Where Do We Go from Here?

The WTF championship came and went, like a little bird flying overhead and dropping a little turd in our way.  The analogy suggests the match happened too fast and really wasn’t all that interesting, even left a bad taste in our mouths.  I’m not talking about the Federer perspective; I’m referring to fairly predictable, uninspired tennis — pretty anti-climactic. Sorry.

Roger

You already saw the final, saw the highlights, read about it, at least.  The score, if that’s all you saw, says it all. Djokovic did routine Federer. Never a doubt. Tough to make more out of the affair than that. I’ll certainly give you my thoughts on the match, some of its context and a few more thoughts on where do we go from here.  But it was a giant dud, a bit of déjà vu. If you’re a diehard Djokovic fan, you’re suffocating in the confetti commemorating an incredible year. Incredible. But the tennis wasn’t that epic in this final.  Not by the standards these players have set.  The match was routine.

I didn’t get to see the start of the 2015 U.S. Open final because of the rain delay that ended-up conflicting with my son’s soccer match. I remember sitting there, rooting-on my son while refreshing my phone, quickly discerning Djokovic’s early break at 2-1 in the first set.  Not a good sign for Roger. This overlooks that Roger had to save break points in his opening service game.

Same thing in the WTF final. Roger broken in the third game.  Like the US Open final, Roger had chances to break back. But he couldn’t.  Djokovic, I’m afraid, did not play his most incredible brand of tennis in the final Sunday.  He did enough to win, as he usually does.  His WTF SF win vs. Nadal was much more “ominous” (mat4), more inspiring, if you ask me. The similarities between the USO F and the WTF F are vast. Roger was brilliant in points, maybe even games, but he’s 2-3 steps behind the Serb. He converts a break and you never know, but this isn’t happening.  We don’t really expect it to happen either.

Those two early BP Roger had in this match were practically gifted.  He converted, I believe, 4 of 23 at the USO. Djokovic is not impenetrable, but Roger just can not accept such gifts.  What about the statistic of Roger on Djokovic’s second serve in Sunday’s final!?  Holy shit.  This is becoming a lasting characteristic of Roger’s tennis. Tennis with Turrets: bursts of genius but pretty incoherent.

Looking at these two matches, both against Djokovic, I want badly to blame Roger’s box, Stefan Edberg I guess.  This is silly on my part, but it seems so mental, so strategic and the coaching has to have a say on that.  Roger’s lackadaisical approach should be addressed.  I will never be able to overlook this aspect of his game, especially in big matches. Djokovic, Nadal and Sampras have much more committed approaches if you ask me.  Avoid the early break, Roger.  You have the tennis; you have the ability to convert.  The body language is awful.  You’re probably not going to reel off too many breaks of serve, so take care of yours early.  Stay in the match.  Astonishing.

If you look back at my USO posts, you’ll see I wrote about the mental game prior to that match. I realized this was the critical factor.  I have watched enough Roger Federer to know that his mental game is the absolute tipping point to his big matches, especially against his rivals, Djokovic and Nadal.

If I was coaching Roger, I would kick his ass.  Urgency, Roger.  Tighten the form, stay on point, do not give this opponent an inch.  Watch Rafa play.  There is so much exigency to his tennis argument, the audience (or his opponent) is moved to support on fear alone.  Djokovic has this same tonal dominance.  You might have to kill them to beat them.

Roger is of a different tribe, different mission.  I saw all of this play-out with such clarity on Sunday.

The match was called by Sky Sport. I enjoyed the perspective though they were a bit all over the place.  And this erratic call more or less defines Roger’s game.  In one breath, after an absolute brilliant shot from Roger, one which draws an applause from Novak, the announcers are beside themselves.  Oh, the artistry from the Maestro!  Then two games later you’re listening to them explain how Novak is probably the GOAT.  A bit of a mess, but I like the enthusiasm and the knowledge of the game.

But here’s the thing:  Roger is absolutely brilliant. His shotmaking is untouchable.  He can do things with the ball, from different positions, create absurd angles, on any surface that no one else has ever done. HOWEVER, tennis is a sport of games and sets, not just points.

In the final on Sunday, Roger hit some incredible SHBH DTL, or CC FH that drew drool from the announcers, erotic ovations from the crowd, and even applause from his esteemed opponent.  But the ledger reads 15-40, not in Roger’s favor.  He wins a lot of points, a lot of matches, has won a lot of majors, sure.  But against a guy like Djokovic, now, he’s not threatening the Serb.  His is a tennis exhibit, something we curate for alien life to show them our sport of tennis.  But he’s not the competitor Djokovic is.  His game is beauty and lots of it.  Ask Djokovic; he’ll agree.  But that insanely eloquent backhand, or S&V that garners a 15-15 has much less value than a sloppy hold to keep the set at 2-2 and add pressure to your opponent.

Roger’s numbers are absurd.  But what’s happening now (still playing, going on 35) is true to what I described months ago.  Roger is on a long farewell tour.  He’s pretty much done.  His lack of clutch to which I speak has, we all know, been around and has marked his shield, so to speak.  One has to acknowledge this sort of approach or style that I’m highlighting here.  His beautiful game is almost tainted by this lack of competitive edge.  Djokovic could have been had, at least forced to raise his level, but the consistency, the lack of vulnerability is easily overcoming Roger’s erratic brilliance.  I heard someone say recently that Novak just plays an 8 (on a scale of 1-10), non-stop.  Roger goes from 1-10 throughout the match.

Even Roger after the match made reference to some of the points, the fun of it all.  He knows he’s brilliant.  But that’s not enough.  And part of me does think it’s coaching.  Toughen the fuck up, pal.  If you’ve played competitive sports, you know how this works.  There are points in a competition where the opponent presses.  That has to be met.  Djokovic will press early.  I just illustrated such a strategy in two big recent matches between these two.  If you think Djokovic does this in every game, you haven’t competed.  Such an approach is unsustainable. You have to feel the flow of the match, seize opportunity, reinforce the defenses during a surge, etc. Djokovic wants to break early in the match, while it’s young, while his opponent is vulnerable.  Coach that, Edberg.  Or is Roger uncoachable?

This match was so routine, so uninspiring.  The bird overhead taking a shit analogy is perfect.  Take cover.

Novak

The Nole clan is on a good one.  They are deservedly quite excited about 2015.  2015 is better than 2006, he is in control of the tour, of Nadal and Federer, etc.  These are all pretty accurate statements.  Djokovic is unbelievably consistent at this point, playing such solid tennis, competing and playing so well, so smart.  His depth, his strength from both wings, his serve, his coaching, his family life.  The man is in control, representing the sport with a lot of class.  Men’s tennis is in good hands at this point.  The new Emirates/ATP deal is evidence of this.

At the same time, let’s keep things in perspective with Nole.  He is beating the crap out of an older, softened Roger Federer, and the Spaniard is cooked turkey at this point.  Whether it’s the biological passport, or just his own wear and tear, Nadal, imho, is done. He’ll continue to advance in draws because of his nature, but his tennis is absurdly inferior for such a “great” champion.

And the Roger age issue.  He is a great player.  He continues to find finals throughout the year, in big events.  Off the top of my head he lost to Novak in the final at Indian Wells, Rome, Wimby, USO, and WTF.  Could have been quite a year for the Swiss, indeed.  But this debate over his “greatness” at 34 is going to distract people from his actual age.  He is not playing better than ever at this age.  He’s #3 in the world.  You think he’d be flirting with Murray if he was in his peak form? No. Novak is dominating a washed-up Nadal, a clinically depressed Murray (or you come up with a diagnosis), an old(er) Federer, and a guy named Stan, who is tough but very inconsistent (I saw a comparison of Fed’s 2006 to Djok’s 2015 and the deciding factor on which was best kinda boiled down to Djok’s loss to Stan at FO.  That was pretty much a choke it argued.  Have to pretty much agree there).

There is so much hyperbole with sports fans.  Nole’s year has been absolutely dominant.  It puts him in that class of players who own the sport, dominate their eras.  But here’s the thing these Nole-is-the-GOAT proponents have to understand: he has to dominate for 2-3 more years.  Another 3-major year would be insane, and bring him even with Roger’s 3 3-major years.  But then he needs another year or two of that kind of quality to really move the mark.

Living in a little cave and saying what Nole has done through 2015 makes him GOAT is ridiculous (the whole GOAT discussion is pretty ridiculous).  Here’s how ridiculous this all is: the current guy who is dominating the sport, beating regularly Rafa and Roger, who are not the same players they were (and a pretty weak field beyond that), has 10 majors. Rafa, who is pretty much done at 29, has 14 majors, 2/3 of them on clay and some of his legacy is under suspicion. Roger has 17 majors, but has shown a ton of vulnerability playing big matches against Rafa and Nole.  Is anything definitive here?

Where do we go from here?

I’ll tell you where.  We enjoy the off-season and get ready for some January ATP 250-level tennis to preface the carnage of 2016 Melbourne.

9 thoughts on “Where Do We Go from Here?

  1. Matt, very good analysis as usual….I do felt kind of low quality match regardless what roger claims (he claimed as high quality one like he says he plays best tennis)….At least in USO he created much more chanced where here he mostly played catch up…And its also true that Novak just played enough to win, he doesn’t even pushed to play his much clutch game here…

    Good point about Coaching and un-coachable Roger….No idea where/how he find answers for big matches..and i hope he does that…

    let us hope for much competitive 16 season overall…

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    • Thanks, Nambi. I am happy for Djokovic and look forward to watching him chase the legends at this point (he has not eclipsed the top of the sport despite however many ejaculations hale from camp Nole).

      But this version of Roger is awful. It’s different when you dominate but lose to Nadal on clay. Roger is fallen in love with his style, the aesthetics of his game. People could argue he’s always been that way, but winning adds substance to the form. Now he’s just an instructional video on how to hit the tennis ball.

      We want blood, guts, war. Roger, for some reason, does not want to get dirty. Miss hitting a routine FH on BP over and over again is pure amateurism. It’s okay. He had a great career. But this is just awful.

      And, again, the people who say he’s better than ever are not tennis fans. I guess by that logic, then Andy Murray is better than Roger? Ha ha ha ha ha. Save that kind of analysis for the children where you teach them that everyone is a winner, everyone gets a medal and we all go home happy.

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  2. Come on, Matt, aren’t you exaggerating a bit about “camp Nole”? Why so much writing about the goat, sheep, whatever? Novak is making his own place in the history of tennis, and he is already an all time great. Why one has always to compare? Novak played wisely, he was focused on winning, and he find the strength to finish the year with a big statement.

    I wrote a lot about the fallacy of goat’s arguments. Different epochs, different technologies, opposition, conditions, a lot of things are very difficult to gauge, and I believe that beyond a certain point, it’s quite difficult to be assertive. For me, e.g., Sampras is not a top 5 open era player, despite winning 14 slams. I believe that Borg, Lendl and JMac were better players, and I can argue about it. But it’s futile, isn’t it?

    I also wrote about Fed overall level. He plays quite well, and I still maintain that he plays better than ever — and since Fed himself says so, who are we to disagree? But since his physical peak was long time ago, it doesn’t always translate in trophies and points. You just don’t want to make a distinction here. Without Novak, who is peaking both gamewise and physically, Fed would have won two slams this year, and probably the WTF — at 34! His net game is exceptional, his backhand better than it ever was. Why are you so opposed to such an opinion?

    If Novak continues to improve his net game and his serve, but loses finals to Kokkinakis in a few years, I would still argue that he plays better than ever, although he would be far from his physical peak. The same as I do for Fed. And I am a tennis fan, who doesn’t think that Andy is better than Raja. I don’t see any logic here, but I feel that you are somehow disappointed.

    And here, you’re very harsh toward Fed. You remind me of Ru-an. Yes, he was very tense in the final, but Novak was very tense too. Suddenly, the stakes were very high. Novak plays with more safety, so it’s easier for him. At 4-5 he played very safe targeting Fed’s backhand — he knew that he will most probably manage to break it, at one point or the other.

    The key for Roger was to serve well, but it was the last day of the tournament, and he played a match the previous evening. Recovery is not always easy at 34, especially when you have back problems for years that hamper your serve. Anyway, Roger still managed to beat the no 1 player 3 times this year, and almost did it a fourth time. At his age, the glass is not only half full — it’s full.

    And if you want blood, sweat, guts, war… you can always become a Rafan. But you won’t go home happy.

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    • I am not speaking of GOAT at all, only giving advice to those who fancy such a discussion, especially in the heat of the moment (post WTF).

      My point at the very end of my post is there’s no real definitive argument for a GOAT. I do not get involved in that debate. I guess you missed that.

      I am like Ruan? Shame on you. I am countering the weak tennis discourse of his lair. He’s jumped so hard onto that Djokovic bandwagon; he’s now the spokesperson for camp Nole. Sorry. He’s your guy.

      My disappointment in Federer is as a spectator wanting to see more drama, more competitiveness, and it probably didn’t really convey (writing late at night, one draft): that I think Roger’s mental game/coaching is just too laissez-faire, too profoundly weak. I am not a Rafa fan, but he grinds-out points, he salvages holds, seizes and converts break opportunities. Novak is the same type of player. Roger changed racquets and coaches, but maybe Edberg is too soft. I am being serious.

      I have played a lot of competitive sports, coached a bit. Roger relies too much on his “brilliance.” He even talks about it. Losing a serve so early (USO/WTF) and then unable to seize those opps as they become available. . . it’s not good enough. He needs to grind.

      Your penultimate paragraph undermined your Roger is better now argument. He’s older, unable to do the things he once did physically. And the Andy vs. Roger argument. You are arguing he is better now than ever. That would make sense if he was a clear #2, well clear of Murray. How in the world would Murray be #2 over Roger if Roger is in fact playing his peak? That is impossible to explain, but I’d love to hear you make that argument.

      Of course, I just added that Murray point. The basic physiological argument is the most telling. In tennis, you don’t reach your peak at 34. I’m sorry. IT HAS NEVER HAPPENED IN THE HISTORY OF THE SPORT.

      Imagine Rafa at 34, Nole at 34, JMac at 34, Borg at 34. . . Sampras at 34. No one plays better at that age. No one.

      Even if you don’t mean to, again, that claim has so much attached to Nole’s career. Outside of a Roger playing well at 34, who else is there to compete with Nole?

      Roger had Hewitt, Safin, Roddick (who was pretty much a Murray), older Agassi, Nadal, young Nole, Del Potro, etc. Not the greatest, but not bad.

      Other than a streaky Stan, who can challenge Nole? Not Roger at 34. Younger Roger, sure. I saw him beat Nole many times, in big matches. But not at 34.

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  3. I thought you were my guy too. Sorry, you sounded so much anti-Fed… and you still sound irritated.

    I read these arguments about coaching on another site, too. I don’t know. We have experienced coaches in Fed’s box here. Fed too probably knew that Novak would put a lot of pressure especially at the beginning. Anyway, his strategy worked in the group match. But Novak didn’t play especially well, and Fed served better. In the final, Novak served better, and made so few unforced errors. Fed’s first serve was at about 50%. What would you have him to do?

    There are also a lot of theories about Fed choking in important matches — lately I’ve seen the list of his victories and his losses against Novak in the last two years. It’s true, he won lesser tournaments, or matches in semi, and lost the big finals. But those finals were usually in best of five sets, or played on slower surfaces. I am not sure there, since Roger usually fared better on faster surfaces, and in shorter tournaments. Anyway, it was often very close.

    I thought I was quite clear about Fed peaking. I watched Federer from 2005, 2007, 2008 lately (I watched bouts on his famous match against Nalbandian). Tennis has changed so much. My position about Federer peaking is very nuanced. It has nothing to do with Novak whatsoever, nothing with “eras”, etc. And I guess one would be very surprised by the result of a round-robin between the top ten in 2005 and in 2015. It has with the fact that tennis has adapted to new strings. The Novak of 2008, playing with his Wilson racquet, would have been straight-setted by the Novak of 2015. But by Federer too, I guess, at Wimbledon without doubts. On the other side, of course that Fed would play better if he was at his physical peak. I don’t deny this. I even tried to figure out when Fed was at “his best”, in the sense you use this word, but I don’t have a clue. He could have been that player in 2012, although I believe that his game is better now.

    But then you fall in the weak/strong era comparison, and the GOAT debate too, something I thought we agreed it was meaningless. When I try to assess Roger’s level, I take in account a lot of facts — a career is not only numbers, achievements, but injuries, luck of the draw, technological shifts, and I hate generalizations… in general. Why do you need to react on this specific point? I did it once, and, to my shame, I like joking about Rafans and Rafa in general. There are so aggressive. But I got tired. And there are a lot of posters, young ones, especially, and some of them don’t even play tennis, and it’s futile. Although — they are sometimes nice, and they advise me to find a lover, or to do something with my life, to get rid of my frustrations. I am so thankful for those advices 😉

    You also mention champions from the past. But you forgot that those were different times — with technological changes big enough to shorten careers, with an amateurish approach to training, nutrition, etc. But even then, back a bit more in history, and we could remember that Laver, Rosewall, Gonzalez, or later Connors, all had very long careers. But they played under the same conditions from the beginning to the end: no new frames, no new strings, no new strategies. Technological shifts and injuries were the key factors.

    And here, we saw both Djokovic and Federer adapting, and leading the way in this. It’s a sign of greatness. Compare the angles now and ten years ago. That’s were Rafa’s game fell short. And from the beginning, Fed had to compensate for the weakness of his one-handed backhand. But when his coach chose to learn him to play with one hand, it was normal, it was well adapted to the game played at that time. Lendl, Becker, Sampras, all played a one-hander.

    So, what happens with you? Why this anger? I could be wrong, but it’s almost palpable. Of course, it’s the twilight of Roger’s career, but there’s no need to explain it again: he’s 34, everybody knows that every year he plays is a bonus. And yet, he still manages to win tournaments and play big finals. Isn’t it great?

    The post I wrote in French was about time passing by. One has to learn to enjoy the game of his favourite player while he still plays. I liked Connors fighting and losing more than a retired Connors. So I hope Novak and Fed will continue to play, whatever the results. Winning doesn’t matter any more — just the simple pleasure to watch them play one more season, one more match. The day when they retire will be a sad one.

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    • Mat4, thanks for the conversation. Let me finish a few things and I will respond as eloquently as I can. This is a very complicated discussion. I am not mad at Fed. And that you find the “anger . . . almost palpable” makes me feel good, that the conversation is rich and the readership is kicking my ass!

      I feel like I’m talking to an older brother, wiser, but still flawed in his reasoning 😉

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    • Sorry so late, Mat4, if you’re still reading. I’m going to write another post, but a quick response: Conners playing late, nor Rosewell, etc., is not the same as Roger playing late. This is a real puzzle. Roger is the ONLY player to remain so viable this late (Agassi is the next best thing)? I would say it’s a bit of that, and a bit of the alternative: the field is massively weak, now. Sure one can call me an anti-djoker, but then they haven’t been reading. Tell me a serious threat to Djokovic other than a 30 and 34 year-old Swiss? The field is in shambles. If you don’t admit this to some degree, you’re selling real estate in the land of Novak. Good luck with that.

      That shades his record vs. top 10, etc.

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  4. A good piece, as usual Matt. In such a slow surface Federer had to bring something more (mental or technical) to compete to Djokovic. Since the Federer’s coach subject is detailed in your next post I’ll comment on that later.

    I’ll summarize the top 10 in 2016 (+ a couple of honorable mentions) : Tsonga – unstable, in the search of his game as usual, Gasquet – the greatest one-hander never to become a top player because of the forehand [improved his physical game but leaves wanting], NIshikori – the man from glass, as Tsonga a potential danger from time to time, Berdych – Mr consistency but no more, Nadal – is anything left in the tank for the slower surfaces? the fast ones already seem a long shot, Wawrinka – inconsistent but when he’s on and playing on slower surfaces to be afraid of, Federer – farewell tour continues, quicker surfaces are needed to make a stand, Murray – having the ingredients but not the recipe, Djokovic – let’s go for the calendar one this year. The big servers Isner, Anderson, Cilic, Raonic (current seeds 11-15) are to cause only temporary trouble to top guns and from the young guns Tomic, Thiem, Kyrgios and Coric are expected to deliver but I doubt. All in all, I’ll be surprised if anyone other from the top ten gets a Master 1000, let alone a slam (reduce that to the top 6).

    Excluding fatigue and injury, I see no other fearsome opponent for Novak. Don’t get me wrong, he is an excellent player but some competition could render the tournaments more… interesting. The unexpected player sells tickets too, from time to time. But given how much related conditioning and prize rewards are, I don’t have high hopes of that.

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  5. Pingback: A Little Vinci and Raonic | Matt's Blog

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