31 January, 2011

Australian Closed (Mens' Wrap Up)

For the first time in my life, I was privileged enough to attend the Australian Open this year.  There was talk of a tourney preview between the Rally Cap’s headmaster and I that never materialized since I was finally able to sleep on a plane like a big boy.

Two weeks of blistering tennis, sightseeing across eastern Australia  and laughing at my snowbound friends now past, we take a look back to see what the last two weeks really mean for the big players in the tennis world.

The last six years have been so thoroughly dominated by the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal narrative, that it feels equally appropriate and necessary to start there.  Obviously, neither man made (positive) history in Melbourne.  Federer didn’t bag his 17th major, nor did Nadal wrap up a quasi grand slam by winning his 4th in a row.  After spoiling fans with the consistency of their greatness, this Australian Open marked the 8th consecutive major the two titans have not met in a decider.

Only the staunchest fan could deny that Federer hasn’t grown increasingly inconsistent against top tier opponents.  The shanks dogged him throughout 2010 and this 2011 Australian Open would be no different.  Berdych, Soderling and Djokovic (twice) have taken Don Federer out on the sport’s biggest stages. To the objective observer, this decline in Federer’s game is no news.  In 2008, Rafael Nadal reached a level of consistency and excellence where he could beat Federer even on his favorite court, Wimbledon’s Centre.  Rafa’s run of form would continue until the 2009 French when the Spaniard found himself injured.  With Nadal sidelined and hobbled through the rest of 2009, Federer seemed to some, once again in the ascendancy.  But frankly, nothing changed for the Swiss legend until late 2009.  Until then, it was still just one man who could beat Federer regularly, and that one man was injured.  The loss to Del Potro at the ’09 US open signaled a true, though gradual, changing of the guard.  Federer will continue to win, as he did in Melbourne in 2010; but he’s coming back to the pack.  It isn’t just Nadal anymore.  Del Potro, Djokovic, Murray, Soderling and Berdych had all joined Rafa in being able to topple King Federer in key moments. The locker room aura of invincibility has been shattered. Players aren’t walking onto the court down a break in their own minds anymore. That makes those close matches even tougher to win.

With this Australian in the rear view mirror, the end of 2010 looks more a smokescreen than ever.  Federer went 26-2 after the US Open, winning matches across the Asian and Euro-indoor fall circuits and in Doha just before the Australian.  These far flung, off-the-radar events were once the province of the Nalbandians and Davydenkos of the world. Last year though, Federer used them to stockpile confidence and (to a cynic like myself) ranking points against lesser competition so that an “early” loss in Australia, would not touch the ranking, further denting the aura.  Winning Stockholm, Basel and the World Tour Finals is 2,000 points, the same as winning the Australian (he also made the semis of the Shanghai Masters which he skipped in 2009).  Given the current gap of less than 100 points, it’s only winning the if Stockholm Open that has kept Federer as World No. 2.

As long as he remains No. 2 behind Rafa, Federer can justify his results.  He can still say, there’s just that one guy, El Rafa!  Were he to have slipped to 3, 4 or 5 after Melbourne, there is question as to how Fed would’ve handled it.  Why?  Simply because we’ve never seen another player with such uninterrupted dominance as to have a case study.

Yes, Sampras won 14 majors, but half were at Wimbledon and he would flip flop rankings with Courier, Agassi, Rafter and others during his six year run as year end No. 1.  Federer won nearly everything in sight for 4 years and had an uninterrupted run at No. 1 for 237 weeks.  Sampras ruled an ATP democracy, if you will; others were heard, seized some power, revolted, but he remained presidential.  Federer was untouchably kinglike in his reign, guarding the ramparts and repelling lightweight attacks on his throne with a flick of the backhand.  Federer floated above the hoi polloi with only Nadal able to truly mount a serious challenge to his dominance.  Federer has 16 majors, but he’ll no longer be able to beat the other top contenders with his B game, and he’ll no longer have his A game every week.  Federer will always be a favorite, but he’s no longer alone.

Rafael Nadal at the 2010 Australian Open

With Nadal, we are seeing a familiar narrative re-emerge.  He is simply not able to play at the highest level for a full season, his body will not allow it.  Nadal’s biggest threat on the court is his own body.  The last 4 majors he didn’t win he either didn’t play or was felled with injury during them.

Nadal is at a crossroads.  He will never match Federer’s level of day-in/day-out dominance, his body is too fragile.  This means he needs to focus on winning when and where it matters.  It means that any amount of overplaying, whether for a sentimental home crowd in Barcelona, for some far flung cash grabs in Bangkok or whistlestop charity tours, must be met with a firm “no.” No?

Nadal’s bodily boom and bust provides a potential chink in the noted competitor’s armor: motivation.  I know, it sounds laughable to question Nadal of all people in the motivation department, but hear me out.  Nadal has one of the most decorated records in the sport’s history, he’s won each of the majors, attained the No. 1 year end ranking twice, won Olympic Gold and Davis Cup for Spain.  Some will note he hasn’t won the tour championships, fair point, but that’s not even the most important tournament in England.   As much as Nadal relishes playing, competing, as any athlete will tell you rehab is a grind.

A player who gets injured as much as Nadal spends as much time on the trainer’s table as on the court.  That’s not competition, it’s not the physical and mental chess game that Nadal seems to have such a lust for, it’s a means to an end.  The emerging question is, what is the end.  What more does Nadal have or want to accomplish in his career?  Chase down Federer’s 16 majors, maybe.  Get that tour championships win, maybe.  Become the 3rd man to win the calendar slam?  All worthy goals, but are they Rafa’s?  Grabbing the US Open ended the last absolutely necessary test of Rafa’s greatness.  Will Rafa grow tired of the boom/bust, the injury and rehab cycle that has defined his career or does he still thirst for more? I ask because when Rafa grows tired of the putting in the hard yards off the court, his results will fall off. This is a question the supremely healthy Federer has never had to answer. You can’t make 23 consecutive Grand Slam semis if you can’t make the starting line. Again, the yin and yang of the two beloved champions.

The losing finalist Andy Murray did almost everything he wanted to this fortnight.  He played well enough to emerge from Rafa’s half of the draw, defended his points from last year and managed to shrug off the weight of expectation.  Because after his meek, passive display against Djokovic, I don’t think I, for one, will ever pick him to win a major again.

Sports Illustrated‘s esteemed Jon Wertheim pointed out that in the Open era, only three men lost their first three major finals: Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivan Lendl, all fine company.  Frankly, the Scot would cut a virtually tragic figure if he never won one given his resume to date.

The thing is, Murray doesn’t seize the moment, he waits for his opponents to trip up.  You almost expect him to drop his racquet, stomp and start shouting “It’s not fair, it’s my turn, MY TURN!!!”

If Murray’s facing a top player with experience in pressure matches, the collapse he’s waiting for is just not going to happen.  The most telling statistic to me is that Murray’s played 9 sets in major finals, he is 0-9.  Now, he did play those matches against Federer and Djokovic, but if you’re capable of making the final Sunday, you should be able to win a set–in three tries.

Sure, If the draw breaks right, he can have his Ivanisevic moment, maybe even at Wimbledon.  But I wouldn’t bet on it.  Ever.

Djokovic vs. Murray
The Final Two In Australia

So what then of the champion, Serbian national hero, Novak Djokovic.  To say he’s on a roll would be an understatement, US Open final, Davis Cup champion, Australian Open champion.  That’s a pretty nice run. Hell, that would be a nice career even for a lot of players in the Top 10. It’s the last four months for the consensus hottest player on tour at the moment.  With the ATP sticking to hardcourts for the next couple of months, I would not be surprised to see his run continue.

That he’s finished World No. 3 four consecutive years tells you a lot about his consistency and high level of play, but also about the nearly static world order of men’s tennis as of late.  In most eras, a player of Djokovic’s calibre would’ve already bagged a few weeks at No. 1 and might be a major or two ahead of his current pace.  He just happens to have born into the era of two of the greatest players in history, and he still already has borderline Hall of Fame credentials.

The biggest change for Djokovic in the last few months seems to be his attitude, self-belief, not searching for the rip cord.  He no longer fears Federer, he knows he can play with Nadal.  He made a fine account of himself in last year’s US Open final and I give him an incomplete for his illness-marred results on the dirt last year based on how well he acquitted himself on clay in prior seasons.  He’s a legitimate threat to win at 3 of the 4 majors and his Wimbledon results haven’t exactly disappointed either.  The question for Djokovic is where’s the needle on his emotional gas tank?  Djokovic is a player whose own psyche can boost or destruct him.  He’s way too good to be considered a headcase, mind you.  But managing his emotions are a major part of him playing his best ball.

Logic dictates that Federer/Nadal era was bound to come to an end, but when? Will either of the two still be at the top of the game when we end 2011?  I’ll say both will finish in the Top 5, but Djokovic is looking dangerously close to crashing the six year strangehold on the Top 2.  Andy Murray, on the other hand, well, I want him to prove me wrong.

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