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 Mystery of the Missing Forehand’ – Match Report: Donald Young vs Juan Monaco @ ATP Paris MastersPosted: February 13, 2012
Match Report: Juan Monaco (ARG) def. Donald Young (USA) 6-4 6-2, 2011 ATP Paris BNP Paribas Masters First Round
The Mystery of the Missing Forehand
If this match report seems absurdly belated, pointlessly insignificant and generally irrelevant, TennisNiche rejoices: it is only through such devious methods that it is possible to convey the diabolical quality and minuscule importance of this encounter.
It is a rare and offensive sight to witness a Masters Series match in which a player is struggling simply to keep his forehand in the court. Donald Young’s failings are made all the more repulsive when one considers the following circumstances:
- The player in question is not playing risky forehands, nor even hitting a particularly attacking shot. At no point was Young aiming for the lines on his forehand and by the end of the match it seemed the extent of his ambition was to keep the ball between the service line and the baseline, a challenge more suited to an amateur tennis team’s Sunday morning practice session.
- The opponent is a solid player who generally hits the ball with the same spin, trajectory and pace. Juan Monaco is far from a Fabrice Santoro style trickster, and there is no excuse that Young’s rhythm was disrupted by his opponent’s variety of shots.
- The match was played on a perfectly consistent, even-bouncing court surface – not a dishevelled gravel or concrete public court, complete with sagging net and miniature craters. Even so, Tennis Niche, filled with paternal sympathy for the promising young American whose career has thus far fallen tragically short of unrealistic expectations, wishes it could state that this match was played on a grass or clay court with all the problems of movement and uneven bounce associated with these surfaces. Alas, it was not so.
Now onto the contest itself:
As you may have guessed, the first ATP match between Donald Young and Juan Monaco was far from a high quality affair. While both were coming off solid performances in their previous tournaments, it was only Monaco who showed any real quality. He played a consistent match with few unforced errors, aided by the fact that his opponent was struggling to keep the ball in court with any kind of depth or pace. Monaco took the match 6-4, 6-2, with Young noticeably frustrated and flagging in the second set.
There is not a great deal to comment about the performance of Monaco, who did not need to push himself beyond his normal level. The Argentine hit his groundstrokes consistently with decent depth, came forward well and showed good focus and concentration in closing out the match when his opponent was visibly melting down.
As for Young, he is back on the right track in his career, despite the poor performance. Having entered the top 100 for the first time in November 2007, he continued to flit in and out of the top 100 during 2008. His career seemed to backtrack somewhat in 2009 when he fell out of the top 100 entirely and continued his inconsistent results until mid 2011, when he finally entered the top 50 and began showing some consistency. Put in optimistic terms, this match represents a brief return of the old Donald Young. He performed roughly to expectations at the 2012 Australian Open, reaching the round of 64 before being knocked out by Lukas Lacko. Looking ahead this year, Young must aim first to consolidate his position in the top 50; only then can he think about entering the top 32 and thus gaining a seeding for grand slam draws.
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.
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.
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 Croatian–level 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.
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.
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.