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.

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