Tennis

Follow-up to My “Novak is Doomed” Article

Did any of you think that I was saying in that article a few days ago that Novak would never win another major? That THAT was the end of Novak in Flushing Meadows at the hands of Stan the Man?

Well, that’s not exactly what I meant.

i really wanted to underscore how big of a loss that was for the Serb in his quest for all-time greatness. IMHO, he really needed that USO (for his count and his USO clout, which I also expounded upon).

Here’s where we are. . . (and we do have a lot of tennis history to refer to more or less as we make these inferences while taking into consideration that certain trends are being up-ended, certain spells broken, i.e., history being re-written by the very likes of guys like Stan Wawrinka, 31 years of age, from whom Novak received his latest USO beating). . .

Novak is essentially 30 years old; he turns 30 at the 2017 French Open.

On the one hand, 30 is a very symbolic age in the life a male professional tennis player. This we know as a quasi-tennis truth. If you have kids or turn 30, sayonara. That’s just what happens. The youth of the sport is coming for you, you’re maturing, having babies, celebrating big milestone birthdays (30), and the hangover is just too much (from the babies too, mind you) to maintain that highest level of tennis you had when you were collecting major trophies.

But we also know that tennis players with their 21st century nutrition and equipment have and will become exceptions to these trends.

Still, here is the age of some of the recent greats when they won their last major:

Agassi actually is the current model of longevity (not Ken Rosewall who won his last AO at the age of 37 many many years ago). Agassi, who got very bald and very good late in his career, won his last AO when he was 32 years old. That’s pretty much, correct me if I’m wrong, the biggest major exception to the quasi truth (rule).

Pistol Pete, who quit tennis (only God knows what that guy could have hung-on and done if he was as motivated as an Agassi or Federer late in his career), won his last major when he was 31.

Roger, believe it or not, was 30 when he won his final major, 2012 Wimbledon. Sure he’s remained relevant and dangerous the last couple of years, but he was 30 when he grasped #17.

Stan, whom everyone wants to hold responsible for this new-age history-smashing longevity, won his 2014 AO when he was 28, his FO when he was 29, and because of his March birthday, 31 at this most recent USO. So Stan is in Sampras territory. The rules still apply, really.

What this means is Novak, who turned 29 at the French this year, where he pulled-off the Novak-slam, will be obviously 29 during his beloved AO, but then hit the big THREE OH at the French only to follow that up with WB and the USO as a 30 year-old tennis great.

I do these little hypotheticals in my head in my sleep. We are looking at Pete and Rafa (14 majors) and the Fed Express (17). Play this out with me. Novak really has to win the AO, imho. And asking him to win his 7th is big. He probably wins his 7th, will be the odds-on favorite to do this; BUT I would only say that he needs to win for him to continue to climb that mountain the way a lot of people assume he will.

After the 2017 AO he’s staring at 30 and the other three majors in which he’s been less than masterful unless you want to count reaching SF and F. He has six titles amongst those last three majors of the year. Of course that’s amazing, but remember the greatness context.

Rolling into the FO next late-spring, turning 30, and trying to repeat there will be anything but easy or a given. Will he be the favorite? Probably. This all assumes he’s healthy; no doubt that I’m picking him if he’s in form coming out of the European clay calendar.

But imagine the tour next spring. Folks, despite the lack of championship leadership on the ATP “leaderboard,” there are hungry professionals still looking to take what Novak has. That we can be assured of.

Bottomline: history says that the clock is ticking fairly loudly in the Novak camp. If you think I’m crazy, please do submit your remarks.

No surprises around here. That’s one of our mottos. Novak, like I said in that last post about his trajectory, has played a TON of big tennis. The guy has to be feeling this. Rafa is toast and Roger, despite his old (still) beautiful game, hasn’t won a major, we all know this number, in, essentially, five years. That’s half of a decade. Oh but, remember, just last year he was playing at his career peak according to some Novak Fanboys (LOL). Edit: the idea that because Roger said 2015 was better than ever, we therefore have enough evidence to believe this is like asking a New York Knicks fan if the Knicks are going to be good this (or any) year. Not a ton of objectivity. And in Roger’s case, the case of a great athlete, they think they can beat death.

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Elsewhere, on the Davis Cup front, Argentina and Juan Martin are probably the biggest news. Del Potro continues to shine in these 2016 high-stakes matches (Olympics, USO) after what was simply tennis tragedy; we all hope he continues this return to major championship relevancy. Taking-out Murray is perhaps surprising given Murray’s 2016, his ranking, etc., but we know Murray and we know Del-Po. Del Potro is a player with massive championship mettle. Murray is Murray. With Lendl he’s a threat, but even then we saw him stumble in both Cincy and in NYC where he seemed the obvious Novak substitute at the trophy ceremony. Lastly, on Del Potro, imagine if he gets that BH back, to compliment one of the games biggest and best FH. He’s just keeping the points alive, more or less, with that cut and the occasional weaker THBH that really doesn’t resemble his mid-to-late 2000’s artillery. Keep going, Gentle Giant. We’re all rooting for you.

The Cilic-led Croatian team vs. the Del Potro-led Argentines should be pretty nice big-boy tennis. Cilic is certainly showing his ability to rise-up. Big win over France.

Looking ahead, Novak’s foil (whose name is not spelled A-G-E) will be those boys we call Murray, Del Potro (with continued health and progress),Wawrinka, Cilic, Raonic, Nishikori and the handful of youngsters who on the rare occasions in the past have seemed somewhat poised to crash this party (Thiem, Kyrgios ((not really but I’ll still say his name because of the weight of some of those FHs, especially)), Pouille ((now)), various teenagers, etc.).

That’s the theme of this Asian swing and pre-WTF tennis we have before us. I’m not buying that it’s the Murray chasing #1 story; give me a break.

Someone pass a little espresso through the ATP “peloton.” Let’s get crazy!

Behold the Madness

Matt’s Blog exists to counter some of the madness in the tennis universe by which vulnerable community members might become startled, confused, led astray, and disillusioned. Or worse.

The sport seems to be under some sort of attack from tennis spokespeople who somehow think they know what the sport needs. In most of these cases, for almost any relevant discussion of the sport, I generally suggest that one ask former players, coaches and/or other leaders of significance. Look to that kind of insight for starters.

That’s a teaser. I’ll return to that particular discussion (tennis under attack) in a moment.

First, back quickly to the Djokovic-is-HC-GOAT wet-rag of a debate. Your and my favorite Djokovic Fanboy has been ferrying that argument to his dwindling readership that I can only imagine think he’s come completely unglued in the last year. He blames Federer and Fedfans’ bias for the lack of discussion there now, where there used to be really throngs of contributions to some decent tennis discourse. To be fair, I met him online and actually remember fondly some of the conversations, with him, his readers, etc. He was generous enough to link my blog, for a while, for which I am grateful. But as he went all-in on the Serb, toward the end of 2015, the lights over there seem to have dimmed and fashion now, I gather, a pretty consistent flicker.

He’s chiming in hard on Djokovic is or will be the HC Goat. This is madness. I discussed this yesterday. If Nadal has as many USO titles as you have, you are not the HC GOAT. Period. I suppose if Djokovic wins 10 AO and 18 or 19 majors, you might get away with saying anything. But the 2-5 at the USO is pretty tough in the company he shares. Roger is 5-2. Pete is 5-3. Ivan is 3-5, I think, having made eight straight finals in NYC. Those three guys right there are HC masters. The AO just doesn’t carry the same weight. Tell me I’m wrong. Either way, 2-5 compared to some other greats is a weak brew; and the Nadal comparison seals the deal.

I’ll add that the USO HC should be faster, and was so for sure back in the day, requiring an even sharper style of play. Lendl and Sampras played under those conditions, and Federer as well.

Now? Check-out this little insight Jon Wertheim stumbled upon:

“I always enjoy speaking with Craig O’Shannessy of Brain Game Tennis, who does some next level statistical work. He claims that the most common length of points is rallies lasting 0-4 shots. No surprise, right? But get this: At Wimbledon, 71% of rallies in men’s matches fell into this category. At the Australian and the U.S. Open? 69%. At the French Open? 67%. That’s some serious evidence of homogenizing surfaces.”

This is an unfortunate development of the surface play in majors. If you’re new to the sport, Masters and slower grass and HC are the name of the game. This sport is under serious attack, or however you want to describe it.

What’s even worse concerns the point I started this post with. We’re talking about people, including Wertheim, who want to make extinct the best-of-five format in majors and I suppose anywhere else that advocates for such a “difficult and brutal” version of tennis.

I listened to a podcast today from two uber fans (one guy freelances for NY Times and really loves Twitter; the other is a WTA “insider”). For the record, I do not listen to podcasts. I should since there are many, I’m sure, pretty interesting people probably talking about interesting topics and arguments on all of the many podcasts out there. In fact, I started a podcast with a friend about ultra running a few years ago. Never even listened that. But that seems to be a good format to share your ideas and people do listen to those things. And yes, I’m kinda sorta leaning a little to the idea of doing some podcasting on this blog. But I digress big time 😉

These two uber fans started in on doing-away-with the Bo5 format. Right off the top, folks, that’s just lunacy, right?  Doesn’t such a proposal pretty much atomic bomb his or her credibility right then and there? What the fuck would happen then? Majors are best-of-three? WTF?

Anyways, this is a serious topic, apparently, involving at least these two uber fans/journalists and Wertheim, who’s a pretty reputable scribe/commentator himself.

The podcasters worked themselves into a sweat over the duration-of-match complaint/argument. For the fan it’s cumbersome, for the television executive it’s an unnecessary evil that undermines programming and, I suspect, advertising. They compared tennis to soccer, how its 90 minute format is perfect for fans, television, etc.

They were worried about the health of the game now and in the near future.  The sport is rich, still, from this last era of big time brilliance and celebrity. But will that always be the case? Tennis may need to evolve.

I am not throwing dirt on those questions. The sport is on its knees hoping for some young blood and rivalries to keep this engine running. I do hear and share some of those concerns. But this change in format is madness.

Of course, they brought-up the players, as well. Best-of-five is too much for the players. The WTA-er of the conversation started to use Djokovic’s toes in the USO final as an example but then, I suppose, realized she was not making any sense and shut-it-down. The conversation really just sputtered and they sounded like young college students who want more “safe spaces.”

This is unreal, folks. This game is practically held hostage by the numbers. Majors, Masters, consecutive SF/QF appearances, etc. Someone try (and fail) to explain how the entire history of the sport would work with all men’s majors going to best-of-three. Is this what people call the “pussification” of the world/sport/culture/etc? I can see Ivan Lendl or Ilie Năstase scouring at the numb-nut who starts to make a serious push for such an incredibly fundamental change to men’s tennis.

I really do think that this is the gender equality core trying to come through the backdoor on the very, for me, awkward comparison of men’s and women’s professional tennis. The talk of equal pay made the headlines more this year with even Djokovic, rightly, wondering about this equality of the sports. That it’s so taboo, so off limits to talk about that is a joke. Let’s talk about it.

I’ve wondered about this, obviously. I actually thought about the possibility of having women’s majors play a best-of-five final or final four. Getting upset about the pay I am not. But my solution is give women an opportunity to show their skills in a more grueling format with the stakes so high. That is a real gender-equality discussion (not the entire tournament, but perhaps the SF or the F).

That’s terrible of me to suggest? Am I being insensitive? How? If anyone feels that way, then the argument is pretty much settled, no? What the men do is clearly so much more taxing, requiring far more fitness and mental toughness.

So, let’s make the men’s game best-of-three. That’ll make everyone happy.

Wrong.

Please, chime-in if you have some thoughts, even counter arguments. This is not just click-bate on a blog. Real personalities in the sport are advocating for this kind of change.

In sum, some fanatics are simply bat-crazy about their super hero, and the sport is moving to homogenize all surfaces and make all matches, regardless of gender or event, best-of-three.

I can’t wait for some solid indoor men’s draws to distract me from this. This madness.

HRFRT: Tour Structure and Numbers

The structure of the ATP tour has changed much over the years. Not only has the structure changed, but the significance of some of the tournaments has changed, as well. Masters events, the 1000s, for instance, are a bigger part of a player’s schedule than before. There is no question about this, which anyone can determine based-upon looking at numbers, Masters results, changes in formatting, and making some pretty basic inferences based off of this evidence.

We all know the big numbers used to gauge a player’s success (greatness) on tour (in the history of the sport) are Majors and Masters championships. World Tour Finals is a separate category, so we can add those numbers to the mix, as well. But the first two categories are especially important to this calculation of greatness and impact.

Here are the lists that should reflect what most people see these days:

Majors

  1. Federer 17
  2. Sampras 14
  3. Nadal 14
  4. Emerson 12
  5. Djokovic 12
  6. Laver 11
  7. Borg 11
  8. Tilden 10
  9. Rosewall 8
  10. Perry 8
  11. Conners 8
  12. Lendl 8
  13. Agassi 8
  14. Sears 7
  15. Renshaw 7
  16. Larned 7
  17. Lacoste 7
  18. Cochet 7
  19. Newcombe 7
  20. McEnroe 7
  21. Wilander 7. . . Etc.

Masters

  1. Djokovic 29
  2. Nadal 28
  3. Federer 24
  4. Agassi 17
  5. Murray 12
  6. Sampras 11
  7. Muster 08
  8. Becker 05
  9. Courier 05. . . Etc.

The Majors

We make lists because we like clarity (I hope). We make them to organize, for our own assurance, our own claims about those things that interest us. Lists. Lots of lists with statistics and other seemingly authoritative metrics. The big question here is how representative or accurate are these numbers in terms of determining clarity or, in our case with the grand discussion in men’s tennis, greatness.

As we suggested above, the structure of the tour has changed a lot over the years. Different tournaments, even Majors, carry different levels of significance today than they used to.

The biggest discrepancy that affects that first list (this is obvious if you know much about the sport) is the rise of the Australian Open. It used to be played on grass, which changes things even more. But the point here is that this tennis tournament really hasn’t always been on players’ radars, so to speak.

The best example is Borg (sorry if I’m reiterating the obvious). He played the AO once. Conners played the AO twice. McEnroe played AO five times, missing ’78-9, ’82, ’86, which were part of his peak. This excavation could go deeper, but the point is the tour has evolved a lot over the years, meaning that one player’s “numbers” are incongruous with another’s.

The French Open had its issues, too. Conners skipped the major during his peak years, from 1974-78. He was later a semi-finalist there four times. Most interesting point here belongs to 1974. Conners won the other three majors, but, of course, skipped the FO. Can you imagine that happening today? No, you couldn’t. Conners missed a lot of majors (AO and FO) based on our current understanding of this sport.

The other part of the French is the difficulty of that major, how the contrast with the other surfaces made it that much more difficult in the past. Today, the understanding (the reality) is they’ve made all surfaces more similar, slowing down HC and grass, making adjustments to clay, all in order to make the change of surfaces more seamless. That’s part of another change, along with the equipment, nutrition, etc.

Once you open this can of worms, even slightly, you see how problematic it is to compare eras and make broad claims of greatness. In just looking at the numbers, one has to acknowledge these fundamental differences.

This French dis-connection plays massively into the case of Pete Sampras. Here’s a nod to that historical context I mentioned in the Introduction. Pete’s sense of tennis greatness, of dominating the world, did not have to include the FO. His predecessors, when faced with the FO, turned the other cheek, for the most part. Borg is the exception, of course. But Wimbledon and the U.S. Open were, at the time, the biggest venues on the tour. No question. His dominance of those Majors did not make learning clay a priority. And he had an historical argument to support this approach. Sure Lendl won the French, as did Wilander. But Conners ignored it, McEnroe struggled there, Becker and Edberg came-up short there. Keep in mind, Pete had success on clay (and could have revised his game to accommodate this surface; but he didn’t have to, according to that world view, if you will).

In the end, the men who ruled the tennis court in the 80’s and 90’s did not see the French Open or Australian Open the same way that the men see it today. There is no way around this fact. The AO has certainly become more significant, beginning in the 90’s for sure, but the lack of significance in the 70’s and 80’s adds to this incongruity between this past and present of the sport.

The Masters

Here’s a glance at the past, a look at the evolution of the Masters tour: the Pepsi-Cola Grand Prix, The Commercial Union Assurance Grand Prix, the Colgate Palmolive Grad Prix, the Volvo Grand Prix, the Nabisco Grand Prix.

This accounts for the Masters tournament circuit of the ATP up through 1989. The ATP we more or less see today began in 1990, but there have been changes even since then.

In the all-time Masters list above you don’t see the names of McEnroe or Lendl, among other greats. They were playing an entirely different tour in their day. Some of you might even have a problem with my list above. You might find different versions of it, some that do include the tournament wins of the Volvo GP, for instance. But one thing is certain: you will see those same names at the top, our three amigos.

But again, those numbers (29, 28 and 24) reflect a different tour. I hope that is pretty clear.

Why is this ignored? The racquets, shoes, nutrition, court surfaces, tour scheduling, tournament importance – the sport has changed so much through the years.

When we hear someone say GOAT, we should understand that they are actually bleating like a goat.

To take a somewhat closer look at the Masters list above, the case of Sampras seems especially intriguing and, again, a solid illustration of the differences between the tour then (as early as the mid to late 90s, even early aughts) and now (since 2009, especially, when the ATP made its most recent Masters change).

Sampras’ Masters history really begins in 1991 (again, the new ATP was introduced in 1990 though still changes have been made to its overall structure). His efforts are hardly noteworthy in 1991 with several 2R losses, skipping Indian Wells and Monte Carlo though reaching a final in Cincy and Paris. In 1992, he skipped Hamburg and Toronto, won Cincy, but again was pretty insignificant in the other 6 Masters tournaments. In 1993 he got a win in Miami, missed Monte Carlo and Hamburg (again) and was fairly pedestrian in the rest. Having said that, he did win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon that year (1993). Here we see Pete begin his consistent run at the majors, but continue a pretty weak approach to these Masters tournaments.

In 1994 he won WB and AO, but missed four Masters tournaments. At the same time, he won three Masters: IW/MI double and he spanked Becker in the Rome final 1 1 and 2. On clay.

Pete is an interesting case. I glanced at some scheduling and numbers here, but look at the Masters all-time list above. You can see there that one of the all-time greats has less Masters than our friend Andy Murray. You may think that just speaks to Murray’s greatness, the depth of today’s ATP. I think you’re greatly mistaken, if that’s your opinion.

Those Masters numbers reflect two and even three different tours, essentially. Back to the historical context: if Sampras had come into a tour with that kind of Masters accumulation as a driving force of dominance, you’d have seen a different Sampras, I suspect. Ultimately, he was going out in early rounds, or skipping events. But winning majors in those same seasons.

Oh, and another kicker: the finals of these Masters events? They were best-of-five format. The wear-and-tear of the tour was different, and players’ priorities were different. The scheduling, the format and the history influenced all of this.

I think it also helps to see that these draws were anything but thin. Here’s your general seedings for these tournaments in the early-mid 90s. Feel free to take a gander yourself: Lendl, Sampras, Becker, Agassi, Edberg, Courier, Chang, Stich, Bruguera, Ivanisevic, Muster, Krajicek. The late nineties added Rafter, Kafelnikov, Kuerten, Haas, et al.

As we moved to the aughts, the tour evolved. Look at some of the results of the 2000 ATP Masters Series (the name then): Corretja won IW in three; Sampras beat Kuerten in Miami  with this line — 6–1, 6–7(2–7), 7–6(7–5), 7–6(10–8). No wonder Pete was ready to retire. That’s a Masters tournament. Brutal five-setter against a three-time major champion. Kuerten beat Safin in a Hamburg five-setter though Safin did pick-up two wins that year at Toronto and Paris.

That’s 2000 and the tennis is tough both from a competitive stand-point (the field) as well as a tough match format; we know the difference between a Bo5 and Bo3. Can be night and day, especially with a championship on the line. If you think this is like the tour today, sure there are similarities – Ha! It’s the ATP! But to say that our three amigos play the same tour as McEnroe, Lendl and even Sampras is such an overstatement. It’s false, practically speaking.

Federera

We’ll turn to post-2000 and what happened when the Swiss Maestro took the stage and the tour turned, finally, to its most current state-of-affairs.

I hope you’r enjoying the reading. I hope you appreciate the difficulty this proposes in making these broad statements about players and the sport.

Let me know what you think. That’s the best part, inviting more investigation, complication and spirited debate. That’s the point, folks; there is no certainty in trying to declare a BOAT or GOAT. But I admit that the arguments can be enlightening. As I have said before, as futile as this GOAT debate really is, the conversation/argument encourages study of the sport.

With Federera, we’ll see how the shit hit the fan, how the Maestro done messed-up the place.

The shame. 😉

How Roger Federer Ruined Tennis: Introduction

As we turn the corner on the tennis calendar to begin our slide into summer and then into fall (Wimbledon, (Olympics) and the US Open), we are at a pretty interesting point in the tennis narrative. This is synonymous with me saying that we are at an interesting point in the history of tennis. Of course, we’re talking about men’s tennis.

What a story it’s been. What a history. The focus of my argument appears to be the 21st century. This more or less defines the Federer era, winning his first major in 2003 though he turned pro in 1998. This is the general origin of the end of men’s tennis as we know it.

Of course, we will discuss the game that preceded this Federer era (Federera). Ha.

To be clear, the tone of this article has a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the title suggests a darker world where the game we loved has since lost its deep, international competitive beauty, and that Federer is somehow the culprit. However, one has to sense some hint of sarcasm as Roger Federer has been a sheer delight for almost every tennis fan who’s been paying much attention to tennis since the early aughts. In the end, we search often for irony which really takes into account both the perceived good in this case and the hypothetical bad. So, reader beware.

The year is 2016. Novak Djokovic has just won the French Open and now has possession of all four major ATP championships. Moreover, he is on the verge of continuing this incredible run of championship tennis by taking aim at his fourth Wimbledon championship, then perhaps an Olympic gold mid-summer, and finally defending his US Open crown, accumulating his 3rd one of those prestigious trophies. He has a Calendar and even a Golden Calendar Slam in sight. So, granted, the Serb has already done the near impossible, but what is still in play is even more formidable.

With no one seemingly able to present any meaningful challenge (though we’ll continue to talk about the tennis matches as they come into view), how does this man not continue his climb towards Federer’s 17? Seems a foregone conclusion, or at least a very tantalizing possibility. What Novak has done is historical, but perhaps we ain’t seen nothing yet.

How did we get here? There is a prevailing theory that this is the greatest era of tennis, this era that began with Federer, that included the rise of Rafael Nadal only to have yielded to the Serbian juggernaut. This is the true golden age of men’s tennis where we have seen the three greatest players of all-time take to the courts in a kind of mano-a-mano battle to determine GOAT. That’s the argument in nutshell. Note the two (2) important parts of this argument: three players and the term GOAT. That’s much of what the men’s tennis conversation amounts to. This seems grand, but it’s belittling to the sport. The sport hasn’t benefitted from this lack of perception.

In effect, what this argument says is that the tennis that preceded Roger, Rafa, and Novak should be relegated to a 2nd tier, that this 21st century version is the highest form the sport has seen, that these are the greatest players of all time, etc.

I do not necessarily disagree, but it’s more complicated than that. I argue that the prevailing signal from tennis commentary lacks perspective.

Sure there are variations on this theme, but that’s the gist of this triumvirate world of men’s tennis. One can see that this hysteria that began in Roger’s kingdom and passes through the land of Rafa and has become deafening in the Nole uprising is a quintessential example of presentism – that neither the past nor the future exists. I have referred to this as a prisoner of the moment phenomenon, to which we’re all naturally vulnerable. Either way, to some historians, this philosophical position can be troubling; it’s potentially flawed, and at the very least pretty annoying.

As we prepare to go back in time to chart this ruination, let’s recall many of the things we have said to each other when comparing players from the past to players from the present. The money involved in the sport today makes today’s sport quite different in so many ways: the luxuries or resources offered to players (from prize money to science & nutrition to technology) and the way this affects the approach to tournaments year-round are major factors. You can parse these two factors until you really see how different the sport is from when McEnroe ruled tennis to when Nadal and Djokovic fought for control of the tour a few years ago. Different sports, really. The equipment, the courts, the pay structure, and recovery as the conversation goes. And what about the history each player has had as a context for their games? Imagine how different tennis history was for Boris Becker compared to Novak Djokovic. This is a big part of this article, how Roger affected that perception of history, of the sport’s sense of greatness.

This element of historical context affects all sports. If you followed Kobe Bryant’s career in much detail, you know one thing for sure: he desperately went after the legacy of Michael Jordan. There are numerous examples to evidence this claim. The point here is a current player (at the time) had a specific benchmark to propel his game and motivation. We all have this at our disposal: history defines our own lives’ expectations and goals.

Beyond the different prize checks (incentives), different equipment (racquets and strings, for example) and nutrition/recovery science (mysterious world of not-yet-banned PEDs), the historical context is a huge factor that people really don’t consider. With this in mind, we might say that the greatest players are ones that blaze their own trail (though history affects them as well, of course). But they seem to shatter the paradigm, turn the sport universe on its head, redefine that sporting landscape. Those are the great ones. What follows them, in many ways, then, is a different sport.

We will look at some numbers, the style of the game, maybe some specific matches and the conversations that emanate from this evolving world of men’s tennis. Is this an exhaustive study. Hell no. This is a tennis fan’s passion to understand the game and share in this discussion with other tennis fans.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

The Fanblog

Tennis update: Federer v Thiem Stuttgart SF might be interesting. Federer looks pretty rough, having seen his R16 match with the 19 year-old American. Good stuff from Fritz. BH is getting better and his serve and FH are legitimate. Federer was lucky, quite frankly, to escape. And Del Potro, who looked like he was struggling against Simon for a set plus, thumped the Frenchman, bageling in the third. Del Po v Federer final for some old school grasssss?

Our boy Cilic lost to Stepanek in Holland. Wow. Such champion pedigree in that Croatian, eh? The discussion is not over on the USO 2014. What. A. Freaking. Disaster.

Now to the point of this article.

Having watched tennis for more than 35 years, like watching most sports, I have focused most of my attention on the sport itself, sure the players and matches, but never really gave much thought to investing so much energy into one particular player.

Even as a younger fellow, with the Americans dominating the game for years, throwing #1s and top-5 players at the tour constantly, I certainly enjoyed the depth (as well as one of them staying atop the sport for years). I literally grew-up with McEnroe, Conners, Gerulaitis, Tanner, and Ashe through to the Big 4 of Agassi, Sampras, Courier and Chang. These gents along with others (like the overrated Roddick and underrated Brad Gilbert or Jimmy Arias 😀 encouraged many young American tennis fans to enjoy the sport.

At the same time, the sport included a steady stream of international talent. I really liked Borg, appreciated Vilas, and really enjoyed growing-up and watching Lendl, Wilander, Edberg, Becker, Cash, Noah, Stich, Kuerten, Rafter, Kafelnikov, Ivanišević and Hewitt, among others.

We were loaded!

The good old days, as they say.

I have to admit; I kinda wonder: should I have become more of a fan of a particular player? Maybe I would have really gone places in tennis or sports or life in general if I’d started running around in jean shorts, for instance, trying to pull-off a mullet, or whatever that was on Andre’s head.

We do this as kids, actually. We really look-up to certain public figures (hopefully secondary to our parents). We become fans of certain athletes, rock stars, movie stars, etc. We put posters on our walls, maybe dress like them, defend them with others who share the same devotions/allegiances. It’s like we’re a team, a little cult. It was fun, right?

Childhood. The good old days.

This kind of devotion can and does follow people into adulthood, especially with team-oriented fanaticism. Soccer (futbol) has this kind of fanaticism world-wide, obviously. Here in the U.S., we have 3-5 popular sports, so we see a lot of this local and regional love people have for their teams, and some of their athletes.

As I have been blogging about tennis for over a year, I have seen the face of tennis fanaticism play-out on websites, blogs and discussion boards. Until delving into this underworld of tennis lust, I wasn’t as much aware of this hero-orgy of sorts I’ll call the “fanblog.” Should I have a “besty” too? Should I find some deeper connection to a particular player and advance that fidelity to others like some kind of lunatic?

But before I even go there, I’m a fan of Phil Mickelson (fellow San Diegan) and like Rory Mcilroy. Should I start a Mcilroy blog? I could follow the PGA Tour and lean heavily on my deepening affection for him and his game. Or what about Kelly Slater, Josh Kerr, or Greg Long (surfers)? That might be a cool blog or rant. Granted, a lot of this fanboy/girl stuff is about single individuals in individual sports, so I was thinking to stay with that theme. Having said that, I’m a big fan of Arjen Robben: what do you think? A Robben blog? That might be cool. Sure it’s a team sport, but I just love Arjen Robben’s style of play (though he has come-up short in some big WC matches 🙁

In the end, this isn’t my gig — getting all cuddly with a particular player. I enjoy watching and even analyzing the whole experience. Perhaps I’m not as emotionally attached, but I think this is a healthier approach.

This fanboy-girl blogging seems more reminiscent of an unchecked discussion board, full of the prominent anonymous genius. Or really it’s more reminiscent of children and how they approach their favorite movie stars, or sports or music heroes. Hell, we know some kids just love their toys. Imagine a pre-teen or even teenage girl’s birthday party where she and all of her friends oooh and aaahh about their favorite gimmick, boy idol or favorite dress.

That’s how some of this tennis fanboy fanblog bullshit sounds.

I got called a Fedfan by some clown (fanboy) the other day. I’m embarrassed for a lot of these “fans” who see the sport through this lens. Most people who read this blog know that I cheer-on many players and come after many players for all sorts of genius and flaw, via honesty and my general approach to this sport.

Many of these “tennis fans” sound like mean girls or giggling graffiti trolls. They sound like kids enjoying their favorite ice cream or, more accurately, their favorite pop singer, with whom they’re BFF.

Yet they’re not even Best Friends Forever because what we all see is how these allegiances will change if they’re star is no longer “the best.”

Embarrassing. Kills your credibility.

Most of these cheerleaders have actually gone through the history of stars such as being a Borg fan, then liking Sampras, only to fall in love with Federer, but dismiss him for either Nadal or (more likely) Djokovic. There are others that correspond to one’s country of origin, etc. On some level it’s natural and a great way to get involved. But once this becomes a kind of fetish, get the hell out of here.

As they’re want to say to themselves in the twilight of their hero’s career: Who you got next?

This is an interesting question. Certain fanboys and girls these days that litter the interwebs and other tennis talk (even the popular media to a degree) suggest that maybe there is no next. Novak Djokovic, they say, is the best player ever, plays the game at the highest level possible.

We have called this prisoner-of-the moment hysteria.

I am going to blame Federer for a lot of this, which I will cover in my next post unless I decide to write something else. But it’s coming: How Roger Federer Ruined Tennis.

The insistence upon perpetuating this GOAT culture is (as I have admitted) great for discussion, but ultimately fails, so it’s pointless to get your little diaper into a bunch. Watch the match. Enjoy it while it lasts. STFUP.

What happens if Novak, for instance, loses form? What will you do, fanboy? Will you switch your allegiance/devotion to another promising investment? You will most likely, at least for a while, champion whatever flawed statistical analysis/anecdotal BS at detractors, fizzling into some kind of disappearing act until you find a new BFF.

I’ll be doing my best to clean-up whatever crap comes my way as far as fanboy flap is concerned.

That’s really been the mission for this blog all along: to take another point-of-view and create thoughtful discussion. Are we always successful? No. But I will keep coming, like Fritz in his R16 match v Federer in Stuttgart.

You have seen me, for instance, write glowingly about Novak; you have also seen me divert somewhat the proverbial ticker tape parade for the Serb. There is nothing I enjoy more than mixing-it-up, complicating and suggesting to someone that he/she might want to look at it another way.

This is not a fanblog.

2016 Rome QF: Djokovic v Nadal

I really hope you got to see this classic, ideally live. I have watched a lot of tennis in my day and this is truly one of the better matches I have ever seen. The match itself is a classic, but the reverberation for me comes, too, from the context, the careers and histories of these players, the state of the art – where we are at this point – along with my own hypotheses about the players and the sport.

Should I let my ideas simmer and find more light before I blog about the match? Perhaps. But I can’t. This is therapy. Actually, watching the match was therapy; this is reflection and celebration of a great battle that I, like any invested tennis fan, felt like I was involved in. Unbelievable.

maxresdefaultWhere do we begin. . .

Let’s think about a few other great matches.

One of my first tennis memories was the Borg v McEnroe Wimbledon 1980 final. As a huge Borg fan, even at 12 I was heavily invested and got a little hot under the collar. After being excused from the room once or twice to “cool off,” I was able to enjoy truly one of the greatest matches of all time.

Lendl, Becker, Edberg and Wilander, who seem an era unto themselves, have given me some great memories, and, more, Sampras, Agassi and Courier, too. The likes of Conners and Chang, even a run or two from a Rafter, Stich or Krajicek have homes on my tennis memory planet.

I particularly remember specific matches between Pete and McEnroe (1990 USO SF), Pete and Andre or Pete and Rafter.

More recently, Federer, interestingly enough, doesn’t seem to leave me with heavy classics; it’s more a body of work, I suppose. The 2005 USO final was against an older Andre and, sure, I enjoyed the Fed v Nadal rivalry, but those became a bit one-sided, no? I am not a particular fan of the 2008 WB final mainly because this was the beginning of the end of Roger, mentally. The fall of his mental fortitude is one of the reasons today’s Novak v Rafa Rome QF was so supreme a display of tennis. I’ll get to this later.

There were a few RG finals between Fed and Rafa that were quite good, but again, tough not to see that outcome as a foregone conclusion.

To give Roger some deserved props, the 2011 FO SF between Roger and Novak was a great match. Big upset by Roger: a match of very high level tennis that ended with the historic finger wave.

In 2015, parts of the WB and USO finals between Roger and Novak were tremendous as was the 2014 WB final between those two. Certainly the 2014 match was epic.

In 2015, Roger’s summer HC run was pretty special. His Cincinnati tournament was sensational. I thought the first set of that final with Novak was quite good, but Roger found separation in the second. What some of the Fed matches lack is this almost biblical battle of wills.

I purposefully left out the 2012 AO final between Nadal and Djokovic because that seems the best comparison for today’s Rome QF. That AO final was probably one of the better matches I have seen, ever.

Today consolidated that belief because these are probably the toughest competitors the sport has ever seen (but I will throw Pete in there, as well, who happens to be one of Novak’s biggest tennis idols).

Recall the 2012 AO final. Incredibly physical and courageous and clutch.

The 2016 Rome QF today was in that same vein of tremendous tennis played at such a high level though I think we might agree that Novak seemed to have short bursts of error-prone play. None the less, in whole, this was a classic.

Some highlights include Novak overall never in panic despite starting both sets a bit lackluster. Like he did seemingly against Robert in R1, Novak waits and then strikes when he needs to close the deal.

In the first set, down a break, he finally broke back at 4-4. In what has to be one of the most entertaining final few games, Djokovic breaking again at 6-5 was superb tennis. His flexibility and composure in those big games and points are second to none (sorry, Pete). Whether he needs to hold serve (critical vs Nadal) or come-up with the set-changing break, Novak delivered marvelously on this day.

Like Kyrgios in the R16, after securing a tough first set vs. the Spaniard, Novak dropped serve and was immediately down a break after Nadal held for 2-0.

To make a long story short, Nadal had 4 or 5 set points at 5-4. Novak would somehow save the point, and then seemingly give Nadal another shot at set point. Unreal stuff. When Djokovic finally got a BP, he converted on his first try. Wow.

That is the tale of this match. Djokovic was simply better in the big moments, like he usually is. Just ask Roger.

As the two reached the second set TB, I was at a loss that this could go another set. It was already over 2+ hours in duration. Another set would have been almost too much of a good thing. Go watch the match. The TB was just an incredible finish to two masters of clay, duking it out, defensive tennis at its finest, great drop shots, volleys, over-heads, DTL. . . for your eyes only: true tennis fan.

In summary, this is Nadal’s surface. Always has been. Seeing the Serb come into Nadal’s playground and beat him at his own game (tough, clutch tennis) was tremendous evidence for me of Novak’s historical form. Granted, Nadal is not the same as he was back in 2008, but he’s apparently in form and certainly had a shot at winning this match.

But the mental fortitude of Novak makes his case such a tough one to overcome. Roger’s numbers are incredible. We can and will turn-to numbers and statistics to determine greatness. I am not here to make any sort of claim as I really appreciate Roger and Pete’s legacies enormously.

At the same time, I got to watch this Rome QF live. The eye-test reigns supreme in my determination of greatness. Novak’s tennis today (despite whatever you want to say about the way he started both sets) was for the ages. The battle of will was thought provoking and difficult to articulate at the same time.

Says the eye-test: tough not to call Djokovic (one of) the best.

Monte Carlo QF

A couple of things I need to make clear. The clay court remains. . . how should I say this and not alienate too many people. . .inferior. Poor. Sure, I could resolve to say it is simply a different surface, gives the professional sport a little diversity, adds to the calendar, the seasons, etc. But it’s crap. Seems to have been brought to bear on the sport in order to neutralize bigger and stronger games from bigger and stronger players. I argue that the dirty tennis court renders the game a much less interesting and sophisticated version of the sport, favoring less equipped, more defensive players. I don’t think anyone can counter that general sentiment about the clay court.

The Monte Carlo quarter finals are here and, as we all know, the draw has been opened-up with the loss of Djokovic. Naturally, his saboteur is gone, drowned in clay by Monfils who seems to be doing his thing, looking destined for the draw’s top spot in the semi-finals. The athletic Frenchman gets the veteran Spaniard Marcel Granollers who knows his way around the clay (has a couple of FO R4 to his credit). Not going to put a lot of thought into that QF match.

The winner gets Federer or Tsonga, a more interesting match. Would we be surprised if Tsonga beats Federer? We should not be surprised. However, given what we’ve seen, Fed looks spot on to find his way to the SF, perhaps a little more motivated by the opportunity of no Djokovic (but that doesn’t really mean anything, when you think about it. Federer has to beat Tsonga. Period). Having said that, again, no surprise is the big hitting Tsonga takes down the Maestro.

What I like about Roger’s game so far (have seen a bit, most of the Garcia-Lopez match) is his instincts. He’s using a lot of variety, quick to net to finish, BH has looked especially good. I love how he’s finishing points when he can. But I’ve also seen him rush when he gets impatient, when his opponent takes the reigns of a rally. Federer cool is a tough assignment. I think he runs Tsonga around and advances.

Nadal beat Thiem, obviously. I watched some of this match. It made my skin crawl. The match reminded me of a Federer Nadal back and forth, with the one hitting the skin off the ball with big OHBH all over the court, big FH, solid serve, etc. And then there’s the muscular Spaniard running it down, getting it back. This is as much a characteristic of the clay as it is a characteristic of Nadal (they’re made for each other). This combination does not reward great offensive tennis. I watched most of the first set. Thiem looked better than the man of mystery, but the latter hung around and his clutch chops got him across the finish line first.

People, Nadal finding his confidence is just bullshit. Not sure what that means. Roger is off for a month or so, has knee surgery, coming off an AO SF, and gets right back into rhythm, on a new surface, new knee, etc. The Nadal excuse machine just doesn’t work. He’s either special needs, or he’s just a clay monster, or worse; whatever it is it’s an inferior brand of tennis that does not belong on the slopes of The Greats. Nadal’s career arc is a joke. And watching him defend against these better tennis players – sure it’s his style of tennis and it works now and then – does not make for a good watch.

Sure, I think he probably beats Wawrinka. Why? Because I don’t trust Stan and Fraudal seems to have his clay court specialist hat on. Stan should beat him. He seems ready to mount his RG-bound steed and play some clay like we know he can. But I have to see it to believe it. Again, he should hit the Spaniard off the court.

Remember, Nadal and his camp are honing their mysterious potions for a run at his tenth RG – la decima.

Murray v Raonic seems a toss-up, if you ask me. Raonic is no slouch on the dirt. Murray should cruise but he’s struggling, no doubt, and given that I don’t have a nano of faith in the big clumsy Scot, I like Raonic in the SF to play. . . Narinka. Sorry.

Let’s say we do have a Federer v Nadal clash in the final. This would be a tremendous opportunity to see how Ljubičić does with this assignment, if Roger is actually listening to anyone at this point, ever.

Watching Barcelona lose to Atletico Madrid yesterday, the idea came up that Barca struggles when they are not controlling the match, playing out of position, if you will, uncomfortable, from needing to change strategies, play more aggressively, to match the opponent’s aggression, whatever tactics they’re using. Barca couldn’t rely on their tiki-taka, small-ball possession first approach. They were lost. You could sense the disorientation.

That describes, more or less, Roger in Nadal’s clay kingdom. I want to see Roger v Nadal in the Monte Carlo final if this inferior surface and style of tennis deems that the end game. Let’s see the old man become born again on the shores of the Mediterranean.

At the same time, with all the nutty, bizarre clay plot twists, we could see Murray v Monfils.

Enjoy the tennis!

UPDATE: So Murray routs the Canadian and seems to have found some business-end-of-the-tourney form. Congrats. He seemed pretty listless earlier in the draw.

Sure enough, Stan did not make a showing or maybe Rafa has his “confidence” back. Do  you know how ridiculous this sounds? Rafa must be special needs. And Toni is his “keeper”? I need to explore this more. Looking so bad, so awful (not fighting injury) but turning it around. . . what in the hell is that? That we have Murray to save the world is a scary thought, but vamos Scotland!

Federer goes down in three. I haven’t seen it yet, but it looks like a good one. In the end, a great first tournament back for Roger. A lot of very big tennis on the horizon, so for both Djokovic and Federer, not huge set-backs. Happy for Tsonga. Please consolidate this win.

Sure, I want Murray to withstand the Spanish freak show, but a Tsonga Nadal final would be a fine consolation. Or maybe my Murray v Monfils (sarcastic) prediction will stand.

Carry-on.