Video of the Week: an Ode to a Great Clay Courter

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.

– TN


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.

TN


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.

TN


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.

-TN


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.


David Nalbandian: a Career in One Match

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!