Tennis, I am fond of saying, is a dialogue. It is not golf, in which the player plays the ball and only the ball, without another opponent forcing the next shot to acquire a certain trajectory. In tennis, two people have a say in the outcome. One person might utter more words and ask more questions, but he or she can’t filibuster and take up the entirety of the proceedings. The other person always gets a chance to speak.
On Sunday in the final of the Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany, Borna Coric hollered back at Roger Federer. His unofficial words: “I have watched you win grass matches. I know your playbook!”
Coric followed that playbook to a T and captured his first grass-court title, denying Federer a 99th career title and ruining the fantasy of a 100th championship at Wimbledon for the Swiss. (More on that later.)
Tactics have their own place in this match and why it unfolded the way it did, with Coric winning in three sets. Trenton Jocz, a former colleague of mine at a previous place of shared employment, noted that Coric forced Federer to defend the full width of his forehand (deuce) corner. He played closer to the baseline and didn’t cede ground, enabling him to stay on top of points as grass requires. Yet, what is more instructive about this match — as is often the case on grass — is the “easy to say, hard to do” reality which decided it: Coric won more big points.
Some might think this is lazy analysis, but is there any other, more expansive way of explaining why Player A won and Player B lost than to say that Player A won more big points? Why complicate the issue? We know that grass rewards a huge serve — but also a blistering return of serve, stinging the server with its pace — more than other surfaces. Coric very plainly brought those two weapons into the four-point sequence which turned a Federer advantage (two set points for the Swiss) into a first-set victory which dramatically changed the equation of the battle. Had Coric not won that breaker, he would have had to play two near-flawless sets to pull out the win. As it was, he was able to absorb a bad eighth game in set two, punctuated by a flubbed volley, digest the loss of a set, bide his time in set three, and eventually pounce on his first break point when Federer couldn’t find first serves. Coric took that first — and only — break point of the match and rode it to the finish line.
Federer, as is well known, succeeds on grass because he so consistently wins big points. Grass, more than any other surface, continuously reminds players that even if they are stronger from the backcourt, an opponent’s formidable serve represents an ultimate equalizer. On the flip side of that reality stands another timeless grass truth: On lawns, a player can very easily not lose serve for multiple sets and still lose. Federer didn’t lose his set until the sixth game of set three on Sunday, and he lost. Federer’s idol, Stefan Edberg, memorably lost the 1991 Wimbledon semifinals to Michael Stich without ever losing serve in a four-set match.
Stich won three tiebreakers.
This match might not have been a typical grass contest in the sense that a lot of long baseline rallies emerged. In terms of the scoreline and that central matter of “opportunities taken (or lost),” it was a vintage grass match.
Coric did what Federer has done so many times: Sneak out a first-set tiebreaker win (Federer did this multiple times at Wimbledon last year), endure the rough patches, and prolong the contest long enough to get — and pounce on — a break chance to turn the tide. Winning tiebreakers on grass enables the winner to wait for an opportunity. Losing a tiebreaker shrinks the margins and means that brief lapses in future sets don’t decide mere sets; they decide matches.
In the great comparison between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — masters of separate kingdoms on grass and clay — every tennis fan will have a preference of what represents greater dominance. I am not going to resolve this question; I will merely mention an essential difference between clay and grass to shed light on what Coric achieved against Federer:
The difference between the attritional tennis of clay and the shotmaking tennis of grass is profound in the physical dimensions and abilities required by each form of tennis. Clay is the surface tailor-made for long points and anyone who can defend at the highest possible level. It is the surface which rewards stamina more than any other and rewards those whose strokes don’t break down after many hours on court. Nadal is so clearly the best in his field at exhibiting all the characteristics which go into dominant clay tennis.
Grass — even in a match with a lot of baseline rallies, as seen in Coric-Federer — is the surface where the brief lapse or magical shot instantly creates or wipes away an opportunity to gain scoreboard leverage. The huge serve or the huge return — on points which end as quickly as they begin, the antithesis of the long, grinding clay-court exchange — prominently shift the balance of power in a grass match. Everyone in the stadium knows the serve and return are paramount on the growing green blades, which is why the ability to step to the service line and nail that first serve represents such a profound demonstration of tennis prowess on grass. It is what the moment demands. Answering those moments is a fancier way of saying what simply can’t be avoided on grass: Winning the big points.
This is where assessing Federer becomes simultaneously easy and complicated.
Though commentators and fans across the world expect Federer to always win the one or two points which matter most in a grass-court match, it remains that Federer — like Pete Sampras before him — has had to play and win many tiebreakers to build his grass empire. Whereas Nadal brutalizes his opponents in 6-2 sets which take 50 minutes on clay, Federer’s key to grass success is the ability to win two more points than the other guy. He entered Sunday’s match having won 16 of his last 17 tiebreakers in Halle, which is ridiculous. He had won all three previous tiebreakers in Halle over his first four matches of the tournament. He won a third-set tiebreaker on June 16 in Stuttgart against Nick Kyrgios, and then a second-set breaker to win the Stuttgart final against Milos Raonic. People expect Federer to win grass tiebreakers, just as they expect Nadal to win every set on clay, just as they expected Novak Djokovic to come through every tough situation in 2015 and 2016.
Yet… tennis remains a dialogue.
No matter how proven one player might be in a small-margin sport, the other player on the court gets to change those margins, and in four points at the end of the first set on Sunday, Coric did exactly that. It wasn’t the outcome which normally occurs, but on grass, “normal” doesn’t mean much on the one or two points which generally decide the whole shebang.
For Coric, this tremendous victory should offer ample inspiration for the future. Coric had to dig deep into his tennis toolbox, and he found winning solutions under considerable scoreboard pressure. The next challenge for him is to take this increasingly resourceful game and apply it to five-set matches. Coric has failed to gain traction at majors. He got blitzed by Diego Schwartzman at Roland Garros. He has never made the fourth round at any major. He is only 21, but like another 21-year-old — Alexander Zverev — there is way too much talent to not make second weeks at majors. Perhaps his evolutionary arc is beginning to bend in the right direction. Sunday’s match certainly curved the way he hoped it would.
As for Federer, let’s tackle the various (over)reactions from a match lost on grass, largely due to the inability to close down one point (6-5 in the first-set tiebreaker) at net.
Did Federer overplay this week in Halle? Please. He played only four matches in Stuttgart. Winning Stuttgart unavoidably made Halle a tougher task, both physically and especially mentally, but that was known going in. Federer losing his first match in Stuttgart last year (to Tommy Haas) enabled him to be much fresher for Halle, which he won convincingly. Saying that any tennis player “overplayed” suggests an unwise scheduling decision. After two months away from tour, why shouldn’t Federer play two weeks of grass prep tournaments before Wimbledon? It is not worthy of serious debate.
On a similar note, should Federer or his fans be concerned about his game? Only if his tumble in the third set against Coric reflects physical diminishment, which it did not seem to do. The idea that Halle should be attacked with the same intensity of Wimbledon is ludicrous on its face. The reality of Halle is that it involves daily play, whereas Wimbledon offers days off. Moreover, at Wimbledon, Federer will play on the first Monday as defending champion. This means that if he makes the fourth round, he will have a two-day break following his Friday third-round match. If these two weeks of play mean anything in relation to Wimbledon, they will force Federer to move smoothly through his first week. If he somehow gets roped into a pair of five-setters in week one, that could catch up to him in week two. Other than that, however, fitness shouldn’t be a concern.
The draw is the big concern for every main Wimbledon contender.
Two more notes about Federer:
1) If he had won title No. 99 on Sunday, the hype surrounding title No. 100 at Wimbledon would have been enormous, quite possibly a distraction. Now Federer doesn’t have to deal with that media avalanche. Moreover, a loss on grass before Wimbledon — which helped him last year — should similarly give him the timely reminder about the margins which can easily cut against him. This loss should not be seen as a sign of impending decline at Wimbledon. Federer should be a lot more concerned with his overall level of play, which was not great the past two weeks and really hasn’t been great for most of the year. Even Indian Wells (when Coric similarly took a break lead in the third set, but didn’t finish the way he did in Halle) was a struggle-bus tournament at times.
2) Remember 2017, and how the Donskoy and Haas losses in Dubai and Stuttgart kept Federer fresher for the following tournaments on his calendar? This year, a full week in Rotterdam and a full week in Stuttgart created a different domino effect for subsequent tournaments in Indian Wells, Miami and Halle. What we are seeing from Federer is a natural dose of reality: not that his tennis is suffering (it isn’t — had he won one more point against Del Potro in Indian Wells, his season would be as good as one realistically could have hoped for), but that his powers of recovery aren’t as immediate as they once were. This is how life is supposed to be for a normal 36-year, 10-month-old man… even though Federer transcends normalcy so many times.
Sunday, he didn’t… and a deserving Borna Coric is the main reason why.
Source: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe
Roundtable — What Shanghai Means For Borna Coric
QUESTION: How did Shanghai change your perceptions of Borna Coric, if at all?
ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad
Borna Coric had a big win over a Swiss star this past week. It wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Stan Wawrinka has showed hints of regaining his form since the U.S. hard court swing. He looked good in Cincinnati with wins over Diego Schwartzman and Kei Nishikori before going out in the quarterfinals. Stan also made the semifinals in St. Petersburg. But Coric, ranked 19 coming into Shanghai, was steady on his serve in set 3, and was able to pocket 1 of 3 break chances. So…
Oh, wait a second. He had a win over another Swiss star, too.
Coric’s win over Roger Federer wasn’t entirely unexpected either. Coric had been a tough out for Federer in their Indian Wells semifinal in March, winning the first set and being a break up in both the second and third sets. He had won a famous victory in the Halle final over Federer. I had the sense, then, that Federer had run out of gas in the third set (he had played nine matches on grass in two weeks), but Coric was well worth the win.
After the final I tweeted:
“Nothing but positive things to say about Borna Coric today – he was mentally really strong, had a solid game plan, served well and attacked the net intelligently. And took his chance in the first set TB, which was a huge moment in the match.”
On Saturday, Coric was even better than he had been in June: He was dominant on serve, conceding no break points. He won the short rallies, the mid-length rallies and the longer rallies. You can argue he won the net points as well, going 100 percent when he came to net, which was once (Federer was 11 of 15).
Coric’s reward was his first M1000 final against Novak Djokovic, who (as we discussed Sunday at Tennis With An Accent) is looking ominously close to his dominant best. Coric wasn’t blown out (as his near contemporary, Sascha Zverev, had been in the semifinal), but he won fewer than three points for every four won by Djokovic. It was a competitive match, but never really close.
Coric announced himself on the ATP World Tour with a win over Rafael Nadal at Basel in 2014, when he was not yet 18 years old. But in the early part of his career he looked to me like a pure grinder, winning matches more with his legs than his racquet. Four years on, he’s still winning more matches with power and consistency than finesse — a work in progress, not yet the full meal deal.
I can’t honestly say that Borna Coric shifted my perceptions of him significantly this week. I think he’ll be a good player, but I’m far from convinced he’ll be a great one.
MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk
I have been following Coric since his younger years and am not surprised by the development in his game, nor by his success. In fact, I would argue that his injury-prone mid-2016 to mid-2017 period held him back tremendously, putting him behind peers such as Alexander Zverev, although Borna has been mentally ahead of them for many years (see, for example, Borna’s win over Sascha in Cincinnati 2015, in which mental toughness and maturity made the difference at the end).
Cool-headedness under pressure and a high IQ have always been a part of his pedigree. Having been forced to press the reset button late 2016 due to knee surgery and then suffering another setback due to other rehabilitation issues after a short comeback in early 2017, Coric could finally begin to focus on ameliorating his overall skills after that.
By now, he has had ample time to upgrade his stroke production and set the parameters for a complete all-around game with no visible weaknesses. His forehand and serve appear to be the biggest improvements, but I would add to that, the forward-backward first-step quickness which allows him to pounce on a shorter ball and move forward when he recognizes an opportunity.
This added first-step dimension, for example, allows his already sound net skills to come to the foreground. I am not saying that he is “faster” or that “he moves better,” but rather, that he is applying his existing great footwork to the enhancements in his game he has made over the last 12 months. This week was comprehensively the best performance of his career in my opinion, including the final.
The next (and the last) puzzle to solve for Coric, before he can be counted as one of the major forces in men’s tennis, is consistency in big tournaments in terms of results. This is where Zverev, to mention one of his equals again, is a step ahead of him. 2018 has not been “that” year for Coric… not yet.
MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek
Yes, Borna Coric should have beaten Roger Federer in Indian Wells, but he got tight and let that match slip away at the end. Therefore, when Coric met Federer in the Halle final, Coric had something to prove. He played like it, besting Federer in three sets and taking advantage of an ever-so-slight lapse by the Swiss in a first-set tiebreaker.
Over the course of his career, Federer has been very good (against players other than Rafael Nadal) at avenging losses in meaningful moments. The 2010 U.S. Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic was one of the most painful defeats of his career. Then came 2011 Roland Garros, one of the more satisfying wins of Federer’s tennis life. The 2011 U.S. Open semifinal might have been even more painful than 2010. No problem – Federer struck back against Djokovic in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinals.
The beat goes on, and the point is simple: Federer is good about correcting the losses which carry an extra sting – or if not sting, certainly an extra cost such as a Halle title.
Coric had more to prove in Halle after the Indian Wells “agony in the desert.” In Shanghai, this figured to be Federer’s moment of revenge, especially after a high-level performance against Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals seemed to get him back into a rhythm.
Coric didn’t allow Federer to get comfortable at any point in a routine straight-set match. Coric’s serve – winning the amount of free points Nishikori struggles to win – will lend ballast to his career as long as it remains potent. Coric’s forehand can be very weak at times, but in Shanghai, it looked a lot more solid.
Do I think Coric will have a huge 2019? No… but I do think he will become more consistent.
Coric is like a WTA top-10 player – and this is not a criticism: His results veer all over the place, but he is good for a few very big runs at significant tournaments each season. That’s good – just in a volatile way. I think Coric won’t lose in the round of 64 or 32 at tournaments nearly as often next year. He will make more rounds of 16 and quarterfinals. That’s what this Shanghai tournament has done to change my perceptions of Coric.
Whether he can push beyond the quarters or 16s of big events is something I don’t yet feel confident enough to answer. Nevertheless, Coric is definitely moving in the right direction. Shanghai – specifically the “No, you’re not going to avenge your loss against me!” response to Federer – moderately but genuinely increased my expectations for what he can, and will, achieve.
Djokovic Wins Shanghai and Carries Excellence Everywhere He Goes
Question: What is the big story coming out of Shanghai?
MERT ERTUNGA — @MertovsTDesk
Novak Djokovic is getting it done, with a crushing level of domination since his Wimbledon title. The Shanghai title adds to his rise to the top — for me, the story of the year in men’s tennis — in that it is less what he is doing than how he is getting it done: on a variety of surfaces, in all aspects of the game.
He is winning matches with a considerable gap in the level of tennis between him and his opponents. Shanghai ATP 1000 is the tournament that moves the goalposts in 2018’s biggest story in men’s tennis: It moves them from Novak’s “comeback and rise to the top” to Novak’s “command at the top.” The former took place at Wimbledon. The latter is resonating since then, and it seems to be here to stay for a while. It also begs the question: How long will it continue? The last time Novak was in command of men’s tennis, it lasted a couple of years. Can it last that long this time around, too? After the Shanghai title, these are substantial questions that need to be put on the table.
For Novak to be as dominant as he was at his peak — I mean results-wise only, because game-wise, he is already there (another Shanghai confirmation) — he would need to collect titles on all court-speed variations over an extended period of time. Winning Shanghai brings him ever closer to that. He is not completely there (he may get there, depending on his results next Spring on clay), but this title represents a giant step in that direction.
ANDREW BURTON — @burtonad
Two big stories came out of Shanghai – a presence, and an absence.
The presence was the form of the tournament winner, Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has always enjoyed the Asian swing: Nick Lester, the Tennis TV commentator, tweeted after Novak’s quarterfinal win over Kevin Anderson:
Novak Djokovic’s @ATPWorldTour record on Asian soil since the start of 2009 now sits at 56-4.
Make that 58-4. According to Greg Sharko, the ATP stats guru, Shanghai 2018 was Djokovic’s first tour title without getting broken in the tournament. Djokovic won 85 percent of his first-serve points and 60 percent of his second-serve points.
If you couple that with Novak’s trademark return excellence, you have a very formidable tennis player. I took a look at Djokovic’s return stats for the tournament. Only Coric, who had put on a serving clinic against Federer in the semifinal, was able to win more than 50 percent of his second-serve points – a bare majority of 9 from 16. Over five matches Djokovic’s second-return points won percentage was 57, just below his second-serve points won percentage.
Craig O’Shannessy is a tennis analyst and strategist who tweets as @BrainGameTennis and consults with Djokovic. Craig spotted (in a match against Tsonga) that Djokovic had effectively played with three serves to the Frenchman’s one: Djokovic’s second-serve returns were as effective as his own second serves. This is what Novak did for the whole tournament in Shanghai, effectively played with three serves to one.
Novak scrapped his way to the title in the last Masters 1000 in Cincinnati, and a discerning observer (the tournament’s No. 1 seed) suggested that he still had room to improve before the end of the season. A U.S. Open and another Masters 1000 have followed; if Djokovic hasn’t reached his best level yet, the rest of the field ought to be fairly nervous for 2019.
The rest of the field? I hate to say it, but with the honorable exception of the players Djokovic beat on his way to the trophy, you have to mark it down as an absence. Two of the Big 4 were physically absent, with Rafael Nadal recuperating from a knee strain and Andy Murray having shut down his season. The fourth member of the group, Roger Federer, fought his way into the semifinals and looked to have run out of mental and physical energy against Coric.
Del Potro and Cilic, newly 30, had tournaments to forget, with Cilic falling in the first round to Nico Jarry and del Potro laboring with illness early in the week before retiring after a heavy fall caused a knee injury in his R-16 match with Coric. Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, like Cilic, couldn’t win their first match.
Del Potro has qualified for the ATP Finals in London. Barring injury or an implausible Jack Sock- like run in the last tournaments of the year, Cilic and Thiem will join him. But the second big story from Shanghai is the absence of any serious consistent competitor to the Big 3 for major titles.
As Federer and Nadal did before him, Novak Djokovic has returned from injury as an apparently unstoppable force. He will likely go into Melbourne in 2019 as the clear Australian Open favorite. It’s a long way off, but Roland Garros 2019 – and a possible clash between Djokovic playing for a second Novak Slam and Nadal for an almost unthinkable 12th French Open title – is a distinct prospect.
MATT ZEMEK — @mzemek
The big story could not be anything — or anyone — else: Novak Djokovic put his stamp of mastery and dominance on men’s tennis. At the U.S. Open, the oppressive weather conditions prevented him from playing at his best through the first five rounds, which he still managed to navigate with typical resourcefulness and drive. Once the weather became tolerable over the final weekend of that tournament, he played the lockdown lights-out tennis against Kei Nishikori and Juan Martin del Potro which defined him at his peak periods this decade.
Wimbledon was an extraordinary tournament and an equally extraordinary achievement for Djokovic because he wasn’t quite the transcendent, overwhelming force he had been in 2015 and the first half of 2016… yet still found a way to lift the trophy and very quickly complete his revival. Djokovic was outplayed by Rafael Nadal for most of that epic semifinal — a match which will likely be remembered as one of the most important in tennis history — but served remarkably well in crunch-time moments to prevail, 10-8 in the fifth set. That was a spectacular response to pressure, making Wimbledon once again the site of Djokovic’s proudest accomplishments.
At the U.S. Open, however, Djokovic escaped the withering heat and — in his last two matches in New York — kicked two very good players to the curb in comprehensive beatdowns.
We who cover tennis thought that this might be the launching pad for another Pax Djokovic.
That is EXACTLY what we received in Shanghai — only this wasn’t just a two-match finishing kick in the semis and final. This is how the whole week unfolded.
Djokovic is sitting in the clouds, high above Rafa and (even more especially) Federer. The distance between him and Zverev is enormous.
This is Novak’s world, and we are just living in it.
Saturday in Shanghai Confirms the Djokovic Restoration
It is one thing to desire revenge. It is another thing to deliver it, especially in a dominant fashion.
Novak Djokovic got everything he wanted out of his Saturday in Shanghai.
You KNEW Djokovic wanted to get on a court with Sascha Zverev after the 2017 Rome final in which the young German won his first Masters 1000 championship in a clean and methodical manner. Zverev calmly dissected Djokovic’s game that day in Italy, flashing on a big stage the talent which has since catapulted the (now-) 21-year-old to a large collection of ATP titles, including two more Masters trophies. Zverev is just beginning what has all the makings of a supremely prosperous career. What he did against Djokovic could reasonably be referred to as “The Moment,” a point in time I identify as decisive in a player’s career.
As I have written on previous occasions, “The Moment” — if a player does something significant enough to achieve it — marks a player for greatness. Roger Federer had “The Moment” against Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. Zverev announced himself in Rome one and a half years ago.
Yet, as well as Zverev played that day, the benefit of hindsight allows us to appreciate how physically limited Djokovic was. The Serbian superstar, we can acknowledge, was laboring through pain, which hampered him in an immediate sense, but also interfered with the mind-body dualism athletes need to maintain clarity and fluidity in everything they do. Zverev deserved all the credit for his performance, but Djokovic was not in a position to be at his best.
Saturday in Shanghai, Djokovic — fit, prepared, and at the top of his game — gained his chance to show Zverev what he was capable of.
The result was predictable, but said predictability should not — and cannot — take away from the majesty of a brutal beatdown.
This is Djokovic in full flight. This is the player who put the rest of the ATP Tour at his feet in 2015 and the first half of 2016. This was not about Zverev’s inadequacies (though they exist and need to be reduced by Ivan Lendl in 2019). This was about Djokovic being a fully restored player in every sense and delivering a butt-kicking which reminded Sascha how far he has to climb to reach the Djokovic standard.
In one hour, this evisceration ran its course.
Djokovic will technically be World No. 2 on Monday — surpassing Federer — but everyone can see that Novak is the world’s best tennis player by a considerable distance at the moment. If he chooses to play Bercy, he will be the favorite there. He will be the favorite to win the ATP Finals in London. He will be the favorite (assuming there are no injuries in the intervening months) at the Australian Open in January.
In his first great season — 2011 — Djokovic dominated the tour from January through the U.S. Open, but that immense workload took a toll on his body, and he ran out of gas in autumn of that year. In 2015, he carried his dominance through the ATP Finals, and in 2018, after a first half of the season spent regrouping and rediscovering his rhythmic balance, Djokovic is comparatively fresh with less tread on the tires. He is in position to roar some more — just as he has done against Kevin Anderson in the Shanghai quarterfinals and Zverev in the semis. It is hard to see him losing to Coric — who upset Federer in Saturday’s other semifinal — on Sunday.
A brief word about Federer: One can plainly see that the Swiss, despite his high-quality win over Kei Nishikori in the Shanghai quarters, is struggling to find a balance between rest and match play. It’s almost** as though being 37 years old requires tough choices and involves a struggle to discern the limits of mind and body!
** = NOT ALMOST!
The new world rankings on Monday reflect the flow of the 2018 ATP season: Federer has been the third-best player on tour. That is still phenomenal for a player his age, but Nadal is certainly second, and Djokovic is just as certainly Numero Uno.
The Djokovic Restoration Tour of 2018 continues unabated. That is what Saturday in Shanghai most authoritatively confirmed.
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