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.
Greetings all kind followers, serfs and those who are generally indebted to TennisNiche for the huge amount of knowledge and wisdom bestowed on a weekly basis.
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.
‘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.