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Men's Claycourt Season: Beyond the Top
As the claycourt season gets underway, the angle of least resistance is to view the ATP World Tour strictly from the top down. Just how great is Rafael Nadal? Where do things stand with Roger Federer? It’s always been fascinating how much attention is given to the guys who are winning big. I know this because I’ve often been the one giving it, engaging in armchair dissections of the greats, their strokes, psyches, possibilities, and so on.
Just because Federer and Nadal have won so many claycourt titles over the last few years doesn't make the other players
The downside, though, in just looking at the very best is that there’s a tendency to regard their greatness as eternal. It wasn’t too long ago that the likes of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and John McEnroe figured Federer would easily win at least 17 majors. And of course, this spring, the notion of toppling Nadal on a claycourt – particularly Roland Garros, where he’s won all four times he’s played to compile a staggering 28-0 record – is as daunting as climbing Mount Everest or bankrupting General Motors (whoops).
So instead, I’d like to look at the coming claycourt season just beyond the very best. What’s the view beyond Nadal-Federer? What’s the thinking of a player when he knows he’s competing in an era of such greatness? How best to evaluate these contenders? And make no mistake: Just because Federer and Nadal have won so many of the claycourt titles over the last few years doesn’t make these players non-contenders.
To tap into this I’d like to start with a look at Andy Roddick. Andy Roddick? The man who only once in seven tries has reached the third round of Roland Garros?
I’m not saying this is the year Roddick will break through in Paris. But having studied his approach to the game for nearly a decade, having seen him go from rising star to number one to perennial top tenner – he’s the only player besides Federer to have finished in the top ten the last seven years – I use Roddick as an example of exemplary professionalism.
My sense of Roddick now is that he merely wants to continue to work, continue to compete, look to excel; and perhaps, by dint of that, good things might happen no matter where plays. It is a process-based attitude, a difficult approach to maintain in a vocation where the harshest eye is cast on results – and where there’s enough money floating around to create a nice lifestyle without having to put too much on the line. Is there any doubt, for example, that with his serve Roddick could continue to earn hundreds of thousands and merely enjoy a top 30 career? But for all his struggles, he continues to ask things of himself, willingly for example getting a coach in Larry Stefanki who will kick his butt – and suggest he lose 15 pounds. So most of all I am pleased with Roddick’s work ethic and the candor he brings to his tennis.
Who among the others has an attitude akin to Roddick’s? And what other tools might these players bring? Andy Murray is another player whose recent attitude strikes me as first-rate. He’s always been a keenly intelligent tactician, but in the first few years of his career, Murray was a bit short in the physical fitness department. He had somewhat of the artist-intellect mentality, a thinking person’s disdain for overly exerting his body. But that’s changed significantly in the last year.
Increased engagement with fitness has aided Murray’s physical strength and, even more, his mental toughness. How well that pans out on clay is uncertain. Still at heart a counterpuncher, Murray’s often been better at using pace than generating it. And the slowness of claycourts makes it vital to generate pace. But again, what’s most pleasing is to see him emerge as a thoroughly-committed professional in constant pursuit of improvement and, by extension, excellence.
When it comes to effort and engagement, I'm quite puzzled by Novak Djokovic and David Nalbandian.
When it comes to effort and engagement, I’m quite puzzled by Novak Djokovic and David Nalbandian. In the case of Nalbandian, for example, this skilled Argentine has a history of fine ballstriking yet often coming up short on big occasions – frustrating results that are vexing less due to his technical skills and more to a beguiling dark cloud that seems to envelop and destroy him. Djokovic of late has been in danger of succumbing this way too, perhaps a function of his acclimation to everything from a new racket to his family running a new ATP tournament to adjusting to the pressures of expectation and fame.
Then there are a few newcomers to the elite such as Juan Martin del Potro, Gilles Simon, Gaels Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Nicolas Almagro. There are times when del Potro looks like the shape of things to come. Players such as del Potro and Marin Cilic are tall, mobile and powerful. But then there are other times when del Potro mopes, his intensity plummeting (full disclosure: I’m 5’ 8” and have never quite understood the languid manner of very tall people).
Simon is a nifty counterpuncher, but to me a bit of an accidental tourist, a man who has worked hard to crack the top ten. But is he willing to truly add the tools in his transition to be something other than a cult player? You may not believe it given Monfils’ size, but as Simon recently pointed out to me, Monfils and Simon at heart play very similarly. Monfils’ height and speed deliver the classic athletic gifts – he showed plenty last year in reaching the semis at Roland Garros – so now I dare him to upgrade his technique and turn his engaging defense into sustained offense.
Click photo: Verdasco was the breakout star in Australia, let’s see this spring and summer if he’s for real or merely levitating.
And then there’s Tsonga, the man with the full package of power and technique, an all-court game and impressive moxie. My hope is that he stays healthy and can bring out those tools week to week rather than intermittently. Almagro seems so comfortable only on clay that I wonder if at some point he might put too much pressure on himself to generate all his results only on that surface; it’s too bad, as his lethal strokes should surely scale nicely on today’s slow hardcourts.
Two additional players arriving at a crossroads that could mean much this spring: Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer. Verdasco was the breakout star in Australia, his workouts with Agassi guru Gil Reyes helping him reach the semis before losing an epic to Nadal. Let’s see this spring and summer if he’s for real or merely levitating. Ferrer is a rough customer, yet another extension of the Michael Chang-Lleyton Hewitt school of grinding. He will surely fight hard all spring, but it’s tough to see how fresh he’ll be come Roland Garros.
The final card in the deck is a man who may seem a joker but has shown he can do much. Radek Stepanek last year played wonderfully disruptive tennis to take out Federer in the Rome quarters. He’s shown similar prowess this year to win Brisbane and San Jose. Stepanek’s all-court game is an aberration in contemporary tennis. And while powerful players such as Verdasco can smoke him outdoors, there’s a lesson to be gained from Stepanek’s example: leave no stone unturned. Try different tactics. Hopefully we’ll see plenty of them on the clay this spring.
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The Andy Murray Backhand
With the tennis hopes of Great Briton riding on the shoulders of Andy Murray, the tall, lanky Scotsman is riding a wave of hard court success. Andy's strokes are compact and efficient and the one stroke at the heart of Murray’s meteoric rise has to be his backhand. Dave Smith takes a close look at Andy Murray’s backhand and identifies the key position points and general features that he believes make it a great backhand for anyone to emulate.
Tuning Up Doubles Play After 50
On television we watch the great singles players like Federer and Nadal and Venus and Serena but at the club level, doubles is the game of choice for most tennis players and this is even more so for players over fifty. The fact is, as we age, we move a bit slower and cover less ground. Here, Kathy and Ron Woods offer a practical and strategic guide to better doubles with a specific emphasis on playing after fifty.
ProStrokes 2.0 - Victoria Azarenka's Forehand
Victoria Azarenka has been on a fast track since joining the WTA tour. After knocking off Serena Williams in the Sony Ericsson final in a one-sided affair, her career-high ranking is now at No. 8 heading into the clay court season. At 19 years of age, her power and accuracy is certainly showing she is ready for center stage. Azarenka has a penetrating style of play, reminiscent of the way Monica Seles. She is not afraid to take balls early and finish points off often with an all-out, aggressive swing on both sides. Check out her stokes in Prostrokes 2.0.
The Etcheberry Experience DVD
For more than twenty years Pat Etcheberry has been providing athletes from around the world with the winning edge. We call this the Etcheberry Experience, and players with an Etcheberry experience have hoisted Championship Trophies at over one hundred major championships, including 28 Australian Opens, 18 Wimbledons, 22 UP Opens, 22 French Opens and 15 Olympic medals.
And now it's your turn! This is your chance to experience the same drills, exercises and words of tennis wisdom that Pat gave to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Jim Courier, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and others, that helped launch them on their incredible careers. For the first time, Pat Etcheberry shares his training secrets in a series of DVDs for players of all ages, their coaches, and trainers.
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