It’s not an easy moment in a tennis match. In fact it’s fraught with risk. But to the volleyer (the player who attacks) it’s a long haul strategy which, if successful, wears even the greatest defenders down.
At the 2014 Australian Open we’ve seen some interesting alignment of current Grand Slam Champions teaming with some of the greats Grand Slam Champions of yesteryear. First, Andy Murray was in desperate need of someone, anyone, who could tap into his talent and his fragile, anxious and burdened mind, to move from perennial runner-up to the Champions Circle. Two Grand Slams and One Gold Medal later, Ivan Lendl has provided Andy with a similar narrative — multi Grand Slam finalist before cashing in to multiple Grand Slams — a sense of certainty and some good old Eastern European humor to lighten the load, unfurl the potential which Murray’s fragile tightly wound mind was ready to block, time and time again.
Then at the end of 2013, Murray goes under the knife and has back surgery.
Now, Roger Federer aligns himself with the former multiple Grand Slam Champion, Stefan Edberg, hoping to come into the 2014 season with ‘fresh eyes’ and a newfound love for faster points and finishing tennis. Armed with new ideas and a larger frame (Wilson Prototype 98 sq inch) Roger played some inspiring, aggressive tennis beating Tsongas in the 16s, Murray in the Quarters then running head on into his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, bowing out in three straight sets.
But we saw something different in Roger. It’s something a lot of us have been talking about for awhile when we witnessed his usual precise shotmaking unravel with multiple shanks and misconnects: why not move to a larger frame? Seems simple. But as Miguel Seabra pointed out to us, Roger had made many of his greatest strides moving from a mid to a mid-plus frame and the man loved the 17 Grand Slams that followed with that racket. Why would he change? Well the game is bigger, faster and more powerful now. Timing the pace of a rocket launched by the baseline bangers, or the ‘freak spin’ hurled by Nadal, created a bit of a conundrum for Roger. He lost early at Wimbledon in 2012. He went out early at the US Open. And so it was time for a change. Out with the old, Paul Annacone, and in with the new, Stefan Edberg.
It was great to see Roger swing freely at the Australian Open after coming off a finalist run in Brisbane he came into the heat of the Australian Open with a newfound confidence and excitement for the game. Mind you it doesn’t take much, Roger has always loved this game, it’s history and his place in it. To see Roger attack more, to find moments in the middle of a rally to come in and finish at the net, gave us a preview of, dare I say, the Era of Edberg.
Although it might be short-lived (Roger will turn 33 in August 2014), the combination of a classic serve/volleyer and someone Roger revered growing up creates and interesting combination which allows Roger to trust the message while relearning how to shorten points for a man of his age.
Many have counted Roger out, that his last shot at winning another Grand Slam was in 2012. But on grass, armed with new ideas about how to shorten points and attack more, he could show us something in 2014.
But let’s talk about the most intriguing new alignments: Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker.
Novak was the first of the top players to announce a change in ‘team’ was where he needed a refresh and a ‘new’ approach to the oncoming threats of players all around him. After all, in 2013, deep into the Fall, Novak lost his Number One ranking.
But first a little backdrop.
At the end of 2010, Novak Djokovic was in search. He was a perennial semi-finalist who, like many, at the moment of truth all of a sudden became too aware of where he was and questioned — right then and there — why he was there in the first place.
Champions don’t look in, they look over on the other side of the net.
Champions are constantly measuring your competitive tug. And if there’s a little slack on the other end, then they go in for the kill. Novak has always been a little too concerned about the ‘quality’ of the match, it’s entertainment value, until, that is, the Fall of 2010.
Novak Djokovic went in for a 50,000 mile tune up. He discovered he had a ‘gluten allergy.’ He hired what I call a ‘shaman’ to clean his mind, clear his head and lift the weight and the burden off his shoulders. When Novak and his Serbian compatriots won the 2010 Davis Cup, Novak became lighter, freer as he no longer had to hoist the weight of his nation on his shoulders anymore for validation. Serbia was the Champion of the World.
It was a monumental and psychological boost for Novak. It was the beginning of a freedom which he hadn’t found before; a freedom of certainty that only comes with supreme self-belief. His 2011 season was one of the most remarkable runs this sport has seen since John McEnroe’s dominant 1984 (84-3) season. He beat Rafael Nadal on all surfaces, six times, and claimed the Australian, Wimbledon and US Open Trophies by the end. He was thoroughly dominant.
As Rafael Nadal recalled after the fifth beating in a row by Djokovic at one of his most reflective moments in a press conference post-Wimbledon, ‘Obviously he is the better player. Today. I will work harder. I will look for all answers. And then I will work harder to find a way.’ After the season ended a reflective Nadal said about the Djokovic dominance in 2011, ‘it will be tough to repeat, no?’
And it was.
The confident Novak Djokovic of 2011 became the defender Novak in 2012. Moving forward and into the court to attack the ball morphed into moving forward only when it presented itself. He no longer created the opening in the court from the return of serve or off his serve, but somehow gave his opponent more credit and dictated less often. It’s only natural, isn’t it? How often do athletes dominate the following season after a spectacular season? Things change. You become more aware of your place, of others and now the work and the distance you created between yourself and others seems to be narrowing. Then the questions: How do I repeat such a season? What can I do to improve on that? all have to be muted, cleaned from the memory to focus on the goals ahead.
In 2012, to Novak’s credit, he said, ‘I have my sights on the French Open. And it would be nice to wear Olympic Gold.’ That’s the first part of ‘getting outside of yourself’ and readjusting the picture to keep the focus on the ‘other side of the net.’ The next step is the day to day work and the consistency of execution in competition. In short, to step up and go for it knowing, yes knowing, you’ll be successful. It’s the component of self-belief that’s most elusive. We tend to question it, instead of possess it.
At the 2012 Australian Open, Novak beat Murray in five sets, then turned around to outlast Rafael Nadal in another five-set marathon just shy of six hours worth of bruising, physical tennis. All of a sudden to defend took on a whole new meaning. The string of tournaments were ALL going to be contested: Indian Wells, Isner takes out Novak in the Semis; Madrid, Tipsarevic beats him in the quarters; Rome and the French Open, Nadal beats him in the finals; Wimbledon, Federer beats him in the semis then again in the final of Cincinnati; Murray takes the Gold and Novak doesn’t make the stage; and Murray wins the US Open, his first Grand Slam.
You get the picture.
If there was any consolation it was Rafael Nadal wouldn’t be a factor after losing early in Wimbledon, Nadal announced he wouldn’t be back until his chronic nagging knee problem was stronger, better, closer to one hundred percent.
Good results. But not 2011. It wasn’t until the Fall of 2012, did Novak turn on the jets winning Beijing, Shanghai and the ATP World Tour Championships. 2012 was about to close, and clearly the World’s Number One player was thinking ‘glad that one is gone’ but as he closed the year, he knew 2013 held promise, but what he didn’t know was when was Nadal going to come back? Time to clear the mind. Time to refocus.
It didn’t take long to realize that the tour was getting stronger, with new players emerging; new challenges ahead.
It didn’t take long at all.
In the round of 16 of the 2013 Australian Open, in Novak’s title defense, against Switzerland’s Second Best player, Stan Wawrinka (who has forever been in the shadows of Swiss’s First Best) Novak slugged it out like a heavyweight and won 12-10 in the fifth set. By all measures it was one of the best matches — pound for pound — two heavyweights knocking one another around the court in all of 2013. Not since the 2009 Semifinal at the Australian Open, Nadal vs Verdasco, had I seen two heavyweights knock one another down, out and out of the arena, only to reemerge in the arena, stronger and even more determined. Forget ‘Rocky’ this was a new chapter without a familiar foe, Rafael Nadal, who was still absent and recovering from his knee injury.
At 11-12 in the Fifth set, on one of the greatest match points played, Novak Djokovic finally beats Stan Wawrinka. Was this a fluke for a relatively veteran player, the older of the two, almost forgotten in the shadows of Federer? Or were we witnessing someone finding their confidence in their own voice in their self-belief amongst all doubters? ( http://youtu.be/_C-G0BbjMmg )
Throw another hat in the ring. Djokovic took the title, but he was war weary already.
Meanwhile, Andy Murray’s relationship with Ivan Lendl had forged a strong alliance where there were fewer doubts about winning, and more belief in the ultimate: a Grand Slam title. After the 2012 Gold Medal and a heroes welcoming, Murray dug deep, kept the pressure on and as mentioned earlier, took home the 2013 US Open title. There were no longer questions of preparedness, of old haunts. The new Murray would gain leads and HOLD them. And through Lendl’s guidance, of simplifying the message, of lightening the mood would unleash a new person who was held back deep inside.
Federer by all measures had the best 2012 season winning his 17th Grand Slam Title a bucket full of Master’s 1000 events and a host of accolades which will forever chisel his name in the deep granite-lined walls of the greatest in the game, the greatest in the History of Tennis. But at 32, time was ticking, the writing is on the wall.
Rafael Nadal would also be as dominant a player to contend with during the clay court season, too. He would not show his face until the Spring of 2013.
Throw in Jo-Wilfred Tsongas, Tomas Berdych, now Stan Wawrinka and a host of extremely tough players, and Novak was certainly looking in the rear view mirror thinking, ‘how can I distance myself … again?’
It’s a question that rides all champions who defend. To some it’s a great motivator, to others it’s a lead blanket of emotional burden.
2013 ended up being another challenging year for Novak Djokovic. As mentioned, Nadal came back after a dormant seven months with a renewed passion and love for the game that we haven’t seen in a long time. Yes, he was the most dominant clay court player of our era, maybe in the history of the sport, but he ran through everyone until he pulled from the semis of the Masters 1000 in Key Biscayne and lost to Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo. It was the first time in 8 years that Rafael Nadal had not held the winning trophy, a record of dominance that Novak was gladly willing to end. Maybe Novak’s dream of winning the French Open had been a bit premature. Maybe 2013 was his year to take the Coupe de Mousequetaire.
But as quickly as the thought popped in his head, Nadal punctured the promise with a clean sweep going into the French Open. Then, the moment came. Novak, after Monte Carlo, had played eradictly in the clay court season: losing to Dimitrov in Madrid in the second round; quarters of Rome to Berdych so he was coming into the French under the radar.
It was a beautiful draw for Novak: avenge a loss against in the third round Dimitrov, done; beat the German Kolhschreiber in the 16s, done; take out the aging veteran, Haas, done.
Now, Novak is fresh compared to the run of Rafa from Indian Wells until now winning everything except his first tournament back, a withdrawal in Key Biscayne in the semis, and a final in Monte Carlo.
It was a great fight with plenty of ebb and flow. Novak takes the second and the fourth, and is up a break of serve in the fifth when it happens in the eighth game of the fifth. Novak while running for a short mishit by Rafa, that barely bounces over the net, then spins it’s way back towards Rafa’s side of the net, Novak runs, slides, looses his footing, and while off balance hits a winner into the side stands out of Rafa’s reach. But before the ball lands, Novak touches the net.
It’s rare that certain things change the course of momentum. But this, this certainly did. Novak argued, incorrectly, that the point was over. The umpire says ‘no, you hit the net before the ball landed in the stands.’ It was the beginning of the end. The winds of momentum ever so slowly started to shift from the firm grasp of victory into the Rafael’s severely taped left hand.
Rafa breaks serve. They each hold serve until the sixteenth game in the fifth set when Novak, who is starting to slip and slide like balding tires on ice, demands before his serve that the court be watered and swept. That the court is too slick. That they’ve already played two sets on the court and the court should be maintained as it is after EACH set.
For one, never let your mind slip out of its finely tuned focus to grab for something that will deflate that focus. Remember the goal at hand, you were on the cusp of victory and now you’re in the middle of holding to stay in the match. Keep your focus on the goal. Hold. Then break serve. You’re playing the greatest player who has ever played on clay. He’s yours. Stay the course.
Easier said than done.
That is the beauty of competition, someone at some point cracks and all the focus spills out. It’s the very definition of ‘will.’ Who has the strength to carry on? Who will succumb to the stuff, the minutiae, the small unimportant event that creates the first crack in focus.
Before Novak could blink, it was over. Nadal wins, then beats David Ferrer to hoist the Coupes de Mousequetaire.
Save it for next year. Bundle it up. Pack it tight with all the recollections of every moment you had a chance to win the match. Seal it. And stick it up on the shelf. Wait for the proper moment to unveil it, because it will serve to motivate you beyond the petty and into the possible.
That is the world of a great competitor who loses. It’s only 364 days until I return.
Juan Martin Del Potro is the next obstacle for Novak at Wimbledon playing the match of his life, punching body blow to body blow in the smaller, nimble Djokovic frame. and when it was said and done, Novak won the battle but against a fired up Murray lost the war. Goodbye Wimbledon. And another contemporary, Andy Murray is on you and dominating you.
Fast forward the 2013 US Open and you’re good friend, Stanislas Wawrinka is waiting for you, Novak in the semifinals. He’s gone through Murray who went through you at Wimbledon. Now what?
Five hours later you arrive at the finish. Wawrinka is clawing at you now. He is on you, no longer afraid of you. He is getting stronger now. In the final you show heart, take the second set, win one of the longest exchanges over 50 body blows, but lose the match.
Again, you come to the realization that they are all with you now. The pack is running together and the finish line is just beyond the horizon, but you have little or no reserves and they have been drafting off your lead, waiting for this moment when you can no longer lead, and they will pass you.
All of this had to be in the mind of Novak Djokovic. Again, into the fall he takes Shanghai, Paris and the ATP World Championships. But by the end, you are Number 2 in the world.
This must have been his moment. The moment where Novak said, ‘enough. Time for a change.’
Enter Boris Becker.
Chris McEndry in a off-day interview at the 2014 Australian Open asked, ‘what do expect to get from Boris Becker? What do you hope to gain from him?’
‘Well, obviously Boris is there to give me ideas about offense. About creating more off the serve and in the points. He brings his Grand Slam experience to the table obviously. And I hope to gain a lot of those insights.’
That was days before the rematch against Stanislas Wawrinka in the Quarter-finals. Wawrinka wins in another thriller 9-7 in the fifth.
Novak to his credit is trying to do what all the above players are doing, shorten the points to lengthen the career. He’s sought advice from one of the all-time great serve volleyer’s who loved to attack. Time will tell if Boris can impart a message that compliments Novak’s style of play. Or will the message somehow be questioned after tournaments like this where Novak fell well short of his expectations? Will time, as was the case for Andy Murray’s relationship with Ivan Lendl, eventually allow for the new system to come into play?
The question persists can the game of the 1980s morph into a revised — a new transition from obvious destruction of the baseline banger: on body, mind and longevity — into a transitional offensive player who learns how to take advantage of great shotmaking and finish the point earlier.
My take … this is the Year of the Volley.