Tennis Excellence

The Shanghai draw looks absolutely festive.  Looking forward to following along as the men wrap-up the outdoor play and ready themselves for the indoor hard courts.

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Djokovic looks unstoppable.  I have yet to watch the Nadal/Djokovic Beijing final, but we know what happened and know how well Nole has been playing since resurfacing after his post-U.S. Open hiatus.  He is the unquestionable world #1.  I suppose the only concern is if he can maintain this pace through to London and those fiercely competitive matches.  But, again, despite the fact that Stan completed a nice, victorious tune-up, and that Roger will probably be well-rested and ready to resume his phenomenal farewell tour, along with Murray back in action, and Nadal, perhaps fresh off a new oil change and confidence building from his Beijing play, Djokovic is the man who will dictate the outcomes of these tournaments.  His level is just too high for the best of the rest to find enough opportunities to win two sets.  His game can handle a lapse, a broken serve or two, a fit of unforced errors.  Because he’s breaking you and finding, eventually, your throat to crush.  Fair to say he’s being quite dismissive of his fellow competitors’ play.  Keep it up, Nole.  This is your time.

The only other real point I should address is my bold and unsuccessful claim that Kyrgios would win Japan.  Ha. Tennis is a very finicky game.  Here’s the thing though: the guy who beat him, moved-on and through one of the big tournament and crowd favorites before finally succumbing to injury and the Stanimal.

I really enjoyed watching some Benoit Paire tennis.  He has a smart game with sneaky power.  His first serve is no joke and his ground strokes can flatten-out and find lines, which essentially make things very tough on his opponents (that two-handed BH is fantastic).  Beating Kyrgios (who is a total wild card at this point) and Nishikori (who beat Cilic) is no small feat.  Paire has continued to play tough since “arriving” this summer.  The tall, almost stoic Frenchman is the real deal; let’s just hope he can maintain this form through 2016.  The foot/ankle injury looks like it started to bother him as the final progressed though he probably wasn’t beating Stan either way.  Stan’s power game looks to be shaping-up nicely for some fireworks here through the end of October and into November.  Very cool to learn that Paire and Stan are “best” friends.  The award ceremony was profuse with friendly banter between the two. Both seemed quite pleased with the tournament results.

Lastly, I know I have been quite harsh on Nadal (but do give that video a look – the funniest parts are A) that a camera happens to be on Nadal “taking” his medicine and B) Lindsay and Paul are basically saying “what the fuck is he doing?!”  Lol.).

I have never enjoyed his tennis.  At some point, you have to acknowledge his game because of the success that has followed his little clay dust-cloud of a career.  He’s won a lot of tennis matches, no doubt.  But the tennis is not beautiful; it’s not marked by the elegance or the balletic artistry and skill of so many great players who have defined this great sport.  His has been a power and defensive style that has overcome many opponents.  But the lack of grace and artistry doesn’t work, I’m afraid, for many tennis fans.  This lack of grace and artistry of his game has become associated with a style of preparation that we find lacking elegance and character, as well.

One of the things I have enjoyed about the Fognini/Nadal rivalry this year concerns the Fog’s willingness to call Nadal out on certain aspects of his game (talking to his box, delaying play, etc.).  NADAL HAS HAD HIS WAY, bullying the sport, if you will.  Our culture’s decision to value championships above everything else finds a perfectly finished product in Nadal.  He has most likely done very questionable things to his body (aside from his grinder style of play) in order to win those titles.  Sure he’s won them, but at what cost?

What I’m saying here is that the game has paid.  We have become consumers of this marketing genius that has been Rafa.

But it’s complicated.  He is a very talented tennis player with a ruthless fight.  No question about that.  The best commentary on Nadal was from Brad Gilbert, I believe.  To paraphrase, Nadal plays every point like it’s his last.  He’s down 0-40, 1-5, but he’s not giving his opponent an inch.  This incredible will has subsided as his game has begun to recede.  But in that Nadal hey-day, his fight was pretty authentic.  That’s what Sampras and Agassi, I’m almost certain, liked so much about him.

But the tennis, the fundamental game, has not been there.  And that’s what we’ve lost in this discussion of Nadal’s greatness.

I have been recording my thoughts on the Federer/Djokovic relationship.  This is a great rivalry mainly because it’s that achievement of tennis and competitive excellence that will really start to link their two legacies, beyond the respect that they have for each other.  These are two of the greatest players of all time, who have clearly pursued a definition of tennis excellence.

That’s the final point here.  The culture began to value majors more than it did the pursuit of excellence.  Sure, you might say the pursuits of majors and excellence are one in the same.  But I would point to Nadal as a perfect example to undermine this rebuke.  If winning is all that matters, than cheating is less of a sin (if he did – and I know this is tough to prove and sure there are other players who certainly did similar things to gain an advantage – in other words, tennis is not exempt from the pressures and temptations other athletes have felt in nearly every other sport).

On the other hand, if the excellence of the game is the most important pursuit, that we value most the beauty and balance of tennis artistry and competitive heart, than we have a certain value system with which to analyze the sport and its players.  I don’t think we should ignore that.

And the best thing about hard court tennis is the players have an ideal surface with which to showcase this game’s beauty and excellence.  Onward to Shanghai!

23 thoughts on “Tennis Excellence

  1. Utsav

    Nice post Matt! Did you notice the MTO that Nadal took?

    I have a hard time taking them seriously, seeing as how they invariably pop up in matches where he’s trailing. It’s busted Roger’s rhythm many a time, but at the the moment, and on this surface, he is no match for the Djoker.


    1. That’s SOP Nadal, right? Remember his big MTO during the AO 2014 where Stan started telling the chair to get this match started, where the hell is the Spaniard, etc.? Ha. Stan absolutely blew Nadal off the court in every imaginable way that night. Great stuff.

      MTO. . . that’s so Toni Nadal.

      I almost get the impression that Rafa’s his little puppet.


  2. Jun

    I am a Novak fan, but I disagree with your opinion of Rafa and his game. I like his game and the athleticism he brings to the sport. In my opinion, he is still the best to ever play the sport of tennis.

    Old time tennis isn’t athletic enough for me. The players of old seemed to be dancing rather than competing. Dancing in my opinion isn’t a sport.

    Every thing else you talk about, especially Novak and his brand of tennis, I like.


      1. Jun

        Matt, I have a lot of respect for Pete’s career and his achievements. His signature weapon (the serve) is arguably the most accurate in history. It is a shame most people mostly associate him with his serve, because he was also speedy and strong. Courier I believe was quotedsaying to the effect that take away Pete’s serve, and he was nowhere near the legend he was. I disagree with JC’s assessment. I thought that was said in bad taste. With a hint of envy, in my opinion.

        Having said that, Pete is 4th best in my opinion. Just behind Rafa, Roger, and Borg.


      2. Hmmm. Fair enough. I’m a big Borg guy.

        Pete’s serve and volley and his big BH were pretty legendary, as well. Where are you putting Sampras and Nadal in your hypothetical match for the ages? HC, grass? Clay…? Pete has a better all around game than Nadal, no question and the other thing we like about Pete is his heart. He was an assassin. Ruthless. So I think he’d be able to handle Nadal’s intimidation, easily.

        If only Roger had a couple of pints of that F-you mentality.

        Think back to some of those Sampras/Rafter back-and-forths on and off the court. Pretty competitive stuff. Rafter had a brilliant, short-lived, tennis life.

        I like the S&V all-court tennis. Nadal’s game is pretty limited. That’s my view. Heart of lion, but not the biggest game.

        I’ll be continuing to speak to this, so I hope you stick around to discuss. Thanks, Jun.


  3. blackspy

    I am happy this last passionate series of articles on the Fedal subject is now finished-I was worried you were consumed from this misconception and you dedicated more time to it than it deserves (although being very annoying, I concur). Thankfully I was wrong and we are back on track, but before I move on to actual tennis I shall add a couple of thoughts on two more common misconceptions that were risen : 1) Federer is weak mentally in general; you already analyzed that pretty well, but I think that people tend to think that because of his usual mediocre BP conversion/lack of killer instinct. I believe this happens because he feels the critical moment and knowing his poor stats he plays more conventional/conservative unwillingly giving his opponent the edge. A sports shrink/coach should give us his opinion whether it is a tactical or mental flaw. 2) Federer currently plays his best tennis; Simply ridiculous. This is just the usual media hype (which he usually uses to his favour, remember SABR?),which is so dominant/superficial these days as I have already stated on a different occasion. Among other things, his movement (slower), his forehand (less power, and more topsin=>considerably slower, less bite), and his stamina (just watch him after a long rally) are nowhere near his best. The boost in topspin the new racquet gave him, made his shots more reliable and the return of the all-court game (why did he ever try to become a baseliner is beyond me-trends of an era, I guess) with emphasis on the net was necessary to cut rallies, but that’s it. Should we make the argument of a weak era now against Djokovic? 🙂

    Concerning current developments, I watched the recent Nadal “progress”. His shots are better (found his “strength”) and, as analysts have predicted, he tries to come closer to the baseline to run less-cover better the court-but he doesn’t have the speed (yet?). Nevertheless, his game is not made for medium/fast courts (not an impressive serve, volleys or net game), and I am not sure he’ll make it to the Shanghai’s semis to potentially meet Federer because he has to face Karlovic, (probably) Raonic and Wawrinka (probably) to get there. I’ll be waiting for Aussie and French ’16, where the surface will help him minimizing the speed deficit, to reach a conclusion.

    Wawrinka should play better in Paris and London-I don’t expect a great run in Shanghai.
    Murray is expected to produce his best results in China and France because of the Davis Cup, and I think it’s a fair assessment (especially Paris).
    I’d give Federer some chances in Shanghai and London.
    I’d like to see a match including Novak and Thiem, although the surface doesn’t help the young Austrian.
    Djokovic rules the tour supreme at the moment. Although the Shanghai draw is pretty balanced it’s hard to look elsewhere for the winner of this tourney, or the remainder of the season for that matter. Then again, many things may happen in life and sports…

    Your comments on the priorities of our age where the titles count more than completion of a player are on the spot. These twisted priorities have deep ramifications all over the sports’ world and beyond that I’m afraid. I wish more people shared your views on the value system you describe above.

    Always nice to comment the news and write here, Matt. Keep it up!


    1. Thanks, blackspy. Interesting 1R loss from Federer. This is Djokovic’s to lose either way. Hopefully Roger can rebound for Paris and London. He seems the only one who can challenge Novak. Ha ha. What does that say?


      1. blackspy

        Although my predictions are pretty mediocre, I doubt about Paris since it’s just after Basel. And I still like Anderson’s progress.
        Maybe it’s a sign that tennis remains a baseliners’ game mostly, at the moment-the trend of the last decade or so. Since Djokovic is pretty balanced between offense/defense and for sure the most consistent/clinical player, isn’t he expected to just beat them all, unless someone forces his hand? Results support that: the rare opponents that trouble him are a bit volatile or pretty forcing.
        Maybe the real problem is that not many players are willing to take risks in their game; predictability never helped an underdog. Your thoughts?


      2. blackspy, you’re referring to Fed skipping Paris? You like KAnderson’s progress? Elaborate?

        As for a challenge to Djoker, I don’t see it unless a top 5er gets hot deep in the draw. Murray, Wawrinka? The talk that Nadal is coming back is pretty far-fetched. I’ve seen some calling for a Nadal/Djoker final. Unreal. Nadal gets to a 500 final and suddenly he’s back.
        The guys that can beat Djokovic need to have big game who can take chances like a Gulbis or a Kyrgios, other than top 5. But his maturity is a load. He’s on a mission right now. The biggest problem I see for Djokovic is he’s on a mission for the next 3 years, especially if he’s going to meet all of the crazy expectations that some of his diehard fans have.


  4. Jun


    Yes for sure, I’ll butt in once in a while.

    Like I said earlier, I am Novak fan. Your posts regarding Novak I definitely appreciate in a way that non-fans (esp. haters) can’t and won’t.

    Additionally, I see Rafa as a very slightly better version of Borg. Rafa would get to seemingly impossible balls, consistently. My jaws never fail to drop when I watch Rafa at his best. I believe Novak learned more from Rafa than from Pete (Novak’s childhood idol???) or Roger.

    The thing is, Novak has the potential to eventually surpass Rafa in my humble opinion. That thought really gets me going bananas, because I believe Novak will do it. That would be sweet!


    1. How do you explain Rafa’s dramatic inconsistency that has prevented him from ever really dominating the tour? His latest slump is in a long line although usually he is absent from tournament play when his game is so down. How do you explain that?


      1. Jun

        I can only try to explain Rafas game and it’s ‘shortcoming’ from a tennis fan’s perspective, because that’s what I am. Not an expert by any measure.

        Rafa gives his all and goes gungho for every ball. He’s singularly focused on the ball, on running it down and hitting it with such power the ball spins incredibly fast (fastest recorded spin ever?)

        As a result, his body, in my opinion, is not made for prolonged, consistently high octane tennis. Nobody’s body is. In Rafa’s case, he doesn’t seem to know, or isn’t programmed to, temper his bull mentality and prepare for the length of a tennis season.

        Which is okay in my opinion. Everybody is different. He is doing it his way. Can’t argue with his results.


      2. You reference his spin and his inability to pace himself for more consistency/longevity.

        The first is about his defensive/slower surface preference. Has as much to do with equipment as it does talent I would argue other than his game does not translate as well to faster surfaces (which does bring skill into play).

        His inconsistency is a big problem. What other player of his level has such massive declines in performance? Imagine if a player like Messi or Lebron James or Federer had such enormous disappearing acts, but then suddenly resurface playing at such a high level? We’re not talking about injury. Nadal has not been “injured”.

        People overlook Nadal’s disappearing acts. That’s bizarre.


  5. blackspy

    Reply to Matt’s comment (reply button not appearing in my pc) :
    I’m saying that I doubt Federer can play Basel and Paris on an equal level or so, the events being back to back (34 is not just a number). Taking into consideration the fact that Paris has a relatively slow surface, and that he likes playing in his home country a lot, I don’t see him saving a lot for the last Masters’ 1000 tournament. Furthermore, were I in his shoes, I’d peak in WTF.

    For some time I considered Kevin Anderson a server-bot a la Karlovic (huge serve, good FH, weak BH). Lately, I saw distinct improvement in his movement, BH and his tenacity (mental warfare). I also like that his progress in the game seems gradual and steady over the years. Given the fact that he doesn’t suffer from illusions concerning his game (i.e. being a big guy he plays a bit flat, hard shots -from both wings- to keep rallies short) he can pose interesting questions consistently on quick surfaces, even to top players. And he can be a threat to the status quo if he consolidates the above and adds net skills. I guess his win over Nishikori today, partially confirms the above. Who knows how far can he get in this tourney? What do you think?

    I laughed a lot with your comment on the Djokovic “problem” – mind you, it is not totally inconceivable but highly unlikely. Well, fans want Federer to play until 45 and amass 25+ GS, Nadal to conquer RG until the end of time and many, many other things. If a person can’t tell the difference between reality and wishful thinking, he is prepping himself for many disappointments.


  6. Utsav

    Nadal thrashed Wawrinka 6-2, 6-1, albeit a tired one. What do you have to say about the “resurgence,” Matt? This is a ver atypical part of the season for Rafa’s form to be picking up IMO.


    1. I have been very busy but had planned on writing some this weekend. This win by Rafa is very suspect, but I know I sound like a conspiracy theorist. It just doesn’t add up. Imagine if Messi or Michael Jordan or any other great had this kind of high and low level production. It’s not natural, unless an athlete is injured, in which case the athlete is side-lined.

      Rafa talked about feeling better about things a few months ago, how he was ready to add “speed” to his game. He noted he was talking about strength, not running speed. I guess racquet speed. Where do you get that? You’re shit for a year (since the ’14 FO) and then here at the end of ’15, at the indoor HC, your weakest surface, you’re back?

      Sorry, I’m not buying it. Stan may have just walked. This is all a mess. Who knows, maybe the Swiss players got the memo that Rafa is “back” (whatever that means) and they took a dive. Ha.

      Rafa is the only “great” that can somehow get away this kind of inconsistency. Generally, such piss poor consistency is ridiculed. Granted, there are upsets and athletes getting on rolls, but this huge disparity in out-put FROM A SUPPOSED HEALTHY athlete is bullshit.


      1. Incondite

        I’m still looking forward to your next post about Nadal Matt. You did say one was coming, right? I’ve been speculating that it might address episodes of gamesmanship, at least in part. But I’ll be interested to read it either way.

        And I couldn’t agree more with you about the suspicious resurgence; in fact, I think we’ve discussed on earlier pages.

        In any event, best wishes with the workload, and all other important items…


      2. Yeah, we’ve already covered it. This is just another episode of Nadal being Nadal. Roger is a punk for going out in the first round, but Nadal is a warrior. That’s the climate we’re in. Nadal is such a warrior.

        What a bunch of bullshit.


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