Dominic Thiem – Age 23, Ranking 9
The oldest player in the list, the Austrian has already reached a Grand Slam semi-final, falling to Novak Djokovic at last year’s Roland Garros.
Pros: When given time on the ball, Thiem is devastating on both forehand and backhand. Like most top professionals, his favoured shot is the inside out forehand, which he hits with enormous spin and pace. Thiem is an expert at manoeuvring his opponent around the court with a succession of viciously angled forehands and can finish the point either with a quicker, flatter forehand or by coming to the net and showcasing his much improved volleys. He also possesses a sumptuous single handed backhand which must be the envy of amateur hackers worldwide: a long, regal take back is followed by powerful rotation through the hips and shoulders, generating terrific racket head speed, and finishes with his torso rotated and his right arm fully extended. When given time, Thiem can consistently rip this shot both cross-court – with acute angles when needed – and down the line, and can easily take the ball at shoulder height and above. Thiem’s defensive slice has improved considerably in recent years; whereas it used to float rather harmlessly and land in the middle of the court, he has added greater bite on the shot and is hitting with better depth, adding to his already formidable defensive game.
Thiem has an excellent service motion, featuring a deep knee bend which enables him to drive up and into the serve with great force. His most eye-catching delivery is the kick serve on the advantage court, which he hits with enormous topspin and vicious angle. The result is a serve which violently kicks off the court, taking his opponent way out of position to his left, leaving the court open for Thiem’s second shot. In the past few years the Austrian has added a huge flat serve to his repertoire, and can hit upwards of 140 MPH on both the deuce and advantage courts. Perhaps he need only add a more consistent slice serve on the deuce court to be a complete server.
Aged 23, Thiem must be counted as one of the most complete athletes on tour. His acceleration, balance when hitting on the stretch, and sheer stamina combine to make him a formidable defensive player. When coupled with his grit and determination on court, Thiem presents a devilish puzzle for his opponents to solve, even more so on slower courts where it is harder to hit winners past the resolute Austrian. Despite his exhausting style – Thiem throws his full body-weight into every serve and ground stroke – he rarely shows fatigue, and is happy to engage his opponents in lengthy rally after lengthy rally, confident that his durability and athleticism will eventually grind down and overwhelm his opponent.
Thiem’s biggest weakness is undoubtedly his return game, where he struggles both to return big first serves and to attack weaker second deliveries. While Thiem can mask the deficiencies of his return on slower clay courts, it presents a huge obstacle to success on every other surface, and is largely responsible for his poor record against top ten opponents on hard courts – thirteen losses and just the solitary win. Thiem struggles to hit through returns on both sides but his forehand return is perhaps more worrying. Partly due to a long swing and extreme western grip, the Austrian struggles to time his forehand return and often resorts to a chipped or bunted shot which immediately places him in a defensive position in the rally. If Thiem is to successfully employ a chipped return, he must improve his depth on the shot, which will preclude opponents from teeing off on their immediate reply. With so few players opting to serve and volley, he need not worry about hitting a floating return, so long as it lands deep in the court.
On the second serve return, Thiem alternates between an aggressive, Andy Murray-esque position inside the baseline, and a more defensive stance some metres behind. The former is designed to take time away from his opponent and start the rally on the front foot, but it does require that he abbreviates his strokes and hits a flatter, riskier return. With his stroke production, Thiem should arguably be standing a few metres behind the baseline, giving him the time to take a full swing and use his ferocious, spin-laden shots to start the rally. While his hard work and bravery to change and add to his game is commendable, it has resulted, in the time being at least, with a muddled returning strategy which arguably does not play to his strengths.
Due to his long strokes and extreme grips, Thiem requires time and space in order to hit his looping strokes and deliver his ballistic groundstrokes. As a result, he is most comfortable standing several feet behind the baseline where he can best affect play. This makes him vulnerable to elite baseliners with compact groundstrokes, who are able to stand on top of the baseline and take the ball on the rise, stealing time away from the opponent. Against players with this aggressive style – call it the Andre Agassi blueprint – Thiem will be forced into the role of retriever & counter-puncher. While this does not preclude victory for the Austrian, it does mean there will be certain match-ups where the fate of the match will, to some degree, lie on the opponents racket.
Chance of Grand Slam victory: 25%
Thiem possesses the raw athleticism, ball-striking talent and dedication needed of a Grand Slam winner. However, modern tennis has become increasingly dominated by those who can strike the ball early, powerfully and consistently from the baseline, a style of play which does not come naturally to Thiem. A vulnerability to elite power-players is exacerbated by Thiem’s rather passive return of serve, which limit his opportunities to get on the front foot in rallies. In order to win a Grand-Slam on anything other than clay, Thiem will need either to make adjustments to his game, or have a fortunate enough draw so that he can avoid elite and in-form baseliners .
Greatest chance of success: Roland Garros
Thiem’s greatest chance of glory undoubtedly lies at Roland Garros. His blend of savage competitiveness, athleticism and enormous topspin makes him perfectly suited for the long rallies typical of clay court tennis. Future opponents will need to go through hell and back to beat the Austrian at Roland Garros. If Thiem can stay fit and patient, he is bound to have an opportunity somewhere down the line to emulate his countryman Thomas Muster and lift La Coupe des Mousquetaires.
From elite professional to recreational hacker, timing is crucial in tennis. The ability to judge the speed, depth, spin and trajectory of the ball, anticipate the bounce and swing accordingly is a large part of what determines someone’s ceiling in the sport. In this article, we will consider timing as an entirely different construct.
With the big four – Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic – either at the end of their peaks, or just approaching the downside of their athletic curve, we may well be experiencing a transitional phase at the top of the game. For a world-class prospect, there has not been a better time to compete for a grand slam since the start of the millennium, when Hewitt, Roddick, Gaudio and Ferrero all grabbed Major titles before the emergence of Federer & Nadal. Whereas the aforementioned Murray and Djokovic generally had to struggle past one or both of Federer and Nadal in their primes, elite players coming into their peaks in the next five years will likely have an easier task at hand. This is not to say that they will stroll to Grand Slam victory, merely that they will have the opportunity to do so without needing to topple one of the game’s all time great players.
Over the next five blog posts, we will consider five players perfectly poised to take the next step and claim Grand Slam victory. We will look at their strengths, weaknesses and assess their best chances of success. First up in the list is the Australian born Nick Kyrgios.
N.B. The age cut off, for the purposes of this list, will be 23, an admittedly arbitrary indulgence.
Nick Kyrgios – Age 21, Ranking 16
The now-infamous Kyrgios feels older than his 21 years of age, partly due to his reaching the Wimbledon quarter finals in 2014 aged 19, partly also because he has already been involved in numerous high profile controversies during his brief career.
Pros: As seen in his recent victory over Djokovic, Kyrgios has an absolutely monstrous serve. Against arguably the world’s premier returner, Kyrgios hit 25 aces in just 2 sets, achieved 74% first serves and won 80% of all his service points. The Australian has a smooth yet dynamic service motion, which coupled with his natural athleticism and live arm (cf. Pete Sampras), combines to produce a devastating delivery. A habit of hitting second serve aces points to either his supreme confidence or recklessness, depending on one’s point of view. This can make him erratic at the worst of times, but near enough unplayable when at his best, placing control of the match on his own racket and largely taking the opponent out of the picture. This probably adds to Kyrgios’ conviction that he alone can decide the fate of any match.
Added to this, Kyrgios has a powerful and versatile forehand. Known for blasting highlight reel winners at 80 MPH+, the huge racket head speed he achieves also generates significant spin, giving his forehand a healthy margin for error. Like many of his peers, he is comfortable blasting the forehand from an inside-out position, but can also work acute cross-court angles and go down the line when needed.
Blessed with athleticism and a long stride, Kyrgios could, in theory, become adept at defending and counter-punching from the baseline. Given his mental disposition and preference for shot making however, it is likely that his excellent court coverage will be used mainly to attempt high-risk winners from unlikely court positions.
Cons: Whereas his forehand possesses great power combined with huge spin, Kyrgios’ backhand lacks variety, and is a rather one-paced shot. While Kyrgios can blast his backhand cross court and redirect it up the line, both are very flat shots, dependent entirely on his timing and court positioning – there is little margin for error if either goes awry. Kei Nishikori has established a simple but effective strategy for neutralising Kyrgios on slower courts, especially clay: simply keeping the ball deep on Kyrgios’ backhand side, mixing it up to the forehand often enough to keep him from cheating over to the backhand side too much. Those possessed with a world class two handed backhand, such as Nishikori and Murray, will generally be able to trap Kyrgios in his backhand corner, as the Australian does not have the control or weight of shot to consistently play himself out of trouble.
It is fair to say that the return of serve and defensive baseline play are not Kyrgios’ forte. While not terrible by any means, his lack of elite return game means he can get dragged into long, five set matches with fellow big servers, both being unable to break one another. Equally, Kyrgios’ defensive game leaves something to be desired. Against weaker opposition, the Aussie can rely on his innate athleticism and dominant offensive game and therefore largely gets away hitting lackluster defensive shots combined with rather mediocre anticipation. When playing against the very best however, he struggles when placed onto the backfoot in a rally. Unable or unwilling to vary his play and hit more looping, spin-laden shots, he often resorts to blasting high-risk winners from unlikely positions, with predictable results.
Finally no analysis of Kyrgios’ game could reasonably gloss over his mental fortitude, or lack thereof. Incidents where Kyrgios has insulted his opponent, thrown a tantrum, gotten into a spat with the umpire or otherwise mentally melted down are well known. While undoubtedly distasteful to observe and certainly not conducive to winning tennis matches, these faults can, from a forgiving observing, be attributed to a fiery competitor simply spilling over into the realms of unacceptable behaviour, ala John McEnroe. More worrying are some of Kyrgios’ losses where he has showed very little belief in his chances to win the match and has gone down with a whimper. This to a possible lack of determination which may well prove to be his undoing when it comes to Grand Slam success.
Chance of Grand Slam victory: 50%
So much depends on the space between Kyrgios ears that estimating his chance of a Grand Slam victory is fiendishly difficult. Even with an unpolished game and a scatty mental approach, Kyrgios has managed to reach 16 in the world at the mere age of 21. His power and athleticism alone have taken him this far – if he can add a few nuances to his game, remain fit, and somehow focus for seven matches in a two week period, then his chances of winning a major are very high indeed. However, the history of professional tennis is littered with spectacularly talented men and women who, for a variety of reasons, could not maximise their vast abilities to achieve Grand Slam glory.
Greatest chance of success: Wimbledon
Kyrgios loves the big stage, and arguably there is none bigger than Center Court at SW19. On a technical level, the speed at which the ball travels off the grass, and the low bounce, help Kyrgios in several ways: first, his huge serve is made even more devastating; second, he is able to attack his opponent’s second serve, knowing that a well-struck return will elicit a weak reply, or no reply at all; and third, his flat backhand skips off the grass with greater effect than on clay or hard courts. Never one blessed with patience or disposed towards lengthy rallies, the quicker surfaces allow him to play his natural game.
This post focuses on an encounter between diminutive Ukrainian Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco, and is complete with a beautifully crisp HD highlights video.
Such a contest between two of the most exciting and talented baseliners in the game presents a perfect opportunity to analyse each players game and describe what makes each man so good at dominating from the back of the court.
As such, it will break down their games into the following categories: Serve, Volley, Forehand, Backhand, Movement and Return of Serve.
(The match took place at the 4th Round of the 2010 Australian Open with Davydenko winning 6-2 7-5 4-6 6-7 6-3)
Verdasco has a good service action and a very ‘live’ arm which results in excellent snap upon pronation of the forearm. He has hit serves up to 140 Mph and can also generate great spin.
However as shocking as it may sound for a top 10 player, Verdasco has never managed to master the ball toss. His toss is extremely inconsistent owing to the fact he doesn’t keep a rigid, linear movement with his right throwing arm and thus the ball often travels too far behind his head. This leads to frequent double faults and he hit no less than twenty in this match alone. With a consistent ball toss (and perhaps a brain transplant for Mr. Verdasco himself), his serve would be a serious weapon.
Not a great deal to comment upon here. Verdasco is extremely limited at the net, both in volleying technique and knowledge of how to approach the net (see 06:10 for a particularly bad approach shot). He generally will only move forward only if lured in by a drop shot or if his opponent is dragged so far off the court that they can only hit a floated lob in response.
Davydenko has improved vastly, to the point where he has been able to consistently hit winning drop volleys against Nadal, widely recognised as one of the best players in the world at passing shots. Like many of his generation, he is better on the backhand side than forehand and lacks the ability to punch the volley, instead relying almost exclusively on drive and drop volleys.
Davydenko is one of the most efficient movers on the tour. His strategy is to always take the initiative in rallies and so likes to stand right on the baseline, only retreating behind it after he has been forced to hit a weak, defensive shot. The downside of assuming such an offensive position is that he has little time to react to the opponents shot. To balance this, he has developed infallible footwork to complement his natural agility and footspeed. This ensures he is always on balance and set up properly to take the ball on the rise. This in turn takes time away from his opponent and means he is rarely on the defense – however when he is forced into chasing down balls he is more than capable, both with passing shots and defensive slices (See 5:05 for a ridiculous winner hit on the run).
Verdasco has improved on this aspect during the off season of 2009-2010, but at times still appears sluggish around the court. He has developed a strong, muscular build but is not naturally an explosive athlete and his movement suffers for this. When pulled out wide into a defensive position he tends to simply pull the trigger in an all-or-nothing fashion, especially so on the forehand side – a spectacular, rally-ending shot he pulls off with surprising frequency. Quite mediocre when forced to stretch on his backhand side, particularly when hitting a passing shot off-balance.
Davydenko’s forehand is beautiful in its simplicity. The short take back, moderate grip and absolute adherance to textbook form enables him to maximise his exceptional hand-eye co ordination. He is able to take the ball extremely early and hit cross court or down the line with equal ease, but it perhaps lacks one exceptional attribute; he does not have the power of a Berdych, the spin of a Nadal or the and variety of a Federer. Overall it is probably an inferior shot to his backhand.
Verdasco’s forehand has received much praise, and rightly so. It is a beautiful shot which is no less effective than it is aesthetically pleasing. His full western grip allows him to rally with a low-risk, heavily spun forehand which pushes his opponent back and sets up his devastating, point-ending flat forehand. He can also hit extraordinary angles with it it, making it one of the best forehands on tour, and one area in which he has a decided advantage over Davydenko.
A victory for Davydenko.
Verdasco’s backhand is rarely a weapon as he simply is too sluggish in his preparation. Two handed backhands tend to be quite flat hits compared to the one handed variety, but Verdasco actually brushes up on the ball and has a more Nadal-esque follow through. Similar to his Spanish compatriot, his backhand usually functions simply as a shot to set up his forehand, but can pummel it when really in the mood. Even so, he will always need time to set up when going down the line.
Davydenko hits a far flatter backhand, with a short and confident backswing. The result is that he is able to take the ball earlier, hit harder and has more possibility to change the direction of the ball (something Verdasco struggles with). He has a devastating cross court backhand which has tormented Nadal in their hard court meetings, and an equally punishing down the line backhand. While perfectly capable of hitting acute angles, he doesn’t tend to do so unless provoked by his opponent with angle of their own.
Return of Serve
On second serve, Davydenko is one of the best in the world at punishing weak deliveries. Verdasco can be devastating when he chooses to run around his backhand and crack a forehand but is not active enough in doing so.
Davydenko is also the superior returner of first serves owing to his superior reaction speed and shorter take backs, despite having a smaller wingspan than the taller Verdasco.
In an era of tennis characterised by ever homogenising court surfaces, a static top ten and a rather tedious prevalence of baseline play, the sport is crying out for a top player to emerge who plays with something approaching flair, ingenuity and flamboyance. Roger Federer epitomizes these qualities but is nearing his thirties and has his best days behind him, while Andy Murray possesses the tools to play both a varied baseline game and to effectively finish points at the net, but lacks the mental intangibles to fully utilise his abilities on the biggest stage.
Going through the current ATP top 30 makes depressing reading – the vast majority of players have solid two handed backhands, possess excellent lateral movement and defense (those who move sluggishly tend to compensate with a cannon of a serve – read, John Isner, Andy Roddick) but move towards the net with a great reluctance and lack both volleying technique and the awareness of how to cut off angles for passing shots.
Tomic, not unlike fellow counter-puncher and strategist Andy Murray, does not suffer for lack of natural talent or variety in his game. On the surface his style has some facets which are symptomatic of the generic modern game – a two handed backhand, excellent defensive anticipation and a inclination toward prolonged baseline points. What separates Tomic from this group is his unique technique and tactical variety. His languid, relaxed style on the forehand and his willingness to hit a series of slow, floated slices followed by a flat, risky forehand are among the facets which mark him as a potential saviour from a future tennis scene dominated by those with great consistency and athletic talents but scant in the way of court craft or ingenuity (think along the lines of Viktor Troicki).
Strengths & Weaknesses
Tomic’s unusual forehand technique is perhaps the most notable of his traits. One feature of modern tennis is a progression of players hitting with greater amounts of topspin, especially on the forehand. Most players now employ a semi western or full western grip on their forehand and follow through on the shot with a high finish (occasionally, like Nadal, with a lasso style above-the-head finish), both of which combine to produce maximum topspin.
Tomic’s forehand does not conform to the modern standard, but is not exactly a traditional stroke either. He has a moderate semi-western grip, a short take back and a fairly lateral motion throughout the swing, as opposed to a low-to-high finish. Consequently, Tomic’s forehand is concurrently a strength and a weakness. As a more conservative rallying shot it is vulnerable to falling short and inviting pressure from the opponent, but equally when he decides to go for a flat hit, can act as a deadly and unexpected weapon (crucially, owing to his technique, Tomic can vary the pace on his forehand without changing the take back on his swing).
Tomic possesses other weapons which are a rarity on the tour today; an almost insultingly effortless slice backhand which he can skim low over the net cross-court or just as easily hit down the line with vicious side-spin, producing both shots with the kind of grace which makes a mockery of Nadal and Djokovic’s muscling of the ball; a beautiful feel on both sides, particularly for drop shots; solid, textbook volleying technique; a good return of serve aided by a short take back on both forehand and backhand; a good service action which, although has ample room for improvement, produces a pacey and dangerous first serve; the ability to change direction of the ball with ease; and a great spatial awareness on the court which helps to compensate for his lack of foot speed and aides his already intelligent shot selection.
While it may seem harsh to point out flaws while he is still so young, there are obviously areas for improvement in Tomic’s game. Besides the aforementioned weakness in his rallying forehand, he also needs work on his second serve, which unfortunately resembles too much that of Murray’s (slow, lacking kick and easily attackable). Some have placed question marks over his attitude, pointing out his occasional arrogant off-court statements and seemingly indifferent attitude on the court. While clearly he hasn’t fully developed physically, at present he certainly fits into the ‘lanky’ category, and his rather anaemic movement around the court reflects this (although some connect this to the aforementioned indifference on court).
- Tomic will be a top 5 player and a grand slam contender within the next three years; TennisNiche predicts multiple grand slam titles and the no. 1 spot but this is heavily dependant on how Tomic’s character develops and whether he can stay injury free.
- As for 2012, TennisNiche will go out on a limb and predict the following:
- 1 Grand Slam semi-final (Wimbledon or the US Open) and one 4th round. An early exit at Roland Garros seems a near certainty owing to his lack of wins on clay at the professional level.
- 1 Masters Series final (probably later in the year, at Shanghai or Paris), and one semi-final.
- 1 victory over the ‘top 4’ of Federer/ Nadal/ Djokovic/ Murray in a best of 3 format.
It is widely acknowledged that the ATP tour is dominated by an elite band of players. Since Roger Federer’s rise to dominance in 2004, 29 of 32 Grand Slam titles have been won by a group of just three players – Federer (15 Grand Slam titles since 2004), Rafael Nadal (10) and Novak Djokovic (4). A multitude of reasons have been put forth for this phenomenon: a growing homogenisation of playing surfaces which allows exceptional players to dominate across all Grand Slam events without making adjustments to the peculiarities of each surface; the emergence of a trio of players so good so as to preclude a sharing of the titles around the tour; and a lack of competition from the other top ranked players, of whom it is said either mentally failed to live up to expectations or were simply never good enough to compete with the above mentioned trio.
I wish to address the first reason (a lack of belief and/or desire) in respect to David Nalbandian, an outrageously talented Argentine who grew up dominating Roger Federer in the juniors. Among the ‘also-rans’ of the 2000s, it is Nalbandian who, along with Marat Safin, is most heavily criticised for having the ability to challenge the top players but never truly wanting it badly enough. In this article I suggest that the Nalbandian’s match against Rafael Nadal in March 2009 can be seen as a microcosm of his turbulent career.
The occasion was the Fourth Round of the Indian Wells Masters Series; the opponent, then World Number 1 Rafael Nadal, a man who Nalbandian had beaten twice, both times in straight sets. Nalbandian came out confidently and took the first set 6-3, before quickly racing to a 5-3 lead in the second set and serving for the match at 5-4. Five excruciatingly tense match points came and went for Nalbandian, before he was eventually broken and the set levelled at 5-5. The momentum had swung wildly in Nadal’s favour – Nalbandian’s confidence was destroyed by being one point away from victory on five separate occasions yet unable to close the match – and the Spaniard would go on to win the second set tiebreak comfortably and demolish Nalbandian 6-0 in the final set, for a score of 3-6, 7-6, 6-0.
For the casual tennis fan, the most obvious cause of the sudden turnaround in the second set was Nadal’s tenacity, fighting spirit and ability to summon the highest levels of concentration at the most crucial ventures. However, such a view of this match hardly accounts for the fact that the outcome was largely dependant on Nalbandian’s form, which ranged from outlandishly good to amateurishly bad – his inspired form in the first set and a half completely blowing away Nadal, who had nothing in his game which could disrupt the Argentine.
Until those fateful wasted match points, Nalbandian had thoroughly dictated proceedings. He maintained a commanding court position on top of the baseline, from where he was able to take the ball clean and early, using every inch and angle of the court to move his athletically superior opponent around. Every hallmark of a classic Nalbandian performance was thus far present; the faint drop shots, the early return of serve, the devastating backhand down the line and the clever use of angles to open up the court. The mixture of power, finesse and intelligent shot selection was simply a perfect antidote to Nadal’s gruelling, physical style – with Nalbandian staying on the front foot and never allowing his opponent to wrestle control of the rally, he ensured that it never became a physical contest.
Ultimately, Nadal saved the 5 match points through a combination of sheer determination and concentration. The Spaniard stared defeat in the face on five separate occasions, each time overcoming it with unwavering self belief and aggression. By contrast, Nalbandian had wasted 5 opportunities to close the match, and by the start of the third set had seemingly already accepted defeat.
By no means was this a turning point in Nalbandian’s career; instead, it represents the last hurrah of Nalbandian, when he was just about still able to compete with the world’s top players, in spite of his glaring physical weaknesses. It is this mental fragility and poor physical conditioning which has blighted his career and stopped him from achieving the grand slam titles which his talent has undoubtedly warranted.
Largely unknown to the casual tennis fan, Nalbandian reached a solitary grand slam final back in 2002, in which he capitulated 6-2 6-3 6-1 to the world number no.1 Lleyton Hewitt. Since then, he has won the end of year masters once, in 2006, and captured Paris and Madrid Masters Series in succession in 2007. He achieved a career high ranking of no.3 in 2006. More so than these victories, it is the gut wrenching defeats which for me, symbolise his career. It is a career littered with missed opportunities, the worst being: an Australian open semi final in 2006 lost from 2 sets to love up against Marcos Baghdatis; a French open semi final in which he was up a set and a break against Federer before retiring with injury; a 2003 US Open semi final loss to Andy Roddick after having a match point. Given better fitness and more belief, Nalbandian would have certainly pushed Federer hard in the French Open semi, and granted a bit of luck, probably would have won the Roddick and Baghdatis encounters.
Had Nalbandian possessed the indomitable spirit and concentration of a Lleyton Hewitt or the conditioning and stamina of a Michael Chang, there is no doubt in my mind he would be a multiple grand slam winner. However, tennis players are not made by compiling various characteristics and traits into one Franken-player. Fans of the above two players may well retort that were Chang or Hewitt a few inches taller, and with stronger serves, they may have collected a few more grand slams themselves. What makes Nalbandian’s case exceptional in my mind is that he possessed exceptional gifts of hand-eye coordination, flawless technique and sublime touch, all of which cannot be taught or drilled. Despite the lack of one major weapon, he had all the major tools to achieve great things in the sport but crucially lacking the mental intangibles. As it is, us Nalbandian fans will have to content ourselves with having been witness to some of the most sublime tennis seen in recent history – as well as some of the absolute worst!