Tis the Season to Unwrap Your Bias and Be Merry (Because the Australian Open is Coming)!

I just watched part of the Federer v Safin 2005 Australian Open SF. We’re still a solid month away from the 2016 version, but the days are ticking by, Christmas in few days, 2016 a week later and then the new season of professional tennis is here.  The Tennis Channel is playing AO classics. I don’t think I need to explain to you too much this Fed/Safin early aughts conflict, do I?  I actually need to watch more of it.  Couldn’t afford to sit and watch all five sets entirely.  I chose a few spots to eat and digest. Huge turning-point in the 4th set TB, Federer serving MP 6-5.  Safin has to dig an incredible BH diving volley from Fed, with which he lobs Fed, to which the Swiss responds with a between the legs miss. Between the legs at MP?  Brilliant stuff nonetheless.  So much great tennis running through my brain right now: images, arguments, histories, people’s ignorance and bias, the greatness of ATP athleticism.

The point here is the magnificence of the top of the sport in 2005.  People are pretty critical of the state of the ATP back then, but Marat Safin, Federer and Hewitt were not pushovers. Safin was tremendous.  I read recently how someone was comparing Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, making the point that they have all pretty much grown-up together, and, in fact, the primes of all three careers really did start in 2008.  With that framework, Federer has been the least successful of the three. Another fatally flawed analysis, not because of where Federer ends-up, but because of some interesting/obvious evidence that suggests revising, rethinking that idea, or just a reminder to think in general without oneself getting in the way. In 2005, Federer was the AO defending champ, having beaten Safin in the 2004 final.  Here a year later and Safin seeks revenge and then beats the local boy (Leyton) for the title.

Want a little perspective on career archs, a little comparative analysis via the eye-test?  Here’s a clip, so not the whole match, of Safin v Djokovic 2005 AO R1.  The footage above (Fed/Safin) was a great watch and reminder for me of how incredible the level was back in 2005.  And the two clips combined should be a reminder to those throwing around historically biased claims that need more thought. Indeed, it’s a reminder that Federer is, in effect, from an earlier era. Tough not to make that call after watching this video evidence.

9 thoughts on “Tis the Season to Unwrap Your Bias and Be Merry (Because the Australian Open is Coming)!

  1. I watched those highlights a month or two ago, but then I rewatched the fourth and the fifth sets. The impression is utterly different…

    It was a great match, though, but far from those HL.


    1. Safin is really a different version of Rafter. Great athletes who could beat anyone across eras. Just liked off court play a little too much.

      I’m getting tired of this prisoner of the moment extravaganza. Growing up, the tennis was better. You know what I’m talking about. Right? You should.


  2. Matt,

    Safin was my favourite player, and I was so disappointed by his career plagued with injuries.

    I watched that match (from the second clip), and also the Wimbledon 2008 second round match. In my humble opinion, Marat was potentially the greatest player I watched in the last twenty years, but he lacked the patience and the work ethics of a champion. He had all the shots, and played the kind of game I like: great serve, great backhand, excellent FH, aggressive game with forays to the net. With the right mental set-up, he would have end as an all time great, despite his knee and shoulder injuries. Anyway, he said that after the AO 2005, it was the first time he really believed in himself. It seemed to be a family problem.

    Let’s also mention that he was, and still is, a handsome man. In fact, he was the Adonis of tennis, and although officially of Tatar origin, a perfect example of Slavic beauty.

    That AO 2005 made me very happy, back then, and I hoped for more after that. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

    BTW, if you watch the full match, you can see the following: how bad was Federer’s backhand when faced by a potent BH like Marat’s. Compare the second set of that match with the second set of this years USO. You can also notice that they still played a kind of game typical for the hard courts tennis philosophy of the previous decade — although, in some sequences, when the chips were down, you had the grit, the consistency that characterize tennis now.

    As a final comment about the second clip… just remember the Fed-Del Po result at the AO 2009, then their USO final, the same year. A better example would have been the WB 2008 match, where you can see how tense is Novak playing against Marat.

    And, whatever you may thing, tennis has progressed. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t great back then. To be earnest, I liked it better with less spin, and I think that a kind of compensation for so much spin had to be found out — surface with less rebound are better for tennis.


    1. I like how, in the end, comparing across eras is impossible and can only be made sensible by near irrational bias. There are great arguments made about Borg’s legacy compared to this era of feverish GS accumulation; he never really played AO. The gear factor is huge as is the surface, which you seem to know quite a bit about. Today’s tennis with the approach to majors, the gear, the fitness. . . very different from even 15 years ago.

      I heard a great comment about how one of the problems with players breaking onto the tour now is the top is so fit, so strong. It’s tough for a youngster to surprise so many “pros” and run through a draw. The guys at top have developed such stringent fitness regimens, the gear, the hitting. . . it’s just too much for some 17 year-old now. I have no doubts (nor do you) that there are questionable nutrition plans with the top players, as well.

      In the end, all players are flawed, all of the great ones. No one can make the clear-cut argument that one player is the best of all. It’s sheer lunacy. Instead, we have simply great sport played by great athletes.

      I agree with you about Safin. He seemed very gifted. No question he had off-court issues besides injuries.

      I am a big fan of the more athletic type. Fun to watch, for me, that more athletic vs more technical type of game. Obviously they’re all great athletes, but what we like about Safin, getting back to him, was his natural tennis talent, shot-making, etc.

      This Federer (2005) was a different animal too. His temper was still in evidence here. Funny how he’s become this “cool customer.” He used to be more of a brat. And I agree you see flaws in the game; same as today – BH and FH miscues at critical points. He had MP on his racquet!


  3. Dear Matt,

    still working, and it’s tense now, at the end of the year. Then, I’ve made a lot of spelling errors in my last post. Finally, I do read your blog, and I don’t miss a post.

    One of the most underestimated problems with young players is the fact that, with the high bouncing balls (more spin means more angle, and more vertical angle a higher rebound; a change in surfaces had to be thought of at least 6, 7 years ago), they had to hit their shots from a higher position, and it requires more strength. Just compare Fed and Novak’s FH: Fed hits it at hip height, Novak at chest, almost at shoulder height. It’s easier to learn elbow pronation with lower rebound, too.

    Yes, it’s really difficult to compare eras. It was easy back then, when big technological shifts occurs, but right now, I am not certain if we really have a big, meaningful change, or just a few players — the usual suspects — have changed. And, is it a real improvement, or just an adaptation?

    On a more personal note.

    A few days ago, I had the usual argument with my son’s coach. He often speaks with me about talents — but last time he immediately added that he knows well that I don’t believe in talent, but only in work ethic and physicality. He likes kids, and he is very devoted to his work, but he doesn’t understand much about people in general, and he has an incredible ability to misjudge the potential of his students. So I decided to prove him once again (although he didn’t understand that I already did prove him wrong last year, when I lead my son and another boy — the two worst among his pupils — to the semi of the club championship), and to show him that intelligent boys — there are no girls to work with — will utterly beat his “talented one”. I’ll find some time from April to work with Mat and another boy, and I have no doubt that till September, the progress will be huge.

    But it’s worse, even. Now that my son has decided to train more, and we agreed to take individual lessons — his coach still doesn’t “think” that my boy is “talented”. Not that I would believe him — but sometimes, we all like to hear some flattery.

    I wish you a happy new year. And when I don’t post, just use my mail.


    1. So true about Djokovic’s FH and the corresponding strength. The only guys who really stand a chance at this point are Novak, Roger, Stan and Murray and Nadal only because no one else seems to have arrived. All of those players are quite physical (Fed’s athleticism is sneaky strong). Stan is a great example. You think a young talent like a Dimitrov or Coric has a chance beating those kinds of big boys? Don’t see it.

      You and your kid’s tennis experiences add a lot to the discussion; updates please. Thanks. I really only hear the goodness of this particular anecdote, of how you led those boys to the SF and how meaningful than must have been for them and you. Great stuff.

      As for the coach, is there not another with whom you all can work? Seems like a tough fit, a big philosophical difference. As you know, both talent and work ethic are important, but I’m with you on the FACT that hard work trumps talent. No question, especially when rarely does one have that much more talent than his competitor. Work ethic, in the end, separates. Too many examples of this sort of dynamic playing-out before our eyes.

      My kid plays soccer and has a bit of talent, but lacks that aggressive gene (work ethic). I point to kids on the field, uniforms wet, faces contorted from effort: “that, my son, is the way to play.” That’s how I played. I was not a fashionable player, but played one hell of a sweeper. My son is starting to figure this out. Our code is “play hard, have fun.” He’s 11, mind you.

      In other words, I really enjoy your family tennis stories because we (most of us I’m sure) can relate to them.

      Are you going to comment any predictions on the most recent post? Either way, I’m going to ramble about what we might see. Who knows what’s going to happen, but there are certain story-lines that have a good chance of developing. Too bad about Kokkinakis’ injury.

      Happy new year to you, too!


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