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Masters at Work
There was a time, a few years back, when the men’s game was beautifully predictable. Beautiful, in that some of the most sublime tennis was being played before our eyes, but predictable because everyone knew what the result would be. More or less, except on clay, Roger Federer won everything.
There was a time, a few years back, when the men’s game was beautifully predictable. More or less, except on clay, Roger Federer won everything.
When Djokovic beat Federer at the 2008 Australian Open semi-finals, however, we entered an era of new, exciting uncertainty. Federer became only one of the top players, contending with Djokovic, Murray, Del Potro and particularly Rafael Nadal for the major titles and the top spot in the rankings. Eventually, though, out of this chaos a new order formed, in which Nadal — emphatic winner of three straight slams in 2010 — looked to be near unbeatable. Predictability was returning to tennis.
Or so it seemed.In 2011, apparently without warning, Novak Djokovic went turbo. Fueled by his gluten-free diet and Davis Cup triumph, he claimed three majors, five Masters 1000 titles, and 66 wins in 68 matches. The rest were quite simply unable to keep up. By the time the Serb raced to the US Open title in September, it appeared inevitable that he would also claim the season ending Masters, now styled as the ATP World Tour Finals, at London’s O2 Arena.
As it happened, Djokovic — fatigued and without a title since the US Open — went out in the round robin stages, while Roger Federer won his sixth year-ending tournament, beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a closely contested final. Clearly, tennis is still a very unpredictable game. Even so, what might these recent results mean for the next year?
Firstly, Federer. This guy just won’t go away (something for which tennis fans should be very grateful). His fluid play and smart attitude towards scheduling has left the 16-time slam champion fresh and purposeful at the end of the season, in sharp contrast to some of his major rivals. By winning his sixth Masters title, he now stands alone as the greatest player in that event’s illustrious history. Perhaps just as importantly, he will go into 2012 on the back of a 17 match winning streak that also brought him the Paris trophy, one of the few Masters 1000s to have evaded him in the past.
It is not as though the Swiss player’s success has been limited only to the indoor season. Though he failed to add to his tally of slams for the first time since 2002, it is worth remembering that he came very close (those two match points on serve against Djokovic at the US Open come to mind), performed very consistently (with a 62-5 or 92.5% win record against everyone except the world numbers 1 and 2) and played some of his finest matches (his victory over Djokovic at Roland Garros and the drubbing he gave Nadal in London serving as good examples). This latest run only confirms that Federer is not only hungry for but still has the game to win more majors next year.
Despite his recent dip towards the end of the year, Djokovic is still clearly the man to beat in 2012.
Despite this, of course, Novak Djokovic is clearly still going to be the man to beat in 2012. He owes his recent dip in form to having played so many matches over the year in such a physical, demanding manner. It would be surprising if he wasn’t recharged and ready to go in time for the Australian Open in January. Does this mean he will likely repeat his glorious triumphs next year? Not necessarily.
Along with his consistency, it was the Serb’s ability to raise his game for the big matches against Federer, Murray and especially Nadal that enabled his supremacy between January and September. This sustained dominance over his greatest rivals was a tremendous achievement and is not one that will easily be repeated on the same scale, especially as Djokovic will face the added pressure of defending his many titles next year. This, bear in mind, is a quality the Serb has yet to demonstrate — of the 28 tournaments to his name, only 3 have been won as defending champion. In comparison, 8 of Federer’s first 28 and 11 of Nadal’s were defended titles. The pressure of expectation will be on him next year, and it will be interesting to see how he handles it.
In general, how the 24 year old moves on from his annus mirabilis is the great question for the next few years in men’s tennis. There are three players in the Open Era whose experience might prove analogous to the Serb’s. In each case, like him, they achieved and sustained for at least several months the number one spot in their mid twenties, after having previously been close but not close enough. Could Djokovic be like Mats Wilander, who, having won three majors in 1988, then faced the terminal collapse of his game and ranking the following year? Could he be like Andre Agassi, whose long, rollercoaster career would go on — and up and down — for another decade after his superb 1995 season? Or could he be another Ivan Lendl, who, after claiming the crown in 1985 through his great physicality and consistent power, largely dominated (except on grass) for the next four or five years? Whatever happens, surely 2012 will be a decisive year in Djokovic’s career.
Another player with a lot to prove is Rafa Nadal. The Spaniard’s poor showing at the Masters should not have come as a surprise. In the last six years, Nadal has only ever won one title (Tokyo 2010) in the months following the US Open.
Another player with a lot to prove is Rafa Nadal. The Spaniard’s poor showing at the Masters should not have come as a surprise. Even more so than Djokovic, the intensity of his game takes something out of him — in the last six years, Nadal has only ever won one title (Tokyo 2010) in the months following the US Open. Like Federer, he’s had a very good year, only really held back by his big losses to the world number one. These losses — six consecutive finals — constitute a major psychological barrier for Nadal, however, which he will need to overcome if he is to regain the top ranking.
Can it be done? There are examples of players who have overturned great losing streaks against their biggest rivals. Ivan Lendl, for instance, lost six of seven finals against McEnroe in 1984, but then went on to win 12 of their subsequent 15 matches. Lendl, however, had been the underdog before 1985, chasing McEnroe. It is hard to think of an example of one player who, having lost their dominance against a younger, upcoming rival, then regained it. Nonetheless, if it can be done, Nadal is perhaps the man to do it, though it might not be until the clay court season that his confidence against Djokovic returns.
Of the rest, Murray is clearly the standout player. The Scot under performed at the Masters, despite having had a strong indoor season. He, too, has shown the ill effects of a long, arduous year. Murray continues to do well at the Masters 1000 level, and reached the semi-finals or better of all four majors in 2011. His task next year, much like Federer’s, will be to overcome the other top players at those late stages in the slams. More so than Federer, however, Murray knows that he will need to play the match of his life to achieve this, if Djokovic and Nadal maintain their current form against him.
Of the rest, Murray is clearly the standout player, but he too has shown the ill effects of a long, arduous year.
The Masters and the race to qualify for London have also showcased the strength of the top 10 and top 20. World Tour Finals runner up Tsonga and fellow big hitters Berdych and Del Potro are all in form or returning to form, and are possible threats at the majors next year. Whether any of them is up to the likely challenge of beating two or even three of the top four in the same tournament, however, remains to be seen. Only Del Potro has demonstrated this ability before, but even for the giant of Tandil it might be a tall order to repeat it.
The big story of 2011 remains, of course, Djokovic’s crushing nine-month dominance. The ATP World Tour Finals event in London, however, has served yet again to remind tennis fans that we live in an incredibly competitive era in the men’s game. 2012 will not be predictable, but we can be quite certain that the tennis will still be beautiful, that great matches will be played and that history will surely be made.
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Open and Neutral Stance Volleys
Open stance and neutral stance are two phrases more often associated with groundstrokes than volleys, however, on the pro tour, it might surprise you that some of the best volleyers in the world use the open and neutral stance volleys much more often than the traditional method of stepping across. Christophe Delavaut is not saying that stepping across is necessarily wrong – sometimes you have to, but, at the club level, it can cause more harm than good.
The Horse Stance
For many club players, the wide ball presents a particular problem. Traditionally coaches will tell you to stay low – moving across the court staying low, but this is only partially correct. The real key to better balance and quicker recovery is to be low and wide at the end of the shot. Former touring pro, Jeff Salzenstein, borrows from the marshall arts (Tai Chi) to show you the best way to make this happen.
ProStrokes 2.0 – Svetlana Kuznetsova, Serve & Net Game
With two major championships under her belt, Svetlana Kuznetsova has been ranked as high as #2 in the WTA field (2007), yet for the past two years, she has struggled to remain in the top twenty. Athletic (at around 5’9” and 161 lbs), Svetlana is a strong singles player with power on both wings and a solid service motion. Kuznetsova plays an all-around game, she can volley with the best players, attack off her serve and groundstrokes, and cover the court as well as any player on tour. 2012 could be a “come-back” year for this talented Russian. New this issue, Kuznetsova's Serve and Net Game.
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