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Sometimes the best way to describe something is to see it in action.

In the following video, observe how Federer wins the two points during in the time period 1:40-2:14. These two points are an indication of the Edberg effect.

Our eyes tell us that Federer is an ice-skater: he glides over the tennis court with the precision of a pastrami slicer. His shots are well varied. First point: he comes in off a strong cross-court backhand drive. Second point, he comes in off a precise down-the-line forehand rocket. The volleys are precise. The viewer is left to think that tennis is an easy sport. Just hit a big shot, come to the net, finish off the point. Observe how composed Federer is: winning points feels easy. Of course it is not this easy!

When watching Edberg play one felt such easiness was, if not possible, at least viewable. As with Federer. There are many players who make the sport look easy. To deliver a good explanation of what the Edberg effect is, we will focus on five players.

  • Stefan Edberg
  • Roger Federer
  • Magnus Norman
  • Robin Soderling
  • Stanislas Wawrinka

These players are all different – in styles, physique and so on. But they share striking similarities, which are reminiscent of the success that Edberg had.

The Edberg effect

The Edberg effect can be broken down into three basic principles. Our analysis, of course, is just opinion – we accept that what we write is an imitation of reality.

Principle 1 – Remain calm

As Confucius said: life is simple but we insist on making it complicated. At the heart of what made Edberg and Federer extremely successful players, what has propelled Wawrinka into the top echelons of the sport and made him win a Major, what made Soderling defeat Nadal and Federer in Majors and what makes Norman such a good coach is the ability to stay calm regardless of a favourable or unfavourable situation.

Note the disjunction “or” between the two events “favourable situation” and “unfavourable situation”. This is like saying that the player ‘remains the same’ regardless of the situation he is in. Just won a long rally with a spectacular down the line backhand winner? Behave the same way as if you just missed the easiest volley in the world.

How was Federer feeling when he was down two sets to love against Julien Benneteau?

But, when you’re down two sets to love, stay calm. Obviously your friends and family are freaking out. You just play point for point. It sounds boring but it’s the only thing to do.

First instincts tell us that to pump ourselves ‘up’ at any situation. Experience comes from good judgement, which comes from bad judgement. Bad judgements usually comes from a miscalculation in our instincts.

The problem with pumping up is the after-effect. It drains energy away from you. Players who can focus longer are not prone to erratic level drops – it is common to watch a junior win a set 6-1 then lose the next by the same scoreline.

Staying calm is essential. Winning is not easy. Losing however, can be easy. By staying calm you learn to not see winning and losing as two different things – but both as a process with some random outcome that you, the player, helps to determine.

Example: Federer saving 4 set points against Roddick at Wimbledon by being patient and seeing if Roddick had the ability to really kill Federer off.  Here is the Youtube link to the tiebreak. Which player looked more calm when Roddick was 6-2 up?

Example: Wawrinka losing the first set to Ferrer at the ATP World Tour Finals 2013. Wawrinka accepted the difficult battle to come in winning the match despite being a set down and eventually proceeded to win the match. Below is the video of the highlights: see how pumped up Wawrinka remains despite losing the first set.

Staying calm conserves energy. You do not need to be your best to win matches – all you need to do (in most matches) is manage your risk and play to the averages. By staying calm, you raise your average over time.

Staying calm allows you to deal with what the other player is throwing at you – are they trying out tactic X?  Are they targetting my backhand? Where do they serve at 40-40? Suddenly you spot more things.

Staying calm allows you to play a purposefully ambiguous game without losing focus. There are two players who are so good at this that people sometimes forget that they are doing it – Federer and Murray. Murray has tortured opponents for years with his game, as has Federer. Their games are ambiguous in different ways: where as Federer has learned to be aggressive in different ways that take rhythm away from his opponents, Murray has learned to channel in his indifferences to be aggressive in a ‘blunt’ fashion and as a result Murray is less predictable.

Principle 2. Embrace your identity

Edberg had no business slugging away from the baseline, he won and lost at the net. Soderling cannot dream of hitting volleys like Edberg. Wawrinka will never have the Federer’s flexibility, nor will Federer ever be able to consistently generate the power Wawrinka does on his backhand.

Each player has their own unique identity. Even when players model their style on their idols, as Wilander did with Borg, the identity is never the same. That is not to say the style is different – that assertion is subject to opinion.

By embracing your identity, you play the way you know how to play. You understand the procedure well – you know when you’ll win and when you’ll lose. It may seem incredible watching Edberg making approach shots so well timed one felt that the Swede worked as a clock-maker, but the reality is Edberg hit so many approaches and volleys that the experience wasn’t so incredible to him. Similar to how we all marvel when Wawrinka launches a backhand missile down the line: incredible to everyone but Wawrinka has hit that shot enough times for it to be normal service to him.

Federer’s Australian Open 2014 campaign, barring a disappointing to Nadal, was an extreme success. The way he played against Tsonga and Murray was electric – Federer could have played that style all day. Compare it to recent Majors where he has not abided by the 3 principles (the third to shortly come), and you can see how apparent this effect is. For Federer, slugging away at the baseline is more comfortable than it was for Edberg. But Federer is supremely stubborn – and he will always have the desire to go forward and finish points off.

Soderling had similar problems until Norman calibrated his aggression. Soderling was always able to trouble top opponents – see his match in Madrid against Federer in 2006, or the longest 6-1 6-0 defeat to Nadal in Rome 2009, a month before he bested Nadal in Paris. Soderling’s problem was turning up his aggression in critical moments. Norman worked with him to fix this and before Soderling’s career fell away tragically due to illness, he was an extremely dangerous opponent. One sensed that Soderling defined himself in the big moments – Federer made mini-comebacks in their French Open 2010 match but each time a big moment came, Soderling embraced his identity and hit sledgehammers.

Principle 3. Maximise your aggression

Consider the confusing but extremely talented Gael Monfils. Monfils has called himself a ‘rat’ on the court – he chases what he is given. Monfils can also rip forehands with speeds up to 180 km/h.

To Monfils, his aggression is maximised when he is best behaved – when he is pumped up. For Monfils, ‘maximising aggression’ would be to position himself further inside the court, be more aggressive and cut out the clowning around. Implementing these changes may frustrate Monfils, make him feel unfocused or unsure of what to do in the court. Therefore by trying to maximise his aggression, he bizarrely becomes less aggressive. The concept of ‘maximising aggression’ is not trivial.

But it can be seen as follows: to maximise your aggression is to play a style of tennis that incurs minimum cost on your style and imposes maximum cost on your opponents style.

In the following video, Soderling crushes Ferrer in a clay-court match in Sweden.

Upon first impression, Soderling maximises his aggression by hitting the bell as hard as he can. On a closer inspection, see that Soderling anticipates all of Ferrer’s shots. His positioning is tidy. Rarely is he too early or too late to a shot. He hits shots into places that force Ferrer to give back weak replies. This shows how Soderling maximises his aggression: hitting hard but with care and good fitness.

Much is the same with Wawrinka, who did not know how to really maximise his aggression. His 2009 Wimbledon match against Andy Murray is a good example: Wawrinka had the technical capability to match Murray in all departments but fell short in the tight moments. By calming him and giving him direction on the court,  Norman has made Wawrinka a nightmare to deal with: when moments get tight Wawrinka gets better.

Conclusion

To understand the Edberg effect is to understand the similarity in thinking required for Jackson Pollock to paint his messy abstract pieces and Leonardo da Vinci his timed masterpieces. There is a clear philosophy: stay calm amidst all the madness, embrace who you are as a person and maximise your potential. Naturally, these are all easier said than done.

Tennis in 2013 was crazy.

We could analyse what happened in tennis in 2013, but that idea is fundamentalist – we can analyse anything that has happened in the past with confidence.

Instead, based on what has happened in 2013, this post aims to look at what tennis will bring in the year 2014.

As indicated in the title, the key word for 2014 will be risk. The year 2014 (and future years) in tennis will be all about how players hedge their risk when playing. Such a concept is explained in finer detail. Also listed are predictions for the upcoming new year and how my predictions faired last year – and what it all meant.

Predictions from 2013

Around twelve months ago I made a series of predictions for 2013 – the post can be found here. Let us discuss some of the predictions.

Prediction 1: Court speeds stay the same.

This prediction was very accurate. Court speeds did not change much. Yet, courts that were historically known for being quick  (Cincinnati, Paris, Dubai, Madrid) all caused problems to reactive, modern baseliners such as Murray, Djokovic, Nadal. Despite the homogenisation, courts cannot be exactly alike.

Prediction 2: The rise of younger, exotic players

Listed immediately below are some of the youngest players in the tour during the start of 2013 and their rankings, respectively.

Dimitrov -  42Raonic – 15
Janowicz – 26
Klizan – 30
Belluci – 32
Paire – 46
Goffin – 50
Tomic – 63

And now are the current rankings of the mentioned players.

Dimitrov -  23
Raonic – 11
Janowicz – 21
Klizan – 108
Belluci – 125
Paire – 26
Goffin – 110
Tomic – 51

The average of the rankings (of these selected players) at the start of 2013 was 38 and the standard deviation (how far the players fluctuated away from the average ranking of 38) was 15.2.

Similarly, the average of the rankings at the start of 2014 is 59.4 and the standard deviation is 47.1.

The analysis is simple and obvious – and the numbers confirm our suspicions. Here is some quick analysis.

  • Raonic is the highest ranked and it is not a surprise – he is by far the most professional. His career can be seen as slow improvement followed by a big jolt and now again, small improvement, which is to be expected. Raonic is getting used to the tour and big things are expected of him.
  • Dimitrov improved his attitude and fitness and as a result, everything else improved for him. Splitting up from the academy in Sweden may not have been the best choice – but he won his first title there. He is currently working with Roger Rasheed, who is known to excel at fitness training. If Dimitrov can further improve his fitness, his ranking should increase. Everything else about his game is impressive. He played superb against Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in 2013. Perhaps Dimitrov will be a big match player. Big things are expected of him. Watch out for his fitness and attitude this year.
  • Several players – Klizan, Belluci, Goffin and to some extent, given how talented he is, Tomic, have not impressed. My purposed reason for the first three failing to improve is a concept known as ‘regression towards the mean’, which is a mathematical touch to the assertion that, on average, you show yourself to be who you are. Goffin is not really the player he was during that magical French Open, nor are Klizan or Belluci during their respective tournaments. They need time to improve – their success is essentially based on risk. To hedge their risk (i.e. to remove the risk), they simply need to become better players.
  • The change in standard deviation from 15.2 to 47.1 is helpful to see that the real ‘pack’ of successful, top players is seemingly the Dimitrov, Raonic, Janowicz combination with Paire and Tomic hanging around somewhere. The others have shown themselves to be not good enough.

Prediction 3: Del Potro, Djokovic, Gasquet

Del Potro enjoyed a fantastic 2013, barring a poor loss in the US Open and a disappointing loss to Federer in the World Tour Finals. His rampant battle with Djokovic in the semi finals of Wimbledon was fantastic. The highlights are posted immediately below.

Del Potro needs to sharpen his focus and improve his net game. His slice has developed and it would be encouraging to see him use it more often to change the pace of a rally.

Also mentioned was how Djokovic is attempting to volley more. Well, his volleying skills (basically) lost him the Wimbledon title. But they have improved and with the addition of Becker to his team (more on this later), they should keep on improving.

I predicted Gasquet to do well and Gasquet did not disappoint – he had a better mentality on any tennis court in 2013. He is extremely professional and would be more respected if he posed a bigger challenge to the top, top players. A change in coach (not his decision) should remain beneficial as his new coach, Sergi Bruguera, was extremely talented as a player.

Hedging risk

Tennis is becoming more scientific in the sense that the concept of risk  – which was once just seen an unforced error, is now fitness, preparation, tactics, diet and so on. Players want to eliminate all risks – they want to do their best but they also want to be at their most efficient.

Eliminating risk leads to more efficient play. It is a different outlook to accepting your style and trying to maximise your potential – i.e. playing your best. Eliminating risk can be thought of as a homogenisation of players. Here are a couple of ways in which it can be done:

  • Hiring an extremely talented coach. On the men’s side, Federer is now working with Edberg, Djokovic with Becker, on top of Murray with Lendl, Gasquet with Bruguera, Wawrinka with Norman. On the women’s side, Stephens is working with Annacone, Sharapova with Groeneveld, Wozniacki with Hogstedt. The list is endless. Each coach has some idea to eliminate the risk associated to each player.
  • Becoming extremely fit. This one is obvious but is understated – when your body can take more punishment, you can dig deeper into matches. Fernando Verdasco’s famous run in the Australian Open 2009 came down to his fantastic physical preparation work. Becoming extremely fit applies especially to the younger players – Dimitrov and Raonic both need to up their fitness, as do many female counterparts – Robson, Watson, Hampton and so on.
  • Smart scheduling decisions. If afforded the luxury of being able to choose where you can play (which many of the lower ranked professionals do not have), a smart schedule can be very beneficial. Players want to maximise their performance over a season. Their schedule dictates where they play – and if they organise it sensibly, they should find a way to play good tennis. It is not fixed what a ‘smart’ schedule is – what is smart for one player may not be so for another.

Being efficient is more economical than being the best. Why frustrate yourself trying to play your best when there is a different approach which leads to you becoming more consistent? Many players have big risks attached to their name.

Nadal faced the risk of being blown away by an aggressive baseliner and has hedged this risk by becoming more aggressive himself.

Murray’s biggest risk was his emotional state and his lack of a killer forehand – he hedged the chance of these affecting him by working with a coach who mastered both of those problems.

Federer is another example. At a young age he had a risk of not being able to play against baseliners – the likes of Hewitt, Agassi, Nalbandian and so on. He eliminated this risk by playing with a different style (changing serve and volley into baseline). This does not mean he played his best – his best may have come as a result of improving his serve and volley style. When he lost ‘control’ of his game, he hired different coaches with different ideas – Jose Higueras helped him integrate the dropshot into his game, Paul Annacone stabilised his game and made him become more attacking. Stefan Edberg is now working with him and should provide some new ideas. For Federer, his ‘best’ does not require much coaching nor intellect to understand – he just does not many errors and bamboozles opponents the way we know he can. Federer’s risk is unique to him.

The concept of eliminating risk can be seen as follows. Suppose an opponent drags you out wide to your forehand corner – instead of lining up a sweet but risky down the line forehand winner, you try your best to hit a spinny cross-court forehand that puts you back into the rally and neutralises your opponent. Instead of going for something that is risky and requires you to play very well, you focus on making things that you should make into you will make.

2014 will be about how players can respond to risk.

The aim of this article is to promote a new approach to playing tennis: the levels approach.

It will shortly be defined. The motivation for learning this approach is that it offers the following:

  • Offers a new insight into watching and playing tennis further than the layman approach of just watching the game and seeing it how it is.
  • Allows you to make predictions on player’s (and your own) performances and see how player’s react to pressure in matches.
  • Takes the frustration out of playing tennis: this approach explains how to deal with unforced errors, double faults, and further negative
  • features and how to understand them in the greater perspective.

 

This approach came to mind after a discussion with a coach during the 2012 Wimbledon match, Lukáš Rosol versus Rafael Nadal. To recall how well Rosol played, the highlights of some his best rallies are linked below.

Towards the end of the first set, as we discussed the momentum swing going from Rosol to Nadal and as a result, Nadal taking the first set, the coach says “if Rosol loses this set, he will win the match”.

This seemed bizarre. Surely Rosol should win the set to win the match? In his eyes it was different, when asked to explain his comment he offered the following explanations:

  • Nadal gave his maximum effort to take the first set and in doing so, took a physical toll on him and his ability to play later on in the match. Rosol was playing well but as he said himself , he was in a trance and had no problem about worrying what would happen later on if he immediately exerted maximum effort: his big serves would give him free points which would allow him to recoup the mental energy required to win rallies against Nadal, which is difficult to do so, as explained by the article here.
  • When Nadal loses sets his effort increases as the match develops, to not allow the opponent any rhythm and to make winning against him much harder. But after a hard fought set in which he was out hit yet still captured it, it is expected for Nadal to think slightly differently (even if just about every commentator says that Nadal plays one point at a time) as to how he would had he lost the first set. As Rosol was in a trance, this made no real difference and his motivation stayed.
  • Rosol “handled” Nadal’s all by losing a close set. He understood what was successful and what could be improved. On the other hand, Nadal won the set despite being out hit and at times, out played. Nadal was not getting completely schooled, therefore it is expected for him to have not been so worried about his approach as he took the set.

As the match developed, Rosol kept hitting big and overcame Nadal’s efforts. This can be seen as some sort of a level (a position on some quantity). Rosol’s level withstood Nadal’s level. Nadal’s level could not stand Rosol’s level and when he tried to do so, the match was still out of his hands.

This example gives a good guide to what the levels approach is. Formally, a player’s performance in a match is based on many factors – footwork, movement, groundstrokes, serving, physical condition, mental ability. These factors combined into a performance give a player a level: an explanation on how the player performs.

We can show this graphically by considering two axes: the time of a match and the performance level of a player. We will look at some examples and analyse.

Example 1: Constant Level

perf1

The “min” refers to a players lowest possible performance level and “max” refers to their best. Clearly if they can play at their best throughout a duration of a match – they should produce their best possible performance. Note that as time increases, which means factors such as the crowd, opponent’s strategy, tiredness, weather and so on all change, the level of performance stays the same hence the name “constant”. This is what tennis players dream of – to not be reactive to any situation.

For all practical purposes this is unrealistic, rarely do we (or professional tennis players) perform our best for a whole period of time at our job or any activity. We make mistakes, perform tasks with some worries or trouble and so on. Does this mean perfection does not exist? This question is hard to answer. But we understand that the image above is realistic. The best we can hope is to keep playing a good level through out a match. This is done best by preparation (which will itself be a future article).

Specific player:

Lleyton Hewitt is a player who maintained his level through out matches. His levels approach (to stay consistent, recall that other players of Hewitt’s height have been far more aggressive) brought him two majors and the world number one rankings as a teenager. This has several implications.

  • Clearly his levels approach is successful and aiming your level to not go up and down too much is a strategy worth pursuing. When Larry Stefanski coached Andy Roddick, many fans complained that Roddick had become a pusher – that his big forehand had gone and he was playing far too tactical. These opinions can be explained by Stefanski making Roddick’s level far more consistent. In his approach, he had less up – less big shots, but he also had less down and for Roddick there were many more downs: his awful slice approach shots, weak “puffer” backhand shots, bad court positioning and so on. His level became more consistent and with an increased physical fitness, he enjoyed a brief spell of extreme success in 2009 before players adjusted to his tacics.
  • Hewitt achieved so much at a young age – his approach is beneficial to young players as they do not have to figure out how to manage their big aggressive games. Roger Federer gives a great explanation to the difference between him and Hewitt in this video, in 2002

This level approach also has shortcomings. In fact any level approach has shortcomings (just like how it has benefits), it is how the levels approach matches up against another player’s level approach. This determines success.

Does my levels approach, say Hewitt like, being consistent, beat an approach of someone like Alexandr Dolgopolov, which is up and down to the maximum?

Example 2: Up -> Down Level

perf2

This approach seems obvious. A player starts out well and his level is good: he has cut out the negatives in his game. As time proceeds he cannot keep this level up or the opponent starts to play well and he begins to decline – his level drops. Then the opponent is in a better position and surely wins the match?

That type of thinking is certainly possible – a five set match in which one player is up two sets to love and loses three sets to two can be a good example of this level, but it is not the only explanation. This is a subtly with a player’s level: perceiving is half of the analysis.

What if the player is facing an opponent like Hewitt, who keeps his level constant? Then it is not immediately obvious why the level drops. Even more absurd: it is possible for a player to win a match even as his level drops incredibly. A good example is the following match between Roger Federer and Robin Soderling at the 2009 US Open. Federer’s form in the first set is incredible but it begins to drop. He closes out the match in the fourth set, despite Soderling playing very well in the fourth set and Federer not capturing the form in the first set.

This happens as the position the player with the high level has put himself is in dominance: the opponent must raise his level (to some extent) to come back where as the player is allowed to drop his level as long he wins the match and wins the important points.

Example 3: Crazy

perf3

The levels here may seem crazy – you have somebody playing well, then going downhill, suddenly they are hit by lightning and improve, then fade away again before a smoother final change. It seems a bit crazy.

The reality is that we really play like this – no one (unless you’re a young Ernests Gulbis or Marat Safin) wants to lose a match. We try our best. Our levels dip in response to the other person. This examples shows what a normal match looks like – it can be a hard fought 7-6 7-6 win or a crazy 6-0 0-6 6-0 thriller.

We conclude with how you can use the levels approach to understand tennis further and how it can be used for your own game.

When watching matches look at the player’s game styles and what they have to offer – look at how they are handling their level (observe how Andy Murray swearing drags his level down). Then if a player can handle his level whilst the other is playing better, they can win a match without being the best. Nadal is a great example – he can take the best a player gives to him, give them a few points where they play their best but soak up all the other points. He accepts an opponent playing some unbelievable points and allows his level to dip at these moments. Then his level raises again and he keeps asking for his opponent to remain at their higher level.

Understanding that your double faults and unforced errors and other frustrations bring your level down and make your opponent’s life easier makes you appreciate to keep your emotions in check. Further, there can only be an improvement in your level after you start cutting out the frustrations. Your game is vastly improved as you begin to consistently increase your level. If an opponent is playing well at some point and all appears to be hopeless – remember the levels approach. He may win that set 6-0 and completely dominate you, but you may scrape the next set 7-6. Absolute opposites can become near similarities by understanding how to shift your level.

This means you take what you are good at, make it so that as your level drops, that it remains good. New tactics become ingrained, new shots become regular and new found confidence becomes the norm.

P.S. I would like to say thank you to all the people who have read my blog, all views and comments are appreciated, I read them all. If you would like me to do a post on a specific topic – just mention it by leaving a comment.

Depending on how you view tennis, 2012 was either a disaster: slow courts, everyone hogging the baseline, mass choking, Nadal being injured. Or 2012 was fantastic: different surfaces and speeds (blue clay!), tactical variety, determined performances (Rosol) and new faces on the tour. It is down to interpretation.

We begin by looking at some of the best matches of last year, in order from the start of the year to the end. (leaving out obvious choices such as Australian Open final)


Expectation 1: Court Speeds Stay Slow

The main technical aspect of 2012 was the slowing down of courts and the style which these slow courts promote. The Australian Open final provided a good example.

Nadal was one of the first top class (consistently ranked top 10) players to develop on the modern, slower courts. Nadal blossomed around 2004-2006, when the courts were beginning to slow down. As a result of his style and slower courts, he has frequent absences from playing tennis. His career has been ruined by slower courts and the style needed to win on them.

Tennis has become more advertised than ever, with popular players playing exhibitions in countries not privy to tennis. Slower courts mean longer rallies and require more than “just” a big serve and forehand to win points. That’s the idea, what really happens is lengthy matches with players camped behind the baseline, going to the net only to shake hands.

Fans love long rallies, a stunning winner to end a long rally will always receive more attention, be it on TV or with the audience in the court, than serve festivals.

Hence, we should expect court speeds to stay the same (medium slow generally) as they make tennis more enjoyable to watch for the public, giving better revenue.

What to look out for: How will the quickest courts last year be this year ?

Madrid (clay), Dubai (outdoor hard), Cincinnati (outdoor hard), Paris (indoor hard) were the fastest courts last year on the ATP tour (not counting Wimbledon or the US Open, which will stay the same).

Expectation 2: The Rise of Younger, Exotic Players

Grigor Dimitrov (42), Milos Raonic (15), Jerzy Janowicz (26), Martin Klizan (30), Thomaz Bellucci (32), Benoit Paire (46), David Goffin (50), Marinko Matosevic (49) and of course Bernard Tomic (63).

Get used to these names. They are young, exotic players, all with different styles. They will be moving up in 2013. The brackets indicate their current ranking.

Benoit Paire will be hoping to make an impact this year.

Benoit Paire will be hoping to make an impact this year.

What defines these players is how exotic they are. They are very confident. Some examples: Dimitrov’s audacious volleying skills. Paire’s personality is entertaining. Tomic invents shot of his own:

Why is being exotic so essential to their success? It means they have found unique solutions to winning matches. These players have not grown up fixated on hitting backhands cross-court and moving around to smack forehand winners. They think differently. Raonic is very tall yet his coach was a clay-courter. Dimitrov’s favourite shot is the backhand down the line. Paire’s backhand is clearly better than his forehand.

These players will increase their rankings also as slow courts won’t affect their performances that much in 2013. Older players have to utilise riskier strategies.

These same players have (sometimes) been embarrassed in the past and have learned from their experiences. For many of them, this is the year to put it all together.

What to look out for: Raonic’s surprisingly good baseline game. Tomic’s work ethic. Bellucci’s mental implosions.

Expectation 3: Del Potro to move up (& other talented players to follow)

When Roger Federer says you can be number one it is a good indication of your potential ability.

Del Potro has expectations to live up to.

Del Potro’s resurgence after a couple of horrible injuries is complete. He has a big serve, big ground strokes and a decent slice with mediocre volleys. Del Potro will move up the rankings in 2013 if he can develop a good transition game to move into the net and be more aware of his court positioning.

What Del Potro has that Ferrer, Berdych, Tsonga and others just behind him (Gasquet, Almagro, Monaco, etc) do not have is a lack of a weakness. At a younger age he could not handle the slice very well and was dragged around the court too often. So he improved his movement, serve, return and footwork which mean he cannot be moved around so much anymore and has better technical ability.

His forehand has improved considerably. Del Potro plays to win, not others such as John McEnroe who hated to lose. He accepts losing and has huge confidence. He should move forward in 2013.

What to look out for: Richard Gasquet is moving forward too. I predicted his progress two years ago after a cocaine incident. Recently, Gasquet won Doha in an impressive manner – he had a very difficult opening match, almost losing. He then destroyed Lacko and beat Brands in a solid performance before beating Davydenko in a superb final. Gasquet’s next step, breaking into the Top 8, will depend on the same contingency that Del Potro’ faces. He must position himself higher up the court.

Something that hasn’t been noticed: A player who has done this transition in an excellent manner is Novak Djokovic, who would always stay at the baseline at key moments until early 2012. He has started approaching the net more.

Noticeably in the Shanghai 2012 final he was insistent on going to the net on important points. It didn’t always work – he smashed his racquet in frustration as a result.Check out the highlights and see his utter determination to win a point at the net. The transition has been so smooth it has not really been talked about.

Expectation 4: Injuries, injuries and Injuries

Thanks to the court speeds and the playing styles employed, this season promises to have many injuries. Nadal has not played for a long time. Haas, Tsonga and Isner withdrew from tournaments in Australia. Expected long term injuries for baseline heavy players are kicking in – Nadal and Monfils the main examples.

The WTA faces similar problems, Andrea Petkovic has injured herself again, Azarenka pulled out of a highly anticipated match against Serena Williams because her big toe hurt.

Expectation 5: Less Nike, Less Adidas….but more sponsors

Goffin and Berdych, both associated with Nike, will be shortly changing shirt sponsorship labels to respective smaller firms. Add in players with their own sponsors (Roger Federer’s famous (for sponsorship reasons) US Open 2010 shirt has his name being the priority sponsor) and some having no sponsors on their racquets (Baghdatis, Davydenko), the sponsorship and hence advertising market for tennis is clearly changing. Bigger firms no longer “just” sponsor players.

After every Major the victor will thank the sponsors. These sponsors are diverse, some produce watches (Rolex) where as others produce chocolates (Lindt). Tennis did not always have such a large variety of sponsors.

The same can be said about shirt sponsorship. Nike and Adidas may be the big two but other, smaller companies are poaching players.

Expectation 6: Match (and Tournament) Predictions are WORTHLESS

If you were to predict the latter rounds of the Chennai, it may have been reasonable to expect Wawrinka, Cilic, Tisparevic and Berdych to compete in the semi finals. Wawrinka, Cilic and Berdych were all beaten in the quarter-finals.

Certainly no one expected for Benoit Paire to beat Dudi Sela so comfortably. The match finished in less than 50 minutes.

Lower ranked players have coaches and ideas. Executing them against higher ranked players may not be enough to win as the highly ranked player is higher for a good reason: they execute better ideas and have better coaches. The likes of Benoit Paire, Roberto Bautista-Agut Aljaž Bedene performed admirably in Chennai.

Outright predictions are usually worthless as performance in a match and in the future is usually independent of the past. (This is what it means for something to have the Markov property). You may have a better head to head record, perform better on the surface and be fitter. None can take into account events that seem improbable: you missing (usually routinely put away) easy shots, the other player having a surge of motivation. Injuries can occur and such.

Predicting who will win the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open at this point is pointless. For the Australian we know who the favourites are, with a revealed draw we get more information. However, until a match is played and finished, predictions are just that: predictions.

More than ever that is the case for 2013, where players are now consistently told about forgetting the so called stereotype in tennis, sport and life, that if you cannot perform well against one person (Federer vs Roddick), they have an advantage over you in the future. Each match is unique and can be felt and experienced only on that occasion.

Expectation 7: New Rules Are Good… and Bad

New ATP rules designed to make matches shorter will be tested by notoriously slow players such as Nadal and Djokovic at crucial events. The rules are inherently good, matches should move at a quicker rate meaning less annoying 1 minute pauses in between points. However they require umpires to step in and hand warnings. Umpires will be perceived to be more ruthless; Baghdatis being handed a time violation after a lengthy point in the final set tie-breaker in Brisbane will happen through out the season unless players adjust. Baghdatis recovered from losing the next point, subsequently lost match on “neutral” terms.

However, not all players will behave as well as Baghdatis did in such a moment. We can expect players to argue with umpires over these matters, Monfils’ excuse for waiting too long is (apparently) due to him being black.

Expectation 8: Quality of play on WTA to improve

With high quality champions in all Majors last year and Serena destroying everyone around her, it is expected for the likes of Azarenka, Stosur, Sharapova, Na, Kvitova (all Major champions) to up their game and show a higher quality of play.

A few years ago on the WTA tour, nobody could serve well. Top players would routinely choke. No such weaknesses exist. Better coaching and weaker players being found out (Caroline Wozniacki) have led to rankings accurately reflecting who the best players are. 2013 should be an exciting year for women’s tennis. Can Azarenka repeat her magical 20+ match win streak? Will Serena Williams dominate the Majors?

Eight expectations to ponder for the new year. There are many other questions to ask as the season develops. For the time being, we can focus on getting ready for Australia.

Hopefully the final won’t be as long this time…

Up a set and two points away from forcing a second set tiebreaker against a clearly rattled player, it may have been plausible (finally) to fathom that Andy Murray’s golden moment had arrived.

His first Major, special enough as it would be, more special given that it would be at Wimbledon, coached by a man who also waited a while for his golden moment and who never captured Wimbledon.

It would have been a victory for nearly everyone: Murray, for finally winning one, Lendl, for not only taking Murray to the title, but seeing a protégée winning the only Major he could not, the British public, for being forced to wait in the rasping rain all these years for feeble hope and to finally talk about a Brit not named Fred Perry in relation to Wimbledon and success, tennis fans, the excitement at seeing someone other than the usual 3 winning the biggest tournaments.

Roger Federer had other ideas. This article analyses the 2012 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final, which Federer won in four close sets (4-6 7-5 6-3 6-4). Labelled images to guide text explanation and videos are included. The analysis, on top of explaining and understanding this match, aims to look at:

How did the match turn around? How did it go from Murray winning to Federer winning?

How did the players match up? Was this match similar to past matches between these two?

What are the implications of this match?

Do the match statistics tell us anything noteworthy?

Also two slightly unrelated points, but intriguing to discuss in the given context:

How many more will Federer win?

Will Murray win one?

We begin by (briefly) looking at how the players had performed leading up to this match.

Federer had volleyed poorly leading up to the final, against Benneteau his volleying almost cost him the match. In that match Federer showed good and bad; his calm and cool mindset winning him the match, yet he could not consolidate a break of serve at a very crucial moment, his groundstrokes and serve fluctuating between excellent and awful through out.

Against Youzhny, Ramos and Fognini, we saw that merely attempting to rally with Federer would be hopeless; Federer avoided lengthy baseline exchanges by varying his play, being aggressive with his ground strokes and taking his opponent away from the baseline, his short backhand slice a common weapon of choice.

Against Djokovic and Benneteau, he faced players whom not only had huge firepower on both wings (forcing Federer to compete in baseline exchange) but with variety and big serves. Malisse did not vary his game yet his big forehand and big serve troubled Federer.

Big hitting, big serving and variety confused Federer, he lost his proactive style and reacted to the opponent imposing his own game.

How could Federer escape? Serve well. Murray would need to serve exceptionally well, hit huge forehands and be comfortable at the net as Federer would take him away from the baseline.

Federer prefers indoors to outdoors (or so the statistics say) due to having less interference from the weather and logistics being in his favour. As he says himself here, wind makes the match less based on tactics and more based on effort (i.e. getting the ball in and not making errors), The grim, windy conditions early on would have appealed to Murray as Federer would not be fully comfortable, even so, Federer is an excellent wind player.

Murray’s entrance to the final was Murray-esque; totally unpredictable. Superb against Dayvdenko, struggled slightly against Karlovic and Baghdatis; two players who have fire-power and pro-active styles. Karlovic’s height and physique make him play only the most aggressive way possible and Baghdatis plays better when he is aggressive yet lacks the consistency (and at times, calmness) to win matches in this manner. Karlovic and Baghdatis are two different players in how they play – but both take time away from their opponent (especially on their own service games) and have good experience and maturity in how to use tactics. Baghdatis has been around the tour for a while and has victories over Federer and Nadal whist Karlovic is similar.

Against Cilic, a player who does not posses much maturity or tactical ability, Murray had an easier match.

An incredibly hard-fought victory over David Ferrer followed by a superb performance against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga showed that Murray was attacking better than ever yet struggled against players who had good tactical ability. Karlovic does not have the movement of Ferrer, Ferrer does not have the serve of Karlovic and neither posses Baghdatis’s groundstrokes, yet all three are tactically intelligent players who can (most of the time) play with a calm head and not get down when their opponent is on a roll.

Murray’s biggest problem in Majors has been facing these players who can overcome Murray playing well for a set or two by not being so determined on the short-term and taking time to appreciate the longevity of the match and being able to alter tactics.

Bennetaeau said afterwards in his interview after his loss that Federer has this ability.

Against Tsonga he attacked well with the forehand and served bombs during important moments; good preparation for facing Federer. Murray did not face great returners on his path nor did he face players with great recovery shots, i.e. players who could get themselves out of a defensive position in a rally.

The one opponent who was great at returning and had great recovery shots was Ferrer and Murray found him very difficult to put away.

How Murray would react to someone with more variety than himself or how he would react to someone who could find solutions to Murray being aggressive was not asked, instead, the questions were placed on how technically well Murray was playing; aces, percentage of first serves, second serves won, etc.

Wwe are so determined to understand every technical detail when previewing matches we forget the mind controls how well the player performs.

Momentum and Anticipation

Murray’s early intentions were clear: big serving, aggressive down the line backhands and big cross-court forehands. Federer talked about approaching the match with a specific game plan yet in previous matches he gave Murray different looks early on before dedicating to a specific game plan.

Federer’s early mood was broken, now the goal was not to see how Murray would react early on but to recover the break. He thought less – just get the break back by playing aggressive, nothing more (in the short term). He built momentum from this, he not only broke but had break points to go up a break. Had Federer taken one of those break points, with momentum on his side it is highly likely he would have taken the first set.

Murray stayed in the first set (and won it) with big, consistent serving, disrupting Federer’s rhythm, giving himself momentum and free points (this carried into the second set). The patterns which emerged for the rest of this match came as a result of Federer’s early momentum and how he responded to Murray’s aggression after breaking back.

Whatever Federer’s early game plan was, when he broke Murray back the game plan he induced would be the one he used for the rest of the match, the consistency lacked initially, as the match grew so did the success of his plan.

Federer’s Response to Murray’s Forehand

Ivan Lendl possessed one of the best forehands in the ATP Tour. Murray certainly doesn’t naturally have a forehand like Federer’s or Lendl’s. Lendl and Murray have worked on this stroke, during the 2012 Australian Open Semi Final (Murray vs Djokovic) we saw the damage Murray’s forehand struck. Remarkable improvement but consistency and the motivation have not been there; it was awful during some tournaments, acceptable in others, great in a few.

Federer’s response to Murray’s forehands were as follows:

If Murray attacked Federer’s backhand with the forehand from a cross-court position, Federer usually would hit a backhand slice – usually cross-court but occasionally down the line. Federer had the option of hitting a topspin backhand, however he was not interested in employing this shot in this situation (explained later).

If Murray hit his forehand cross-court to Federer’s forehand, power and consistency were a must. Murray consistently hit big forehands to Federer’s forehand, a way to open up his backhand side (attack the forehand so you have space to hit into the backhand). Federer diverted this plan by returning superbly on the forehand side; half-volleying, hitting with angle, power, different spins. To some this was unexpected since Federer’s forehand can be fragile, it broke down against Djokovic at just a month ago in Paris, Murray and Lendl had good cause to think hitting big to his forehand would work, Djokovic had done so and beat him impressively just a month before.

The difference in this match and that? Consistency. Federer made unforced error after unforced error against Djokovic a month ago , those same unforced errors were landing in and deep in this match.

Murray is in an awkward position due to not being wide enough to utilise the angle permitted by the cross-court shot yet not being in the middle, allowing Federer to wrong foot him and Murray having to move – either wider to his right or to his left.

Instead of hitting to the orange box (the safer option) Federer hits to the white box; the return is wide and Murray wins the point, he continues to hit this shot through out the match, building consistency and leaving Murray baffled. Federer turned defence to offence by this shot alone, an example is illustrated below.

Federer hits an audacious drop-shot at 30-0 to change this game from being a comfortable hold into an unknown, awkward position for Murray. At 30-30 both players are attempting to be aggressive, Murray hits a big forehand to Federer’s forehand, which Federer returns with interest; this recovery shot changes the rally around in Federer’s favour, letting him (eventually) win the point.

The very next point, the rally comes to the same stage; again a deep cross-court forehand return from Federer deals the damage, he moves to the net and finishes the point with some cute volleying.

Extreme Angle & Variety

Murray hit flat, deep, powerful shots opposed to angled, soft shots. This can work against Federer, yet it is one dimensional and as a plan for his whole approach for groundstroke rallies, it would need to be backed up by some net game and consistent big serving to ensure Federer did not get comfortable. Murray’s first serve dropped towards the middle of the match and he slipped during some key approaches to the net towards the third set.

Federer used angle to take Murray out of his comfort zone and make him lose the fluency on his groundstrokes, especially his forehand. This is where he used the roller backhand, made famous by Gustavo Kuerten. The roller backhand is suited a one hander, some with a two handed backhand can defeat the intuitive logic and hit it (David Nalbandian). Imagining Nadal’s short and angled cross-court forehand as a mash up between the wind-shield wiper forehand and the motion for a kick-serve, the roller backhand is a topspin cross-court backhand with heavy angle, not so deep, hit with an extreme grip. Essentially, Nadal’s forehand in reverse.

Federer hit this shot time and time against Murray during the 2008 Masters Cup Group Match and the 2010 Australian Open final, by moving Murray to his extreme left, a flaw with Murray’s backhand became apparent. When Federer hit this roller backhand or inside-out with his forehand to Murray’s backhand with angle and topspin (opposed to blunt power), Murray hit cross-court or to the middle of the court, hitting down-the-line would expose Federer’s court positioning, however Murray is not a naturally aggressive player the same way Federer is, he is similar to Nadal with the approach to get the ball back into the court deep in a high-percentage manner from this position (by hitting cross-court).

This pattern means Federer moves to his left but is looking to attack with his forehand in response from Murray whilst Murray is moving to his left but is looking to defend with his backhand.

Players who can move Federer out to his backhand to defend whilst they move to their left to attack with their forehand are players who have great inside-out forehands and look to attack with it in any manner and make Federer uncomfortable; Berdych, Tsonga, Nadal (who is left handed, but is the best example), Davydenko and Del Potro are players who have beaten Federer using this pattern.

Hitting down-the-line aggressively would indicate the angled shot isn’t available to Federer, Murray declined to do so on many occassions.

Another problem for Murray is that Federer’s supposed weakness in this match, the rally topspin backhand, is perfect for this tactic – not too much power, a lot of angle (which the one hander can generate much easier than the two hander).

Murray’s difficulties with tactically mature players relate as Federer took a “weakness” and made it into a strength by knowing Murray would not punish his tactic, one powerful down-the-line backhand from Murray and Federer would have to cover a lot of court. Federer took the risk in using the tactic, Murray did not take the risk trying to punish the tactic.

Both images above illustrate Federer moving Murray with extreme angle, the forehand is expected since it is Federer’s “strength”, yet with the backhand, to some it is unexpected that Federer can do so much damage. The roller backhand is used to move reactive baseliners out of the middle of the baseline and force them to be aggressive.

What if Murray responds by being aggressive? Then the logistics favour Federer; he is ahead, serving well, taking time away from Murray. Murray cannot afford to just be aggressive as aggression is a large risk at this point; the match could end in 20 minutes if the aggression does not work.

Risk

Whether done intentionally or not (most likely the latter), Federer’s groundstrokes became more “cuter”, varied, angled and softer as he took the lead. He did not hit with exact precision any more, the risk was not in having to not make a mistake in a rally or to ensure his first serve stays high but to keep varying the play and not let Murray get into a rhythm.

This is risky since Federer can lose track of what he needs to do; silly drop-shots are the result of being too cute and trying to change too much.

Federer prefers this risk compared to earlier; facing Murray with every point usually being a rally, Federer had more pressure and Murray was pumped up, motivated.

During later stages of the match, Murray could not find the fluency to deal with Federer hitting inside-out forehand drop-shots or extremely angled topspin backhands.

By hitting with more angle and less power, Federer allowed Murray to approach the net; Murray declined to do so often, when he did during some crucial points, Federer passed him easily.

Wrong Footing Forehand

Whenever Federer was to the left of the baseline and Murray hit to Federer’s right, Federer ran to his right and hit down-the-line forehand as opposed to a cross-court forehand; exceptionally good technique is required. This wrong-footed Murray and allowed Federer to get his court positioning back and to relinquish control.

Federer hits an inside-out forehand; Murray responds by hitting a slice backhand down-the-line, both are moving to their right; Federer is moving away from the centre, Murray is moving into the centre. A cross-court forehand shot is the expected shot from Federer at this moment.

Instead Federer hits down-the-line instead and Murray is clearly wrong-footed and has to move back, giving the momentum to Federer.

Federer side-steps to the middle of the court, some would run but Federer knows Murray will hit a defensive shot and has time to side-step to use his forehand. Murray will hit slightly to the left of the centre, giving Federer two options as indicated. Were Murray to not be so quick with the return to the centre perhaps Federer would be forced to think differently.

Another good example (in the same game) here which shows Federer stretching Murray with his down-the-line forehand recovery shot.

Dropshot

What you do after the dropshot determines the condition of the point. Staying back and hoping for an easy passing shot signifies someone who is not thinking or has complete assurance that there will be no return, moving forward to the net after hitting the dropshot signifies aggression and taking time away from the opponent.

Federer’s backhand dropshot too deep and Murray cleans it up with an easy forehand pass. This takes place relatively early during an important game (15-15), for Federer to hit such a shot to tells Murray that during the important points he will try something different and not let Murray get in a rhythm, for Murray to return with a winner tells Federer that he is comfortable and up to the challenge with whatever Federer throws at him.

Federer moves forward despite being easily passed which shows good tactics, just poor execution on the dropshot.

Federer attempts another dropshot in an attempt to move Murray away from the baseline; does he move forward this time? He is a set behind and Murray is at his most fluent as he has the lead, is serving well and controlling the majority of the rallies.

Federer moves forward yet is again passed easily by Murray.

Again Federer is passed by Murray. Why use this clearly unsuccessful tactic? The next image illustrates this.

A couple of poor dropshots and Federer is now fluent with when to (not) use this shot. Often we think of professional sport stars as of being able to do anything at any moment but as Federer’s dropshots here show, often the very best build fluency slowly during the performance.

Up to this point, Murray is the better player; a set ahead, in control of rallies, shorter service games, having good looks on Federer’s service games.

Federer’s dropshot is a key turning point in the match.

Prior to this point, a rally takes place with Federer eventually changing the pace by taking Murray away from his preferred zone to work in (the black box); Murray does not expect this at such a crucial moment and from Federer’s court positioning, an aggressive approach shot is expected.

Deviating away from what is expected, Federer uses creativity to stop Murray from dominating at the most crucial moment in the match. For some tennis players, being uncreative with focusing on solid, aggressive hitting with absolutely no “clever” shots, which requires complex thinking that may disrupt the flow of the player, is the solution to getting back in the match.

Federer uses “clever” or “cute” shots selectively at not always the most important moments but moments that always lead to the most important moments to get back in the match. A clever dropshot at 6*-5 30-0 and a superb volley at 2-2* 15-40 lead to bigger (evidently success) points.

After the previous dropshot, Federer hits an easy down-the-line backhand winner which alters the momentum of the game. A couple of points later, Federer wins the game and the second set; his clever shots stealing the momentum at the most crucial moment of the match.

Federer did not feed Murray the expected shots, he was left wrong footed and ill-prepared several times when Federer imposed some creativity.

Murray jumps (a little) to ensure he is not blocked by prior movement if Federer hits inside out or inside in, showing good court positioning. He is expecting Federer to hit with topspin.

Federer considers his options, changes to a continental grip and hits an inside in slice forehand. Since Murray is prepared for the ball anywhere in the orange rectangle, Federer knows he will have to hit a risky, huge forehand for either a winner or for an easy volley (from a weak Murray passing shot). He refuses to feed Murray what he is expecting. Federer’s ability to “wait” on the ball wins him the point here; Murray is ultimately prepared for any shot yet Federer changes that by letting the moment drag a little longer.

Murray, well inside the court, hits a dropshot yet does not move forward or to the middle of the court, a sign of desperation. Federer was also well inside the court. The difference in how each player used the same shot shows the tactical advantage Federer has over Murray.

Net Game

Federer’s net game saved him, Early in the second set Murray was clearly the better player and had two break points to go up a break.

40-15* and Federer chooses to go into the net; Murray has excellent preparation; whilst Federer has reached the service line Murray is ready to hit a passing shot. Murray favours the forehand cross-court pass and he usually makes it. Federer’s approach was poor due to Murray imposing aggression, blocking the court and forcing Federer to come in unprepared.

Murray’s game plan was working; this was the lowest he could drag Federer to.

Federer returns the passing shot with a superb forehand punch volley which wins him the point. Murray’s tactic worked in getting Federer to hit a poor approach shot and rely on anticipation and being able to hit a difficult volley, however Federer made the volley and saved the break point. He hung in the service games until 6-5 where he broke Murray.

Federer’s creativity did not pay off through out all the match, Murray returned most of the dropshots with clean winners, at crucial moments such as the image above and at 6-5 30*-0 in the second set, Federer’s creativity paid off. His “strength” was not a particular shot rather how he implemented and used shots in specific moments.

Murray’s net approaches were predictable and he was passed easily. Murray’s usual game plan to stick to the baseline being suddenly put aside for a few points at inconvenient and uncomfortable times to come to the net shows tactical immaturity. This may unsettle an opponent in round 1 or 2, but at such a late stage against such an experienced opponent, Federer (and Murray himself, perhaps) sensed weakness in Murray’s game whenever he came to the net.

Hitting down-the-line into the white box would be advantageous for Murray as opposed to hitting cross-court into the black-box since Federer has his racquet swayed to his backhand side and is slightly to his left of the centre of the baseline, thus covering the black box will be easier. Murray chooses to hit cross-court.

Federer easily passes him. In situations where he could impose aggression on Federer, Murray either hit the wrong shot (as indicated here), let Federer back into the rally or had the right idea but Federer’s response was too good.

In this situation, Murray needs to construct a careful point to ensure Federer does not get the break (and win the match, basically), the down-the-line option is available, Federer is covering to his far left. Murray decides to hit an approach shot to the black box. Given how far back he is in the court, how well his previous net exchanges went, the implications of losing this point (giving the break away), Murray takes a big risk.

Federer can either hit into the open space (black box) or behind Murray (white box), he chooses to hit behind Murray and wins the point. If the roles were reversed and Federer was in Murray’s situation; behind and clinging on for dear life, it is difficult to fathom Federer hitting such approach shots from such a position and leaving large space for Murray to hit into, given that Murray would be ahead and would be determined to end the point on the passing shot.

Murray deviated from his game plan during key moments and it cost him. These two net exchanges illustrate this. Federer reinforced his game plan at key moments.

Backhand Combination

Federer returns Murray’s wide serve with an aggressive cross-court topspin backhand to which Murray can either hit into the black box or the white box yet due to not expecting such an aggressive return, the shot passes by Murray for a clean winner. Federer stepped into attack Murray’s wide serves (be it slice or topspin) which required good reading of Murray’s serve (which Federer has not always had) and exceptional timing. He cut out Murray’s options by moving into attack ground strokes or wide serves, he was not interested in the horizontal exploration required to participate in the point; he stepped in and accepted that sometimes he would give the point away with an error.

Rabbit

Djokovic slipped many times in the semi final, Murray slipped and lost his footing during crucial moments. Some see this as “bad luck” yet Federer rarely (if ever) slips on grass, his footwork and positioning are always secure.

Federer does not let players move him outside the doubles tramlines as his recovery shots are from inside the baseline, hitting on the rise. When he is moved in this manner (Juan Martin Del Potro, US Open 2009, Tomas Berdych & Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Wimbledon 2010 and 2011) he is weaker and is rushed. Murray takes more time and does not hit so much on the rise when pulled out wide, thus needing sharper turns and more explosive movement. This is why Murray slipped and Federer did not. Murray moved around more.

Federer moved Murray around by varying the angle and spin on his shots, thus Murray has less balance and less stability (and confidence) when he returns to the middle of the baseline. Slipping whilst approaching the net, running back to catch a lob, are unusual situations to happen for Murray. Djokovic had similar problems as Federer moved him side to side. Horizontal court exposure causes vertical court instability. The two images above illustrate how far Murary was being moved, hitting on the rise and not letting Federer move him so wide would have helped.

Inside Out

Federer’s superb inside out forehand exposed Murray’s backhand, let him move to his left and dominate from his favourite position on the baseline.

Federer’s inside-out forehand is returned with a cross-court backhand, Federer’s excellent footwork is apparent as he sets up for a classical inside-in forehand. Murray’s return is weak and Federer wins the point.

Earlier on Murray was higher up the court thus Federer could not hit clean winners or force errors with these forehands, as the match grew and Federer navigated Murray outside the court and used his variety to trouble Murray, his inside out forehand was the starting point for his aggression. We define a new term, the starting shot, where a player uses a specific shot in a specific context to initiate a pattern that is certain to bring success to them, Federer’s inside out forehand is his greatest starting shot.

When Federer’s inside out forehand was not wide enough, Murray punished him by exposing the huge gap in the court, Federer had to hit this shot in precisely otherwise Murray would leap on. Here Murray returns a deep, powerful forehand return from Federer for a clean winner.

How did the match turn around? How did it go from Murray winning to Federer winning?

As the weather changed and the roof appeared, Federer became more aggressive, Murray’s game plan fell as Federer responded impressively to his early break, Federer moved Murray enough to make him lose balance and injected creative shots to not get stuck into difficult baseline rallies.

How did the players match up? Was this match similar to past matches between these two?

Had this been maximum of three Murray may have won this 6-4 7-6; the Majors illustrate that longevity benefits players who can play their game for a longer duration, tactically mature players are at an advantage and players who have sufficient holes in their game can win during shorter matches.

This match was very similar to the 2010 Australian Open final match and the The Masters Cup 2008 Round Robin match; both matches hinged on how well Federer could serve at crucial moments, in the former he served stunningly well, in the latter he served poorly at crucial moments. Murray was demotivated at being forced to play so well for so long in the former and lost his concentration at crucial moments, yet in the latter the shorter duration made him concentrate specifically at crucial moments, clearly bothering Federer,

What are the implications of this match?

Federer is now (deservedly) ranked number one in the world, his form since the US Open loss last year after this match is a superb 63-5. Resting after a bizarre loss by skipping the Shanghai Masters and fine tuning his indoors game was the beginning. This match is an implication of all the effort Federer has put in since that loss.

For Murray, this result implies he will have more pressure next year now that he has reached the final, some doubted whether Murray should be put together with Federer, Djokovic and Nadal given some shocking losses this and last year, this result shows he is grandly there with them.

Do the match statistics tell us anything noteworthy?

Full match statistics can be found here.

Murray’s percentage of first serve points won against Federer in Major finals are 51% (2008 US Open), 57% (2010 Australian Open), 69% (2012 Wimbledon) with the average first serve speed changing from 173 kph to 196 kph to 194 kph, an improvement in serve speed and more free points.

Murray’s average second serve speed went from 151 kph in the 2010 Australian Open encounter to 141 kph in the 2012 Wimbledon encounter, his second serve has not progressed enough. Federer remarked that moving away from training on ground strokes and such to focusing on footwork and court positioning helped him progress. Murray already has superb footwork and speed, better utilisation and improvement in specific categories will take him to the next level.

Federer’s volleying and net game, poor all tournament, was superb here – 53 out of 68 net approaches won, showing an ultra aggressive game style. He won 38 out of 59 approaches and 42 out of 75 net approaches in the 2009 and 2008 Wimbledon finals, respectively, both significantly lengthier matches.

Federer won 15 of 19 net approaches in the 2011 French Open semi final, compared to Djokovic who won 12 out of 24, that match was regarded as one of Federer’s best matches. We see that Federer’s best game is not necessarily when he always approaches the net but when he can takes time away from the opponent and puts the match on his racquet, against Djokovic going to the net would not work and against Murray staying to the baseline would not work.

Match Conclusion

Federer’s poor volleying and inconsistent forehand lead Murray to the wrong game plan. Murray did not vary his game enough, let Federer move him around, could not cope with Federer changing tactics and becoming more aggressive with returns later in the match. Yet he had Federer right where he wanted him, with a solid passing shot on another day he may have been a set up and a break up.

Federer may have won the first set and Murray may have won the second set, both used risky tactics yet Federer’s paid off; we see such a match can be extremely close and on another day it may have given birth to a different result. Federer used the momentum and anticipation of winning these crucial points with his creativity to trust himself more and be more creative as the match progressed.

Federer’s dropshots were awful except a couple, which were the most crucial and of which Federer, crucially, won. Murray did not use his creativity well, his dropshots and net game were awful for his standard. His court positioning and balance decreased through out the match as Federer moved him more; Murray’s court positioning lead to him slipping and being more defensive.

How many Majors more will Federer win?

Federer’s story seemed to finished when he won his 16th Major, since then we have seen disappointing Major losses (Berdych Wimbledon 2010) accommodating some incredulous losses (Nadal Australian Open 2012, French Open 2011, Djokovic Australian Open 2011, French Open 2012, US Open 2010 & 2011) in which Federer should have won. In the end, his resilience will define him, not technical ability nor creativity nor attitude outside the court. He has shown again and again that there is no one better at “hanging in when the going gets tough”.

A superb schedule, mature attitude and a dynamic team allows for at least a couple more Majors. It must not be forgotten that beating Nadal at the French Open still should be Federer’s ultimate goal. How he will do so given that when he was playing his best ever clay court tennis (2011) and ambushed Nadal early on in the 2011 French Open final yet still found a way to lose, is a question for Federer to answer on another day.

Will Murray win one?

We conclude with the question we have always been asking. Federer entered seventh heaven at the All England Club whilst Murray’s destination took another valuable step. Be it closer or further way, Murray is improving as a player and as a man and that certainly improves his chances.

Maybe he does not need to cut out the moaning or the swearing and maybe his second serve or his forehand or his attitude do not need to improve for him to win, but until he imposes these improvements upon himself in every match he plays, Murray’s destination is unknown.

4-5*. 40-15. And you lose.

1 year later.

4-5*. 40-15. And, again… you lose.

It seems like a fiction story; two successive years, same tournament, same stadium, same round of the same tournament, same opponent, same day (Saturday).

This article analyses Novak Djokovic’s stunning 5-set win over Roger Federer at the US Open 2011. Djokovic and Federer both played very well, with Djokovic winning 6-7 4-6 6-3 6-2 7-5.

Featured is text analysis with edited images for clarification and some thoughts on Federer’s rivalry with Djokovic; on the past, present, future and what, we, as viewers, can learn from professional tennis from this match.

If you haven’t already done so – I recommend reading my previous article Pushing The Boudaries, which analyses Federer’s match against Djokovic at Rolland Garros this year – much of the analysis in this match could be applied to that match; so the analysis on this article will be slightly different (and more in-depth; but with image clarification, one should have no problems understanding) to the analysis on the previous article due to the fact the analysis is being done on the same players!

Recovery Shots

Mentioned in “Pushing The Boundaries” is this –> ” with the remarkable defensive ability both players have, often the aggressive shot was counter-punched very aggressively, at times (Djokovic in particular) either player mystically lost the point after being in control of it due to the other’s remarkable defensive ability.

This describes the defensive ability of Federer and Djokovic; for them to be bullied out of controlling a rally, they have skills in defending incredibly well with their footwork, movement and technique, such that, they can not be in control of a rally, and from one amazing defensive shot, can change the whole momentum of the rally and take control of it.

This sole shot that can change the rally can be called the “recovery shot”, to turn your position of a losing position into a winning position in a rally, and in a sense, it is counter-pounching, one of the best players in the game for “recovery shots” was Lleyton Hewitt, who could be dominated in a rally and counter-punch out of nowhere and win the point.

Federer and Djokovic have taken this a level further – it is a normal part of their game, they are both aggressive baseliners, and when the opposing players attempts to take the aggression away from either by controlling the rally themselves, their aggressive defense is what helps them.

Federer and Djokovic have great defensive shots on either wing; Federer’s forehand is sensational in every category, whilst his backhand slice is one of the best when it comes to defending, Djokovic’s consistency on his backhand and the increased explosiveness with the forehand shot this year mean he is very reliable and dangerous from defense.

Both hit the ball on the rise when defending – some players prefer to stand-back when defending; both Federer and Djokovic stay up the court to console an aggressive position (will be explained later).

In the image above, Djokovic is the aggressor in the rally; he hits a DTL (down the line) backhand in an attempt to win the rally.

At this point Federer is in the losing position and must produce a forehand recovery shot to continue the rally or lose the point.

The  image shows just how dangerous Federer’s forehand can be – Djokovic seems to be in total control of the rally, Federer hits a down-the-line forehand in the black rectangle, as opposed to the theory that when you are out-side the court and are not controlling a rally (as Djokovic is in this point, with his backhand down-the-line giving him a large favour), you should hit cross-court, to an area like the white rectangle.

By being more risky – and more aggressive with his defense, Federer wrong-foots Djokovic, and now he controls the point, you can see in the image above Djokovic is off balance and looking at his racquet you can see he is only going to push/slice the ball back in play, Federer is already moving to the middle of the baseline – he has balance, and Djokovic does not.

Sufficient Depth

Either player is aggressive and looks to attack any short balls; so the biggest chance Federer or Djokovic can give to either is to deliver a short-ball, pperhaps near the service line, as opposed to deep shots.

For an effective, offensive shot, Federer should be looking for a deep, down-the-line forehand shot or a cross-court shot. Both of these shots are a) not in the middle of the court, b) nowhere near the service line, c) move Djokovic laterally on the court and d) allow Federer to recover back to the middle of the baseline for control of a very crucial point.

Instead, Federer hits a very short forehand deep inside the service line, disregarding any of the 4 (a,b,c,d) advantages listed in the description of the image previous to this. Djokovic has time to set-up his backhand, control the point from the middle of the baseline.

In this case, at such a crucial point in the set (and match), Federer should have known from experience to hit the ball much deeper, you cannot afford to give a modern baseliner like Djokovic time to hit the ball, especially as he very comfortable with his backhand; and Federer employing a pro-active style should not expect Djokovic to make a mistake; he should be aggressive, hitting near the service line against Djokovic should not be acceptable at any part of the match; but especially at such a crucial moment. A short ball allows Djokovic time to get into a good, aggressive position to attack the ball.

Djokovic hits a cross-court backhand, Federer is now forced to move laterally, from noticing that the black line indicates the middle of the baseline (desired spot for Federer and Djokovic to hit from), Federer is behind the baseline, moving away from the baseline, defending, and moving backwards. Djokovic is moving forwards.

When defending with a one handed backhand – you must defend aggressively, a player with a one handed cannot consistently, or rather, efficiently defend as well as a player with a two handed backhand when pushed to behind the baseline in a lateral fashion as Djokovic does to Federer.

This is because this takes away the advantages the one hander offers – fluidity, variety and touch, which all come from inside or near the baseline.

Federer returns another short ball to the service line and Djokovic thunders a cross-court forehand to save another set point.

It is in crucial moments like these – in the crucial rallies, points, that defending from 1 shot becomes so important. In this particular (set) point, Federer hit 2 poor defensive shots (both in the service line), this was enough for Djokovic to win the point.

To defend or to attack Djokovic in 2011 – you must consistently hit deep and not allow him to get into a rhythm when he moves you around the court, many players have quoted on how well Djokovic switches the ball from left to right in the court.

Backhand Brutality

One of the main talking points during the analysis of the Federer – Djokovic Roland Garros 2011 match was how aggressive Federer was with his backhand down-the-line; perhaps the slow conditions (compared to hard-court) allowed Federer time to rip his one hander on the Parisian courts, would the much quicker condition in Flushing Meadows make a difference?

Federer hit a superb topspin backhand down-the-line shot which caused a forced error from Djokovic to seal the first set.

Djokovic does not move to his right as he expects Federer to hit a cross-court backhand to the white rectangle; the theory supports this, as Djokovic’s return has moved Federer to the singles tramlines, thus more angle is open for the cross-court shot and the down-the-line shot is now even more risky due to the net being higher at sides than the middle.

Yet Federer hits a down-the-line backhand into the black rectangle despite being a huge distance from the baseline and registers a set point. This is an extremely risky play to make, but one that is needed to beat Djokovic from the baseline (how many times have we heard this about Nadal?).

Further-more, at such a crucial moment in the match, after losing a couple of set-points, to deliver such a breathtaking groundstroke from such a risky position to the best returner and the best defender in the game (currently), shows that Federer has an outstanding one handed backhand – perhaps not in the Haas, Kuerten or Lendl league with the topspin power, but when Federer’s ground-stroke game is on, his backhand is extremely dangerous.

His backhand punished Murray ruthlessly at the final of the 2010 Australian Open, he hit it extremely well against Nadal in Madrid and Roland Garros this year. Federer has worked on his backhand frequently since he became a professional player, comparing the grip he used on his backhand to one of his earlier career matches against Agassi to the one he is using in this [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-U5rMXT2buw]video[/url], it shows a remarkable progression in technique and change in grip for the modern baseline game.

Another point here displays Federer’s superb backhand, it should be noted however, that Djokovic did the same in many points – both can attack with their backhands very well depending on the oppoonent.

Djokovic is the player in control of this rally – he is inside the baseline, hitting the ball on the rise, whilst Federer is behind the baseline and anticipating a defensive shot.

Djokovic is known for his dangerous backhand down-the-line shot, at 1*-1 15-30 down, he opts to go cross-court to Federer’s backhand – many of the top players do this when attacking Federer, because at first-sight, his backhand seems weaker than his forehand (which to an extent, it is).

However, again, at a crucial moment, Federer hits a superb down-the-line backhand passing shot. Noticing his excellent footwork in the image above helps to see just how cleanly he strikes the ball.

Losing this point, Djokovic now would face 2 break points – which is a huge danger against Federer, or any opponent who has reached a SF in a Major. Matches against the best players in the game come to close rally exchanges like these. Djokovic, who many claim has a better backhand than Federer or anyone, is and has continuously lost key backhand exchanges with Federer in Major matches – this kind of analysis is rarely, if ever, picked up by commentators, and thus is key to understanding the match-up between certain players.

The image shows just how far Federer is from the middle of the baseline (the only slightly visible ellipse); Djokovic has moved him laterally, but Federer defended aggressively by hitting through the ball. Federer deserves praise for executing such a stunning DTL backhand, but Djokovic should receive equal praise for moving Federer out of the court; few players can do so.

Cause and Effect

There wasn’t all joy with Federer’s backhand however – in the image above, Federer hits a topspin backhand to the black rectangle on Djokovic’s side, which is near the service line, allowing Djokovic huge amounts of time to prepare for a shot, which will result in the black arrow and the black rectangle on Federer’s side.

Had Federer hit a deeper backhand (to the white rectangle on Djokovic’s side), Djokovic now has not only a much more difficult shot to return – the return will not push Federer as wide as much and will more likely than not land in the service line.

It’s a game of cause and effect – hit a short shot, expect a deep return, hit a deep shot, expect a short return.

The 2 images above show Djokovic cracking a thundering forehand to Federer’s forehand, very deep in the court, and Federer making a forced error.

Had Federer hit deeper, he would have faced a much more defensive shot from Djokovic. In this instance – Federer’s aggression is beaten by Djokovic’s aggression.

Djokovic’s Agility

Even when Federer did everything right, Djokovic sometimes was too good (how many times have we heard this line used to explain Federer?).

Federer moves Djokovic out of the court (extremely) and naturally moves into the middle of the court for an expected cross-court return (black rectangle).

In Djokovic’s mind – he can be very risky and attempt to hit a down-the-line passing shot to the white rectangle, but this is very risky; and given the circumstances (Federer is facing 2 break points), it is Federer who is under pressure, not Djokovic.

Djokovic returns a sensational cross-court passing shot which dips very low (this is why Federer is bending in the photo above), Federer makes an error from the volley; but even if he made it, Djokovic is already running back.

This is one of the reasons why Djokovic is extremely hard to beat – it is hard to beat him from the net because of how fast he is to react to dropshots/volleys and how agile he is with his  passing shots.

Federer could have approached to Djokovic’s forehand – a tactic he employed at the Australian Open this year, but Djokovic’s forehand was on fire in that match and Federer was passed many, many times by Djokovic.

Djokovic’s Hip Rotation (Increase)

Djokovic here is hitting cross-court. He uses a huge amount of hip rotation in his forehand – something he did not do in the earlier part of his career. The huge amount of hip rotation means more of his body is used and he generates more power from his forehand. He uses so much rotation that it gives the illusion that he is jumping of the floor – he is not (literally).

This increased usage of hip rotation is one of the reasons his forehand has improved so much this season – he runs around his backhand more so he is hitting his forehand more during a match, as well.

How does this play to his match-up against Federer?

It means Federer cannot attack Djokovic’s forehand nearly as much as before, or look for a “rally ball” from Djokovic, it also means Federer cannot risk positioning himself to his favoured left-side of the court (running around the backhand) because Djokovic is now more lethal with his forehand and can expose his court positioning.

Early Returns

Here Djokovic serves wide to Federer’s backhand (the black rectangle). Federer hits an inside-in forehand return winner, which shows his aggressive returning ability.

Djokovic does not face this pressure on his second serve when faced against players Nadal and Murray, and can relax on his second-serves, but against aggressive returners such as Federer, he has to be careful of a poor first-serve percentage as Federer will eventually cream second serves for winners.

Djokovic had huge serving trouble in 2009 and 2010, the inclusion of Todd Martin as a part-time coach did not help, when he faced Federer in those 2 seasons, Federer had a much bigger look at his serve than he does now.

By having a higher amount of first-serves go in, Djokovic is naturally a tougher match-up for Federer.

Federer returns a serve with a top-spin backhand in the black rectangle, again this down-the-line backhand is not wide, nor deep enough to trouble Djokovic, who then has the task of crushing a forehand in the white rectangle – in which he does, and he wins the point.

Federer should have been more aggressive with his backhand down-the-line return here and on many numerous points during the match, he reaped the benefits of it when he did use his BH DTL (backhand down the line), in which he secured the first set (7-6) with a forced error from Djokovic after the Serb had to return a very powerful BH DTL, which was wide and right on the baseline.

Further-more, Federer exposed his court positioning (inside the baseline and no where near the middle of the court) by hitting short. If you are inside the baseline – already your movement in terms of defense is restricted as you have less court to “block” from the opponent to hit to, but by hitting short and to the middle of the court, you are essentially giving free points away.

With Federer at match-point, he serves a slice serve to Djokovic’s forehand in the black rectangle. Federer’s slice serve is one of the best in the men’s tour, yet Djokovic returns the ball for a winner in the white rectangle.

The next match-point, Federer missed an open-court forehand that he put away many times in the first 4 sets, and from there on, Djokovic grew stronger.

In the end, Djokovic took his chances – and Federer did not. Federer and Djokovic both played  a great match match, both strong in tactics, mental strength (Federer being able to survive and serve for the match after dropping 2 sets, Djokovic for winning the match despite being 2 sets down) and technical variety, this match was similar to the one in Paris earlier in the year.

Even when serving at 5*-3 in this match, Federer served extremely well – he served an ace to begin the game, yet with 2 match points, albeit 1 returned with “luck”, another a poor miss, he made a double-fault at 5*-3 after dropping 2 match points.

Leading

Federer lost to Berdych in Miami Masters 2010 after holding a match point, he lost to Baghdatis in Indian Wells Masters 2010 after holding a match point – these blips were a forecast for the US Open 2010 semi final and the US Open 2011 semi final, in which he has lost both times, despite holding a total of 4 match points. He has also lost to Djokovic and Tsonga in 2 Majors this year (2011) after holding a 2-set lead; never before in a Major had Federer lost after winning the first 2 sets. His ability to jump ahead after leading in a match was declined over the years.

Effects on Men’s Tour?

Certainly Federer showed how to beat Djokovic; to be aggressive, whilst not making errors. The way Federer played against Djokovic in the US Open & Roland Garros and the way Murray played against Djokovic in Rome is the pattern to follow to beat the Serbian. A mixture of incredible aggression (because of Djokovic’s amazing defensive ability) and consistency (not making errors in crucial stages) is required to beating Djokovic.

It seems that the level of play has increased on the men’s tour – from 2008 to 2009 to 2010 we had Federer and Nadal alternating around, both often in poor form (Federer in early 2008, and Nadal in late 2009); Djokovic has changed the tour slightly. He has some of Federer’s aggression whilst having Nadal’s consistency from the back of the court – he as no clear “weakness” to attack, and thus we have a world number 1 who is very much the perfect version of a modern baseliner.

Conclusion

Overall, this match was decided by how each player recovered in a rally (recovery shots); with how much depth each player hit in rallies as both are determined to hit deep and be aggressive (sufficient depth), Federer’s DTL backhand causing Djokovic trouble (surprising to some, but as this and the last piece explain, it’s a common occurrence when the two play) because he does not cover his right enough. The reaction’s players posed to each other after poor shots was crucial; would Federer be more aggressive on a short ball than Djokovic on a short-ball? Djokovic’s superb agility and increased hip rotation on his forehand was matched by Federer’s early returns, which put pressure on Djokovic’s first serve.

Federer should have won this and the match last year – it was his play that brought him to match point initially, not Djokovic. Yet the Serbian’s resilient defensive ability, combined with aggressive returning and offensive play when under extreme pressure, and Federer’s ground-strokes breaking down at the most important moment in the match (5*-3, 40-30, forehand, mid-court), this perhaps explain how this loss happened.

Djokovic later admitted he had his eyes closed whilst making the shot and was lucky, while Federer could not fathom how Djokovic made the shot at such a crucial moment. It seems that beauty does indeed, walk on razor’s edge. In the first 2 sets, Federer’s beautiful, smooth, free-flowing game took him ahead whilst in the next 2 sets it was Djokovic’s beautiful, aggressive and consistent play from both wings that put him back on the match. In the end, a thunderbolt return from the Serbian was enough to tip Federer over the edge.

A male player with a lethal forehand, an even better backhand, great movement, amazing footwork, comfortable at the net, able to use a reactive baseline style which brings success in the modern game (explained here), combined with a great serve and a great return of serve.

How do you beat him?

Well, until Roger Federer did so at Roland Garros, nobody had beaten Djokovic in 2011 – the Serbian’s 40+ match winning streak was and still is amazing, defeating Nadal in 5 finals on three different surfaces and defeating Federer in a semi final of a Major add huge credibility to his streak, and for a while, many believed he was simply unbeatable.

It took a sensational performance from Federer to defeat Djokovic, one of the greatest in his career – Federer has a tendency to play his best tennis in the semi final of a Major – previous destructions at Australian Open semi finals include Roddick in 2007, Roddick in 2009 and Tsonga 2010, Djokovic in US Open 2008 and 2009, etc, thus it was not completely surprising that his best tennis of the year came during the semi final of the second Major of the year.

What was surprising is how intelligent Federer played, and how complete he has become with his tactics. Despite being past his peak, Federer delivered a stunning performance, one reeking of a proactive, aggressive style that has become rare to watch in the modern game. Federer’s proactive style is in huge contrast to fellow top players (Nadal, Murray and Djokovic just to name a few) that makes Federer so much more enjoyable to watch for many fans.

So how did Federer defeat Djokovic?

1. Federer took time away from Djokovic, made him move laterally AND vertically on the court. (the images below will explain this further)

2. He used his backhand extremely well – Djokovic was very frustrated during this match because he could not break down Federer’s backhand, as opposed to the 2011 Australian Open and the 2010 US Open where either Federer’s forehand or backhand eventually broke down in extended rallies. On this certain match, Federer’s groundstrokes were brilliant, when his game from the back-court is on, as Djokovic experienced, it is very, very difficult to play your game as Federer asks many questions with his serve, groundstrokes and movement. Federer hit a lot of backhand topspin down-the-line winners in this match, in fact Federer’s topspin backhand down-the-line was arguably the key shotin this match (each player’s serve being more important), and as explained before, hitting down-the-line can be very effective in any match, regardless of opposition, which makes it a proactive tactic to use, which fits well with Federers game.

3. Federer defended extremely well, often slicing his backhand cross-court to the service line, which made Djokovic have to “reach” in the court and stretch down for the ball to return it, not many players can use this short slice, it was not surprising to see Djokovic often struggle with it.

4. He served very well. Serving well is arguably the most important thing to do in a tennis match (if not one of the most important), and doing it benefits to reducing unforced errors from reduced pressure, hitting more winners due to having shorter returns from the opponent, and more concentration to focus on your opponents games than your own, reducing pressure.

The images below should help extend the analysis, explaining how the 4 points in a more clear and extended manner with diagrams and notations.

Point 1

In the image above, Federer slices a backhand cross-court to Djokovic’s backhand, the positioning of the shot is quite shallow – it’s near the service line, this would usually lead people to believe that Federer is being defensive, but he is actually using an attacking tactic here.

By slicing low, short and aggressively (not a floating slice) to Djokovic’s backhand, he makes the Serbian come inside the baseline, which again seems advantageous for the Serbian, but this exposes more of the court to Federer as Djokovic is not behind the baseline anymore, as well as not having the extra time or space to prepare for his groundstrokes for more power and accuracy, by staying inside the basline, Djokovic would be forced to hit on the rise in a groundstroke rally, thus this tactic is used to “pull” the Serbian into the net, and to sort of distort his fluency from the back of the court.

But how does it matter later on in the point? What effect does this slice have?

Here you can see how low Djokovic has to get to slice the ball back, his footwork and technique needs to be exceptional to hit a slice (a topspin is out of the question in this case) that Federer cannot attack from either the slice floating too high to Federer’s hitting zone, or Djokovic’s court positioning.

The grey rectangle represents where Djokovic is more dangerous and more importantly, “comfortable” on the tennis court – it is impossible to blast through him through the grey rectangle shown in the diagram, his tall height, great footwork and consistent forehand + backhand means you have to move the Serbian extremely horizontally to try and hit winners to the corners.

In the image above, Federer hits a topspin backhand to the black rectangle, meaning he is moving Djokovic away from his most comfortable position on the court (the centre of the court).

Djokovic now returns a topspin backhand cross-court, an identical shot to the one Federer did, however the grey rectangle now represents where Federer is most comfortable on the tennis court – Federer is the best defender (with Nadal and Sampras close below) in the game when it comes to defending the backhand side (his left side), despite his backhand being weaker than his forehand, the court positioning, technique on his shots, footwork and variety he has from his left side (where he can go inside out/in with the forehand on top of using the backhand) are far more than to his right, where the cross-court or the down-the-line forehand are his only options.

Federer is aided by having an exceptional slice, which means moving him laterally to his left can be useless unless he is faced with heavy topspin (think Nadal’s forehand), but even then, Federer often runs around his backhand or hits a down-the-line backhand to counter this tactic, thus as you can see in the above image, Djokovic is tempting fate by leaving the whole court to his right free by hitting to a position Federer is already in (Djokovic was not in the position he is in the above image from image 3, as opposed to Federer, who is in the same position in image 3 and image 4 ( the image above) ).

With all the free space, Federer hits a clean down-the-line topspin backhand winner.

This pattern is repeated in the match perhaps 30+ times and nearly all the time Djokovic loses. This pattern emerged in just the third game of the whole match – that Federer hit a down-the-line backhand winner so early tells you he had a clear strategy from early on.

At 6-6 in the tie-breaker, Federer hits another cross-court slice, however unlike the one in image 1, this slice is more deep, much higher than the service line.

Djokovic can opt for a down-the-line backhand, which he is so comfortable with, to avoid losing balance and court positioning (and the point) from Federer inevitably hitting down-the-line with his backhand if he returns the shot cross court.

Federer now hits a down the line backhand, Djokovic has to move laterally to his weaker wing to recover the shot.

And indeed he does; however now Federer hits an even more risky shot, an inside-out down-the-line backhand, which wrong-foots Djokovic; Federer is a tough match-up for any modern baseliner to deal with because he has so much variety.

Djokovic now has to recover this shot and you can see the clear wrong-footing Federer has done; Djokovic has partly lost balance and lost his position completely/

Later on in the point Federer makes Djokovic completely lose his balance on top of court positioning.

Although it may seem just like one point won by Federer, doing it loses Djokovic’s timing; he has to continuously “recover” shots just to get back into a rally, it makes the timing much harder for when he is in control of a rally due to just how rare it is (for him to be dominating, not Federer).

Point 3

At 4-5, 0-30, it is crucial Djokovic wins this point to not give Federer 3 break-back points, yet once again, the Serbian fell to the 1-2 combination Federer used so many times, the cross-court backhand slice/topspin (or cross-court inside-out forehand), and the backhand down-the-line, this shot in particular was a clean winner and effectively ended any chance of Djokovic taking the match into a fifth set from his own serve.

This different angle shows the cross-court rally, where both players are camped to their backhand side, one hits back to the other player (Djokovic), where as the other is hitting to the space (Federer).

By the time the ball has landed in Djokovic’s court (and if you look clearly, Federer’s winner wasn’t the most powerful or deep either; it just cleared the service line), the point has already ended.

Point 4

But what would happen if Djokovic started camping a little more to his forehand side, or started to prepare to move to his forehand side from a cross-court shot to Federer’s backhand, surely Federer would not do so much damage with his down-the-line backhand?

Unfortunately, this is where the proactive style Federer employs means it is impossible to beat him, by now looking to move to his (Djokovic’s) right, he now leaves an open hole to his left where he can be wrong-footed by an inside-out shot (arguably Federer’s best sub-forehand shot).

Djokovic is on his tip-toes on this image expecting a down-the-line shot from Federer’s forehand, but Federer “checks” the ball, leaves it for a more seconds (which is very risky and requires exquisite timing) and hits an inside-out forehand to Djokovic’s backhand.

For proof on Djokovic’s change of identity when returning Federer’s shots; the image above clearly shows how he was not prepared for the shot to his backhand side and is making a recovery shot. This leaves Federer with a huge space.

Federer duly converts with an inside-in forehand winner.

This leads to almost a double-edge sword for Djokovic in baseline rallies; either he lets Federer hit down-the-line backhands continuously and hope Federer misses them or stops hitting DTL BHs, or he starts moving to his right and is now open to the inside-out forehand wrong-footing shot.

Surface

Overall, this match was played on a quicker than usual clay surface, the tennis balls were reported to be much quicker than usual, Greg Rudeski labelled them as “pellets”, the conclusion on this is that quicker surfaces and quicker tennis balls definitely aided Federer more than Djokovic here; his serve was more damaging (despite Djokovic being taller, Federer has a better serve) than at the Australian Open, Dubai or Indian Wells, this meant he could focus on the return games more, Federer is known for being awful at converting break points; his big serve let him focus on Djokovic’s games more than Federer’s.

The statistics from the match help aid this point, Federer hit 18 aces on a clay-court.

A Matter Of A Few Points

It is important to note, despite Federer playing extremely well, Djokovic also played a very good match, a match which was very close and could have been decided in a different manner (Djokovic winning) by perhaps only a few different factors. This article shouldn’t be see as an article in which Federer is receiving constant praise for his game-style, had Djokovic won the analysis would have been on the inefficiencies and problems Federer had, despite the match being very close and Federer most likely employing the same tactics as this article shows, this is very important as it shows how during a modern tennis match, often the correct strategies are being used by both players – just one player is adapting to the surface better, feels more “motivated”, etc, it is these little things that can make the difference.

Aggression

Djokovic has defeated Nadal five times in 2011 – at times he has toyed with the Spaniard, one of the reasons he can do this is because he finds it easy to be aggressive against Nadal (aka it is in his own hands).

Against Federer (Tsonga is also a good example) however it is different. It is much more difficult to be aggressive against him in comparison to players such as Nadal. Federer has more variety and thus you need to find different ways to be aggressive, his low-slice means it is very hard for anyone to be aggressive against him as the slice aims to take out aggressive shots from the other player (how can you hit an aggressive shot when the ball is 3-5 cm off the floor?).

This was different in the Australian Open semi final – where Federer was the one who found it very difficult to be aggressive against Djokovic. Difference from that match and this match? Federer served lights out in Paris and very poorly in Melbourne.

Patterns

With both players comfortable hitting cross-court and down-the-line with both wings (Djokovic more comfortable hitting down-the-line with his backhand and Federer more comfortable hitting down-the-line with his forehand), the winner of the point, at times, came down to which player had the first opportunity to hit the aggressive shot – and even then, with the remarkable defensive ability both players have, often the aggressive shot was counter-punched very aggressively, at times (Djokovic in particular) either player mystically lost the point after being in control of it due to the other’s remarkable defensive ability.

The current “Big 4″ (or Big 3, if you count Slam winners only), are very different players; whilst they all have big serves and are comfortable on all surfaces; they have different techniques, Murray has arguably the worst forehand of the top 4 whilst Djokovic has arguably the best backhand of the top 4, Federer with the best volleys and Nadal with the best mentality and consistency (although Djokovic has started to challenge this with his hugely impressive run this year).

However – with all the key differences, the Big 4 unite with one thing; they are all amazing defenders on a tennis-court, what is remarkable is that they defend differently.

Murray defends well by making opponents hit aggressive shots time after time which usually result in unforced errors, he does this technique-wise by hitting cross-court a lot when in a defensive position and using slice on his backhand to add some variety.

Nadal defends by slowly pummelling the opponent with his forehand and eventually controlling the point, or (less frequent now than say in 2006) by making the opponent hit a risky net approach or go for an aggressive shot from a shoulder-high tennis ball, which many players do not have the footwork required to aggressively attack.

However Djokovic and Federer defend in a more “attacking” sense.

Federer at times will just go for the big, risky shot when outside the second week of a Major and accepts the unforced errors that come.

When he does need to defend however – he does so by using his brilliant cross-court backhand slice, his more rare inside out backhand slice (see the image below) or by wrong-footing the opponent (90% of the time it’s with his forehand). The key is that he slices with his backhand very well when in a defensive position and looks to attack in creative ways with his forehand to change the point around so he can control it.

When a match is completely out of Federer’s hands (his 2 last meetings at Majors with Del Potro, last meeting with Berdych and last meeting with Soderling), he starts adopting Murray’s tactics and essentially hopes the other person misses, in these matches, Federer usually looks his poorest and most vulnerable to being beaten.

Djokovic has perhaps the best defense – he uses Federer, Nadal and Murray’s defensive attributes combined into one.

Thus it was interesting to see just how effective Federer’s defense was in comparison to a player who is more complete defensively (Djokovic).

At the ripe-old age of 30, Federer may not have the legs or superb agility that Djokovic now has (and that Federer once did), but his defensive game-plan was very effective; slice aggressively cross-court with his backhand and look to attack with his forehand in many creative manners. Having a very clear, if slightly simple, game-plan, Federer knew what he had to do and did it very well; Djokovic is a more complete defender and thus had more options and perhaps he found it slightly difficult to know which shot to go for.

At times Djokovic seemed to be lost in what to do in the rally and at these times he just peppered Federer’s backhand; this tactic is not limited to Djokovic, Nadal and Murray have used this tactic effectively very well against Federer.

However consistently hitting the ball to his backhand meant Federer started hitting down-the-line more – even earlier on in the match (as the first couple of images show) Federer was keen to hit down-the-line with his backhand, this was not a great match to pepper Federer’s backhand due to Federer being consistent with his groundstrokes. Federer is known for shanking (mis-hitting) his backhand and forehand in tight matches (he hit a huge mishit in the fourth set to almost lose it) or/and when he is not playing well, today Federer very rarely shanked or mishit any groundstrokes, when he does this it makes him exceptionally hard to break down (and he was similar against Nadal in the final, playing a superb first set up to 5-2).

Perhaps this increase in groundstroke form was related to him serving so well, Federer has a tendency to complete a whole service game in around (or even less!) the one minute mark, today against Djokovic he couldn’t complete service games so quickly due to the great returning ability of Djokovic, but several service games, at tight moments, were quickly pulled away from the Serbian by great serving from Federer.

This is very similar to how Djokovic “stole” the Australian Open 2008 and 2011 matches from Federer and how Federer stole the US Open 2007 final from Djokovic. Great serving at crucial moments to snub the moments when the opponent had a chance to break or had a chance to get a chance to break (such as being 0-30 on a service game).

Boundaries

Overall, this match is probably the highest level of ball-striking you will see in 2011 (yet); the Fognini-Montanes match at Roland Garros may have been more dramatic and climatic, but had several errors, lapses of concentration and lack of variety of play from both players. This match was never going to have that – Djokovic is playing the best tennis of his life, Federer was the player many would look at for the errors and concentration lapses.

Djokovic has beaten just about everyone this year. Federer’s superb, proactive performance went against all kinds of theories (one handed backhand breaking down after sustained pressure, just to name one foolish theory some have collected), it has pushed the boundaries of men’s tennis, similar to how the 2008 Wimbledon Final did – the difference is in that match to this match? Federer played dreadfully from the baseline yet served brilliantly, in this match he played excellent from the baseline and served lights-out.

(Highlights of the match)

His serve is weak (for the most part of his career), his volleys aren’t very good, his backhand doesn’t generate many winners, his forehand drops deep far too often and he can be very injury prone, but Rafael Nadal is, in my view, the most difficult player to beat in the world. Yet from the first sentence, you would be shocked as to why he is so difficult to beat. This article aims to explain why so many “choke” against Nadal, why he’s acclaimed to be so “mentally strong” when that’s part illusion, tactics and footwork Nadal uses in matches and how, you, can adopt the tactics and mentality Nadal uses, to further your game and also, how Nadal is misunderstood in his style of play by many tennis fans and commentators.

And finally, this article explains as to why Nadal could (and in reality, should) be the greatest of all time - something that many fans think is “unthinkable” with Federer as the current leader of all time greatest male players.

Forehand

Nadal’s forehand averages around 3200 rpm (revolutions per minute) from a normal baseline stroke (his forehand generating much more RPM than his backhand).  He can generate extreme topspin on a ball; this requires use of the body to almost use your body to “push” the ball, often Blake and Nadal do this, where as someone like Federer doesn’t use as much of his body, rather being reliant more on footwork. Nadal’s forehand and strong muscular core build allow him to hit the ball deep with security knowing that he won’t make a forehand error due to his shot being very high percentage (in not making an error), generally the more topspin you hit the less chance you have of making an error due to the shot looping over the net, as opposed to a flat drive, which is lower – this simple to explain.

Mentally Strong

Yet the subtle reasoning as to why Nadal is acclaimed to be “mentally strong” is partly explained here; when there is a big point in a match, say 5-5 in the a tie-breaker where the next point is crucial for the set, Nadal’s high percentage shot, his forehand, can be hit time and time again without making an error; usually he hits cross-court, to the opponent’s backhand, most opponents in the ATP Tour seem to have weaker backhands than forehands, and the backhand in general is a flatter shot than the forehand for anyone – try getting topspin on a backhand like Nadal gets on a forehand, and you’ll find it’s impossible. Thus by continuously hitting a cross-court forehand loop to an opponent’s backhand, this partly explains why Nadal does so well at big points: he does something that makes him hit no errors.

Further-more, this also explains why some players are said to “choke” against Nadal. He puts pressure on them to generate a winner or a forced error from Nadal, and the sheer pressure to do so; when so much is at stake, causes opponents to either make wild unforced errors (think Federer in the Hamburg Masters 2008 Final), or as is much more common, for opponents who have almost bean Nadal by being aggressive, to suddenly become very defensive, and we can see a first-class demonstration by the “choke” Almagro puts up in the video below, numerous times in his numerous match points he has chances to go to the net and finish the point, but he doesn’t and as a result, loses his game and the match.

Tactics

Nadal concentrates very well at match points when the match is close; by hitting the high percentage-shot (his forehand) time and time again in a rally, these 3 things happen:

1. The rally extends, and due to Nadal being the fittest player (or one of) in the men’s tour, this benefits him.
2. The opponent has to continue hitting aggressive shots, which have a higher percentage of generating an error than Nadal’s forehand shot.
3. The third is perhaps the most subtle, but what starts happening is Nadal starts “glueing” the opponent with his forehand, the image below shows it very well:

^ Initially Nadal starts by hitting a deep cross-court backhand, in this example, to Federer’s backhand.

^ Federer is now forced to hit a shoulder-high backhand from a defensive position; the Swiss player’s backhand is competent to handle these high topspin forehands from Nadal, but not all player’s have the luxury Federer has with his backhand on clay, nevertheless, Nadal now moves to the middle of the court and moves up the court to be more aggressive as he is expecting a defensive shot from Federer.

^ Nadal now hits an inside-in forehand to Federer’s backhand, but he is again glueing Federer to the little white box, and the next image shows why he does this.

^ Federer hits a defensive shot, Nadal is now already at the middle of the court and has essentially two options -> hit a cross-court forehand to wrong-foot the opponent (A) or hit inside-out (B) for the winner, either one is a percentage shot (B is slightly more riskier than A, of course) due to Nadal’s extreme topsin on his forehand, but what these images aim to show is how Nadal has glued Federer to the left-side of the tennis court, this is a very good tactic that Nadal uses against all opponents.

Alternatively, you can watch this rally take place in the first 10 seconds on this YouTube video.

These 3 points explain why he’s seen as being mentally strong and why players choke against him – (1) Nadal feels free to get into long rallies by hitting high percentage shots, which doesn’t result in too many errors from the Spaniard; not making errors in crucial moments seems to be the definition of being “mentally strong”, (2) the opponents have to continuously hit aggressive shots against Nadal and often they make mistakes, labelling them as “chokers” and the third point shows how Nadal can be an intelligent player -> by glueing his opponent out-wide to negate any chance of the opponent hitting a winner.

Greatest… Of All Time?

It is not too abstract to think of Nadal possibly being the greatest of all time, this article was originally scheduled for a February 2010 release, however since then Nadal has won 3 Grand Slams, and as a result, is inching closer and closer to Federer, who is clearly past his prime.

Nadal is already the best at some things – he has the most Masters shields (at 18), is probably the greatest clay-court ever – not even Borg has matched Nadal’s dominance on Monte Carlo, but elusively, having the most Slams is what we attribute to being the greatest.

Nadal is 24 years of age -> assuming by the age of 30 he is comfortably out of his prime, he has 5 years of 4 tries  (1 try = 1 Major, and there are of course, 4 in a year) and 1 year of 3 tries, letting him have 23 tries to catch up to Federer’s 16 and to possibly overtake him.

Further more, with the decline of Federer, Murray’s inconsistent form and Djokovic’s brilliant rise, we will just have to see what happens for Nadal.

This explains why it can be difficult to move Nadal out of position and how it is difficult to beat him when he applies this tactic, as the opponent (Federer in this case) has to hit a risky shot (say a backhand down the line) to not allow Nadal to finish the point off.

Serve

You only need to look at video showing Nadal in 2005 and Nadal in 2010 to see how much his serve has improved.

Serve in 2005:

Serve in 2010:

An improvement in his serve has made it harder for him to be beaten. He gets more free points and at crucial times in a match, say serving at 5-6 30-30 in a set, doesn’t have to rely on a baseline rally to win the point, he can try with a big first serve, although his serve still is inconsistent and at times completely disappears, it is an improvement anything he has shown before summer 2010. The US Open 2010 is the tournament where his serve started to increase.

Nadal Misunderstood

Nadal is partly misunderstood by some, it is unfair to label Nadal as an attacking baseliner or defensive baseliner – he is neither, rather he is a modern baseliner, a new type of player only around in the last 10/20 years, as this article explains.

It’s a common myth Nadal has problems playing on a fast surface, especially a fast hard-court, this is nonsense; winning the US Open proves that wrong, with a better serve and a lighter schedule, Nadal should be able to perform better on hard-courts. Further-more, a fast hard-court does give Nadal some advantages, assuming his opponent is not a Federer or a Djokovic:

1. His forehand becomes more difficult to attack as the faster court naturally makes his shots a little faster.

2. His newer, slightly more powerful serve can come into use, the court being fast allows for the first serve to create more service winners and service aces.

These are all reasons as to why Nadal is so difficult to beat.

Competitors (and Attitude)

It appears that Djokovic will be Nadal’s main competitor this year and for many years to come; the Serbian defeated Nadal twice in the States for two Masters Shields, on clay, particularly on the clay-courts of Madrid, Djokovic has come very close to defeating Nadal, so we will see this year, if they do meet, how Djokovic can deal with Nadal.

Federer is the natural rival, but it is clear to see Federer is out of his prime, and has been inconsistent for a while; will Federer take Nadal apart TMC 2007 Semi Final style or will he go into error-mode Miami 2011 Semi Final style? We will only know if they face each other again.

Other competitors include Ferrer (on clay and hard court), Murray (on hard-court), Soderling, Del Potro and Davydenko (who has a positive head to head against Nadal), the problem with these competitors is that they all have glaring weaknesses; Ferrer doesn’t have a huge first serve to win him cheap points, Murray’s inconsistent form and forehand let him down, Soderling’s “mental” ability and consistency have to be perfect to defeat Nadal, the same for Del Potro, and Davydenko seems to have lost consistency.

All of his main competitors, apart from Djokovic, have glaring weaknesses, that a modern baseliner, such as Nadal, who plays a reactive-style, can adapt to. This is a further reason as to why he is so difficult to beat.

Further-more, Nadal being taken to five sets at Wimbledon 2010 by Petzchner and Haase, who both played very aggressive matches, with almost a carefree attitude, yet his main competitors (Ferrer in clay-court finals, Murray at Wimbledon semi final, Djokovic at Us Open final), all seem to be held back by either added pressure, tiredness from playing 5/6 matches in less than 2 weeks, perhaps another reason is due to human nature; we perform so well when there is no pressure and we do not expect much, but as expectations go up, as does the idea of “choking” and not performing to your most efficient self.

Nadal, of course, is no exception to this – the bagel he received in the Wimbledon 2006 final by Federer was down to Nadal being very, very pragmatic, yet Nadal has experience of playing the big events and can play his best “game” in a semi final, or a final, with the pressure added on, similar to how Sampras and Federer have done, which correlates to a mentality of a champion, which makes him very, very difficult to beat.

Rhythm

Nadal doesn’t give opponents rhythm by taking a long-time between first and second serves, some dislike the perceived gamesmanship but on the other hand it gives opponents time to catch their breath back after a long rally and regain some thought about the next point.

By taking a long-time in preparation between points, it doesn’t give opponents the “feel” of having control of a baseline rally and thus they usually make more unforced errors against Nadal than most opponents. This is the same case with Djokovic, who takes even longer between points.

Strategy Required

Many opponents have tried to beat Nadal using strategies that don’t work well against the Spaniard:

1. Getting into long rallies often in a match against Nadal (this is inefficient due to Nadal’s topspin forehand being such a percentage shot, yet it doesn’t necessarily land deep due to the huge topspin), getting into long rallies with one of the fittest guys requires huge fitness, a great technique which doesn’t break down and huge determination. Shortening the points down makes it easier for you.

2. Not going to the net (to negate Nadal with just a pure baseline rally is impossible; and it makes good sense as to finish him off from just the baseline you have to hit a winner usually 80% of the time from the back of the court, Nadal can return shots that against many other players would be mental because of his determination and great agility. Nadal will start becoming comfortable in baseline rallies, it’s fundamental to go to the net to end points quickly.

Isner did this at Roland Garros 2011 – expecting Isner to take Nadal to 5 sets on clay, let alone Roland Garros seems ludicrious; but it’s a sign of how reactive tennis can fail when faced with a player who offers a creative strategy (Isner is not your usual clay-court player).

3. Avoid the forehand. Pepper the backhand wing and hit to the forehand once or twice in a rally makes sense, Djokovic’s 4 wins against Nadal this year shows how well the Serbian is targeting Nadal’s backhand and causing him to lose his court position by forcing him to hit backhand shots time after time which usually land deep; exposing Nadal to be forced to move into a defensive position to return the shot.

Backhand Specialists

Nalbandian, Djokovic, Murray, Youzhny, are players who’s backhand is stronger than their forehand, they have all at one point “destroyed” Nadal – Nalbandian bagelled him in a Masters final, Youzhny beat him 6-1 6-0, Murray has bagelled him and Djokovic has beaten him 4 times in 2011. The point is Nadal’s natural forehand is curved to go to a right handed opponent’s backhand, logically if their backhand is their stronger shot, they do well against Nadal.

As most players in the ATP tour (unlike the WTA tour) are more effective with their forehand, under and out of pressure it is a more preferred shot to generate winners (one of Djokovic’s largest improvement in 2011 is his forehand down the line), thus their backhand wing is usually weaker, most players in the ATP tour are also right handed, again, it makes sense that Nadal will target their weaker wing in a match, making him more difficult to beat than most players.

Another note, that rarely anyone points out, is the grip Nadal uses on his backhand. The modern two-handed backhand can either be two-handed or a one hander with one hand just “supporting” it, they seem like the same thing, but Nadal’s backhand is of the second category, he uses a knuckle grip on his supporting hand (right hand), making his two handed backhand more fluid than most usual two handed backhands, and more like a one-hander, this explains why he generates so many winners with his backhand cross-court but rarely down-the-line; the natural shot on his backhand is cross-court due to his grip (his backhand is very similar to Agassi’s), this also explains why it’s very hard to beat him; even his weaker wing can be very dangerous.

(This article was originally due for a January 2011 post, where Nadal was number 1 and had not lost to Djokovic 4 times and almost lost to Isner at RG 2011 – but the Spaniard is still a very difficult player to beat)

It is indeed a big statement to say current world number 1 of the WTA circuit, Caroline Wozniacki, is the “best thing” that has happened in women’s tennis in the last 20 years, but as the article explains, the personality, game-style and many more factors (that) Wozniacki brings to the court, which is exactly what women’s tennis needs right now and has needed for a long, long time, is what makes her such a great player, and so vital to women’s professional tennis.

Consistency

What is being “consistent”, when it comes to tennis? Continuously making errors means you are being consistent – just at making errors. It seems so simple – keep the ball in the opposing court, again, and do it 10-30 more times in a rally, but the opposing player can hit a mix of slices, drop-shots, flat shots down-the-line, cross-court, etc, Wozniacki continuously keeps the ball in; she doesn’t go for broke in every-shot, it is this more subtle tactical choice, that even talented, multiple Grand-Slam players such as Serena Williams, Maria Sharapoa and Kim Clijsters, do not obey. She keeps huge pressure on her opponent; always forcing the opponent to need high concentration for every point by consistently keeping the ball in, it makes Wozniacki exceptionally difficult to defeat when she starts going for slightly more aggressive shots.

Women’s tennis has had Ana Ivanovic, Dinara Safia and Jelena Jankovic as number ones in less than 2 years – the men’s side has had Federer and Nadal for the past 7 years, Wozniacki brings the consistency in the court and in the rankings that the women’s game has needed for a long time.

Fitness

Several of the players in the women’s game, despite being professional athletes, aren’t fit enough – some prime examples are the  images below of Kleyanova and Bartoli, who clearly do not look athletically “fit”. Just watching any professional tennis match, you can tell by an extended rally (10+ shots) which players are fit enough; in the men’s game nearly all players are fit enough, however in the women’s game it is a polar opposite; even Serena Williams, a brilliant tennis player, has a huge weakness in being moved side to side as she is not quick enough to recover.

Wozniacki is the polar opposite; by choosing to play consistent tennis, without going for too many winners, she accepts that she will have to get into long rallies, so keeping fitness at a high level is essential, it is the determination and motivation to be consistently fit, that players such as Safina, Bartoli, Cibulkova, Clijsters (some credit is due to Clijsters as she was pregnant in the last couple years), Serena Williams, just cannot seem to adopt, she makes players like Bartoli and Williams look fat – which seems such a big insult as they are professional tennis players, but do they have the determination and motivation required to keep as fit as Wozniacki? No, and it’s a shame as this shows it is not only Wozniacki’s current generation who aren’t fit enough, it is the previous generation too.

Her attitude

Wozniacki’s attitude is arguably the best thing to have happened to women’s tennis for a long, long time. As she is number 1 in the rankings – many young girls wanting to play tennis in the future will look to her personality as one to follow, and Wozniacki displays a relatively modest, angry-free, happy personality that isn’t evident in players such as Sharapova, who shows a lot more anger and stubborness when doing interviews and playing.

Wozniacki’s attitude to tennis – the opposite of ball-bashing, is to construct points carefully, focus on giving a good serve (when other professionals such as Dementieva, cannot even serve properly) and making her opponent constantly go for “one more shot” may not work when a player is hot on a streak or she faces a player such as Clijsters or Serena Williams; but the rankings show she is above them and has done more successfully in calendar than any potential player who can defeat her.

Wozniacki is essentially what women’s tennis is not – professional, interesting and intelligent. Professional in her interviews and respect for the media, interesting for seeing how she tactically beats every kind of opponent thrown at her and intelligent at not ball-bashing, screaming during every point and avoiding errors, which increases the rapport we have with her as we are treated to watching her do her job as opposed to watching her react after making error after error (explaining why players such as Sharapova aren’t fan favourites by any means).

A title on grass, shortly after on clay, then on carpet, then a title on hard court before another on clay. From beating the best in game in his peak in a tense 3-set clay-court triller on the mesmerizing Monte-Carlo courts, to losing to Oliver Rochus on a hard-court.

As you can see, consistency is not a trait Richard Gasquet has had in his career – he has won titles on all surfaces, showing his all-court game and a natural talent for having the footwork required on every surface (something better players, such as Nikolay Davydenko, Juan Martin Del Potro, or even Andy Murray or Rafael Nadal to some extent have had problems with in different surfaces, but not Gasquet). Natural talent is hard to define and it’s a touchy issue among many people, especially fans of a sport – many fans have bias to watching a sport more often than normal bystanders and such feel their opinion on topics such as natural talent, which is a topic that is determined by opinion and value judgements, is more important; when it’s clearly not, thus it is very hard to define what natural talent is, but if there is ever a case, Richard Gasquet is a fine example of a player who has it, a backhand that is technically perfect (perhaps only Kuerten has a better topspin backhand), good variety of being able to play aggressively, defensively, come in to the net, great footwork and movement, a surprisingly underrated serve. All these good assets are undone by a poor forehand and a poor attitude, perhaps a “lack of mental strength” as some commentators would say.

Gasquet is slowly climbing up the rankings; from 85 in the world last year to 21 in the world this week, with a decent showing at the Australian Open and a good Dubai tournament behind him, he can look forward to a season which should allow him to enter the Top 15 and with some ambition and perhaps luck, Top 15 isn’t a stretch too far for Gasquet – it is just a question of his attitude, preparation and his forehand/serve.

A note on Gasquet’s recent technical play has been just how far he is standing behind the court when returning; it’s not a bad tactic, but Gasquet’s style of play, and his returning positions from 2005, 2006 and 2007, is suited to being much higher up the court; he possesses a great backhand return; but why does he not utilise it enough? In the recent match vs Simon in Dubai, Gasquet stood very far behind the baseline in the first set, losing 5-7 for reasons more than just his return of serve position, he moved up the court slightly for the second and third set and won 6-2 6-4 with a more comfortable, attacking style of tennis. It is fundamental Gasquet’s return position isn’t deep; he’s a better aggressor than defender, his ability to pick spots out with his backhand is a briliant feature of his game, by returning very deep he’s going to be hitting a lot of defensive cross-court rallies to get control of rallies, something that Gasquet isn’t bad at – but isn’t a more efficient option compared to the former.

Gasquet has started working part-time with Sebastian Grosjean this year, a player known for possessing a good forehand, his forehand shows no sign of improvement at this moment, but with time and training, even an experienced professional like Gasquet, who doesn’t have a limit of technical ability on his style of play, unlike Andy Murray for example, can perhaps fix his forehand, start having a more confident out-look, showing more maturity and start building on that sole Semi Final at Wimbledon 2007 where the world had the delight of watching a very talented player, one with huge potential.

Or nothing could happen. You just don’t know with Gasquet.

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