Reflection on the 2012 Australian Open: The Slow and Painful Death of Net Play

Thrilling. Epic. Extraordinary. Jaw-Dropping. Marathon Classic. For all the adjectives lavished on the Australian Open Final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, it escaped unnoticed that net play continues to be relegated to novelty status in men’s tennis.

Forays to the net have become increasingly rare in an era where serve-volley should be put on the ICUN’s list of endangered species. Of the four semi-finalists, Andy Murray and Roger Federer could be described as competent volleyers, but neither man enjoyed much success at the net in their respective semi-final. Federer suffered from his usual paralysis against Nadal and his awful choices of net approach precluded any sort of success there. Murray fared slightly better but largely was engaged in a colossal baseline match in which net approaches featured strictly as a means of mixing up play. David Nalbandian has shown in past meetings against Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal that there is a formula for coming to the net against the prototypical modern baseliner who has the deadly combination of vicious passing shots and tireless movement around the court.  First of all, Murray and Nadal both have great forehand passing shots which are arguably even more potent when they are on the run, meaning there is little safety in approaching to this side even when it seems they are dead and buried.

You might enjoy some success serve and volleying against Nadal, who stands way back for the return, but the Spaniard is capable of roasting you on the pass even from six or seven metres outside the court so it is not a regular play. Forget about frequent serve and volleys against Murray or Djokovic, both of whom have built their games around the return and their quick reactions. The backhand has proven more fruitful for net approaches – while both Nadal and Murray possess versatile two handed backhands which are formidable weapons for passing at the net,  Nalbandian was able to spot a chink in the armour – when both men are stretched far to their backhand side, they tend to make frequent use of the floated backhand slice in order to give them time to retain court position after they have been dragged out wide. It is here that Nalbandian in past meetings has taken advantage by sneaking into the net and putting away what is generally a quite comfortable volley.

This does not equate to a renaissance of net play – instead, is just a singular, specific net play which has been fruitful against top players, whereas in the past just chipping the return back and surging to the net was a viable play. Furthermore, to execute it requires four things of the player in question, the combination of which is very much a rarity on today’s tour.

  • The control and power of groundstrokes necessary to move the opponent around before striking hard to the backhand side and sneaking in.
  • An acceptance that this tactic can only be used sparingly, and even then that a spectacular passing shot might be coming your way.
  • Sound volleying technique is necessary if the ball is dipping below net height, although if the reply is a slice it will not be dipping violently. Due to the deep court positioning of many baseliners today, the drop volley has become increasingly popular and effective. Where many players fall down here is that even if a great volley is hit, the opponent may still get there so good net positioning and reactions are necessary for the second volley.
  • Most importantly, the tactical knowledge to envisage this plan and the clarity of mind to execute it.
The future of net play at professional level is not promising.


Djokovic vs Nadal: Key Patterns of Play

With the Nadal-Djokovic final less than 24 hours away, this post will analyse the crucial patterns of play between these two baseline masters.

With Djokovic winning all six of their encounters in 2011, it is fairly safe to say that he has a successful gameplan against Rafa, one which he has put into practice numerous times and which he must have enormous confidence in.

Therefore, this post will focus more on what Nadal can do to counter Djokovic’s gameplan which so clearly has a stranglehold over him, much in the same way as Nadal has had a complete ownership of Roger Federer for so many years.

The Nadal Forehand Down-the-Line:

While Nadal has reigned as undisputed King of Clay for some years now, there have always been doubts over his hard court ability at the highest level when up against a real big hitter on the surface. Due to his long swing on the forehand, players will often target that side with deep, pacey shots, hoping that Nadal will cough up a short ball or an unforced error from that side.

Novak Djokovic is perhaps the player best equipped to pummel the Nadal forehand. Rafa is a lefty,which means that to attack his forehand the ball must be struck towards the left hand side of the court, more easily termed the Ad-court. Djokovic is right handed, therefore his cross-court backhand will go the Ad-court, as will his inside-out forehand. Djokovic hits the backhand cross court better than just about any other player on tour (taking into account movement to that side as well). He has a short take back, sets it up precisely and is extremely consistent. More importantly, his movement when stretched to his backhand is freakishly good, probably even better than Nadal’s. He is rarely forced to take one hand off the racquet and resort to a slice – for the most part he uses his flexibility and speed to slide into the shot, always perfectly on balance with his upper body rotation making errors from this wing very rare.

His inside-out forehand is a much improved shot. Like many other modern players, his extreme western grip and naturally spinny forehand means it is a lot more comfortable to hit with power when he can open up his body on the inside-out shot. He seems to have great confidence in this play against Nadal, and despite the very flat trajectory of the shot, also has a great consistency when hitting it.

All this amounts to Nadal’s forehand wing receiving a jolly good rogering whenever he comes up against the Serbian star. When under attack, Nadal’s natural strategy has always been to use his left handed forehand to hit an extremely spinny shot up high to his opponents backhand: the spin pushes the opponent back further being the baseline, and the height of the shot makes it difficult to attack. For the aforementioned reason of Novak’s backhand being an impregnable fortress, Nadal simply must force himself to hit his forehand down the line, to the Djokovic forehand. It is a far riskier shot (less net clearance and less space to bring the ball up and down), but he has proven in the past that he is capable of executing.

The Nadal Serve:

It is almost a tennis-euphemism to say that spinning a three-quarter pace serve to Novak Djokovic’s backhand is a death wish. Towards the end of the fourth set of their semi-final, Djokovic was hitting winners at will off Murray’s first and second serve. Murray’s first serve is far quicker and stronger than Nadal’s, meaning Rafa will enjoy very little success in trying to coax errors or short balls from the Djokovic backhand by attacking it with the kind of spinny serve usually reserved for drawing an innumerable amount of errors from Roger Federer’s backhand.

Therefore, he will have to abandon his high-percentage strategy in favour of  more risky serving. On the ad-side, he can’t keep on trying to slide a slice serve out to Djokovic’s backhand – he must also mix it up with the flat cannon down the T. Likewise on the deuce court, he will have to be able to hit both corners to keep Djokovic off-guard and guessing. A tall order for a man not usually associated with Croatianlevel serving, but a vital one nonetheless.

The Djokovic Volley:

Despite an impressive change in attitude in 2011, Djokovic is not a natural volleyer. In his post-match interview after the semi-final clash against Andy Murray, he joked that he was sorry to legendary player Rod Laver (who was in the crowd for the match) for not serve-volleying more, saying that his generation isn’t accustomed to moving forward from the baseline.

Djokovic is correct in that today’s players are pitifully poor in the volleying department compared to the great players of the past. In his relentless pursuit for greatness, Djokovic has ironed out every weakness in his game, improving not only the technical aspect of his volleys and approach shots, but also developing a very positive attitude toward the net game and a healthy sort of humility in his admittance that this is not a strong area of his game.

In an era when Roger Federer, one of the true all-time greats, stubbornly refuses to work on his weaknesses (even when it is resulting in being absolutely dominated by his closest rival), it is refreshing to see a no.1 player who acknowledges and can even laugh about his weaknesses. More importantly though, Djokovic put in the hours on the practice court, honing his volleying technique and improving his reactions at the net. This was combined with Novak coming forward an increasing amount during matches; he didn’t always win the point, but he kept coming, and gradually started to improve to the point where he could competently finish points at the net

This might not seem important when he’s up against Rafael Nadal, a man who has some of the most ferocious passing shots in the history of the game. But it is because of the Spaniard’s incredible defense, speed and anticipation that it becomes vital to have the confidence and the ability to come to the net when Nadal is off balance, and finish the point. Many players lose the confidence to come to the net against Nadal after one-too many spectacular passing shot winners from the Spaniard tends to rips the belief from them. One aspect in which Djokovic has been excellent is in his mentality – he is extremely self assured, calm and does not mind losing the kind of long ‘highlight reel’ points which end up with him passed at the net, Nadal aggressively pumping his fist and shouting Vamos! in his direction and the crowd going crazy on their feet. Where others might become intimidated, frustrated or annoyed, Djokovic will calmly go about his way. Nadal must go outside of his comfort zone to find a way to break Djokovic’s confidence.


Video of the Week: Federer @ Miami 2002

With the dust settled on Roger Federer’s drubbing of Juan Martin Del Potro at the Australian Open quarter finals and the hype mahine already working in overdrive for his semi final clash with Rafael Nadal, TennisNiche shall make use of its powerful nostalgia chip to bring the kind readers back ten years to 2002, when Fed was just a young whip with dreams of grand slam glory in his eyes.

There are few sights in tennis as dazzling as Roger Federer fully imposing his will on an opponent: at his best, he possesses an arsenal of shots superior in both variety and potency to perhaps any player to ever step on a court.

This clip shows Federer at the age of twenty, before he had reached even a grand slam quarter final. What enabled Federer to accumulate sixteen grand slams in the following ten years was not so much that he added something new to his game or improved on any one shot, but that he learnt how to utilise his many weapons and to manage his decision making.

To witness Federer before he came to full maturity is to see the raw building blocks of an all time sporting great, but still a tennis player who had not yet learnt to rein in his emotions and impulses on the court. While he is certainly a less polished product here than he is in say, 2008, he is in some ways more fun to watch for it. It is easy to forget just how rapid Federer was around the court in his youth, an explosive combiation of his raw athletic speed and graceful, efficient footwork. He was also perhaps more risky with his forehand, resulting in a ridiculous number of improbable winners from that wing. I would like to draw attention to two rallies in particular in the clip:

The first is a stupendous bit of flexibility and improvisation. Federer hits a drop shot, drawing Andre Agassi to the net, where after an exchange of five shots he punches a volley to Federer’s forehand side. The Swiss moves to the shot but the deeply struck volley is already behind him when he gets to it – where most players would desperately lunge at the ball, just hoping to get it back into play, Federer somehow manages to contort his arm behind and around the ball to hit a perfect topspin lob which Agassi does not even reach for.

The next point against Hewitt is even more perplexing. After a long rally, Federer wrong foots Hewitt with a backhand down the line. Rushed, Hewitt only has time to prepare a squash shot in reply. In a split-second Federer has recognised his opponent’s grip change and has himself edged forward, anticipating a weak reply- Hewitt obliges and floats a deep forehand slice down the line. Faced with this situation, the attacking player (Federer in this case) has three conventional options: continue to move forward to the floating ball and hit a conventional volley; stand your ground, wait for the ball to come to you and hit a drive volley; or acknowldege that your opponent has hit a deep shot by moving backwards and waiting for the ball to bounce.

Federer, of course, chooses the fourth option, the type of shot only he can pull off: he stands his ground roughly three quarters of the way up the court (traditionally known as ‘no man’s land’, being too far from the net to hit an effective volley and too far from the baseline to allow the ball to bounce and hit a groundstroke), but instead of drive volley, Federer decides to hit a sliced drop shot volley, one which leaves Hewitt totally stranded, not even running for the ball. I will not waste any more words trying to do this shot justice – just watch and marvel at the flair.

Australian Open: 4th Round Results

In typical TennisNiche fashion, this entry will arbitrarily skim over the largely unspectacular Third Round clashes, dismissing these matches as entirely unworthy its rather embarrassingly oversized intellect. Instead, here is a round-up of the first batch of 4th round action from the Australian Open.

Roger Federer swept aside spunky Australian Bernard Tomic 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, producing this spectacular shot of tennis artistry in the process. TN has cast it’s unwavering, omniscient eye over the young Australian in a previous post, and this match largely confirmed suspicions. His opponent, the legendary Roger Federer, is a man who has been in gradual decline and yet is still capable of beating any mere mortal when it so fits his fancy. The one-sided scoreline may suggest that Fed was indeed enjoying such an evening of imperious form, but unfortunately for Tomic’s pride, this was not the case.

Federer produced several shots of unique magnificence, the type of shot which, to coin a cliché, cannot be taught (Novak Djokovic, for all his dominance, can still only dream of such improvisational brilliance). Despite this, it would be a vast exaggeration to compare his performance in this match to the god-like figure who took to the court in the years 2004-2007. The simple truth is that Federer didn’t need to be that good – at this stage in Tomic’s career, he simply does not match up well with Federer, even more so when they are playing on slower surfaces.

The type of player to bother Federer has changed throughout the course of his career, but a Tomic-like player has never been problematic to the great man. In the early years of his career, when ‘surface specialists’ had not been made redundant by the homogenisation of court surfaces, Fed struggled both with fast court serve – volleyers (most notably, Tim Henman) and classical clay-courters (Mantilla, Kuerten and Horna). In his peak years, the only players to truly bother him were Nadal, Safin and Nalbandian, none of whom have styles which can be exactly replicated. Now, in the twilight of his tennis career, he has started to lose to heavy-hitters such as Del Potro, Berdych, Soderling and Tsonga.

Unlike the above-mentioned players, Tomic does not rely on power or speed for his primary gameplan. Instead, he prefers to win matches through his variety – he can play one point retrieving everything his opponent throws at him, the next point attacking on the third or fourth shot of the rally with a flat forehand, the next with a delicate drop shot followed to the net. He relishes the act of frustrating his opponent, ripping away from them the element of control with his unpredictable play. Unfortunately for Bernard in this match, it was simply a case of Federer doing everything that little bit better. Tomic is able to exploit the fact that many of today’s players are one-dimensional baseliners who do not enjoy playing against variety, but Federer has been doing this far longer and far better.

Tomas Berdych beat Nicolas Almagro 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 in a contest packed with controversy. With the contest at 5-6 in the fourth set, Berdych approached the net and hit a rather weak first volley. Almagro approached the ball on what was a fairly comfortable passing shot, and decided to go straight for his man. He hit Berdych in the chest, causing the tall Czech to dramatically jump to the ground. After the match Berdych refused to shake Almagro’s hand, much to the mire of the typically boisterous Aussie crowd.

 Rafael Nadal defeated compatriot Feliciano Lopez in an encounter as predictable as night following day. 

Juan Martin Del Potro overcame Phillip Kohlschreiber in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1. Del Potro was fairly comfortable in victory, his potent mixture of brute power applied with consistency and a low unforced-error count proving too much for the German.


Australian Open 2012: Day two and three Round-Up

Some very sporadic and arbitrary musings from the second and third day of play at the 2012 Australian Open:

In a first-round clash, Juan Martin Del Potro defeated Adrian Mannarino 2-6, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4 in an enjoyable clash of styles. Both men are strictly baseline operators but have contrasting approaches defined by their physiological differences. The 6’6 Del Potro has long swings on his groundstrokes and hits the ball as hard as anyone else on tour, constantly probing for a short ball on which to unleash his devastating forehand. Mannarino, 6′ tall with a very slight build, is as pure a counterpuncher as one is likely to see. His abbreviated, minute backswings are almost comical to the eye, giving the impression of a louche, very Gallic indifference.

The lower ranked Mannarino was able to take a set off the 2009 US Open champ and competed well throughout, using his compact groundstrokes to redirect Del Potro’s typically  fierce but central groundstrokes, totally catching the Argentine off guard. Ultimately though Del Potro was too good for his opponent and prevailed in just under three hours.

Moving on to the second round, Stanislas Wawrinka overcame Marcos Baghdatis in an entertaining encounter, 5-7, 6-1, 7-6, 6-4 . Wawrinka deserved the victory – he was the more aggressive of the two, taking up a more offensive position on the baseline and seizing the initiative in rallies with his spectacular backhand down the line. His opponent was curiously feeble in his resistance, only showing fighting spirit when faced with the almighty challenge of demolishing four of his rackets in succession.

For Baghdatis to lose in such passive fashion would have been almost unthinkable five years ago. The Cypriot established himself as one of the game’s most exciting talents when he reached the final of the 2006 Australian Open where he took the first set of Federer and looked like the more likely winner until his inexperience caught up to him. He missed much of the 2008 season with injury and truthfully has never looked the same player. The injury seems to have had just as much a mental effect as it has had physical. He is far more risk-averse now; while he still hits one of the cleanest balls on the tour, he is no longer the unpredicable, gung-ho player who struck fear into his opponens with a sudden, unexpected injection of pace. He now appears more conservative and consistent, happy to play extended rallies further back in the court. It’s unfortunate that he has spent so long injured, as he is far less effective playing this new, patient game – his athletic prowess is falls considerably short of his natural talent on a tennis court, and against a powerful and experienced opponent like Wawrinka his limitations will always be exposed when he is playing defense and not taking the initiative in rallies.

Lastly, in tragic news, TennisNiche golden boy David Nalbandian fell to serving god John Isner in a Eurpidic encounter,  the American winning 10-8 in the final set. With Isner serving at 8-8 in the fifth set, Nalbandian suffered from the fatal mixture of inopportune lapses of concentration combined with bad fortune, which could be said rather neatly symbolises his career. Firstly, Nalbandian squandered two break points with backhand unforced errors. Widely considered to be one of the greatest backhands of the past ten years, it is perplexing how he could miss two of these, particularly as his 6’10 opponent is not quick at the best of times, even more so when he is cramping after four hours of play. This was followed by the classic Nalbandian screw job, in which the umpire absurdly did not allow Nalbandian to challenge a dubious ace down the middle by Isner, as he felt the Argentine had taken too long to challenge (in reality, the serve was originally called out and the umpire overruled. Nalbandian went to look at the mark, asked confusedly whether the serve was called in or not, by which time the umpire had decided that the time for a challenge had gone).

The sentient being which is TennisNiche would verbally dismantle this petulant umpire right here and now, were it not for the fact that it has been programmed as an omniscient and benevolent artificial intelligence designed to educate the wider tennis world on the perils of an ATP Tour dominated by generic baseline clones who hit drop volleys with full-western grips. So, the last word will be left the the blonde haired, rally team owning David Nalbandian:

“I asked for Hawk-Eye as he made an overrule. I say ‘okay, I see the mark, I challenge’ – not a big deal, but he didn’t want to do it,” said Nalbandian. “How many times do we check the mark and ask for Hawk-Eye?

“So somebody from the umpires or ATP can explain this situation. I mean, what is this? This is a grand slam. I haven’t seen the video but I don’t think it was too late to call. John said, ‘yeah, ask’.

“It’s ridiculous playing this kind of tournament with this kind of umpire. Eight-all, break point. Can you be that stupid to do that in that moment? What does the umpire need? Press, the name, his picture [in the paper] tomorrow? Incredible.”


Australian Open 2012: First Day Results Round Up

A brief look at what happened on the men’s side of the Australian Open last night:

Rafael Nadal defeated Alex Kuznetsov but announced in his press conference immediately after that he was considering pulling out of the whole tournament after an injury scare which he said caused the worst feeling he has ever had in his knee. Fortunately the Spaniard slept on the decision and then easily dispatched the world no. 167 Kuznetsov in a straightforward 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 encounter

Donald Young triumphed in a bizarre five set encounter against Peter Gojowczyk, 6-1, 6-2, 4-6, 1-6, 6-2. Gojowczyk led 2-0 in the last set before his form totally collapsed, collecting a mighty four points in the final six games. Unfortunate recipient of futile British hopes James Ward put in a mammoth effort to wrestle eleven games from Slovenian clay-merchant Blaz Kavcic.

Two exciting young talents scraped through in five sets, with Grigor Dimitrov overcoming the erratic big-hitting Jeremy Chardy 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, while the great white hope of Austrlian tennis Bernard Tomic came back from a two set deficit against notorious headcase Fernando Verdasco.

Former Australian Open semi finalist Nikolay Davydenko crashed out to Italian Flavio Cipolla. Formerly a regular of the top ten, Davydenko’s form has tailed off badly after sustaining a wrist injury in 2010, his ranking now lying way down at 52.

Meanwhile, talented shotmaker Alexander Dolgopolov won from two sets down against Greg Jones. Dolgopolov produced his usual mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly to overcome the Aussie wildcard recipient Jones 1-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2.

Barrel-chested Argentine hero David Nalbandian was the fortunate beneficiary of a Jarkko Niemenen abdominal injury which forced the Finn to return 2-4 down in the second set, having lost the first 6-4.

Roger Federer breezed through in typical first-round fashion, defeating Alexandre Kudryavtsev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. Sergiy Stakhovsky beat Ilia Marchenko 6-3, 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in an all-Ukranian clash.

Video of the Week: Tim Henman vs Juan Ignacio Chela @ Roland Garros 2004 Quarter Final

This edition of Video of the Week takes us back to the 2004 French Open, and a very peculiar Quarter Final featuring Tin Henman and Juan Ignacio Chela, two players who had never previously gone beyond the third round at Roland Garros.

Both men exceeded expectations by reaching the second week of the French Open. Henman was certainly not out of place in a the draw of a Grand Slam quarter-final – he had been to the semis at Wimbledon four times and was unlucky not to reach the final – he was, though, a grass court specialist who struggled with the movement on clay and had never showed signs of adapting his serve and volley game to the surface. Chela is perhaps less of a surprise to see at this stage of Roland Garros; clay is his favourite surface and this his best Grand Slam, and with a fortunate draw he was able to make the second week. The surprise factor comes simply as he is a limited player, a journeyman who never really threatened the top rank of players and lacked the flourish of even a Henman – calibre player.

Onto the encounter itself, a convincing 6-2 6-4 6-4 victory for Henman. He routed Chela thoroughly, outplaying him both at the net and at the baseline. Henman was at the very pinnacle of his game; the volleys were outstandingly crisp and accurate, his groundstrokes deep and consistent and even the passing shots were on form.

Most of all Henman played an intelligent match. He took advantage of the movement problems associated with clay by constantly wrong footing Chela with drop volleys and short slices – he cleverly brought Chela outside of his comfort zone at the baseline and passed him at the net with surprising ease.