Observations about the Australian Open
“Happiness consists in always aspiring perfection, the pause in any level in perfection is the pause of happiness.” — Leo Tolstoy
This Australian Open treated sports fans to plenty of pyrotechnics, including the traditional Australian Day fireworks that crackled in the Melbourne sky and interrupted the women’s final. Sloane Stephens’ shocker over Serena Williams, champion Victoria Azarenka’s time-out controversy, and late-blooming Li Na’s upsets and wisecracks riveted us. But none came close to the constant brilliance of Novak Djokovic.
Let’s analyze why Djokovic is clearly No. 1 in a golden era of men’s tennis and has a real chance to capture a rare Grand Slam—all four major titles— this year.
The Perfect Game
Roger Federer with 17 titles and Rafael Nadal with 11, plus an Olympic gold medal, boast more major titles than Novak Djokovic, whose fourth Australian crown brought his career total to six. Both Federer, who at 31 is six years older than Djokovic, and Nadal, 26, have already achieved legendary status; sports fans marvel at the elegant artistry of Federer and the ferocious physicality of Nadal. Tennis cognoscenti do not rhapsodize about Djokovic, though, as the late David Foster Wallace did about Federer in a 2006 New York Times paean titled “Federer as Religious Experience”:
Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan, who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could “float” across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one. There are probably a half-dozen other examples since 1960. And Federer is of this type—a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar.
Yet for efficiency and completeness, the “Djokovic Game” rates as the GOAT—greatest of all time. Djokovic does not rate as the greatest in every stroke or skill, of course. That would be impossible. But he rates at or near the top in all of them.
Click photo: The classic Djokovic two-handed backhand is marked by his intently watching the ball, early preparation, sound footwork, and hitting through the ball.
Let’s start with the Djokovic backhand. His semi-closed stance footwork, stroke, rhythm, and timing are picture perfect. With a big “strike zone,” the 6’2” Serb can handle either high or low balls proficiently. Unlike Federer and Nadal, he can belt down-the-line backhand winners. He can both generate and handle power, an asset that gives him the best backhand service return in tennis. His accuracy and depth are also topnotch. Djokovic’s slice backhand is his only relatively weak shot because it often lacks placement and depth; and as a result, it lets his opponent off the hook.
The Djokovic forehand has improved significantly since he won his first major, the 2008 Australian Open. (You may remember that, when he dethroned Federer, Djokovic’s mother, Dijana, prematurely proclaimed: “The king is dead. Long live the [new] king.”) By adding more power and depth, he now boasts one of the most formidable forehands on the tour. With a semi-Western grip and lots of racket head speed, he creates tremendous topspin to ensure his powerful shots land in the court. In the past two years, his forehand has matched up evenly with the great (and more versatile) Federer forehand. On crucial points, such as some of the match points against Federer in the 2010 and 2011 US Open semifinals, Djoker came through with forehand winners.
Because he rarely serves and volleys and sometimes is content to grind opponents down mercilessly in baseline rallies—as he did in his 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 semifinal demolition of David Ferrer—his volley hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Djokovic is less flashy but more solid at net than Federer because his footwork is more sound and his volleys more compact. If you have any doubts, consider his Aussie Open stats. In the highest-caliber match of the tournament, Djokovic’s 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-7, 12-10 victory over No. 15 Stanislas Wawrinka, he won 75% (27/36) of the net points. That excellence actually improved in the last three rounds with 85% (11/13) against No. 5 Tomas Berdych, 81% (13/16) against No. 4 Ferrer, and 85% (35/41) against No. 3 Andy Murray. In sharp contrast, Murray, who ironically practiced with the message “Prepare, Attack, Destroy” on his T-shirt, was often passive and rushed net only 15 times, winning nine points.
Click photo: Djokovic's volley hasn’t received the attention it deserves — less flashy than Federer's but his footwork is more sound and his volleys more compact.
Like his forehand, the flawless Djokovic serve has become yet another weapon in his diverse arsenal. A model of consistency, his first serve averaged an identical 188 kmph (117 mph) against Murray, Ferrer and Wawrinka. He committed only 13 double faults in seven matches over 25 sets. Most impressive, he won an unheard of 66% of his second serve points, a tournament best and more than 10% better than any of the other top eight seeds. Ivan Lendl, Murray’s coach, called the Serb’s second serve “one of the most underrated shots in tennis.”
Djokovic served smartly throughout the tournament, especially against Murray in the deuce court, where his pinpoint accuracy helped him win 80% of his first serve points both wide and down the T. Amazingly, he never lost his serve against Murray and Ferrer, two of the game’s premier returners, and only once against Berdych.
First-rate technique marks his supplementary shots as well. His high defensive lob with some topspin was superior to Murray’s underspin lob, which often landed short. His smash is confident and powerful even if he hit a couple of questionable slice overheads against Murray. He flashed some spectacular drop shots—which he now uses more judiciously—and drop volleys.
Even on a bad day, his superior technique and tenacity keep him in nearly every match and give him a good chance of winning. As a result, Djokovic has won an incredible 57 consecutive matches against players ranked outside the top four at Grand Slam events.
But technique isn’t everything in tennis. Marat Safin was rock-solid in every stroke department, but wound up with only two major titles because he lacked mental toughness, smart tactics and speed. Still, technique matters more than ever because the top players exploit even slight weaknesses, such as the backhands of Federer, Nadal and Tsonga, and the second serve of Murray.
Djokovic combines his superlative technique with a wide array of athletic abilities: speed, agility, flexibility, strength, leaping ability, quick reflexes, and stamina. Four-time Australian champ Andre Agassi, who handed Djokovic the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after the final, talked about how Djokovic continues the inexorable evolution of pro tennis.
“You look at what Novak Djokovic can do offensively and defensively,” said Agassi. “In my day somebody who ran well was Michael Chang. Once you have him running, I didn’t worry [about his attacking]. And then you saw it go to Lleyton Hewitt, who moved even better. But if you were off on just one [shot], he would then move forward in the court and turn a point around. So you had problems if you didn’t keep him on the defense.
“And then you take that to a guy like Djokovic, who probably is even better than Hewitt ever moved and doesn’t need to turn a point around [gradually]. When he’s on defense, he can actually win the point with one shot. Every five years it seems to click up a different level. I can only imagine what life’s going to look like when a [towering super athlete like] Michael Jordan decides to play tennis.”
The Injury Crisis
“We learned injuries can play a big part in this sport,” Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst and 1980s superstar, pointed out. “Luck is involved.” For the second straight Australian Open, pre-tournament favorite Serena Williams was hampered by injuries. A first-round ankle sprain slowed her movement and a back injury slowed her serves during her stunning 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 quarterfinal upset loss to Sloane Stephens.
Whether Victoria Azarenka’s ailment at 5-4 in the second set of her semifinal victory over Stephens was physical or mental is something only she knows for sure. Did Azarenka suffer an anxiety attack as she implied immediately after the match when she told the crowd, “I almost did the choke of the year—nerves got into me for sure”? Or did she suffer from legitimate knee and rib injuries, as she later insisted? Azarenka took a medical time-out and left the court for 10 minutes, for which she took a beating from the critical media and a hostile crowd. “This injury time-out rule needs to be thoroughly re-examined,” contended ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. “Leaving the court for any amount of time because of nerves is unacceptable.” On Twitter, McEnroe denounced Azarenka’s decision as an “absolute travesty of justice.”
Click photo: Azarenka choked badly trying to close out Sloane Stephens in their semi-final match, then walked off the court, taking a 10 minute injury time-out. "This injury time-out rule needs to be thoroughly re-examined," contended ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. "Leaving the court for any amount of time because of nerves is unacceptable."
Azarenka drew an entirely different conclusion about the controversy. “Everything that happens in life is to teach you a lesson,” she mused to reporters the morning after the final. “It’s not ironic—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—that song. From everything bad or wrong that happens, I try to take the most positive that happens. In that particular moment, you think, ‘What can I take positive from here?’ In the moment you try to stay positive … I guess I’m pretty tough.”
There was no doubt, though, about the legitimacy of Li Na’s injuries in the final: a second-set twisted ankle and fall and then a scarier third-set tumble in which she banged her head on the court. Good-natured Li smiled reassuringly at the physician and trainer when they examined her head and neck. But the ankle injury clearly impeded her movement and footwork. We’ll never know if Li, who outslugged Azarenka in the first set before losing 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, might have prevailed had she not been victimized by Lady Luck. Afterward, the perplexed 30-year-old Chinese said, “After the match, I was feeling like, ‘How many years I didn’t fall down in the court?’ I mean, it was amazing today. It was twice on the court.”
Li did not tape her ankles before the match, a common precaution in sports today (Murray even braces his ankles), and it is something Li will likely do the next time she plays on abrasive hard courts.
What should the opponent of an injured player do during the time-out? Stephens, an inexperienced 19-year-old, simply sat, stared and likely became stiff instead of exercising to stay loose. On the other hand, Azarenka, a young veteran of seven years on the pro tour at age 23, took a few practice serves during both of Li’s medical time-outs. The second timeout came at 2-1, 15-love for Azarenka, and the ready-to-go Belarussian then won five of the last six games. In the men’s final, Novak Djokovic kept active during Murray’s three-minute injury time-out by stretching.
Pro tennis has become dazzlingly fast this century. “When did tennis become like ping pong?” marveled McEnroe this fortnight. Ferocious power, furious sprinting, unforgiving hard courts, overtraining, and tough matches virtually every round have resulted in a wave of major, and sometimes career-threatening injuries. Marquee players Sharapova (shoulder) and Rafael Nadal (knee), plus 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro (wrist), former No. 7 Gael Monfils (knee), and former No. 10 Andrea Petkovic (knee) were sidelined for months. The recent Australian circuit took a heavy toll on Serena (ankle, back), John Isner (knee), Laura Robson (back), Jamie Hampton (back), Angelique Kerber (back), Kevin Anderson (elbow), Janko Tipsarevic (foot), Tobias Kamke, (shoulder), Gilles Simon (knee, elbow), and the luckless Brian Baker (knee).
How can—should—pro tennis reverse this alarming trend?
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The ATP & WTA Forehand Anomaly
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Jorge Capestany continues his video drills or workouts for TennisOne you can do with your practice partner. This drill revolves around the slice or underspin groundstroke. The only rule here is you have to slice everything off both wings. If the ball lands short (and eventually it will), you get to play a slice approach shot and of course a slice volley. So, see how Jorge runs this drill, then try it yourself and gain real confidence in your own underspin strokes.
ProStrokes 2.0 — Milos Raonic Backhand
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