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Few lingering thoughts on Australian Open

A panel of guests have taken time out to fill answers on some lingering thoughts posed as questions from the Australian Open fortnight. Matt Zemek, Carl Bialik and Susie Reid have provided good varying insights to this exercise.

1) Is Federer a better player today compared to his dominant years of 2004-2007? Can an attacking stroke like a backhand return overcome the slight loss of foot speed in terms of his overall level ? As we know movement is a huge part of the game and to reinvent is a first sign that you are not the best anymore. Thoughts?

MZA question like this — a good one, but nevertheless a broad one — demands a very specific answer and something more than yes-or-no, because this question can’t easily be slotted into a this-or-that linear silo.

Federer was a better player then, but is a better competitor now. Federer could call upon his athletic gifts almost at will in his prime years, but now he understands so much more about what it takes to be a mentally complete player. He solved the Rafa problem in 2017, whereas the version over a decade ago was able to fend off Rafa on grass but not cope as well in events other than the Masters Cup (now ATP Finals).

To be clear, it’s not as though Federer’s competitive skills weren’t anything less than GREAT back then. They were first-rate, just not as developed as they are now. Nadal and Djokovic have made Federer better TODAY, whereas the Federer and Nadal of 10 years ago helped make Djokovic the player he became in time.

Two other granular points here:

A) When pointing to the version of Federer seen from 2004-2007, I think it’s important to note that while those four years are rightly seen as his zenith and the time when he ran roughshod over the rest of the ATP Tour, there is nevertheless a difference between the 2004/early 2005 version and the player who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2007. The 2004-2005 version certainly came through tough tests (Roddick at Wimbledon in 2004 being the most pivotal), but the 2007 version had his teeth knocked in by Rafa on clay and began to encounter resistance from Djokovic. Federer’s ability to survive the oncoming Nadal onslaught at Wimbledon in 2007, and then his majestic performances in the face of quality tennis from opponents throughout the 2007 U.S. Open, marked a player who had grown a great deal in maturity relative to 2004.

This is a frequent theme in sports: The competition doesn’t stand still. If everyone else is getting better, you have to get better just to maintain your results. This was Federer in 2007. He had to be better than he was a few years before just to defend his big titles and large points numbers. The 2007 iteration of Federer is more precisely the best ever.

B ) The final specific point which needs to be made in this discussion is that late-career Federer has used a larger racquet. What if 2004 Federer had a larger racquet? In many ways, the version of Federer which needed a racquet the most was the 2011-2013 version. In early 2010, he was still on top of the world, but as that year progressed, his major semifinal streak, Wimbledon final streak, and U.S. Open final streak all ended. Nadal played his best season ever (2008 could rival 2010, but I give 2010 the edge), and Djokovic began to come of age. Starting 2011 with a bigger stick could have slowed the Djokovic surge or perhaps made a difference in the 2011 Roland Garros final. I digress…

If young Fed — in 2004-2007 — had a bigger racquet, he probably would have been even better than he was. Enough to beat Rafa on clay? That’s the great unanswerable question.

CBPlayers say the game gets better and tougher and more competitive every year, and that they have to get better just to maintain their standing. Who am I to disagree? I do wish we had better stats with which to answer the question. If Hawk-Eye data went back further and were more freely available, we could check if your assumptions are right. I think he comes over the backhand more; I’m not sure he’s slower, or that there’s even one single way to measure speed. (There’s lateral movement in both directions, movement forward and back, and then there’s anticipation, which can more than make up for slowing foot speed.)

SR:  Improvement can be multifaceted . In tennis improvement also means to change and adapt. If we look at Roger, these two factors have been key to his tennis remaining relevant and successful. As the modern game increases in power, it has become clear that the change in racquet has allowed Roger to “improve” his return which was always looked at as a possible “weakness” in his game. His go-to return (which did help him to 15 Slams) was the chip backhand, which we are all familiar with, which had worked in the past and still works when needed ( see matches v Berdych and Cilic). Coming over the backhand, taking it earlier seems possible and has given him more options  ( change and adapt) and he himself has acknowledged it as an improvement. Without it, I hesitate to see those wins against Rafa coming so easily.

The 2nd improvement is the power/speed of his second serve. We may notice a few more double faults than yesteryear but his 2nd serve has become a weapon of its own over past 2/3 seasons. ( + 5kpm?) Necessary against better returners.

The 3rd noticeable improvement has come as a result of shortening the point, moving up the court and anticipating situations whereby he can out think and then out manoeuvre his opponent. It is possible to suggest this is linked to a slight loss of foot speed. As we know his court speed at his 05-07 peak was mind blowing. Watch any replay and marvel.

Knowing as he does, that most of his opponents will not approach the net, and will remain BEHIND  the baseline, his early ball striking & forecourt game have become a bigger part of his game, part of a deliberate decision to shorten points and take even more time away from opponents. My perception is that he now takes almost every ball on the rise, such is his hand to eye coordination and timing ( you try it) so they come back to the opponent almost before they have completed their stroke, such is his desire not to be pushed back at all, not a single step. The increased deployment of the drive backhand emphasizes this even more.

2) Federer and Nadal have rediscovered their glory days of late but what’s stopping the next group of players at the majors? Is the ability to play BO5 a challenge for likes of Zverev, Kyrgios and others?

MZ: We have been spoiled by the Big 3, but more specifically, we have been spoiled by Rafa, who — before turning 20 in 2006 — already owned a profound understanding of how to compete and could apply the competitive arts in ways rarely matched before or since. Nadal got the hang of grass (Wimbledon) just after turning 20. A few months after turning 22, he had become a top-tier hardcourt player. His loss to Andy Murray in the U.S. Open semifinals was more a product of overplaying (in an Olympic year) than anything else.

Because Rafael Nadal does something on a certain timetable, that shouldn’t mean other 20- and 21-year-olds should know how to carry themselves. Kyrgios is moving in the right direction, but he is just starting his season and needs to develop the base of fitness and stamina all great tennis players have.

Zverev is the most fascinating case study because — in Masters 1000 events such as Rome and Montreal last year — he looked so utterly calm and unruffled, the picture of poise and composure. Is best-of-five tennis THAT different from best-of-three competition, to the point that Zverev fades away in the fourth and fifth sets of matches the way he did against Hyeon Chung? It’s a mystery… but it is a mental one. Zverev acknowledged as much in Australia.

I will worry about the Next Gen cohort if we’re still having this conversation after the 2019 U.S. Open, with no real forward movement from anyone in this group of players.

CB: I tend to like the simplest explanation, which is that the next group just isn’t nearly as good. One or more of them seems destined to win majors and reach No. 1, because the Big Four can’t hoard all the top spots forever, but it’s normal for the quality of cohorts to ebb and flow. The next gen might be like the ATP of the late ’90s, where the top guys often lost early and weren’t great on all surfaces. I project more for Zverev and Kyrgios than for the guys leading the group a few years older than them, on the strength of their game and the simple fact that they have more years ahead of them, but it’s doubtful either group will come close to matching the Big Four, considering it contains likely three of the five best players of all time.

SR: Interestingly this question comes during the latest Davis Cup matches. Apart from the Majors, for players lucky enough to be selected, the DC represents the only other time they are exposed to Bof5. I tweeted during yesterday’s matches that the value of this should not be underestimated. The amount of Bof5 matches played by Federer’s or Nadal’s generation ( DC, Masters, Slams, WTFs) compared to both the Lost boys and NextGen is a huge advantage for the more experienced players. Stamina and conditioning has come later for so many players and this is possibly one contributing factor. We know Roger wasn’t tired at all during the AO final, knowing how to pace himself. As an example Grigor has probably played less than 12 x 5 setters in his career, and Zverev even fewer (and he clearly collapsed mentally against Chung in that 5 setter at the AO)! Should the Tour look at reinstating a Bof5 final for Masters, and at WTFs.

3) Is it fair to draw WTA vs ATP comparisons in majors? Many believe the women’s draw was the showcase event in terms of quality matchup. Is this approach fair and accurate in covering tennis?

MZ: This is something I experience all the time as a blogger and as someone who interacts a lot on Twitter: People are quick to object to comparisons — either the simple act of comparing or to a specific comparison in its particular details.

Comparisons themselves do not hurt — or, for that matter, help. When we talk about sports, comparisons are natural. What matters is not the comparison, but how much weight or importance we assign to the comparison. What matters is not the fact that a comparison is made, but what the author of the comparison is trying to establish.

So, with that having been said, here’s the key point: WTA-ATP comparisons should not be made to argue against equal pay (or for more pay for the men), or to suggest that preferential treatment should be given to one tour over the other at dual-gender events. In a broader sense, WTA-ATP comparisons shouldn’t try to engage in (or even suggest) various forms of wedge politics. Nothing is helped by that.

Comparing how well the WTA and ATP did at the Australian Open? There’s nothing wrong with that. Comparing how players on the two tours use certain tactics or shots? That’s fine, too. There are perfectly good purposes for tour comparisons, and conspicuously problematic goals as well.

Let’s make comparisons for the good purposes, not the problematic ones. And yes, the WTA was clearly better than the ATP, though I don’t think either tournament earned straight As.

The WTA earns a B-plus, the ATP a C. The WTA doesn’t get an A-minus because the fourth round and quarterfinals featured very few matches in which both players on court played well at the same time. The semifinals and final were superb, though.

CB: I think any comparison is fair game. I just find it boring as a general question. The sport is better for having all its best players at its biggest events. Sometimes the women’s singles draw will have the best matches; sometimes mixed doubles will. It’s relevant in discussing court assignments and broadcast schedules, but as a question of which is better overall at an event, what is it deciding?

I think some wield a strong women’s event in arguments over equality— of prize money, of media coverage, etc. I prefer more abstract arguments, lest the opposition use the same argument at the next Slam where it just so happens that most of the best matches involve men.

SR: My response is how can it ever be avoided at joint events. Journalists only have certain page space, TV only certain hours of coverage. What would you do?  Go with the stories, but take note, one Tour does not validate or negate the other, currently an undesirable subtext.

Your question reveals a constant desire for a narrative, every Slam, every season. Last year was an exception, and comms/press will always look for a story. Add to this the failure of some of the top guys to make the starting line up or complete the course, and the options are narrowed. There were many great stories and matches on both sides (Mackie, Chung, Kyle etc) but names sell TV space and papers…. and the bigger “names” on the ATP fell. Only Federer left unscathed. Let’s face it, Kyle and Chung were great stories for some, but they then disappointed when faced with hugely experienced opponents in the semi finals. Grigor flattered to deceive, Kyrgios fell short, Sascha very short, Novak was talked up too much, Stan wasn’t ready. Diego and Rublev entertained, as did Tsonga and Shapovalov, but hoped for extended narratives of glory didn’t emerge, apart from Federer who is a narrative all on his own already, like it or not. The WTA, long criticized for lack of consistency, delivered just that in spades and some long hoped for rivalries emerged. Hence WTA got and earned more attention.

4) The decision to play the finals indoors has lot of people riled up. Was it a fair decision and more importantly did it impact either player more?

MZ: The decision was quite fair. The weather was brutal. Tennis, as the astute analyst Carl Bialik has said, needs to do a lot of work in terms of enabling matches to be contested in ways that shield players from extreme heat, or at least significantly reduce the effects of extreme heat. He has advocated for large awnings and overhangs to be added to the existing structures at stadiums (anyone recall the very large overhang at the old Indianapolis ATP Tour stop?) so that players are playing daytime/afternoon matches in at least some shade, if not complete shade. An awning or overhang would cost a minimal amount of money compared to a retractable roof.

We should all be happy the Australian Open shielded players from very hot weather. (The indoor environment was still very humid, but not nearly as hot. It never seemed either player’s body broke down on a night when the temperature was several degrees HIGHER than it was for the women’s final.)

What was and is unfair about the Australian Open is not that it gave Federer and Cilic the roof (and I don’t think it mattered much — this was a mental match, as Federer indirectly acknowledged by saying how much his mind thought about his feelings and reactions, not his tactics).

What was and is unfair is that Halep and Wozniacki did NOT get the roof, and that Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils — and anyone else playing on one of the three roofed show courts on January 18 did not get a roof. Encompassing both of those situations, the players should get the power to determine the conditions they play in, not the tournaments. The players are the entertainers. They are the product. They generate the ticket sales and revenue. They are paid to take care of their bodies. They should get to shape the environment in which they perform for the public’s enjoyment.

This is exactly why tennis players’ unions are needed… and have the ability to achieve a lot of reforms if they are wisely guided and operated.

CB: I haven’t yet seen reliable enough reporting to be sure — a common problem in tennis. It seems it impacted Cilic more, but I disagree that is more important. What matters more to me is whether both players had equal opportunity to learn of the decision; if they did and one handled it better, that’s part of the game.

SR: Both received same message, same time; decision was taken by referee based on wetbulb temperature and humidity reading. Federer adapted more quickly but has always been a quick starter so…. but ultimately it gave no player an advantage overall. These are both experienced players. Federer might have preferred to play outside to be honest. And I imagine the spectators were more comfortable…… for me, this was a non story.

5) Mainstream commentary presented the case of Marin Cilic as a potential HOF candidate had he won. Is it a premature notion for his career or the HOF selection overall is a flawed exercise and too late to fix it?

MZ: I do think the Tennis Hall of Fame has a very low standard for inclusion. I hardly think a one-major winner deserves to be included in the pantheon of the sport’s immortals, but that ship has sailed in Newport.

Is the Tennis Hall of Fame going to adjust its standards now, after allowing Helena Sukova into its gates? I don’t see how one can unring that bell. The process is a mess.

Yet, going by the standards used in Newport over time, sure, if Cilic wins a second major, he’s in. I don’t think there’s much of a question about it, especially since he has made three major finals. A second major title will mean a fourth major final if not more. In this era? That makes Cilic a stone-cold lock.

CB: It’s premature to talk GOAT, HoF, etc. before players retire. I know it’s futile to hope that means such talk will end, but here’s hoping, nonetheless. My least favorite thing is it distracts from the point of the sport, which is the sport. Let’s enjoy the great shots, dramatic deciding sets, extreme emotions, and strategic maneuvering, not argue endlessly about accolades that are inherently subjective.

I’m much more interested in what Cilic does in the next point, or match, or season, than in whether he appears likely to be enshrined after it’s done.

SR: For some reason I struggle with the HOF. It’s such an American thing. My perception is that it is not discussed/valued in Europe and Rest of the world to the same extent as it is in the US. I find some of the criteria and reasons to admit some, and not others, difficult to understand. Sukova and Stich in. Kafelnikov out? Is it a popularity contest?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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