Having endured another predictable clay season dominated by the ferocious Rafael Nadal, it is curious to remember a time ten years ago when the clay field was relatively deep and competitive, with a number of good-to-great specialists and no single competitor a la Nadal, able to sweep aside the competition over the clay season for the loss of mere sets.
Corretja was part of a pack of players in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, who together comprised one of the greatest clay court fields of all time. Among the Spanish contingent, there was also the eccentric Sergi Bruguera (winner of Roland Garros in 1993 & 1994), the forehand maestro Carlos Moya (winner in 1998), Albert Costa (Roland Garros champion in 2002), Juan Carlos Ferrero (champion in 2003) and Alberto Berasategui. Other great clay specialists of the time included the charismatic Gustavo Kuerten (three time winner in 1997, 2000 & 2001), iron man Thomas Muster (1995 champion) and American Jim Courier (winner in 1991 & 1992). Added to this prestigous group were a number of non-clay specialists who nonetheless thrived on the red dirt – Andre Agassi, Andrei Medvedev, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Magnus Norman. Owing to the sheer depth of the clay game at the time, Corretja never managed to grab a French Open title, losing twice in the final, once to Moya in 1998, and once to Kuerten in 2001. Ironically for a clay court player, his greatest triumph came at the end of year Masters in 1998, on the ice-quick surface of Hanover.
While Corretja possessed all the physical and combative qualities necessary to succeed on clay, he also played with beautiful grace and panache. His single handed backhand was a reliable and gorgeous shot: with its magnificent sweep and unnverving consistency, it mocked the fact that he learned it relatively late in his career, switching over from a two-hander. Having started a glaring weakness in his game, it was honed to perfection in the course of his career, and seen here, is regal yet industrious at the same time. His forehand motion is not entirely dissimilar to that of Juan Monaco’s (currently one of the better clay players on tour). Both men hit with considerable clearance over the net and monstrous topspin, despite using a relatively conservative eastern grip – a peculiarity for clay players, who tend to opt for either a full western or at least semi-western grip.
An adaptable and well rounded player, Corretja held other qualities not usually associated with clay court players. A fantastic returner, he twice beat Pete Sampras in big events, once on grass in Davis Cup Quarter Final, and once in semi finals of the end of year Masters. Clay courters of his grace and consistency are sorely lacking from today’s game.
For a man who reached a career-high ranking of 31 in the world back in December 2010, remarkably little has been heard in the tennis press lately about Sergiy Stakhovsky.
This is surprising because not only does the Ukrainian possess a wonderfully old-school game, complete with cutting volleys and a vicious slice backhand, but he is also an affable and charismatic character. He speaks four languages in addition to his native Ukrainian – Czech, Russian, Slovak and English, the latter with what the flawless sensory perceptions of TennisNiche adjudges to be a charming mixture of Eastern European and East End Geezer, with a hit of of North American thrown in for good measure (Sergiy himself describes it as a mix of Canadian and British English- see this video to judge for yourself.)
Onto his tennis game:
He is one the current generation of players who has suffered the most from the overall slowing down of court surfaces. Of his four titles, two have come playing indoor (Zagreb in 2008 and St. Petersburg in 2009) and one on grass (‘s-Hertogenbosch in 2010). His captivating serve and volley game is almost tailor built for fast, low-bouncing surfaces, complemented by his flat groundstrokes and a knife-edged slice backhand, all of which makes his tennis very easy on the eye.
It is on the clay and slower hard courts, where he cannot approach the net as frequently, in which his play suffers. While his groundstrokes are technically sound, he can be inconsistent, particularly in longer rallies when his footwork is prone to breaking down. Having played a pure serve and volley game during juniors, he has had to adapt in seniors to play more at the baseline, befitting the current conditions of court surfaces in mens tennis. Seen in the video against Ryan Harrison (19 years old at the time), Stakhovsky is able to execute his wide array of shots against an inexperienced opponent who isn’t able to trap Stakhovsky behind the baseline with deep, consistent groundstrokes.
If Stakhovsky is to re-enter the top 50 (and looking further forward, to break the top 20), he will have to find the right balance between using his sophisticated serve and volley game and finding a greater consistency from the baseline when he is forced on the defensive.
A fan-taken highlights video of Juan Martin Del Potro vs Philipp Kohlschreiber, providing a camera angle rivalling that of any mainstream broadcaster. The court-level angle sheds light on two interesting aspects of the match; Kohlschreiber’s excellent footwork and the strategy used by Del Potro to win points.
The majority of the video has Kohlschreiber at the near side, with the close up camera angle showing off his remarkable footwork. Kohlschreiber plays with a western grip on forehand and backhand, which means he needs to take the ball out of in front of his body that fraction earlier. Furthermore, his groundstrokes are fairly long, fluid swings at the ball, so getting into the right position is vital for Kohlschreiber if he is to stand on the baseline and trade blows. Particularly impressive is the precision footwork Kohlschreiber displays getting into position to rip his single handed backhand, a delightful shot in itself.
Del Potro’s rip roaring running forehands against Federer in their 2009 US Open final has popularised the notion that he is some kind of ball basher who immediately goes for the big strike in rallies. This clip shows otherwise, that Del Potro actually wears his opponent down with five or six bludgeoned, heavy topspin forehands before going for a winner. With great consistency off both wings, good footwork and fantastic balance when on the run, Del Potro has no need to go for such a high-risk strategy. He can be content to rally in a netural position, searching for a short ball on which to begin his onslaught of inside-out forehands.
Andy Murray, fresh from another so nearly moment in a Grand Slam semi final, has been the subject of continued debate over what exactly is lacking in his game to go all the way and win a Grand Slam. Chief among technical factors, the forehand has proven to be the shot which has been make or break for him in crucial encounters.
It is the forehand which has let him down one too many times in the big moments, most recently in his Grand Slam matches against Rafael Nadal. Conversely, on the six occasions when the Scot has triumphed in this match up, it was through good work on the forehand side. As a defensive shot it is brilliant, but Murray’s challenge against the other ‘big three’ of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer is not to play well defensively, but to take the initiative in rallies and then hit through their resolute defences. It is the forehand down the line in particular which is vital to Murray; he hits his cross court forehand well enough, but too often it is predictable that the Scot will hit in this direction as he rarely opts for a decisive down the line strike.
This match between Nadal and Murray from back in 2011 shows the Scot’s forehand at its very best. Here, Murray is relaxed, confident and hardly afraid to go for huge, flat strikes. On occasion Murray can be guilty of tightening up when he hits the forehand; he doesn’t really open his shoulders and take a cut at the ball, nor take the ball that fraction earlier needed to get the angle for a down the line shot. Murray is often at his free-flowing best in situations where the pressure is off; either in matches against an opponent who has few weapons and he is expected to beat, or toward the end of matches where he has dominated and is clearly in control, like here. If he is to capture a Grand Slam title he will have to learn to release the shackles on his forehand when it really counts.
This weeks edition of ‘Video of the Week’ focuses on an encounter from 2010 between two players whose careers are headed in opposite directions.
Fresh from being awarded his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Moscow, and sporting a beard worthy of a rogue Spetsnaz soldier gone into exile having been disowned by his government following the end of a controversial and regrettable war, Mikhail Youzhny is entering the twilight of his career.
Born in 1988, Marin Cilic is pushing the limit of what can be considered a ‘young gun’, but for the sake of this article, we shall consider him thus. Cilic has delivered some impressive results in the past few years, knocking out Andy Murray to reach the Quarter Finals of the US Open in 2009 and reaching the Semi Finals of the 2010 Australian Open, defeating Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Roddick along the way. However he still suffers from disappointing off-days and is yet to become a permanent fixture in the Quarter Finals and beyond of the Grand Slams.
TennisNiche was fortunate enough to be see Youzhny play against Sicilian Gianluca Naso in the qualifying rounds of the Roma Master Series in 2009. Although past his best at this point, Youzhny was one of the most impressive players TennisNiche has seen in the flesh, sliding effortlessly from corner to corner, and boasting a fantastic array of slices, drop shots and flat drives. Competent in every area of the game, his greatest strength is his single handed backhand, a gorgeous, rhythmic motion which is a joy to watch.
By most standards, Cilic is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing to watch. Superficially, standing at 6’6, his gangly demeanour suggests he has yet to grow into his frame. His serve is an odd motion, featuring a crazy amount of back bend, enough to make anyone wince who history of back pain. Far from Youzhny’s subtle game, Cilic is very much a modern baseliner. His two handed backhand is powerful, consistent and deals with high balls well, and his forehand, when on’, is a riotous force, as Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal can attest to.
The mention of blistering single handed backhands may elicit a confused reaction from recent tennis converts, who know the single handed backhand as a sort of anachronism, only as a cruel and tragic weakness of Federer’s which is treated with disdain whenever he plays the Nadal’s and the Djokovic’s of this world, who use their muscular two handers to bully Federer on his weaker wing. However, for those who recall tennis before the year 2000, the mention of blistering single handed backhands will bring to mind a time when clay court specialists with regal, looping single handers still roamed the tour.
Well, if you seek thunderous, full blooded single handed backhands, which pop off the racket with the thud of canon fire, this video of Nicholas Almagro vs Stanislas Wawrinka should tickle your belly ( assuming your tennis schooling featured a heavy diet of Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio and Agustin Calleri.)
Almagro defeated Wawrinka 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 in this duel of blistering backhands at the Australian Open. This was never a match for chess enthusiasts, resembling more an illicit, seedy showing of banned material for those sick, single handed backhand perverts who have been persecuted almost to extinction by the homogenising forces of the ATP. This HD tennistic-peep show exhibits backhands which were honed on clay courts; long, regal strokes which finish with a flourish and jump off the court with heavy topspin.
To a casual player of tennis, the technique and timing of these backhands on show is jaw dropping, an effect which is only emphasised by watching the current top 100 and seeing a wealth of fairly robotic and uniform two handers. There is almost a romantic element of risk with having a one handed backhand, as while there are many stunning one handers, there are also conversely probably more obvious examples of awful one handed backhands among top players than there are two handed backhands – while Igor Andreev and John Isner might be said to have limited two handers, they are still more useful shots than the awful topspin backhands of Fernando Gonzalez or Feliciano Lopez.
Almagro and Wawrinka’s backhands are perfect fits for the relentless topspin of the modern game – powerful and consistent, they match up well even to the vicious interrogation that is the Rafa Nadal forehand. Considering this, it is curiously frustrating that other such backhands are so absent on the tour.
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.