Wednesday, February 12, 2014

LOOKING FOR THE LAST CHAMPION

We do it in all sports, but especially in tennis.  We're always looking for the last champion - a reboot of the last generation's greatest, just in a younger, better-looking package.  And we do this without taking into account changes in the game, and the very real prospect that the way to beat the best at one style of play, is to employ a different style of play.  

Those who have enjoyed Federer's reign as the greatest player in history, have pinned the latest hopes on Grigor Dimitrov, who reminds them of, and seeks to be, what they so loved about his predecessor, and what we all assumed would be the way forward.  And who among us have not assumed that because Serena Williams, when she is dominant, is so dominant that the only solution to her oppressive regime is to find a younger, stronger, faster version of herself (cue the clip of Sloane Stevens, Madison Keys et. al).  And not dissimilar to great military powers that are always fighting the last war, it is not uncommon for parents, coaches, players and pundits alike to be looking for Serena 2.0.

But has that ever been the case in the history of tennis?  Have the great champions been usurped by younger version of themselves?  Is Federer the modern version Sampras?  Aside from sharing a one-handed backhand, Federer couldn't have been more different than Sampras. Sure when Federer first came on tour he served and volleyed his way to his first Wimbledon, but never really since, and while Sampras' game was as much about raw athleticism and power, as it was about technique, Federer's game is about precision and ball control, and setting up winners with guile, rather than executing them with power.  

The courts got slower, the balls got fluffier, and suddenly the prospect of another dominant server and volleyer went the way of the do-do, and the name of the game was spin, transition from defense to offense, athleticism and stamina. Federer may have mastered this art first, but the development of the top 3 players of today, in Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, who have collectively passed him by, shows that the recipe for a successful coup is not in out-doing the best at his best, but rather to attack his technical flanks, and make the key to success something that you do better than him.

After all, did McEnroe bludgeon monotonously from the baseline to beat Borg, or did he kill him with a thousand cuts - a wide serve here, a drop volley there, and everything in between? Because Borg was so adept at moving from side to side and positioning himself so far behind the baseline, McEnroe's solution had the added advantage of using Borg's strengths against him.  When Borg ran out of solutions, he also ran out of the game. Coincidence?  Maybe.

Come to think of it, did Borg and Connors serve and volley their way past the archetypal big games of Stan Smith, John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe? Hardly.  In fact they exposed the big game for the untenable reliance on immediate domination and control of the points - so when it came time for them to build the points slowly but surely, they were hardly up to the standards of those disrespectful upstarts who simply refused to rush the net until they were good and ready.

Now, in watching the Fed Cup matches between Italy and the US this past weekend, I was surprised (but not really surprised) at how easily Madison Keys was beaten by the Argentinian (masquerading as an Italian) Camila Giorgi.  You've certainly heard of Madison Keys, tipped by many as the next best thing.  In fact Brad Gilbert went so far last year at the Australian Open as to say that she, more than any of the others, had #1 potential.  His reasoning?
  1. A big first serve
  2. A big forehand
  3. An athletic presence
  4. A steely focus
Sound familiar?  In fact, if you close your eyes and say that list three times, Serena Williams will pop into your mind like the Wicked Witch of the West.  But isn't that just fighting the last war? After all, in the last 10 years, which players have successfully challenged Serena?  Those who gape to be her heir, in every way possible, and in many ways impossible?  Or those who would attack her technical flanks and offer a different solution to the problem that so many of her paltry-by-comparison clones would present?

Justine Henin didn't attack the Williams sisters head on.  When pushed wide, she hit deep slice.  When served hard and heavy, she stepped in and took it on the rise, before the full force of their most potent stroke could do their damage.  And whereas they sought to beat her into oblivion from the baseline, she took anything short and attacked, forcing them to hit deeper, and subsequently either make more errors, or take something off of their most potent strokes, giving her just the opening she needed to put them under - again and again.

And lo and behold, we discovered that from time to time, the defense of Serena (and Venus) is not nearly as effective as their offense - good but, not great.  Of course it didn't always work - she may have lost as often as she won...maybe even more, but she managed to win 7 majors at a time when these two were seen as the two-headed dragons of tennis that would never be felled.

Now I'm not saying Camila Giorgi is necessarily the next Justine Henin - in fact Henin had far superior hand-eye coordination, more athletic ability, and greater tactical acumen than anything Giorgi has shown in her career.  But this spindly, sinewy little woman, surprisingly taller than she seems and fully adept at taking the ball early and belting the living daylights out of it, showed something this weekend that Keys has not yet in her young career.  Her sense of court positioning, whether innate (or as I suspect in her case) learned, shows us that one need not kamikaze one's way into yet another ass-whuppin' like so many of Serena's contemporaries do when faced with the quintessential big babe. There are tactical flanks to attack, without exposing one's own weaknesses.

In short, there is another way.

And this way, which I suspect is the way of the future, also exposed Madison Keys for the one thing that she currently lacks, which the Williams sisters have rarely had to, or been able to, fall back on:  a plan "B".  You see, it's all well and good to hit the ball like a ton of bricks, and as long as the only question being asked is, "How hard can you hit it", if the answer is, "harder" and harder works, you're gold.

But Keys didn't have the answer - not this weekend.  Keys is all about the power and depth of shot, and the fact that she was spinning first serve in was merely an alternate execution to the tactical directive to put her opponent under from the off.  Only Giorgi, by stepping in and taking the mickey out of the serve before it could take it out of her, asked a different question:  "What are you going to do when you can't over power me from the get-go?" Unfortunately Key's answer was to try to hit harder, and it didn't work. In fact it failed miserably. Some may put it down to a bad day - but bad days have a way of coalescing around players that challenge you technically.

Now lest you think that another player who defends better, would have easily handled Giorgi's oppressive aggression, I would remind you that she did nearly the same thing to a one-dimensional Caroline Wozniacki at the US Open last year.  Only Wozniacki's one dimension is not applying, but rather absorbing, pressure.  Her modus operandus is not to overpower you, but to let you overpower yourself, and in doing so, she also exposed the unanimity of so many big babe aspirants to the crown of biggest babe of all.  Lest we forget, with a tame first serve, and very little independent power, Wozniacki did manage to reach a major final and the #1 ranking - not too shabby. 

And do you know who happened to beat Giorgi in the next round? That's right, Roberta Vinci. Not some big babe ball bashing bafoon, but a real crafty veteran who, like Ken Rosewall, never saw a backhand she didn't want to slice, and a forehand that relies more on spin and placement than brute force. With guile, and movement, and tactics and a brain, she did to Giorgi what her younger more one-dimensional (albeit more talented) Danish forerunner could not.

Now, I don't want to get carried away, because it's just one match, and Keys presumably has a lot of miles left in the tank to get the balance right, but she does need balance.  And being one dimensional is hardly a solution when your one-dimension is the same one-dimension as every other girl on tour. It may have worked for Venus and Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka to some extent.  But if you're Madison Keys and your way forward is to be a technical and tactical clone of the Queens of this Comedy, you may also wind up joining the rest of us in looking for the next champion.

Instead of being it.
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