Sorry for the delay, my friends.
You know at what season we’ve arrived, what these warmer months entail; friends and family distract unaware of the tennis genius the summer grass attracts, with the history and prestige of these European lawns, green though grooved with the wear and tear of the game’s gentler player, more skilled in the game’s finer truths.
You get my drift.
Indeed the tennis has been quite good. Watching these gents navigate the grass reminds me of my own attempts at finding time to blog in and amongst the various seasonal distractions. I am off to the mountains in a week, but not before I have some comments on Eastbourne’s play and, hopefully, if the information is available, the Wimbledon draw.
Roger Federer’s ninth Halle title is on a lot of people’s minds. I sure hope I can keep this short and sweet, which will enable me to finally get this off, and provide me with a few follow-up thoughts this week as we approach The Championships and all that is on-the-line this year at the oldest and probably most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.
Federer was indeed masterful vs. Zverev and by “masterful” we will assume I am talking about his physical mastery of the sport. However, I am even more impressed with Federer’s mental approach (we’ll call it) than with some of his tennis of this 2017 version of the Maestro, which many are going to say showed-up in the Halle final last Sunday. He did strike the ball more consistently, with equal parts depth and touch, was perhaps even more balletic than he’d been and showed everyone, again, how much skill and variety defines (or possesses) his tennis.
The way he’s mixing-up the points, moving his opponent at will, finding the baseline, the FH looking ever-so malignant, what’s not to like about where he is going at this point?
But just as much as his game mastery was a grass court master class, that final seemed quite similar to a Rafa-like beat-down. The poor kid didn’t have a chance. To be honest, I’m not even sure he had his best tennis on Sunday, and I’m speaking of Sascha. Then again I will agree with the throng of you who will say that Federer forced Zverev into those mistakes, that nervous almost scared form that left the Halle final an anti-climactic mugging. Federer’s brilliance overcame the German. Tough to refute such a claim. But I think the mental approach Roger took was just as damaging as was his tennis. They go hand-in-hand, right?
I have argued all of this on Roger’s behalf before. In the 2015 USO vs. Djokovic, we all pretty much knew what was going to happen before they began that match. So on the eve of the match, after my preview and all that jazz, I wrote Federer a little pep-talk only to encourage a more unpredictable outcome, to give Federer a push toward a more clutch, professionally polished execution that might try to close some of those doors, maintain a little more leverage during those heated negotiations. This is what I wrote. Here’s an excerpt:
Novak will probably have the edge in attitude and this aspect of this match will go a long way in determining the champion. The images I posted in my previous post, for me, speak volumes. Everything’s come pretty easy to Roger. He’s (in)famous for his relaxed (classy) style. When that has translated to victories, this style has helped build the brand, that strong character argument that people use to worship his greatness. However, those of us who really care and watch closely, we see this attitude or style as a potentially huge hinderance for Roger. Some call it arrogance and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
At  Wimbledon, Roger seemed to have this swagger in buckets. I noticed it as the two made their way to the court. Of course, Roger’s Wimbledon credentials are historic. But that was then, this is now. Get in the moment, Roger. And when he made a u-turn in the first set (failing to consolidate that break), he crumbled. The buckets of confidence and nonchalance brought this failed attitude to the ground and below. Though we might see Roger as having a great poker face, a steadiness in his emotions during a match, this was not the case at Wimbledon and hasn’t been the case often for the Swiss in these big matches. That’s his style.
This more execution-style (apply both definitions — carrying-out a plan and putting someone to death) seems inherent to the 2017 Federer, as much a part of this run as the BH, for instance. I will continue to study this, but this mental strength is a HUGE factor in this story, a story that has absolutely bedazzled everyone’s tennis imagination, forever.
I attribute so much of this kind of professionalism to Ivan the Terrible, which probably doesn’t make much sense, but it does. The way Federer ran through Melbourne, pulling-off that stunner down a break in the fifth to his nemesis was a plot twist most weren’t quite anticipating, especially in the fifth when things looked pretty grim. He consolidated this new direction in IW and Miami, marching right through the field and Nadal in the process. Sure, the two parts of this 2017 version are inseparable; sure, we need a more holistic view that considers the parts more complimentary, connected, etc. But Federer’s ability to keep his foot on the gas has been a remarkable change that I can’t overlook, or merely attribute this to his “form” or “confidence.” The difference between 2015 and 2017 Federer (other than age) is a more consistent return and BH and this mental capacity to finish.
What I saw vs Zverev last Sunday was a guy with a specific plan against the German who’d beaten him in Halle last year (SF), who has WB on the horizon and the historians fiendishly flipping the pages of these record books as Fedal continues to almost demoralize the field.
The slight nervous energy of the Mischa Zverev match, turned to an urgency vs Mayer in the QF. He maintained and finished a tough, close match vs. the Russian teenager, Khachanov. This urgency, with the footsteps of confidence growing a little bit louder, evolved into a professionalism (assassin-like) in the final. That evolution, itself, was interesting to watch.
To be clear, the tennis, for me, was almost secondary to this attitude of breaking his opponent as much with a fanatical focus as with an improved BH return of serve.
He was 2/12 in BP vs. Mayer. Through the first three games of the first set of the final, he was 2/3. Remember that aforementioned 2015 USO final and Federer’s BP conversion %? It was in the neighborhood of 3/19. The tennis at this level is almost SECONDARY to a ballsy return game early in a big match that breaks serve and tells your opponent “this is going to be a nightmare for you, pal.”
Speaking of nightmares, Federer’s serve does continue to really give him an edge over almost anyone. That Stuttgart loss I criticized? He had 29 aces in that match. And MP. And he lost. So, it’s not the weapon alone, people (serve, BH, etc.). He has to “finish” these points, games, sets and so on.
The more I think about it, the more it’s true, I’m afraid: at this level, the mental game, the ability to rise in those heavier, more meaningful moments will define the match.
That’s what Federer showed me more than anything in the final. He was cleaner. He executed his game plan (which he prepared with his coach) and he executed Zverev the younger, smashingly. The camera work is quite good, going from Federer to Ljubičić throughout. The Croatian is a steadying force, if you ask me.
Both finals last Sunday were won by a . . . (no, I’m not going to say “35 year-old”) one-handed BH. The grass is just a more interesting game (though I am pretty partial to HC, too) that requires players to use more game. The serve is a factor, the entire court comes into play, foot work, touch, the slice, etc.
Really, tennis-wise, the Queen’s Club final was more interesting, other than it’s tough to be more interesting than a Federer run on grass at 35. But Cilic and Lopez put-on quite a show. I always enjoy watching Lopez, the Spanish outlier, a guy whose game is so measured, deliberate and full of S&V class. How does anyone not root for this guy. With Cilic surging these last two weeks, then going up a set here in the final to the other 35 year-old, most probably wrote-off Feli. But the way he digs-in, plays each point with both guts and grace, on Sunday he completed his task of winning what has been one of his most treasured tournaments, especially after failing in 2014 to Dimitrov where the big lefty held a MP.
For Cilic, this has to burn. I have been writing about his form for a few weeks now. He even looked decent in RG where he made the QF. On grass, his first strike tennis has been very effective. His serve is intimidating and he knows his way around the grass pretty well. What we saw, however, is a clear issue with this FH and probably his confidence, in general. He has some bad spells out there, where his timing and pop on that shot seem to go away.
I was thinking his placement in the draw would be a huge factor at WB (what top seed gets to deal with him in a QF). I still think this revelation will be pretty interesting as the Croat has to feel close to form, he’s played well at SW19 in the past, and his coach Jonas Bjorkman is a WB grass aficionado (SF in singles ’06 and three doubles titles ’02-04).
One theme we often see develop on grass is the presence of a big serve. Cilic shouldn’t hang is head that much as he has weapons to make a deep run at the next major in about a week’s time.
Lopez’s serve will certainly make him relevant, as will this weapon play a big role in the Federer and Zverev WB campaigns.
The grass does this: polishes the game and champions the players “more skilled in the game’s finer truths.”
Some see another developing theme in signs of the sport’s ageism: the older one gets, the better he becomes. Tough to argue with some of the numbers, but I will add that many of those players that we see succeed late in their careers, who persevere, remain relevant, etc., often carry a big serve (Karlovic, Muller, Federer, Lopez, et al). As a matter of fact, those four fine gentlemen have quite a game of grass in their tennis bag to boot (are there 33 year-old baseline grinders out there reaching tournament finals, grand slam quarters and semis?).
So, Federer, serve in tow, appears to be finding that earlier 2017 form and confidence (the brutality of the BH still has room to grow, however). He himself was a little concerned earlier in the week: “I was doubting myself a little bit, I must admit, because losing [in the opening] round for the first time in 15 years on grass was always going to shake me a little bit and it did. So I’m happy to react right away and let that be forgotten and actually move on and remind myself I actually can play well on grass,” Federer said. “It’s a boost for me personally, with my confidence, knowing that my body is in good shape. Mentally, I’m fresh again and I’ve gotten used to match play” (ATP).
That was all I was talking about after Stuttgart. He needs matches.
Watching him evolve here through some tough matches (Mischa, Mayer, Khachanov) and then reach another level in the final has to be good news for the no. 3 seed at WB.
He appears to have a growing cargo of confidence as he pulls anchor and sets sail for London. So long, Halle (und die neun). Could Federer’s boat (das boot) have particular orders as Britain appears on the horizon?
Is London falling?