The Wimbledon That Almost Was #18

It always amazes me when today’s world meets yesteryear. At the age of 39, the legendary Ken Rosewall got to the final of Wimbledon and the US Open in 1974 losing to the American Jimmy Connors in both. Rosewall has largely been forgotten in the annals of history because he was one of the early adopters of the Kramer Pro Tour. Some surmise that if he had stayed an amateur, he would have won many more Grand Slams. But, back then, in 1974 yesteryear met todays world and almost did the improbable: dominated the current tour.

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Fast forward to 2014, Wimbledon and we have Roger Federer at the age of 32 — a dinosaur in sports — make a run for the coveted Wimbledon jewel and his 18th Grand Slam title.

On the other side was the younger, fitter and emotionally charged Novak Djokovic, who has been just come off a solid hard court US season, winning back to back Masters 1000 events in Palm Springs and Miami into an up and down spring season on the clay courts winning the Italian Open, then losing in the final to Rafael Nadal at the French

If there was a moment for Federer to come alive it was now at Wimbledon. Many have asked ‘why are you still hungry after all these years? Do you really need this anymore?’ Some had asked the dreaded ‘age’ question wondering how he can still motivate to compete at this level.

It must be difficult when you have no control over the press to answer that question without letting it sink into your psyche; to believe your answer will somehow stop the question from being asked again. Federer to his credit understands to the need for the press and how they promote his sport, one that has given him fame and fortune, answers that question diplomatically, ‘well I hope I still have enough left to compete at this level.’

With what most of us think as the most resilient, classic, style of play: one-handed backhand, brilliant footwork and balance, an economy of efficiency in shot making, Federer has been remarkably injury free compared to his counterparts. Yes, there’s a nagging back issue, but he never lets that enter into the discussion or the pursuit.

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The draw couldn’t have been better once Rafael Nadal lost to the young Australian Nick Kyrgios in the round of 16. Only Stan Wawrinka pushed Federer into four sets in the quarter finals. Ever other match Federer played he won in straight sets.

Djokovic, on the other hand, had a tougher time starting with a four-set win over Radek Stepanek in the second round, then a brutal five-set win over Cilic in the quarters and a four-set win of Dmitrov in the semis. He, of the two, was the more fatigued and battle weary coming into the final.

During the final, Federer takes the first set in a tiebreaker. It was the Roger Federer we had hoped would enter Center Court at Wimbledon, hungry, passionate and precise.

Djokovic had other designs though, history and youth were on his side. Djokovic takes the next two sets and runs up a 5-2 lead in the fourth.

We all thought the same thought then, ‘well it was a nice run for Roger, but not this year’ when out of the blue, Federer goes on a tear and running off five straight games to force a fifth and final set.

This was the Federer we had hoped to see with a spring in his step and a spark in his shotmaking. When tentative, Roger overthinks, hits short and goes for too much too soon; when confident, he seems to pick the perfect shot at the critical moment to deliver a knockout. With others it’s angry precision. With Roger, it’s a work of art. The footwork alone could take up a large part of this piece, but it’s the combination of footwork, balance and precision in which we marvel in a glazed over ‘how did he do that?’ stupor.

But this year is the experiment year. Change of Coach. Change of tactic and stratagem, with a heavy dose of the above mentioned “age question.” This Coaching change — to move away from Paul Annacone and into the Stephan Edberg era — is a refresh, Roger 2.0. The trust is in their shared ‘hardware.’ Edberg, a six-time Singles winner in Grand Slam, three-time Doubles winner Grand Slam and a four-time Davis Cup Champion. Annacone, a great US player, with a X-games attacking style of play, had only one Grand Slam title, in Doubles. The apples vs apples, side by side had to give anyone hope. And even though Annacone was as aggressive in his style of play as Edberg — if not more so — it was Edberg’s history that gave Roger that second-stage booster. Edberg was not only a childhood idol of Roger’s but he had the much sought after experience to tap into at ‘The Bigs.’

Roger began to trust what he and Edberg had worked on: shortening the points. At 32 (now 33), Roger has to face the reality that he can’t turn on a dime, stop, jump two-and-a-half feet, fading away to hit an overhead. His body, more specifically, his back won’t allow it, particularly at Rafael Nadal ramming speed on the slow deep red clay courts of Europe.

It was the same that Annacone had suggested to Roger, but Coaching like any long term relationship needs breaks and vacations from ritual, routine and regimen. I’ve always thought that a change in voice, in exchange of ideas, was the most important thing to embrace when coaching. You don’t own the player. They don’t own you. So the freedom to exchange is based on a complicated series of likes, intonation, history, storytelling, a good dose of humor, and a lot of hard work, exchanging ideas, implementing stratagems.

A player to fully embrace a new direction has to trust the voice, has to go ‘all in’ without hesitation or resistance or even a need to tap into yesteryears success. Roger trusts Stephan Edberg. And mid-season, it’s beginning to show results, now, at Wimbledon.

Roger is deciding to come into the net more during his return game. It’s not quite right, yet, choosing to float his chip, deep, up the middle of the court, or slightly to the side of the center baseline. The mind has to commit in advance and the body has to respond right away. Roger is still uncertain, hesitant.

That is, until the fourth set, down 2-5. Combined with Novak’s nervous constitution and his fatigue, Roger set out to make a run at the set, without fear, without hesitation, without doubt. And Novak felt Federer’s attack, an attack of full and unrelenting confidence.

It was at 2-all in the fifth where the story takes a little turn. I call it ‘Kabooki Theater.’ Novak was barely holding on, he looked tired. He was being pushed from corner to line more aggressively and he was in search of … a break. No, not a break of serve but a break in action.

First, a bathroom break. Second, an injury timeout.

Between the two, it had to have been seven to ten minutes of inaction for Federer. Imagine after turing the corner from the edge of defeat and now on the cusp of going for a knockout, Federer who was clearly the hotter player at that juncture in the match has to sit idle as Djokovic is being manipulated on the sidelines.

Roger didn’t sit though. He stood at the back of the baseline, bounced around, while keeping a watchful eye on the entrance to Center Court. Seven to ten minutes can be an eternity in tennis time. It’s time to cool the body, more importantly, slow the mind down to a cognitive tick tock awareness of the noise, the court, the circumstance, the time of day, the idle chatter in the stands ALL of which a player — particularly a hot player — doesn’t hear in the heat of battle.

Time delays refresh the senses. What used to be micro-focus, like blinders on a Breeder’s Cup horse around the last bend, is now sitting at a press conference listening to questions. You are too aware instead of lost in the moment.

And Novak Djokovic knows this. Prior to his ‘gluten allergy’ discovery, there was always a point in the later rounds, at a critical juncture in a match, where something went terribly wrong with his body, his breathing, and his mind. He created new meaning to the ‘injury time-out’ by moving injury from back to hip to thigh like a master thespian (think Soccer when someone lightly touches a player who does this brilliant “arched in agony’ dance for the ref).

Novak uses ‘Kabooki Theater’ without the face paint. And, the top, doesn’t like it. Thinks it’s an abuse of the rule, a legitimate rule, to deal with a legitimate injury, not an injury that moves from spot to spot to spot.

Was Djokovic manipulating Federer? All moves by Djokovic are legitimate according to the rules, but the gamesmanship — if you can call it that — leaves a bitter taste in a purist’s mouth.

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It’s why the Kings of the Sport, Nadal and Federer, do not have any love lost for Novak. They’ve seen it before and they’ve thought the same thoughts that those of us who love the sport have thought: how can anyone get away with this … this intentional stall?

Ask McEnroe who was the master at dampening someone’s momentum by blasting a linesman for a ‘poor’ call or picking on someone in the crowd who was goading him. McEnroe could single handedly crush any momentum gain with his ‘act’ and with a wink and a nod, he’d get away with it.

Well here is Roger on the back baseline doing his best to keep warm, to not stiffen up and mentally cool down from his obvious dominance and his confident roll from the fourth into the fifth set.

But he’s 32. Things don’t spark like they do at 25. And the little things turn into big things. Federer, never a fan of the Hawkeye review system because of the delay in game, and the manipulation of the process in allowing a review to transpire well after a point has ended (think Del Potro at the 2009 US Open).

Well the injury time out has to be right up there. *

As was the case, Roger Federer had the elusive momentum, then lost it. It was as if the match was started all over again and the work up to get to where he was — physically as well as mentally — took too long. Yes, he had moments to break, and squandered them, but it really was Djokovic who amended the Code to comply with his desire.

And that’s why they should add a ‘Kabooki Addendum’ and immediately assess point penalties for bathroom breaks and requests for medical timeouts, OR, like challenges in Hawkeye, allow only one medical timeout per match, never at a critical juncture.

After all, it wasn’t until 1973, at Wimbledon were the players allowed to sit down during changeovers. That’s right, there was no concierge service back in the Rosewall’s day. You played from beginning to end, standing.

And you had to get your own water too.

Djokovic came racing out to the court. Picked up a racket from his chair, apologized to Roger and then began to claw his way back into the match.

Roger, as predicted, became the Federer at the end of the third and entering the fourth: he hesitated. What was auto-pilot, now became manual flight control.

And Novak found his moment, broke serve and eventually held to close out the perfect “Almost #18” for Roger Federer.

I would’ve loved to have heard the banter between Edberg and Federer post-Wimbledon.


*From the ATP Rulebook

O. Bathroom Break

  1. 1)  A player may be permitted to leave the court for a toilet break. A player is entitled to one (1) toilet break during a best of three set match and two (2) toilet breaks during a best of five set match. Toilet breaks should be taken on a set break and can be used for no other purpose.
  2. 2)  Any time a player leaves the court for a toilet break, it is considered one of the authorized breaks regardless of whether or not the opponent has left the court.
  3. 3)  Any toilet break taken after the warm-up has started is considered one of the authorized breaks. Additional breaks will be authorized, but will be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule if the player is not ready within the allowed time.Case: In a best of three (3) set match, a player has used his one toilet visit. The player informs the chair umpire that at the next change- over he would like to take another toilet visit prior to his serving. Decision: The chair umpire may allow a player to leave the court but must inform the player that any delay beyond the 90 seconds will be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule.

Toilet Visit: When Does Play Resume?

Case: After play has been suspended for an authorized toilet visit, when does the “clock” start to resume play?
Decision: When the player returns to the court and has had the opportunity to retrieve his racquet, then the chair umpire should announce “Time”. This announcement shall signal the players to resume the match.

P. Medical
1) MedicalCondition

A medical condition is a medical illness or a musculoskeletal injury that warrants medical evaluation and/or medical treatment by the physiotherapist during the warm-up or the match.

  1. a)  Treatable Medical Conditions
    1. i)  Acute medical condition: the sudden development of a medical illness or musculoskeletal injury during the warm-up or the match that requires immediate medical attention.
    2. ii)  Non-acute medical condition: a medical illness or musculoskeletal injury that develops or is aggravated during the warm-up or the match and requires medical attention at the changeover or set break.
  2. b)  Non-Treatable Medical Conditions
    1. i)  Any medical condition that cannot be treated appropriately, or that will not be improved by available medical treatment within the time allowed.
    2. ii)  Any medical condition (inclusive of symptoms) that has not developed or has not been aggravated during the warm-up or the match.
    3. iii)  General player fatigue.
    4. iv)  Any medical condition requiring injections, intravenous infusions or oxygen, except for diabetes, for which prior medical certification has been obtained, and for which subcutaneous injections of insulin may be administered.

2) Medical Evaluation

During the warm-up or the match, the player may request through the chair um- pire for the physiotherapist to evaluate him during the next change over or set break. Only in the case that a player develops an acute medical condition that necessitates an immediate stop in play may the player request through the chair umpire for the physiotherapist to evaluate him immediately.

The purpose of the medical evaluation is to determine if the player has developed a treatable medical condition and, if so, to determine when medical treatment is warranted. Such evaluation should be performed within a reasonable length of time, balancing player safety on the one hand, and continuous play on the other. At the discretion of the physiotherapist, such evaluation may be performed in conjunction with the tournament Doctor, and may be performed off-court. *

If the physiotherapist determines that the player has a non-treatable medical con- dition, then the player will be advised that no medical treatment will be allowed.

3) MedicalTime-Out

A medical time-out is allowed by the supervisor or chair umpire when the phys- iotherapist has evaluated the player and has determined that additional time for medical treatment is required. The medical time-out takes place during a change over or set break, unless the physiotherapist determines that the player has de- veloped an acute medical condition that requires immediate medical treatment.

The medical time-out begins when the physiotherapist is ready to start treatment. At the discretion of the physiotherapist, treatment during a medical time-out may take place off-court, and may proceed in conjunction with the tournament Doctor.*

The medical time-out is limited to three (3) minutes of treatment. However, at professional events with prize money of $40,000 or less, the supervisor may extend the time allowed for treatment if necessary.

A player is allowed one (1) medical time-out for each distinct treatable medical condition. All clinical manifestations of heat illness shall be considered as one (1) treatable medical condition. All treatable musculoskeletal injuries that manifest as part of a kinetic chain continuum shall be considered as one (1) treatable medical condition.

A total of two (2) consecutive medical time-outs may be allowed by the super- visor or chair umpire for the special circumstance in which the physiotherapist determines that the player has developed at least two (2) distinct acute and treatable medical conditions. This may include: a medical illness in conjunction with a musculoskeletal injury; two or more acute and distinct musculoskeletal injuries. In such cases, the physiotherapist will perform a medical evaluation for the two or more treatable medical conditions during a single evaluation, and may then determine that two consecutive medical time-outs are required.

4) MuscleCramping

A player may receive treatment for muscle cramping only during the time allotted for changeovers and/or set breaks. Players may not receive a medical time-out for muscle cramping. In cases where there is doubt about whether the player suffers from an acute medical condition, non-acute medical condition inclusive of muscle cramping, or non-treatable medical condition, the decision of the Physio- therapist, in conjunction with the tournament doctor, if appropriate, is final. There may be a total of two (2) full change of ends treatments for muscle cramping in a match, not necessarily consecutive.

Note: A player who has stopped play by claiming an acute medical condition, but is determined by the Physiotherapist and/or tournament doctor to have muscle cramping, shall be instructed by the Chair Umpire to resume play immediately.

If the player cannot continue playing due to severe muscle cramping, as de- termined by the Physiotherapist and/or tournament doctor, he may forfeit the point(s)/game(s) needed to get to a change of end or set-break in order to receive treatment.

If it is determined by the Chair Umpire or Supervisor that gamesmanship was involved, then a Code Violation for Unsportsmanlike Conduct could be issued.

5) MedicalTreatment

A player may receive on-court medical treatment and/or supplies from the Physiotherapist and/or tournament Doctor during any changeover or set break. As a guideline, such medical treatment should be limited to two (2) changeovers/set breaks for each treatable medical condition, before or after a medical time-out, and need not be consecutive. Players may not receive medical treatment for non- treatable medical conditions.

6) Penalty

After completion of a medical time-out or medical treatment, any delay in resumption of play shall be penalized by Code Violations for Delay of Game.

Any player abuse of this medical rule will be subject to penalty in accordance with the Unsportsmanlike Conduct section of the Code of Conduct.

Delayed Medical Time-Out

Case: A player has an accidental injury and asks to have a medical time-out during the next changeover. What procedure should be used for timing the treatment if the physiotherapist arrives?

A. 30 seconds into the changeover?

B. After 60 seconds has elapsed on the changeover?

Decision A: The physiotherapist has 3 1/2 minutes [but, as a minimum, he has three (3) minutes to treat after completing his diagnosis] to treat the player before the chair umpire announces “Time”. The player then has 30 seconds to play, subject to the Point Penalty Schedule.

Decision B: The chair umpire stops the clock at 60 seconds and suspends play until the physiotherapist is ready to treat the player. The three-minute medical time-out begins, and after the chair umpire announces “Time”, the player has 30 seconds to play or be subject to the Point Penalty Schedule.

Case A: When does a medical time-out begin?

Decision A: Medical time-out begins when the physiotherapist arrives and is ready and able to treat the player. Thus, the physio- therapist has completed his examination/diagnosis and the medical time-out starts when the physiotherapist begins treating the player.

Case B: A player asks to see the physiotherapist during the middle of a game although the chair umpire observed no accidental injury. What should the umpire do?

Decision B: First, tell the player that you will call the physiotherapist and he can see him at the changeover. If the player insists that he cannot continue, then stop play and call the physiotherapist. The physiotherapist will make the decision, upon examining the player, whether a medical time-out is needed.


Hashtag ‘Dreamin9’

It was a simple post on social media after the world witnessed one of the greatest records ever achieved by a single athlete, #Dreamin9, a wonderful word play on Rafael’s Nadal unreal Ninth French Open title.

Yet, Rafael Nadal isn’t dreaming. He’s doing. Imagine trying to climb Mt. Everest for the first time, like Hillary & Norgay, now, as they did back then. Imagine the inner battle you face, step after step, higher and higher where no one has gone before.

Imagine it.

Then do it.

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Rafael Nadal didn’t have a chance a month and a half ago to win Roland Garros, the French Open, our second Grand Slam on the calendar after losing in Monte Carlo, a title he’d won eight times prior; losing in Barcelona to a fellow countryman at a tournament he has not lost; winning Madrid, even though for a set and a half, he was down and out; losing at the Italian Open in the final, where he was lucky to get the chance.

No, there was no way Rafael Nadal should’ve done what he did, and yet he did it for an unprecedented ninth time, fifth in a row. He won the 2014 French Open Championships.

I won’t even talk about the elite club he has joined by winning one Grand Slam Five times, but it is an exclusive club of dominance. Tilden, Emerson, Sampras, Federer. It’s an exclusive club of sheer dominance. And the perseverance and execution it takes boggles the mind.

At Mt. Everest, there is a season to climb the highest mountain in the world. If the weather cooperates, and the body is willing, there is a chance you will do what few have done in this world. For it’s unpredictability, the weather creates a whole side industry to determine weather patterns, optimal days to climb, probability of a downturn and unexpected chaos.

A Grand Slam is similar. It’s weather can affect matches in interesting and unique ways. It affects both players the same, yet it’s how each player deals with it that separates them. We enter the inner sanctum of the mind. For eleven days the weather was cold and damp making the French Open a brutal test of wills where the ball wasn’t a ‘lively’ as when the weather heats up. Add an unpredictable wind and well, nothing is certain. Just ask Roger Federer who was surprised by a resilient Ernests ‘Gull Wing’ Gulbis and exited early.

In France, when the wind whips up, it’s called ‘le mistral.’ Defense attorneys have used it to get their clients who’ve committed crimes of passion due to the constant, blustery wind. It creates an insanity. A condition for which you have little or no control over, yet must face, daily as you go slowly insane.

Enter Novak Djokovic.

This was to be Novak Djokovic’s French Open. It was his time. In 2011, he was undefeated going into the French Open, then through a freak event — Fabio Fagnini wins his round of 16, then defaults to Djokovic — Nole (Novak’s nickname) sits idle while the rest of the draw is in the heart of the battle. For four days he tries to prepare himself for the semi-final, but let’s face it, you are idle. Your routine is different. You can relax. But you can’t relax, you have a match to play and a title to go after, but there isn’t the urgency.

In that semi-final we saw one of Roger Federer’s best performance in a long time. Nole was unsure of his footing. Federer capitalized by backtracking the speedy confident Djokovic making him slip, lose balance, regain footing and just get to the shot with less than optimal power. For a set and a half, Nole was off balance and out of place, then he began to claw his way back into the match, only to lose in a tiebreaker in the fourth set. If he had won that fourth set tiebreaker, the match would’ve been called because of darkness, and Nole would’ve had another chance, a better chance. But Federer denied him.


Novak Djokovic owned Rafael Nadal in 2011. He beat him on hard courts, clay courts, grass courts and hard courts again. When all was said and done, after the season, Novak Djokovic took out Rafael Nadal six times.

Fast forward to the semi-final in 2013 where Novak was up a break of serve and ready to advance his lead on Rafael Nadal when things went south. It was as if Novak were a ridge away from the summit and the weather prevented him from ascending. At 7-8, serving to stay in the match, Novak appealed to the tournament referee to have the clay court smoothed over, swept with the lines brushed. After all they had played two sets worth of games on the court which looked like a carved red canvas of slashes.

Request denied. Why think it? The conditions were the same for Nadal. Why even think that the officials at the French Open would even listen to your argument when the rules of the tournament stated that the court would be swept after each set? Why let that thought even enter your mind as you were down two sets to one, evened the match at two sets a piece, and then had a moment to increase your lead with the chance of serving out the match?

Why think it? Why let that thought enter your mind? And when it was rolling around in your head, Rafael Nadal, the best mind in the history of the game, who plays each point as if it’s his last, thinks of nothing before, nothing ahead, is watching the ball with angry precision and ready to capitalize on any miscue here right now.

Four points later, Nadal wins his fourth French Open in a row. Nole was denied the only title that has eluded him, again.

Fast forward to the 2014, new coach added to his team, Boris Becker, same spectacular fitness program, diet, training and confidence leading into the final, except for one thing: le mistral. Post match Novak claims that he was feeling quesy, a problem with his gut. Put it rest. Ask any Olympian who’s not 100% leading into the Olympics Games, and you’ll see the obvious response, ‘not a factor.’ After all, isn’t that why you pay the ‘team’ enormous sums? Aren’t they supposed to be the first line of defense for anything? A protective veneer which prevents even a stomach bug from entering your ecosphere?

So discount it. It’s sport. Get over it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Four days before the final, the weather changes to heat, wind and a drier, faster rich red clay court. David Ferrer comments after losing to Nadal in the quarters, ‘it was so heavy, powerful.’ The ‘it’ was the bounce of the Nadal ball shredding grooves in the clay, whipping opponents deeper and wider off court, out of position into wide open spaces.

Then Nadal pummels Andy Murray, who two weeks earlier at the Italian Open has a chance to beat Nadal in the semis, but let’s it slip away. In this match, the semi-finals, Nadal punishes Murray with brutal efficiency. Nadal was energized, and no where near the same person in mind and spirit as he was a month and a half ago at the start of his season, a season after several years of dominance, gave birth to his moniker, The King of Clay.

All the demons were out of him, now. And the man who eventually was to play him in the final, once again, Novak Djokovic was aware, even testy. In Nole’s semifinal versus his unexpected opponent, the Latvian, Ernests Gulbis, Djokovic demolished a racket in anger, yet prevailed in four sets. Was he thinking about Nadal? Was he thinking about the herculean effort it would take to beat The King of Clay?

The rematch was on, but the conditions were not the same. The mental edge, the history and the burden of not winning the French Open were weighing heavy on Novak. Even after taking the first set, you knew Novak was going to be in trouble. It was the Novak of old, questioning instead of delivering; turning towards his team’s box when missing a shot at a key moment, shrugging his shoulders, talking to himself, to them, to anyone who would listen. The 2011 Novak would’ve played closer to the baseline dominating from the very beginning, controlling the depth, the angles, opening the court up to set up the driving penetrating winner deep to the corner or right on the line.

The 2014 Novak hired Boris Becker to get him back in touch with that offensive machine. Or did he?

The 2014 Novak must’ve been carrying all the losses in all the finals forward into this final, his final. You could see he was searching for a higher understanding, some explanation about why the change of weather, the wind, the resurgent Rafael Nadal, now. Why now? he argued to himself, looking up to the heavens, after losing a particularly long game, it mattered not which game it was, because Novak of 2014 was not the Novak who was hardened, steadied and strong in self-belief. This was the old Novak, the one we saw prior to finding out that he had a gluten allergy, the Novak who we never knew had the heart. Surely he had the talent, but somehow he’d tire at the key moments, succumb to the pressures, begin to make the cautious mistakes at key moments, and find a way to lose what was certain victory.

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Where was the Boris Becker footprint on the 2014 Novak? To add an offensive dimension to his game: better serving, more aggressive shotmaking and yes, even some all out approach volleying, Becker was the spark to ignite Nole 2.0.

Why then was Novak standing so far behind the baseline to return serve? Why was he tentative and unsure when looking for his moments in the match? This should be Becker’s influence. But was saw none of it. Give it time? I wouldn’t. Why change success? Why tamper with what is working well? I don’t know. Ask Tiger Woods why change your swing when you’re thick with success and confidence? Somehow Novak Djokovic was convinced that Boris Becker was the answer to the question marks racing in his mind; and over time with the same people surrounding you — your inner sanctum — seems stale and maybe they don’t know how to move you from your perceived plateau.

Maybe it was the Becker mind, a finely skilled, dialed into extreme focus and execution under the most arduous moments early in his career, that Novak wants to tap into that would — should — carry him into another dimension. One that’s already occupied … by none other than, Rafael Nadal.

No the man at the top of Mt. Everest, the man who has faced his fears, who has walked deep into the desert for forty days and forty nights, hoisting the Spanish Flag, is none other than the 14-time Grand Slam winner, nine of ten French Open titles, five in a row; the man who has conquered his doubts in none other than the most deserving, one of the greatest lengths of dominance we will have seen in our lifetime, Rafael Nadal.

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And simply this is why, from our good friend Christopher Clarey of the NY Times who writes the following:

“I knew I had lost four times in a row to Novak, and to be able to win again against him was very important to me,” Nadal said. “I had enough courage. I made the right decisions at the right moment and ended up on top. It’s an emotional moment, a real mix of things.”

Nadal is now tied with Pete Sampras for second on the career list with 14 Grand Slam singles titles, and he is now only three behind the leader, Roger Federer, who has 17.

“That’s true, but I’ll repeat what I always say: that this is not something that worries me or motivates me,” said Nadal, … “I’m following my path, and when my career is over, then we’ll count them up.”

Step by step. One point at a time. This one. Not the next one. Not the last one. One point at a time, Rafael Nadal will be … here, now.

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Dreaming? No. Doing.


Let Me Interrupt These Games to Broadcast the Following Breaking News …


Did you know we are in the midst of crowning a National Team, Singles and Doubles Champion in College Tennis?

Join the club.

Yet three of the five top American Men’s Players come from College ranks: Isner, University of Georgia; Klahn, Stanford University; and, Johnson, University of Southern California. In Doubles the World’s Number One American Men’s Team, the Bryan Brothers, have come from College tennis.

In fact there’s a rich history of talent to emerge from the ranks of college tennis. Yet you wouldn’t know about it, with declining number of pages devoted to sports in newspapers through consolidation, dwindling ad revenues and the big gorilla in the room, the Internet, news trickles out about college tennis like a Maple harvest in August.

Of course, Google was the first to deliver a stake to the heart of traditional news when they came up with an algorithm that allowed advertisers to actually know if what they marketed and placed was actually getting any response. And if they were getting a response, was the response driving sales. Google allowed advertisers to fully understand return on investment. And Advertisers now began to see a way to quantify results. So the static model of advertising in papers, on radio now had a formidable opponent, one who reshaped their industry. Mel Karmizan who worked with CBS before joining SiriusXM Satellite radio quipped about Google, ‘what are they trying to do, put me out of business?’ No, Google was creating actual measurements. No more ball parking, guestimations, hypotheticals, Google wanted to measure it.

So enter the world of stratification. 1000 channels on TV. Free radio and subscription ad free radio. Magazines on the racks and digital magazines on the web. People could get their information any way they wanted it. They could watch TV when they wanted, and what they wanted to watch on their time schedule, not the clock. A whole wild west of freedom was promised, and yet, with the Tsunami of sources, everything kind of began to slush together. More became less. Of the 1000 channels, you consistently watched less then ten channels. Sports lovers decided to watch ESPN’s Sportscenter instead of whole games. Top-10 plays became a staple. And all of a sudden the ‘did you see that catch in the seventh inning’ became ‘loved number two on the Top-10.’ There were so many choices, whole shows were devoted to ‘summarizing’ and the new era of information was off to the races.

Lost in the shuffle was College Tennis. Yet the origins of College Tennis goes as far back as 1883, mainly in the Northeast at the most prestigious institutions: Harvard, Yale, Princeton. But over time, the demographics changed and the sport flourished nationwide. It’s list of talent to emerge from the Ivory towers is a Who’s Who in the sport, particularly post-WWII.

The list of players who’ve come from the ranks of College tennis: AND

At the turn of the century, though, College tennis embarked on a unique experiment and decided to recruit it’s way into the record books. A lot of the recruits, though, came from overseas. And the Harvard, Yale and Princetons who were the early powerhouses until the sunbelt states supplanted them: University of Miami, University of Florida, Trinity College, Texas, SMU, Rice; and the perennial powerhouses, UCLA, USC and starting in the 1970s, Stanford University were now losing their grip on the National Championships to lesser schools. Out of the woodworks Illinois, Virginia, Baylor, Ohio State, Tennessee, University of Georgia, started to win National titles and that’s when the backlash began about ‘limiting’ foreign recruits. After all, they never stayed in the US post-college and created this quizzical conundrum: US Colleges are slighting US players from gaining access to the game in the name of National Championships. National Champions were those recruits from India, Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic not Lubbock, TX; Fort Lauderdale, FL, Seattle, WA, Topeka, KS or St. Louis, MO.

In fact, the MO was for college coaches to scour the world, offer scholarships and let a program grow. No! Flourish. And those who didn’t subscribe, well they wallowed. At some point the US has to call it what it was: declining local talent, at best, or at worst, apathy. Where has all the talent from around the US gone? And with it, where has the great home made American story gone?

Take a look at viewership at the professional level here in the US and you’d see a declining market share of viewership since the heights of the mid-1970s which peaked in the early 1980s. Of course the US was flush with American Men talent in the Top-10. Now, there are six US players in the Top-100.

None in the Top-10.

Last year was the worst in the history of the sport for US Men players. It was a Grand Slam sweep, which continued into this year’s Australian Open where NO American male got to the second week of any Grand Slam.


A lot of theories are out there, fingers are pointing to the four corners of the world, but the fact is there are no US Men’s stories which this fragmented wild west of new media finds of any interest to cover. How can you blame them? Which brings us to why there is little or no coverage of College tennis.

ESPN and a host of other Sports only channels has decided to pass on College Tennis. The Tennis Channel routinely runs a ticker tape of results. But they do not cover the march to the Championship. That’s business. The sport is tough to package. Games turn into sets which turn into matches and they consume gigabytes of information in a fractured viewership. Understood.

But it is a breeding ground of talent: smart, focused, future talent.

Now it’s our time to get the word out.

May Madness is on right now … in Athens, GA here:


The Rise of the Great American ClayCourter

There is something artistic about a player floating around on the rich red clay courts of Europe that defies the reality. And that reality is clay court tennis is brutal on the mind and punishing on the body. The surface is composed of finely crushed brick which at it’s driest creates an orange chalk storm on the most aggressive and determined players; and at it’s wettest it is the quick sand of torture on the body and the soul. Each condition presents it’s own unique solution and downfall. Just ask Novak Djokovic at 7-8 in the fifth during his epic run at the French Open only to lose to the perennial King of Clay, Rafael Nadal. At that juncture in the match, Djokovic argued that the court was unplayable and that they had played two sets worth of tennis on the court so it should be watered down and swept as they do at the change of each set.

Request denied.


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Or ask Novak Djokovic in the rain delayed final against Rafael Nadal which was moved the final from a Sunday to a Monday final. The ball was so heavily caked with red clay and moisture it took a superhuman effort to generate any pop on the tennis ball to drive it through the impenetrable defense of Rafael Nadal.

It was the 2013 Monte Carlo Final that brought me to this moment, here now. In that final the Novak Djokovic of 2011 came to visit the pristine elegance of Court Central in Monte Carlo and take on the eight consecutive Champion, Rafael Nadal, and throttle him in straight sets. Out of the gates, Djokovic raced to a 5-0 lead in the first set, hitting some of the most dominant and penetrating groundstrokes which Nadal had little or no answer. From the get go, Djokovic controlled the rally; controlled the depth and eventually opened up the court to drive winners into wide open spaces. Nadal, for the first time since 2009 when the tall Swede Robin Soderling beat him at the French Open, looked vulnerable.

But you never discount the King of Clay who has one of the greatest point to point minds in the game. If you beat him, you must beat him from the beginning of the rally. If you don’t he will find a way to make you run further and wider off court until you can run no more.

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Sometimes the most bitter of losses are the best motivators for the following year. So, knowing that 2013 was so bittersweet for Novak Djokovic in more ways than one: losing his Number One ranking to Nadal (who had taken seven months off to treat a nagging knee injury); losing a heartbreaker in the semi-final of the French Open after down two sets to one, rallying in the fifth and final set to finally get to that moment, with a break of serve, 4-2, Djokovic faced his greatest fear: his waning self-belief. And to those who have tried to slay the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, you must finish him for a chance to drink from the Coupes de Mousketaire.

After losing serve, Djokovic battled until 7-8 in the fifth when that annoying little kernel dropped to the front of the line of important thoughts: this clay court is too fast and chalky, they must water and sweep the court.

Oh, how he must’ve replayed that moment over and over in his mind. Why then? Why think of it then? You had battled back from being two sets down and now, you let it slip.

What is it? Focus.

Clay court tennis is human chess, rallies go one forever until someone tires, is beaten or his will dies in the middle of a desert with no water for miles. All players are capable of staying in a rally and you must, as a clay court player, keep your mind focused on the goal line, the finish line, since some days it might feel like a sprint and other days is feels like an ultra-marathon. In either case, the mind must be ready for the long haul, while being elated with a short, easy win.

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The body must be trained to endure the most grueling, physical running in our sport, where footing is notoriously slippery. Sprinting to a ball often means you will drift or slide in (or out of) the shot, and when ready to push off to track down the next ball, there is the uncertainty of the ground underneath your shoes. Just ask Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams both reluctant sliders on a clay court.

So with unsure footing, slow and long rallies, tennis balls that are heavy, opponents ready to run all day long, a master clay court player says before a match ‘I’m ready to stay out here for weeks, as long as it takes, to open the cracks in your mind.’

And Rafael Nadal does.

Americans haven’t won this title since the Courier/Agassi days. Prior to that John McEnroe made a run for it in 1984. But now, there are no Americans, zero, who have a chance to win this title today. Clay court tennis is cultural and the mind that goes with it is patient, resilient; and point development is glacial. It’s the difference between European Soccer to American Football, scoring is low and tedious tides of momentum keep the fan wondering if this is the moment when they will score. More often than not, they do not score. But the hope on every drive is as if this is the time. The mindset of a US player, and the sports he grew up with: Basketball, Baseball and Football are faster paced. Some would argue that baseball is the slowest, closest to soccer. But even so the pitcher and batter are always engaged and once a batter hits the ball, there’s action, there is consequence.

American players have predominantly been raised from juniors through college on hard courts, a faster, sure footed surface, where you can bring offense into a point at any time. It matches an American’s mindset, where the chance to score exists all the time.  As a result, when an American player goes to Europe to face Europeans (or South Americans), they run into a red ‘brick’ wall. Just ask Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras and a host of US players who had multiple titles in the other three Grand Slams, and a big fat zero at the French Open. Power is neutralized, and the power player now enters the arena with many more calculations and doubts: hey I have to ‘think’ my way through this. No power blasting can move a player from the first round to the winner’s circle. None. What is instinct on a sure footed hard surface is reconfigured on a clay court. And the US translation has been more Cubism than Realism.

Like a mole popping up after a long winter underground, the American ClayCourter is in search of a pair of mountain climber sunglasses and two very powerful aspirin. The long dry spell for US Clay Court dominance is now a galactic pipe dream powered by windmills and rubber bands.

Yet, here in the United States the emphasis is to train more young players on clay courts (even though the ATP Tour is seventy-five percent hard or fast court tennis) is perplexing, if not an admission that we’ve got to reconfigure our analysis. Part of the strategy is self-serving to win a Davis Cup again. And to do so, the US Davis Cup team will have to go through some country — like Spain — who loves and dominates on clay. The second part of the calculation is a player must learn how to develop a point, and on clay courts you have to win the point five times to actually win the point. But the last point to me is the most dramatic: in the US we are going through a ‘nannification’ of what a player can physically tolerate so the move to train on clay courts is a preemptive move to reduce the chance of injury.

Remember the tournaments leading up to the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the ATP calendar, are hard courts. Then the two weeks in Melbourne in the unmerciful summer sun are on hard courts. The tour then moves to the United States where there are back to back Masters 1000 events at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, which are on hard courts.

Then in late March or early April the tour begins two months of clay court tennis, ending in early June with our second Grand Slam, the French Open. Two months, then poof! we’re off to five weeks (and it’s getting shorter) of the last grass courts tennis culminating with Wimbledon. All right there’s one more event in Newport, Rhode Island.

Then BAM! we’re into the hard court season leading up to the US Open. After the hard court season, the tour moves indoors on hard (or fast) courts where the players cast sails and head to the Far East. The final event, though, which all players are trying to qualify for is the ATP World Tour Championships in London.

Three quarters of the season the tour plays on fast, indoor, hard with a slight foray into the traditional grass court month. That’s it. Yet here in America there seems to be some rush to stem the tide of success throwing countless numbers of development programs onto the clay courts. And we’ve seen the results.

Summer of 2013 there was no American man who reached the second week (round of 16) of any of the Grand Slams: Australian Open (Querrey, 32s); French Open (Isner, Querrey, 32s); Wimbledon (Isner, Ram, Blake, Kudla, 32s); US Open (Smyczek, Sock, Isner, 32s).

At Wimbledon and the US Open it was the first time in a century no American male made it to the second week.

The drought extends now to 2014, where Sam Querrey and Donald Young make it to the round of 32 before bowing out of the Australian Open. Drawing the obvious conclusion, the world is becoming better at developing players than we are; or the less obvious, my favorite, the US and the power’s that be, are now employing a failed ‘Eurocentric’ model in developing top talent, completely obscuring the fact that the ATP tour is played three quarters of the year on fast, hard and grass courts.

National Junior tournaments in the US are predominantly hard court. There’s great emphasis and world wide showcasing that goes to the Orange Bowl, played on clay. But most of US National tournaments of significance are on hard courts.

After graduating from junior tennis into the college ranks, ALL dual matches are played on hard courts.

The brand of tennis on the faster surfaces is quicker. The mindset is calibrated toward offense. The footing is sure. The movement is aggressive. And this generation of US player has moved from coming into the net, back back way back, to the comforts of the baseline.

This generation of US player, in short, is now trying to play the world’s game: soccer. They’ve forgotten how to levy pressure by coming into the net. They’ve been trained to ‘develop’ a point, leaving out the best part, finishing the point. With explosive attacking offense the ‘older’ generation of US players understood ‘RISK’ and how to ‘APPLY PRESSURE’ by ‘DEVELOPING’ a point to get a ‘SHORT BALL’ moment and an ‘OPEN COURT’ to hit into while taking the net and securing the best position while his opponent is racing across the court to track down a ball. Even the greatest defender knows he has less court to hit into, and, if he miscalculates and makes a mistake, he will pay.

That used to be the way. But the US player of today has been coddled and confined to the incubator of Eurocentric baseline tennis. To finish a point you outlast a player or open the court to hit the winner through the baseline. Or, you’re pushed so deep beyond the baseline, you’ve vulnerable to the drop shot.

This was the first game we learned as a player: hit one more ball in than your opponent. Once you grew into your body, became stronger, the next progression was learning how to attack the net: serve/volley; chip charge; approach and finish. But those were the days when players played both singles and doubles. Doubles necessitated that you come to the net or the team that took the net was going to dominate you. You learned to hit return of serves into narrow parts of the court away from opposing net men, down at the feet of attacking servers to best set up your partner who then poached and finished any weak pitch by the opposing server. You learned how to open ‘gaps’ in the opposing team to create a separation of your opposing team, opening up the court, making their team feel like two singles players instead of one unit. And this allowed your team to attack the ‘gaps’ and finish the point.

But that’s slowly disappearing now on the landscape. The attack, the understanding of ‘risk’ and levying ‘pressure, are somehow disappearing from the development landscape. And this writer doesn’t know why it’s being excluded when it’s an integral part of the game, it’s history and it’s tactical and strategic implementation in a match, let alone as a ‘seed of inspiration’ an ‘alternative idea’ in the young mind of a new player, male OR female.

The great writer Richard Evans postulated the other day that Americans are unwilling to travel, like the Australians do, and stay at on the European (or South American) clay until they master it. He has a point. This season the most number of US players have played the first (and last) clay court tournament in Houston. None at Monte Carlo. None in Barcelona. Two in Madrid.

We’ll see if any US male decides to play the Italian Open before the French.

But in the interim the leaders of US player development around the country have to remember the ATP Tour plays on clay courts for only two months out of the calendar year. And to put all your chips on developing the next Great American ClayCourter is like entering your best sprinter to compete in the Summer Olympics as a marathoner in the 15,000 meter.

If our governing body, the USTA, says we must train on clay courts, then why aren’t they sending an legion of players over to Europe to COMPETE on clay courts?

And why or why did we ever decide to play our first match in Davis Cup against Great Britain on clay?

If you’re all in, then go all in. If you’re half in, then you’re doomed to fail. Either or, the abysmal showing by US Men is likely to repeat in 2014 and maybe then the minds will meld to break down the raw data and put together a development program rooted in analysis and not in desire.


Clay Court Refresh in Left Center

After the last Masters 1000 in Key Biscayne, Florida the ATP Tour moves to the deep rich red clay of Europe. It’s a tough transition going from the faster-paced hard courts in the United States to the long, mental and physical exercise of the slower points of European clay. As discussed before the biggest hurdle, particularly for Americans, is to try and win points without punishing mind and body. Not an easy task. Most Americans grew up on hard courts. Local and junior tournaments are predominantly on hard courts. College tennis is on hard courts. And then on the ATP Tour, ten months are devoted to hard, indoor or for a brief five weeks, grass court surfaces.

In short, the ATP Tour with three of the four Grand Slams confirms what we all know (except for the USTA) that the tour is skewed for the fast court player.

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Why bring it up? Well, recently the USTA decided post-Australian Open to host the British in Davis Cup on red clay courts in a carved out patch of left-field at Petco Park home of the San Diego Padres. It was an interesting decision to play on clay courts (let alone venue), which through multiple sources, was urged by the Bryan Brothers. Yes, the doubles team, which represents only one of five possible points (or rubbers) a team can win in a match (or tie).

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That’s right, ONE point out of a possible five points. Yet, they were the deciding votes for the choice of surface.

Why would the one point of the Bryans weigh so heavily on the decision to host on a surface that, by all accounts for the US team was chosen for the US squad of: Isner, Querrey, Young and the Bryans, wouldn’t be to the US advantage. At one point, it was conjectured that Isner had made lobbied for the clay courts since his spectacular play as the US defeated Switzerland in Switzerland, against Roger Federer, on clay. A few things to point out about that tie in Switzerland: one, the clay court was hastily laid down, played ‘chunky’ where large parts of the court lifted up on aggressive slides which made the tennis ball’s bounce unpredictable and high, except for the 6’9″ Big John Isner; two, the site was in altitude which plays faster helping Isner shorten the points with a faster flying tennis ball; and three, there was nothing for the US team to lose, they were expected to lose so they came out swinging freely.

But when the decision to pick a surface here in the 2014 US Davis Cup debut versus Britain, post-Australian Open, a hard court event, where Andy Murray lost in the quarters to Roger Federer AFTER a seven month layoff because of back surgery, the US decided to take it easy on Andy. In short, from all press accounts and public statements, Murray was tapped out physically on the hard courts, pounding from shot to shot in the summer heat of Melbourne playing three out of five sets. Wouldn’t the US benefit from putting Murray through another slog on hard courts? Shouldn’t they have considered his physical condition after a seven month layoff? Let’s go down the line up.

Isner vs Murray would be tough on Big John. Murray, a great defender, a superb returner, would test Isner at every turn. Murray would make Isner pay for any mistakes and make Big John run. And John is not the greatest returner in the game, so Murray, if his back held up, would be tough on Isner’s defense. One nil, Britain.

Querrey versus the 175th in the world ranked Ward should be an easy win for the US. But, now on clay, Querrey’s power isn’t as big of a threat in the slower conditions. His serve and forehand would be somewhat less powerful on the slower bouncing surface. But still the US would have a great chance at one point here. One a piece.

Doubles with the World’s Number One team, the Bryans, should be an easy US point. My prediction is Murray would be saved for the singles only. Too much wear and tear to play all five ties, post-Australian Open. Two, one US.

Isner vs Ward, Britain’s number two player, should give the US another point. Big John versus Ward should notch the US another point. Three one, US.

Whereas the reverse singles of Querrey vs Murray would be a test for Querrey. Outside of the LA Open, Murray takes the tie.

By my count, pre-match on paper, the US takes the tie, 3-2.

But, Big John Isner pulls out in the ‘eleventh hour’ and his replacement is Donald Young.

Isner, who had pulled out of the Australian Open after winning the title in New Zealand the week before, rolled an ankle, was (or should have been) rehabilitating it to ready himself for the tie. By all accounts, in those three weeks before the tie, Isner was ready. But John Isner wasn’t ready. So much for the calculus.

Now the heavy lifting was on the shoulders of Sam Querrey and Isner’s replacement, Donald Young. Both players had decent runs on the hard courts at the Australian Open losing in the round of 32. Both were better players on hard courts Young having only one final appearance in Thailand on an indoor hard court; whereas Querrey has seven titles, five on hard courts, one on grass and one on clay in Belgrade, a smaller venue.

Donald Young ( ), though, has no ATP Tour titles, one final in Thailand on Indoor Hard.

On the opening day, first tie, Murray easily beats Donald Young. 1-0, Britain.

Second tie, Querrey is shocked by the low ranked Ward and loses in five sets, 6-1 in the fifth. Britain leads 2-0.

Then Saturday, the Bryans win the doubles tie. 2-1, Britain.

Sunday it’s all on Querrey. If he pulls the upset and beats Murray, then it’s on Donald Young. Murray beats Querrey in four sets and the US go down to Britain.

Flash forward to Monte Carlo, one of the premier events to lead off the two-month European clay court season and … there isn’t one American in the draw.

Barcelona, the next event … there isn’t one American in the draw.

The last time we’ve seen an American on clay was pre-Europe, in Houston at the US Men’s Claycourt Championships where the Spaniard Fernando Verdasco beat fellow countryman, Nicolas Almagro in the final.

The good news is Sam Querrey got to the semis. Donald Young lost in the third round to Verdasco.

And, the number one seed, John Isner lost in the first round.

Earth to USTA, are we gettin’ it yet?






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? ( )

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.



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.



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.