The Year of the Volley

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.

There are two sides to the game of tennis: offense & defense.

There are two sides in tennis: offense & defense.

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.

Time to open the court & finish!

Time to open the court & finish!

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.

Point Nadal.

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.

Request denied.

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.

Coach Boris Becker, 2013.

Coach Boris Becker, 2013.

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.

US Open 2013 – The Year of the Transition

By far the most dramatic story of 2013 is the resurgence of Rafael Nadal from a seven month absence due to a recurring knee injury to the most dominant player on the Men’s tour in 2013. Yes there have been blips on the radar, mainly in the five week grass court season, including the surprising early exit at Wimbledon, but other than losing in the final of his first tournament coming back, Nadal has been nothing less than spectacular.

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Forehando!

We already know he has the greatest mind in tennis: eight French Open titles makes him this most prolific clay court player in the History of Tennis. But Nadal is more than a great mind, he’s constantly adapting and improving.

In a wonderful article by Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal ‘How Nadal Became Hard-Core’ we see that Nadal’s other coach, when his Uncle Toni is not court side, Francis Roig added one of the age old strategies ‘accuracy’ into the Nadal regimen he accomplished two critical improvements: (1) use of the full court to dictate the point, and (2), a way to shorten the points.

This isn’t new. It’s one of the earliest strategies all top players learn but in the rigors of an eleven month season, where three out of four Grand Slams and the tournaments leading up to their events are fast or hard surfaces, players use what they know best and have won with throughout.

Nadal is different. When winning his first Wimbledon, he moved himself closer to the baseline, playing the ball earlier preventing a transitional attacker (who could both serve volley or come to the net at a moment’s notice from dictating play), moving Nadal deeper and wider out of the court where he’d attempt to defend from difficult positions. By moving closer to the baseline Nadal took those options away.

Instead Nadal learned how to dictate play, to hit one of his early shots to a corner or a line and then find a way to rev up his forehand and dominate the rally. This never translated to the hard courts. Nadal instead decided to play a ‘clay court’ game on a hard court surface. The problem was Nadal isn’t a light-footed player, like Federer. He pounds the court with heavy debilitating footwork which as we’ve seen season after season from 2008 until this year, created more stress on his knee.

Enter Roig. “If you cannot run, what you need is a lot more precision.”

And here, once again, Nadal has morphed a ‘clay court’ game into a transitional attacking game, coming to the net off deep penetrating groundstrokes to finish the point early; driving shots earlier in the point to the lines and corners to move his opponent sooner in the rally; and serving more aggressively to the edges of the service box to push even the best returners out of their comfort zone.

The end result, Rafael Nadal hasn’t lost a match on a hard court in 2013.

Those of you who know me and what I’ve advocated for years (blogs, podcasts, videos on YouTube), know that I’m a huge proponent of transitional offense: serve volleying, attacking short balls, driving players into the corner of the court to open up wide open spaces to finish the point with aggressive precision. Most players, particularly at the top, still are uncomfortable with the attacking, closing volley, setting up too deep in the service box and rarely making a strong move forward to close and finish on the volley. Why? Too much respect for the pass or the lob.

They must rethink that. The success of the finish comes in the success of shaping a point to move a player off the court, out of position where any defensive shot is ineffective at best. That’s transitional offense at it’s best. Quick, surprise attacks where a player is caught off guard and out of position to respond with any efficacy.

It’s good to see Rafael Nadal (as well as an aging Roger Federer) have reengineered this strategy with a modern day spin. Not only does it display dominance of the game, but precision of shotmaking. As Perrotta describes it, ‘shot making with a purpose’ but we’ve all known it since we shaped our skills as players, hitting shots to the corners and lines always opens up the court for a chance to attack. Since the 14-Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras retired the men’s game has taken on a Eurocentric baseline banger “I can out rally you” mindset.

The game is now going through another transitional phase where the greatest players in the game are finally understanding that a rocket hit to the corners rarely produces a difficult response; that allowing that player, the player on the run in the corner, to float a recovery shot to restart the point, is NOW a transitional moment to end the point.

Tonight, in the final of the Men’s Singles at the US Open, he will be tested by his arch rival, the World’s Number One player, Novak Djokovic. If their last Grand Slam encounter (at the French Open Semifinal where Nadal beat Djokovic 9-7 in the fifth) is any indication of this one, this is going to be a blockbuster.

And let’s see if the new or the old Rafael Nadal comes to the court. My thoughts are we’re in for a surprise.

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Vamos

Update 9.9.13

Rafael Nadal has just won his 13th Grand Slam Singles Title at the #USOpen beating the World’s Number 1 player, Novak Djokovic, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.

Only 120 Points separate the current World’s Number 1 from the surging Rafael Nadal. Both players are 3000 points ahead of No #3 Andy Murray and 6000 points ahead of #7 Roger Federer.

 

Wimbledon From the Fringe

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In 1977 we — the US — had a terrific run. A young brash kid from Douglaston, NY emerged from  bowels of qualifying at Roehampton to the semis of the Centennial Wimbledon Championships. John McEnroe came a long way. But instead of turning professional (after all he was 30 in the world as an amateur by the end of the summer of 1977) McEnroe decided to enroll at Stanford University.

Things have changed since then. Talent in the US has decided to forgo the rather calm pastures of American Collegiate tennis and instead cash their chips in early and try their luck at the pro game.

In the 2013 Wimbledon, the US by the end of the first week had NO Men’s player in the third round of Wimbledon, a first in 112 years.

And it was a rainy first week.

This has sparked yet another outrage at the USTA’s PD program which takes our most talented players and guides them like good stewards towards the prestige and the history of US players dominating the sport.

It’s been a long dry run.

And comments like this don’t make the USTA’s mission any easier.

http://parentingaces.com/the-emperor-has-no-clothes-reblogged-from-10sballs-com/

My takeaway from this Wimbledon was the sport was given an preview of the newest oldest strategy to reemerge from the depths of the stacks on professional tennis: serve and volley. Or, the transitional attacking game for those who are keeping record.

We were all looking forward to the Men’s quarterfinal match which pitted the Fourth Seed, Roger Federer vs the Fifth Seed, Rafael Nadal, but two players got in the way of that dream match: Serhiy Stakhovsky and Steve Darcis.

Clearly the story of 2013 has been Rafael Nadal emerging from his seven month absence to win seven of nine events: two Masters 1000, one Masters 500, the French Open.

Did I say SEVEN MONTH ABSENCE? Nobody comes back that strong yet he came back stronger and better recovering from his ‘tendonitis of the knee.’ I think a strategic error was made in his scheduling of his grass court schedule, but I’m not on his short list of consultants who would advise him otherwise.

No Rafael Nadal was advised to skip all tournaments, play one grass court exhibition, and practice his way to the finals of Wimbledon.

Enter Steve Darcis a Belgium player who attacked both from the baseline and from the net to beat Nadal in three straight sets.

Attack. Yes. Attack from the all places on the court. Darcis wasn’t afraid of Nadal’s intense glares or huge topspin, no! he chose to drive slice his backhand down the line to the Nadal backhand which Nadal attempted to run around.

Wrong. How can you run around a ball that skips slightly higher than your shoe top and hit an effective, punishing forehand? No one. Not even Rafa. Then when the court opened up, Darcis started to come forward and finish with his volley.

Volley. Do you remember what a volley is? It’s the offensive move forward by one player to get close to the net to take any shot hit and quickly, effectively, attack the ball, cut the angle and drive a winning shot through the court … out of the air.

It’s a risk. But a calculated risk to send a message to your opponent: you will have a very small part of the court to hit the ball by me, and if you miss I will hit a winner.

Risk and reward, the better you set up the point the less the risk. Sounds simple. But when you’re playing against Nadal or the man who has the most Grand Slams of any player in the History of Tennis, Roger Federer, you better have the will.

And the Ukranian, Serhiy Stakhovsky, showed that he had the belief when he took out Roger Federer.

John McEnroe said about the serve/volley tactic employed by Stakhovsky during his BBC Broadcast with Boris Becker, ‘it’s giving us chills up and down our spine.’

If there is a takeaway, to those of you who love this sport, it’s that the most compelling story is the top players can be attacked, and they don’t like it. Who does? Who likes to be rushed to hit a shot? Nobody.

And yet few employ this strategy. Partly out of respect — too much respect in my view — and partly out of the fact that few understand the mindset behind constant attacking, finding a moment in a point to hit a ball into an open court and see your opponent struggle to get there.

It’s that quick observation and reflex like move forward that allows the attacker to capitalize on his opponent’s inability to get his bodyweight or racket speed behind a shot. And if a player has neither, then what does he have?

A great volleyer smells weakness and exploits it with speed and precision. Whatever is hit back can be aggressively closed in on and put away for a finish.

That’s what’s so difficult for a baseline player to defend against, because someone who moves forward to cut off your shot, gives you little or no time to respond with ZERO bodyweight and only racket speed.

In my digital book ‘In Defense of the Volley’ I will outline the tools necessary to learn offense and go on the attack in the midst of a point to give you an edge, to allow you to impose your will on your opponent instead of just outlasting them.

So, I too was aware of the subtle shift in strategy this Wimbledon.

Now it’s time for a new generation of player to have the physical prowess to compete baseline to baseline, but also the keen awareness to employ the attack, to pressure an opponent to react to his offense.

Now that would be something.

Under the Crease

We all know where the ‘break’ in a newspaper is, right in the middle. Top stories are always above the crease to give the reader a quick preview of the day’s top stories. ESPN and other sport’s networks are US centric in their coverage and if there isn’t an American in the final of a major championship, the coverage is usually an afterthought. 

Why then is Tennis always an undercard and buried deep in a newspaper, and on television sports shows a perennial ticker highlight running across the bottom of the screen every so often.

This was the case of Rafael Nadal’s eighth French Open championship in 2013. It wasn’t his first time, he was disrespected in his 2010 US Open Championship by CBS when they decided on broadcasting the rain delayed final on Monday night. When rain interrupted play that night, CBS consulted a weather expert and decided to exit the broadcast telling no one where they could watch the match if it resumed play.

And it did. 

People on Twitter echoed the same outrage (and help) when word got out that the match was going to continue on ESPN2. ESPN was in the midst of their Monday Night Football coverage where the NY Jets, one of two local New York football teams was playing.

Alexis Glick, formerly of Fox Business Network, and now involved in GenYouth an organization based on defeating childhood obesity in the US, tweeted, ‘so great to have the Jets and the US Open on at the same time!’

Only problem is not many people new about the US Open. 

CBS decided to air ‘How I Met Your Mother’ instead. But here’s the catch, if the US Open match went longer than it’s allotted coverage time on ESPN2 at 10:15pm, the match was going to be moved again to Classic ESPN, an upper tier cable channel which even fewer tennis fans could watch the remainder of the match.

Fortunately for Rafael Nadal, he won the match by 10:14. Unfortunately, we did not see the award ceremony.

Fast forward to NBCs coverage of the Nadal-Djokovic blockbuster semi-final, delayed broadcast.

We knew whoever won this one, was going to have a great chance of winning the second Grand Slam of the year.

Twitter, of course, kept us updated second by second. And the mystery who won, the controversy, the excitement was all streamed, unfiltered for the avid fan.

Why then are tennis fans denied live tennis?

Here in the US the French Open comes up against some heavy hitters in viewership: the NBA Playoffs/Finals (basketball), NHL Playoffs/Finals (hockey) and MLB (baseball regular season games).

But even so I posit this … who in sport has won such an impressive collection of the most difficult event in the History of Sport, the Coupe de Mousquetaires? Already a seven-winner in the Open Era of tennis, taking over where the legendary Bjorn Borg exited, Rafael Nadal stands alone with eight.

We exclude Max Decugis who also has eight titles because the French Open prior to 1925 was only open to French tennis players.

No where in sport have we seen such unrivaled dominance in one of our four Grand Slam events. Never. Not Michael Jordan in Basketball; nor Wayne Gretsky in Hockey; nor an individual player in baseball.

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Who in modern day professional sport will ever accomplish this?

And yet Rafael Nadal can’t seem to make it above the crease.

Why is tennis so undervalued by the networks and the print media? Outside of devoted tennis magazines which are fewer and fewer, we see in the US less live and less print devoted to tennis.

Is participation down? Are sales of equipment down? Or is this the new reality of a fractured market?

https://www.tennisindustry.org/PDFs/ParticipationThru2009.pdf

Participation is trending up. But what the demographics?

https://www.tennisindustry.org/PDFs/2010StateoftheIndustry.pdf

Sourcing from the Tennis Industry suggest that court construction, equipment are flat coming out of the great recession in 2008. 

But the one stat that alarmed me, is the demographics of participants. 79% are white, roughly a split between men and women.

Remember these are US statistics and they relate to a decline in coverage, but not participation. In fact of all the major US sports, football, hockey, golf, baseball and soccer have declined in the US whereas basketball is flat and tennis has increased.

21% of US participants are not being reached, though, and I can only surmise that the reason is the Mad Men on Madison Avenue have sampled then targeted this demographic as participants of other sports.

We have to be cautious here, because sampling is a poll of a relatively few number of people who are representative of a wider swath of Americans and the results then are extrapolated, interpreted and marketed accordingly.

Are they seeing something that I’m not?

One, in the TIA report, there is more urban growth than suburban. As you move further away from cities the participation becomes challenged. That’s the nature of a close knit population, it’s all in view. Whereas in the suburbs the picture is more community by community and how often they get out of theirs and go to others.

Another factor is cost. In New York City prime-time courts 4-7pm are prohibitive for anyone except the wealthy. And since the weather in the Northern states for nine months prohibits outdoor play (too cold, too inclement) it makes sense that the demographic for participation is skewed to the higher incomes.

But the real talent for the sport is being missed as these kids who play seasonal outdoor sports: baseball, soccer, football, golf, usher in this perfect marketing moments for professional seasonal sports to capture their next generation.

Basketball, according to this TIA report, has a flat growth, but the sport itself is a full year sport, indoors and out. It becomes a seasonal sport from fall through spring, but you can always find someone on the basketball courts before and after the season. Always.

Tennis is played from January through November. And the powers that be don’t seem to know how to capture the length of the sport and market it so that participation will explode as it did in the mid-1970s.

And with Serena Williams resurgence the tie-in for increasing participation from the 21% should be a easy sell. But Serena isn’t Arthur Ashe. She doesn’t have the same appeal as he did nor does she have the same oratory skills that Ashe had to capture and fascinate all Americans. She’s part of the new generation of player who wants to capture titles and translate them into sales.

No issue there an athletes career is short and they must capture as much as they can on and off the playing field for that duration.

But what about future growth? Is there an outreach to bring more talent into our sport versus the major sports? Worldwide soccer is the top sport, tennis is third most popular. Yet somehow in the US the media wants to capture the old standards: football, basketball and baseball, excluding the international dominance of other sports and other markets.

This US centric view is the real problem here. Companies want to jump on the numbers to capture a market to sell to, but yet — as we saw in the great recession — they got caught in declining sales if their own market was US dependent.

Major companies want to open markets and continue to expand their presence around the globe.

Yet the exposure of those events is controlled by few. Even the Tennis Channel has had complications trying to make their station a non-paying upper tier subscription. When they recently lost a challenge to gain entry into a ‘Golf Channel’ like deal with one of the largest cable subscribers, Comcast, they lost.

Banished to the upper subscription tier. People have to pay an additional monthly fee if they want to watch the Tennis Channel.

Did I mention that tennis, the sport, is an eleven month International Sport? Wouldn’t anyone want a piece of that market? Wouldn’t companies who are in search of international exposure want that reach?

They why is the coverage of tennis so paltry outside of the four Grand Slams, Davis Cup and Fed Cup?

When Rafael Nadal won his 8th French Open title, after a seven month absence from the sport, this should’ve been a worldwide, above the crease event. It wasn’t. It was a byline on a ticker tape across the bottom of the screen as it was buried deep in the back pages of traditional media.

Surely you can take my challenge and tell me which athlete in all of sport holds a candle to Rafael Nadal’s clay court accomplishments.Image

Game on. Take the challenge and prove me wrong.

 

Monte Carlo Refresh!

Well we knew it was going to happen, it’s just we didn’t know that it was going to happen here at the French Open in the semi-finals. But here we are only seven and a half weeks from Monte Carlo where Novak Djokovic dispatched Rafael Nadal in straight sets depriving Nadal of the unheard of, eight straight Monte Carlo titles.Image

Fast forward to the semi-finals of the French Open and we have the two ready to do battle in a match that promises as much as will be fulfilled to you and me: a blockbuster!

Nadal coming back from a seven month absence in the sport has unquestionably the hottest hand in the game right now. And no one, except for the World’s Number 1 player, Novak Djokovic, seems to have an answer to beat him.

We’ve gone through the Big Three and how they match up in the past, but we’re going to do it again here, because it has to be stated for the record, prior to the match, the ‘and’ ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of the final result.

If Novak Djokovic takes command of the rally early and controls the baseline by hitting a majority of his shots in the back fifth of the court, Rafael Nadal will have his work cut out for him. You see, Nole (Djokovic’s nickname) is the perfect height for the heavy hitting topspinner, Rafa (Nadal’s nickname) where if Nole moves forward on any of Rafa’s huge forehands, he’ll meet the ball in his wheelhouse and explode through the shot to a vacant part of the court.

If Nole returns with the same self-belief and confidence he did in Monte Carlo, then Rafa will be on the defensive from the get go.

It’s those two components that make the match so interesting because in a five set final the third component, fitness, comes into play. Sure Nole has great defense, but Rafa’s never ending punishment of the ball, looping dipping driving accelerating topspin to all parts of the court, pound down any sort of surge like waves take control of the rocks grinding them into sand.

Nole has to come out and set the tone of each set and not let Rafael Nadal settle into the match where he will move you from corner to line to sharp angle and off the court to finish you with ease.

In essence when you play against Rafa you’re training for a triathlon where each set challenges the mind and body for another event. And if you’re not up to the task, particularly mentally, then you’re going to go down, ground from rock to sand.

Rafael remembers Monte Carlo. Maybe the weight of so many consecutive championships played on the way he approached that day. No! Nadal approaches every match like a Buddist monk, one point at a time, never looking ahead, never looking back, only here right now.Image

So the only logical conclusion for the result of that match was Novak Djokovic taking it to Rafael Nadal, never allowing him to control any aspect of the match.

And that’s not easy to do, unless we go back to 2011 where Nole controlled everyone winning three of four Grand Slams, beating Nadal on hard courts, clay and grass six or seven consecutive times in a row leaving the normally confident Nadal to confess, ‘he’s the better player right now. I have to go back and train harder. Train better. Find a way. Some way to play my match, not his.’

Are you ready? I am. The Monte Carlo Refresh is on tap. And you and I are the beneficiaries of what promises to be a blockbuster!

2013-Battle-4-Paris

Nole 2011 and Nole 2013

The current number one in the world, Novak (Nole) Djokovic, has had an incredible ride since Serbia won the Davis Cup in the fall of 2010. It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. The people of Serbia could now celebrate, and Nole could focus on himself.

And he did. Putting together a team he went about one of the most incredible transformations any athlete could go through. First he was diagnosed with a ‘gluten’ allergy which contributed to his almost ‘asthmatic’ condition on court. Then he hired a mentor, a shaman, who righted his mind to make him believe in himself. Then he got in the best shape of his life.

And 2011 was the Year of Nole, winning three of four Grand Slams; going undefeated from the beginning of the year until the semifinals of the French Open where he played a recharged Roger Federer and lost.

Novak’s shotmaking, confident — toeing the baseline confident — allowed him to take many of his opponent’s shots earlier, off the bounce or on the rise, step in and rip his shots. He was dominant from the baseline, dictating the rally, making all other opponents move further, wider and faster.

Nole controlled the baseline. His shots were consistently landing within the last fifth of the court, challenging the best players in the world — no! daring — to do more with less.

Nole in 2011 was the most dominant player who had emerged in quite some time.

How could anyone repeat such a performance? As Rafael Nadal said, ‘it will be difficult to repeat (2011), no?’ And that’s after losing to Nole six times: Masters 1000 in Indian Wells, Key Biscayne (Hardcourts); Madrid, Rome (claycourts); Wimbledon (grass) and the US Open (hardcourts).

In 2012, Nole repeated in Miami and Toronto (they move it each year from Toronto to Montreal) and logged in one Grand Slam, defending the Australian Open. He lost in the finals of the French Open and the US Open, but then played spectacularly at the end of the year and won the Masters 1000 in Shanghai and the ATP World Championships in London.

But it certainly wasn’t 2011. Nole was different, tentative and unable to find a consistent range on his shots. That’s what happens when a player over thinks, over analyzes a moment in tennis. Nole in 2011 just moved and hit. There was little or no cognizant thought behind the magic. It was just unquestioned and all action.

When a player throws too many ‘what ifs’ into sports, he becomes like a Porsche filled with sand: gears begin to lock, instincts begin to freeze, shots have second guesses behind them.

Well 2013 is a different year. And after surviving a stunning 12-10 in the fifth comeback against, Stanislaw Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic has faced challenges head on, found his footing, his match stride, and fondly tastes the Nole of 2011. He is becoming a dominant player who doesn’t question shots anymore, but quickly and confidently steps up and rips to his spots on the court.

Nole Madrid Clay

The elusive title he has missed and wants is coming up at the end of this month, the French Open. And if there is any question about what he can do on the very slow European red clay, then you only have to go to his performance in Monte Carlo which was in question from day one because of an ankle injury suffered in the Davis Cup tie against the US, where Nole dominated the eight time champion, Rafael Nadal in straight sets.

The first set he was up 5-0.

Our World’s No 1 is beginning to feel it again. And this French Open will be particularly interesting to see which Nole shows up. Personally I think Novak 2013 is looking a lot like Nole 2011. Even after his loss to Grigor Dimitrov in the second round in this past week at the Mutua Madrid Open, he’s still the one to watch as we enter the 2013 French Open.

Enjoy the show.

$weet Maria

What can you say about Maria Sharapova that already hasn’t been said? All I know is if she were on an episode of ‘Mad Men’ it would represent a major plot twist in their portrayal of women. After all, she’d be the star! And women aren’t stars in the Mad Men world.

Maria Sharapova, though, is magnet for Madison Avenue. She’s an Ad Man’s dream because she’s well Maria: outgoing, vivacious, well spoken, dressed for success and model tall.

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$weet Maria

Her latest conquest was signing a deal with Porsche. Terrific! I couldn’t think of two brands that go hand in hand better. Porsche, the German automaker, who produces some of the most powerful cars in the world with $weet Maria Sharapova who hammers a tennis ball with force and fury will produce a powerhouse team in the ad world.

Jokingly I tweeted ‘remember don’t text and drive’ as she announced her new venture. I was serious, you know if you get behind the wheel of one of these turbo madmen machines, you you need two hands on the wheel at all times. These boys can jump out of the starting gate and they demand full attention. Unfortunately when you see who actually purchases them, you realize one thing: they have no idea of the power behind these boys. None. And here in the US nobody can “air them out” since we’re confined by national speed laws. No Autobahn here (but there are those who will still try and break local speed records, trust me, with no success.)

The Ad world loves to possess things: ideas, concepts, illusions and most often delusions.

With this deal, they’ve paired two beauties together in one package for us.

Now, you might think I’m being snarky or a little crass, but in reality that’s what Ads are, they play on your emotion, not your reality.

The reality is Maria is accessible under her guidelines on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and at Sugarpova events, but really no where else. And rightly so, it’s her life!

Porsche is accessible to a high end buyer who wants to show his/her ‘go getter’ attitude. The reality is you can’t drive the car within legal speed limits the way a Porsche should be driven.

In the Hamptons, you’ll see every ‘A’ list-er want to make an entrance, and during the summer season — prime Hamptons — they’ll dress up in their best ride, top down, and ready to be recognized.

Here’s the problem. Maximum speed limit on the roads is 40mph.

A Porsche idles at 40mph.

I remember one sweltering summer afternoon when the major highway leading into and out of the Hamptons was closed to a serious accident. All traffic was diverted to the back roads. And those of us who were lucky enough to appreciate the irony saw the undertow of high society and the locals play out in full splendor: Range Rover, Mercedes Benz, Maserati, Porsche and Mr. Bentley were swimming upstream against current with Corollas, Fords and Hondas, Landscapers, Gardeners, Truckers.

What a beautiful cross section of Americana. And there we were, stuck in the eddies of the back tributaries, local working class neighborhoods, looking at one another in complete disbelief. Locals smiling as ‘A’ list-ers were desperately searching for another stream to peel off and disappear away from anywhere but here.

After all it was cocktail hour.

Me? I just logged in another wonderful memory of the cross section that swims in the same pond.

I couldn’t be more happy for Maria. She worked hard to get to where she is in the tennis world, and her management team has done wonderfully to capture that success selling her photogenic features to the highest bidder.

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Let’$ Go! Maria

But you still have to look at the Ad Men skeptically, as I always do, and wonder just wonder how they will forge this newly aligned partnership.