad courts more now than he did in 2011.  He has also incorporated a slice serve "up the T" in the ad court preventing right handed players from sitting on the wide serve and allowing him to shorten the distance past his opponent's point of contact with less risk because he's slicing the serve rather than hitting it flat.
So make no mistake about it - Novak Djokovic didn't suddenly believe in himself, and translate belief into a better serve.  With practice and the courage to re-engineer it despite being the 3rd best player in the world at the time, he did it the old fashioned way...
He earned it.

SUDDENLY SERENA...

...doesn't seem so invincible anymore.  I mean, that's twice now that she's choked away her shot at #22 - no matter what she says, that number, daunting and simultaneously inviting as it is, is making her nuts when it counts. That's not something we're used to seeing from Serena...well, we're used to seeing her go nuts when she's down, but usually the result is more power, particularly on the return of serve, accompanied by a crumbling opponent who wilts under the pressure of her game.

Well, someobody forgot to tell Kerber that her role in the Serena Show is that of the wilting supplicant...she would make a terrible understudy, by the way.


To be fair, Serena's footwork has never been particularly good - you certainly couldn't compare it to Justine Henin for example, whose footwork was nearly flawless - and as such when she gets nervous, that is usually the first thing to fail her. Boy did it fail her here. Time and again, she was hitting off balance, and frequently hitting reverse forehands from the center of the court for no reason other than she couldn't get her body positioned properly to hit through the ball - the reverse forehand is designed to maintain racquet head speed through a point of contact that is late. But that's not supposed to happen from the middle of the court - it's a bad sign when it does. 
 
In addition to that, when she gets nervous her solution is rarely to dial down the power. Normally she just loads up and hits it harder, and that's exactly the wrong thing to do when you're nervous and your footwork isn't there. But here, one must give credit where credit was due - in the second set, she not only got a hold of her emotions, but she also began to massage the ball about the court more than just hit it. As a result, as well as Kerber retrieved, Serena wound up using that against her, because all she did was chase - i.e. no more attacking, no more short angles, no more flat shots up the line, she just chased. And it worked - despite playing her worst match of the tournament, she was able to get back on even terms by doing the exact opposite of her natural instinct to hit harder.

That's why I was so puzzled by her return to profligacy in the third set. The nerves must have struck again, because she was back to trying to out hit Kerber, and the result was, if not to be expected, certainly fitting. Once again, Kerber was able to surprise her with her defensive shots on the run that landed in strange places with weird spins, and when the moment came for Serena to kill the point she decelerated the racquet head and made errors. The worst feeling in the world is to miss being careful, which is exactly what happened to Serena. Unfortunately, when she tried to belt it, she also made errors, and by the end of the match I had the feeling that she was just confused.

As far as her forays to the net are concerned - I don't know why anyone would be surprised at how poorly she volleyed. But in this particular match, Serena was nervous, and that manifests in poor footwork. For the swinging volley you have to have your feet under your. You can't reach and stretch on that shot and get the proper combination of power and topspin - it's the only shot in tennis where you're encouraged to hit down on the ball. To do that properly, you have to be on top of the ball.  Because her feet were a split second behind her mind, she was too far behind the ball to execute and wound up hitting up and out. She then switched to conventional volleys but her naturally poor technique combined with her nerves made her make a lot of errors. She also doesn't defend the net well, in fact, her net play is poor in general. Her approach shots are frequently indecisive, and her court positioning at net was almost comical. Covering the cross court pass when the down the line was the most likely option Kerber would take and vice versa. To defend the net properly requires a sense of where to go before the passing shot comes. Serena was even more lost at net than she was from the baseline.

At the US Open, Roberta Vinci did a good job of varying the spin on her forehand, hitting some deep with topspin, other times short and either side spin or simply flat, forcing Serena to hit up on her passing shots. Unlike Serena, Vinci has excellent volleys, and combined with a backhand slice that was alternately short and deep, preventing Serena from taking up a good court position, I gave credit to the little Italian for eliciting a lot of errors. I'm sure Serena was nervous, but I felt that it began with how Vinci was playing her, and got worse as the match went along. Here, all Kerber did was retrieve, and surprise her with the pace and placement of her defensive shots...the rest of it was just a case of Serena choking, nearly from the very first point.

There were two more problem areas for Serena, to name a few: first her serve abandoned her, and she didn't get the usual 1 to 2 free points per game that allows her to load up and really belt it in the rallies. Like Roger Federer, her game has evolved to rely on the serve, in order to function normally - when it goes off the boil, the game that seems so invulnerable suddenly appears to be anything but. It's not (as) hard to knock the cover off the ball and bludgeon your opponent into (typical) submission when you're up 30-0 every service game. But when you're in a hole from the off, the calculus, and more importantly, the racquet head speed suffers the consequences.

The second area that really failed her was the return of serve - which is normally a big weapon for her, and contributes to the standard capitulation of her opponents. Normally she is able to put a lot of pressure on that serve with the ferocity of her returns, but I don’t think she ever picked up the strange dynamic of a lefty serve, which was probably exacerbated by her nerves.

In short, she choked, and when she did, almost every single one of her fundamental flaws crept in. I think the clay will give her more time to load up and hit freely in the rallies and on the return of serve, and as such, while she’ll still be nervous, she will work through it better than on a hard court.

So suddenly Serena doesn't appear to be invincible. As readily as her contemporaries are to concede that she is, it just isn't the case when nerves combine with an opponent who either wittingly or unwittingly presents Serena with a style of play that is likely to elicit the worst from her under duress. I've always wondered what her opponents think they're doing when they try to out hit her. Heather Watson nearly made the upset of the decade at Wimbledon by doing a lot of retrieving and hitting aggressively when Serena allowed her to by taking some pace off her shots to manage her nerves. But everyone else (think Sharapova) tries to do what she does better than she does. That's about as clever as welterweight going toe to toe with a heavyweight in the boxing ring, and normally the results are equally distinctive.

But like I said, somebody forgot to give Kerber the script that ESPN had been working on since last September, and she just refused to do what she was supposed to do...namely lose.  I think the clay will help settle Serena's nerves because even though she'll still be nervous, she will get more time to load up and hit with power when the opportunity comes, and she has enough power that she can hit through the slow surface. I'm guessing #22 comes at Roland Garros.

But I wouldn't call that bet into the bookies just yet...

Saturday, January 23, 2016

MATCH-FIXING: THIS WILL GET MESSY

With so much of the tennis world's attention on the joint report on match fixing from BuzzFeed and the BBC, the game that we love and enjoy so much has a golden opportunity to turn the corner on an ugly chapter in its recent history.  There's nothing like a scandal to make people think twice about whether they're doing enough to ensure the integrity of the game isn't brought into disrepute by a few bad apples - just how many remains to be seen.

But there's something that worries me about the way this story is being discussed in the blogosphere, driven by how it's been addressed by those members of the media with an interest in tamping down concern that the problem is rampant (again, that remains to be seen).  The first step to solving a problem is to identify it.  The next step is to validate and/or admit that it is in fact a problem.  But to hear the way it's been discussed in the blogosphere, I'm not certain there is a clear understanding of what the problem is, as identified by the BuzzFeed report, or that we are collectively prepared to confirm that it is indeed a problem to be addressed.

The roundtable discussions on ESPN and the Tennis Channel when the BBC report was imminent, but after the BuzzFeed report had already been published, centered around the desperate reassurances (as calmly delivered as they were notwithstanding) that this is a problem restricted to the minor leagues of tennis and that the report centered around information originally reported way back in 2007.  That was clearly the message of Chris Fowler (for whom I have very little respect) and Cliff Drysdale (for whom I have enormous respect, although he has an obvious dog in this fight).  Brad Gilbert almost seemed to tacitly excuse the problem by distracting the discussion over to the (in)ability of these players to make ends meet on the outskirts of the known tennis galaxy.  It was only the pointed criticism of Patrick McEnroe that resonated with me, and forms the basis for my concern that this problem isn't actually going to be adequately addressed.

McEnroe confronted Chris Kermode's reassurances to the effect that everyone should take a deep breath, because we're handling this, indicating that this was woefully insufficient.  The lack of transparency in who has been banned and why, when investigations have begun, what precipitated them, and ultimately how they're handling the entire question of match-fixing, is not only the point of the BuzzFeed report, but is also the reason why the furor over it maintains access to oxygen.  Would it were not for the ample fuel of the opaque, the tepid responses of the blind apologists might have been entirely unnecessary, let alone sufficient.

That's the most salient point of the report - not the details of how they've determined which players frequently play matches have seen strange better patterns, nor the details of the Nikolay Davydenko case (with an exception for one detail, which I will explain later).  The real issue is that the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), charged with dealing with this, is woefully understaffed, both in manpower (a unit of two) and brain power (no professional betting analysts).  It's no wonder that their operations and progress are so secretive:  who who want the world to know how inept you are at dealing with something that has the potential to be so pernicious?

I would also argue that the details and methodology of betting analysis have not sufficiently distinguished between evidence of match fixing or evidence of someone using inside information to make a profit.  The former is very clearly illegal and would spell the death of professional tennis, but the latter is not strictly illegal, nor is it necessarily a bad thing.  If betting on tennis is to be allowed, does it not behoove the bettors, particularly those doing it for more than just a laugh, to do their homework and gather as much information about the players that they can?  The collapsed allegations against Davydenko is a case study in just this phenomenon.

Many with renewed interest in the events of that era are operating under the misapprehension that the "evidence" against Davydenko was obvious, and that the ATP let a guilty man go free because he stonewalled their investigation.  Setting aside the absurdity of both of those things being simultaneously true (which makes no sense) the facts are as follows:


Davydenko openly discussed his injury problems with the Russian press (not the mafia…the press). He was the #4 ranked player in the world playing a 125 in Sopot, Poland. He almost certainly received an appearance guarantee that was larger than the winner’s check. Most importantly, Davydenko was talking, in Russian, within earshot of on-court microphones, about an injury that he had already discussed, and was saying that it was getting worse during the match, and was saying he would retire…all of this during the match which is broadcast on the Betfair site.
It wouldn’t take a genius who 1) knew of his injury 2) spoke Russian 3) understands appearance fees in tennis and 4) is watching the match in progress to realize that a golden opportunity was presenting itself by way of those idiots who had bet on Davydenko based on ranking alone and not bothered to follow the match or don’t speak Russian.  There is a difference between match fixing and a punter doing his/her homework and gaining an edge.  There is absolutely NO EVIDENCE at all whatsoever that Davydenko fixed the result. The only thing suggesting match fixing was irregular betting patterns and the fact that Betfair cancelled settlement of all bets on the match.
Neither of which has anything to do with Davydenko.
You will also note, when you read the BuzzFeed report, that there is DIRECT evidence against Martin Vassallo Arguello (in his phone records) that, by way of 82 confirmed text messages, he was in contact with associates of known Betfair account holders.  Not all the contents of those messages were legible because Vassallo Arguello had attempted to delete them.  The report said this evidence would lead to a separate investigation – THAT evidence is a MUCH better case against him than the “evidence” against Davydenko, but for some unexplained reason Vassallo Arguello was never pursued.  

That is one of the more damning conclusions of the BuzzFeed report - that evidence of wrongdoing was and continues to be ignored by the TIU.  I should also point out that evidence against Potito Starace and Daniele Bracciali resulted in their ban by the Italian Tennis federation, some of which stemmed from their association with the same cast of characters that Vassallo Arguello was associated with. Of course their ban was the result of a police investigation and not a tennis investigation, which further discredits tennis authorities in this matter.
My specific beef with the BuzzFeed report is not their conclusion, but the evidence they use to arrive at that conclusion.  The Davydenko case elicited strong evidence of match fixing, just not match-fixing by Davydenko.  In that sense the TIU was correct in closing the Davydenko case, not because he stonewalled, but because their investigation didn't elicit any evidence of wrong-doing.  The additional information they sought, phone records of people associated with Davydenko, was essentially a witch hunt for which there was no basis aside from strange betting patterns.  Those betting patterns could be explained by other less sinister reasons, but the BuzzFeed report is correct in pointing out that Vasallo-Arguello, who happened to be Davydenko's opponent that day, provided investigators with plenty to follow up on, which they should have and didn't.  And this leads to legitimate questions about their commitment to identifying and solving the problem of match-fixing.
The problem is that the report then goes on to suggest a black list and a grey list of players who they are convinced have been involved in match-fixing and might have been involved in match-fixing (respectively), but the evidence is not 82 text messages with known betting site account holders (or associates thereof)...it's just the suspicious betting patterns, which the Davydenko case shows is tenuous evidence of wrongdoing.  
Betting patterns must figure into accusations of match fixing, but they cannot be the only evidence that castigates and ostracizes accomplished professionals as cheats. Betting patterns in addition to evidence of illicit contact with those who might be in a position to benefit from that contact, is a high bar, but the consequences of getting it wrong are too heavy for those players who might unjustly be accused and convicted in the court of public opinion, as was Davydenko.
I'm concerned that the rush to re-convict Davydenko, and put the entire story to rest, while ignoring the very real evidence against Vassallo Arguello, combined with a reliance on betting patterns and not enough hard evidence, is a sign that the tennis world is too eager to convince itself that it is dealing with match-fixing.  That often leads to weak convictions on dubious investigations and heavy-handed sentences handed down to the absolute wrong people, much as they do with anti-doping in a transparent attempt to have their cake and eat it too.

If that is the case, then this will definitely get messy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO, MARTIN AND LEWIS...NOLE AND ROG?

There was something unsettling about the interaction between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in 2015, but it's hard to put my finger on it.  Every double act has a straight man and a comic:  the straight man says, "Go and fetch me the morning paper," and the comic promptly slips on a banana peel on the way, and gets the big laugh.  It works because it's like Japanese pantomime - we all know what's going to happen before the curtain goes up, but (1) we stay for the show from start to finish and (2) take a kind of sadistic pleasure in the exasperation of one and the desperate futility of the other.  We know the names of the ball players are Who, What and I Don't Know, but that leaves us no less capable of resisting the sweet misery of Bud Abbott trying to explain that to the dimwitted and the intellectually fleeced Lou Costello. Along the way, we suspend our disbelief of the absurdity of it, with the inutility of skepticism essential to enjoyment of the ruse.

But the curious case of Nole and Rog in 2015 makes me wonder exactly which one of these two titans in the tennis kingdom of heaven is playing the stooge?

Watching the way, the closest thing Djokovic had to a rivalry this season, played itself out, I am struck by the near certainty with which both players play their part in the intrigue sans script, but no less assuredly than one might expect with one.  Their first encounter in Dubai led some to believe that Federer was on the ascendency, that he had reversed whatever deleterious effect Djokovic's win at Wimbledon may have had on the ethereal realm of his confidence.  But that dissipated so quickly, with his nearly complete and feckless capitulation at Indian Wells, that one couldn't help but wonder if the Djoker had, in fact, left something in the tank in the middle eastern desert, knowing full well that the Californian desert is the only one that really matters in the spring.

They didn't meet again until Wimbledon, and in a rematch of last year's epic final, this year's turned out to be infinitely less dramatic but no less compelling.  Victory seemed certain almost from the first long rally that turned from Federer's favor to the Djoker's.  And that sinking feeling that Fed-fans get when the Serb has decided he'd rather lose to anyone but their immortal beloved, would have moved from a subtle flutter in the stomach to a lead lump in the throat, as General Federer made his last stand in the 4th set at SW19.  Somewhere the ghost of Sitting Bull was having the last laugh all over again.  Though in some ways Roger was playing better than the year before, there was never really a moment in that match where the perception of a momentum change was anything more than wishful thinking.

Then came the revelation of the SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) in Cincinnati - another of Roger's watering holes that's good for a laugh, particularly at the expense of the vast majority of his contemporaries.  There he humiliated one player after another with not only this cheeky new "weapon", but also a brazen display of genetic superiority to those young affections that gape to be his heir.  Feliciano Lopez profanely played the part of the stupefied stooge, who yet again thought he had a shot at his Bugs Bunny, only to discover that the proverbial rabbit out of the top hat was a combination of the new racquet, the new coach, the new backhand...and the old superiority that once again insisted on imposing itself.  Even the Djoker, who would certainly have been fatigued from all those weeks of rest post Wimbledon - what with changing diapers and posting pics on twitter/facebook/instagram, and any other (wrong) place he might be looking for love - was compelled to succumb to his Hairness.

Though they've seen him do it before, and in all likelihood he'll do it again, the popularity of the most popular girl guy at the ball tournament (and as always, in the world of tennis) engulfed that poor Serbian boy who's allergic to something that everyone's heard of, but nobody really knows what it is, and just once, just once, wants to be revered as something other than the straight man.  But I wonder if he isn't the stooge?  After all the machinations and success, the clothes, the sense of humor, the talk shows, the dancing and the jokes...after all the jokes, for god's sake?  It just takes one Lucy shaped shaped Swiss guy with a little talent and some high class friends, to pull that football away from his oncoming kick, sending him flailing in the air like a rag doll, and make it all for naught.  In the end, in this tennis town (by which I mean planet Earth) there really isn't enough room for anyone not named Roger Federer.  

And yet, like a good stooge, he continues to try...

Nadal sucked the air out of the (newly half-roofed) room at Flushing Meadows, by losing to some crazy Italian bloke, who himself was usurped by his own tender Juliette's unexpected victory and confusing retirement. Though her countrywoman slew the giant with a thousand cuts, she need a 1,001 to complete the insanely unlikely story, and unfortunately it was one blow more than she had at her disposal.  And while the rest of the tennis universe (and the celebrity one) pined openly for the coronation of a grand queen for the first time in 27 years, poor Nole toiled in near anonymity, bludgeoning and sliding his way through a field of paltry challengers, including the defending champion, who had nothing but the best of intentions and the worst of capacities.  Try as they may, the immovable object had already met the irresistible force, and combined to form the 2015 Novak Djokovic - the most dominant tennis player in the open era.

Nevertheless, the final was highly anticipated - the one that we came so tantalizingly close to before King (for a day) Kei and (Cheech) Marin Cilic really overstayed their welcomes in last years final installment of the Grand Slam quadrilogy.  Finally, we would have our real drama, with a palpable belief on the part of everyone except the one that needed it the most, that the grey men of the tennisocracy so desperately wanted and needed.  Elmer Federer just may finally catch that rascally rabbit.  And in that duel between the only two men that anyone truly believed had a shot at the title in the first place, we would finally have our unexpected result.

But the pantomime returned, the stooge slipped on the banana peel and the audience went home knowing nothing more than what they did at the start of the fortnight.  The Reign of Terror that is the dominance of Novak Djokovic continues until he no longer possesses the means or the desire to occupy the throne.  Though they bayed for his blood like sanguine plebeians at the Colosseum, the result only made more stark the contrast between good and evil, by the script of this running gag, that the game has been teasing us with for the last two years.  No matter how desperately we want it to be so, nobody is beating Novak Djokovic in 2015 except maybe...well, Novak Djokovic.

Then, like Alexander, he travelled to edge of the known tennis world to that relic of yore in Shanghai, and (once again) conquered his tartan nemesis, leaving no doubt that the future is dark if your hopes for a respite from his tyranny would come in the form of a soft  Glaswegian brogue.  And after an inexplicable capitulation to the wrong Spaniard, Federer regained his composure in his backyard, and proceeded to painstakingly lumber through 3 sets to get the wrong result over the right Spaniard who despite his anno terribilis in 2015, still seemed genuinely convinced that he should have won the match, and was rightfully disappointed that he didn't.  This time, Wily Coyote finally caught the rabbit, and he went (back) to London brimming with all the confidence that his newly expanded bubble reputation could afford.  

There he cashed that Czech who has no business beating him, but seems to do just that with irritating frequency, before proceeding to sadistically set us up one last time.  He beat Djokovic so handily in their round robin match, that the man felt compelled to state the obvious (much to Roger's chagrin) - despite assurances to the contrary, the match had been handed to Federer on a silver platter.  It even smacked of sour grapes to some, but as the wheels started to come loose against a plucky Nishikori, then in a sloppy but tactical win over his countryman, the ugly truth began to take shape.  Still, having experienced the dramatic manner in which Wawrinka bludegoned his way to within 3 or 4 match points of a well deserved victory last year (ironically spurred on by the unseemly goading of Lady McFederer) this year's victory over his countryman gave us pause.  Could this year's final be the crescendo that everyone expected last year? 

It was anything but.

So there we were, at the World Tour Finals of 2015, expecting once again to be dazzled by the chance of a new generation of this rivalry, one that appeared less as pantomime than genuine drama.  The intrigue ratcheted up by a startling result in the round robin, a catty long distance exchange over perceptions of this result, and on the back of a 3rd victory over the young king (as many as the rest of the world combined), the trap door once again opened at the final step, and enveloped not only Roger Federer, but the hopes of his fans, and any remaining doubt that in this now sad tale:  his only victories are those that count less than the defeats.  Once again, the straight man was set up for a comedic finish that left us crying with laughter, with the coup de grace coming in two uneventful sets...in London.

I am reminded of the final scene of "Pulp Fiction" when Jules Winnfield calmly explains to the gentle thief at his disposal, that through the comedy of errors that brought them to the denouement, he realized that his initial interpretation of his own preamble to murder (which is not actually in the bible, by the way) was faulty.  In fact the biblical joke was on him:  he was neither the righteous man navigating the iniquities of the selfish, nor the shepherd of the weak through the valley of darkness...he was in fact the tyranny of evil men.  

I mention this because the entire year, thinking of what passes for a rivalry between Federer and Djokovic, I know it's a damn pantomime, but I've been trying to figure out which one is the stooge?  Is it Federer, who like Indiana Jones, gets his hand on the golden idol, only to have it taken from him by his own personal Belloq in Novak Djokovic?  Or is it poor Nole, who every time he thinks he's going to break through and reach the pantheon of fandom, not only of the tennis world, but of tennis heaven, where he is revered with equally rapturous fervor as his own personal Zeus - only to be kicked down the side of Mount Olympus once again?  

No, like Jules Winnfield, the joke is on us - the vein slapping addicts of sporting drama, desperate to see something other than what we know, in our heart of hearts, is always going to be the same result.  We look around the poker table, trying, in vain, to figure out who the sucker is.

The truth is that as long as Nole wishes it so, it is us.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"RAISE THE ROOF...PLEASE!"

He's been written off frequently since then, but every time he does something extraordinary he reminds us of just how special he is.  Roger Federer is the greatest player of all time - the machinations required to question that, and withhold the only accolade left for him are so convoluted and illogical, there is really no sense in arguing it any further.  Djokovic and Nadal could surpass him, and for all we know, there is some kid who just picked up a racquet yesterday who could put them all to shame.  But as I write this, this conclusion is as obvious as it is irrelevant, because it could change at any time.

But it's been three years since he won a major, and his favorite tournament outside of Wimbledon and Halle, has once again bestowed upon his historically broad shoulders the status that he hasn't had since he last lifted the trophy at SW19:  the favorite to win the US Open.  The toughest tournament in tennis just got tougher for Djokovic, with the mystery malady to his arm and core that required treatment and could flare up at any time.  Nishikori looked like a world beater at the Citi Open, when he went the distance in 3 of four matches, and defeated three of the biggest serves in the history of tennis with the quickest hands in the game - but he too has succumbed to the injury bug, and is a doubt for the Flushing.  Nadal has never been seeded this low at the US Open...never.  His form is as uncertain as the reasons behind his startling demise this year, and his chances at the US Open, while they can't be discounted, cannot rise to the level of favorite based on his form since he last lifted a major trophy.  If he cannot win at Flushing in 2015, it will break a streak of 10 straight years lifting a major, and the first since 2009 that one of those didn't include Roland Garros.

There are floaters who could be problematic for Federer:  despite defeating Andy Murray rather dismissively in the semi-final on his way to the title in Ohio, Federer has never been a sure thing against his Scottish rival.  While he's gotten the better of him the last 3 times they've played, he won't have it all his own way if Murray's game can rise to the occasion the way it has when we least expected it.  Interestingly, one of the defeats that Murray has suffered at the hands of his Swiss nemesis, was a humiliating capitulation at the World Tour Finals last year in London.  There, Federer all but admitted he had taken pity on him and given him a game, which actually strikes me as worse than completing the emasculation, and Murray himself was left to apologize for his performance, such was the weight of the defeat.  But interestingly this defeat, indoors at the O2, may give Murray his biggest worry if he is to face Federer this year under the new roof at Arthur Ashe. 

To begin with, Federer may still be the best indoor player in the world.  His last major was won with 4 of his 7 matches completed under the roof.  Against Benneteau, Federer was down 2 sets to love before the roof was pulled over the court, and suddenly he found his way past the Frenchman who somehow, by some osmosis, took on the physical deficiencies that led to Federer imminent demise in the first place.  Against Xavier Malisse, a player  whom Nick Bolletieri once proclaimed to be one of the three most naturally talented players he'd ever encountered, Federer overturned a 2 sets to 1 lead to win in 5.  Against Djokovic, the speed of play and resulting discombobulation put the result outside his reach almost from the outset.  That match was played in its entirety under the roof, and the sure bounce and thin air through which Federer's serve found its mark repeatedly, facilitated the kind of cut and run, death by a thousands small cuts approach that Sugar Ray Roger generally requires to defeat his more powerful opponents.

In the final, under the beautiful sun of a beautiful 2:00pm start, Murray looked like he was going to blow Federer off the court, let alone win his maiden Wimbledon title.  There, Federer frustratingly inched his way back into the second set, so when the roof emerged for the third set, the echo from the strike of his ball announced a change not only in conditions, but in momentum that he rode to his 17th major title.  And it is these conditions, in which we might easily find ourselves at Arthur Ashe (where Federer is almost certain to play all of his matches), that give the old man who's given himself a few years yet, the best opportunity to reach 18 and put a little more distance between himself and those who would gape to be his heir in the GOAT debate.

The word from Patrick McEnroe, which Federer picked up on gleefully as he basked in the glory of his victory lap in Cincinnati, is that just the structure of the roof, even without the roof itself, has the added effect of making conditions more sedentary, more consistent, removing the toilet bowl effect of the vortex that frequently plagues the most important matches.  The 2012 final was a battle of the elements, where Djokovic appeared to be by far the stronger player, but was confounded by the uncertain flight of the ball, mitigating the attacking elements of his game.  Murray, on the other hand, whose natural instinct is to defend, and has to be forced to be more aggressive, gladly played the percentages for 2 sets until conditions settled sufficiently for the Djoker to threaten yet another 2 sets to love come back.  In the end, Murray's staying power won the day and his first major, and laid the ground work for what had been his real target all along - Wimbledon 2013.

I am of the opinion that roofs at majors are not a good thing - one of the things that make the majors what they are is the consistency of conditions - including the elements.  Rain and wind have no idea what year it is, and if it was good enough for Jimmy Connors, and Rod Laver and Pancho Gonzales and Bill Tilden, it should be good enough for the modern supplicants to their thrones in tennis heaven.  But the US Open could ill afford to fall behind all three majors in this regard, not to mention the atrocious run of luck that saw so many men's finals pushed to Monday over the last 10 years, so the structure of the roof will make its appearance for the first time in 2015, with the roof itself to follow possibly next year.

So whether it's opened or closed, I think this more than any other condition gives Federer that one fleeting shot at glory that has escaped him for 3 years, and in all likelihood would be the last time he lifts the Swiss Flag on major soil in his storied career.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE ON NICK KYRGIOS...PLEASE

Okay, I'll take the bait - I am a tennis fan after all, and even the silly stuff gets my ears perked up like a German Shepherd.  And if you're reading this, you've heard of the comment Kyrgios made on court last night during his injury driven victory over Stan Wawrinka.  If you missed it, here's a link to as much of the story as you can handle - believe me.  It's not the worst thing I've ever heard in the heat of a sporting battle, but as far as tennis goes, he may as well have hurled the n-word.

Don't get me wrong - he's been a right pain in the arse for a while now, and deserves the derision he's on the wrong end of, but this idea that he should be punished for a stupid locker room dig at Wawrkina (and Vekic, for that matter) strikes me as being more than a bit over the top.  And this got me thinking:  what is the worst thing I've ever heard on a tennis court?  Depends on your definition of "the worst", I suppose.  I've been watching tennis for 30+ years, and I've seen a lot - and that may be one of the cattiest things I've heard from player to player - but is it the worst?  I don't know.  

You be the judge...

Davis Cup 1987 - John McEnroe to a Linesman

This one may surprise you, because we've all heard the worst of the worst at Wimbledon and the US Open where McEnroe has told umpires and linesman everything from:

"You guys are the absolute pits of the world, you know that?" 

to

"...this guy's an incompetent fool..." 

to 

"What do you want, Mr....whatever your name is...Mr. Incompetent?"

to

"You're a disgrace, and everyone here is a disgrace..." 

to 

"You're pathetic, you know that?  You're the worst umpire I've ever seen in my life!  You're never going to work another match if I have anything to say about it!" 

to 

"Answer my question!  The question, jerk!"

...and that's just what I can post without deleting expletives(--rimshot--)!  

But honestly that was peanuts compared to what he said to a linesman in Davis Cup match with Boris Becker in Hartford, Connecticut in 1987.  

Earlier in Becker's career, in 1985, McEnroe had ironically been in the position of chastising a young player who had the temerity to argue line calls - just let that sink in for a second - McEnroe giving it to Becker for arguing with the officials.  That day, he told Becker to "...try winning something before you start complaining."  Three months later Becker won Wimbledon - McEnroe's Wimbledon to be specific, as he was at that time the two-time defending champion - so the relationship had a rough start to begin with.

On a side-bar, that probably wasn't the worst thing Becker would hear in his career - that could go to what Pat Cash said to him during their 1988 Wimbledon quarterfinal.  As the two last winners of Wimbledon (Becker in 1985/1986, Cash in 1987) the match was tense from start to finish - except for one moment of levity where Cash, chasing down a drop shot, fell face forward over the net, and Becker - in jest - did the same a second later.  Cash was having none of it, and as they each returned to their respective sides of the net, he muttered, loud enough for Becker to hear, "You're a fucking smart-arse Kraut."  Becker paused, momentarily as if he contemplated physically assaulting him, but settled for blowing him off the court in straight sets instead.

But what McEnroe said, not to Becker, but to a linesman, that day in Hartford, during his first match against Becker, a 5 hour 22 minute back breaker for players and spectators alike, was far worse.  He had already said to Germany's captain, Niki Pilic, "You shut up, Niki!  God damn it!  Shut up!", when the tension of the match really got the better of him...yet again.  Feeling that the (largely American) line judges had been unacceptably objective in their calls, McEnroe told a black linesman who'd called a Becker ball good, "I didn't know they had black germans."  The linesman had at once been insulted for his race, and had his patriotism questioned - all for doing what we Americans would say was his job that day - to dispassionately call the lines.  He responded by lowering his head in anger and admirably finishing his shift.

McEnroe's said some pretty mean spirited things on a tennis court, most of which, if you asked him about it now, I'm sure he'd double down on it...assuming he remembers saying it.  Bill Scanlon (who had for years been a thorn in McEnroe's side - his own personal Brad Gilbert, so to speak) claims that McEnroe, in the middle of a match in 1981 in San Francisco attempted, in a perfectly calm and rational way, to explain to Scanlon that not only did he not deserve to be on the same court as him, but that he should do everyone there a favor and lose the match because nobody wanted him to win.  If it weren't so crazy, I wouldn't believe it, but believe it I do.  And I'm sure that, to this day, McEnroe would double down on the sentiment.  After all, who the hell was Bill Scanlon (but an NCAA champion who won six career titles and beat McEnroe at the 1983 US Open when he was the #1 player in the world, Wimbledon champion and had won the title for the third year on the trot two years two year earlier...but I digress)

But this comment to an American, I'm certain he would recant...well, maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't...but it was pretty bad.

2001 US Open, Lleyton Hewitt

For me, the greatest irony of the whole hullabaloo about this Kyrgios kid is that, of all people on the planet, the one he's turned to for guidance and mentoring is Lleyton Hewitt.  

Huh?

I know it's 2015 and he's retiring this year, but has it really been that long since Hewitt was cited for doing almost exactly the same things as has drawn so much derision for his young compatriot?  The list of transgressions is too long to cite every incident, so there is certainly enough fill this column with plenty to refer to "His Irascibleness".  How did Hewitt irritate the tennis world? 

Oh, let me count the ways:

There was his favorite expression to abuse linesman, whom he felt were, "...weak as piss..", his defamation suit against the ATP in 2003, in which he sought $1.5M in damages for being accused of (and fined for) skipping an interview.  In 2005 he once drew the ire of tennis' significant gay community by calling an umpire he disagreed with, "...a poof."  That was in addition to the myriad of his opponents whom he referred to as, "...arseholes...", or specifically the two Argentines whom he 1) shoulder bumped on a changeover (David Nalbandian 2005 Australian Open) and 2) whom he told to "fuck off" (Guillermo Coria) after he directed an overhead smash at Hewitt in a Davis Cup match in 2005.  The Argentine Davis Cup supporters, known for their contextual xenophobia, then coined (and joyfully chanted) this cute little soccer stadium style song:

"Y que paso, 
Y que paso, 
Que Lleyton Hewitt se cagoooo!" 

(translation: "And what happened?  And what happened?  Llyeton Hewitt shit himself!"

But, I would say the worst thing Hewitt ever said on a tennis court was this little delight in the second round of the US Open in 2001, where in a match against James Blake, he demanded the removal of a black linesman whom he insisted was making calls against him, and in favor of his black opponent, out of racial bias:

"Change him, change him immediately!  I've only been foot faulted at one end!  Look at 'im, look at 'I'm mate, and you tell me what the similarity is?"

Let's set aside the idiocy of Hewitt removing a black linesman because he was playing a black player.  I mean, how would it work out if every black player wanted every white linesman removed every time he felt he was getting rooked?  Let's also set aside the stupidity of actually vocalizing terrible thoughts that, if we're honest, go through everyone's head at the worst of times.  You can't help what you think, but you can certainly think twice before expressing the worst of your thoughts.  Is this what he'll be mentoring Kyrgios about?

I would say that the best thing that Hewitt could mentor Kyrgios about is how to apologize for one incident after another...that is, if Hewitt had ever apologized for anything...except to actual spastics after he called an umpire one in 2006.  In fact, in that incident with Blake he simply feigned ignorance, and flatly denied having said anything racial - after trying to sell that mess to the press, he may as well have tried to sell them some oceanfront property in Nebraska.  Maybe he sold it to Kyrgios, because for the life of me, I can't understand the logic behind being mentored by someone who was hated more than you.

Maybe Hopefully the mentoring is entirely technical, in which case I say, "Good on ye' mate!"  Nobody squeezed better results out of their natural-born abilities than ol' Rusty.

Serena Williams, US Open 2009

I'm not going to lie - I wanted to love Serena Williams, I really did...honest.  And if I had a shorter memory, I might have been able to get past the litany of things she's done and said that has placed her right at the top (or bottom, depending on your perspective) of my list of least favorite players on the WTA.  

When she insulted Martina Hingis for a lack of formal education, I found it more than mildly ironic for someone who has a degree in nothing. When she made that hullabaloo over "The Hand", I sided with Henin, because I thought if Serena saw the hand up, she shouldn't have served, and therefore she got what she deserved:  a second serve.  When, after having an overhead smash rightfully directed at her feet, she glared at Maria Sharapova in their Australian Open final of 2007 and muttered "bitch", unlike the Rod Laver Arena audience, I didn't think it was funny. 

But when she threatened to shove a ball down a lineswoman's throat at the 2009 US Open semi-final with Kim Clijsters and was defaulted only for a third code of conduct violation, that really took the cake.  Actually I thought she got off easy, because she should have been immediately defaulted from the entire tournament, including the doubles final, which she played and won with Venus.  But to me, almost as infuriating as the arrogance of her comment to the lineswoman, was the shameless attempt by her supporters to couch her outburst as simply swearing, then call the media and the USTA to task for having a double standard when men do the same - as if the issue was swearing.  There's nothing I hate more than comparing two unlike things, bemoaning the unlike reactions to them, and then claiming some "ism" as a result - mostly because it distracts from actual "isms"...but I digress.

I also thought it was an act of pandering when the USTA chose to give her only a suspended fine and suspension, which actually didn't expire until the week after her 2011 US Open final, where she was again cited for code of conduct violations.  The "sentence" still wasn't enforced, and I wasn't surprised that she didn't cite being black, or a woman, or the player to beat, for that bit of leniency, even though I suspect all of those contributed to it.  I thought it was absurd that she had the audacity to do to Jelena Jankovic the exact same thing Justine did to her, both at the Family Circle Cup in 2013, and again in Dubai last year.  It was just another in a long list of examples of entitlement that she has, in her view, "earned".

Oh well, nobody's perfect, but I've not heard anything worse on the women's side in a long time...6 years, to be exact.

Jimmy Connors, 1991 US Open

For some people, it was the greatest thing that happened to the US Open - in fact to a lot of people it still is.  Just ask anyone who's made it through an interminable rain delay in Flushing Meadows, watching that match again and again, until the image of Connors hilariously neon yellow racquet is burned into your retina.  This despite the likelihood that the most impressive performance was his encounter with Patrick McEnroe, who will unfortunately be remembered best (as a player, that is) for that memorable collapse, and his ATP final against older brother John in Chicago, that same year.  At this time I could point out that Patrick McEnroe should be remembered for winning French Open doubles in 1989, and making the semi-final of the Australian Open in singles in 1991...but I'd digress.

Connors had been away from the game for almost the entirety of 1990, due to a wrist injury that just wouldn't go away.  There were many who were prepared to write his professional obituary, and despite the fact that Connors had developed a certain cult following (with a certain late night crowd at the US Open) generally he had never really been fully appreciated in the tennis world as he is almost universally now.  In the beginning of his career, Connors irritated a lot of people simply by virtue of who he was beating so mercilessly on his way to winning 3 of 4 majors in 1974.  The beloved Ken Rosewall, at age 39, had never won Wimbledon, and Connors did more to cement his reputation as a ruthless competitor, by obliterating the sentimental favorite in the last throes of his career.  Rosewall, for his part, was emotionally trying to etch his name on the wall, 21 years after he lost his first final there to none other than Lew Hoad.  

When he did it again to Rosewall at Forest Hills, what few fans he had at the time, Connors squandered by deigning to do what anyone in his position would have - win big.  The manner of the defeat was the coup de grace from which his popularity wouldn't fully recover until that fateful fortnight in 1991.  It didn't help that, having been raised by women to compete with men, he had something of a chip on his shoulder, which also had him grabbing his crotch, and telling himself to take his skirt off when he felt he wasn't hitting the ball well.

Connors had made no friends by saying about those contemporaries that were less than enamored with him, "Most of these guys are windbags; if any of them wants to start some shit, I'll be ready..." back in his heyday.  He once sued the fledgling ATP (having refused to join it or its boycott of Wimbledon in 1973), and its president Arthur Ashe in 1975, for the part they played in him getting banned from the 1974 French Open, which most assumed he would have won along with the calendar slam that year, had he not insisted on playing World Team Tennis.  Curiously, the same fate had befallen Bjorn Borg in 1977, but somehow the derision readily directed towards Connors, was restrained when it came to his fair haired nemesis.  Speaking of Borg, Connors once told an interviewer, whilst in the midst of a desperate 10 match losing streak to Borg, "I'll follow that son a bitch to the ends of the earth until I beat him again."

In 1984, while getting his ass handed to him by John McEnroe at the semi-finals at Roland Garros, Connors famously wagged his finger in McEnroe's face and told him his 8-year old son behaved better than he did, and that he should grow up and shut up.  Mildly ironic to those who remembered him telling McEnroe to, "...keep your mouth shut when you're out here," in their 1980 Wimbledon semi-final.  Furthermore, he endeared himself to nobody at the US Open in 1977, when he ran over to the other side of the clay court in his 4th round encounter with Corrado Berazzuti to wipe out a mark the Italian was in the process of questioning. He would go on to lose that final to Guillermo Vilas, poetically on an equally dubious call which was overturned based on a mark in the clay.  Vilas is still waiting for his handshake from that match.

But 1991 was his moment, and while the world were enamored of his memorable run to the semi-final of the US Open, losing to Jim Courier, the tournament reached a kind of anti-climax when the heir apparent to his competitiveness (if not his behavior) put him out of his sweet misery before losing to Edberg in the final.  Connors had played Aaron Krickstein in 4th round in Louis Armstrong stadium, where his young "friend" suffered the ignominy of being the most memorable of 5 losers to Connors that year in his run.  And it was during that match, Connors uttered one of the more memorably disgraceful things ever said on a tennis court to umpire David Littlefield.  To start, he took issue with an overrule that Krickstein had suborned, saying:

"Get your ass out of the chair, you're a bum - you're a bum!  I'm out here playing my ass off, 39 years old, and you're doing that?  Very clear, my butt, my butt, very clear!  You wouldn't 'a said anything if Krickstein had gone over!"

Later, after another ball had been called long, which he didn't overrule, perhaps out of fear of getting involved unecessarily, Connors had this to say:

"Get the fuck out of here, god-damn it - you are abortion...you are an abortion!  Do you know that?"

To me, that takes the cake - the worst thing a good catholic kid from St. Louis could say to an umpire, and he said it twice.  Littlefield, to his credit, behaved entirely professionally, and didn't respond in kind, although it was his right to do so.  He didn't even cite him for a code violation, which in my opinion was a mistake, but who would have had the courage to do so under the circumstances?

For my money, I've never heard anything worse on a tennis court.

AT THE END OF THE DAY

I think a lot worse things have been said on a tennis court than somebody slept with your girlfriend a year ago, who may or may not have been your girlfriend at the time.  It's a daggy thing to say at any time...but under your breath, facing the other way, 90 feet away, I hardly think Kyrgios was saying it for Wawrinka to hear.  In the worst case scenario, it was a stupid thing to say, and may get him "Penn 1" tattooed on his chest the next time he faces Wawrinka, but hardly the equal of some of the more unsavory things cited above.

A little perspective never hurts...