Monday, June 8, 2015

STAN WAWRINKA HAS LIBERATED US

There's something liberating about the destruction of myths in tennis - the blogosphere is replete with them, and to a person who plays as often as I do, it can be disheartening to read what others just take as the gospel, even if it makes absolutely no sense at all.  That's why I felt a sense of liberation from Stan Wawrinka's victory over Novak Djokovic in the French Open final yesterday.  Not that I was imprisoned by being his fan - I'm not - nor that I relished in the interruption of what everyone seemed to agree was Novak's procession to the only major he's never won.

The John McEnroe's of the world so personally identify with the pressures of being #1,  that he frequently seems to forget that there are two players involved in a match with the top dog.  To hear him commentate, the match (and his attention) are entirely dependent on the guy who's supposed to win.  And I just can't get over the obvious prepared side-bars (and often incoherent ramblings) of Mary Carillo who has replaced Dick Enberg as the greatest producer of broadcast cheese in the tennis world.  She's never short of a story of some grandmother or teacher in 3rd grade or friend who spent time in a Turkish prison - there's always some damn thing.  So it's all the more disappointing that a former player, who did actually win a mixed doubles major (with John McEnroe, no less) provides so little in the way of technical or tactical analysis.

But they are the purveyors of tennis mythology - it is their inane and endlessly narcissistic pseudo-analysis that drones on and on about any number of mythological hurdles to navigate, that convinces the tennis world that that the myths are fact.  The more they say it, the more it's repeated, and the more it's taken as truth.  They begin to suffocate us with their dogma, leaving no room for the possibility that something unexpected could happen...until, of course, it happens.

That's why Stan's victory at Roland Garros should liberate us all - particularly those who play tennis, but as well those who watch it.  Too often we've heard these myths, and if you listen to them often enough, it's hard to come to any conclusion other than the game of tennis (and all of it's many myths) decides for you what can and cannot be done, rather you determining for yourself, your own destiny.

So here, for the record, and for which we should all be very grateful, are some of the myths from which Stan has liberated us all:

The Insurmountable Head to Head Match Up

It is the most common statistic shown in tennis - the head to head matchup.  It appears to give you some insight into the match that's about to occur, and is as often cited as a hurdle that has to be overcome as anything technical.  But there's something very wrong with using the head-to-head match up as a harbinger:  first, the matches often go back many more years than is relevant to the match at hand.  For two players like say, Federer and Haas, that history could go back 14 years.  To me, that's as insightful as looking at results in the juniors. If you think about it, the head-to-head match up is only as informative as the overall games of the players involved have not evolved...and how exactly are you going to measure that?  Well, that requires technical analysis, and there's just no time for that on television, so it's much easier to cite the head-to-head record - because nothing else says so little, while appearing to say so much.  After all, a player could (theoretically) change his game in a month in such a way that the previous ten years of results are completely irrelevant.

Even so, the head-to-head record begins to take on such an undeserved importance that people no longer view it as a historical coincidence or happenstance, but rather as a hurdle that must be overcome in order to win the upcoming match. But the truth is that what happened 10 years ago has no more impact on the next match than what happened 10 minutes ago - the past is not prologue unless the conditions characterizing the past are the same.  And that being the case, the only thing you have to do to nullify years of futility in a head-to-head match up is...change.  Something, anything, sometimes it almost doesn't matter what, but change - and not something mental, because in the best case scenario, a mental change elicits a technical change, and as such, mental changes are really reaching around your ass to scratch your elbow.  You're much better off making technical changes, and the mental changes (by now irrelevant) will follow.

The One-Handed Backhand Disadvantage

This is the myth that the one-handed backhand is dead as a viable technique in modern tennis - the game has changed so much that no player with a one-handed backhanded could possibly ever beat [enter player here] or win [enter tournament here], under any circumstances.  Once again, leave it to John McEnroe, a player with a one-handed backhand, to self-inflicted this wound to his own legacy, who proclaimed confidently this year at the Italian Open (that's what I'm calling it, I don't care what it's actually called) that, "No player with a one-handed backhand will ever beat Rafael Nadal on clay".  And the tennis gods promptly melted the wax in his wings when Stan the Man canned Rafa in Rome in straight sets.  I guess McEnroe forgot that Nico Almagro, during one of the least productive seasons of his career, did the same in Barcelona the year before.  So how did he come to this conclusion in the first place?

Well, there is an underlying myth out there concerning the technical omnipotence of professional tennis players - the line goes like this:  these guys are the best players in the world, and as such, they must have every shot in the book at their disposal, therefore, if they can't find a solution to a problem, the problem must be mental, not technical, because they're technically omnipotent.  If you read carefully, and know anything about logic, you can see that you simply cannot use the same point in your premise as your conclusion - that's circular, and proves nothing.  But that's precisely what this theory does.  And worse than that, despite evidence to the contrary, that these players are not technically omnipotent, because some players are so technically superior to others - they use that in defense of the circular logic by the following:  Roger Federer is the most talented and complete player in tennis, so if he can't do something technical, nobody can - so if he can't beat Nadal on clay because of his one-handed backhand, nobody on earth could possibly have a better one that could.

Bloody dead wrong.

The truth is that Roger may indeed be more talented and resourceful than Stan, but Stan hits the ball harder than Roger - a lot harder - and that gives him opportunities against players that Roger does not have.  In fact, one could argue that Roger's game, which has evolved to compel him to stay on top of the baseline, puts him at a disadvantage because it is more difficult to hit with pace, which is the only way to consistently pressure Djokovic and Nadal, who defend exceptionally well.  Because Stan can hit so hard, he doesn't have to stand on top of the baseline to take his opponent's time away - he can do it from 6 feet further back.  And six feet further behind the baseline means Stan can more frequently hit the backhand in optimal comfort zone, making him even more likely to push his opponent back on clay, in a way that Roger cannot.

Of course the difference yesterday was not Stan's backhand (which has always been a fantastic shot) but his forehand, which suddenly is as powerful as any shot in tennis, but that's not to ignore the obvious - Stan's backhand is better than Roger's therefore Roger is not technically omnipotent, and most importantly Roger's technical limitations do not apply to everyone on earth who plays a similar game.

Myth blown.

The Tennis Career Archetype

If you don't win a major by your 23rd birthday, you never will.  That's the theory because all the major champions in the open era, won their first before their 23rd birthday.  So, try as they may, the Tomas Berdych's and David Ferrer's and Feliciano Lopez's of the world should really just retire, because their window has come and gone.

But hang on a minute - wasn't Stan 28 when he won the Oz Open last year and almost 30 when he won Roland Garros just now?  Are there other major champions that old?  Of course Federer and Nadal come to mind, and even Agassi and Sampras won majors long after their "best" years had gone by, but they had already won one, so they already had the "belief" right?  Well, let's put aside the stupidity of the "belief" argument for a second, and examine whether other first time major winners have been this old...ever?

Jan Kodes and Ivan Lendl were both 24 when they won their first majors.  Marin Cilic was 25...hmm those are well within the margin of credulity, since the vast majority of other major champions have done it long before then, like all the 80's major champions.  But what about Cilic's coach, Goran Ivanisevic?  Well, he was 30 when he won Wimbledon - but I think everyone in tennis viewed that as a fluke, ironically since he should have won it 2-3 other times he found himself in the final.  But how about Andy Murray?  He was 25 when he won the US Open, and 26 when he finally won Wimbledon.  No, this is looking more like the exception.

But here Stan Wawrinka - who in terms of professional tennis, may as well be a septuagenarian, winning, not one, but two majors since his 28th birthday.  How has he bucked the trend?  Well basically he did it the old fashioned way - he lost weight, changed racquets and improved his forehand.  It doesn't sound like much, but that was enough for him, which tells you how close he was all along.  Of course the results weren't there, they suggested nothing of the kind from him, and if you look at his 2011 victory in the Australian Open of Andy Roddick, that looked like an upset, when now, in retrospect, looks like the right result.  But clearly he was better than we thought back then...

...and so are a lot of guys floating around right now.

Somewhere out there is a guy who is about to turn 30 with all the tools in his kit to force his way into the conversation.  But if your myopia is restricted to the players that should win (as is always the case with say...John McEnroe, who couldn't resist alluding to Federer during his interview with Wawrinka)  you will miss those who gape to be their heirs.  So who are the diamonds in the rough?  Well that's for another post.

The point of this post is to say that there are a lot of myths about professional tennis that make us think we know what to expect, and seeps its way into every aspect of our experience with tennis, including the matches that we play.  But nothing could be more damaging to the game of an aspiring professional, or an aspiring weekend hacker (like me), than to insist on remaining chained to these pillars of absolute nothingness and meaninglessness that masquerades as tennis dogma that is in fact about as insightful and informative as the Iliad.

Let us all take a moment and thank Stan Wawrinka for liberating us from the shackles of our misguided, unproven and utterly useless tennis dogma.

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