Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Boxing, like tennis, is a physical confrontation of two individuals who can possess diametrically opposed skill sets.  When the contrast is stark, fascinating match ups and results often ensue. The one thing that differentiates boxing from tennis is that in order to become the best boxer in the world, you have to beat whoever is considered to already be the best in the world. In tennis, the head to head match ups are merely a means to an end of winning the tournaments, and it is by the latter measure that we rate a player's overall quality, but both sports are inherently head-to-head competitions. Therefore consistent head-to-head supremacy, or at least parity, over most of one's contemporaries, is key to a tennis player's place in history.

Sugar Ray Leonard was a boxer who, at his peak, possessed many of the same technical qualities that Roger Federer possesses as a tennis player.  The combination of being both broadly and (ostensibly) deeply skilled in so many areas of the game, coupled with an ability to identify an opponents weaknesses and adjust one's tactics and technique to exploit it, are two of the things that made Sugar Ray a great boxer, and the exact same thing can be said of Roger Federer.  That the two share these characteristics is interesting, but what is more interesting is that if either of them did/does not to employ the full breadth of their skill set, either by choice or by force, both are susceptible to another technical and tactical approach that is similar across both sports - that of the bruiser.

Roberto Duran was a boxer from Panama of great pride and determination, to which his success in the ring was as often attributed as anything else.  But the one element of Duran's pedigree as a boxer that didn't go unnoticed in that world, that of persistently overwhelming his opponents into submission, is rarely seen as a particular skill or quality in tennis.  But it is equally effective, and also happens to be the perfect foil, for either a boxer or a tennis player who appears to have the more aesthetically appealing repertoire. Not unlike the way Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro, whose best quality is the ability to bludgeon the their opponents until they eventually either elicit an error or hit an outright knockout punch. Duran's skill set may not have been as broad or possibly even as deep as Sugar Ray's, but because Duran lulled Leonard into trying to beat him at his game, a game of which Duran was a master, he appeared to fight the perfect fight and he soundly beat Leonard in their first encounter. The same could be said of Federer's most recent losses to his gargantuan and hammer wielding nemeses.

Federer and Leonard share a certain quality in their best modus operandus - they both appear to have limitless breadth and depth of skill.  But the reality revealed by his bomb dropping rivals is that Federer's skills, although broad, are not equally deep in all areas.  As a matter of fact, while his breadth of skill allows him to more readily conceal those areas where his skills are shallow, if for some reason he can be forced to dig deep in those areas of weakness, those shortcomings bubble to the surface, and as a result, Federer can be made to look surprisingly ordinary.  The real question is what is the common trait between those players who have had some recent relative success over Federer, and are those traits innate or by tactical design.

Losing to Andy Murray in Shanghai is nothing new to Federer - not only does he have a losing historical head to head, all three times they've played at that venue he has lost - so the result should come as no surprise. What does tickle the intellectual curiosity is the case of Tomas Berdych at the US Open and Juan Martin del Potro in Basel.  Berdych and Federer have split their last six meetings, and while del Potro has only won the latest of their last seven, all of their encounters since the French Open have gone the distance and he actually won the latest.  And of course, upon further review, it seems there are some similarities between the two players that give insight into the inherent weaknesses in Federer's game - yes, he does have weaknesses.

When Federer plays either of these two, and has the audacity to attempt to beat them at their own game, which is to say to out hit them from the baseline, the results are clearly much worse than when he technically and tactically circumvents the strengths of these two players with variety, changes of pace, direction, height, spin and angle.  Pound for pound, Federer actually cannot hit these two off the court, and in all likelihood, that's the case for most of the heaviest hitters on tour.  His best bet is to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, vary the direction, depth, angle, spin and location of his deliveries.  But, if Federer either chooses, or is forced, to stand toe to toe with either of these behemoths, he may get away with it from time to time, but over the long run, his chances of winning the match plummet. He may score a few good rounds, but at the end of the day, he's going down and going down hard.

Now I don't want to delve too deeply into the psychological, because I've never met him, and can only speculate, but one has to assume that not only does Federer believe that, in terms of his skill set, he is a far superior player to the vast majority of players he faces on tour, but that this is doubly so with two players whose main strengths are their ability to consistently hit hard flat shots in the same direction until an error or an opening is elicited. Both del Potro and Berdych are big players who move well for big men, but have limited movement in the abstract, limited further by two-handed backhands, and a tendency to position themselves closer to their own backhand corners.  They lack not only the aesthetic qualities of Federer's game, but even the technical capacity to hit a wide variety of shots, from a wide variety of positions.

That's where one has to wonder if it also irritates the hell out of Federer that he has so much trouble beating them even if he does go toe to toe with them, as in, "I have more ability in my finger than they have in their arm, so why am I the one who has to adjust his game?" Or, "I'm good enough that I should be able to beat this guy at his own game, let alone my game." And here, competitive pride, or perhaps to some degree, hubris, conspires with the natural condition of the match up, to create the perfect storm of an inexplicable inability to do to them, what he normally does to so many others.

When Leonard fought Duran for the second time, he fought an entirely different fight - no more mucking with machismo and other attempts to prove how big his balls were - he feinted one way and jabbed, feinted another way, and jabbed, and dug in for combinations just long enough to score points, but more importantly not long enough for Duran to do the same. The display was so meticulous and so disciplined, combined with Duran's irritation, and the realization that he was going to lose, the effect was to pave the way for an early dismissal.  In boxing, it's rare that a fighter quits in the middle of a fight - not so in tennis. They may go through the motions, but often a player is beaten long before match point, and this is most often the case when Federer displays the full breadth of his skills and his opponent, who may have a winning game and/or strategy, realizes that Federer has one too many ways to keep him from executing it.

Because Berdych and del Potro are both at the (idiotically named) ATP World Tour Finals this week, with del Potro in Federer's group, and (Berdych still with a chance at qualifying for the semi-finals if he can get a result of Tsonga...possible and Djokovic...unlikely), it would be interesting to see if Federer decides he's going to try to beat them at their own game and loses to them...again.

Because I think he'd love to win this title, I think he'll go with the altogether more fitting and successful approach of being Sugar Ray Roger.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Having emerged from the triumvirate of the big 3 as the ultimate contenders for the year end #1 ranking (with all due respect to Andy Murray), it now comes time, for those of us with little to write about in the blogosphere, to turn to the age old endeavor of shit-stirring.  The topic this time is the presumed frosty relationship between Federer and Djokovic, which over the course of the last 6 years (yes, they've been competing with each other for 6 years!), has gone through its ups and downs, and at the end of this year culminates in a struggle to reach the north pole of the ATP first, and alone.

There is clearly respect between Federer and Nadal, the latter of which has always professed his admiration of the other, with the former only recently appearing to concede a comfort with sharing the greatest esteem in the game.  Between Djokovic and Nadal, there rarely appears to be any antipathy - even in the midst of Nadal's desprate 7-match losing streak to his (other) nemesis, there didn't appear to be any hard feelings between the two - unusual for a rivalry which has been so unbalanced in both directions at various times.

Which leads us to what appears to be the frosty Fedjoker relationship - though they both deny it, and few specific qualms have shed light on the true nature of the distance between the two, it always appears to be there...lurking...just waiting for the light of day to reveal itself.  Below is a chronology of what, at best, could be considered circumstantial evidence of a rift.  Having said that, circumstantial cases are made in the judicial system all the time. So here goes:

2006 Davis Cup - Switzerland

During the relegation tie with Serbia/Montenegro, Djokovic played his first rubber against Stanislas Wawrinka, a grueling 5-set match that saw Djokovic prevail in the end.  The match also saw the opening salvo in a stealth war of words between the two ever since, where Federer labelled the young player "a joke" after making multiple calls to the trainer during the match.  This year Federer went out of his way to explain that he was simply irritated that his friend (Wawrinka) had been beaten despite the calls to the trainer, and that the rift was addressed a month or so later in Madrid (when it hosted an in indoor Masters 1000 tournament - which Federer won, by the way).

Federer went on to obliterate Djokovic in their second career head to head, in 3 straight sets to clinch the tie for Switzerland.

This was not a new or isolated complaint against Djokovic and his penchant for calling for the trainer, who has since been accused at various times by multiple players (including Tommy Robredo and Andy Roddick) of being something of hypochondriac following and preceding their respective matches with the Djoker at the 2008 US Open. By then, Djokovic had already earned a reputation of being quick to call for help and making miraculous recoveries, and quick to retire from matches.  Both players so noted with disdain.

It's also worth noting further that the comment following the match with Wawrinka by Federer, was the first time any player of note made any complaints to that effect, so it could be argued that Federer actually initiated this reputation, or at the very least paved the way for it.  To be fair, Djokovic did little to contradict it over the next 4 years, but it should also be noted that both Robredo and Roddick are of Federer's generation, and their opinions might be considered today to be somewhat "old school".

Nevertheless the plot thickened.

Montreal 2007

By the time they met in the final of the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Federer had beaten Djokovic the first 4 times they'd played, and rarely been troubled by his game. Thus, it would have come as a surprise to most that tennis' yokozuna, who had won 2 of the first 3 majors that year, reached all three major finals, had just won his fifth Wimbledon title in a row, and enjoyed a huge lead in the race for #1, lost so close to the US Open to Djokovic.

In the post match press conference, Federer was asked if he saw and respected the similarities between his game and Djokovic's, as compared to the differences between his and Nadal's and his response was:

"No, not really. I mean, he plays like many other players on tour. You know, I mean, he's steady off the baseline, he's got a pretty good serve. But...nothing outrageous in his game. Always pretty predictable, which is a good thing. Yeah, you get some good rallies against him because he scrambles well, moves to the ball well, moves the ball around very nicely. Yeah, I enjoy playing against him."

Although there's nothing directly insulting in that statement, it's hardly laudatory.  And notable is a lack of appreciation for 1) any comparison to his own game, 2) Djokovic having beaten the top 3 players in the same tournament (Roddick, Nadal and Federer), or 3) winning his second Masters 1000 of the year (he had already won Miami).  So one could hardly argue that he played like "many other players on tour" - after all, had many others on tour won two Masters 1000's that year? And if you didn't know any better, you'd almost interpret his throw away statement, that he enjoys playing him, because he's predictable and there's nothing outrageous in his game, as a euphemism for the guy being easy pickings!

He went on to say, in assessing his game that day that:

"I could never really breathe. Maybe that was a bit my problem today. It's such a pity, you know, when I start a match against a player like him serving so bad in the opening game."

Now, if I were Djokovic, I wouldn't take too kindly to being referred to as, "a player like him" - if it were meant as a compliment, it would be prefaced or modified with, "a tough player like him", or "a player who returns as well as him" - but in the absence thereof, it just seemed he was lamenting that conditions and an unusually bad serving day was the cause of the result, and not anything Djokovic did!

Djokovic for his part didn't really take the bait that day.  Although, there was something of an interesting response to the next question about learning what it takes to be #1 from playing Roger:

"Yes, I learn every time I play against Roger or Rafa. I learn from those matches always something new, try to, you know, improve on some things which I need to improve."

Two interesting notes - he refers to Roger and Rafa, but at that time, Rafa hadn't come close to reaching #1, he had been a distant #2 for almost 3 years, and secondly, to state so plainly that he was on the road to reaching #1 while Federer was still at the height of his powers was an extraordinary admission of his intent. Few players at the time talked about actually usurping Federer, rather than waiting out his dominance.  Even if the Djoker put it off for at least 3 years (one-year off and from the right player, as it turned out).

The last salvo, although it was meant in jest, was this telling exchange:

"Q. Do you think it should still be called the Roger's Cup?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Somebody scream during the match, it's the Roger's Cup. I think it was the third set. It was pretty funny. Yeah, nothing against the sponsor, but obviously I'm going to have to arrange somebody to call Novak's Cup for next year."


Flushing Meadow, New York 2007

Here the Djoker finally made his first major final, and despite having beaten Federer a month earlier in Canada, was a clear underdog in the final.  By that time, Djokovic had endeared himself to the press with his underwear modeling and player imitations, and despite rumblings from some corners, he continued to press on with his game and his off-court antics.  But note in the next press exchange how he first tacitly acknowledged, then feigned ignorance of the murmur of dissent to his routines:

"Q. How do the players feel? Like Nadal, has he come up to you, or Roddick, I know you do him, Maria, have they made any comments to you about impersonations?

Q. And?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I'll keep that is as secret.

Q. They're not mad about it? They're not offended?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: No. Everybody accepts it positively.

Q. Is there anyone who has been really hard to capture, their mannerisms?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, the untouchable one, Roger. Well, he's too perfect for my style. I cannot. Plus, I don't have a long hair. I hope he doesn't hear this."

By this time, even light-hearted ribbing of Federer was a strict no-no in the hierarchy of professional tennis - though you'd have to assume there were a number of players who would like to have had a word or two about him, apparently nobody but Djokovic dared to do so.  Furthermore, it appeared that he was being less than forthcoming - there were already clips of him on youtube imitating his Hairness.  This was Federer's response to a question about them (not his in particular):

"Well, in the locker room he's always very respectful toward me, you know. He's pretty quiet. I only hear stuff. I didn't see the stuff he did on court the other day. I didn't see what apparently he did in the locker room either. For me, these things, you know, I only hear. But people don't really talk about it. I know some guys weren't happy. I know some guys might think it's funny...He's walking a tightrope, for sure."

Walking a tightrope? Between what and what? Or whom? And specifically, who doesn't like it? Obviously one of the players being imitated, right?  And there weren't (at that point) very many - namely Nadal, Roddick, Nalbandian (of whom, when he was prodded to imitate him, the Djoker simply distended his belly) McEnroe (retired, not in the locker room), Ivanisevic (retired, not in the locker room) and Federer.  Maybe there were others, but who, at that time, on the ATP tour was sufficiently well known to be the subject of an impersonation that some may not have liked?

Though he tried hard to conceal it, it's obvious there were a couple of things bothering Federer about Djokovic. And this was, in all likelihood, and in no small part, due to comments revealed later...

Melbourne, 2008

Here, Djokovic finally got the better of Federer in a major, and here also, began the inclusion of the Djokovic entourage in the simmering tete a tete between the two.  First and foremost, Djokovic beat Federer in straight sets, and prevented him from having any chance at the grand slam - something he'd had the previous two years, and once before in 2004.  But more of a catalyst to the tele-confrontation, were the remarks of Djokovic's parents.

Although Djokovic's mother, who speaks English better than the father, did most of the talking (the content of which Djokovic later distanced himself), both parents got in their shots at Federer, in support of their son. At first glance, it's no surprise that parents would be proud of, and trying to instill confidence in, their son - all parents would, under the circumstances.  But who would do it so publicly, and so brashly? Of her son, vis a vis Federer, Mrs. Djokovic famously had the following to say:

"As we said, 'The king is dead, long live the king',"


She went on:

"Because the last time the US Open they played, my husband said, 'This is the last time he win against Novak'. Because Novak was making the points with Federer's weapon. He told him that he is so mature that he can win, like him (Federer)."

Eventually, she went on to predict that her son would reach #1, and that this would prove to be the first of many majors - of course this was nothing new, but to be so eager to dance on the grave of the man to whom her boy king gaped to be the heir, had to be irritating to Federer.  If nothing else, he had to feel it was somewhat premature.  In fact both Federer and Mrs. Djokovic turned out to be right - it was the first of many, and he did reach #1, but it was also (3 & 1/2 years) premature.

The seeds were sown, nonetheless.

Later, when Federer revealed his diagnosis of mono, explaining he didn't mention it until Dubai (in March) because he didn't want to detract from Djokovic's victory in Australia, it had to raise a few eyebrows in the Djokovic clan, not the least of which because what he professed to avoid, was exactly what he did.  And (hard to believe it was coincidentally) after Mrs. Djokovic decided to declare Federer dead. After all, he didn't appear to have mono against anyone else in Australia, so why would it have been a factor against sweet little Nole? 

Perhaps because Djokovic won. 

In fact, I would argue that there didn't appear to be anything wrong with Federer physically at that time.  He beat a plucky Fabrice Santoro, a difficult Tomas Berdych, and a resurgent James Blake in succession, playing some brilliant tennis, with no inkling that there was anything wrong with him or his game.  However, in his defense: 1) if there were something wrong, he'd hardly want to share that with the world and 2) if it were the mono it would have few outward symptoms to the untrained/unknowing eye...but nothing justifies announcing that excuse as he did.

If I were Djokovic, I wouldn't have liked it one bit.

Monte Carlo, 2008

Having lost to Djokovic in Melbourne earlier in the year, and having certainly heard the previous comments from Djokovic's parents thereafter, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Federer were even more motivated to win their encounter in Monte Carlo in the first big tournament of the European clay court season.  The surprise was the ease with which Djokovic conceded the match, after complaining of dizziness and retiring because of what would later be (somewhat unjustly) characterized as a "sore throat". The tame resistance he put up, and the resulting hollow win, would certainly have irritated a man who would have been motivated to settle the score.  But nothing would irritate him more than what the Djokovic entourage came up with along the way.

In the middle of their match, with friends of the enemy seated in sufficient proximity to be heard at barely their "indoor voices", a shot from Djokovic was called long on the baseline, from which Federer had retreated to position himself for his reply, before the call was made.  Having immediately moved, without prompting, towards the mark to check it, as do almost all professional players under the circumstances, Federer had the pleasure of hearing the Serbian peanut gallery call for him to "check the mark!"

What followed was an angry glance at the box, an indignant shout in their direction to, "be quiet, okay?", a begrudging, if not defiant swipe at the mark (indicating that it had indeed hit the line), a continued glare in their direction, as he lined himself up for a replay of the point and sado-masochistically bludgeoning the bottoms of his shoes with his racquet - ostensibly to release caked clay in the tread.  It's worth noting that a player's entourage, by the rules of the tour, have no more right to engage the players in conversation than a random spectator.  And any player can request that any spectator be removed from the premises, and the umpire and tournament referee have the right to grant that request - that would include the Djokovic's.

But as it were, Federer put his head down, finished the match, and had this to say when asked about it:

"Q. Was it obvious to you he was ill?

ROGER FEDERER: No. I didn't see anything anyway from my side till when he called the doctor...I didn't feel like he was playing, you know, too sick. Obviously after calling the doctor, you know...you might see some signs. But...I didn't think it was that extreme. Same as Davydenko last week. I mean, I didn't see any big signs till the moment they all of a sudden retired."

There's a palpable reluctance to confirm that Djokovic was, in any demonstrable way, hindered by his illness.  Ironic, given his own contention that an unseen illness affected him in Melbourne. Furthermore, when lumping Davydenko in with Djokovic, two players who had developed a reputation for giving less than their best effort at times, Federer did neither any favors, although it may just have been because both retired against him in that spring.

Of the incident where he told the Djokovic's to shut it - neither player was asked about it in the post-match press conference, and no player made any comments thereafter.

But still...

Melbourne, 2009

Having returned to the Australian Open in 2009 as the defending champion, and having suffered the ignominy of becoming the arch-villain at the US Open in 2008 (a year after endearing himself to so many at the tournament with his personality), Djokovic didn't appear to have the bollocks to fight through the physical challenge of winning in Australia.  The advantage there always goes to the player with the best preparation, since it is the first major of the season, and few have had a chance to hone their games. Roddick had abundantly prepared by shedding 15+ pounds of weight, and appeared to be fit, quick and (as always) competitive as hell.

Djokovic just looked like hell and retired, not only the match, but the first major title he was defending.

And he got no sympathy from Federer, who said after dispatching del Potro in his quarterfinal:

"He's not a guy who's never given up before ... it's disappointing."
"I've only done it once in my career ... Andy totally deserved to win that match."
"I'm almost in favor of saying, you know what, if you're not fit enough, just get out of here."
"If Novak were up two sets to love I don't think he would have retired 4-0 down in the fourth. Thanks to Andy that he retired in the end. Andy pushed him to the limits. Hats off to Andy."

Wow - 'just get out of here'? He wouldn't have retired if he were up two sets to love?  If you were Djokovic and/or his family, if the antipathy weren't already there, it would have to be now.  After all, what business was it of Federer's to comment on Djokovic's health? (Save for the fact that he had been specifically asked about it).  And would he have been so categorical had it been Nadal? Or would he have assumed that the injury/issue must have been severe enough to make him quit, and expressed concern?

Ironically, although Federer suggested he wouldn't have retired had he been up two sets to one, Djokovic had in fact done just that - leading two sets to one, against Nikolay Davydenko (the other oft derided retiree), in a Davis Cup match in February of 2008 Djokovic retired with a fever.

Yes, a fever.

So, that particular consideration would have to be considered invalid - of course, it's unclear if that's a good or bad thing for Djokovic!

Nevertheless, the pot was stirred.

Miami, 2009

It's never fun to get your ass handed to you on a tennis court, and you would think that a player of Federer's caliber would handle it well, given that it was happening so rarely, but his semi-final loss to Djokovic in Miami in 2009 included a shocking breakdown in his calm veneer when for the first time in years (it seemed) he violently destroyed a racquet in frustration.  The match was of quite poor quality, with Florida's early spring winds making the ball play tricks on both players - but clearly Djokovic handled the conditions better, and found a way to win, rather than fall apart, as did Federer.

You couldn't help but wonder if any other player on tour would have elicited such a response from Federer? Could losing to Djokovic, after losing his #1 ranking and his beloved Wimbledon crown, and an Australian Open final to Nadal, and getting obliterated by Mardy Fish in Indian Wells a couple weaks earlier, have been the straw that broke the camel's back? To anyone observing Federer's uncharacteristic meltdown, it seemed to be. After all, if there was a player on tour against whom he should have lost his temper, because he just couldn't take it anymore, it should have been Nadal (against whom he did lose his temper back in 2005 at the same tournament, but never/rarely since).  Come to think of it, Federer had some pretty harsh things to say about Nadal & Co. at that time as well, so maybe his reaction to losing to Djokovic, and the context thereof, was not dissimilar to his reaction to losing to Nadal, and the context thereof.

Basel, 2009

So this one is the wild-card, but apparently, as a gesture of good will, Federer's mother invited the Djokovic clan to their home in Basel (during the indoor tournament in 2009) for a two-family dinner, which supposedly did much to improve the relationship - but why would that be necessary if there was nothing in it to improve?

I think that is probably the clearest evidence yet of a rift to be healed.

Indian Wells, 2011

After their Indian Wells final in 2011 - having lost his first big final of the year to Djokovic, Nadal said in his acceptance speech:

"I lost today but I lost against one of the greatest."

Perhaps in response, or in defiance of the going sentiment that Federer is the GOAT, Djokovic said to Nadal in his acceptance speech:

"It's always a pleasure playing against you, you are a big champion - to me you are the greatest player ever..."

Well, well, well...I don't know any player on tour who has said this - they all defer the GOAT debate to Federer - it's only in some quarters of the media, and in the lunatic fringe of the blogosphere that he isn't. But here, the hottest player on tour, with a growing major record of his own, having played almost 30 times against each of the game's most respected players, identified Nadal - and more importantly not Federer - as his choice for the greatest of all time. 

A lone voice among so many of their contemporaries - but a significant one. When asked to explain himself in the post-match press conference, far from backing away from his comment, he doubled down on it:

"Q: What was behind you saying to him in the trophy ceremony that you thought he was the best player ever?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I think I have said what I needed to say. There is nothing behind. It's just what I think.

Q: So you think he's better all-time than Roger?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I think he's the best ever because, even though he's 24, 25 years old, he has done so much already, you know. Many years in front of him to, you know, I think even to overtake Roger in the Grand Slam trophies."

How about that? So, even after joining the families for dinner, and having nothing but nice things to say about each other since, it seems one or the other cannot resist the temptation to do or say something that would obviously get under the other's skin.

Neither has made any comment on the matter since then.

Paris, 2011

The semi-final between Federer and Djokovic at the French Open in 2011 denied what many suspected would have finally been the day Nadal would learn the word "comeuppance" in French, after losing to his nemesis 4 times in 2011, and twice on his best surface, in Madrid and Rome.  All of their matches had been very close, most of them going the distance, and the immoveable object of Nadal at Roland Garros, would have met an apparently irresistible force in Djokovic had he made the final.

But somebody forgot to tell Federer to read his own obituary - and nobody was more irritated than Djokovic.

Throughout the match, Djokovic appeared to be irritable - when a spectator had a seizure at the end of the first game, his first service game, which was broken, by the way, Djokovic appeared to be on the verge of having a go at the crowd for intentionally (or otherwise) disrupting him.  Reason got the better of him when he realized it was a medical emergency - I guess nobody told him the "Au secours" he heard in french means, "Help!"

But as the match wore on - not only did Djokovic have problems with his footing, something that he seemed to have resolved with significantly improved footwork, there seemed to also have a problem with the crowd - again! Over and over again, they seemed to take Federer as an adopted Frenchman.  While Nadal has grown accustomed to this treatment by the French, at the hands of Federer, he had (and still has) the game to let all of that wash over him like a cool breeze.  But Djokovic had no answer to Federer's brilliance that day.  And, as is most often the case, with Federer serving as well as he did, Djokovic was left to respond to point after point with sarcastic, head-shaking incredulity at how his winning streak, and his almost certain coronation as the champion against a Nadal, a player he owned at the time, was fading like the light on Phillipe Chatrier that twindled so poetically at the end of the match.

If you watch the clips, you can see, at one point, Ion Tiriac, a fellow eastern European, angrily and fervently gesticulating in support of Djokovic as he stood alone, with the exception of his entourage, struggling to keep the match alive, while the French crowd ruthlessly bayed for his blood. Tiriac, no stranger to being unappreciated by the game, appeared to be the only one not related to, in love with, or working for Djokovic that wasn't. It is at these times when tennis can be its most cruel.  After all, as a global sport, why should one player, who has won so much, be so heavily supported by the crowd? So the reception Federer received must have been an arrow in the heart to a player who so obviously wants to be loved.

That's why that little index finger of Federer's, shaken after hitting an ace on match point, at once dismissively and defiantly, in the direction of Tiriac, Djokovic and his entourage, was so unexpected (to say nothing of that primal roar). After all, were they the only ones Federer saw in the crowd? Could he have better blocked out the undying support from the French spectators (who so desperately willed him to win), than Djokovic (whom they so desperately willed to lose)? Could that laser focus have been due, in part, to a commensurate disdain with which he continues to view Djokovic and his coterie?


It took a while for Federer to come to grips with the fact that Nadal was not just an irritant, who had no business beating him, but a great player in his own right, and the glowing terms with which he has spoken of him since 2008 is a testament to that.  Nadal, for his part, has had little to say that could be construed as negative towards either of his main rivals.

And Djokovic, who has avoided stirring the embers of what is presumed to be a long dead fire of discord, also seems to be reading from the same script. Perhaps Federer, who would certainly resent the bombast, if not from Djokovic, from his parents, and also view Djokovic as an irritant who can't hold a stick to the breadth and depth of his game, would have to conclude now that there is no shame in losing to him. Perhaps this would do much to temper what, for all the above evidence, would have appeared to be a cold war between the two - always circulating, rarely confronting, but always on the verge of a renewed conflagration.

But is that good for the game? Isn't it better to have the feeling that they really don't like each other? For my part, I would prefer the latter. Think:


Isn't it more compelling when you know they don't care for each other? I'm not saying they have to engage in a kind of pro-wrestling pantomime, but part of me feels there is that one thing missing from tennis, that isn't altogether a bad thing. It is often said that Rugby is a game for rogues played by gentlemen, and football is a game for gentlemen played by rogues.

What is tennis? These days, it's a game for gladiators played by hypersensitive types, who you know can't stand each other, but won't give you the satisfaction of admitting it.

Give me my satisfaction, please.

ADDENDUM Flushing Meadow 2011

Most remember this match as a stunning affirmation of Djokovic's renewed mental strength - affirmed by the fact that despite finding himself down two sets to love, he somehow conjured up the character to fight his way back to 2 sets all with some outstanding play. Actually Djokovic had told anyone who would listen that it had all been in his head, that the main component of his success was a previously absent belief in himself.

But Federer begged to differ.

When asked about it in his press conference following the match, Federer dismissed this assertion and lobbed in a less than laudatory assessment of Djokovic's performance at the end of the match - if you read carefully, he actually asserts that Djokovic won BECAUSE he gave up, and as a RESULT of giving up, hit a lucky shot that cost Federer HIS match:

"QUESTION: Could you hit a much better serve for the return he hit that winner?

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, much better. I didn't hit the best serve. But it's just the way he returns that. It's just not -- a guy who believes much, you know, anymore in winning. Then to lose against someone like that, it's very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already.  Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go."

Now just reading that, you may be left with the impression that this was a one off response, and it's been taken out of context - maybe so, but take at look at this next question and answer:

"QUESTION: When a guy hits a shot like that forehand on match point, is that a function of luck, of risk, or is it a function of confidence that someone would make kind of... 

ROGER FEDERER: Confidence? Are you kidding me? I mean, please.  
Look, some players grow up and play like that. I remember losing junior matches. Just being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots. It all goes in for some reason, because that's the kind of way they grew up playing when they were down. I never played that way. I believe in hard work's gonna pay off kinda thing, because early on maybe I didn't always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point. But, look, maybe he's been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You've got to ask him."

Maybe he was more upset at the question, than he was at Djokovic, or even himself, but can you imagine how Djokovic would feel if he heard/read that?  

Lucky shots?  Like they do in the juniors?


I don't know about you, but if I gave a damn about earning anyone's respect, I wouldn't take a shining to being compared to a junior, that hit lucky shots and intimating that I hadn't worked hard, or earned the victory?  I mean, what's a guy gotta do to get any respect?

Saturday, September 8, 2012


So, based on the statistics, in all likelihood you have come to see about the hindrance rule referred to in this post concerning Serena Williams in the final of the US Open last year against Sam Stosur, or this post concerning Mardy Fish in Miami this year against Matthew Ebden.

There were a couple of coincidences about the two incidences that made them interesting to align with each other - both players against whom the hindrance rule was called were Americans who were ignorant of the specifics of the rule, thought they should get a let and refused to shake the umpire's hand at the end of the match - umpires who were 100% right, by the way - and they lost the ruling and the match to Australians.

Interestingly, today in the US Open semi-final between Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray, the end of the first set saw another hindrance ruling, only this time, I have to say that 

(1) the umpire, Pascal Maria - one of the best in the game - got it all wrong, but 

(2) was man enough to admit his mistake, and (with help from Murray)
(3) make right what he did wrong.

Let this be a lesson to all umpires:  don't make two wrongs out of one if you screw up a call. Take a deep breath and just fix it...nobody's perfect, just fix it.

But first the rule:


If a player is hindered in playing the point by a deliberate act of the opponent(s), the player shall win the point.

However, the point shall be replayed if a player is hindered in playing the point by either an unintentional act of the opponent(s), or something outside the player’s own control..."

So, there are two parts of the hindrance rule: (1) was it a hindrance? and (2) was the act that caused the hindrance deliberate?

Clearly the hat falling off of Murray's head in the middle of the point, fully in Berdych's line of sight, while he still had a play on the ball, was a hindrance.  And just as clearly, unlike Serena and Mardy, the act that caused the hindrance was not intentional - Murray didn't intend to take off his hat. But Pascal Maria, one of the best umpires in the game, allowed the point to stand, originally ruling that the hindrance did not affect Berdych's ability to reach the ball - only that's not part of the hindrance rule.

The rule that Maria referred to is used when an overrule is made - when a ball is called "out" that is corrected to "in".  Appendix V, Case 7 states:

"If a chair umpire or line umpire calls “out” and then corrects the call to good, what is the correct decision?

Decision: The chair umpire must decide if the original “out” call was a hindrance to either player. If it was a hindrance, the point shall be replayed. If it was not a hindrance, the player who hit the ball wins the point."

So if the play "invalidated" by a corrected "out" call was not affected by that call (either because the player chose not to swing at it assuming incorrectly that it was out, or the shot was just too good), then the player who hit the shot on the corrected call wins the point. But this doesn't apply to a hindrance caused by AN OPPONENT, to which THE hindrance rule 26 above refers.

Murray then approached, sensing that the umpire had made a mistake and didn't want to take a point he didn't deserve, and asked Berdych (several times actually) if he was 100% certain that the cap hit the ground while the ball was in play, which speaks to the first hurdle of whether it was a hindrance.

Fortunately Murray was man enough to suggest to the umpire that they play a let, and Maria was man enough to agree to correct his mistake (which I believe he only did once he realized he was applying the wrong rule) and justice, almost accidentally, was actually served.

Unfortunately Murray proceeded to lose the point he would have won had his hat stayed on, and also proceeded to lose the set. But FORTUNATELY he won the match and not a single question was asked about it in the post match press conference with Berdych.

Oh how quickly we forget.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012



I used to read blog posts about the mind games Federer plays with his opponents, and loathe that I am to accept it, I have to admit that his recent attempts to justify his poor results are indeed evidence of this. Let me be perfectly clear: there's no conspiracy, and the press are not helping him get results. If his opponents are afraid of him it's because of their results against him - at the end of the day he still has to hit the shots.

But blaming his losses in Australia and then Dubai on an undiagnosed case of mono is about the lowest I've ever seen Fed go. I give him credit for carrying himself appropriately during his reign as #1 - he could have been unbearably arrogant and surly with everyone all the time, as was say...John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Illie Nastase...but he hasn't. For this he deserves credit.

But what purpose is served by claiming his results were down to illness? First consider that every player on tour could be suffering from some sort of discomfort, injury or illness - never mind their personal lives which can easily impact their game. So the fact that Fed is announcing his injury, and laying the blame for his losses at this altar of self-pity, is counter balanced by the likelihood that his opponents over the last four years have also been carrying some handicaps. At the end of the day, we generally don't know, and rightfully don't care, because if you're fit enough to pick up a ball and racquet, you must accept the results regardless of your own mental qualifications thereof.

That he even thought to include in his explanation and additional explanation of why he didn't want to say anything before is further evidence that he recognizes how his assertions would (and should) be received by the objective observer. I doubt had Federer won in Australia and Dubai he'd have bothered to mention his illness. He did the same in his first match against Canas in Indian Wells last year - blaming the loss on a blister. Two weeks later he lost to the same man with no excuse - there may have been one, but even the casual observer would certainly have adjudged them ridiculous. After that second loss, he actually consoled himself (publicly) by saying it was better to lose to the same player twice, making it more likely that the loss is down to some esoteric circumstance of that match up that is unlikely to repeat itself, than starting to lose to all kinds of people.

But why bother with either explanation?

Much has been made of the effect that the aura of Federer has had on his opponents, and I have to say that in this I totally agree. There are any number of players who appear to have lost the match before they step on the court, and rather than continue fighting to the end, seem to accept their fate as inevitable. Where I differ with the lunatic fringe of the blogosphere is in the suggestion that that aura is the result of a media and public relations offensive that has lasted 4 years, in which his management, the tennis media and even some of his opponents are complicit.  The suggestion that you can win just by walking on the court is espoused only by those who have no idea how difficult it is to play professional tennis. At the end of the day, you still have to hit the shots, and it is only this that creates the true aura.

But there is certainly an aura - Borg had it for 3 years, Connors for a couple in the 70's, and Laver for many in the 60's, and Pancho Gonzales? Don't get me started. I doubt anyone would put their success down to media hype or anything other than their superior play, but for some reason Federer's detractors can't bring themselves to admit the obvious - the man has played great tennis for the last 4 years, and as a result he's scared the piss out of 99 out 100 players on tour.

But you can begin to depend on your aura, and I think this may have started to happen here. The US Open final of 2007 was Novak Djokovic's to lose - he had set points in each of the first two, and I can stone cold guarantee you that if he had won the first, that match would have turned out very differently. Federer didn't hit but one winner in that sequence, most of the set points were lost due to Djokovic's errors, including an inopportune double-fault or two. Bottom line: he choked, and he choked because he just couldn't handle the fact that he was about to beat the myth.

But what is more telling is not the fact that Djokovic choked those set points away, but the way Federer played those points - in fact, I think it's fitting to say that Federer's willingness to let his opponent self-destruct, rather than attack him in that moment was an indication that he recognized the power of his aura, and let it do its work.  Now it's anyone's guess if he would have taken a different approach in the second set, had he lost that first, but because it wasn't broke, he didn't fix it, and the Djoker proceeded to collapse again.

In Australia, Djokovic may have been helped by the natural antipathy he feels at being left out of that exclusive club of two - Federer and Nadal. Legions of fans appear to be at their disposal at all times and places, so much so that it wouldn't surprise me to see them one day walking on the shoulders of all their fans from the practice court to the club house without ever touching the ground.  And Djokovic clearly had had enough. Aided by the camp mentality so obviously purported by his family, who just can't understand how it is everybody doesn't love their little boy as much as they do, when Djokovic saw the finish line in Melbourne, he ran through it, rather than pulling up at the end like at the US Open.

Does this mean that the end is nearer for the reign of the Great Roger Federer - of course, but this would have been true whether he won or lost in Australia - after all, one cannot expect him to be so dominant forever.  And it is possible that Djokovic just may have finally done the one thing that other players who succumb to the impulse to beat the myth, can't do - he just went out and beat the player instead.

Maybe that's why Roger is trying so hard to explain away his bad results - maybe he has become too reliant on that myth. If that is the case, it is a problem that is easily fixed by hard work.  If players have found solutions to the problems you present, find new problems. But if Roger Federer decides to go the other way - to keep doing the same thing and hope to get (in his case) the same results, I think he's dead wrong.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Disclaimer - if reading about the GOAT debate would be considered hazardous to your emotional well-being, please STOP READING THIS POST IMMEDIATELY.

I've been trolling the blogosphere lately getting into all manner of the GOAT debate. Let me tell you, there is something visceral about the debate that makes it the kind of thing that, if you want to enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner, you just don't bring up. The level of vitriol coming from debaters of many different perspectives on the topic is staggering.  Having said that, I'm not going to pretend I don't understand why there is so much emotional involvement in something as, in the grand scheme of things, benign as the GOAT. At its core, the emotion is really just a deep love of the game - and honestly I can't argue with that.

But apparently, in the course of forging one too many times into the breach, a few people have been more than mildly irritated with the "majors won" argument as the only measure of greatness we need to consider, the conviction with which I make it and the conviction with which I dispute all other measures argued.  Like everyone else who debates the GOAT, obviously I do love the game. I play it, I watch it, and I study its history for no other reason than I love it. The majors constitute the backbone of the tradition in the game, and the tradition is the only thing that links current players with the history, and as a result, I believe we can compare players across the history of the game by counting majors won. It is an imperfect measure - I never said it wasn't - but so too are the crowned jewels of the game, but because we love it, we accept those limitations.

To argue that head to head record, or proficiency on multiple surfaces, or talent, or any other specific measure of greatness is more important than majors won strikes me as both revisionist and cynical. A little bit like when Lucy yanks the ball away from Charlie Brown at the moment he's about to kick it. Everyone involved in tennis, from the players to the fans and everyone in between, follows the majors because they are what everyone follows. At its core, the most basic argument for the tradition of the game is, indeed circular, but somehow, it doesn't make that argument any less compelling.

All these other measures of greatness are either (1) encompassed in winning majors, (2) subordinate in value to the majors, (3) a means to achieving majors or (4) completely arbitrary.  As such, I don't think it makes any sense to bother with any other measure of greatness than majors won. But one of the arguments that I find the most pernicious is that somehow there is something wrong with seeking to identify a GOAT, or even the possibility that a GOAT can be determined.  

I mean, if you follow tennis, and the game is even remotely important to you, then you obviously have no problem with determining mini-GOATs like the best player in a match, the best player at a tournament, the best player over the course of a year, and ironically, the best player in an ill-defined period of time so fashionably referred to these days as an "era". I have no clue what an era is, but if you do, and you accept there can be a best of it, isn't it just a little disingenuous to somehow conclude that for the ultimate era (all time) the best cannot be determined? Why is that? If you use the same tools used to determine all these other mini-GOATs, which you accept, what on earth is the problem with determining THE GOAT?

Of course, that's a big if - and strangely, it seems the only way to dispute the most obvious candidate for the GOAT, is to dispute the validity of the measure used to determine it. My question is, in exchange for what measures? What measures are superior to those measures which we know, accept and already use for nearly every other competitive evaluation in the game?

What I have tried to guard against more than anything, in arguing majors won as the best measure of greatness, is the introduction of measures of greatness that contradict those that are already established by the game's traditions, because doing so would do the one thing that, as a tennis fan, I admit I simply can't bear to do - invalidate precisely that which makes me love the game. 

If that happens, then what the hell is the point? If you're wondering, that's why it's so important to me.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


It's got to be mental - he has all the shots, and he's always cool as a cucumber, so if he has a problem with Nadal, it has to be a mental block. Right?


What exactly constitutes a mental block with someone on the tennis court? As it is described by the tennis punditry it is evidenced by one of two things - for some reason a player can no longer execute shots that he normally does against everyone else, or he tries shots against that player that he doesn't try against anyone else, usually because the guy is in his head and he's second guessing himself. But I would argue that these are both really just symptoms of the same problem, and it has nothing to do with psychology.

Federer's technique, like all players, is tied to his tactical patterns and vice versa. And against 999,999 out of a million possible opponents, that confluence of technique and tactics work perfectly. But if you try to change your tactics without commensurate changes to your technique, or change your technique without commensurate changes to your tactics, the two will fall out of sync, and suddenly everything your normally do easily and so well, are the exact things that get you beat. Thus the solution is a proper change to both technique and tactics that create a new paradigm, one that your bete noire does not have an answer to.

As evidence, I offer the third set tiebreak of their Australian Open semi-final this year because in this game, a full display Federer's inability to win critical points with errors that appear to be the result of some mental block vis a vis Nadal, lie the secrets - the lack of technical and tactical synchronization - to this mystery. Tennis is not chess, it is a physical endeavor that requires a set of skills consistently executed to near perfection, in order to maximize your tactics, compete and achieve at the highest level. If there was a God of tennis, it would definitely be in the details - the technical and tactical details.

So let’s take this game point by point:

0-0: That missed backhand volley was the result of coming in off a HIGH backhand up the line (a shot which he ALWAYS lands short) and having to cover the cross court pass, thus he was too deep to finish the point with his first volley and was dead long before he got to net. Had he flattened it out he may have had a chance, but I don’t know anyone who can take a shoulder height backhand approach shot and hit it deep, flat and up the line. 

Had he sliced it deep up the line, which is historically the conventional backhand approach, he'd have more time to close the angles on passing shots, Nadal would have to hit his passing shot from a low height, and somehow get it up and down quickly enough to get past a simple put away volley. The last alternative would be a lob, but again, from a low slice, an offensive lob is difficult to execute, and Federer has a great overhead. As it were, Federer's short topspin approach didn't give him enough time to close the angle on the pass, and because it gets to Nadal quickly, so too does Nadal's passing shot arrive at Federer before he has a chance to reach the optimal position to put away his volley - hence the error.

0-1: Federer goes inside/in on the forehand (not nearly as effective as his inside/out forehand which is flatter and hit at a better angle) and it also lands very short - another common mistake he gets away with against most players because they lack the running cross-court reply on that side. It just so happens that Nadal’s cross-court backhand is one of the best in the game, and Federer’s short reply to it is rife for the drop shot, which Nadal hits well from inside the baseline. But it's important to note that when Federer goes cross court on the forehand from inside or at the baseline, he always puts a lot of top spin on the shot, and it always lands short - this is not something that is reserved for Nadal.

To be effective he also needs a better angle, but at this point he's not doing anything different against Nadal than what he does against everyone. It just so happens that against Nadal it is a high risk play because of his ability to hit passing shots on the run off both wings. So the tactic of taking the short forehand and approaching is correct, but the execution isn't there because Federer isn't accustomed to having to play that shot as close to the line as he would have to in order to be effective against Nadal, who moves and hits on the run better than anyone on tour.

1-2: Federer hits a solid backhand return, but his next two backhands land short (as usual) to Nadal’s forehand, which he easily pulls wider and wider with his next two successive shots. Federer tries to go up the line on the 3rd backhand to break the pattern, but he has problems with his backhand at shoulder height, and it’s even harder to hit up the line. Djokovic, for example, eats that for lunch because he takes that backhand higher, hits it flatter and changes direction a lot better than Federer.

Thus, the issue here is Federer's backhand - aesthetically appealing as it is, it is not as effective against that one shot from Nadal that pulls him to the left and stays up at his shoulders at his preferred court positioning. He could change his positioning and move further back, but that is not a shot a lot of players have - a deep flat backhand up the line with pace that puts Nadal in a defensive position (think Nicolas Almagro or Richard Gasquet). And if he did move back, it would expose him to an inside out forehand, a drop shot or even another cross court forehand pulling him further and further out of position. So the combination of Federer's preferred court positioning, and the technical inability to hit anything but a weak cross court backhand reply costs him this point.

1-3: From a high backhand (not even a forehand) up the line from Nadal, which lands short, Federer still has trouble stepping into the court, even though this time he's going to his preferred cross court backhand. Here the problem is again, that his best backhands are struck at waist level - it's just the way that his shot is produced. And against 99 out of 100 players, he can take that shot on the rise and at waist level at his preferred court position to the baseline and hit a solid cross court shot. But here against Nadal, at that distance from the baseline, the ball remains up around his shoulder - at the same height as the previous backhand…which he also shanked - although not as badly as this one. 

Again, Federer could move back and wait for the ball to come into his optimal strike zone, but that alters his positioning and leaves him vulnerable to a lot of things. He could also step further into the court and hit more of a half-volley, but that's one of the hardest shots in tennis, and even the great Federer would have difficulty picking up the right point of contact and still hit it with pace and direction. Particularly difficult against a player who has been recorded as putting the most spin on the ball in the history of the game (according to this tennisplayer.net presentation
). Those numbers alone ought to dispel the myth that the problem is mental - it is clearly a physical challenge, and one that most players have against Nadal, not just Federer.

1-4: Federer is passed off a shallow cross court forehand - it’s important to note that unlike his forehand approach up the line which he hits flat, this one he comes over to keep it in the court, but is easily passed with Nadal’s crosscourt backhand, which I’ve already indicated is one of the best in the game. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Federer hit a flat forehand crosscourt - particularly as an approach - it's just a shot that he doesn't have. Complicating this shot is that the return from Nadal is a mishit that bounces on the center service line - either of which is very hard to deal with, and together nearly impossible to hit an optimal shot. Finally, the previous approach to the backhand elicited a backhand up the line - which you can see Federer lean towards slightly to cover, but Nadal trips him up and goes cross court.

The real question is tactically why Federer chooses to approach on this at all? The answer is that it's part of the patterns of play that he executes almost by rote. Most all-court players taking a forehand inside the baseline will approach the net no matter what - even if it's not optimal to do so - it just doesn't work out here for Federer, but this decision to approach is not unusual. In fact the problem with this decision is that it is too "usual". Despite the opponent and/or the special conditions of this particular shot coming at him, he doesn't alter his playing pattern. Because he doesn't do anything differently (not because he does - as you would expect if the problem was that his opponent is "in his head"), he gets burned.

1-5: Federer’s wide serve in the deuce is too deep and here you can say he choked a little, because he normally spots that serve much further up in the service court.  But in this case, it's too deep and Nadal hits a solid return - deep and with pace - pushing him well beyond where he optimally likes to hit that forehand up the line. On grass or on a faster surface, that same serve may be effective, and the natural sequence is to approach on the next shot. But on a slow hard court, or a clay court, the serve sits up. Then from Nadal's well struck return, the change of positioning should force Federer to clear the net at a higher level than he normally does, but he doesn't alter his technique and he pays the price with a ball in the net.

This is normally his best approach shot because he’s usually hitting at a right hander’s backhand, typically takes it closer to the middle of the court (because the spotting of the serve is better), and doesn't have to clear the net at as high a point on the approach - if he were two feet to his left, that exact same shot would have easily cleared the net. But since he doesn't alter his technique here, the exact same tactic that he would employ in this situation requires a technique that he doesn't adjust to, and thus the error.

1-6: Federer hits a solid deep return which pushes Nadal back. From this Nadal hits a slow cross court forehand which lands at the service line, and although the point of contact is high, Nadal’s shot is so short and slow Federer can easily step in and go cross court (his best backhand by far), over the lowest part of the net, for a winner. It’s important to note here that the quality of Federer’s return forces Nadal back and elicits a weak reply, versus in a neutral rally where Nadal can step into the forehand, pull him wide and force a weak reply, as he did at 1-2, and generally always does against Federer.

But in this case, a change of tactics (to be more aggressive with the backhand return), with a commensurate change in technique (by coming over the backhand thereby hitting it with more pace and pushing Nadal back) elicits a return that he can easily hit for a winner. Against most players in the past, Federer would simply chip this backhand return and wait for a short reply, either from a player who can't handle a short slice, or at some point later in the natural course of a rally. But against Nadal, he must tactically force himself into control of the point, and alter his technique to do so, to excellent effect in this point. In other words, the winner got an assist from a tactical and technical change in his return of serve.

2-6: Off a short backhand up the line from Nadal, Federer easily hits his backhand at waist height with power and depth, eliciting an error from Nadal. But the key is Nadal’s shot before the approach. It is so short and weak that Federer appears to have no problems with a backhand approach up the line. Not immune to the pressure, Nadal is timid with his shot, and by playing a different shot to Federer's backhand, (and not Federer playing differently than he normally does) Nadal allows Federer to play the way we all expect him to. There is no change in either his tactic of approaching to Nadal's backhand, or the execution thereof, which he is able to do at waist height which is his optimal point of contact. The result - the same as it is against everyone else on tour - a forced error.

3-6: Federer hits (almost) the same shallow cross court forehand as at 1-4, off a backhand return from Nadal. This one Nadal hits flush on the strings, no where near a service line, but even shorter inside the service court. Federer could probably hit this shot with his eyes closed, and it doesn't matter who’s on the other side of the net because the return is short, weak and has a straight trajectory. But again, I reiterate that it is the change in Nadal's execution that elicits the shot from Federer that we see him hit easily with (almost) all other players, and not a change in Federer's tactics or execution.

5-6: This is a great (and classic) one-two combination from Nadal - a solid wide serve in the ad court (which is his favorite) and since Federer’s backhand return is not naturally aggressive (as Djokovic’s for example) he does little to prevent Nadal running around his own backhand and hitting a fairly standard inside out forehand winner. Nothing new from Federer and thus nothing new from Nadal. And while Federer has improved his backhand return, it’s still just an improvement over his chip return, and not nearly the weapon that it would have to be to consistently counter that particular serve from Nadal. Djokovic, on the other hand, devours this return because tactically he is almost always aggressive on the return, and he has the quickness and the racquet head control to execute. Federer clearly does not.

It's a long analysis, but at the end of the day, the elements of Federer's game that Nadal exposes, and exposes in general when they play, are problems with a high backhand, both as an approach shot or a shot in a neutral rally (resulting from an inability to step back and wait for the ball to come into his optimal point of contact, or step in and take it on the rise), a cross court or inside/in forehand which lands too short and/or has too much spin to be effective as an approach, and finally a wide serve in the deuce court that wasn't spotted particularly well for this surface. A few small things, but they made the difference in this game, set and ultimately in the match.

The most important thing to note from this tiebreak is that if Federer's problems with Nadal were strictly mental, you would expect him to do things differently against Nadal than he does against everyone else. Strange drop shots, ill-advised attempted winners from difficult positions, or strange serves that he normally doesn't spot well. As you can see from this game, he did none of those things. Patrick McEnroe goes to great length to point out that Nadal isn't doing anything differently in this tiebreak, but he fails to recognize the obvious - neither does Federer, and that is precisely why he loses it. As matter of fact, if Federer makes no tactical or technical changes against Nadal, why would Nadal, if his results have been so much better in the rivalry? Federer's patterns don't change against Nadal, and as a result, neither do his results - because Nadal is his bĂȘte noire. Everything Federer normally does well, Nadal has an answer for it. And everything Nadal does well, Federer has very few.

Not mental, but technical and tactical.

I think putting things down to Nadal being “in his head” is taking the easy way out, to be honest. In a round about way it’s saying, “Federer has the game to consistently beat Nadal, but because of his mental block he can’t execute”. But that, in my opinion, doesn’t do much in the way of analysis. If I were Federer, and a coach started delving into the psychology of beating Nadal, I’d fire him immediately, because there are shots he doesn’t have, that he needs, to consistently beat Nadal. Strangely, the psychology of beating Nadal is all anyone seems to want to talk about in the broadcast booth. There is some tactical analysis from McEnroe and Cahill (why does he approach the forehand, why isn't he more aggressive on the return), but a surprising dearth of technical analysis of why he can't make those changes.

It is also possible that Federer realizes the tactical changes he needs to make, and doesn’t want to re-engineer his strokes just for Nadal. For example he could take the racquet head back further away from his body on his backhand and force him to bring it forward through the point of contact (like Almagro and Haas) as opposed to across his body which causes a weak reply and inconsistent point of contact resulting in errors. He could also take a step further behind the baseline and really belt it (like Gasquet, who certainly has a better topspin backhand than Federer), but that would mean a big change in his court positioning that would make his forehand less effective.  Also, he many not have the quickness to cover drop shots and short angles from further behind the baseline. And given that he may, or may not even have to face Nadal in a major (which he hasn't had to in any of his major wins since 2007), he could be tinkering with what works against almost everyone, in exchange for what may or may not work against Nadal, and could ironically cost him against everyone else along the way.

But I believe that if he doesn't make both technical and tactical adjustments he’ll always have the same problems against him, and unless Nadal's game changes significantly, will likely continue to get the same results.