Brilliant Aggression: Stani is King Down Under

27 Jan

You can’t start a piece about Sunday’s Australian Open final without expressing condolences to Rafael Nadal for the back injury that almost forced him to retire at the end of the second set. Nor can you do so without giving the Spaniard serious props for the way he was able to fight back and somehow make it a match.

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Most mainstream tennis writers are gushing over Rafa’s tremendous drive, and his refusal to quit (despite appearing ready to do so down 15-40, 1-5 in the second set, when he slowly strolled to the net after a serve, seemingly ready to concede victory had Wawrinka just made the pass – things are never easy with Stanislas). Our old friend Greg Garber has a predictably colorless accounting of the match over at ESPN, for example.

But we’re not going to do that, here. We’re not going to do that, because the most interesting story from Stani’s four-set, not-so-upset victory Down Under was the first eleven games of the match, when he picked Rafa apart and made mince meat out of the most iron-clad laws in modern men’s tennis.

This match was all about tactics. At least, the first set and a half were. And, in this piece, we’re going to focus on three.

The first tactic is the way Stani was able to use his one-handed backhand to counter Rafa’s topspin forehand, a feat that no other player, with few exceptions, has managed to achieve. Tennis theory has it that Rafa holds an indomitable advantage against right-handed players, because his heavy, top-spin forehand comes in high, with tons of action, to righties’ backhands – typically a player’s – weaker side, forcing them into a weak reply, which Rafa can then bludgeon with his brutish, pin-pointedly accurate forehand.

The Rafa-forehand-to-right-hander’s backhand tactic has proven particularly vexing to Roger Federer. Fed’s ongoing struggle to handle the lefty’s pace and spin with his one-handed backhand represents a key contributor to the Swiss’ 10-23 lifetime record against Nadal, and a major reason why he has failed time after time to blunt Rafa’s assault on tennis history.

This factor was very much at play in today’s match, when Stanislas, himself the owner of a one-handed backhand, stepped-up against Nadal in Melbourne. However, by stepping-in to catch Rafa’s forehand on the rise – as advised by the junior Balke Bro in his pre-match post – Stani was able to play the ball, instead of the ball playing him.

What’s even more interesting, though, is that, even when he didn’t catch the ball on the rise, and allowed it to spin rapidly and heavily up to shoulder height, Stani was still able to play aggressive shots to both sides of the court. It’s important for readers to understand that no one else has been able to do this to Rafa over a sustained period on a grand stage. How the hell did it happen?

Part of Stani’s uncanny ability to handle Rafa’s body blows derives from the Swiss’ sturdy frame, which houses a bit more raw strength than his Swiss countryman and most players on tour. But another part of it is a hard-to-explain residual that I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on. Whatever it was, the fact that Stanislas did the undoable and got the better of Rafa in their forehand-to-backhand exchanges was a major factor in giving Stani a decisive edge during the early stages of the match.

The second tactic worth highlighting is the way in which Stani used deft, well-timed net play to keep Rafa under duress. From the first game, Wawrinka didn’t hesitate to follow his shots in, utilizing textbook volleys to close points out when he had Nadal on the run. And, despite a first-serve percentage that was languishing somewhere south of 30 percent, Stani even came in occasionally on second serves, winning the vast majority of his trips to the front of the court in the first set and a half. By rushing the net so often, Wawrinka was able to keep Nadal constantly under pressure, and make it difficult for the Spaniard to find his rhythm.

(The steady improvement of Stani’s net-play represents one manifestation of the hard work that has led to improvements in other aspects of his game in recent years. This is another reason to get behind Stanislas the Manislas. Just as we are all flawed people, Stani is a flawed player. But he has recognized his shortcomings, and worked like the dickens to improve them.)

The third and final tactic to shed light on is the Swiss’ decision to run around his backhand on nearly every service return in the deuce court, and Nadal’s continued inability to make him pay. This tactic allowed Stani to immediately neutralize Rafa’s serve, settle into points, and set-up opportunities to break, opportunities on which the Swiss capitalized twice in the match’s opening eleven games. Although Wawrinka continued to cheat toward the center, Rafa never adjusted.

This was puzzling. As a lefty, with enormous shortcomings on his own serve, even your author does not shy away from hitting kick serves out wide in the deuce court. That Rafa – a tennis giant with boundless talent, a man superior to your author in innumerable ways, both on and off the court – would not at least attempt to adjust by kicking his serve wide was positively befuddling. It was also a key ingredient in Stanislisimo’s path to victory.

These three tactics – winning the forehand-backhand dynamic; effective net play; and positioning himself to hit forehands and get comfortably into return points – enabled Wawrinka to earn a decisive break in the match’s fourth game, close out the first set to 6-3, and then capture and consolidate an additional break in the second set’s early stages. Things got dicey from there, as Nadal’s back tightened up, and Stani fell into a lull and saw his play dip considerably. But it was that same persistence, that same refusal to beat himself that, more than anything, has marked Stani’s ascendance from talented head case to major champion.

And his triumph in Sunday’s final has implications that extend beyond the baseline in Melbourne to the quest for tennis glory. Few people expected Stanislas to factor meaningfully into Rafa’s bid to pass Federer as tennis’ most decorated major champion. But when the gospel of Roger and Rafa is written, it may be that Fed’s supreme status was preserved by a cherub-looking compatriot named Wawrinka.

You know what they say: Swiss stick together.

***

Postscript: I want to dedicate this piece to Rafael Nadal. As this blog’s three followers and my four personal friends know well, I’ve never been a huge fan of the bull from Manacor. But over the years, he’s won my grudging respect with ferocious work ethic, ceaseless will to win, and humility that befits the historic champion he has become. All three were on display today in Melbourne.

Don Rafa, we at Balke Bros salute you, we wish you well in your recovery, and we look forward to seeing you in Paris – on the opposite side of the draw from Federer, of course!

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One Response to “Brilliant Aggression: Stani is King Down Under”

  1. Roberto Rodriguez January 27, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

    The NFL and NBA are copycat leagues meaning you keep following another teams ability to expose your current opponent’s weaknesses. Let’s see if tennis is a copy cat league too.

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