Having been at this yearís Australian Open from start to finish, Iím more convinced than ever of this overlooked tennis principle: No one competes in a vacuum. Tennis players can walk, talk and think in as much solitude as they wish, cocoon themselves with coaches, agents, and all sorts of handlers, ponder their technique forever, but when push comes to shove, tennis is about as interactive as it gets in all of sports. As my Tennis Channel colleague Justin Gimelstob pointed out quite often over the Australian fortnight, you have to know what itís like to truly feel the other guyís ball.
No matter how great Federer is, he must prove how great he is each time he steps on the court.
It has been so easy to climb on-board the Federer Express these last four years, so easy to merely assume his victories as givens, that it’s also tempting to forget that he too must adhere to this principle. No matter how great Federer is, he must prove how great he is each time he steps on the court. No one is about to hand him anything.
In the wake of his semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic, I was, as the Aussies say, gobsmacked (staggered) to hear talk that Federer was off his game. The truth is that Djokovic was the one who aided Federer’s demise. This is the essence of our sport: force the other guy to play badly. Laugh all you want and call it “winning ugly,” but it’s what Federer has always done too – use diverse spins, paces and, in his case, style, to force the opponent out of his game, all the better to assert his own weapons. What’s quite seductive is that Federer wins ugly pretty.
Click photo to go to website: The clown prince of tennis, Novak Djokovic, doing his Maria Sharapova imitation.
Djokovic might not quite strike the ball or conduct himself with the regal elegance of Federer, but that means nothing. What’s been most impressive about Djokovic’s run (and I mean run literally given how well he covers the court) over the past year to the elite is the fundamental soundness of his game. I was delighted to learn he was taught by a woman. The signs are apparent in all parts of his game. Young Novak was clearly not taught to think he could bludgeon his way through anything. Everything about his game has a pinpointed, accurate, purposeful quality. Even his serve, albeit somewhat oversculpted, can strike corners when necessary.
As a tennis persona, Djokovic figures to start leaving a different impression than when he was merely making his way to the top. In other words, people will start forming more vivid opinions of him from here on in. As we’ve seen through his impersonations and self-mocking during matches, there’s a bit of a class clown in Djokovic. But now that he’s right up there at the head of the class with Federer and Nadal, it’s uncertain to me how that cheeky shtick will affect people. It will also be fascinating to see if he continues to get tight and cramp as he plays even more high-stakes matches.
Click photo to go to website: Last year Federer lost early at both Indian Wells and Key Biscayne to retriever Guillermo Canas yet he bounced back to take two more slams.
Yet while Federer of course was rocked on his heels by the Djokovic Australian onslaught, my thinking is that the Swiss has such a wide range of tools that he’s far from being toppled. I’ll be particularly interested to see how Federer competes throughout the spring; recall that last year he lost early at both Indian Wells and Key Biscayne to retriever Guillermo Canas.
The person I think should be more concerned about his spot in the tennis hierarchy is Rafael Nadal. He was playing fine grinding tennis to reach the semis without dropping a set, but at that stage was beaten so comprehensively by Melbourne Cinderella Jo-Wilfried Tsonga that it left me wondering if Nadal could ever win big anywhere but clay. The raw, defensive nature of Nadal’s game leaves so much available court space for attacking opponents. On clay, of course, he withstands this, and on both clay and grass the Spaniard can attack wisely, the deadened surfaces aiding his facile drop shot and touch volleys. But hardcourts have exposed Nadal, and it’s uncertain if he has the physical tools or cognitive willingness to enhance his game further on that surface.
As for the others, how can we begin to explain the big-time package surprisingly brought to the table by Tsonga? Watching this guy smoke his way through the draw was dazzling. Let’s hope he’s no mere Aussie flash, but a sustainable top 20 player. It would be fascinating, for example, to see Tsonga go toe-to-toe with Andy Roddick or James Blake – each of whom I like very much as people, but each of whom I think saw their limitations again exposed in a Slam (albeit in different ways).
Andy Roddick and James Blake each saw their limitations exposed again in a Slam.
Roddick’s third-round loss to Phillip Kolschreiber was a heartbreaker, Kolschreiber’s backhand pass evoking memories of the painful defeat Roddick suffered at Wimbledon to Richard Gasquet. Again, Roddick’s transition game has cost him. During this match in Australia, might Roddick have approached more crosscourt or down the middle?
Blake competed impressively to reach the quarters, most notably when he recovered from a sets to love deficit versus Sebastien Grosjean. As Blake threw everything he had against Federer for two sets, it was hard to imagine him playing better. Hopefully the confidence gained from his run to the last eight will aid Blake throughout the early part of 2008.
The Women's Side
To get back to this notion of tennis as sport of interaction and flux, Maria Sharapova deserves the biggest applause of her still-young career. Last year she floundered in every Slam. The key question was whether her woes were merely a function of injuries and growing pains or a sign of continual erosion? To her credit, in winning this title, Sharapova played superbly. This was first clear when she took on Lindsay Davenport in the second round. I’ll concede I’m miffed that I didn’t sense prior to this heavyweight matchup that Sharapova had a significant edge; after all, she was by far the hardest hitter Davenport had faced since returning to the tour. But Sharapova didn’t just beat Davenport. She shredded her. And the steamrolling continued, including an exceptionally dazzling 6-4, 6-0 routing of Justine Henin and equally commanding wins over Serbians Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.
Ivanovic's win over Hantuchova after losing the first eight games was the match of the tournament.
But to me the match of the tournament came in the semis, when Ivanovic lost the first eight games and went on to beat Daniela Hantuchova, 6-4 in the third. What made this match compelling was not just the fine all-court tennis but each player’s emotional commitment. Hantuchova has ridden a wave of expectation, tabloid publicity and, as she nears 25, has settled into a spot just off the game’s very best. This was her first Slam semi, and as I watched her and Ivanovic battle, I contemplated the odd detachment and spaciness often displayed by the Williams sisters whenever they lose – a sense that tennis hardly matters. This is the major problem I have with both Venus and Serena. They are magnificent competitors, but disengaged contenders, scarcely throwing themselves into the sport – so why should their wins or losses really matter? For Ivanovic and Hantuchova, that was far from the case. The chance to reach this final mattered greatly to each. But of course only one could win, and the other would taste the true pain of defeat. The vacuum was filled with each player’s desire. This at heart is what tennis is all about.
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The general idea of moving forward in the court and volleying the ball is to take the offensive and increase the chances of hitting a winner. By moving forward you increase the potential angle of your shot and reduce the amount of time that your opponent has to react to it. Your ability to intercept a volley as close to the net as possible plays a vital role in your net game. This is called “closing on the net.” In this article Doug King looks specifically at how to attack the sitter and, in general, how to become more effective at finishing points off at the net.
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For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
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