Monday, September 12, 2011

BELIEF: THE NEW RELIGION IN TENNIS

Belief. That's it. That is it!

That's all you ever hear about these days when tennis analysts try to come up with the reason why a player suddenly is able to get results that heretofore seemed beyond their grasp. Chris Fowler of ESPN is the patron saint of the belief religion in tennis - traveling the world espousing the kind of pseudo-psychological drivel that drives genuine students of the game mad. Sure it sounds succinct, and seems plausible - how do you win a match that you don't believe you're going to win? It's impossible, right?

Not really. 

In fact not at all. Of all the things you need to win a tennis match, at the very bottom of the list is belief. At the top of the list is tactical acumen and technical execution. From those two, you develop belief, yes, but by then, you already have everything you need to win a tennis match - any tennis match - and not a damn thing more.

Instead of delving into how/why Sam Stosur beat the hell out of Serena Williams for the US Open title, I'd like to present the case of Novak Djokovic, and in particular against Roger Federer. Anybody watching that 2011 US Open semi-final could see that Djokovic was not at his best in those first two sets - far from the player who had come to dominate the tour. And no player on tour has preached the virtues of belief more than Djokovic - it's all you ever hear him talking about, so it has to be true. To win a tennis match, you have to believe you're going to win.

I beg to differ.

Djokovic was down two sets to love, and playing poorly for reasons only known to him - in fact, I would venture to guess that he had no idea why he was losing. That Gallic shrug that we see so often from our francophone favorites on tour, was omnipresent with Djokovic those first two sets. The "woe is me" plaintive gazes at the faceless crowd that never seem to be on his side, despite how hard he has worked at being likeable (all over again).

So what happened in the 3rd set? Well for starters, Djokovic stopped making unforced errors (12 in the first, and 8 in the second, versus 5 and 2 in the third and fourth) respectively. Now the false prophets of belief would have you believe that in the third set, Djokovic suddenly started to believe he was going to win the match, even though he was down two sets to love and playing like a bag of dirt - as in, "I got this SOB right where I want him!" But that's laughable. The truth is that unbeknownst to the Chris Fowler's of the world, Djokovic's coach identified major problems he had when matches got tight in the past, and worked (not so) innovatively to correct it. And the very things they worked on earned Djokovic his victory Saturday, and dare I say his overall improvement this year, and ascension to #1.

Martin Vajda, a coach who I had thought very little of, given Djokovic's stagnation as a player since 2008, realized that Djokovic was making a very rudimentary technical error when the chips were down - something that most club players do without even thinking about it, and apparently so was Djokovic. The natural tendency when you're on the verge of winning is to try not to lose - in other words, keep the ball in play, and don't give the match away with an unforced error. To do that, most players subconsciously rely on racquet head deceleration, and Djokovic was no different. So when the going got tough, he would make childish unforced errors because he lacked the racquet head speed to control his shots with pace and spin.

Ironically, the only way to consistently control direction and spin is to accelerate the racquet head through the point of contact. Knowing this, Vajda decided that the only way to achieve this would be to practice forcing Djokovic to maintain racquet head speed - and the best way to do that is to practice hitting deep hard shots with pace and spin from the ball in hand - like you do with kids when they first learn to play. To hit a solid shot from a ball in hand (or a slow slice, or loopy deep topspin) you have to generate more racquet head speed than you do from a normal shot, because you have no pace to work with coming at you. And this forced racquet head acceleration translates very well in tight points, because your opponent is as likely as you are to take pace out of their shots to make sure they "keep it in". From that training, Djokovic developed a massive cross-court forehand that has a obliterated his opponents (especially Nadal, whose typical response is a slice backhand, which used to trip him up, but now sets him up to pummel with a cross court backhand or forehand up the line, both of which were already a great shots).

Against Federer, that shot, struck consistently for the first time with venom in the third set had the opposite effect on Federer's game - whereas Djokovic was able to reduce his unforced errors, Federer's error increased (9, 12, 12 and 13 in sets 2 through 5 respectively) because of the pressure he was under. Whereas in the past he has been able to hide behind a deep slice or heavy topspin backhands rolled deep into the corner (reducing his errors, but keeping his opponents under pressure) yesterday, he couldn't. And, unable to step in on Djokovic's cross court forehand, push it up the line to Djokovic's backhand and approach the net, he was left to try to duke it out from the back and mishit after mishit ensued. So Djokovic's increased power against Federer's off-pace offerings in the third and fourth sets had the added benefit of keeping Federer away from the net - advantage Djoker.

Finally, Djokovic's serve, the bane of his existence for the 18 months before the Australian Open this year, in the 3rd was at 54% first serves, but he won a whopping 92% of those points and 73% of second serves. He also had 80% first serves in the fourth set (90% and 54% first and second serve points won). Basically he was unbreakable. And as anyone will tell you, being unbreakable puts a hell of a lot of pressure on your opponent's serve, and guess what happened to Federer's serve in the 3rd and 4th sets? The first serve percentage and points won on first and second servers dropped dramatically, and he was broken 3 times in two sets - while he himself earned no break points at all in those two sets.

So the two things that have made the biggest difference in Djokovic's game this year, the suddenly dominant and reliable cross-court forehand (even in the face of off-pace offerings), and a much better serve, finally appeared in the third set and carried him through to the fourth. This was at a time when he had to realize it was more likely that he would lose than win, so what does the religion of belief have to say about that?

Nothing. Because it's complete BS.

But it doesn't stop there - by the end of the fourth set, he had to believe he was going to win that match - anyone would, given the way he destroyed Federer in the third and fourth. So just when it seems that belief should be on his side, what happened - he got tight again and very nearly blew his chance at an historic comeback. In fact, he was down 2 match points. Now if you think he believed he would win the match down a break at 5-4, with Federer serving at 40-15, I've got some oceanfront property in Nebraska I'd like to sell you. In fact, last year, facing match point, similarly on his way out, he admitted he just closed his eyes and knocked the piss out of the ball. And a funny thing happens when you say to yourself, "F--- it; if I'm going to lose, I'm going down swinging!"

You tend to take a pretty good cut at the ball - i.e. racquet head speed.

And surprise, surprise - after not getting a sniff of Federer's serve for the almost the entire 5th set, he belts a winner on the first match point return, to put huge pressure on Federer to close it out at 40-30, to which Federer promptly got tight and hit the top of the tape on the next point.

And one last thing - for years there were a lot of questions about Djokovic's fitness - constantly retiring, and breathing heavy anytime the match went long and/or tight. Bjorn Borg once said the following about playing 5-set matches:

"I never got tired in a tennis match, so I never panicked when I had to go to 5 sets." 

And what happens when you panic in a tennis match? You bail out of a point trying to hit a stupid winner, when you should live to hit another shot. And you abandon sensible tactics because you're tired, and don't think you can leg it out. I mean, we've all seen the Djoker scramble frantically chasing down shots in the past, but I always had the feeling that he was just trying to keep the ball in the play - now he only scrambles when he has to, otherwise, he's tactically aggressive and sound. And when he does scramble, he's almost as dangerous as he is when he's in control of the point.

Now, a lot of people would have you believe that Djokovic suddenly "believed" he was a better player this year, and that's why he's winning. But nothing could be further from the truth. He identified weaknesses in his game (his serve, his forehand and his tactical decisions), the causes of those weaknesses (a hitch in the stroke production, racquet head deceleration and poor fitness) rectified them (altered his serve motion, practiced with ball in hand, and improved his diet) and suddenly, the causes of his inconsistency were mitigated, a whole new set of tactical options are available to him, and he could execute under duress.

I'm not saying Djokovic's belief hasn't increased during this run - to the contrary I know it has. But his belief has come as a result of addressing technical, tactical and physical problems with his game, getting results and having a blue-print for success. This belief did not come from some idiotic pseudo-psychological exercise in hypnotizing yourself into believing that even though your game hasn't changed one lick, you're suddenly going to win more consistently. That's doing the same thing over and over again and "believing" you'll get a different result - and that's just idiotic.

The belief comes from results, and the results come from making changes - technical changes. To every problem in tennis there is a technical solution, and if you can't execute technically, how on earth are you to "believe" you can win? Your mind follows what your body and game can and cannot do, not the other way around. And wasting your time wondering why you don't "believe" you can win, is likely to elicit a whole host of psychological issues, when the obvious solution is just to put in the hard yards and improve technically.

Rankings in tennis are like the opposite of the Richter scale - going from #2 to #1 is just one ranking, but the order of magnitude in improvements required are much bigger than going from #20 to #10, or #10 to #5, and of all the things that help you make those improvements, belief is less than the least of your problems - it is in fact a distraction.

There's only one kind of person that signs on to the new religion of belief in tennis - and that's the person who neither has the courage, nor the wherewithal to make actual technical and commensurate tactical changes to their game. You get comfortable at #3 or #10 or #20, and you figure, why risk losing your ranking by going out of our comfort zone when you can just believe you're going to win and do everything exactly the same way.

If you look at all the players who have stagnated and have made no headway in improving their results, you'll see they're all kool-aid drinking sheep in the belief congregation...and their results are equally distinctive.

ADDENDUM:  IT SEEMS RAFA AGREES WITH ME - listen to his answer to the question of why he gives "confidence" or "belief" to his opponents by admitting to the periodic frailty of his game.

...as I live and breathe my friends...as I live and breathe.
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