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.
As the most high-profile youngster in tennis today, Nick Kyrgios is fairly practised in causing upsets -whether through defeating more established players, or generally causing upset with careless behaviour and ill-thought out remarks, the young Australian is accustomed to being the centre of attention. How disconcerting it must have been therefore to have the outcome of this Round 3 match-up totally taken out of his hands.
Some of Kyrgios’s best results to date have come from overwhelming his opponents with his dynamic power tennis. In his two Grand Slam quarter-final appearances, the Australian faced relatively defensive, steady players in previous rounds, defeating Seppi in the 2015 Australian Open and (more famously) Nadal at Wimbledon 2014. Seppi and Nadal proved rather accommodating opponents – neither serve particularly big and both are content to engage in long rallies, waiting for a short ball before attacking. Such an approach gives Kyrgios numerous opportunities to use his explosive power off both wings. Even when manoeuvred out of position, his athleticism enables him to hit highlight-reel winners from unlikely positions.
Against the number 6 seed Tomas Berdych, he faced an entirely different challenge. Whereas Kyrgios can simply over-power many of his opponents, Berdych is an expert at taking and maintaining the advantage in rallies. The Czech was actually out-served, hitting a mere 8 aces compared to Kyrgios’s 18, and making 6 double faults to the Australian’s 2. Furthermore, Kyrgios won an impressive 82% of points on his first serve, serving at 60% first serves in. This ensured that Kyrgios was winning a substantial number of free points and was often starting rallies on the front foot. This made it imperative that Berdych dominate the bulk of the neutral rallies on his and Kyrgios’ second serve.
Few players on the tour hit the ball so cleanly, and with as little topspin as Berdych, and therefore Kyrgios could be forgiven for struggling to adjust his game accordingly. While the Australian came back into the match, winning the third set, this was as much due to a lapse in concentration from Berdych, as it was credit to an improvement from Kyrgios. The latter has a habit of defending through a reliance on his athleticism – often hitting weak, mid-court slices, before retreating a few steps and using his speed and agility to retrieve whatever is thrown at him. Against a power-hitter like Berdych, such a strategy isn’t really viable. The Czech hit an enormous 25 winners off his forehand alone, evidence of his devastating potential to lead the play when given a chance.
Generally speaking, players have had success against Berdych by using the Czech’s power against him, and pushing him out wide. Once pushed outside the tramlines, Berdych does not have the malleability on either groundstroke to play a defensively savvy shot – rather than give himself time with a deep, looping topspin shot, he will invariably go for a hard, flat winner, with a relatively low probability of going in.
Nikolai Davydenko, himself never a Grand Slam finalist, had a dominant head to head record over Berdych, leading the series 9-2 (not including a retirement), going on a run of eight victories in a row over the Czech. Despite being 6 inches shorter, and possessing of a far weaker serve, the Russian was able to outmanoeuvre his larger opponent. Using his superb reflexes and compact groundstrokes, he was able to stand right up on the baseline and re-direct Berdych’s powerful groundstrokes, stretching his opponent out-wide, into a position he doesn’t want to be.
While it remains to be seen if Kyrgios has the technique and hand-eye co-ordination to adopt such an approach, he certainly cannot remain so passive in rallies against opponents like Berdych.
Had Kyrgios drawn a different seed in his quarter – say David Ferrer or Rafael Nadal – he might well have progressed further in the tournament. Furthermore, with his talent and ability, he may well go on to achieve more than Berdych in his career. For the time being however, this remains a bad match-up for the pugnacious Aussie.
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.
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Jonathan over at the superb Federer blog peRFect-Tennis has kindly allowed me to post my humble musings on Federer and his occasional difficulties against the big bitters of the ATP. So without further adieu – why are you still readng? Check out my ramblings, and while you’re at it check out the blog, ’tis a fine one.
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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.