Novak Djokovic’s big win on Monday in Madrid over Kei Nishikori illustrates a simple truth about tennis.
Weeks ago, I wrote about the need for tennis to resist the implementation of a serve clock. Tennis and baseball are my two favorite sports — both poorly operated by executives and leaders, but both the most sublime pleasures to take in as an observer. The chief reason? They don’t have visible clocks governing the flow of action. These are both pace-of-play sports in which flow is desirable, but not to the point that a clock distracts either the athletes or the audience.
It is liberating in a hectic, fast-paced era of human history to know that a competition is not centrally governed by time. This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good basketball or American football game — I do — but I especially appreciate the reality that in tennis and baseball, the length of the event depends primarily upon the amount of opportunities the players do (or don’t) create for themselves. Tennis and baseball are, in that sense, supremely meritocratic sports. Basketball, football and hockey are meritocratic, but tennis and baseball slightly eclipse them in this context.
What tennis and baseball also share — in expanding the scope of this examination — is the specific emphasis not on production or quality itself, but on producing in a timely manner.
It is not as though tennis doesn’t reward volume or quantity of production. Chances are if a player hits 40 winners in a two-set match, or 60 in a three-set match, s/he will win. Nevertheless, tennis and baseball are less tethered to the accumulation of volume than their timed-sport cousins. If a basketball team makes 10 more 3-pointers than the opponent in a game and is reasonably efficient in attaining that 30-point advantage, it will very rarely lose. American football teams which gain 250 more yards than their opponents and don’t commit more turnovers or penalties will similarly find it hard to lose.
Tennis and baseball aren’t governed by volume — accumulation of bulk stats — to the same extent other sports are. Winning tennis players can sometimes win fewer points in a match. Winning baseball teams often (enough) collect fewer base hits than the opposition. In baseball, a team can produce three great at-bats in an inning — two singles accompanied by a walk to load the bases — but if a hitter then strikes out, pops up, or hits into a double play with the bases loaded, no runs will score. Collecting two or three hits means nothing without scoring runs. The timely hit — the one which produces runs — is the centerpiece of winning baseball. The sport is untimed, but paradoxically, that reality magnifies the importance of being good at specific MOMENTS in time.
So it also is in tennis, and Djokovic reminded us of that basic truth against Nishikori.
Especially in the first set but also in the second, this match involved a lot of 30-30 and deuce games. These two world-class returners with inconsistent serves (Nishikori’s being structurally weak in any time or season, Djokovic’s serve being inconsistent due to first-match rust in Madrid) figured to engage in a lot of complicated games, and they did. This was also a match which, due to the pressure involved plus the natural rough edges one should expect from a first match at a tournament with unique conditions (Madrid’s altitude and comparatively odd clay compared to more “normal” clay surfaces in Rome and Paris), was always likely to be a struggle. It was, particularly in the first set.
The player who made the more timely interventions was going to win. The player who lost focus for brief moments in delicate scoreboard situations was going to lose.
Nishikori, up a break at *3-2 in the first set, double faulted to hand over the break. He had a break point at 3-3, 30-40, and sent a second serve return well wide.
From that moment on, Djokovic was the boss of the court and the match. A champion’s muscle memory kicked in, while his challenger — unable to pounce on a sluggish start from the Serbian — couldn’t change the longstanding narrative attached to this ATP matchup: When the pressure reaches its height, Djokovic rises and Nishikori falls.
Djokovic closed down the first set with an authoritative return game. He boldly stepped through a portal to announce his superiority after being tied at 5-all.
Given that course of events in set one, every logical instinct suggested that the second set would unfold along similar lines. Logic did not disappoint anyone who watched this match… except for Nishikori fans.
Djokovic cleaned up his game in the second set, and he unleashed his best and most formidable array of groundstrokes to once again break Nishikori when the Japanese star was serving to take a set into a tiebreaker. Djokovic understandably needed time to settle into this match, and Nishikori gave him some help midway through the first set, but once Nole survived that 3-3 service game in the opening stanza, he looked like the player who was much more in charge of the match, the man who was owning the court and carrying himself like the champion he is.
Novak Djokovic made the timely shots on Monday in Madrid. His muscle memory isn’t all the way back — you will know what that looks like when you see it — but it is still very strong, and with more match play, Nole will give himself a chance to restore it even more.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but one week before going to The Eternal City, Djokovic’s construction project definitely took an important forward step.
Image taken from zimbio.com
Zverev Gets A Reminder Of The Distance He Must Travel
Tennis, as I am fond of saying, is a dialogue. Most sports — golf being a conspicuous exception — involve the push and pull of one side’s reactions to the other. From this tension between two competitors comes the complex and often counterintuitive reality of sports: You can play better on one day and still lose. On the other side of the coin, you can play worse on another day and still win. Your opponent might be the bigger and more important variable.
Such has been the case for Alexander Zverev at the 2018 ATP Finals.
All things considered, Zverev has played two relatively similar matches in London. He defeated a player who is chronically unable to raise his game at the ATP Finals. He lost to a player who almost always finds solutions at the same tournament.
Zverev defeated Marin Cilic, who — entering Wednesday, before his match against John Isner — had won only one match in London in four ATP Finals appearances. Zverev then lost to Novak Djokovic, who has won five ATP Finals championships and is steamrolling toward his sixth.
The opponent was the main variable.
This does not, however, mean Zverev had no say in the Djokovic match. It also doesn’t mean Sascha has Zvery little to worry about. He has PLENTY of work to do in the coming offseason, regardless of whether he advances to the semifinals this weekend.
I begin nearly every discussion of Zverev these days with the reminder/disclaimer that Sascha’s career is still well AHEAD of schedule. No NextGen player has made more consistent or substantial advances than Zverev. He is a stone-cold rock of reliability at Masters 1000 tournaments. Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Kevin Anderson, and other high-quality players in their early 30s have spent many years struggling how to find the special sauce of success at Masters 1000s. Zverev already owns three M-1000 trophies and made seven quarterfinals this year at that level of the ATP Tour.
Zverev’s challenge is to walk over the hot coals of pressure in the biggest matches at the biggest tournaments against the best players. He handled Cilic in match one, but Djokovic — as usual — set the much higher standard in match two. Much of what happened on Wednesday was the product of the World No. 1 remaining supremely steady in important moments, but at least some of the day’s decisive developments came from Zverev’s inability to pounce… and his subsequent failure to handle that disappointment. From this realization comes a fascinating detail about Sascha’s journey at these ATP Finals.
Anyone and everyone who watched the Djokovic match could pinpoint the moment this match turned. Zverev had multiple break points at 4-4 in the first set and could not convert them. His failure to break in that ninth game of the match flowed in part from an inability to attack vulnerable second serves. Yet, those kinds of moments happen for all tennis players. No one plays several years on tour without enduring those frustrations. We saw Djokovic deal with that frustration in his Bercy semifinal against Roger Federer, in which he went 0 for 12 on break points.
Djokovic, though, kept holding serve throughout the third set of that match, despite failing to gain a decisive lead. Most players would have allowed the accumulation of missed chances to get to them, creating a very familiar Federer escape.
Djokovic isn’t most players. He is a standard of success unto himself.
Sascha might have been Zvery close to winning the first set against Djokovic on Wednesday, but as the saying goes, “So close, and yet so far away.” The small margins in tennis look like the Grand Canyon when one sees the vast difference between two athletes’ responses to scoreboard pressure and high-stakes tournaments.
Ivan Lendl knows how poorly Zverev responded to that ninth-game failure to break Djokovic. That’s exactly the kind of situation Lendl himself failed to handle in the biggest moments against Jimmy Connors (especially at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon) before he finally turned the corner in 1984 and 1985. That’s the real-world experience Team Zverev is counting on Lendl to impart to Sascha, as this coaching relationship tries to take root and bear fruit in the coming offseason.
Zverev’s bright start on Wednesday, followed by his abrupt fall off a cliff in the second set, inverted his performance against Cilic two days earlier. In the Cilic match, Zverev started the match as a dead fish, with Cilic having a sitter forehand for 5-1 but somehow missing it. Zverev battled back, but even then, Cilic’s failure to challenge a call at 5-4 and deuce prevented the Croatian from getting a set point on Zverev’s serve. Cilic played a terrible service game at 5-3 to enable the set to continue.
Zverev wasn’t very good in that first set, but as soon as he stole it in a tiebreaker, he played and served a lot more freely in the second set. Wednesday’s match against Djokovic was exactly the opposite.
Zverev very plainly knew how to run with good fortune in a first set, and didn’t know how to confront adversity at the end of a first set two days later. In both matches, he played one set well and one set poorly. The results were different — the opponent was indeed the main variable — but the inconsistent performances were the same.
Establishing a higher ceiling is part of a young athlete’s task. Lendl beefing up the Zverev forehand and improving the German’s footwork is how that process will occur. Yet, in the pursuit of raising a ceiling, one cannot forget the equally important need for a young athlete to raise his floor as well.
Raising a ceiling is needed to beat the best players in terms of skill and raw athletic prowess. Raising a floor is much more in the province of the mental game, because the mental giants in any sport are able to win even when they are struggling. Mental strength shows up the most when the shots aren’t flowing and the opponent is resolute in offering resistance. Personal struggles against an opponent who demands persistence create a supreme test for an athlete.
Cilic doesn’t demand persistence — he will donate a key game late in a set against elite players. Djokovic always demands persistence. He gives virtually nothing away.
The first set against Djokovic might have been Zvery close on Wednesday, but it showed Sascha just how much growing, learning and internalizing he must do under Lendl’s watch to grow into the even more complete player he hopes to become.
Dominic Thiem Still Has To Learn To Adapt
The photo for this story comes from the 2018 U.S. Open.
That was the tournament in which Dominic Thiem made the first substantial hardcourt breakthrough of his career.
Thiem not only reached his first non-clay major-tournament quarterfinal in New York; he played Rafael Nadal at a high level for 4 hours and 49 minutes, deep into the night. The match ended after 2 a.m., but the outlook in the dead of night was actually very bright for the 25-year-old, who had finally smashed through the notion that he was just a claycourt specialist. When you push Nadal to the limit — and to the precipice of defeat — in a five-hour battle royale, you know you can play on a given surface.
I said it then, and I won’t retract it now: Thiem has earned the right to no longer be called a claycourt specialist. His title in St. Petersburg and his semifinal in Bercy drove home the point, just to make sure.
When a player shows he can play on multiple surfaces, the discussion changes from “Can he adapt in those conditions?” to a more general line of inquiry: “Can he adapt, period?”
Thiem stands in a clearer space now. Questions don’t have to be nearly as tethered to specific conditions. They can focus on the bigger, broader picture, which boils down to this with Thiem:
The man has plenty of talent. He can hit a tennis ball with the best of them… on any surface. On a slower hardcourt which is receptive to spin and creates higher bounces, Thiem can do really well. Yet, on a fast hardcourt (Shanghai) or a low-bouncing hardcourt, as found in London for the ATP Finals, it is evident that Thiem still has a ways to go.
Of course, not all hardcourts and not all surfaces are created equal. Of course, Thiem doesn’t have a lot of problem solving to do on clay compared to other surfaces. Yet, the Nadal match in New York showed he has genuine hardcourt capabilities, while simultaneously showing that a slow, high-bounce hardcourt helps his game in ways that other hardcourts don’t. No one is suggesting that surfaces and conditions are now irrelevant to Thiem’s outcomes and future prospects. The larger point is that whereas the previous discussion about Thiem was surface-specific, the new discussion is more generally about making adjustments whenever and wherever they need to be made.
This is less about “clay versus hardcourt” and more about “slow versus fast,” “high bounce versus low bounce,” and whatever the challenges of a given day and a given opponent demand of Thiem.
In his match against Roger Federer on Tuesday at the ATP Finals, Thiem almost certainly closed the curtain on his season. Technically, he hasn’t been eliminated, but he has virtually no chance of advancing to the semifinals. He would have to destroy Kei Nishikori and have Kevin Anderson destroy Federer. The two scorelines would have to be close to double bagels to give Thiem any mathematical shot. For all intents and purposes, his season will end on Thursday once the final point is played against Nishikori.
When Thiem and Gunter Bresnik — who made real and substantive gains in 2018 — assess the next step, a core principle has to be the willingness to hit at different speeds. This doesn’t mean hitting a series of slices before cranking a few all-out backhands or massive forehands. This is more a matter of hitting a topspin forehand with control and margin, not just at full-throttle. Gaining more layers of speed and added dimensions of placement and angle are what Thiem needs to continue his evolution. Seeds of that evolution were planted in New York, St. Pete and Bercy, but these ATP Finals have shown (as did Shanghai) that Thiem’s game doesn’t grow from every form of soil or mulch.
While the Big 3 holds down the fort for the older tennis players on the circuit, and Sascha Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas lead a pack of younger players poised to move up the ladder in 2019, Dominic Thiem is the one prominent player in the 25-to-29 age demographic who is in especially good position to make some noise next year.
In order to make that noise, Thiem paradoxically needs to quiet down his game and make it less loud and blaring at times. We will see if he performs that fundamental adjustment.
Kevin Anderson Continues To Stand Tall — And Stand Out
The Big 3 live in their own exalted realm, and have done so for quite a long time. The three iconic male tennis players of this generation still comprise the top three of the current ATP rankings… just as they did 10 years ago. The balance of power in the Big 3 has shifted in recent years due to injuries and variations of form, but at least one member of that trio consistently carries the baton at the big tournaments.
The 2018 majors were all won by the Big 3. The 2017 majors were all won by the Big 3. In previous years, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka carved out their significant places in tennis history and assured themselves of a spot in the Tennis Hall of Fame by winning three major titles apiece. Yet, neither Andy nor Stan ever won more than one major in a calendar year. The Big 3, as a group, has won more major titles than any other individual player in every year of men’s tennis dating back to 2004, the true start of the Big 3 era. In 14 of the last 15 years, the Big 3 has won at least three of the four major singles championships. The only year in which it didn’t was 2016, in which the Big 3 won two titles while Murray (Wimbledon) and Wawrinka (U.S. Open) won one apiece. Nevertheless, the tally for that year was Big 3 two, Murray one, Wawrinka one.
As the ATP prepares for 2019, Novak Djokovic seems poised to continue the Big 3’s run. The Big 3 player who carries the baton might change, but the Big 3 — at least for another year if not more — appears likely to endure at the highest level of men’s tennis.
This is a picture of stability — maybe not in the same ways as 2008 or 2013, but still in the one form which counts the most: lifting trophies. On that measure alone, men’s tennis is staying the same.
Underneath that surface, however, everything else is and has been changing quite a lot.
What was once a steady, reliable top eight — with Tomas Berdych making six ATP Finals appearances and David Ferrer seven, like clockwork — has given way to something different in recent years. Yes, this is not entirely a commentary on the quality of tennis being played on the ATP Tour. A lot of this has to do with injuries. Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro, and Milos Raonic are primary examples in this regard. They probably would have done very well if their bodies had not been so uncooperative.
Yet, a lot of what has changed below the Big 3 in recent years has indeed flowed from the quality of tennis on tour.
Dominic Thiem (this article is being written before his match against Roger Federer) has needed time to find his way on hardcourts. Alexander Zverev has been a master of the Masters 1000s, but still takes the scenic route at majors and doesn’t find his way home. Kei Nishikori might still be dealing with a measure of pain in his wrists, but even when he appears relatively healthy, he fails to conquer tight scoreboard situations in important matches. He lost ATP 500 finals in Tokyo and Vienna this autumn. His serve still gets exposed in crunch-time moments.
The layer of ATP competition below the Big 3 is an open field waiting to be claimed. Can someone step into this space and take ownership of it?
At the Masters 1000 level, Zverev has largely been that player. He certainly deserves to be recognized on that plane of achievement. It shouldn’t be minimized this early in his career, which has already been stuffed with accomplishments his age-group peers noticeably lack.
At the major tournaments, Marin Cilic has offered occasional suggestions that he can occupy the realm just below the Big 3, but the key word there is “occasional.” He doesn’t seize opportunities all the time.
Another ATP player has made as many major finals (two) as Cilic in the past year and a half, dating back to the summer of 2017 and Wimbledon… but that player, unlike Cilic, has already found a way to succeed at the ATP Finals in London.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kevin Anderson.
With Delpo injured, Kando is making a very strong case that he is the best non-Big 3 player in men’s tennis as the 2018 season winds down. A 6-0, 6-1 demolition of Nishikori — whom Anderson defeated in the Vienna final weeks earlier, and then lost to in Bercy — represented a tiebreaker of sorts with Kei. Anderson essentially won the third and deciding rubber in their European autumn series. What this win also did was place Anderson in the semifinals — not officially, no, but that seems to be a mere technicality.
All Kando has to do (again, this is being written before the Fed-Thiem match on Tuesday) is not get crushed in his Thursday match against Federer. Given how poorly Federer is returning serve, Anderson should be able to avoid the nasty scoreline he slapped on Nishikori. He will play in the semis on Saturday, notching that achievement in his first ATP Finals appearance.
What does that milestone mean for Anderson? Quite a lot.
Let’s start with what was noted above: Anderson has already solved a puzzle Cilic has yet to figure out. Cilic will always have that 2014 U.S. Open title, so from that perspective, his career still rates a notch above Anderson’s. However, with each passing month, Anderson continues to shrink that gap. He has played the Masters 1000s better than Cilic in 2018. He has now already surpassed Cilic at the ATP Finals, doing something Cilic has yet to do in four tries: parking himself in a Saturday semifinal.
That’s a relatively minor point in the bigger picture, however. The significance of Anderson making a big run in London this week is more pronounced because it does something last year’s ATP Finals champion failed to achieve.
When Grigor Dimitrov lifted the trophy inside the O2 Arena 12 months ago, he defeated Pablo Carreno Busta, a 2017 hardcourt iteration of Thiem (i.e., not a very good one), Jack Sock, and David Goffin (twice). Dimitrov played high-quality tennis, to be sure, but it remained that his path was made easier at every step. Rafael Nadal withdrew after one match in Dimitrov’s group (against Goffin), and Goffin upset Roger Federer in the semifinals. Dimitrov’s other huge accomplishment in 2017 was a Cincinnati Masters title in which he faced John Isner in the semifinals and Nick Kyrgios in the final. Kyrgios took out Nadal in the quarterfinals. Federer, Djokovic and Murray were all injured during that week.
Everyone wondered if the 2017 ATP Finals represented a launching pad for Dimitrov, something which would lead to more excellent results and performances. In 2018, we received our answer… and Dimitrov is now removed from the top 10, not even a remote contender for significant ATP titles.
Kevin Anderson is authoring a completely different story.
Anderson is thriving at the ATP Finals, but not in a way which raises questions about his ability to succeed on a consistent basis. Anderson is creating an “inverted Dimitrov,” meaning that whereas Grigor made people wonder if he could sustain his level of quality by winning in London, Anderson is doing the exact opposite: He is shutting down the doubts about whether he can continuously deliver the goods on tour.
Dimitrov wasn’t a relentlessly strong player in 2017, but he seized a few important moments and flourished at the very end of the year. His results at the 2017 ATP Finals suggested that the start of the next season could represent a new chapter of his career.
Anderson HAS been a steady and forceful player in 2018, with lots of Masters quarterfinals, multiple Masters semifinals, second weeks at each of the last three majors (Roland Garros R-16, Wimbledon final, U.S. Open R-16), an ATP 500 title in Vienna, and now this in London, plus — as a bonus — his star turn as a University of Illinois boy made good in Chicago at the Laver Cup.
Whereas Dimitrov’s 2017 ATP Finals success felt like the START of a new period of uncertainty for the Bulgarian — “Hey, this is great, but will it last?” — Anderson’s 2018 ATP Finals success feels like the END of a period of uncertainty.
“Hey, what I began at the 2017 U.S. Open has only gotten better over the following 14 months!”
The Big 3 — right now, Djokovic — remains in position to haul in the biggest trophies in tennis. After the Big 3, though, no one is claiming more territory or making more of a push up the ranks on the ATP Tour than Kevin Anderson.
This doesn’t feel like a Dimitrov-style fluke. This feels like the completion of a process which has grown and continued throughout the 2018 tennis season.