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In three years, Novak Djokovic will be the most decorated man in tennis history

7 Jun

Djok wins FO

With his four-set victory over Andy Murray in Sunday’s French Open final, world number one Novak Djokovic clinched his first title at Roland Garros and twelfth major title overall, placing the Serb five short of tying Roger Federer’s major haul record at 17. Djokovic remains very much in his prime, and, lacking serious rivals, seems well-placed to make a strong bid at passing the Swiss great to become the most decorated man in tennis history. At 29 years of age, the Serb likely has a three-year window to get this done; with boundless motivation and a level of physical fitness the game has never before seen, there is every reason to expect he will succeed.

Winning majors is not easy, and there are at least three factors that could spoil Djokovic’s assault on the tennis record books: motivation, age, and opponents. And yet, when one drills down, each melts away under the sheer force of Djokovic’s drive, fitness, and raw superiority over peers.

Motivation – The Serbian world number one is renowned for his unparalleled physical fitness and the extreme care he takes with everything from diet, to workout schedule, to journal writing and spending time in his oxygen chamber. Some have questioned whether Djokovic will have the patience to maintain this level of grueling, almost robotic self-discipline. It can’t be fun, after all, to nosh on tasteless, if highly nutritious, superfood for every meal. Everyone needs a beer now and then. And how about a cup of coffee every once in a while, instead of the warm water that is Djok’s go–to?

But lack for motivation the Serb does not; in fact, he has everything to play for. Consider that, today, Djokovic is just two major titles shy of pulling off the calendar year grand slam, the most elusive badge of tennis superiority, in which a player wins each major title over the course of a single calendar year, a feat that has only been achieved once in the Open Era[1], by Rod Laver, in 1969. Djokovic would join Laver if he claims the title in Wimbledon next month and in Flushing Meadows at the U.S. Open in September. That seems sufficiently inspiring to keep the Serb slurping avocado smoothies for the duration of 2016.

If Djokovic succeeds in capturing the calendar year grand slam, it would leave him with 14 majors, only three shy – and within calling distance – of tying Federer. At that stage, it would become a realistic objective to tie the Swiss’ mark during 2017, by capturing three of four majors, something Djokovic has already done on two occasions – 2011 and 2015 — and a feat he will by all indications triplicate in 2016.

Even if he falls short of that, and finds himself with 16 or even 15 majors by the end of 2017, the Serb would still have at worst two majors to go to tie Federer and six chances to do it, which, in Djokovician terms, is endlessly achievable. And when one ties something, hunger to surpass hits its apex: Getting from 17 to eighteen would leave the Serb straight ravenous. If a host of factors could prevent Djokovic from eclipsing Fed’s record for major titles won, a lack of motivation is not one of them. 

Age – Djokovic is 29-years-old, which, today, is typically the point at which tennis players hit the height of their playing powers, begin to see their skills steadily peter, and enter an elongated slide toward retirement. Andre Agassi won two majors after turning 30; Roger Federer has won one. It doesn’t happen much. Players lose a step, younger rivals hit their stride, and, the longer one drifts from one’s latest major, the harder it becomes to regain the form, and belief, it takes to win. There are reasons to believe things will be different for Djokovic.

Fitness is the main one. Every part of the Serb’s existence is planned. He has a team of coaches, physical trainers, nutritionists, friends, family, and others who keep his mind, body, spirit, and soul happy and performing at top form at all times. Every aspect of performance – from the psychological, to the physical, to the mental – has been examined, and the best practices and endless resources employed to optimize them. Crucially, Djokovic is fully bought into this regimen. He accepts and embraces he will not have a normal existence during his playing career, and has committed to squeezing as much performance out of himself for as long as he can, even if it means foregoing any modicum of plain living or more earthly pleasures, like Sprite.

While the vast majority of professional tennis players, of necessity, maintain good fitness, a sensible diet, and reasonably clean living,[2] the level of Djokovic’s commitment and the quality of his regimen are unparalleled, both now and historically. Given this, there is strong reason to believe his physical fitness and capacity will not dip as much as they do for other players after turning 30, and that they will remain at a level that will allow him to keep competing for majors well into his fourth decade of existence.

Opponents – This prediction is made all the more probable given the vast gulf that separates Djokovic from his peers. In the early part of his career, the Serb had to compete against two of the greatest champions in tennis history, in Federer and Rafael Nadal, while they were in their prime. Although Djok was limited in his major title haul at the height of those players’ powers, he did win some – four, if you run the numbers through 2011, when one could argue Federer and Nadal began to fall off a bit, and seven through 2014, when they certainly had. But now, the coast is effectively clear, and Djokovic is at the height of his major-winning potential.

No other player comes close to matching the Serb’s current level. The titans of the 2000s, Fed and Nadal, are entering the twilight of their brilliant careers. After a span of excellence that was freakishly injury-free, Federer is now 34 and has a lingering back issue that kept him out for much of the clay court season, including the French Open. Nadal, who has grappled with, and recovered inspiringly from, injuries throughout the second half of his career, worked himself back into competitive form and was seen as a leading contender at this year’s Roland Garros – although most expected him to bow out to Djokovic in the semi-finals – before a serious wrist injury forced him to pull out before the third round. It’s doubtful Nadal will return in time for Wimbledon, and even his dream to play for Spain at the Rio Olympics in August now seems in jeopardy. When it comes to major titles, competing for anything beyond one last hurrah at the French seems highly unlikely for the Spaniard at this stage.

That leaves Andy Murray. A week younger than Djokovic, he and the Serb competed against one another throughout much of their youth, and their rivalry has endured across their professional careers. The two have a similar style of play and quickly rose up the ranks upon turning pro. A beautiful rivalry seemed in the offing, one that would keep tennis fans sated as Fed and Nadal faded from view. Alas, that “rivalry” has proved remarkably one-sided.

Djok and Murray have faced off 34 times, often deep in major tournaments, including in seven major finals. Djokovic has won 24, or 71 percent, of their overall contests, and five of 7 in major championships, with Murray claiming the U.S. Open in 2012 and securing tennis immortality by becoming the first Briton in 77 years to win Wimbledon, in 2013. But aside from those two, their major final contests haven’t proven particularly close.

It’s not so much raw superiority in talent that allows the Serb to dominate the Scot on the biggest occasions: The latter just seems to wane away, as if not really believing he can get it done. This meekness was on full display last Sunday in Paris. After roaring to a 6-3 first-set win, Murray looked inspired, confident — and promptly collapsed. Djok took the next three sets in routine fashion, dropping only seven games in the process.

Murray may squeak out a major or two going forward, just as he did in 2012 and 2013. Yet, with every win, Djok’s confidence grows, while Murray’s droops. And for this reason, we can expect Djokovic to continue making his faux rivalry with Murray a one-sided affair during the twilight of their respective peaks.

Beyond Murray, there is an extremely limited number of players whom one could reasonably expect to win a major over the next three years. These include Stan Wawrinka, the owner of two major titles; Kei Nishikori, a top-five Japanese player who has reached the U.S. Open final and is vying for Asia’s first men’s singles major; Milos Raonic, a young, big-hitting Canadian who is having his best year and seems primed for a break-through, most likely on the grass at Wimbledon; and Dominic Thiem, a 22-year-old Austrian with an elegant game whom many view as the future of men’s tennis. Others, such as the currently free-falling but perhaps one-day resurgent Grigor Dimitrov and young Australian Nick Kyrgios also have the talent to win majors but will have to make major strides in their mental games to even advance to a final Sunday.

Residual – Aside from motivation, fitness, and opponents, there’s probably a residual in there somewhere, encapsulating factors both unknown and unknowable, that will make it hard to pass Fed’s mark. Winning majors is just hard. There’s nerves, frustrations with umpires and ballboys, the vagaries of weather and their delays, and any number of other factors that can send even the most talented, mentally balanced player off the deep end. Some new player could get hot; a talented, title-less veteran could finally figure it out. Injuries lurk, even beneath the veneer of physical perfection. Like the functioning of the human body, a gazillion things must go right for a player to win a major title, even the most gifted and seemingly unassailable among them.

The thing that makes the case for Djokovic-as-all-time-major-title-leader so compelling, though, is that things don’t need to always go right, or even nearly always, in order for him to secure the most coveted distinction in tennis. With twelve majors between now and June 2019, there is plenty of room for Murray, upstarts, residuals, and even minor injuries to have their day and Djokovic still to get the job done. What’s most remarkable about the prospect of the Serb taking Fed’s crown is precisely how unremarkably events need to transpire in order for him to do so. And I’ve just given him three years to get the job done: Why couldn’t he nab a title at Wimbledon in 2019, or steal an Aussie in 2020, which are just outside my forecasting window? 

What does it all mean, Basil?[3]The implications of this transpiration would leave no doubt that Djokovic is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time. Winning six of the next twelve majors would almost certainly imply the Serb’s continued status as the number one-ranked player in the world, giving him more weeks at the top spot than any other player, including Federer, who currently holds that distinction,[4] which is arguably the second most relevant barometer of tennis greatness. Djokovic also did something that Federer could not do, which is beat Nadal at the French. Indeed, the only argument that could be used to justify Federer’s continued label as “greatest of all time” – and I say this as a Fed disciple, someone who idolizes him more than any other athlete in history – is squishy subjective stuff about the Swiss playing the game more elegantly than his robotic, Ivan Drago[5]-like Serbian counterpart.

But that’s rubbish. To hinge all-time greatness on aesthetics is to mock the distinction. We all have our stylistic preferences, and while most would probably agree Federer plays a more visually appealing brand of tennis than Djok, there could well emerge a future contestant for the label of tennis’ best who plays a game that is somewhere in the middle. What would we do then? There’s no answer.

Conclusion – For those who care about the men’s game, the next three years will arguably be the most important in tennis history. Novak Djokovic has put himself in an extremely strong position to lay claim to the sport’s most coveted distinction: having won the most major titles. There are no prohibitive reasons why he will not achieve this, and even those that may slow his roll look flimsy under scrutiny. Many tennis fans are grumbling about the fade-out of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, perhaps the most compelling ever in the men’s game, but it is Djokovic who, over the next 36 months, could pull off the most remarkable achievements in the history of our fair sport.

[1] The Open Era began in 1968, when major tennis tournaments allowed professionals to compete with amateurs.

[2] With Marat Safin, Ernests Gulbis, and Bernard Tomic providing notable – and highly entertaining – exceptions.

[3] http://www.gifntext.com/34371-whoopty-doo-but-what-does-it-all-mean-ba

[4] http://www.statista.com/statistics/276894/atp-tennis-rankings-players-with-most-weeks-at-number-one/

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Drago

Why don’t French men win major tennis titles?

30 May

Noah wins French

In 1983, Yannick Noah dazzled Parisians by winning the French Open men’s singles title in straight sets over Swedish sensation Mats Wilander. Five years later, in 1988, Henri Leconte, another Frenchmen, also surged to the finals at Roland Garros, falling to Wilander at the peak of the Swede’s career.

But as this year’s French Open enters its second week, tennis fans in the City of Light may look back on these memories with more regret than satisfaction, more nostalgia than joy: For, in the three decades since Noah and Leconte made their runs, no French man has won a major title or reached the final in Paris.

Discerning why is one of tennis’ most confounding puzzles.

By most accounts, France is a great tennis nation. It invariably boasts several players in the rankings’ upper crust. Few nations have more players in the top 100 or top 50 at any time than France. Frenchmen routinely claim titles at the 250 and 500 levels, and have enjoyed some, if modest, success in Masters 1000 tournaments, a step below the majors.

This trend isn’t new. For most of the 2000s, there have routinely been as many as four Frenchmen in the top 15, including, most recently, Sebastian Grosjean, Arnaud Clement, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gilles Simon.

A few have poked through to get looks at major titles. Clement beat Grosjean in the semis to reach the final at the Aussie Open in 2001. Tsonga got to the final Down Under in 2008, and Cedric Pioline, a top ten fixture for parts of the 90s and early 2000s, reached the U.S. Open and Wimbledon championship matches in 1993 and 1997, respectively.

Aside from these three, though, and despite their considerable success in the rankings and total titles won, no Frenchman has contested a major championship since Leconte in ‘87.

France is oddly alone in its failure to produce a male major champion.

Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and even tiny Austria, Croatia, and Ecuador have all produced men’s grand slam titlists since France last did so.

In 1988, Sweden – a country whose population is about one-seventh the size of France’s – claimed all four men’s majors (Wilander had three, while Stefan Edberg nabbed Wimbledon). None of these countries, save Spain, have had as many men in the top reaches of the game as France. All have done better at winning major titles.

Why?

Tennis analysts posit many theories.

Some say the French training system is exceedingly good at churning out professional mediocrity and exceptionally bad at cultivating greatness.

Others chalk it up to bad timing: The 90s and 2000s were an historic time on tour, with timeless champions Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic laying assault to the record books and leaving few major titles behind for others to win.

Still others say the French simply haven’t produced a player with the fortitude to capture tennis’ top prize, a tautology masquerading as analysis. French men, they say, enjoy the nobility of competition more than reaching into an opponent’s soul and ripping out victory. In other words, they lack the killer’s instinct necessary to reach tennis glory.

The thing is, during the drought, there have been French men with the talent to win a major. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet spring immediately to mind.

Tsonga hits as big a ball as, and has shown himself capable of beating, any player on any day, including Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. Despite his enormous talent, the 2008 finals berth in Australia, and having remained within the top ten for much of his career, Tsonga may be the most disappointing player in modern tennis history. His title haul is extremely modest for a player of such exceptional talent – 12 championships and only two at the Masters 1000 level. The Frenchmen often seems more interested in flare and highlights than faithfully executing a strategy of aggressive play that optimizes his physical gifts.

The Frenchman’s ability to snatch disappointment from the jaws of opportunity was on painful display in the French Open semis in 2013, when he faced David Ferrer, a gritty Spanish counter-puncher about six inches and 50 pounds slighter than Tsonga. At stake was a mouth-watering chance to return the Roland Garros title to French hands on the 30th anniversary of Noah’s triumph. Yet, instead of blasting the Spaniard off the court with a ruthless assault of big serving and baseline bombs, Tsonga fell to Ferrer in three meager sets that were in equal part uninspiring and uninspired.

Gasquet, for his part, was a childhood prodigy. He graced the cover of France’s top tennis magazine at age nine, and was thought by many to have a more promising future than Nadal, who emerged onto the professional scene around the same time. To put it mildly, that has not panned out. In fact, until this year, Gasquet had never before reached the second week at Roland Garros, and has only reached major semi-finals on two occasions.

Now, with his spirited fourth round victory Sunday over Japanese 5-seed Kei Nishikori, Gasquet is the only remaining Frenchman in the Roland Garros draw. Encouragingly, as he heads into a quarterfinal showdown with world number two Andy Murray – who, incidentally, in 2013 unshackled himself from a similar burden by becoming the first Briton in 77 years to win Wimbledon – the Frenchman seems uncharacteristically spirited. In piecing apart the Japanese, Gasquet routinely bellowed out cheers of allez and pumped his fist at the Parisian partisans who’d come to cheer their boy.

The ghost of Sartre will hang heavy over Tuesday’s encounter. Tennis commentator Louisa Thomas has labeled Murray, who suffers interminably from self-directed on-court tirades, a “walking existential crisis.” Gasquet, meanwhile, drips not with perspiration but with the angst of his long-suffering nation.

When he steps onto the red dirt of Philippe Chatrier, Gasquet will play for more than a birth in his third grand slam semi. He’ll fight to extend a national dream three decades deferred: that of a French man claiming major glory on the home soil at Roland Garros.

With Noah and Leconte likely to be on-hand, there’d be no better time to shine.

In tennis, Masters Series events are harder to win than majors — and here’s why

23 Aug

For tennis fans, summer time means Masters Series time. In the run-up to the U.S. Open in late August, the North American “hard-court swing” makes two stops at so-called “ATP Masters Series 1000” events, in either Toronto or Montreal (the event location rotates each year) and in Cincinnati. Masters Series events are one level below the tour’s four major, or grand slam, events, in terms of ranking points, prize money, and prestige. For this reason, they are often seen as second-tier events. And with second-tier status comes a perception – among fans, among analysts, if not among the players themselves – that Masters events are not as hard to win as majors. But, for three reasons – length of tournament, draw format, and scoring rules – I would argue that ATP Masters Series 1000 events are harder to win than their grand slam counterparts.

Let’s start with length of tournament. In majors, players have two weeks to settle in to tournaments and find their games, and they only typically have to play every other day, allowing crucial time to relax and recover between matches. In Masters Series events, by contrast, once players start playing, on Monday, Tuesday, or, for higher seeds, Wednesday, they almost always have to play every day for the remainder of the time they are in the tournament. This often means incredibly short turn-around, as high-ranked players frequently feature in the evening session, in which matches routinely finish well after midnight, only for winners to be forced to re-take the court early the following afternoon. If you consider that post-match duties (stretching, treatment, showering, press conference, eating, and more) take at least two hours, it is not uncommon for late-night victors to only reach their hotel by 3am, fall asleep by, say, 3:15am, and be forced to return to the tournament facility the following day around noon to warm-up and prepare for a 3pm match. To say nothing of physical fatigue, that type of time crunch makes it extremely difficult from a mental rest perspective for players to be at their best when they resurface for combat. Winning Masters Series events usually requires top players to win five matches in as many days, and lower-ranked players to win six matches in six or seven days, an extremely grueling task physically, mentally, and emotionally.

A natural retort to this is that, while time crunches may be tighter, Masters Series 1000 events are more forgiving than their major peers because of scoring, namely that they are only two-out-of-three sets, while majors are three-of-five.

Actually, this difference in scoring format places added pressure on players at Masters Series events, especially top players who tend to compete for major and Masters titles.

Everyone has a bad day. It is not uncommon for even the world’s elite competitors to come out flat and quickly lose the first set to an inspired aspirant on the other side of the net who has nothing to lose. At majors, top-flight players can even afford to drop a second set and still have more time and more match to settle in and claw back for the victory.

In Masters Series events, they have no such luxury. After taking the first set, challengers can continue to blast away, knowing that if they just extend their hot play for a few more games, they will take the match in two quick sets before their star opponent even wakes up. This pressure negatively affects the quality of play of the star, as well. Knowledge that the end of the match is encroaching quickly builds pressure, raises nerves, and further detracts from their performance in a virulent cycle I would call the “doom swirl” or the “toilet bowl” (because, why not?).

Maintaining such hot play over the course of three sets is, however, a more unconquerable feat for challengers. Although it requires staying hot for only an extra set, knowledge that the higher-ranked player has more leeway to figure out what ails their game, and to turn it round, both eases the mind of the champ and burdens the mind of the challenger. Lower-ranked players start pressing, knowing that only a ridiculously high level of play — usually super aggressive — will power them to victory. At the first sign of fallibility, the first chink in the armor – oft induced by the nearness of the finish line – the champ smells blood and the challenger curdles in fear and mental uncertainty. This dynamic becomes a reverse “doom swirl,” an “anti-toilet bowl” in which the champ calms down, regains confidence, and starts putting games on the board, while the challenger’s game starts to fall apart. Crucially, while elite players tend to have two or even three ways they can win matches, challengers facing a champ usually have only one potentially winning game plan, which is to blast thru the champ. When their blasts start going long, wide, and into the net, they panic. This reverberates negatively into other aspects of their games: first-serve percentages start to fall, footwork becomes sluggish, and volleys, once firm, crisp, and confident, become droopy, loopy, and devoid of conviction.

Once the reverse doom swirl sets in, things can unfold pretty quickly, with the rejuvenated champ cruising to a victory that seemed improbable only half an hour before. Contrast this, again, with Masters Series events, where the achievability of two-set perfection can lead zoning challengers to outflank fatigued, flustered, and flailing champs.

The third and final factor that makes Masters Series 1000 events harder to win than majors is the quality of the competition. Major tournaments have 128-player draws. Masters Series events, by contrast, have draws of 56. This means that the latter are more exclusive affairs. Unlike at the majors, where 32 players are seeded, at Masters Series events, only the top sixteen receive seeds, with the top eight receiving “byes” into the round of 32. What this means, in practice, is that top-eight players can play the 17th best player in the tournament in their first-match. And because, with few exceptions, ATP players are required to – and do – play almost all Masters Series events, this often means the 17th best player in the tournament is also the 17th best player in the world. Top-ranked players have to be on their game right away to advance. There is no time for a let-up or a let-down. Two crappy or even mediocre sets, and you’re done.

The moral bankruptcy of betting against Stan Wawrinka — and the universal hope that springs from his success (plus other musings from today’s French Open final)

8 Jun

As someone who loves but bet categorically against Stanislas Wawrinka heading into his French Open final today against Novak Djokovic, the moral bankruptcy I felt in watching the Swiss beat the Serb is almost beyond description. Lower than low. Like, really bad.

But as the fog lifts, and emotions from the match subside, I am able to draw lessons from Stan’s success, to find hope in his journey, to rejoice in the universal applicability of his path to tennis glory.

There’s much to say about today’s final, but this was, at its core, a story about patience, persistence, and believing in one’s strengths. It centres on a simple man’s unwavering belief in his own ability to succeed. Stani won because he knows his skills, practices to improve them, and draws on them when things get tight.

All of us can — and should — take heart in Wawrinka’s triumph.

Let’s start with what happened on court.

From a strategic, tactical, and technical perspective, today’s affair was relatively straightforward. For the better part of four sets, Stani dictated play from the baseline, maintained a high first-serve percentage, and executed big shots when it mattered most. Employing the full range of his shotmaking arsenal, Stan used a barrage of explosive ground strokes to keep Djok on his back foot, pinning him well behind the baseline and running the Serb from end to end. Wawrinka’s unending battery also prevented Djokovic from executing the offense-to-defense transition that has proven the calling card of his rise to the top.

But in this brilliance, we saw nothing new from the Swiss.

Rather than an other worldly departure from, or some deity-assisted levitation above, his usual game, Stani’s performance today was the near-perfect execution of precisely that game.

Stan did Stan. Full stop.

The 2014 Australian Open champion played within himself and produced the clean, effective tennis of which he has repeatedly proven capable. Sure, there were a few shots that had folks picking their collective jaws up off the floor (like this around-the-net, down-the-line screamer from somewhere near the first row (at 2:35 in the vid). But, basically, Stan did what he always does, particularly against the top players. The game plan was simple: Bludgeon every ball off your forehand and backhand wings, hit the crap out of your first serve, and mix in a little net play every now and then. The formula wasn’t nuanced. But it was successful. To the extent there’s pure Stan, this was it.

The simplicity of Stani’s game plan in today’s final mirrors the approach he’s turned to throughout his tennis career.

It runs as follows. Identify your strengths. Hone them thru practice. Test your strengths in competition. Practice more. Test again. Do not stray from the path, especially in big matches and during tight moments. Even when you fail.

In some of the brilliant shot-making we saw from Stani on Philippe Chatrier, one could almost imagine Wawrinka ripping forehand after forehand on a practice court somewhere in Lausanne, his cherubic physiognomy glistening softly in the Swiss summer sun, with Swedish coach Magnus Norman nodding approvingly from the other side of the net.

Stani’s road to greatness is heartening in its universality, uplifting in its scope. He puts in work.

The horizontalism of practice à failure à practice à improvement à success is something of which we as humans are all capable. It’s a formula as relevant for barristas as it is for ball-strikers, as useful in Silicon Valley as it is on the serve-and-volley, as applicable to counterterrorism as it is to counter-punching.

Patrick (my brother, the better half of the Balke Bros enterprise) has written eloquently about Stani representing “the people’s champion.” I didn’t fully grasp what he meant until today, as I sat transfixed, watching the Swiss bludgeon backhand after backhand with clinical precision and unflappable confidence. Setting to one side his affinity for the proletariat, Stani’s people-ism runs much deeper.

In tennis, as in any sport, we expect our heroes to rise to another level when everything’s on the line. We don’t know how they’ll do it, but we know that they will. The source of this ascension is unknowable, as if the greats can, on command, somehow conjure an intangible quality that the rest of us don’t, and will never, have.

But, in Stani, there’s something different. On the biggest points, he goes for his shots and tries to win, rather than taking his foot off the gas and hoping his opponents will lose. When he succeeds, there’s nothing magic in that success, no untraceable quality we so routinely associate with elite athletes. This isn’t MJ crossing over Russell, Chastain putting the penalty kick in the back of the net, or Brady finding a seam for which no one else – including god – would even look.

Stani trusts the strokes he’s honed thru millions of reps on the practice court, and goes for it come crunch time. This doesn’t always work. But sometimes – it does.

I’ll never hit a 140mph serve, and you will never have Stani’s backhand. But the process that led to that great serve, to that explosive forehand, is endlessly replicable, by us, the people. The context doesn’t matter. What matters is that, in Stan Wawrinka, humanity has a reproducible model for achieving greatness.

We can all find hope in that – even the morally bankrupt among us who bet against him.

Stani the Mani, I shan’t doubt you again, even as I know you’d forgive me for doing so.

 

Other musings from the match

Stani’s game is well-suited for high-pressure matches. One of the biggest problems players face when they step onto the court in big matches is nerves. Nerves lead you to slow down your strokes and abandon the very game plans that helped you advance in the first place. But not with Stani. The Swiss’ whole game is predicated around the strategy of controlling matches. And the way he seeks to control matches is by hitting the shit out of almost every ball. While this tactic sometimes fails spectacularly, it invariably allows him to “blast thru” his nerves and settle into matches. The success doesn’t always follow, but the nerves invariable scurry. That helped Stan out there today against Djok, for sure.

The Swiss did well to pick up on Djokovic’s played out drop-shot game. This wasn’t a central dynamic of the match, but there seems to exist some odd correlation between the success rate of Djok’s drop-shot game and his overall confidence. At some point early in the second set, Stan became visibly frustrated by how many times he’d been punked by the dropper. From that moment on, he began to anticipate these shots with greater efficacy, moving in at the first sign of the Serb’s little tickler, and getting to the ball with enough time to hit an offensive shot. Indeed, Stan clinched a key break in the third by spotting that the dropper was coming and moving into the court in time to hit a routine cross-court forehand winner to seize the advantage. This process of learning and adaption represents a hallmark trait of all top-level tennis pros, including Stan.

Djok had the look of someone who was bound to lose – I was initially going to start this post with something along the lines of “Napoleon’s march into Moscow; MJ’s transition to baseball; Rand Paul’s bid for the presidency: Some bids are built to spill, failed before they start.  Thing is, I was going to use this to describe Stani’s bid to beat Djok. I thought he had no chance, that we were moving slowly, inexorably toward the zenith of Djok’s career, which, as I’ve long called, would include a French Open title and serious bid at a calendar year grand slam. Djok seems poised, seemed in a perfect place physically, mentally, emotionally. Yet, as the match progress, and Stani gained confidence with each new backhand winner, Djok looked increasingly like a broken man, like someone who sensed his fate, and hadn’t the plan, nor the will, to fight it.

Maybe marriage doesn’t work. Andy Murray joked after beating Rafael Nadal in the Madrid Master’s Series final that “marriage works,” writing these words on the ESPN camera post-match in lieu of the customary player signature. Like Murray, Djok is newly married and, also like the Scot, carried a sizable winning streak into the French Open. We’ve heard consistent talk in the press room about how the Serb’s responsibilities as a husband and father have given him a new perspective that has allowed him to take his game to new heights. Until today, that seemed utterly true. Wawrinka, meanwhile, has been testing the opposite hypothesis. In the years leading up to his victory at the 2014 Australian Open final, Stan had separated from his family to concentrate exclusively on tennis. Say what you will about the moral merit of this decision, the results spoke for themselves in terms of on-court efficacy. Then, a few weeks before the start of this year’s French, Stan and his wife, Ilham Vuilloud, announced that they had separated. And now, Sunday’s title. Some posit that elite athletes should avoid family life until their playing days are over. I’m not sure that’s the case (look at Andre and Steffi), but Stan’s now-twice a-familial success warrants discussion.

What should we look for now from Stan? Who knows?! One can imagine Stan losing in the first round of this year’s Wimbledon only to win the tournament next year, and then lose in the first round of the 2016 U.S. Open only to wrap-up the career grand slam at Flushing Meadows in 2017 at the age of 32. Everything is possible with Stan, and that’s precisely the beauty of this enigmatic man from Lausanne.

A straightforward preview of tonight’s Aussie Open final

31 Jan

Murray-Djok

Tonight’s Australian Open final pits world number one and seven-time major champion Novak Djokovic against Scottish two-time slam winner Andy Murray. As Djokovic reminded the media after his five-set semifinal win against Swiss sensation Stan Wawriwinka, he and Murray have known each other since they were twelve. The two have now been dueling for major championships at the junior and professional levels for the better part of two decades.

Much is at stake for both players. For Djok, victory in Melbourne would deepen the momentum he picked up at the end of last year and position him to make 2015 a banner year. Coupled with the Serb’s all-court game, a strong start at the Aussie could provide the confidence he needs to do something downright historic, by winning the calendar grand slam – all four majors between January and December in a single year – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Rod Laver did it back in ’79.

For Murray, overcoming Djokovic to win the Australian Open would dust the final bit of detritus off of an altogether sub-par 2014. The Scot built confidence in the latter stages of the season, his partnership with French former world number one Amelie Mauresmo bearing fruit in the form of increased confidence, better tactics, and, seemingly, more enjoyment playing the game. Collecting the title Sunday night would also leave Murray with three of tennis’ 4 major titles, making a French Open crown the only barrier standing between the Scot and the career grand slam, achievement of which would secure Murray’s place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame and, more importantly, help fulfill the awesome talent he has always possessed but for most of his career failed to realize.

In terms of predictions, you can throw em out the window. Vegas will give an edge to Djok, both because he’s ranked higher and because he’s bested Murray in 65 percent of their head-to-head match-ups (although both of Murray’s major title wins (U.S. Open ’12, Wimbledon ’13) came against the Serb, and the two have split the four major championship matches they’ve contested). Tonight’s final will come down to which player shows up more ready to play (what an insight!). The players actually have fairly similar games, relying on extraordinary agility, uncanny shotmaking instincts, and the ability to transition from offense to defense at the slightest opportunity.

Djok has the game’s best return. So, tactically, Murray will need to maintain a high first-serve percentage and mix up patterns to keep the Serb off balance. He also needs to be the aggressor, keep Djok on the run, and look to come to net as much as possible. Djokovic has shown repeatedly, including in his semi win Friday night against Wawrinka, that falling into a defensive posture can prove a winning formula; but that won’t be the case for Murray, who needs to maintain his foot on the gas and play confident, aggressive ball in order to win.

For Djok, the key will be remaining positive, serving well, and seizing opportunities to take control of points. Although he can win defensively, Djok will have a much easier time – both physically and mentally – if he is able to win a decent percentage of points quickly, with winners, particularly on his serve. Doing so would allow the Serb to conserve energy and steel himself for the physical taxation he will have to endure in order to retrieve Murray’s offensive body blows and find a way to break the Scot’s serve.

Although Djoker has the edge in this department, both players have excellent returns and should look to attack their opponent’s second serves should their first serve percentages begin to dip.

I hesitate to make any predictions, knowing that the outcome of the contest will hinge on some Sartreian determination of which player chooses to play their best ball. A big part of me wants to play it safe and call Djok surging to his first major title in a historic year. But I can’t shake this strange feeling that Murray’s got the right vibe heading into this match, with mind, spirit, and body – credit to Mauresmo – resembling that of a champion.

And then there’s the X factor, namely whether or not Djokovic’s strategic advisor, Boris Becker, somehow convinced him that an hours-long crawl of Melbourne’s finest beer gardens somehow constituted appropriate night-before preparation for a grand slam final. To the extent that Djokovic succumbed to such logic, then one has to give a (non-trivial) edge to Scotland’s pride.

(A sidebar: If Murray wins tonight, should Britain yet again be able to appropriate his triumph as that of a native son? I’ve asked this question repeatedly, but it’s taken on new significance since Murray publicly endorsed Scotland’s bid for independence in a referendum last September.)

Enjoy the match, folks.

Top Five

7 Dec

chris-rock-500

I’m on edge waiting to see Chris Rock’s new movie, Top Five, which comes out next Friday. A longtime fanatic, it doesn’t take much to get me to check out Rock’s new work. But this interview he recently gave to NPR has me particularly stoked to check out the latest installment in the 49-year-old’s brilliant career.

I’ve always been fascinated by Chris Rock. He’s one of my favorite comics, and there was a point in the early 2000s when I could recite Bigger and Blacker pretty much by heart. Beyond the comedy, Rock’s always struck me as a super insightful thinker and commentator, and I think that really comes thru in the interview.

A few things strike me about this piece. The first is a clip from the movie they include early in the interview in which a bunch of comedians are debating the top-five rappers of all-time. Tracy Morgan weighs in passionately that a focused Nas is better than Jay-Z. I’ve been making this case for years, with little success, and Morgan’s validation is enormously gratifying.

Second, I like how Rock talks about success. To him, success means, first, being able to spend time with his kids, and, second, having absolutely no idea what he’s going to do next, but being excited about, and capable of, doing several different things. For a 29-year-old decidedly unsure of what exactly to do in life, Rock’s definition of success is heartening, because it suggests that lack of certainty does not necessarily connote having fallen off-track. In fact, handled well, uncertainty can become both the object of, and a catalyst for, future success.

Finally, Top Five is all about the importance of staying close to one’s roots — and, relatedly, about how easy it is to become detached from them. In Rock’s case, that means keeping in-touch with, and continually learning from, stand-up comics, those living the life he did as a young comedian trying to scrap out a living and somehow build a career. As Rock stresses in the interview, many of the world’s best comics have stopped doing stand-up, both because they’re busy with other projects (movies and TV shows, for example), but also because they lose a rawness, a hunger, that is part and parcel to less-established comics’ efforts to make it.

Rock’s argument about the importance of staying grounded focuses on comedians, but it reflects the challenger-champ dynamic that plays itself out across so many of life’s other dimensions. Challengers work hardest, because they have something to prove. Champs get complacent, because they’ve reached the top. Champs often forget where they come from, and what makes them them. There are no successful champs, because the only people who are successful are those who convince themselves that they actually remain challengers, and need to prepare, grow, and sacrifice accordingly. Whether you’re a budding comic or a young parent trying to build a life for her family, the champ mentality breeds stagnation, while challenging demands constant discomfort and, in that, growth.

Chris Rock has now been a comedian for nearly thirty years. He seems to have learned a lot during that time. I can’t wait for the movie.

French tactical folly paves way for maiden Swiss Davis Cup title

24 Nov

Swiss Davis Cup

Switzerland won its first Davis Cup title on Sunday, beating nine-time champion France on the latter’s home turf (or clay, as it were) in Lille. The Balke Bros, who have long supported Swiss stars Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, were thrilled to see the country – better known for its diplomatic neutrality, secretive banking laws, pocket knives, and chocolate – soar to victory. But as Federer clinched the match with a straight-set win over Richard Gasquet, we couldn’t help but feel that French captain Arnaud Clement committed one, and potentially two, critical “own goals” that eased the Swiss path to victory.

To understand Clement’s first tactical mistake, one needs to understand the structure of Davis Cup matches, or “ties.” Ties consist of five matches, four of them singles, one of them doubles, and each counting for one point. There are a total of five points to be had, and the team that wins at least three points captures the tie as a whole. The ties run for three days. On the first day, always a Friday, two singles matches take place; doubles runs on Saturday; and then the final two singles matches come on Sunday.

Captains (that is, coaches) usually select their two top-ranked players for singles, and their best doubles combination for doubles. The doubles team is not always, or even often, merely a combination of the country’s best singles players. Doubles is a very different game from singles, and some who thrive in the former don’t do well in the latter, and vice versa. For example, the United States has almost invariably tapped the world’s best doubles team, Mike and Bob Bryan, for its Davis Cup ties for more than a decade, with great effect: The duo has almost always won. But neither of the “Bryan Bros” plays singles on the tour. A solid singles player does not a doubles star make, and this reality usually factors into Davis Cup captains’ thinking when they make line-up selections. Understanding this helps understand Clement’s first tactical miscue.

Tactical folly 1: Playing Gasquet instead of Roger-Vasselin in doubles

It all started in Saturday’s doubles. Actually, it started before that, when Clement announced the French line-up he would employ in Lille. Notably missing from that line-up was Edouard Roger-Vasselin, whom, along with compatriot Julien Benneteau, forms the world’s third-best doubles team. The duo scored a major title victory at this year’s French Open and lost in the semi-finals two weeks ago at the ATP World Tour final, which is the fifth biggest doubles tournament of the year, trailing only the grand slams. Despite this, instead of selecting Roger-Vasselin to play doubles with Benneteau, Clement tapped Richard Gasquet, a perennially top-15 singles player, but someone who has very little doubles experience, let alone success, of which to speak.

Clement’s move was puzzling. Not only are Roger-Vasselin and Benneteau an elite doubles team, they were hot, coming off their solid finish at the aforementioned ATP World Tour Final. Gasquet, for his part, hadn’t played much doubles at all in 2014, nor had he played competitive singles since October’s Paris Masters Series event, where he did poorly. Gasquet was cold. When it came time to choose a line-up, there was little if any reason for Clement to choose Gasquet over Roger-Vasselin for the doubles match. But pick him he did.

To be fair, there are a couple of factors that could make Clement’s decision seem logical. One could argue, for instance, that Clement tapped Gasquet to give himself the option of substituting Gasquet into the singles matches, an option Clement ultimately exercised (more on which later). But this logic doesn’t make sense, since Gasquet’s ranking had, heading into the tie, dipped to 26, which was actually one spot worse than Benneteau’s, which had risen to a career-high 25 coming into the contest. That means Clement could have picked Roger-Vasselin for doubles with Benneteau and then, if need be, drawn on Benneteau for singles without suffering any drop in quality relative to Gasquet. Apparently, this logic was either not compelling or not apparent to the French captain.

A second reason why Clement might have tapped Gasquet for doubles is because he expected the Swiss to use their side’s third- and fourth-best players, Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer, for their own doubles team, instead of world number two Federer and world number four Wawrinka. Fed and Wawrinka, in addition to being elite singles players, have historically played well together as a doubles team in Davis Cup ties, and actually captured gold for Switzerland in doubles at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Chiudinelli and Lammer, by contrast, came into the tie ranked a dismal 212 and 508, respectively, in singles, and 206 and 528, respectively, in doubles. It’s possible Clement thought that a squad consisting even of the doubles-inexperienced Gasquet and Benneteau could easily handle the lowly ranked Chiudinelli and Lammer, whom he expected to play doubles for Switzerland, particularly in light of the back injury Federer suffered against Wawrinka in their semi-final match at the ATP World Tour Final the previous weekend.

But again, this logic doesn’t pass muster. The doubles match is always crucial in Davis Cup ties. If a team wins their two singles matches on the opening day, Saturday’s doubles match gives them a chance to win the tie in a clean sweep. If they lose both singles matches, by contrast, the dubs provides a chance to stay alive and build momentum heading into the final day. If the tie enters Saturday level at one match apiece, capturing the doubles points gives teams a crucial 2-1 edge heading into Sunday, reducing the pressure on singles players since they only have to win one of two matches to prevail in the overall contest.

Clement had to have known that his team would be facing this type of situation on Saturday. There was no way the doubles match would not be critical, for the reasons mentioned above. Moreover, given the specific circumstances of this tie, the doubles proved particularly key. On the opening day of singles, Wawrinka took care of business against French number one Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, winning the tie’s opening match in four sets. Then, a hobbled Federer dropped a one-sided, three-set match to Gael Monfils, pulling the tie level at 1-1 heading into doubles. After Friday’s action, the Swiss had to answer an important question: Did Fed have a higher chance of winning a singles match or a doubles match?

There was every reason to believe they would decide the latter. First and foremost, doubles is less physically taxing then singles. Secondly, because of Clement’s selection of Gasquet, as opposed to Roger-Vasselin, for the French doubles side, the Swiss must have felt that pairing Federer and Wawrinka would give them a good chance of taking a 2-1 lead heading into Sunday’s singles. Having that 2-1 lead would allow the Swiss to win the title even if Federer lost to Tsonga, as Wawrinka, who’s been playing some of the best tennis of his career, would only have to have beaten Monfils to claim the tie.

On the other hand, putting in Chiudinelli and Lammer would likely have cost Switzerland the doubles match, putting extreme pressure on both Fed and Wawrinka to win their singles matches. Tactically sound coaches would not put their players needlessly in that position. Predictably, Swiss captain Severin Luthi did not, opting instead to send Fed and Wawrinka out there to take care of business against Benneteau and Gasquet. And, take care of business they did, scoring a routine, straight-set win that was never in doubt. Clement failed to anticipate the constellation of factors outlined above. In doing so, he scored a tactical own goal that helped cost France the title.

Tactical folly 2: Playing Gasquet instead of Tsonga in reverse singles

The second tactical miscue that Clement made is less clear-cut than the first. With his French side trailing the Swiss 2-1 heading into Sunday’s “reverse singles” (which simply means taking the singles matches on Friday and swapping opponents), Clement elected to play Gasquet, instead of Tsonga, against Federer. Viscerally, this move made no sense. At 12 in the world, Tsonga was ranked 14 spots better than Gasquet, and had had far greater success against the Swiss historically, including beating him in straight sets in their most recent encounter in the final of this year’s Masters Series Toronto, and drubbing him in straight sets in the quarter-finals of last year’s French Open. This, combined with the fact that Gasquet has a miserable, 2-13 life-time record against Federer made Tsonga the clear pick, on paper, to face off against the Swiss.

The word coming out, at least in some press, after Fed trounced Gasquet 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 was that Tsonga had suffered an elbow injury that precluded him from playing. However, there are at least three reasons to question the notion that Tsonga was too injured to play against Federer.

First, Clement wouldn’t confirm this was the case. Curiously, not all, or even most, of the press pointed to Tsonga’s elbow issue as the reason why Clement benched him for Gasquet (see here for another story that suggests the move was discretionary).

Second, Tsonga showed no signs of injury on Friday during his loss to Wawrinka. Sure, the Swiss beat him convincingly, but, having gone four sets, the match was by no means a blow-out. The Frenchman didn’t play doubles on Saturday, which means it is likely that the only tennis action he saw between his loss against Wawrinka and the time he was scheduled to play against Federer was a light practice hit on Saturday. It is extremely unusual – though not unprecedented (here and here) – for a player to injure him or herself during a light practice or in an off-court event so badly that it precludes them from playing in a match with enormous stakes.

Which leads to the third reason to doubt that Tsonga was too injured to play: the stakes! The final of the Davis Cup is a big deal. Bringing glory to your nation represents one of the greatest achievements a tennis player can secure, which is why Federer, the most well-decorated male grand slam champion in history, was still so committed to winning this title, and played through a back injury to get the job done.

I’ve criticized Tsonga a lot throughout his career for wasting talent and opting to play the flashy, high stakes tennis that makes highlight reels, instead of the boring, percentage tennis that wins major championships. But, within this criticism, there is a reality that leads one to suspect Tsonga wanted to play against Federer: his flare for the dramatic, hunger for the big moment, and thirst for pressure on the big stage. These things, more than any others, have driven Tsonga throughout his career, often to the detriment of capturing big titles and rising to the top of the rankings. But they have never led him to shy away from pressure moments. So, it strikes me as extremely unlikely that he would let what was probably a relatively minor elbow tweak get in the way of scoring what could have proven one of the most significant wins of his career.

This is particularly true given that Federer was reeling from back problems, which is, on the main, a more severe injury for tennis players than elbow problems. Fed’s physical vulnerability would likely have left Tsonga convinced that he could win the match, despite his own physical ailment. To the extent that Clement reached a different conclusion, and benched Tsonga because of it, it represents another astonishing tactical blunder, one that, like the doubles miscue, may have lost France the match. To the extent that it is not true, and Tsonga asked to be benched because of the injury, it would represent only the latest example of the astonishingly talented Frenchman failing to rise up to meet his full tennis potential. And to the extent that this is a really serious elbow injury that extends into, and keeps Tsonga hobbled during, 2015, then we tip our cap to both him and Clement and apologize (although, with Clement, he’d still be responsible for the tactical blunder in doubles).

So, what does it all mean?

If Clement is guilty of the tactical follies with which we have charged him, then it seems clear that France should hire a new Davis Cup coach. In our opinion, the choice to replace him is equally clear: Amelie Mauresmo. Mauresmo is a former world number one player and two-time major championship winner, who coached since-retired Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli to a Wimbledon title in 2013 and, earlier this year, crossed gender lines to become the first woman to coach a top-ranked male player, in the process leading Scot Andy Murray to a resurgent second half of 2014, in which he captured three titles and leapt from double digits to a year-end number six ranking. And while certain corners of the tennis world seem to believe that women cannot successfully coach men at the professional level, we at Balke Bros know that this is rubbish. So, as they scratch their heads and wonder what happened to their title hopes in 2014, French tennis federation leaders would be wise to bring on Mauresmo for the 2015 campaign.

As for Clement, well, he’s still got those awesome shades to fall back on.