Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Ageless Federer, 20 and counting!

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Ageless Federer, 20 and counting! Pic Credits: Google Images

Roger Federer does it again and again and again, but how? How does he do it, how is he going on in a sport where players used to fall of the wayside after 30 and where his contemporary legends are slowing down.

Here are some of the why's:

Talent: Roger Federer is an extremely talented tennis player. He is gifted in the league of Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi, Usain Bolt, Babe Ruth, Michael Phelps and Mohammed Ali. When backed with hard work as in all the above cases, they tend to be the best of the best. Federer has an impeccable handiwork and movement but once he sorted his head and temperament there was no doubt he will be a great if not the greatest. That is still relevant at 36.

Style: He's an Artist on court. Apart from being easy on the eye he is easy on his body as well. The ease of play, aggression, shot selection and finishing the points at the net gives him longevity. Case in point is the run up to AO'18. Although he played his Semi-Final on Friday as opposed to Cilic who played on Thursday - Federer had spent 6 hrs less than Cilic in his first 6 rounds. That's a significant number for a player of this mileage. Federer is, in general known for getting the work done quickly.

Conserving the energy: This is something I noticed in this year's Australian Open only but I am sure has played a role last year too. When Federer was up in the set or had a break, he will conserve energy. Rather than putting extra effort in breaking the opponent's serve again - he'll focus on winning his. This lead to the 6-3, 6-4 score lines in many sets but no real threat was posed to his serve either.

The break in 2016: While a break gets most players out of rhythm and matchplay, thus affecting their levels of play, it did quite the opposite for Federer. Being away from competition, it gave Federer a much needed break and family time from the grind on the tour. It also helped him focus on the technical aspects of training and fitness. A 2017 Federer was leaner and meaner than the previous 2 years and he had a new and improved backhand. THE backhand. With Ivan Ljubicic in his corner, it only seemed logical for him to take his backhand to another level. It helped him take down Nadal, something that was elusive earlier.

Relaxed Approach: He has won everything in the sport. He has even bridged some of his lopsided H2H against his closest GOAT contender. He knows all this is not going to last forever and he wants to enjoy the last few years. This reflects a lot when he is fighting the crunch moments. At 36.5, whatever he wins is more cherry than the cake.

Support System: While all top players travel with a horde of coaches, fitness trainers, family and friends - Federer is the one who sets the bar for all of them. Severin Luthi has been in Federer's corner for over a decade now. His parents almost invariably are there. So is his relationships with all his coaches be it Tony Roche, Peter Carter, Annacone, Edberg and now Ljubicic. After the death of Peter Carter, Roger has his parents for his matches for years now - bearing all the costs. However a huge differentiator here is Mirka, having been a former player herself, she is like a rock for Federer. She choses to travel with 4 kids and keeps Roger going around the world. While players like Murray and Djokovic are married and are fathers, it is rather difficult to witness the same level of effectiveness (after all everyone's different). Nadal meanwhile, wants to focus only on tennis as he avoids the marriage and related distractions in his quest to catch Federer.

Scheduling: Roger Federer is a genius at scheduling. Of course, his team gets the credit too here but it is mainly the player who decides when and where he plays. This highlights what happened in AO'18 a lot. Djokovic and Wawrinka weren't fully fit and Nadal got injured at the Quarter Finals. Nadal promptly blamed the ATP for the schedule in the press conference after. I respect Nadal for what he brings to the court and how he competes but this is pure whining. Nadal with his constant badgering of tour length and demand for more clay courts seems to be a sore loser more than anything else (all great champions are because they don't like losing). Nadal is now exempted from manadatory tournaments (by the virtue of 30+, 600 matches and 12 years on tour rule) and yet he chose to make a mess of his schedule playing Beijing, Shanghai, and WTF after USO'17. He chose it because he wanted to grab the year end No.1 ranking from Fed, which he did. That caused him sorely in this AO'17. Federer meanwhile let go of chasing the year end no.1 by skipping the clay season and not entering any ATP 500 tournaments for the same. It requires a certain strength and wiseness to think long term while letting go of some immediate success.

Loves the tour outside Tennis: Most players love Tennis and competition (even Nick Kyrgios,  whatever he says) but Federer loves the attention on the streets, press conferences, endorsement commitments, training and all the comes with it. You can't love enough if you only love the good.

So far, it's working for him well and he should be enthralling fans all over the world for another couple of years at least. May the force be with him! 

Roger Federer reigns supreme!!!

At 36 years and 173 days, Roger Federer is still lapping up Grand Slam titles. For his age, he is not expected to but for his resurrection post 2017 he cannot NOT be a favourite going into a slam. Federer is defying the logics and make the predictors eat their own words. 

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Federer tweeted this pic after his AO'18 triumph. Pic Credits: Google Images

AO 2018 was expected to bring some change over the Federer Nadal dominance of 2017. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka were all scheduled to return after an hiatus of almost 6 months; and were expected to apply some brakes to these oldies (if you say). The expectations of a fairytale return didn't pan out for any of them.

Andy Murray withdrew from the tournament, thankfully this time before the draw was announced and avoiding the mess he made at USO'17. Sadly, his hip injury did not heal from rehabilitation and he had to undergo surgery. He will return sometime this year hopefully; but the more pertinent question is will he be able to sustain his level of play post surgery. The scenario is not very hopeful.

Novak Djokovic's condition is only a little better than Murray since he has avoided surgery so far. The question is - how long? He lost to the up and coming Hyeon Chung in the Round of 16 where his elbow pain resurfaced. He is trying a new serve but does not seem in a healthy place.

Stan Wawrinka returned from knee surgery only to lose second round in straight sets to Tennys Sandgren (mostly a challenger level player who went till QF's here).

And when all expected a Fedal final once again, the Spanish bull was was dumped out by Marin Cilic with some ferocious hitting and some injury (yes, again). Nadal then decided to call out ATP for their scheduling citing injury to so many top players.

Where does it leave the ATP tour? Of course, in the safe and experience hands of Roger Federer. Federer outdoes his younger opponents - he sustained the pressure Cilic generated with his heavy hitting in the finals and took home the trophy for a record 20th time. He is now in the coveted company of Margret Court, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams for having 20 or more Grand Slam titles. He has been lucky for sure but pouncing on a presented opportunity is also a hallmark of a great champion. As for now, and for a long while now, Roger Federer is the Greatest of All Time!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Andre Agassi to coach Novak Djokovic - FO 2017

The rumour mills were not for nothing. Djokovic players box at the French Open 2017 will have the legendary Andre Agassi as his coach, at least for a certain duration.

As of now, there is no long term announcement as both would want to test the waters around their compatibility, interests and results at the French major. It's been one year since Djokovic has won anything significant and meanwhile has done away with his entire coaching staff. There have been criticism around Djokovic's attitude and hunger with Pepe Imaz around him instead of Boris Becker. This decision however, reasserts that he has the will to get back again to the top of the game. Watching his senior colleagues Roger & Rafa scooping the trophies in 2017 might have hurt as well. Yet, this is just a very first step in a long road, with lots of if's.

P.S. - Djoker Nole just lost to Next Gen poster boy Alexander Zverev in straight sets at Rome 2017.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Qualifier Brown blasts off Nadal

Wimbledon grass is increasingly looking more and more alien to the two time champion Rafael Nadal. For the fourth time in a row this year Nadal has been sent packing off the Centre Court by a player ranked outside the top 100. Add Dustin Brown to the list of Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis and Nick Kyrgios who all carry the rare honor of beating Nadal on the lush greens when nobody gave them an off chance. 

Dustin Brown doesn't necessarily rings a bell in the tennis circuits. He is at best a journeyman player on the tour, currently ranked 102 but have never gone over rank 78 and at age 30 is by no means an up and coming player either. Standing at 6 foot 4 with maybe the best hair on the ATP tour hanging freely up to his back, several piercings, tattoos and loose shorts Brown gave an air of nonchalance and reckless abandon. So does his game.

Brown started with booming serves, crisp volleys and well disguised (sometimes not so disguised too) drop shots drawing admiration from the crowd but quickly fell behind 1-3 in the first set. He looked like a player who could entertain but cannot sustain the intensity and ferocity that Nadal brings to the court. To add to that this was Brown's fifth match on grass along with the qualifiers that he has come through; was part of a doubles match yesterday only that went 10-8 in the fifth and was playing at the Centre Court for the first time; although he was 1 out of 1 against Rafa having beaten him at Halle last year 6-4, 6-1. This was best of five however.

Dustin Brown played his game from the word go; the extinct tennis of serve & volley, drop shots, a mix of power & soft hands - basically the tennis that fits the grass (or rather did when Sampras made his name). Going after Nadal's first serve Brown managed to win about 69% of the first serve points (surprising stat) on Nadal's serve in the first set, in the process making some astonishing shots. The strategy worked in the first set, did not so much in the second and the match was leveled. And then in the next two sets Nadal could not break him even once.

One of the features of his game was he put Nadal in uncharted territories throughout the course of the match; Nadal was made to run for drop shots, lobs, volleys while he would have liked to stay 6 feet behind the baseline to dictate the game, Despite the swinging passing shots that Rafa made and threatened to make Brown never made any change to his game plan. He continued to send down bullets, chip and charge onto them and had the quickness to respond at the net. The average second serve speed of Dustin Brown was about 20 mph higher than Nadal in this match.

At 5-3 in the fourth set he had his first match point (on Nadal's serve) which he lost to a floating ball that he left at the net which went on and dropped just inside the baseline. He had it on his racket and it could have been game changing. In the next game however he stepped up and held his serve to send Nadal home registering the greatest upset of the tournament and his greatest win ever. Call it inspiration, being good on a day, Nadal not being at his best or whatsoever but Dustin Brown looked every bit the player who could threaten anybody on grass with the way he played.

For Rafael Nadal, the grass has been the graveyard for the past four years but that shouldn't be a shocker. Grass being the way it plays is the surface that gives plenty of upset opportunities to players who play big. There could be a few more in the days to come.

Note: And so with all the speculations about the draw, this quarter becomes wide open with Nadal's loss and Ferrer's withdrawal for Andy Murray to grab without beating either of them. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Wimbledon 2015: Dissecting the Men’s Draw

The field of battle on grass is drawn - the possible layout of potential seven matches before one hopes to lay hands on the elusive Wimbledon trophy. Here is the breakup of two halves of the draw with the top 32 seeds divided as per the draw.

               Top Half
Bottom Half
1st Quarter
2nd Quarter
3rd Quarter
4th Quarter
(1) Novak Djokovic
(4) Stan Wawrinka
(3) Andy Murray
(2) Roger Federer
(5) Kei Nishikori
(7) Milos Raonic
(8) David Ferrer
(6) Tomas Berdych
(9) Marin Cilic
(11) Grigor Dimitrov
(10) Rafael Nadal
(12) Giles Simon
(14) Kevin Anderson
(16) David Goffin
(13) JW Tsonga
(15) Feliciano Lopez
(17) John Isner
(19) Tommy Robredo
(22) Viktor Troicki
(18) Gael Monfils
(24) Leonardo Mayer
(21) Richard Gasquet
(23) Ivo Karlovic
(20) R Bautista Agut
(27) Bernard Tomic
(26) Nick Kyrgios
(25) Andreas Seppi
(29) G Garcia Lopez
(28) Pablo Cuevas
(32) Dominic Thiem
(30) Fabio Fognini
(31) Jack Sock

Potential Match-ups for the top four seeds (and Nadal):

(1) Novak Djokovic: Philip Kohlschreiber à Lleyton Hewitt à Bernard Tomic à Kevin Anderson à Kei Nishikori/Marin Cilic à Stan Wawrinka à Roger Federer/ Andy Murray

(2) Roger Federer: Damir Dzumhur à Sam Querrey à Jack Sock à Feliciano Lopez à Tomas Berdych à Andy Murray/Rafael Nadal à Novak Djokovic

(3) Andy Murray: Mikhail Kukushkin à Robin Hasse/A Falla à Andreas Seppi/Borna Coric à JW Tsonga à Rafael Nadal à Roger Federer à Novak Djokovic

(4) Stan Wawrinka: Joao Sousa à Benjamin Becker à Fernando Verdasco/Dominic Thiem à David Goffin à Dimitrov/Raonic/Kyrgios à Novak Djokovic à Federer/Murray

(10) Rafael Nadal: Thomaz Bellucci à Dustin Brown à Stepanek/Troicki à David Ferrer à Andy Murray à Roger Federer à Novak Djokovic

On paper the draw seems nightmarish for Murray and Nadal. While Nadal is seeded 10th and cannot expect anything else, Murray seems to have hurdles a bit too many for the title run. Djokovic, though avoids the other members of big four, has plenty on his plate with dangerous floaters and his newfound rival Stan Wawrinka. The two Swiss have somewhat favourable draws but the paper drawings result in nothing substantial. The last two matches (semis & final) are bound to be against the two top in-form guys and all the favourability or toughness of the draw goes straight out of the window.

And then, in the past few years itself, how many times have we seen the draws opening up with upsets by motivated floaters?

Anyone from the five above can win it or maybe even someone outside of them but that’s rather unlikely, not even remotely possible, actually impossible as it seems. One of these guys will claim it but not without some serious resistance. What we can be assured of are plenty of high intensity matches, match-ups both old and new, surging adrenaline, quality and passion.

Time to watch the white powder fly up from the painted lines on the green surface with the swirl of the racket and twirl of the tennis ball!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

French Open '15 shockers - The Big Spaniard loses, lesser known Swiss wins, the Serb still waits!

That’s what the sport is for. That is, to defy the odds, people, pundits,predictions and patterns. The question about this French open was pitted as Rafa again or Novak finally? And when both of them settled in one half to meet at the quarters that match became the heaviest of all. Winning it would be the title, well almost. That almost remained almost. The ‘heavy’ match between Novak and Rafa was not so loaded except the first set. Nadal fell for just the second time at Roland Garros but pretty meekly.
What was heavy about this year’s French open was what it should be. The finale! As Novak stepped up to claim his first RG crown after demolishing the long reigning ‘king’ and handed the newly wed Andy Murray his first defeat since marriage, nobody dared to put their money anywhere else. Yet, that’s why there are two sides of the draw and they play rather than just let the supposedly best man take it all. It is all in that day, in that moment that winning and losing is decided. The other man who walked out of the tunnel was Stan-the occasional man these days – seemingly well aware of the occasion. He played loaded, heavy, spoiler, unaware of the history on the other side and blasted the world no 1 off the court.
Sounds easy, execution way too tough. There were moments when the expert script seems to take over when Novak broke on right occasions and threatened to run away with the goods as he usually does. Stan hung on. He brought his A-game in the most clutch moments. The booming serve, booming forehand and the yes, booming backhand down the line (Isn’t everything about Wawrinka booming when he is in the zone). And yes that backhand is a thing of rare beauty too. He did not fade, kept on the belief and saw it through. It’s by no means an easy thing to do in your first Paris final and only second ever against a most seasoned campaigner who also happens to be the top dog. But then I guess Stan focussed on the positives – nobody expected him to win, the pressure was more on the other side, and he had stretched and beaten Novak before in the past and in run to his maiden GS title.
Stan – even the occasional man has finally gotten out of the massive shadow of Roger Federer. He isn’t young to register himself as one of the greats but he can continue to be one of the great spoilsport for some of the greats. He snatched Novak’s AO streak last year before surprisingly plummeting Nadal (injured or not) of one GS pedestal. AO was so sure Nadal will win and equal Pete Sampras as they flew him in all the way to present the trophy. Not to be! This FO Stan the man emerged again to hand his big friend Rog (who had a decent chance having avoided Nadal) a ticket back home before clutching that elusive clay win over Djokovic even after losing the first set.
Having witnessed all that, we got to have great respect for the following:
1.     Nadal winning it 9 times when even 1 is so elusive
2.     Novak finally beating Rafa and for keep coming in for the title – he might just get it
3.     Stan for grabbing it – the one handed BH beauty lives
4.     Roger Federer 2009 win – imagine the pressure after Nadal’s loss
Bye Clay! Bring on Grass (The Wimbledon draw is out tomorrow)!
P.S. - Moral of the story is – Don’t beat Nadal at French Open – It is jinxed at the final hurdle.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Takeaways from the Australian Open 2015

The first grand slam of the year is over. There are three more to go and an even otherwise long and competitive season looms. Lets look at the takeaways from the recently concluded Australian Open and the possibilities for the rest of the year.

1. Serena Williams will continue to make/break records

Champion for a sixth time in Australia, she has stamped her authority once again. Serena grabbed her 19th Grand Slam and now stand 3 short of Steffi Graf and 5 less than Margaret Court's all time record of 24. Serena is hungry, the records in sight are a great motivation and there is no evident challenger.

2. Novak Djokovic is one of the best in Australia

The Djoker is a great player but is not yet in the conversation of all time greats. His peers Federer and Nadal reserve that distinction for now. However, when it comes to the Australian Open he is one of the greatest. With the fifth title this year, he is only one short of Roy Emerson's six wins. While Federer has four, Rafa has only one Australian Open title. It's clear who is the boss in Australia.

3. Maria Sharapova is good but second best

It's not just the WTA ranking or the AO'15 result that puts Maria at No.2. She is good and can beat anyone on the tour; anyone but Serena Williams. As long as Serena is in the draw or on the tour, Sharapova will only be a second choice. It's been almost 11 years since she last beat Serena and twitter is full with 'how famous celebs look when Sharapova last beat Williams'. Grigor Dimitrov included.

4. The Big Four still rule

Ok, Federer went out in round 4 to a player he never lost and Nadal went out in Quarters to a player he has never lost in last 17 meetings. Still the 'Big Four' are still a class above the rest. Murray returned after a dismal 2014 and Djokovic continued to pile up big titles. On their way to the final they dismantled the young guns Raonic, Dimitrov, Kyrgios in routine matches. About Federer and Nadal, rule them out at your own risk. Come grass and clay we know they will be back.

5. Mr. Honest Tim Smyczek

The world is rotting with liars and cheats and sport is as competitive as ever. Yet Tim Smyczek stood courageous. Against Rafael Nadal in the fifth set at the Rod Laver arena, with the greatest win of his life a possibility, he did the right thing. A spectator shouted while Rafa was serving disturbing his rhythm and the ball went in the net. As the umpire begged for silence again and Nadal prepared to deliver his second serve, Tim asked the umpire to let him serve the 1st again. That potentially ruined his chances as Rafa being Rafa won the point and brought up match points. Tim lost the match but he won the hearts and the right to a proud and peaceful sleep.

6. Djokovic gunning once again for Paris

Djokovic has the right game, slide and potential hold the French Open. But, Spanish Bull is too adamant to move out of his territory. Djokovic is a potential threat at Roland Garros at least since 2011 when Federer stopped him in the Semis and gifted the trophy to Nadal in the Final. The next three years, Djokovic lost to Nadal in hard fought battles and even losing the advantages. Can he cross the hump this time having already regaining his mental edge in big matches? Wimbledon '14 and AO '15 suggest so but the Bull will be ready.

7. Federer will pin his hopes at SW 19

With a shock upset the mighty Rog got his streak of 11 consecutive Semis broken at the Australian Open. Nobody will write him off not after his showing in 2014 and not because its too risky. These champions prove the critics wrong time and again and make them look like fools. But at 34 in August, Federer's best hope of winning a major is still Wimbledon. He may go deep in Paris but winning is nearly impossible. The US open hasn't brought him any luck since 2008. Grass on the other hand, is his territory. Roger Federer at the centre court of Wimbledon will always be a threat. However, the clock's ticking.

8. Nadal need the French Open

Even though Nadal has 9 French Opens, higher than anybody else at any slam, he needs it this year even more. Great players have great goals. Nadal's will be to try and cross Federer in the number of Grand Slams. Though he is just three short and is only 28, it is clay where he thrives. Winning the French sets the tone for the rest of his year. And to fend off Novak's challenge once again can provide him a plenty of edge for their other encounters and a 15th title. If he did not get the French, Federer's 17 won't be easy. History at stake.

9. Andy Murray need the killer instinct

Muzz is a top talent, two time grand slam champion and a trendsetter on tour. What he lacks is the major trophies that keep on going in the cabinets of Rafa, Djoker and here and there. He is now better than last year and the back injury is now in hindsight. With both Novak and Rafa his peers in terms of age, he needs to find another gear to snatch some more of those majors. This year will define Murray's legacy.

10. If Novak wins the French this year....

A great 'if' but a lucrative 'if'. With AO in bag, if Novak wins the French people will talk about the the most illustrious achievement in the sport of Tennis. The Calendar Slam - which means winning all four grand slams in a season. Rod Laver did it twice but nobody in the open era has ever. Roger came close for many years and failed. Rafa showed that form for a year or two but fell short. Djoker has the game but a Calendar Slam need some luck as well. Let's take them one at a time for now.