The End of Another Glorious Clay Season

French Open - Roland Garros

I’m pretty nostalgic, which means I love to think about people, the history, the emotions, the possibilities in light of the realities. The best part of this blog remains the inseparable opportunities to reach people like you and try to weave together all of that jazz in terms of tennis (the people, the history, etc.).

Bias is rampant in the writing and commentary (not to mention the social media swamp) of this sport and though I try to fashion some objectivity in my commentary and analysis, you and I know that bias is as inherent as sweat. Whether I make a mess of things with my “sweat” depends on your particular bias, I suppose.

This was a glorious clay season because we got to see more of Nadal’s reign (sure I’m being clever with my use of the term). But I’m serious about my appreciation of the Spanish clay king. As it ends so inevitably, really anticlimactically, and you take a few minutes, hours or days to calculate his achievements, the nostalgia for me ruins my outfit (as if I’m out in the reign, or my nostalgia sweat forces me to change clothes, take a shower, so to speak — are you following all of this metaphor? I’m not).

Federer begins his play in Stuttgart in a couple of days; this Fedal tour continues, these elder statesman virtually carrying at least most of the business-end of these tournaments (although we’ll see if Roger can improve upon last year’s Stuttgart showing — losing in R1 to Tommy Haas; in fact, he’s never won this event).

I have been very critical of the clay narrative over the last few months, there being so little to discuss other than Rafa’s continued dominance (sure a little Novak here, Zverev, Thiem with a dash of Diego).

I guess as it all came to an end today (with grandpa Fed set to go tomorrow), I’m softening a bit and filling with a bit of gratitude and appreciation that we get to see these greats compete still at such a high level (we’ll wait and see how Fed looks, of course).

My criticism of clay and Nadal will continue (I’m always going to riddle any bias I have with as much sound evidence as I can muster), stay tuned; but right now I’m in a bit of a bath of nostalgia and acknowledgement, even thankfulness.

No one can deny this man’s results.

You sensed this appreciation toward the end of that last post. Rafa’s competitive intensity — his hunger and desire — is second to none. We’ve known this since probably 2008, but even earlier. His style is certainly how I, personally, see “the field” and actually played during my days of soccer (and other sports), in high school, college and beyond. The scoreboard is all that matters (and beating your guy, perhaps even putting a little mental and physical hurt on the lad never “hurts”). Not everyone sees sport in this way. I did and that’s certainly something I can appreciate in Rafa.

Rafa turned 32 during the fortnight of Roland Garros. We know this is no longer “old.”

More commentary has been emerging regarding the rest of the ATP, the next generation, their preparation, their coaching. You heard me throw some scorn at Bresnik today. Safin has commented a few times on how everyone plays the same these days, so Federer and Nadal will continue to win (I’m paraphrasing).

If you’re reading between the lines in this post, you might accuse me of turning my glare away from Rafa and toward the field. I would say, good read, but that’s not the case. As I like to say, both things can be true: we need to talk about the futility of the field and Rafa is, once again, head-and-shoulders above, which continues to impress.

I’m certainly with those criticizing the coaching profession. How about Thiem between points today — and he is not alone AT ALL on this: pouting, shaking his head, letting Rafa and everyone who’s watching know that he has no answer, that Rafa is just too good, wow, let’s call it a day and let me get his autograph.

That’s coaching. Bresnik has been “parenting” Thiem since the guy was nine years old. I don’t care who he’s coached. That’s slop. Domi has mileage and success to build-upon. Keep some of that to yourself. Channel the energy. Get a new coach.

I just read a little re-cap of Toni’s coaching tenure with Rafa, rehashing much of what we’ve known about that relationship (I wish I could find it now. . .). The biggest point was the “old school” approach that Toni took. He talked of the importance of respect for one’s opponent (I’d say to a point, given what I know about Rafa’s style and results) and, of course, the work ethic.

In different accounts people have discussed the way Rafa practices. He practices how he plays a match. That means he practices his intensity. Do you know how logical that is and almost certainly how foreign that is to other, especially younger, players? The intensity, they’ll say, they save for the match. You and I both know how flawed that sounds. Rafa, I’m afraid, is pretty unique in this regard. He puts in the work, in a very old school way.
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The RG final

We know the patterns of a Rafa match, especially on clay, but he’s pretty much in the same mindset where ever he is, racket in-hand.

In this tournament, the SF and F are great parallels here of Rafa’s strong mental approach, and conversely, the theoretical weakness of his opponent (and sure there might be a bit of coincidence with these first two set examples, but is there?).

You would think that most players are taught these things (if they even need to be taught these things once they know how to “play the game”).

We should be on our guard always, playing absolutely 100% effort on every point. But this is not the case, obviously. So let’s fancy a few more obvious times in a match when one should be “all in.” The point here with our two examples from the SF and F are that Juan Martin and Thiem succumbed like perfectly trained prey.

  • Opening game of a set — this sets the tone. A break can be huge, or the hold is important to create that pressure on the opponent’s serve.
  • The score in a game will dictate importance, if one doesn’t have that 100% intensity, 100% of the time. You see an opportunity on your ROS, 30-0 let’s say, to create some BPs. Maybe you need to bring a heavier, more critical serve looking at 0-30? This is obvious, I know.
  • The “boomerang break.” Nadal and Djokovic have enhanced their careers from this sort of exchange. Their opponents get BP chances, are really close to a break, there’s a bit of back-and-forth at deuce GP/BP, but Rafa/Novak hold. Those two monsters are breaking you in the next game, like clockwork. And think of the effect this has. You almost broke them, come-up short, and then get broken — that can be game/set/match depending on the players, the match, etc. Be aware of this dynamic, this development!
  • Tie-breakers have all kinds of chess moves and critical points (to be clear, I know every point is critical, but not all players seem to have that Rafa do-or-die mentality on every point).
  • the 4-4 game and 5-4 games, any of those business-end of the set moments, are huge. Here’s where both del Potro and Thiem essentially gave Nadal the match victory in those first sets. I’m not going to go back and see the scoreline of del Potro’s dropped serve at 4-5, but it was similar to today’s first set: Nadal breaks him at love. Rafa is coming hard here, gents. He’s 5-4, returning serve, looking to end your life because everyone knows, and if you’re playing him YOU BETTER KNOW, that this one service game, at 4-5, on clay at Roland Garros, is your life on the line. Broken at love. It’s sad, really.
  • For shits and giggles, AFTER A RAIN DELAY be on your guard, as well.
  • But in all seriousness, these and many other various points in a match are absolute game, set and match changers. Some players just seem to succumb so easily.
  • No, I’m not taking anything away from Rafa.

Folks, I know this is a little corny and obvious, but it’s too typical to see these mental wins and losses go down on these kinds of points, at these particular points in a match. Serving 4-5 and really showing his mettle in this huge opening set, Thiem misses that pretty straight-forward BH volley and goes 0-15; and that probably started the land-slide right there. Suddenly it’s 0-30, oh shit I’m going to lose this set, and how did I miss that volley, to 0-40, to IT’S OVER: the match, the final. Yikes.

Rafa wins #11 on that one fucking game, in the first set. You and I know that’s not an exaggeration.

This is all part of Thiem’s (and others’) preparation. How does Thiem not have a better net game, or drop shot? How does he not have more variety? Why is his serve such a piece of crap in the final at Roland Garros? He’s just having a bad day?

John McEnroe pointed-out one of Thiem’s first serves was 140mph (225 kph). He couldn’t buy a first serve in the first set. Is this a tank job, a joke. The second set saw better variety from the Austrian and his serve improved, probably because he took a little off. Hey, there’s some strategy.

In the first set, Thiem’s landed only 45% of his first serves; he won only 57% of those FS. He won only 43% of his second serve points. That’s terrible.

On those same numbers in the second set, Thiem went 78%, 68% and 50%. He was better with winners and UE, as well. He lost the first set on that God-forsaken break at 4-5, but the second set was much better even though he fell-behind early.

Another one we can add to our list above (the keep your guard list): you get broken at 4-5, lose the set, so your opponent opens the next set and holds easily since you’re still reeling; and then, because you’re still reeling, you get broken again, so you’re now, in effect, down two sets to nil and you haven’t even really had a sip of water. Disaster.

Who’s coaching these clay games? Rafa is the king of the mountain. Are you playing for second place? If so, you’re done; become a sales rep or a coach (actually, don’t become a coach).

Are you trying to win? Then you have to include some S&V, some good, strategic drop, a good slice, a good service game, etc. Sure you need to have a well-rounded game, but with Rafa back so far and knowing his attack mode, especially when you’re vulnerable, wake-up. Rafa is a human being. I just think players are not really prepared.

And because of that (I’m sure you’ve seen this):

The point of much of this, folks, is the mentality of the game, here on clay in particular, against Rafa. His physical prowess is historical; I’ve often said without clay he might have preferred a career on the soccer pitch like his other famous uncle. He’s an intimidating physical presence, with that retrieving ability still all-time and the shots from both wings (yes his BH is much improved this year) devastating, he has the ability to finish on almost any shot.

He comes to net, as well, has brilliant net presence. I joked throughout the tournament in some of my posts about how he played guys who dropped too far back; he would employ those strategies that should have been employed on him. What are these players afraid of?

Thiem playing pretty much a one-dimensional game of taking as big a cut as he can is uncomfortable to watch and probably only really intimidating and effective in Bo3. He expends too much energy, he’s not playing enough thoughtful point construction, and the giant artillery can be pretty risky, prone to error. Sure when he’s on, he’s brilliant. But he needs to develop, mature, get better coaching.

Of all the youngers, Sascha seems the most committed to really learning and studying the game and his game.

But Rafa has that superb mental game to go with this physical tennis. Mental.

He’s grinding you and haunting you, so you’re pretty much in no-man’s land with Rafa on la terre battue.

Here’s another tweet, this from the stat man O’Shannessy. Look at the percentages on shots per point. The Austrian is best if he’s able to finish you early since he’s swinging for the fences on just about every shot. But if his opponent can survive and extend the point, Domi is a dead man. Sure the trend is similar for Nadal, but he’s a better defensive player, too, who can keep points alive and get the exchange to that “deep end” where Thiem doesn’t really “stay afloat.” More thoughtful point construction, Domi!

Hopefully the 24 year-old can work on these parts of his game. And keep your head-up, Domi! I thought that mention of the energy that he expends BETWEEN points was quite insightful. The Bo5 is a beast, especially against that beast. Move on to the next point.

You have work to do.

As do I.

Stay-tuned. Mcshow’s coverage gets no break — we’re onto the grass!

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Cheers and thanks for reading.

13 thoughts on “The End of Another Glorious Clay Season

  1. PRF - Władysław Janowski

    “More thoughtful point construction”. Well, I’m sometimes thinking the same. But then I recall everything I know about Thiem and I must stop. Thiem’s game relies on fire. Like you told – on every shot. Thiem cannot be a good defensive player. If he ever defeats Rafa in Paris (special place, were Rafa can defend better than anywhere), it comes not because he just learned to have more patience but because he was able to produce more fire. Rafa has never lost a final on Roland Garros. Since 2006 only Federer and Djokovic were able to take him a set. Sure, Thiem has deficits and lots to learn in the years to come. Again some players Thiem needs to extend rallies and he can do it. Not by playing with less aggression, but by taking off 1% off his fire power. Only few can withstand this fire power for a longer rally. But Rafa can. At least in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Paris. Bud luck for Thiem, the clay slam is played just on the slowest clay court worldwide. But the only way to the RG crown for him is not to be more patient. It’s rather to be even more aggressive than he was in Rome and Madrid, while defeating Rafa. Thiem can hardly play soft games at the net. This is something to learn. But not to use against Rafa.
    Back to Paris 2018. You mean, second set was better for Thiem (better percentages). But Thiem can win matches also with bad stats. Rafa must have good stats or he loses. That’s the difference. You cannot have everything. Neither Thiem can. By playing with less fire and more patience he would lose the edge of his game. I don’t know, if/when he defeats Rafa in Paris. There are so many factors deciding about who reaches and then wins the final of a slam. If this is possible, next time Thiem reaches RG final and the opponent is top-form Rafa, Thiem needs to be more aggressive, not less. Of course to hit more aces or land more first serves would be benefit, allowing him to avoid self-breaks, because to rebreak against Rafa is then mission impossible, at least in Paris.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I follow your point here. In the end, this just seems too immature for Thiem. What happens when Thiem can’t play with that kind of aggression on every point? That’s not sustainable tennis. Where your point does have truth with Rafa can be seen where maybe in a year or two, where Rafa is truly showing his demise, Thiem’s firepower works against him; Nadal can’t play with that kind of aggression and form.

      But Thiem should, for the sake of every other scenario including a long and successful career, develop more variety. He’s too predictable, too dependent on that one specific, limited, style.

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      1. PRF - Władysław Janowski

        Well, I have doubts too, if this kind of tennis is sustainable. You probably didn’t read Bresnik’s book? Thiem is made of passion and hard work, not of big talent or inborn physicality. Bresnik called it “Success against every rule”. Thiem was/is late bloomer, always biologically 3-4 years behind his age-mates.
        Of course I agree, Thiem must add more versatility and observing him over years I see, he is doing this. What he maybe misses the most is a soft touch like Federer’s or Nadal’s. But maybe Thiem is not able to reach such perfect mix.
        Well, everytime I see, Thiem could end point with an easy dropshot or fake shot, he still goes for everything and hits a heavy topspin drive, sometimes landing out.
        Maybe Bresnik has a new vision of “mature” Thiem and we will see him changing in this direction in next years. It’s also possible, Thiem will behave his current style and not be able to win many big titles. I would ask Bresnik, but he is not very media-friendly and we must respect this. Bresnik would make a No. 1 and slam candidate a lot easier with Gulbis, but Gulbis was too lazy and missed Thiem’s passion. That’s life. If you have everything for top tennis, then you are Federer, Nadal or Djokovic 🙂
        I have written lots of articles on my blog about Thiem’s deficits and I’m trying to find the way to make an interview with Bresnik about this. So far without success 😦 Will let you know, should this ever happen 🙂

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      2. Great to hear about your interest in Thiem/Bresnik and your writing. I’ll take a look, translated, of course.

        I hear you on the talent part. But tough to watch Thiem and not see that he he has a lot of talent. Players do evolve. Federer and Nadal have — Federer you remember was too emotional and then became the iceman.

        Anyways, thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you continue to contribute.

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      3. PRF - Władysław Janowski

        Don’t know, if you would be interested, but the English version of Bresnik’s book is being prepared, maybe will be ready for US Open.
        And let me drop a word about Thiem’s predictability. Yes, he is predictable. But so long he can execute well his shots, this predictability is not a big problem for Thiem. Imagine, you play tennis yourself and you can predict, your opponent serves 240 kmh all the time to the middle. Can you return such a predictable serve ? 😉

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  2. PRF - Władysław Janowski

    Sorry, my English is far from perfect (I’m Pole and my main second language is German, but there is enough material about Thiem in German, so I decided to maintain my blog just in English.
    Best
    PRF

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      1. PRF - Władysław Janowski

        I just realized I have missed one your point, which needs some attention. You say (and there are many to say the same), Thiem would need to change the coach. Take like many do rather a former high-ranked pro player. Well, IMO, he would need to wait for Roger or Rafa to be ready for the job 😉 And Thiem’s a bit one-dimensional tennis is not just Bresnik’s beloved concept. Bresnik would never do the same with other players, like Gulbis. Thiem needs a touring coach (not a decoration for player’s box, like Lendl or Becker) and Galo Blanco seems to be the right man. Still Bresnik knows so much about Thiem, nobody could teach Thiem so fast. And Bresniks is flexible. He adds to Dominic’s variety something every year. Everything new you can see in Thiem, comes just from Bresnik. More and better volleying since 1-2 years. More dropshots. Better serve. But like everything, you see Thiem playing those new things first when they were perfected in training. This is why Thiem’s evolution may look slow. But he is still progressing.
        And I don’t agree about Zverev. Zverev has more inborn talent and physical arguments than almost every other young gun. But I can hardly see him evolving. If he is, it’s rather direction del Potro or Raonic. But still too young for such effort. Zverer is highly overrated and will have to accept dropping in the ranking (like Kyrgios earlier) and then have emotional power to start to climb once more, but on better foundation. Zverev is made for hype. But big things don’t come every day. Fed’s advice for him – be patient. But he is not and the pressure from his team is terrific (have heard Ferrero telling this).
        Well, tennis is so multidimensional, one could discuss about it day and night 😉

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      2. I have said a few times that Zverev’s height will probably undo him — he’s a bit flat footed, as well.

        Your comparisons are good — Del Potro is best case scenario for the over 6’5″.

        Zverev could do a bit more damage because of his surface versatility and his desire. He just hired Lendl I here. Nice insight on his box, Wladyslaw.

        His success might also be an effect of the weakness of the tour. We could have quite the parity on tour once this era ends. . . in 5 years. 🙂

        I could talk tennis all day, as well, by the way.

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      3. PRF - Władysław Janowski

        Well, Zverev has maybe a bigger ego than Fed+Rafa+Djoker+….. 😉 He would hire the devil if this could help him to win everything. Who comes next after Lendl? Sampras? McEnroe? Becker? Borg? Or all at the same time? The tons of gold he is wearing on court tells a lot about him. He takes every piece of gold, deserved or nor and pumps a fist. And he has a lot of luck. Winning Rogers Cup by defeating hurt Federer. Winning Madrid over emotionally exhausted Thiem. And so on. But where is his success over 5 sets? I think, he will never get it. Or he has even more luck than I can imagine 😉 Still he is a very nice guy and has nice charisma on court. Many will love him. Just because of this and his big wins. Not because of his game – it’s boring.

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      4. PRF - Władysław Janowski

        I’m still trying to find out, what Thiem misses to not be an “under-performer” (you can find an article about Thiem’s under-performing”) on my blog.
        But right now I rethought your conclusion about “designing new winning formula”.
        This is maybe the real point – his biggest “deficit” in terms of achievements.
        I’m sure, Bresnik is aware of this deficit and working on it. Not easy, because Dominic’s nature is too emphatic. He does not close the match, while leading 2:0 and loses in USO to Delpo only because of thinking “Ah, he will retire soon – not a good idea to beat hardly a hurt man”. According to Bresnik Thiem was always really sorry for losing opponents. More than for himself, when he loses.
        It would be not so difficult to find a better winning formula, but what you would need to change would not be Bresnik, but Thiem himself. And I think, Thiem would not accept such a change. He loves the game more than titles. That’s why he play too much. That’s why he cannot win, when not being in top form. I bet, he thinks then – well, I’m not playing well, I don’t deserve the win. Instead of thinking – well, I’m not in top form, so what I can do to win? Apply your “another winning formula”. But there’s no place in his spirit and mind for such a formula. How to win not playing his best. What do you think?

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  3. PRF - Władysław Janowski

    Of course has Dominic lots of talent. But before Bresnik started to coach him (changing everything, including switching from double- to single-handed backhand), he had a talent for his age but would never get a top player without the terrific work they all have done. Bresnik did not find in Dominic more talent than in many others, but an unique love and passion for tennis and both willingness and ability to learn. I’m sure, he will evolve a lot. He was never a rocket starter. Did not upset big guys or reached the very top early like Zverev. But his progression curve is still going high.
    BTW – I have translated myself parts of Bresnik’s book into English and they are available on my blog here http://prf-mypassions-tennisandmore.com/dominic-thiem-method-all-parts/, if you don’t want to wait for the official English version to be published.

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  4. Pingback: Dear, ATP Younger . . . – Mcshow Blog

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