What the Olympics means for…?

August 7, 2012

by: Rob York

Everyone’s a critic. So, following a stellar Summer Olympics for the sport of men’s tennis, what are they saying about …?

Andy Murray: Roger Federer was tired from his extended semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro and had nothing left for the Wimbledon final. Rafael Nadal’s absence cleared the route to the final even before that. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray’s penultimate Olympic conquest, has been on a mini-dry spell and he lacked the usual self-assuredness he had shown even in the tensest moments of 2011.

And, frankly, it was about time. Lost in the successes of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer over the past few years is the fact that Murray has put up some remarkably consistent results. Four grand slam finals since the last Olympics. A streak of five straight GS semis that didn’t end until the quarters of this year’s Roland Garros. His trip to the Wimbledon finals, giving him final round appearances at every major save the RG.

Through it all Murray has been upstaged by that unique trio of men, all of whom had achieved GS success before him, putting him at a disadvantage before the first ball was even struck. And through it all the Scot, who probably has a better all-around game than anyone who played before 2000, has had to endure criticism of his mental strength and questions about whether or not he had the game to win a big one.

Well now he has. While the London Olympics may not be on par with a slam in terms of prize money or ranking points, their infrequency, the stage they took place on this year and the audience Murray played in front of mean that he’s created a memory exceeding that of, say, one of those Australian Open titles he lost. For the time being, it should mean that he has given himself breathing room from questions regarding his ability to win the majors.

So what of the summer ahead? Murray has points to defend in Cincinnati, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t win there following this expedition. Where this result is going to matter is in events like the US Open, a place where Murray has been surprised early in recent years (by Marin Cilic in 2009 and Stanislas Wawrinka in 2010). This is a win that should give him the confidence to get through results such as that, and possibly through a player of Nadal or Djokovic’s caliber in the semis.

It doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win it all, but his odds have definitely gone up.

Roger Federer: His recent resurgence, just like the one he experienced in 2009, coincides with a lengthy absence of Nadal. His semi with del Potro suggests that, even with the Wimbledon win, players he could once intimidate now can stay with him. And the final shows that age catches up to even the most graceful and most prepared.

Still, what’s it going to take to beat Federer at the US Open? Nadal will be on his least favorite surface and lacking the kind of momentum he had in 2010, even if his knee is healed. Djokovic, for the first time in what seems like decades, will probably not await him in the USO semis and won’t be bursting with the confidence of ’11. And Murray may find it harder to seal the deal after playing best of five for two weeks.

All in all, Federer’s sitting in a good position going into the USO, and we know he’ll schedule enough off time going into it not to jeopardize his chances there.

Then again, there’s …

Juan Martin del Potro: His movement, while good for a big guy, is still problematic when competing against the best in the world. He’s had spurts of greatness since returning from wrist surgery, but hasn’t shown the kind of play he did when winning the 2009 USO.

Nonetheless, this tournament means more to him than any he’s played, or even won, in a long time. Sure, he couldn’t make enough of an impact on Federer’s serve in the third set of the semis, but the fact that he held serve 16 times in that set alone while facing that kind of pressure (not to mention a guy quite adept at returning big serves on grass) says his mental strength is approaching 2009 levels.

Even more impressive than the semi? He came back and won the bronze from Djokovic despite the mental and physical letdown he had to be feeling. That win didn’t just net him the prize he wore around his neck; it was his first non-injury-aided win over a top 4 player since 2009.

Novak Djokovic: He hasn’t won a title since April. Nadal, Federer and now Murray have all lined up since then to show him that his 2011 aura has faded.

While his win over Andy Roddick suggests that his strokes are still plenty sharp, there’s little denying that the Serb’s psychological edge over the tour is long gone. He still has the game, but will that be enough? Can he rebuild his edge?

I’m betting not before the Open.

Andy Roddick: He’s getting old. Age softens the hardest of serves, and without that Roddick has little chance against the best.

Well, maybe. Still, he had won two of three events going into the Olympics, and there was a sudden change of surfaces, and continents, involved. This need not portend an inability to win hardcourt titles, but his chances at the majors don’t look good.

Olympic tennis: It was a venue with an unusually strong connection with the sport. Future Olympics won’t be played in nations with such an extended tennis history, nor will they have such an extraordinarily consistent crop of top players. The debate over whether tennis belongs in the Olympics will return.

Yes, but that’s many years away. I was among those with memories of Massu-Fish epics and of past triumphs by Marc Rosset and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, questioning the relevance of Olympic tennis today. The Federer-Delpo semi, the coronation of Murray, plus the career capping wins of Serena Williams and the Bryan Brothers definitively answered whether the sport belongs in the games.

Barring a plague of devastating injuries that razes the players who competed so well in London and hinders their performances in New York, I was wrong about Olympic tennis.

And happy to say so.

Top Ten Grass Court Players, Part II

July 17, 2012

by: Rob York

Wimbledon in many ways is out of step with the modern game: As clothes get brighter and crowds become more boisterous, Wimbledon clings to its all-white tradition and on-court silence. As grass courts disappear around the world, giving way to hard and clay, Wimbledon maintains its lawns (but has not been above varying the speed it plays at).

Through it all, Wimbledon has not ceased to produce the greatest matches of recent memory, and its most successful champions remain the game’s most accomplished, and most recognizable, practitioners.

Last time we started with some of the grass surface’s most successful players. As we reach the end of this list, you’ll find that the best grass court players rank among the best of any surface, country, or era.

Let’s begin with …

5: John McEnroe

Three Wimbledon titles, twice a runner up

As is the case with Arthur Ashe, our No. 10, the image of John McEnroe continues to overshadow what he accomplished on the court. That their images were opposite is well known, though, as Johnny Mac will forever be associated with a sense of bratty entitlement and a competitive mindset that thrived on conflict, be it with his opponent, the officiating, and anyone else in ranting range.

As a result, he’s one of the most recognizable players among the general public, but not for the brilliance of his play in the early 1980s. This is a shame, because his winding left-handed serve, his magical feel around the net and early ball-striking made his Wimbledon final with Bjorn Borg in 1980, a long-time favorite in the greatest-match-of-all-time debate. A year later, it made him the first player since 1975 to beat the Swede on the lawns.

McEnroe added another two Wimbledon titles by 1984. His last crown there was captured with the most dominant Wimbledon final among men in the Open Era, denying Jimmy Connors all but four games. In doing so, he proved his game to be almost as sharp as his tongue. It’s just a shame he is not better remembered for it.

4: Boris Becker

Three Wimbledon titles in seven final round appearanced

Youngest-ever Wimbledon champion (1985)

After John McEnroe carved up the competition, Boris Becker bludgeoned it.

1985 was a year of the big serve, as the Kevin Curren blasted both Johnny Mac and Jimbo off the court on his way to the final round. Unfortunately for him, something even bigger awaited in the final, as the 17-year-old Becker won the duel of unreturnables to become the youngest-ever winner of a major (he’d later be overtaken by Michael Chang at the 1989 Roland Garros, but retains that designation at Wimbledon).

But Becker was more than just a prodigy. Remarkably for one so young, he was back in the final a year later, overcoming both Ivan Lendl and the pressure of defending his title. As he grew older the competition grew tougher, and while Becker won a third title in 1989, he stumbled at the last hurdle in 1988, 1990 and 1991. These losses, coupled with his shock upset in the second round in 1987, have left many to wonder how many he might’ve won, if only he’d responded to adversity differently.

But 10 years after his first title there, an aging Becker revived his career in the majors by beating world No. 1 Andre Agassi to reach the Wimbledon final in 1995. Though he fell to Pete Sampras in the final, this springboarded Becker to an Australian Open title in 1996, making him one of the very few players to have won his last major more than a decade after his first.

But he’ll always be identified with his early success at Wimbledon, the place he called his living room. It’s also the place where he reached seven finals, a record he shared with Pete Sampras, at least until this year.

3: Bjorn Borg

Five consecutive Wimbledon titles (1976-80)

Six consecutive Wimbledon finals (1976-81)

Between 2008 and 2010 Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer pulled off the “Channel Slam,” capturing Wimbledon and Roland Garros crowns in the same year three times in a row. These were extraordinary efforts, requiring five-set matches, a spectacular level of play and some fortuitous turns of events. If there’s a downside to their success, it’s that they may make Bjorn Borg’s Channel Slams appear less special.

But they were out of the ordinary: Borg’s endurance, unerring groundstrokes and patience made him as natural a clay court player as has ever played the game. Yet early on he identified Wimbledon as a goal, leaving his contemporaries to wonder how he’d prevail on a speedy surface whose short points seemingly neutralized his greatest strengths.

There were bigger weapons under the surface, though, including a remarkable (and adaptable) athleticism, height that could translate into effective serving on the lawns and an internal cool that could not be shaken. This was evident whether Borg was being challenged early in the event when he was still adjusting to the speed of the grass, or at the end of the fortnight when his toughest contemporaries were trying to take the crown away from him.

Over and over again they failed, and by 1980, the question had evolved from “Could Borg win Wimbledon?” to “Who could beat Borg at Wimbledon?” John McEnroe would eventually answer the question, but not until after pushing the Swede in one of the tensest matches in Grand Slam history … and falling short.

After Borg finally fell to Johnny Mac in 1981, he left the game, his icy façade shattered by disappointment. Still, his reputation would endure: It would be two decades before anyone would win more Wimbledons than Borg did, and nearly three before anyone duplicated the Channel Slam.

And even today, no one has won the RG and Wimbledon in the same year three times.

2: Pete Sampras

Seven Wimbledon titles

Four consecutive titles (1997-2000)

Three consecutive titles (1993-95)

Many of his records have since fallen, overtaken in much less time than it took for him to break them. Still, Pete Sampras remains tennis’ most successful experiment.

He started his junior career as a baseliner with a two-handed backhand, thriving on the asphalt and disliking grass. No matter; he and coach Pete Fischer decided early on that, as Wimbledon was the game’s biggest event, he would be trained to win Wimbledon. So one hand had to be taken off the backhand, forcing him to come to net more often. The serve had to be trained, as raw pace would have to be coupled with variety, reliability, and especially disguise.

Still, the first two years he played in London he didn’t win a single round, as he hated the movement on grass and struggled with returning skidding serves. Only with the help of another coach, Tim Gullikson, did he learn the efficient strokes needed to thrive on the lawns and the calm required to wait out the serving barrages that would come from the Ivanisevics and the Philippousi across the net.

Those lessons, coupled with the programming Fischer had written decades earlier, made Sampras unbeatable on the lawns in seven out of eight years. For a time, this made him both the most decorated Wimbledon champion and the king of Grand Slam titles. When he set both of these marks at the beginning of the new century, it appeared these records would last a lifetime.

It would certainly take someone special to match them.

1: Roger Federer

Seven Wimbledon titles

Eight finals

Five consecutive titles (2003-07)

He started off coming to net behind every first serve. That’s how he ended Pete Sampras’ Wimbledon run in 2001, and how he won his first title at the All England Club in 2003. He was to be the successor to not only Sampras, but to every guy from Laver to McEnroe to Becker who excelled from every part of the court, equally comfortable picking up half volleys as he was belting inside-out forehands.

But then returns got more accurate, and groundstrokes more reliable, ushering out most remnants of the serve and volley approach. Wimbledon recognized this, seeing a chance to immunize itself from ‘90s-era complaints that points were to short and matches too boring by slowing down its grass and fluffing up the balls. Where would this leave Federer, already a traditionalist though still in his early 20s?

No worse off, actually: Federer anticipated the change, started staying back on both serves and coming to net primarily to finish off points his textbook groundies had set up for him. His game had greatness to spare, and it wasn’t long before he was in position to equal Bjorn Borg’s mark of five Wimbledons in a row.

Much as was the case with Borg, Federer had to overcome a stiff challenge to tie that mark, as Rafael Nadal served as his McEnroe in 2007. As with Borg-McEnroe at the start of the ‘80s, that challenge grew stiffer and became too much for the great champion to overcome: Federer n 2008 and Borg in 1981 both saw their quest for a sixth straight title end in a final-round disappointment.

Borg responded to this impediment, along with his failure to win a US Open, by giving up at age 26. Federer had been similarly frustrated at Roland Garros, but proved more durable than not only Borg, but his younger rivals: When Nadal stumbled in mid-2009, Federer finally took the Paris title that had eluded him and captured yet another Wimbledon, breaking Sampras’ Grand Slam mark in the process.

Age, the resurgence of Nadal and emergence of Novak Djokovic had left The Great Swiss slam-less and outside the top of the rankings for much of the last two years. But this year, a modern update contributed to revival of grass court traditionalism, and the ever-durable Federer was there to capitalize.

Nadal, whose game has always required more of an adjustment to grass than Federer’s, finally met an early challenge this year that he could not overcome. Before the rains came before his semifinal encounter with Djokovic, the Serb’s solid baseline play looked a stiff challenge to Federer’s quest, but the closing of the roof sent the Swiss’ serve zipping through the court and his volleys slicing through the Djokovic’s defense.

The same thing happened Sunday, as Federer faced Britain’s own Andy Murray, an inspired opponent backed by the hopes of an entire nation. Federer responded by making 69 percent of first serves, by attacking Murray’s second deliveries with sliced approaches, and by hitting the ball earlier than all but a few of the game’s greats are capable of.

When Murray’s last shot landed wide, the man who earlier tied Borg’s streak had match a few other designations: Like Sampras, he has seven titles, but had a record eight finals to his credit. Connors won his last Wimbledon eight years after the first, but Federer’s most recent came nine years after his maiden title.

And with that, the man who was supposed to preserve traditional lawn tennis in the age of baseliners became the most accomplished grass court player of them all. When the next great player with a traditionalist bent appears, it’s Federer he’ll be playing successor to.

The Top Grass Court Players of the Open Era

July 9, 2012

by: Rob York

As long as tennis is played, there will be grass courts, and those who specialize in them. Yes, the surface no longer plays faster than all others, and racket technology has made serving big and charging the net less effective there, but its unusual footing and unpredictable bounces make it a unique discipline even now.

In the Open Era, since the game’s four majors became the metric by which tennis greatness was defined, a few players stand above the rest. This week we count down 10-6, with an honorable mention thrown in. Can you guess those in this section?

Honorable Mention: Goran Ivanisevic

One Wimbledon title

Four Wimbledon finals

Goran Ivanisevic’s run in 2001, in which he won his only Wimbledon title despite being unseeded and having not reached so much as a tour final since 1998, wasn’t just a miraculous, feel-good story. Without that one title, much of his achievements on the surface would have felt like promise not met, and the massive serving that intimidated even Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi would have not received its just reward.

He’d already been to three Wimbledon finals, with only Agassi and Sampras, the most accomplished all-surface players of his era, denying him the championship. But in 2001, thanks to a wildcard from tournament organizers, seven rounds of inspired play and a little luck, the player who helped make ‘90s grass court tennis what it was enters the record books not as a disappointment, but as one of the most accomplished grass court players of his era.

10: Arthur Ashe

One Wimbledon, one Australian Open title, one US Open title

Arthur Ashe is best known for fighting apartheid and for changing how AIDS was perceived even as it claimed his life. Many still call him the greatest ambassador the sport ever had.

If there’s any downside to his advocacy work, it’s that it gets more attention than his numerous merits as a player. Going into the 1975 Wimbledon final, he’d already won a couple of grass court majors in New York and Australia, but was considered a heavy underdog against the proto-power baseliner Jimmy Connors, winner of three major titles the previous year. However, the thoughtful Ashe played the quintessential tactical match, employing service placement, chipped returns and off-speed groundstrokes to drive his younger, stronger opponent mad.

Though Connors would spend the next two decades building his reputation as an all-time great and tireless competitor, Ashe shattered his image of invincibility, while furthering his own as a champion. In doing so, he achieved a broader platform for his later fights against racism and fear of HIV/AIDS.

9: Stefan Edberg

Two Wimbledon titles, once a Wimbledon runner up

Two Australian Open titles

Whenever tennis watchers say they miss serve-and-volley tennis, what they really mean is that they miss Stefan Edberg.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s the game was starting to bifurcate along power lines, as hard and clay courts were being taken over by overpowering baseliners and grass courts by towering servers. Edberg had neither of these weapons, but still found great success in disarming both styles with his swift feet and great hands. While his high-kicking serve and elegant backhand helped put him in contention, it was his swarming of the net that made his rivalry with Boris Becker at Wimbledon in the late-’80s and early ’90s great viewing.

His early Australian Open successes made him an accomplished grass court player, but it was his those three Wimbledon finals that made him a legend. One of those watching the Becker-Edberg trilogy on Centre Court was Roger Federer. That Edberg won two of the three finals against Boom Boom during that stretch showed that feel and movement could overcome size and power, a lesson the Great Swiss would apply decades later.

8: Rafael Nadal

Two Wimbledon titles, three times a runner up

When he followed up his first Roland Garros title in 2005 by falling to Gilles Muller in round two of Wimbledon, few could have imagined the journey Rafael Nadal would tread across England’s lawns over the next few years. In fact, few would have guessed that only one year later the Spaniard with the loopy groundstrokes, iffy serve and deep court positioning could make the necessary adjustments to reach his first Wimbledon final.

His exemplary athletic ability certainly helped, but it was his careful planning that made his three consecutive finals appearances possible, and his incomparable heart that made his victory in 2008 the greatest match in the Open Era.

He’s added an additional title and runner up appearance since then, emerging from the shadow of the Great Swiss and carving his own legacy on Wimbledon’s list of champions.

Not bad for a clay court player.

7: Jimmy Connors

Two Wimbledon titles, four times a runner up

One US Open title on grass (five on all surfaces)

One Australian Open title

Arthur Ashe’s 1975 triumph wouldn’t have meant nearly as much without Jimmy Connors’ 1974 season, one of the great performances in the history of men’s tennis.

At the game’s three grass court majors Connors prevailed that year, and it was perhaps nothing more than bureaucratic feuding that kept Jimbo from matching Rod Laver’s 1969 calendar-year Grand Slam. We’ll never know for sure, but we do know how he dominated the events he did play.

And no one knows that like Ken Rosewall. Already a legend of the game, a former No. 1 with eight major titles to his credit, Rosewall added to his stature by reaching the finals of that year’s Wimbledon and US Open despite turning 40 later that year. In those finals, though, Rosewall had no answer for Connors’ crushing returns and underrated net play, winning just six games in England and only two in New York.

Connors reign would be short-lived, though, as Ashe disrupted it the following year, and starting in 1976 Jimbo would be overmatched on the lawns of London by Bjorn Borg: Though he won his share against the Cyborg Swede, particularly in at the US Open, Borg defeated him three times at Wimbledon’s latter rounds.

Of course today Connors is better known today for his undying hunger, and not his early dominance, and he demonstrated this in 1982. Eight years after his first title there, Connors outlasted John McEnroe, the man who’d finally beaten Borg the year before, in five sets.

It was a longer journey than expected, but in retrospect, the one that feels most appropriate for Jimbo. As he would later say: “(T)here’s always somebody out there who’s willing to push it that extra inch, or mile, and that was me. I didn’t care if it took me 30 minutes or five hours. If you beat me, you had to be the best, or the best you had that day.”

And hunger is essential on the one surface that some creatures consider food.

6: Rod Laver

Two Wimbledons, one Australian Open title, and one US Open title (as a pro)

Two Wimbledons, two Australian Championships, and one US Championship (as an amateur)

Some questions can never be answered, and that’s especially true when comparing the pre-Open Era greats with those who came later. It makes the career of Rocket Rod Laver especially hard to analyze, as the Grand Slam-centric Open Era started in 1968, about three years after his status as the game’s top player started and at least two before he was dethroned.

Sticking to the criteria of measuring the players strictly by their Open Era achievements, though, Laver still put up some remarkable numbers. In 1969 he swept the game’s major titles when three of the four were played on grass. Given that he’d also won Wimbledon the year before, and would win 77 titles after 1968, many of which came on lawns, his status as one of the Open Era greats is assured.

When lumped together with his pre-Open Era achievements, including another calendar-year Slam as an amateur in 1962 and 200 singles titles, there are many who consider Laver the greatest of all time.

That’s debatable, but his position as a universally admired player and person is beyond questioning, as is his impeccable grass court acumen.

Coming soon: The top five grass court players in the Open Era. Can you guess them?

Happy Father’s Day to Tommy Haas

June 17, 2012

by: Rob York

The problems of a young man, even those who don’t work in sports or entertainment, are typically inflated in his own mind. The setbacks he may encounter in his early 20s typically involve not succeeding at work to the degree he had hoped, some dissatisfaction in his personal relationships and the struggle to achieve the respect he feels he deserves.

Over time he hopes these battles will gradually turn more and more in his favor, not knowing that increased age only raises the stakes. Before long, he won’t be fighting to achieve success for himself alone, but in order to pay for the food, shelter and education his children need, even as every minute worked overtime competes for moments he could use to nurture his relationship with his wife. Meanwhile, the feats his body once achieved easily become more difficult, and some become off-limits entirely, while his parents, the foundations that have supported him for so many years, become frail and in need of support themselves.

For any man who knows these struggles, the victory of Tommy Haas at Halle this weekend has a special resonance. Haas, who turned 34 in April, is more than three years older than Roger Federer, who himself continues to battle the top players in the game as well as persistent questions about his own age. As I’m 32, seeing a player older than me win titles is becoming exceedingly rare, and before much longer will be non-existent.

Haas is also someone I’ve gotten to watch as he grew, emerging as a prodigy in the late-‘90s, struggling to maintain consistent results, then finally turning into one of the game’s top players at the end of 2001. In the latter half of that year and beginning of ‘02, he began to post victories over the players as highly regarded as Federer, Lleyton Hewitt and Pete Sampras, winning his first Master’s Shield, reaching the semis of a major and being viewed as a threat to bag a Slam and reach No. 1.

That he never achieved those things could be seen as a disappointment, as he never got past No. 2, and still has yet to even reach the final Sunday of a major. From mid-’02 onward, though, Haas has probably had a fuller idea of how much success in sports really matters. That was the year that Haas’ parents suffered a severe car accident, one which left his father in a coma, causing him to miss two months on tour (including Wimbledon). Thankfully they recovered, but Haas’ position in the game never really would.

His shoulder, that frailest intersection of bones, tendons and ligaments, fell apart, leaving him out of action for all of 2003. By 2004 he was already a veteran on the comeback trail, and as the game fell under the domination of muscular baseliners with brutal groundstrokes, Haas’ lean all-court game and beautiful one-handed backhand were reaping fewer rewards.

All of which serves to make Haas’ continued successes cause for celebration. In 2009, at age 31 he ended a two and a half-year title drought to capture his first Halle title, giving him one grass win to go with his one clay and 10 hard court titles. Suddenly grass appeared to the venue most rewarding of his game’s classical leanings and most forgiving of his aging physique; he followed up that result by reaching the semis of Wimbledon, topping Marin Cilic and Novak Djokovic along the way. It took none other than Federer, just two days before his coronation as the all-time Grand Slam king, to put an end to his run.

Haas’ injuries were unimpressed with his results, though, and returned to bar him from action the following winter. For the second time in his career, Haas would miss more than a year, spending February 2010 to May 2011 recovering from shoulder and hip problems. But much as age teaches a young man that problems can get much, much bigger, it also teaches him how superficial and short-term his former triumphs were: Haas and his wife had their first daughter near the end of 2010.

Now Haas, who has played long enough to see men younger than him, such as Marat Safin retire, plays with a new goal: He wants his daughter to see him in action before he leaves the game. This weekend brought an encouraging sign, as he captured the Halle event for the second time, his first tournament title since his victory there in 2009, and his first victory over The Great Swiss Federer in a decade.

How appropriate that his win came on Father’s Day.

Happy Father’s Day to Tommy Haas, and to all men everywhere who’ve learned to work for something bigger than themselves.

The Most Dominant Grand Slam Performance of the Open Era

May 24, 2012

by: Rob York

The winner of the upcoming Roland Garros event is by no means certain.

Six-time champion Rafael Nadal appears to have the slight edge in his quest to add a record seventh title, but world No. 1 Novak Djokovic will be highly motivated: A win here would give him all four majors at just 25 years of age, as well as four Slams in a row. Coming up just behind them is No. 3 Roger Federer, who has beaten both players in the past year and who can never be discounted entirely, having won 16 majors already.

But Roland Garros is always a special event, and has frequently been the arena for the most comprehensive displays of tennis mastery in the Open Era. Since the majors began accepting pros in the late ’60s, the RG is the place where a dominant player has been most likely to crush all opposition, sometimes without losing a set.

So here are the five (plus one) most dominant Grand Slam performances of the pro era, highlighting the most special two-week performances in men’s tennis history.

Honorable Mention: John McEnroe – 1984 Wimbledon

Paul McNamee won 23 doubles titles between 1979 and 1986. His singles career, while less accomplished, did include two singles titles and a career-high ranking of No. 24.

We can add one other notable achievement to that list: Taking a set from John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1984.

Maybe Mac was still smarting from letting Ivan Lendl escape a two-set deficit in the Roland Garros final a couple of weeks earlier. Maybe, despite playing the Queen’s Club warm-up, the tempestuous American was still adjusting to the grass after the clay season.

Whatever the reason, it was a display of vulnerability that wouldn’t be seen again: Only Rodney Harmon in round two would get as many as five games off him in a set, and only Pat Cash in the semis would push him to a tiebreak. The cherry on top of this treat was the final, though, when McEnroe faced Jimmy Connors.

Connors had beaten him in the Wimbledon final just two years earlier, and though now in his early 30s had proven his tenacity and returning prowess yet again by outlasting Lendl in the semis. So, aware of his resolve, having lost to him in a five-set battle of nerves in ’82, McEnroe seemingly elected to finish this match before resolve could even become a factor.

Final score: 6-1, 6-1, 6-2.

Committing no unforced errors in the first two sets and only two in the third, Johnny Mac humbled Connors on the game’s biggest stage, never dropping serve and shredding Jimbo with his forehand returns. After the disappointment of Paris, McEnroe reminded the rest of the tour that Lendl’s comeback had been a surprise, and he would lose just twice more the rest of the year.

McEnroe is just one of a number of champions who have won majors in the Open Era having dropped just one set. But for the sheer distance McEnroe put between himself and his competition by the end of the event, his 1984 Wimbledon result stands apart.

5. Rafael Nadal – 2010 Roland Garros

2010 had already been a special year for Rafael Nadal even before the Roland Garros had started. He had already prevailed in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid in the lead-up, making him the first player to ever sweep the clay season’s Master’s Series events.

But he’d dominated the 2009 clay season as well, winning Monte Carlo and Rome, only to be stunned by Robin Soderling in Paris, leaving his Master’s shields haul a footnote.

Fittingly, in the 2010 final, Nadal faced Soderling yet again, just two rounds after the big Swede had dismissed Roger Federer, the Swiss’ first loss before the semis of a major in six years. Few doubted that Nadal was capable of winning, but he’d appeared slightly hesitant in previous rounds, allowing competition like Nicolas Almagro and Jurgen Meltzer to hang around, when he would have ground them into the clay in previous years. Had his confidence sustained a fatal blow in the previous year’s event?

When Nadal broke to take the first set, then nabbed two more breaks to close out the second, the answer was in: the Spaniard had been saving his best for this stage. It’s possible that, after an injury plagued season the year before, he hadn’t wanted to run down every ball in the prior rounds. Or maybe he just required the inspiration that seeing his tormentor on the other side of the net would provide.

But soon Nadal was proving to the hardest hitter in the game that he could hit almost as big, and his movement was so extraordinary it appeared he could run 100 yards in the time it took Soderling to complete his forehand backswing.

He also demonstrated to the rest of the field that, whatever his reasons, he hadn’t played up to his capabilities in previous rounds – and they still hadn’t been able to win a set from him.

It sparked the most successful run of Nadal’s career, as he captured the year’s final three majors, completing a career Grand Slam. Still, it wasn’t his most dominant major performance … but more on that later.

4. Roger Federer – 2007 Australian Open

There are two great lessons in the modern game: 1) movement beats power, and 2) avoid giving Roger Federer motivation to play better.

Andy Roddick was probably well-aware of the first principle at the start of the 2007 season, having lost to the fleet-footed Federer 12 out of 13 times by that point, his cannon serve failing to overcome the Great Swiss’ greater all-around game. Still, thanks to his off-court work with new coach Jimmy Connors, and a victory over Federer in a warm-up exo, Roddick said that he felt the margin between the two was narrowing.

For much of the event that appeared possible, as Federer was winning, but not dominating the likes of Tommy Robredo and a still very green Novak Djokovic. Roddick, for his part, went into their semi having routed compatriot Mardy Fish. Federer was the favorite going in, but their semi showdown had the makings of a classic.

And it was, but not in the sense that Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is a classic; more like in the way the Circle Jerks’ 15-minute album Group Sex is.

From 4-all in the first sense, Federer broke Roddick, held to finish the set, then completed a 10-game tear that left Roddick launching profanities at errors, miming a gun pressed to his own head and accidentally throwing rackets at support staff.

The 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 win left little doubt about the outcome of the final against Fernando Gonzalez, which Federer also won in straight sets. It proved that the gap had not narrowed between the Swiss and his contemporaries, as he had become the first player in 26 and a half years to win a major without dropping a set.

Speaking of which …

3. Bjorn Borg – 1980 Roland Garros

Unlike in our previous entries, no one match defines Borg’s 1980 RG run. Borg had already won the event four times, so his victory was rarely in doubt, and only twice in the event did he surrender as much as four games in a set.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging some of his competition: In round two there was Andres Gomez of Ecuador, who would win the event a full decade later, a delightful story of a veteran capping a solid career with a big win.

Borg allowed him five games.

In the semis was Harold Solomon, the event’s ’76 finalist, and later the guru who helped Jim Courier and Jennifer Capriati win Slams, including in Paris.

Borg allowed him four games.

His final round opponent, Vitas Gerulaitis, is often remembered as a guy who did not live up to his potential, winning just one major and who was dominated by his contemporaries Borg and Connors.

Still, give him credit: He won an entire seven games in that final, including one of the two 6-4 sets mentioned earlier.

Borg had his shortcomings, most of which would be revealed to the world after his tennis career ended. On clay in the late-’70s and early ’80s, though, he was perfection, setting a standard that wouldn’t be matched for nearly three decades.

2. Bjorn Borg – 1978 Roland Garros

But perhaps the most complementary thing one could say about Borg’s 1980 performance at the RG is that it nearly matched his 1978 result.

In ’78 he lost a total of 36 games in seven matches, two less than in 1980 and still an Open Era record. Two of his opponents won just one game in three sets, and his toughest match of the tournament came against Roscoe Tanner. Tanner, the biggest server in the world, managed 12 games total, but this probably wasn’t because Tanner was the second-best clay courter in the world; it probably had more to do with Tanner being the only player to offer the game’s greatest baseliner any contrast in style.

The second-best clay court player in the world was almost certainly Guillermo Vilas, and prior to that year’s RG final he looked to have a case as dirtballer numero uno. In the previous season Vilas had won the RG, won the US Open (then on clay) and racked up a 57-match winning streak on the surface, which would until a kid named Rafa broke it in 2006.

But in ’78 Borg quickly demonstrated that he owned the dirt, and that Vilas was fortunate that the ice cold Swede had skipped the RG in the previous year. In those days the game was played with wooden rackets, making baseline winners much harder to hit, meaning most points ended with an error, a volley/overhead winner or a deft passing shot/lob.

Borg’s dominance on the surface in those days is therefore easy to explain: with his speed, rock-solid groundstrokes and consistency, no one could hit a ball by him in those days, he rarely missed and attacking the net against him on clay was tennis’ version of Pickett’s Charge. Numerous points played that day probably had as many strokes as Borg would probably hit in all Wimbledon that year.

Vilas was the second-best clay court player in the world, but on a day when he and Borg played a serious of marathon-length points, he finished second on the vast majority of them.

1. Rafael Nadal – 2008 Roland Garros

It wasn’t just the fact that Rafael Nadal won every match in straight sets at the 2008 RG; it was also the matter of who he was beating.

Sure, he surrendered an entire 42 games, a good number more than Borg in ’78 and ’80, and on an entire two occasions he lost more than four games in a set.

It’s just that the player he beat in the final is the best of the Open Era, the winner of the next year’s RG. The guy Nadal beat the semis would later win five Slams (and counting). But for two weeks in Paris, neither of them belonged on the same court as the Spaniard.

Rafael Nadal actually went into the 2008 clay season on a mini-slump, not winning any titles since the 2007 RG.. He reasserted himself on the dirt, but had only edged Federer in Monte Carlo and Hamburg, done the unthinkable and lost in Rome, and couldn’t stifle rumors about the condition of his taped knees.

But there’s something about playing best-of-five set matches on the dirt of Paris that allows certain players to stand out, as four of these five selections have taken place in Paris (Ilie Nastase also won the event in 1973 without losing a set).

Perhaps it’s because it’s the surface that rewards the narrowest skill set of power, consistency and stamina, and most quickly punishes those who are deficient in those categories. Nadal, who had been consistently reaching the semis and finals of hard court events since the prior fall without winning them, was gradually growing into a more complete player, but his speed and the spin of his groundstrokes were always what set him apart.

They, and he, never looked better than they did for those two weeks. Our first hint as to his form arrived in the fourth round when he dispatched fellow hard-hitting Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, dropping only three games. Verdasco, then as now, was known for his inconsistency, so the result could be downplayed.

It grew harder to do so when Nadal dispatched another dangerous countryman, Nicolas Almago, losing the same amount of games. In the semis came Novak Djokovic, who had been the game’s best player in the first five months of the year, winning the AO, Indian Wells and Rome.

The Spaniard swept him aside 6-4, 6-2, 7-6, paving the way for the final with Federer. It was their third RG final in a row, with Federer having gone into the previous two with a very real chance. After the previous three rounds, though, Nadal went into the 2008 final the overwhelming favorite.

Still, his 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 win was a surprise, and his comprehensive dominance during the event is even more stunning in retrospect. The great Swiss had not been force-fed a bagel since 1999, and hasn’t been again since. Federer had clearly dominated the game since 2004, and while a loss like this heralded a relative decline, he still won the US Open later that year. What’s more, when Nadal finally stumbled in Paris in 2009, Federer was there to take advantage.

For Djokovic, who had played so well since the start of the year, the beating he sustained in the semis was one he wouldn’t recover from for more than two years. When he finally did, he spent most of 2011 making us wonder how he’d ever been beaten.

As for Nadal, 2008 in Paris marked a turning point: It was his fourth RG crown, but he’d not yet won a Slam on another surface. The confidence from this event would carry over, though, to a Wimbledon title weeks later, the year-end No. 1 ranking, and the AO in 2009.

He’s since won all four majors, has 10 in total and looks to add to it in Paris over the next two weeks. With a win he’d set a new RG record, the latest summit in a career full of peaks.

In terms of total domination, though, that fortnight in 2008 looms largest, both for him and for any other man in the Open Era.

Revisting Rafa’s autobiography

January 9, 2012

by: Rob York

The growing world tennis literature has left a lot professional authors playing the role of unsung hero. An obvious case of this is J.R. Moehringer, an accomplished author in his own right who helped Andre Agassi with Open but then declined to take credit for it on the sleeve.

It also has its share of patsies: Daniel Paisner’s name accompanies Serena Williams on the spine of On the Line, but he apparently lacked the editorial authority to inform Ms. Williams that her book had no coherent point, nor could he convince her that “feel badly” means that your sense of touch is inadequate, as opposed to implying sympathy.

Making out far better than either of those examples is John Carlin, who co-authored Rafa, the “autobiography” of current world No. 2 Rafael Nadal. “Autobiography” has scare quotes attached in this case because while most of Rafa is written in Nadal’s voice, there are sections in between each proper chapter in which he is clearly the subject being described by Carlin.

Or, at least, he is the subject of interviews being conducted by the author.

“… Rafael – a role model for children everywhere – works with more passionate commitment in the gym than any tennis player I have ever come across …” Carlin quotes his trainer Joan Forcades as saying. “… for all the success he has had, he strives with the utmost seriousness in every single practice session to make improvements to his game.”

“Passionate commitment” is the theme of this book, in much the way it was in Pete Sampras’ autobiography A Champion’s Mind. Only in this case, it is detailed more painstakingly: Nadal describes it in the chapters he narrates, and Carlin’s vignettes in between serve as corroborating evidence.

A lot of that is because Nadal is plagued with a chronic foot injury, one so severe it almost drove him from the game into a golf career in late-2005. Well before that injury developed, though, it seems the 10-time slam winner had dedicated himself to suffering for his trade.

This book, more than any other I’ve read by a tennis champion, could serve as a guidebook – or a cautionary tale – for any parent interested in making their child a tennis champion one day. Nadal’s uncle Toni made young Rafa both the worker he is and the humble, self-effacing role model he is through an early regime of work and little praise. He was harder on Nadal than on his other pupils, not only because they were family, but because he insisted that the future champion could “take it.” Furthermore, as Nadal’s junior career grew more and more accomplished, his reward was often to hear Toni downplay those successes, insisting that bigger prizes were always ahead.

The program clearly worked, and it’s now easy to see how Nadal could accomplish his recovery from that foot injury, from his disappointing 2007 Wimbledon loss, and from the catastrophic 2009 season in which he lost his Roland Garros title, failed to even play Wimbledon and spent much of the year held back by injuries and the divorce of his parents.

He did recover in all those cases, and his engrained determination helps explain how he was able to overcome Roger Federer, the greatest player of the Open Era in a 9-7 fifth set.

“Tennis against a rival with whom you’re evenly matched, or whom you have a chance of beating, is all about raising your game when it’s needed,” he says early in the book. “I had my fears — I was in a constant battle to contain my nerves — but I fought them down, and the one thought that occupied my brain was that today I’d rise to the occasion.”

And part of the reason why Nadal has refused to go away despite setbacks is because he is accustomed to playing the role of the underdog. He relates that Toni has consistently reminded him that Federer is more technically gifted than he, despite Nadal’s winning record against The Great Swiss. This is not really in doubt – Federer is probably the best technical player the game has ever seen – but one gets the sense that Toni has never bothered to tell Nadal that he is as natural an athlete as has ever played pro tennis.

To hear this might make Nadal relax, and perhaps deprive him of future success.

A book like this may give pause to tennis-loving parents out there considering such a life for their children. Maybe they have the natural gifts, but can they stand working harder than their peers? Can they endure regularly being told that what they have done is not good enough … yet?

Rafa is organized around the player’s greatest achievements: his first Wimbledon victory in 2008, his epic Australian Open win in ’09, and his completion of the career Grand Slam at the 2010 US Open. This structure allows him to segue to relevant lessons from earlier in life that he would apply later, but does not flow seamlessly: More than half of the book centers around Wimbledon, making sudden shifts in setting to Australia and New York.

That the book isn’t centered around a single match may be intentional, as it’s already been done, most famously by John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, but also by Jon Wertheim’s Strokes of Genius (also about the 2008 Wimbledon finale) and Marshall Jon Fisher’s A Terrible Splendor.

Autobiographies of athletes, however, shouldn’t be judged entirely by their literary merits, but whether they teach us something new about the players. Open was well-written, but wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t showed us how far Agassi fell before he eventually triumphed. On the Line’s writing was unimpressive, but its great sin was that its story ultimately amounted to nothing.

A bigger potential flaw than Rafa’s structure is that the story hasn’t yet arrived at a proper end. Yes, he has already had enough of a career for a dozen players, but Nadal’s story is still being written. Novak Djokovic – another player Toni considers technically superior to his nephew – has now surpassed both Nadal and Federer in the rankings. Plus, the 2011 season made it clear that his game challenges Nadal even more than Federer’s did.

If the Spaniard fails to rise to that challenge, it won’t negate his achievements but it certainly will cast them in a different light later on. If he does, it will be as though Rafa’s unwritten coda was as consequential as its climax.

What Nadal and his partner Carlin offer here is good. What’s coming, though, may be just as important.

Grading the Shanghai Masters

October 19, 2011

by Rob York

All but one of the Masters Series events are finished in 2011, and the Greatest Player of the Open Era is out of world’s top three for the first time in eight years. With the Asian swing of the tour over, action now returns to Europe, but first let’s take a look at what the Shanghai Masters means for …

Andy Murray: Say what you will about the Scot’s less-than-super performances in the majors, but he certainly didn’t waste the absence of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer from the Asian swing, nor Rafael Nadal’s current confidence deficit. His win in Shanghai makes three titles in a row, and pushes him up to No. 3 in the world, past Federer for the first time.

He has been clear that it’s his goal to finish the year at that ranking, and is a good bet to do so given the amount of points The Great Swiss has to defend from last fall.

Autumn has long been the domain of fast-court players with plenty left over following less-than-clutch Grand Slam performances: Michael Stich, Richard Krajicek, Marat Safin, David Nalbandian and Nikolay Davydenko are all unique as tennis players, but share that much in common.

Boris Becker was the rare habitual Slam winner who also thrived in the fall, largely as it took place in Europe (his back yard) in front of friendly crowds, and the indoor facilities were kind to his fast-paced game and somewhat erratic service toss.

As Murray continues to post big wins in the fall, the question of whether he can also succeed in the Slams lingers. If nothing else, this year’s post-US Open events have given us a look at what he might have accomplished had Federer, Djokovic and Nadal not been around.
And while it might be too late for Murray to put up Becker- (or even Safin-) like numbers, his skill set arguable exceeds that of any of the other fall-seasonal stalwarts mentioned above.
Barring something catastrophic in Paris or the World Tour Finals, Murray really ought to bring a heaping of confidence into the Australian Open, making for his best chance to win a major yet.

David Ferrer: A wise British songwriting duo once instructed listeners to “drink to the salt of the earth.” That seems appropriate in the case of Ferrer, the hardest working man on tour.

He’s No. 5 in the world and just qualified for the WTF for the third time. It’s the consensus of the experts that he’s the fittest player on tour (and maybe ever). The effort he makes to run down every ball is evident to anyone with a set of eyes or with auditory functions sufficient to hear his grunts, and this effort has netted him 11 career titles.

But we all know Slams are out of this 5’9” Spaniard’s reach, and Shanghai’s final makes him 0-for-3 in Master’s Series finals. On Sunday it didn’t matter that Murray was not playing at as high a level as he did a week earlier: He’s got all of Ferrer’s shots, and quite a bit more.

To his credit, though, Ferrer’s results have not seen any drastic fluctuations, no matter how many times he comes up just short, and he never seems perturbed at getting less attention than far less reliable competitors (Fernando Verdasco comes to mind).

And in this, he ought to be a role model for all … who actually know who he is.

Feliciano Lopez, Florian Mayer and Matthew Ebden: Why group these three together? Their results certainly were not parallel, especially as one (Lopez) made roadkill out of another (Mayer) on his way to the semis.

But all three are reminders of what the game used to be like, especially at this time of year. Sure, Lopez has far and away the most explosive serve/forehand of the three while struggling a bit more in rallies thanks to his one-handed backhand, but all three treat volleying as central to their game plans.

The stunner of the week had to be Mayer bouncing Nadal from the event, although Ebden’s narrow win over Gilles Simon was a surprise too. All three of them demonstrate how solid net play can work against guys accustomed to playing other baseliners. They may not crush groundstrokes the way Soderling or Verdasco do, but when you’re a solid volleyer you don’t necessarily have to.

However, all three have serious liabilities that make such play a rarity. Lopez is notoriously erratic, Mayer doesn’t have the power, and Ebden’s second serve is not going to hold up against returners like Murray, who dismissed him in the semis.

If somehow one could put the strengths of these three together, we might have a net-rushing player with a Slam run in him.
Until then, though, the sporadic nature of their success gives one more reason for volley-holics to watch in the fall.

Rafael Nadal: Last year the Spaniard appeared to have finally made the adjustments necessary to compete after the US Open, winning in Tokyo and making the last round of the WTF. That was following a career-best season, though, and with his struggles against Djokovic this year we’ve seen a repeat of his previous difficulties.

The listless look about Nadal is one we’ve seen at about this point in many previous seasons. Whether he bounces back from it as emphatically as in previous years remains to be seen, but if history is an indicator Nadal won’t be winning any more titles until the spring.

What Andy Murray is capable of

October 10, 2011

by: Rob York

Wins in Thailand and Japan have shown that the Scot doesn’t lack the game to win majors. So what’s missing?

Andy Murray’s win in Japan on Sunday, pulverizing world No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the final, is not the proof we’ve been waiting for that he can win majors.

No, that proof already existed, and had been demonstrated on multiple occasions. Several times in just the last year, in fact.

There was last year’s Shanghai Masters, when Murray won the final, hammering Roger Federer in straight sets and breaking him four times. Or his June win in Queens, where he won the title, beating hard-serving Andy Roddick 6-3, 6-1 (on grass!) in the process.

Or, even in defeat against Nadal in Monte Carlo in the spring, where Murray won a 6-2 set against the Spaniard on the Nadal’s favored clay, and Murray’s worst surface. He couldn’t close that match out, but winning a set (and I reiterate, a 6-2 set!) in Monte Carlo was something no one had accomplished against Nadal in the previous year’s event.

Unfortunately, Murray has yet to duplicate such results in the Slams. It’s been speculated that Murray’s biggest problem in the majors is the defensive nature of his play, that he lacks the power on the forehand, and perhaps on the second serve, needed to overwhelm seven opponents in matches that are best-of-five, rather than best-of-three.

Having witnessed the Scot’s capabilities when he’s feeling comfortable, I have to say that I have little doubt as to whether or not he has the offensive capabilities to win Slams. Rather, it appears that he isn’t winning them but is absolutely tearing up the lower-tier events (Japan makes 20 titles total, including eight Master’s shields) because there aren’t as many people watching.

We all know Andy Murray is British, and that is nation hasn’t claimed a Slam win since Fred Perry far too many decades ago. The pressure of playing for the nation that invented the sport, but hasn’t had a major champion in so many years, has surely contributed to Murray’s lackluster performances on the big stage, and not just in the sense that it’s made him too timid.

Yes, he did play too passively in his first three major finals, allowing Federer (at the 2008 US Open and 2010 Australian) and Novak Djokovic (at this year’s AO) to dictate play. Murray’s counterpunching skills are extraordinary, perhaps the best in the sport, but defense does not win point after point in matches against the game’s best players. That periodic improbable get, that occasional point in which the opponent has to hit one too many overheads and finally shanks one; these are the junctures that break a match open and tilt it in favor of a counterpuncher, but are not what keeps him in the match to begin with.

Still, if it were as simple as Murray needing to play more aggressively on the big stages, surely he would have solved the problem by now. Sadly for Murray and his fans, that’s more or less what he tried in the Wimbledon semis this year, taking the first set from Nadal before becoming a bit too aggressive with an overhead, missing it long and handing the Spaniard an early break in the second.

From then on, it appeared Murray’s doubts were back at the front of his mind and Nadal rolled through the next three sets.

And yet I cannot stop believing in the Scot, no matter how many four-setters he drops to Nadal in Slam semis, or how many listless Slam finals he turns in. For one thing, he’s still improving as a player, as the only one other than Djokovic or Nadal to have reached the semis or better of all four majors this past year.

For another, his game may be the best matchup against Djokovic of all the top players; Federer and Nadal may have bigger forehands, but both have been clearly flummoxed by Djokovic’s forehand-backhand combination this year. Murray, however, pushed Djokovic to a third-set tiebreak in Rome (again, on clay, a surface Djokovic shows much more affinity for) and then beating him in Cincinnati.

That was one of only three losses the Serb has sustained this year. And yes, Djokovic did quit due to injury, but Murray was up a set and a break and just three games from winning. Djokovic had been struggling much of that week, and Murray was the only player to take advantage.

Plus, Murray is now on a two-tournament winning streak, having won in Thailand the week before Japan. His one-sided victory over Donald Young in Bangkok’s final got little attention, given that Young is only just evolving into a credible pro. After Sunday’s result, though, it looks all the more emphatic; after dropping set one to the Spaniard, Murray found a new level and suddenly Nadal had no more answers against him than Young.

But what is the key to unlocking that potential, if playing too tentatively won’t get the job done and neither will playing with too much aggression? Murray has to find the right balance, where he’s consistently imposing his will on the other player, but not going for too much.

Some coaching might help, as Murray has been without a full-time one for more than a year now. Gilbert himself took time to help Murray earlier in this career, but their personality clashes doomed that partnership early on. After losing Miles Maclagan and Alex Corretja in the past year and a half, it’d be easy to question just who Murray feels comfortable with, and who can take him to the next step in winning Slams.

That, unlike his game, still needs proving.

Is Donald Young ready to shine?

October 6, 2011

by Rob York

From 2007, the first time I saw him sneak a lefty forehand up the line and follow it with an improbable drop volley, Donald Young has reminded me of Marcelo Rios.

The strengths are largely the same: Early ball-striking, lefty spin, great speed and feel. The shortcomings, though, are also similar: A lack of serving power and bludgeoning groundstrokes means having to work harder than most players, but the off-court reputation does not suggest a willingness to do that. Furthermore, both players are shorter and lighter than their contemporaries, making it easier for them to succumb to the physical grind of the tour.

If they’ve got this much in common, what explains the divergence in their results? At age 22, Young is only now cracking the top 50, just reached his first tour final and still has a losing record on the ATP Tour. Rios disappointed many by never winning a major, but at the same age his number of titles had cracked double digits, he’d reached a slam final and had gotten to No. 1 in the world.

Watching Young struggle since he won his first ATP Tour match in ’07, I’ve considered a handful of differences between them as possible explanations:
•      Rios was a child of privilege playing for Chile, a nation with little in the way of tennis history. His arrogance was legendary, but the flip-side of that was confidence, in that he never seemed to question whether he belonged among the best of his era. Young, on the other hand, is a much shyer personality bearing the weight of a nation still eager to see someone fill the shoes of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Only recently has he seemed to have adapted to that pressure.
•      Rios excelled on two surfaces, hard and clay, meaning that aside from the extra-short grass court season he was a threat year-round. Young, like many of his compatriots, is far less comfortable on clay or grass than hard. With little to no momentum building for him on the clay or grass seasons, he starts the US Open series cold every year.
•      Rios played in an era where baseliners were just beginning to monopolize the tour, and his unique game plan was far more of a threat in those days. By the end of his career he was being dominated by the likes of (pre-Slam-winning) Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero. The game has only tipped further in the direction of brutal, grinding play since Rios retired, meaning he couldn’t have duplicated his results now and Young can’t either.

There’s probably some validity to all of these points, but watching Young at his lowest moments – getting waxed in round one of last year’s US Open by Gilles Simon, or by Marin Cilic at this year’s Australian Open – a much drearier thought kept coming to mind: Maybe Young’s just not as good. His stellar junior career created a lot of promise, but it’s not like David Wheaton kept outperforming Sampras once they reached the professional tour.

That thought thankfully occurs less frequently these days, as Young has raised his ranking from outside the top 100 to No. 43, as well as scored some wins over highly ranked players, the latest being No. 9 Gael Monfils in Bangkok. Watching him beat the much bigger and more powerful (and probably faster) Frenchman by hitting earlier and closing in on the net brought back memories of Rios toppling the towering Mark Philippoussis and Greg Rusedski.
No more are the days in which Young has to qualify, or wins a convincing first round match only to roll over in the second.

In fact, against Monfils Young rallied not only from losing the first set, but falling behind a break in the second and third. His win over Stanislas Wawrinka in a fifth-set tiebreak at the latest US Open may have put him on the map, but his third set ‘breaker against the big Frenchman was a much tighter affair. In it, he demonstrated a resolve that has not been a trademark of his until recently.

But just as was the case in the US Open, Bangkok showed revealed his limits. In both cases, they were demonstrated by Andy Murray, the current world No. 3, is also known for winning without power but who, at 6’3” and with a potent first serve, is more capable than Young of winning with it.

At the US Open Murray allowed Young just seven games in three sets. In Bangkok it was even worse, with Young winning just two games in two sets.
But even in these defeats the young American’s remarks indicated the presence of encouraging traits Rios rarely showed. He could’ve reacted with bitterness or indifference in Bangkok, but instead said he was proud of his results and acknowledged that Murray was too good that day.

Despite the early publicity, it’s looking likely that Young will finish with the same number of Grand Slam titles that Rios did. In the era of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic that need not be seen as a disappointment, though, especially if Young demonstrates more heart than Rios along the way.

Davis Cup Round Up

September 20, 2011

by: Rob York

Serbia: Was there any more moving sight in the world of sports this past week than that of Novak Djokovic, far and away the world’s No. 1 player, in tears after having to quit the decisive Davis Cup tie?

He brought the Cup to his homeland for the first time last year, and then followed that up with the kind of season most players can’t even dream of. Still, though just one week removed from a US Open win and clearly hindered by a back injury, he was willing to come off the bench and take on Juan Martin del Potro, a tall task for a player in perfect conditioning.

He failed, and in the process squandered any chance of finishing with fewer losses for the season than John McEnroe in 1984. Had he succeeded, though, we’d likely have been treated to a rare sight: The world’s top two players playing against one another in the DC final.

Their squad still has some improvements to make: This wasn’t the first time this season that Djokovic wasn’t fit to play for them, and in his absence Viktor Troicki proved to one-dimensional and Janko Tipsarevic too punchless to overcome the Argentines. But Djokovic’s commitment to the event, coupled with Rafael Nadal’s already stellar DC record, shows the much-neglected Cup has brighter days ahead.

If only that were true for …

France: Nadal and Richard Gasquet both experienced breakthrough seasons in 2005, when the two 18-year-olds, their dates of birth separated by just two weeks, played a three-setter in the semis of Monte Carlo. Nadal had nearly beaten Roger Federer in Miami just weeks earlier, and Gasquet had just beaten The Great Swiss a round earlier.

Nadal prevailed that day, but it looked like a nice contrast we’d see more of, with the Spaniard’s raw racket head speed countered by the French prodigy’s timing and flair.

Six years later, there was no “countering” by the Frenchman in the opening rubber of the Spain-France tie; he looked fresh off the junior circuit and playing his first top 10 opponent. As Nadal trampled Gasquet underfoot, losing just four games along the way, it was clear that he is not the same player he was six years ago. He was already strong, physically and mentally, with the later proving the difference in 2005. Now, though, it’s apparent that he has made visible progress in each of the six seasons since while Gasquet is the same confused, underdeveloped talent he was then.

Gilles Simon proceeded to take a beating from David Ferrer in the second rubber and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was easily dispatched on Sunday, but neither of them has shown much affinity for clay in the past. It was Gasquet, who duplicated his big win over Federer just four months ago on Rome’s dirt, who needed to send a message early.

The only message he sent was to French captain Guy Forget, who lamented his team’s physical disadvantage when the tie was over, and a need to rebuild from the ground up. It’s a stark message for a nation with a proud tennis history, but a necessary one considering their recent reputation for flighty shotmakers who would rather lose with style than grind their way to a win.

And success in grinding had been key for …

Argentina and Spain: Three years ago Spain won the 2008 DC final in Argentina, on an indoor court and without Nadal.

This final will take place in Spain, will certainly be on clay, and Nadal appears in much better physical shape this time. If he acquires an injury between now and end of November, it may still be a tough fight for the Spanish squad, but if he’s there the team of David Nalbandian and Juan Martin del Potro won’t be enough.

This is a shame, because a combination that gifted should have won the Cup at least once by now.

Switzerland: 2003 was the last time this team reached the semis of the DC. It is not a coincidence that they fell out of contention just about the time Federer became the world’s No. 1 player.

Just as dominant Spain finally stumbled last year as Nadal was having his best-ever season, and Serbia could not defend its crown this year even as Djokovic dominated the tour, Federer found it impossible to prioritize the Cup while he was winning majors just before its ties. His main backup, Stanislas Wawrinka, has shown potential over the years, but could not show growth without the Fed there to bail them out.

The good news after their win over Australia, helping them qualify for the World Group once again, is that Wawrinka may have turned a corner. Playing in Sydney on his least favorite surface, Wawrinka had every chance to fold against former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in the decisive rubber and did not, prevailing in five sets. If that’s any indication, he could be a serious threat in ties to come.

The bad news is that as long as Federer is still reaching the latter rounds of majors they’re not going to have him readily available. It’s been awhile since he last won a major, but far longer since he failed to reach a second week at one.

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