Am I the Eye of Sauron?

My increased work-load along with a decrease in ATP action has meant the tennis chatter from my end has been pretty quiet.

Be that as it may, my eye continues to wonder the tennis landscape.

Since my last post there was an injury to Roger. Folks jumped all over that story. I hope my silence made a point. You know where I stand on that, right? I’m happy to explain.

I’ll also look around the tour for a few other tennis observations.

But let me start with a word or two on some tennis observations made by some of the “commentators” that fancy these lovely tennis discussions.

If I ever come across as critical of Djokovic, first call me on my contradiction. I have written extensively of his class and incredible tennis quality, his ascension and what he has meant for me and for tennis at this point in time (my archives will take you back to posts written last spring/summer for this appreciation of Novak that have continued to this day).

Secondly, though, and more to my point, blame tennis cheerleaders like certain fanboy clowns that blog about tennis. The fanaticism of tennis is a joke. There is so little sports knowledge or literacy, I want to call it, in these writings or images that are posted like little love or hate letters to their heroes/villains; it’s like a bunch of little 10 year-old girls excited to see their favorite movie star, or an episode of mean girls. If you want some grown-up analysis, come over here or other more objective tennis discussions. From what I gather, some of these bloggers have, in some instances, broken-up with Federer (the old #1) and now they’re “dating” Djokovic (the new #1). That’s how it appears. I’ve been told by readers and have made a few random visits to these sites only to see them trying to destroy Federer’s reputation in all matters with the vindictiveness of an ex-girlfriend. Meanwhile, they will have blog header images such as close-ups of Djokovic puckering-up. The sexual tension is incredible. Keep that stuff behind close doors, dopes.

That’s why I’ll continue to blog. I will, for example, be sure to temper some of this hysteria, the sloppy wet kisses for Nole, to remind everyone to slow-down, take a breath, suggest that Nole can make a claim for GOAT in four years, rather than four months (that was a comment made on a discussion board about the Nole GOAT discussion – which is absolutely right).

The tennis commentary I see around town is pretty much a bunch of hysterical disciples of certain players past or present. There is very little perspective. It’s embarrassing, really.

I don’t need any public confirmation. I know the tennis discourse needs my common sense. And thank you to all of you who read.

As for the tennis:

Roger’s injury is particularly newsworthy, for me, only because I am hoping to attend Indian Wells again this year and would love to see the Maestro play and these are our last opportunities to see Roger play good tennis. The injury is a bummer for him and all of his rabid fans, but this is part of the process of getting older and slowly fading from the sport. I loved that myth (past-tense because I’m pretty sure people making that claim have realized by now how wrong they are) of Roger playing better tennis now than he ever has. Do you see how foolish that is? This is a comment made by someone completely out-of-touch with sports, the human body, common sense. Unreal ineptitude. The injury is more evidence of Roger not nearly the physical force he was. Ha. I practically dignified that idiotic myth.

For the record: statistics can be half-truths. In this case of Roger, for sure. He hits his BH better now than when he was 26 years-old. Therefore, . . . . . . . . .

Roger is a year from bowing-out. I have been calling his tennis the Roger fare-well tour for almost a year now. And this is NOT insightful. This should be what anyone familiar with his tennis, the sport, or sports and life in general understands. His success on the court recently has been incredible, but he’s fading away. The injury is ONLY proof of this. That’s it. Make sure you appreciate Roger while you can. Again, he is on his fare-well tour.

In effect, I have been saying that Roger and Nadal are over-the-hill for months now. The TSQ has insisted that Roger is better than ever and Nadal is coming back. People, wake-up. Again, this is a kind of lack of sports literacy that must be the culprit here. How is either playing like they were in their prime? Roger has fooled us because of his sustained relevancy and Nadal has a lot of people fooled because of his roller-coaster consistency and his multiple primes 😉

But, folks, these guys are at the end of the rope, which is why the Djokovic era since 2014 has been pretty much without either providing much of a resistance to the Serb’s ascendant form. This does not take anything away from Djokovic. But it is what it is.

Oh, as for my argument about Nadal’s form, despite the TSQ’s wet-dream of the Spaniard returning to form, at least on clay:

Semi-Final (02:50:36)

Rafael Nadal (wc) 4 6 6
Dominic Thiem (5) 6 4 7

#1 seed goes down on clay. Start to come-to-grips with this reality, tennis world. This is 2016. Some of you have not seen this coming, been in denial, haven’t the wherewithal to see the writing on the wall. That’s too bad.

In other words, Nole is all alone.

One of the most interesting parts of the game now is to see what players might be able to find the form and confidence to play into the top 20 or 10 in the next year.

We can continue this narrative throughout the year. I will say that some excitement is with the young German Zverev and the young American Fritz.

Nice to see Zverev beat Cilic in Montpellier in a tournament won by Gasquet. Cilic’s suspect form in 2014 (and his subsequent “injury”) is one of my pet peeves. Happy to see the 18 year-old beat the one-hit-wonder Croat.

This week the Rotterdam #2 seed Cilic lost to Kohlschreiber in the QF. Keep-on trucking, Marin.

Fritz, a wildcard, is into the Memphis SF. Nice little run for another 18 year-old. He beat fellow American Johnson, #2 seed, in a couple of TBs. mordor-castle-jpgWould love to see the youngster advance and take-on Nishikori in the Final.

We can see the future, barely.

I see Tomic, as the #1 seed, stunk the joint in Quito. The Aussies. . .

Just a couple of things that caught my eye. . .

10 thoughts on “Am I the Eye of Sauron?

  1. Nice series of posts Matt, trying to deflate the overblown GOAT balloon (no matter which name is on it) and remind us the actual Tennis Status Quo.

    Thiem is progressing as a tennis player, mainly on clay and slow surfaces (he made some progress in Australia this year, and I expect him to be a factor in Rolland-Garros) but I guess he isn’t ready to challenge the top players-his game doesn’t seem that complete, yet. His victory over Nadal is not a shocker after what transpired in the AO, I guess, but we’ll see how he fares in the clay Masters 1000 and in Miami where he’ll have to face one of Murray/Djokovic/Wawrinka. In other news: Too early to comment on Zverer/Fritz, Klizan won Rotterdam in a pretty unexpected way.

    Waiting for the next Masters 1000, can your readers hope for an article on how the tour learned to use Federer’s aggressiveness against him, and/or the methods the tour could use to counter Djokovic’s play? Just a couple of ideas based on one of your replies in the comments of the Aussie final thoughts…

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    • Taylor Fritz needs to face more competitive fields but he’s coming along very nicely. People have already pointed-out how he’s the first American teen to reach a final since, I think, Chang in ’89. His young tennis is going to be massively compared to other Americans when they were his (around his) age.

      At a glance, this kid has prodigious talent. He’s been smashing the junior field (although many juniors do that only to fail making the jump to ATP) and played well to get into the AO, lost to Jack Sock in 1R in five sets (actually bageled Sock in a set). He can play. And then the Memphis final and he was in that match, losing 4 and 4. He is pretty heady, mentally pretty tough. Showed that in the SF vs. Barankis and against Nishikori, holding serve at 3-5 to force Kei to serve out. Good stuff.

      He’s big, 6′ 4″, has a huge serve – can spank opponents at love which is a huge advantage. Needs to control his FH and has a steady two-handed BH.

      He just turned 18. In October. He was 17 at the USO. In contrast, Thiem is 22.

      But Fritz has to develop. I’m stoked for an American to make some noise. And he’s not alone. There’s a pack of them at the top of that class. But he has to develop, see some tougher fields, win some bigger matches.

      As for the Federer flaws, he was the hunted for years. Nothing more to say other than that he kept playing and winning so players had to figure-out how to beat him. As in any sport. In the NBA, teams are now devising styles to beat the Warriors, etc., etc.

      I think Nadal was build primarily to beat Fed. His defensive tennis is all about that. I watched some 2005-6 matches between them. Fed is trying to put the ball away on every shot. Every shot. Kill. Nadal is tracking it down. It’s unreal to watch. Not a good match-up for Fed.

      Djokovic is simply a product of this era. He needed the mental and physical to out-class those two.

      To beat Djok, you need a big game, need to out hit him. Big serve doesn’t hurt at all. I would love to see Djok defend prime Sampras. Djokovic would reach and return many of those serves, but Pete would be at the net, hitting it down his throat.

      Djokovic is probably a better all around player than Pete, but the point is a HUGE serve with back-up game will hurt Djok. Of course, I’m still amazed more players can’t do more against Nole’s serve. He has really put together a complete game. And there isn’t much out there to challenge. That’s pretty clear.

      But they’re coming. Always have, always will. Just ask any great player.

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      • I think you are right on these matters, as usual, Matt.

        I admit Fritz has potential and that there is a crop of American players coming. But to put things into perspective, I recall that some years ago the French were equally psyched up with Gasquet, Tsonga, Chardy etc. At his young age, one can only hope.

        It’s true that the Nadal game seems built against Federer’s (some say it was designed purposely that way from day one) and were it not for him, Federer would have ruled the Tour almost uncontested for 3+ years. Nadal can be regarded as the role-model to overcome Federer and there is not much to add there.

        But it’s Djokovic turn to be the hunted now: being N1 for a long time comes with a big cross-hair on your back. I agree he is a product of this era and he has the advantages/drawbacks this era carries. He has a slender and elastic body to increase mobility, covers most of the baseline at an excellent degree and deals with aggressive topspin shots fluently to complete a well-built all-around game.
        On the other hand I can see a few weaknesses which can be exploited, albeit not without considerable skill and effort: 1) He can be overpowered: Wawrinka has proved that and Berdych regularly brings the best out of him. Of course it’s a dangerous path to follow, not to mention that you have to dispose the physical qualities to do so… 2) He can be overstretched: as elastic as he may be, big angles and net play hurt him as he is moved away from his favorite baseline (Federer, Nishikori are the best examples on that). It goes without saying that the timing in these attacks is paramount to avoid being used against the aggressor. 3) He doesn’t like taking risks when attacking. I couldn’t quantify this before the Simon match (and your observations), but now it’s clear to me: give Djokovic dead balls (central slice/low topspin balls) that can’t be attacked easily and let him try to do something with them to frustrate him. In a era where topspin is prevalent, he is used to deal with high balls most of the time (two handed backhand helps on that front, too). E.g. Nadal’s high balls never troubled him but he doesn’t like Federer’s slice (a shot against which he usually defends). I believe this issue comes from the fact that although he is now labeled as an aggressive baseliner, his gameplay foundations are built on a defensive mindset. A very good serve is very helpful if not a prerequisite to be able to apply any of the above. Of course all these tactics are easier said than done, especially after he improved his own serve which gains him some valuable free points.

        The point of all these observations is that his elasticity has some downsides and the Tour should focus on them to overcome him.Therefore I guess it’s highly important to have a sensible plan against him. Trying to hit winner after winner from the baseline (=going for broke at every shot) doesn’t count as such;Nikishori paid the price of trying such a foolishness for two sets in AO’16; Federer fared a bit better but when the game came to crunch (4th set-1st game 0-30 Djokovic on serve) wasted three second serves going for outright winners and paid the price too.

        Feel free to add any remarks on my thoughts…

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  2. What was most surprising about the AO SF was Novak’s ability to attack. We were all surprised at how deep and hard he hit the ball, especially in that first set. In that case, the defensive approach wouldn’t work. He was teeing off on the ball better than we’ve seen. Looked like his Doha form, this “the best tennis ever played” kind of stuff. His depth is very troubling for players in general, but when he’s blasting base line shots at his opponent’s feet, shots that are virtually unreturnable, then you have to weather the storm and hope he cools off.

    However, a big serve will at least help. The Sampras serve, the very successful Federer serve, Karlovic. . . these kinds of weapons can hurt him. But if you’re hitting 2nd serves (Federer), you’re dead. Probably dead against anyone, but the best return in the game . . . dead. Have to serve well. Have to.

    Yeah the little contradictory note on Djokovic is a defensive/dead ball approach (Simon) seems to work against him, but so does the power game, the one that can control the point, make him defend, tire him out, hit him off the court (Wawrinka).

    The Wawrinka game is the one that most troubles Novak. And it starts with the serve. The irony: against the best returns in the game, your only hope is to beat him with a big serve. Forget about stats: who has beaten Nole in the last year? Essentially, Karlovic, Federer and Wawrinka. 2 of the 3 are huge ball strikers and Fed is Fed. There’s your recipe.

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    • Agree on that….With same reason of thoughts, on Next gen Players, Nick and Milos can overpower him to get win with their big server. Especially the way Milos played better on Net, but their problem lies on Consistency. Injury prone. Let see who else step up in coming months/years…

      Good to see Delpo back in circuit, though not sure about BH still……

      On historical note just out of curious, do you know who started to play Two handed Back Hand first? is that accepted as legal shot when it first played? Also did anyone played two handed forehand?

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      • Thanks, Nambi. Good points and yes I hope Delpo can get legitimate quick!

        As for the 2HBH. . . you have me interested. Probably started in Australia 🙂
        I have wanted to investigate the difference between 1 and 2 hands for a while.
        For me, tennis has a huge element of style. And the 1 hander is just more sophisticated though we know not as consistent.

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    • I agree with your observations regarding serve and ball striking, but I can’t underline enough the importance of the right game plan against Djokovic especially on a slow surface where serve won’t suffice. In fact I believe Djokovic should have been made to work harder to his way to his sixth AO, but his opponents strangely decided to play on his strengths instead of his weaknesses (in my eyes the current N1 played his best tennis -recent years only- during the 2015 Asian swing, not during AO 2016).

      Allow me explain myself: After the Simon marathon match Djokovic is expected to be a bit tired. So a sensible game plan for a well-rested baseliner should consist of creating rallies and using Djokovic’s slight impatience to end them relatively shortly (arising from his last long match which he will try to avoid repeating, consciously or subconsciously) to create opportunities to win the point. And there comes Nishikori whose backhand and forehand is as good as Novak’s (so he can trade blows with him without problem), whose weakness is the serve and whose strength is the way he creates/plays the angles. Does he try to use the serve to gain some positional advantage (not outright aces), be patient with the rallies to use the aforementioned tiredness and the angles Djokovic gives him to create the winners that way? No way; he goes into the match blasting every second shot to commit double the unforced errors of Djokovic to hand him the two first sets on a plate. When he decided to come to his senses (3rd set) it was a bit late; although he did some damage Novak had the clarity of mind and the calmness (being two sets up helps too 🙂 ) to exploit his opportunities and try his best (the only set he actually had to work to win) not to let him come back to the match.

      Then we have the Federer match. Federer’s team should know that: A) The topspin backhand is not fine-tuned; it misfired a lot in earlier rounds when under pressure, B) The serve&volley can work on this surface but mostly on 1rst serves since the slow court speed allows easier passing shots and makes drop-shots harder. C) Slice and forehand are working OK. A sensible game plan against Djokovic consists of: serve&volley in first serves when possible, defending his backhand mostly with slice (which troubles Djokovic in general), using topspin backhand in cross-court exchanges from time to time to change the pace or for clear winners down the line- forehand exchanges shouldn’t trouble Federer especially crosscourt. So what type of match should Federer seek? A slow/paceless one (helps a 34 old man to be able to recover easier after every point), technical one (since his shots can trouble Djokovic and has a wide variety to choose from) and avoiding at all costs unnecessary risks with the topspin backhand and these exchanges in general where Djokovic is superior-he can use a runaround forehand to attack Novak’s backhand after a slice, if needed. Instead we get a hard-core serve and volley game with many high-risk net approaches, and plenty of topspin backhands (he never won even 1 of CC exchanges). The result: 24 unforced errors from the backhand (20 topspin, 1 slice DTL the 3 left:a risky approach, a daring volley&a drop shot), of which 90% of topspins would’t even be winners, had they cleared the net (interestingly same error % applies for BH serve returns). Needless to say many of the topspin backhands (especially DTL) that cleared the net were too short and became easy targets. Yes, Djokovic level played it’s part in the first two sets, but after watching the game again to deduct some patterns, I couldn’t help noticing the same tactics appearing – and the lack of the basic stalling strategy from Federer when his opponent was playing very well. And yes, topspin backhand worked a bit better in the third set but then the use of slice was prevalent. Is this a new plan I came up with for Federer? Of course not, he has used it hundreds of times in the past to push an opponent back with CC slice and then finish him off DTL (RG 2011 SF for one – a plan repeated by Wawrinka in RG 2015 F albeit with topspin CC BH) and his slice is his best shot from the backhand side for sure, as long as I recall. I can justify the overuse of S&V to reduce rallies but the percentage of topspin central/CC backhands (which are also more energy demanding than backspin) used, in a well-known lost match-up, was mindless at least.

      The plans exposed above have a added advantage: they let the world N1 carry the burden of hitting winners from uncomfortable positions, shifting the psychological burden to him. I’ll bother to comment on Murray’s match after he decides to use his variety, his strengths (power, aggressive slice), a different game plan instead of repeating a failed one and starts believing he can overcome Novak. At the moment he seems satisfied being N2. After all, were it not for the foot injury, Raonic should have won their semifinal. Personally I’d rather have seen a Raonic-Djokovic final: Raonic for one followed a simple (not easy) but clear game plan, and had the weapons to back it up.
      Does all this mean Djokovic is an unworthy/lucky winner? Nothing is further from truth than that: I believe that most probably he would have won the tournament either way; his game is very solid and the AO surface suits him to a T. But the Tour should understand what it has to do to have a chance against him or else his dominion will become a bit monotonous…

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      • Blackspy, I agree with you. I watched about 10 minutes of Nishikori/Djokovic thinking Nole might struggle a bit, Simon fresh on everyone’s mind in terms of strategy, etc. Nishikori’s strategy could not have been more absurd and failed. He looked like a miniature Federer, trying to vaporize each shot. Calm down, you guys! Just hit with Novak.

        Like I said though, from the start of the SF with Fed, Djokovic was very aggressive. I almost guarantee that Becker et al said to DJokovic you better be aggressive early, send the message that the Simon strategy will not work. Djokovic was hitting the crap out of the ball. I had a little trouble believing Djokovic’s form. Seemed juiced he was hitting so deep/flat/unreturnable.

        But again I agree on the slower surface you have to make those defensive types take more chances. Djokovic can sit there and defend his ass off, ala Nadal, and create pace from his opponent’s aggressive play.

        Your shot analysis seems pretty right on. More backspin, S&V first serve, limit BH CC, etc. But Fed is Fed. I would love to have his ear. Maybe he is incapable of playing more conservatively, but if he could, I can’t see why he wouldn’t be able to encourage his opponent to make several errors.

        Focus on depth of shot. Use the angles but not so aggressively. Make your opponent take risks. Hit with them all day. Be patient.

        Think about Djokovic’s foundation: defensive and deep. Not only is it near impossible to penetrate, but the ball is coming back to your feet. It’s not aggressive, per se – it’s defensive and deep. Talk about frustrating the shit out of your opponent.

        He’s driving the tour mad.

        He’s lucky he hasn’t had a Delpo around to add to his honesty.

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  3. Maybe Raonic could have substituted Del Potro in this final in gameplay style. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.

    Your observation about Djokovic’s camp got me thinking: if you are right about Becker’s advice, then all the more reason to think we have marked his strategical soft spot, and it was just another cover-up mental strategy (he excels in mental games). Replying to deep balls with slice is not a defensive action per se: it’s a method to slowly gain a positional advantage by forcing a shallow ball or a continuous risky game. And I guarantee that Djokovic doesn’t have the game/mindset to win matches consistently playing aggressively-he did so to dupe Federer for a while then reverted to his normal tennis. Yes, Djokovic played very deep in critical points in the first two sets but, after watching the match again, I insist it was Federer’s unforced errors/untimely aggression which condemned him.

    I also retained a couple of elements I liked from a coach’s analysis I recently read: Djokovic strengths are mostly physical and mental; his shots don’t do most of the damage-his mind state/presence in crucial moments (a remarkable ability) and defence in anticipated attacks do. After all he isn’t known for his penetrating shots but for his solid tactics in clutch moments, pace control and “ball-stopping” shots (=attack blocking) qualities. The analysis concluded mentioning that Djokovic is a great player who, compared to Federer, can do less with the racket but maybe more things without it; a true statement in my view.

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    • We are on the same page. Djokovic is a brilliant tennis player, but he’s primarily defensive. We have to give him and his camp credit for their strategy. It caught Roger as off guard as it caught people like us. Roger plays Djokovic pretty straight-up, it’s usually pretty competitive, but that was a wild card played by the camp. And as you point out, Djokovic could not maintain this level of aggression.
      You might say that’s another benefit to his game: he knows when to take his foot off the gas, play more to his defensive form.

      His ball-stopping is exactly what we’ve been talking about. When you play aggressively vs. Djokovic, you run the risk of getting embarrassed because he feeds on that pace. Nadal was immensely successful with this. I’m really surprised Fed hasn’t done more of this, which would be described as a more conservative approach. The Simon match was all the research one needs to see that Djokovic had trouble with that softer game.

      Having said all of that, the rule now is you probably have to play a perfect match against Djokovic and include a lot of power ala big 1st serve %, and mixing-up the slice with some good old fashion beat down (CC put aways, DTL winners etc). Stan’s FO win is that model. And if Roger serves really well against Djokovic, he can be much more competitive. When Roger beat Nole in WTF round-robin play, “Federer won 75 per cent (27 of 36) of his first-serve points, and converted four of eight break-point opportunities” (ATP.com).

      This year will be a great watch. The best Roger can hope for (if you ask me 😉 is a good showing on grass. Maybe he has his legs for USO, but who knows and you have to throw in the OG.

      Djokovic is in such a great spot. Winning the FO would be out-of-this-world for his career arch. I think Becker has a great game-plan for WB, so he’ll always be tough there. Pretty interesting.

      And the stuff we’re talking about is probably not in any Djokovic opponent strategies. Ivan needs think outside the box for Federer’s sake.
      Like you and that analysis said: Nole is doing more with his brain than anyone else, not to mention what he’s doing with his racquet.

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