Djokovic’s 2014 was lousy – but 2015 could prove one for the ages.

18 Nov

Djok frustrated

Novak Djokovic had a lousy 2014.

Say what?

As we head into the off-season, tennis commentators are praising the stellar campaign the Serb sensation reeled off over the last eleven months.

And not without reason.

After all, Djokovic finished the year as the world’s number one player for the third time; hoisted seven tournament titles, including five Masters Series crowns and Wimbledon; compiled a 61-8 record; and won north of $14 million in prize money. The Serb finishes 2014 on a 31-match indoor winning streak,[1] and looked all but invincible in claiming his third-consecutive ATP World Tour Final, the exclusive year-end tournament that pits the world’s top eight players against each other. Hell, he even married his longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic and had a son!

By any metric, 2014 must be considered a huge success for Djok. Right?

Wrong.

Why?

For players like Djokovic, who aspire to join the conversation around tennis’ all-time greatest players, the normal rules of assessment don’t apply. The price of entry into this incredibly exclusive club comes with a high asking price, one singularly payable in the currency of major tournament titles, scrip so elusive it makes Bitcoin seem like the $5 bill you occasionally find under your couch cushion while watching football on Sunday afternoon.

And on the metric of majors – the only one that counts in terms of pursuing tennis immortality – Djokovic’s career has been decidedly mediocre. With 7 slams under his belt, Djokovic is tied with nine other players for 13th on the all-time list, trailing by wide margins contemporaries Roger Federer, who has 17 slams and tops the list, and Rafael Nadal, who has 14. Worse, more than half (4) of Djoker’s slams have come at the Australian Open, which is unfairly, but commonly, considered a second-tier major.

Players Major Titles
Roger Federer 17
Rafael Nadal 14
Pete Sampras 14
Roy Emerson 12
Rod Laver 11
Bjorn Borg 11
Bill Tilden 10
Fred Perry 8
Ken Rosewall 8
Jimmy Connors 8
Ivan Lendl 8
Andre Agassi 8
Novak Djokovic 7

If winning more majors represents the most important step Djokovic must take to press his claim on tennis immortality, then 2014 was dismal. Oh, sure, he won the title at Wimbledon, tennis’ grandest stage. But just.

In a match that should’ve been over in four relatively routine sets, Djokovic surrendered a commanding lead and allowed Federer to surge back into contention. Djok actually faced a break point at 3-all in the fifth, before finally collecting himself to claim the title.

And this, in a nutshell, is the story of Djokovic’s career: fits of unparalleled brilliance, coupled with seemingly inexplicable depressions in performance.

We saw this latter characteristic on display in the year’s other majors.

In Australia, Djok crashed out in the quarters to ascendant Swiss star Stanislas Wawrinka, in a five-set duel in which the Serb looked, at times, outmatched and, at others, disinterested.

At the French Open, Djok faced Nadal, the undisputed king of clay, in the finals. Despite everything I said above about the necessity of capturing numerous major titles in order to enter the conversation on tennis mortality, winning this match and knocking Rafa off his perch at Stade Roland Garros would have instantly entered Djokovic into that conversation. It also would have given the Serb the final jewel in the career grand slam (winning all four majors), a necessary, though not sufficient, accolade for inclusion in talks on tennis timelessness.

Instead, after winning the first set convincingly and pushing things to 5-5 in the second, with a chance to take a commanding two-set lead on the line, Djokovic basically went away. After dropping the second set 7-5, he just straight up started playing badly.

Watching Djok melt down was fascinating. It looked as though he was having an out-of-body experience, observing his on-court self surrender to a vicious cycle of poor play leading to a growing deficit in the score, leading to more poor play and a still-larger deficit.

Rafa-Djok FO 2014

All this, of course, resulted in a loss, but it was the manner in which it happened that raised questions about Djokovic’s robustness as a major champion: Timeless greats don’t succumb to the moment; they rise to meet them. And, instead of meeting his, Djokovic had shirked from it.

Fast forward to the U.S. Open, where Djokovic had an opportunity to ride the momentum of his Wimbledon victory to a second-straight grand slam title and start prosecuting more aggressively his assault on the list of major title winners.

Instead, he ducked out meekly in a four-set semifinal loss to Japanese phenom Kei Nishikori, who had nearly been forced to retire during a colossal fourth-round encounter that tied the record for the latest ending match in Open history, wrapping up just after 2:30 a.m.

After such a loss, one can imagine a champion like Pete Sampras grimacing through the obligatory post-match press conference before slipping off to a public court somewhere in Queens to hit a few boxes of serves and try to fix whatever the hell led him to dip so far from perfection in the inexplicable loss.

Instead, Djok politely praised Nishikori and said something about how tennis would become a second priority after the birth of his son. That kind of comment would be understandable for almost all humans, but not for one pursuing athletic immortality. It left certain observers wondering: Where is the fire? Where is the hunger? Where is the passion?

Given all this, and looking ahead to 2015, it’s time for me to engage in what has become an almost perennial exercise of saying “This has to be the year for Djokovic to make his move.” Except, this time, I really mean it!

So, here’s what I think must constitute the only metric of success for Djok in 2015: Win all four majors. This goal is at once absurdly ambitious and, for him, entirely realistic.

For all their misplaced bombast about the “success” of Djokovic’s year, tennis commentators are right that the Serb finished the season playing at a ridiculously high level. He carries into the off-season huge confidence, great form, and every reason to believe that he should win every match he plays in 2015.

And that’s exactly what I’m calling for him to do: Win everything.

But do it where it counts. In the sweep of history, no one remembers who won the Rome Masters Series, or the Beijing indoors. People remember majors.

So, in 2015, Djokovic should set for himself the goal to pull a clean sweep, a pure grand slam.

This won’t be easy. But, he can do it. Aside from playing the best tennis in the world at the close of 2014, Djokovic will get some external help. Fed has a back injury and with each day moves deeper into his mid-30s. Rafa is riddled with injuries that show no sign of easing. Up-and-comers like Nishikori, Cilic, and Dimitrov, in whom I have huge confidence and from whom I expect big things in future, aren’t quite ready for repeated, sustained prime-time performance during the fortnight of a major.

Meanwhile, Andy Murray – God bless him – is playing better than he did in early 2014, but seems more interested in commenting on Scottish politics than in advancing deep in majors. This endears the Dunblane native in our little Balke Bro hearts. But it won’t help him grind out victories against Djok at the slams.

This is it. Djokovic has a chance to achieve something historic in 2015. Winning the grand slam would not only propel him to 11 majors and move him into a tie for fifth on the all-time list, it would also mean he’d pull off a feat that has been done only once in tennis’ “Open Era,” by Rod Laver, in 1969.

Laver grand slam

So, as he sucks back a sodium-free avocado smoothie and enjoys some well-deserved rest with his wife and son in Belgrade, Balke Bros implore Djokovic to step up and pull off in 2015 the performance we’ve all been waiting for, of which he is so clearly capable, and one that would solidify his spot among tennis’ all-time greats.

[1] We’re not including his walkover win against Federer in Sunday’s ATP World Tour Final championship match, which would have taken the streak to 32. If you want to include that, fine.

Dragons, screenplays, and drama – oh, my! In tennis commentary, fewer literary devices and more analysis, please. A joint Balke Bros post.

5 Sep

Salvador_Allende_2

There were no fire-breathing dragons.

No one had written a 1960s screenplay that mirrored the “drama” unfolding on court.

And for as much as we would have loved to see Roger Federer literally levitate off the court while down two match points in his U.S. Open quarterfinal against Gael Monfils, alas, the Swiss stayed firmly affixed to the deco-turf surface at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Yet, had you opted out of watching the match itself, and depended solely on the morning after coverage online and in the rags, you could have been forgiven for thinking that something supernatural, if decidedly predetermined, had played out late Thursday night in the Big Apple.

Tennis writers have become bizarrely focused on assigning narratives and unshakable, often down right odd, characteristics to the players who pick up sticks and hit balls around on the court.

Thursday night’s quarter provided an apt example.

Federer, the dogged, resurgent, renewed-ly confident, timeless champion, was looking to take another step forward in the quest to build on his all-time record of 17 major titles.

As a finely calibrated Swiss timepiece coldly marches through time’s struggles with suave continental style, The Maestro stepped onto the court that he had made his own: the bright lights under which so many a lesser warrior soul had withered like a desert rose? These were HIS lights, as the gallivanting Swiss had conquered so many strange lands, far from idyllic Basel. No, Darth Federer has ensconced himself within the cloak of his symphonic charm to win acolytes from the dirts of Roland Garros to the pastoral time warp of tennis’ hallowed grounds at the All England Club, and indeed to the gritty starstruck hustle of Flushing Meadows. The greatest trick Mesostopholes ever played is convincing the world he doesn’t exist. The rakish cosmopolitan devil Fed has vanquished the tennis world with a wink and a laugh, leaving us begging for more.

Pro tennis’ statesman, the cool, calm, and collected Swiss veteran seemed to have all the momentum on his side, and needed only to continue playing “his game” to march toward what would be his seventh U.S. Open final. He’d been in this situation before. Knew what to expect. Had a plan, a back-up plan, and then a tertiary plan to weather any series of tactics, body blows, and knock-out punches his opponent could throw at him. The stage was set for a Fed victory.

Or was it?

 

2011-01-27T233750Z_1914480185_GM1E71S0KV201_RTRMADP_3_CHILE-ALLENDE_0

On the other side of the net, Monfils, the unruly, untamed, endlessly talented but even more endlessly undisciplined Frenchman, seemed primed to stop Federer’s run. He’d shown “remarkable poise” in making the quarters, staring down higher-ranked compatriots, ascendant Americans (to the extent they exist), and even upstart Bulgarians to reach the final eight, and did so without losing a set. At long last, Monfils seemed to be “putting it all together,” shunning flamboyance for boring, effective tennis. As tennis writer Jon Wertheim put it in a piece just after the match, in reaching the quarters, Monfils seemed to be “finally marrying his limitless talent with sound decision making and something resembling poise.” It was like a maturation process playing out right before our eyes.

Calder Willingham’s 1967 screenplay The Graduate depicts a young, unruly Dustin Hoffman trying to figure out what to do with his post-college life. After a series of fits, starts, and reckless behavior, including an affair with the bombshell mother of his true love, Hoffman figures things out, casts aside the self-destructive antics of his youth and decides to pursue things that he deems truly important. In Thursday night’s battle at Ashe, Gael Monfils was that wayward youth.

Except that he wasn’t.

In fact, the quarter between Monfils and Federer resembled no screenplay at all. Nor was its fate predetermined. Fed didn’t “flip a switch” or “find that extra gear,” nor did Monfils “revert to form,” “succumb to the inevitable,” or “let his talent get the better of him.”

Monfils started the match playing a bit better than Fed, then the Swiss raised his game and came back. Monfils secured two match points in the fourth. He would’ve won the second one had Fed hit his down-the-line forehand an inch lower, which could have occurred because of any number of factors, including excessive closing of the racquet face, sluggish racquet head speed, or a little birdie flying by as he hit the shot. Anyone who tells you that Federer’s victory was written in the stars either doesn’t understand the mundane factors that determine most points at that level of tennis, even the key ones, or has read one too many Brian Phillips articles.

I’ve been reading up on the 1972 Chilean coup that removed the democratically elected leftist government of Salvador Allende. Bespectacled Allende, perennial presidential candidate, emblematic of reasoned opposition to the stratified post-colonial chaos that had strangled Latin America for generations. There’s something surprising in the fact Allende finally managed a win. But as famed Chilean poet, lyricist, writer, senator, thinker, martyr, diplomat, and izquierdista Pablo Neruda once remarked “But from each crime are born bullets that will one day seek out in you where the heart lies.” Allende won. A new day was born. Until Pinochet and the Chicago boys put an end to the dream of a free Chile. Inevitability superceded the nascent upstart movement.

This has nothing to do with last night’s tennis match. I could easily fashion a haphazard link that makes me look well-read and you happy you read such an intelligent blog. Unlike someone who gets paid to write about tennis in today’s mediascape, we here at Balke Bros feel no need to put out such trite grasps at the facade of literary excellence. Tennis is a beautiful sport filled with tactics and strategy above all else. The moments don’t drip significance, but each rally tells you something new about the players and the unique match you’re watching.

As we look ahead to tomorrow’s semis and the men’s final on Monday, anything could happen. But the bigger point, the one that everyone needs to understand, is that the result of tomorrow’s contests will turn more on Cilic’s forehand than some forgotten Diane Keaton line buried deep in the second half of Annie Hall, more on Nishikori’s first-serve percentage than any lesson one could possibly glean from Garcia Marquez’s use of magical realism in 100 Years of Solitude.

We love tennis, and we love people who write about tennis, but c’mon! Things are out of control.

glasses-350x225

So, before homeboy Phillips describes another up-and-coming Aussie as playing like he was a man on fire, or Jon Wertheim describes the outcome of a key match as following a script written by The Fates, we’d ask simply, and respectfully, for our fellow comentaristas to spend a little less time on dragons, fire, and hidden meanings found in classic texts, and a little more time describing what actually happened in a match and why it was important.

Until then, though, save us a seat on the Zeppelin, Brian. The titanic symphony of racquets and yellow fuzz sets ablaze our neural jungle as feverishly as a well-constructed metaphor.

Fed rises, again and again: A Wimbledon final preview from the Balke Bros

6 Jul

Fed Raonic

The Spanish bull charged ahead rapidly. The Swiss maestro seemed to lose steam. Like the rabbit runner in a marathon, who darts out of the starting blocks before inevitably succumbing to more prudent runners in the race’s later stages, Roger Federer seemed doomed to bow to Rafael Nadal’s inspired assault on the former’s status as men’s tennis’ most decorated champion.

But today, in his ninth Wimbledon final, Federer has a chance to stanch the bleeding. By overcoming Novak Djokovic to capture an unprecedented eighth crown at the All England Club, Fed can halt, or at least slow, Rafa’s bid to surpass him on the major title totem pole. Far from surprising, Federer’s run this year in London fits with a broader pattern in the Swiss’ career, in which he has repeatedly defied predictions of imminent decline to regain his position at the zenith of the game.

Coming into this year’s tournament, things seemed decidedly gloomy for Fed fans. Whereas Rafa continued to pile up French Open championships and either threaten or win at the other slams, most people had given up on Fed’s chances of capturing another major. Too old; too slow; too inconsistent: Everyone had a reason why the Swiss was done, at least in terms of hoisting the game’s most cherished prizes.

Predictions flowed in from all sides that the 3-major gap separating Fed from Nadal would surely erode in the coming years, obviating the most compelling chain in the Fed-as-greatest-of-all-time argument. Indeed, one of the only people who seemed convinced Federer could make another run at a slam, and reinforce his claim on tennis primacy, was Roger, himself.

Over the years, the Swiss’ belief has never wilted, even as tennis analysts and casual observers repeatedly wrote him off. Rhetorically and in his on-court performance, Fed has exhibited unwavering belief that his game, if executed to full potential, remains good enough to beat anyone in the world.

This is particularly true at Wimbledon. Since winning his maiden major here as a pony-tailed 21-year-old in 2003, Roger has used the All England Club to propel his march toward tennis immortality. It was here, in 2009, that Fed scored a 16-14, five-set victory over Andy Roddick to secure his 15th major and surpass Pete Sampras on the grand slam titles list, taking sole command of tennis’ most coveted distinction.

But the Basel native, now 32 and a father of four, has also used Wimbledon to revive his career when it seemed to slip onto life support. Coming into Wimbledon in 2012, Fed’s ranking had dipped to three. With Nadal at his peak, Djokovic and Murray entering their prime, and a suite of young guns pining for their bite at the sweet apple of grand slam glory, Federer’s swan song appeared close at hand.

The Swiss had other ideas. Summoning the brilliant form of Wimbledons past, Fed scored a stunning four-set upset over top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals, and followed it up with a hard-fought victory against British hope Andy Murray in the final, claiming his 17th major title in the process. At the outset of the tournament many in the tennis world said Fed was done; instead, he won the whole damn thing.

Following Wimbledon that year, Fed rose to number one in the rankings, eclipsing Sampras’s all-time mark for weeks spent in the pole position. Moreover, the Swiss used momentum from his victory in London to fuel a strong hard-court  and indoor season that saw him finish the year at number two. Like Jordan in ’95, or Tom Watson every year for at least some stretch during a major, Fed was back on top.

2013 proved a disappointing follow-up to the unexpected accolades of the previous year. Federer reached only a single major semi-final, at the Australian Open, and crashed out of Wimbledon in the second-round to Ukrainian journeyman Sergiy Stakhovsky. Even more insultingly, both to Fed’s ego and to your correspondent, the Swiss bowed out in straight-sets at the U.S. Open to Spanish backboard Tommy Robredo, a player better-known for the mind-numbing monotony of his counter-punching style than for slaying major champions.

With things headed in the wrong direction, the vultures started swarming again. Fed’s ranking dipped to 8, its lowest point since Ally McBeal was still airing new episodes. Tennis commentaristas revved-up their doom-machines, foretelling 2014 as the year when Fed would finally fade away.

But, just as he has so many times before, the Swiss has picked himself up and put in one the year’s strongest campaigns. Fed followed a semi-final showing in Melbourne with a victory in Dubai, in which he took down Djokovic and Tomas Berdych to claim the title. He lost in a third-set breaker to Djoker in Indian Wells, tennis’ sixth most important tournament, made the finals of the Masters Series event in Monte Carlo, and claimed a record-extending seventh title on the grass at Halle.

If Fed beats Djokovic in today’s final, he’ll climb back to number three in the world and have a chance to rise further as he nets points during the summer hard-court season by improving on last year’s less-than-stellar performance.

Time and again, detractors have blown the whistle on Roger Federer’s greatness. But, time and time again, Fed has produced a brilliant streak of tennis to get himself back into the mix.

At some point, this won’t happen anymore. Federer will, as everyone does, exit the scene, whether in the form of an abrupt retirement while he is still near the top, a-la Sampras, or, a-la Agassi, following a steady, intractable dip in ranking that paints the writing brightly on the wall.

However he goes and whenever he goes, we can all be thankful that Roger continues to dazzle us with his brilliance. Two years ago, on July 6, the Swiss took down Djoko in a spirited semi on Centre Court Wimbledon. As a Fed fanatic, I’m hoping my man from Basel produces the magic one last time, today.

Kvitova in the zone: Brilliance at Wimbledon from a transcendent talent

5 Jul

Kvitova wins Wimbledon

In sports, players long to get in “the zone.” But, what constitutes “the zone” is hard to describe. For onlookers, it’s sort of like that old Supreme Court ruling on pornography: You know it when you see it. The zone in sports is metaphysical, that space where an athlete can do no wrong; where anything they dream, they do; and in which they don’t need to think, but simply execute.

 

The zone is MJ lighting it up for six three-pointers in the first half of game one against the blazers in ’92; Tiger cruising to a 12-stroke win at the Masters in ’97; or Samuel Taylor Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in an opium-induced haze, before that pesky dictionary salesman banged on the door and foiled his masterpiece. It’s Kendrick on a freestyle, Jimi on a solo, or Billie doing Strange Fruit.

 

The zone is that place all great performers want to go, whether in sport, literature, music, or anything in which one strives to hit peak performance. We all search for it, long for it, to stop thinking and just see the best we have to offer ooze effortlessly from our every action. The zone is the realm where tens of thousands of hours of practice and competition suddenly, finally manifest into perfection.

 

Today, Petra Kvitova was in the zone. In the most thorough dismantling I’ve ever seen in a Wimbledon final, Kvitova fired on all cylinders, beating Genie Bouchard of Canada 6-3, 6-0 in a match-up that one could charitably call one-sided but more accurately describe as an unbridled massacre.

 

Everything worked for the 6’0″ Czech. Her lefty serve, the game’s best, was clicking, characterized by a lethal mix of rapidly spinning slices out wide on the ad side, and hard, flat bombs up the tee that kicked up chalk as Bouchard looked on helplessly. Kvitova swung freely and confidently off both the forehand and backhand wings, sending shots deep, flat, and, often, unplayable into each corner of the backcourt.

 

Kvitova, who blasted her way to the Wimbledon title in 2011 but has since struggled to live up to her billing as one of the game’s premier players, could do no wrong  — another important element of entering “the zone.” Centre Court at the all England club was her stage, and she put on the performance of a lifetime. The lefty drove on one, three-pronged gear: forward, harder, faster.

 

In the second set, it seemed as though Kvitova was racing to get off the court, so she could collect her trophy, do the press conferences, and make a 6pm reservation somewhere in central London. As the match wore on, and her lead stretched, the Czech maestra seemed possessed by a single thought: Don’t think. Just do. And she did, repeatedly, exactly what she wanted.

 

On the other side of the net, Genie Bouchard looked shell-shocked. Coming into today’s final, Bouchard proclaimed she’d have a game plan to slay her taller, harder-hitting opponent. Whether or not that proved true, it’s sort of hard to institute a strategy when you can scarcely get your racquet on the ball.

 

Sure, Bouchard played less well than in her straight-set semifinal victory over Romanian world number three Simona Halep. Her first serve percentage dipped early, allowing Kvitova to step well into the court to feast on the Canadian’s weaker, second offering. The pressure Kvitova applied on her return raised the stakes for Bouchard to make more first serves, but that added pressure only seemed to induce more misses.

 

Bouchard also had a bit less crispness on her groundstrokes than she did against Halep. And Kvitova’s brilliant mix of speed and spin on her own serve kept Genie off balance, which prevented her from stepping in to hit aggressive returns, typically one of the strongest parts of the Canadian’s game.

 

Despite Bouchard’s less-than-stellar play, this was absolutely, positively, 100 percent the Petra Kvitova show. The lefty knew what she wanted to do — play the match of her life, with no mistakes, while hitting as hard and accurately as possible — and she executed flawlessly. Once her game started to flow, Kvitova’s perfection became unthinking. She transcended the realm of conscious tactical execution, and entered a sub-conscious state of sublime shot-making.

 

No thoughts. Just action. The zone.

 

In sports – or, at least, in tennis – when your only mental impulse is antithetical to deep thinking, and you’re winning, you’re in a very, very good position. For prodigies, inhibition is enemy number one.

 

If you’ve got the tools to beat anyone, as Kvitova unquestionably does, you don’t want to agonize over what shot to hit, what pattern to work, or which of your opponent’s tendencies to exploit. You just want to unleash your talent, to see it flow seamlessly, effortlessly into and thru every ball you strike. When you’re in the zone, you know the ball will go in more than enough times to carry you to victory.

 

And that’s exactly what happened for Kvitova today. We may not see another performance like that for a long time.

 

That said, as a Federer fan, I hope we see similar metaphysical artistry from the Swiss tomorrow!

a major problem: bringing sanity to pro tennis’ broken calendar

13 Jun

analysts have weighed in routinely on the need for pro tennis’ governing authorities to institute a lengthier off-season for their players. and rightfully so. right now, tennis pros have to compete for over ten months a year, and spend a good portion of their “down time” punishing themselves in brutal training regimens just to keep up. the lack of a true period of rest places excess strain on players’ bodies, which, coupled with the increasingly physical nature of the game, results in more frequent injuries, shortened careers, and, worse of all, cranky spaniards.

 

this is a bad deal, and it needs to be addressed. but as i watched rafa go down 6-4, 6-1 to german journeyman dustin brown in his first match in halle on thursday, it dawned on me that commentators have not paid nearly enough attention to an issue that is separate from, but very much related to, pro tennis’ nearly invisible off-season: the insanity of the grand slam calendar.

 

it’s time for someone to speak out. the clay-grass turnaround period is insane. no sooner had rafa hoisted the trophy in roland garros than he was darting off to squeeze in precious training time on the green turf in germany.

 

rafa wasn’t the only player affected by the quick switch from the slower, heavier play of the european red clay court swing to the crisp, power play that characterizes matches at the grass-court tune-ups leading to wimbledon. french open semi-finalist and wimbly defending champ andy murray dropped his third-round match in queens in straight-sets to czech veteran radek stepanek. ernest gulbis, who also made it to the final four in paris, dropped his queens opener in straights to frenchman kenny de schepper. de who? exactly.

 

what’s going on here? sure, in the case of gulbis, one can often attribute poor play to late night escapades, a penchant for on-court erraticism, and an apparent boredom with consistent success. but the idiosyncratic oddities of the latvian lion fail to account for poor performance among more consistent members of tennis’ upper echelon. something else it at play: the unreasonable demand that pro tennis forces players to make in transitioning immediately from the clay of roland garros to the grass of wimbledon.

 

sure, the tournaments’ chronological proximity results in one hell of a six weeks for tennis fans (there are two weeks between the end of the french and the start of wimbly), and adds to the impressiveness when someone pulls off the paris-london double. but it really just makes no sense at all. i know the atp tour is moving wimbledon back a week next year, but what’s really needed is an overhaul of the major calendar in general.

 

overhauling the trajectory of majors could help a lot, not just in terms of making surface transitions more reasonable, but also in extending the tennis off-seson. let me explain.

 

right now, most players wrap-up their season in europe at the end of october. but there’s little time for lounging. the tour kicks off with tournaments in the first week of january. so, in early december, players have to start hitting the gym. by mid-december, they’re back out on court. that leaves about six weeks of true chill time, unless you qualify for the year-end championship or davis cup finals, in which case you’ve got about a month to unwind.

 

this compares horrendously to other major sports like basketball and football, which both allow players at least five months of off-season down-time. in baseball – where the main physical requirements center around chewing gum, refastening your batting gloves, and scratching yourself – most players have fully four months to recuperate before getting back to the “grind.”

 

but, lest you think i’m just a whiner, without a plan for action, let me tell you what i’d do to fix pro tennis’ broken calendar system.

 

i’d move to a schedule where you’d have the aussie in mid-february, french in late april, wimbledon in mid-late-july, and then start the us open the third week of september. we should also scrap the weird fall european indoor swing altogether. keep the early fall indoor tourneys in asia, because we need to build the game’s popularity there. but there’s no reason to go back to europe. the continent’s got more than enough tournaments as it is.

 

sure, us open-goers won’t want to sacrifice holding their middle weekend over labor day. and i can already hear the organizers of the mid-october swedish open moaning and groaning. but look, sometimes things need to change.

 

indeed, some of the game’s greatest innovations have met with fierce resistance at first. take instant replay, for example. when it was first suggested that perhaps we should rely on technology instead of human eyeballs to judge the in-ness or out-ness of 140mph serves on which hundreds of thousands of dollars hang in the balance, many scoffed at the idea, lamenting the potential loss of purity such an addition would induce. fortunately for tennis, the luddites lost, and instant replay has become a conspicuous – and almost unambiguously embraced – addition to the game.

 

the same could happen with the proposal i laid out above. under this framework, you could conceivably end the season in mid-october, and start it in mid- (as opposed to the beginning of) january, providing a three-month off-season. tennis professionals should spend new year’s eve drinking beer with their friends, not preparing for a three-hour grind fest in the 100-degree heat of chennai.

 

implementing the approach i’ve described would give players a real chance to rest and recuperate, which would help preserve their bodies and extend their careers. the time for a major recalibration of the pro tennis calendar has come. indeed, it is long overdue.

French Open men’s final preview: everything on the line, for Djoker and Nadal

6 Jun

Djoker-Nadal

Sunday’s French Open men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic could not have higher stakes. Rafa, the top seed and eight-time champion in Paris, is playing to defend his throne at Stade Roland Garros, where he has accumulated an otherworldly 65-1 record, and take an important step toward matching Roger Federer’s all-time mark for major titles, by moving from 13 to fourteen, which would put him three shy of Fed’s record haul of 17. Although tennis watchers disagree on whether Nadal has enough left in the tank physically to tie or surpass Federer, everyone agrees that doing so would require a couple more titles, at least, at the French. So, for Rafa, one can reasonably argue that winning on Sunday represents a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for eclipsing the Swiss on the totem poll of major champions.

Djokovic has a lot on the line, as well. By winning on Sunday, the Serb would regain the world’s number one ranking, become the first player to beat Nadal in a French Open final, and collect his seventh major title overall. But, in the opinion of one Balke Bro, the lengthy dynamo from Belgrade is playing for much more. Djokovic is not yet one of tennis’ all-time greats. If you stopped time today, historians of the game would probably place him, justifiably, in that awe-inspiring, but not quite elite, class that includes players like John McEnroe, Stephan Edberg, Mats Vilander, and Ivan Lendl. These players were obviously incredible. But most people don’t, nor should they, classify them as belonging to the meta-level of tennis brillaince occupied by the likes of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal, Roy Emerson and Rod Laver. If he continued the current trajectory of his career, Djokovic would retire known as a guy who was one of the greatest Australian Open champions of all-time, spent a good bit of time, but not a ton, at number one, and racked up a nice collection of Masters titles along with a smattering of non-Aussie Open majors.

The problem is, while those are good accolades, they’re not great, for three reasons: a) there’s an unspoken understanding that the major in Melbourne is the red-headed step-child of grand slams – we all know winning there is not as important as winning in London, Paris, or New York; b) in terms of tennis greatness, being number one doesn’t matter nearly as much as winning majors – it’s nice to get there but doesn’t count for much unless you’ve spent more time there than anybody else, in which case you’ve probably also won a slew of majors, which is what really counts; and c) the price of admission into tennis immortality has risen so absurdly high that, today, you need to win like twelve majors to even be in the conversation. On his current trajectory, Djoker won’t get there. But with a win on Sunday against Rafa, in the Spaniard’s throne at Chatrier, Djokovic can start a domino effect that this Balke Bro thinks will springboard him into his rightful (rightful, because he’s got the game and the mental mojo for it) place among tennis’ all-time best.

But there is an intra-Balke Bro debate on this. Although we usually like to bring you pieces in clear and pristine fashion, below, you’ll find a sort of stream-of-consciousness exchange between the two of us in which we debate the extent to which Sunday’s final represents the biggest match of Djoker’s career to date. We also look at what’s on the line for Rafa. Enjoy, and let us know what you think!

Patrick (P): Ouch (with respect to the Rafa-Murray beatdown).
Daniel (D): Domination. Andy didn’t show. Rafa forehand a missile.
P: El rey del rojo
D: We’ll see, pookie
P: The jacket lies in the balance (referring to a jacket over which we share joint-custody, whose ownership hinges on the result of Sunday’s final; P has called Rafa; D has called Djoker)
D: Yep. Every day on court is different.
P: Thats why four straight doesnt matter to me
D: Right. (Which could of course refer to Djok (head-to-head win streak against Rafa) or Raf (at French) win streak
P: Exactly.
D: P.S. This is the biggest match of Djokovic’s career.
P: Itll definitely be one for the ages
D: No but I mean, this is career-defining.
P: How so more than say the 2012 final?
D: He can take a step toward becoming one of the greats (which he is not yet), or he can remain one of the best Aussie Open champions who ever lived.
P: Or perhaps the french next year? Or wimbledon this year? I feel any non aussie slam hes played since 2011 have been huge. Theyve traded the one ranking around, hes racked up masters, just hasnt really made too much noise. Every slam hes played has had the same stakes, and its not like this is his last chance. Im not convinced thats a reason hes any hungrier this year.
D: Because he’s done nothing of note since 2011. And the clock’s ticking. Plus, taking down a healthy rafa on his home turf, at his palace, would be super meaningful. No one’s ever done it. No one who is in conversation as more than a one and done.
P: ROBIN (Soderling, who remains the only person to ever beat Rafa at the French)!!!
D: Haha. He (Djoker) has won exactly zero non-aussie slams since 2011, no one cares about masters, and history doesn’t care about number one unless you’ve been it more than any one else which he’s not even close to
P: Exactly. Every slam since 2011 has carried these same stakes. He hasnt come thru. No reason this will be any different for those reasons. Played nadal here in 12 and lost, lost to murray twice in finals, stani in australia. He comes up short time and again. In ’12 he coulda had the career slam, that woulda been career defining. And its not like rafa doesnt have history to chase, would automatically make him an all-time great.
D: ’12 didn’t have as much pressure because two years have passed and the clock is ticking. He needs to start winning now. Beating Rafa Sunday, at the French
P: I think clocks ticking way more on rafa than novak is why im not convinced
D: The reason this year is more important than ’12 is because in ’12 he was riding a streak in which he’d won four of the last five majors and was clearly the best in the world. Really nothing to prove. Now, with the results not having come the way they did in the past, and with the clock ticking, and with no assurance he’ll have a chance to knock out rafa on a similar stage with stakes so high, he can and needs to make his move into the ranks of tennis immortality.
P: Thats all very dramatic but i imagine being the first consec slam since laver woulda thrust him into immortality.
D: It would’ve. But it didn’t happen. So, here we are.
P: With someone with a less than stellar track record with immortality on the line. Against rafa at chatrier.
D: They both understand the stakes. Rafa can’t catch Roger w/out multiple more wins at the French. Losing to Djoker would see the seeds of doubt start to seep in for future.
P: Yep. Unless he wins out this year haha
D: So, big for the Spaniard, as well. Still would be shy of Fed. But in much more comfortable shape, I agree.

French Open mid-way point: Amidst intrigue, surprise and scandal, Djoko en route to routine victory

1 Jun

The French Open has reached its mid-way point. Despite a first-week chalk-full of upsets and intriguing story lines, I see the men’s side playing-out in fairly routine fashion, with Novak Djokovic beating either Andy Murray or Gael Monfils to claim his first French Open title.

Murray has the game to beat anyone, anywhere. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – a lousy start to 2014 and the absence of a coach, the Scot seems to be playing with extra purpose and resolve at this year’s French. He battled to dismiss disciplined German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber 12-10 in the fifth set of a third-round marathon, in which the Scot had plenty of chances to lose.

After winning the U.S. Open in 2012 and Wimbledon last year, Murray both knows he has what it takes to win, and, since, in winning Wimbly, he’s already met the grandest expectations anyone ever had of him, he’s now effectively playing with house money. That, coupled with potential quarter-final opponent Stan Wawrinka’s unexpected departure in the first-round, must be freeing for Murray. Why not add a cherry on top in the form of a major title on his worst surface, clay?

Monfils, meanwhile, is the ultimate showman (and potentially the coolest person on planet Earth), and playing better than he has in a number of years. With the Parisian faithful firmly behind their home-town boy, look for Le Monfe to deliver the goods against wily Spaniard Garcia-Lopez in the round of 16, and then give Murray all he can handle in the quarters.

Whomever prevails in the Murray-Monfils quarterfinal, I think, will then knock-off Rafa in the semis. Pundits will call this a shocking upset. It will not be.

We got multiple tastes of Rafa’s newfound vulnerability on clay during the spring. Losses in Monte Carlo and Barcelona to countrymen Ferrer and Almagro, players he has historically treated more as whipping boys than serious opponents, pointed to growing doubts from the lefty about his ability to continue dominating on the dirt.

Then, in Rome, Murray blasted thru Rafa to win the first set 6-1. True, Rafa clawed back into the match, ultimately emerging with a hard-fought 7-5 triumph in the third. But the Spaniard’s level, and belief, on clay has dropped a bit, and Murray has the goods to capitalize and pull off an upset in the Paris semis.

With Monfils, anything is possible, always, including stunning victories over the world’s best, and jaw-droppingly lopsided losses against journeyman whose names most tennis fans will never know.

So, that’s the top half of the draw. We’ve got either Murray or Monfils emerging to the finals.

Down on the bottom, week one provided plenty of intrigue and story lines. This was highlighted, of course, by Ernests Gulbis’s captivating, five-set win over Roger Federer in the round of 16. Followers of the game are on the edge of their seat wondering if the talented Latvian is now, finally, putting everything together and on the path to reaching what has always been enormous potential.

He’ll face-up with world number six Tomas Berdych in the quarters. The Czech has cruised thru his first four matches in Paris. But the real news from the Czech is that he has shamelessly forced his entire team to collude in his H&M-abetted fashion miscues throughout the Paris fortnite – poor souls.

As with Monfils, anything is possible with Gulbis – he can lose to and beat everyone. He can be two players during the same match. With Berdych, you know what you’re going to get: big, technically sound ball-striking that is devoid of creativity and, stylistically, provides tennis’ counter to Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. This one could truly go either way.

In an important way, though, the outcome of Gulbis-Berdych doesn’t really matter. Both players are mere pawns in, and detracting attention from, the main story on the men’s side in Roland Garros: Novak Djokovic’s inevitable march to his first French Open title.

Djokovic is focused. He’s hungry. He’s playing better than anyone else. He’s got Rafa’s number (yes, he does: he’s won their last four matches and eight of the last 9 sets the two have contested). He wants to regain the number one ranking, he wants to complete the career grand slam, and he wants to do all this in Rafa’s palace at Stade Roland Garros.

Although I don’t think he’ll have to go thru the Spaniard himself to get the job done, expect to see Djoker on the winner’s podium next Sunday. The Serb will beat Tsonga later today (I’m sprinting to finish this post before that match is already decided!), dismiss Raonic, potentially playing left-handed, in a sleeper in the quarters (the tennis world is fawning over Raonic’s run to the final eight in Paris, but let’s not forget that a healthy Nishikori would’ve taken down the Canadian in the round of 16), and then steamroll his way thru an outmatched Gulbis or an outclassed Berdych in the semis, before grinding to victory against Murray/Le Monfe.

Just like this year’s NBA playoffs, amidst tons of intrigue, tantalizing story lines, and even a bit of scandal (Berdych’s fashion choice), this year’s French Open men’s title will be claimed in fairly routine fashion by a 2-seed who is simply better in all aspects than his opponents.

Maybe Djok and Lebron will have a victory dinner to celebrate.