When asked on a Tennis with an Accent podcast back on May 22 about the art of volleying and where it stands in the ATP ranks, Darren Cahill of ESPN acknowledged the slow deterioration of net skills over time.
Cahill also drew attention to the lack of focus paid to the transition game by today’s crop of developing players. Cahill emphasized that players were reluctant to approach the net — not necessarily because they lacked the volleying technique, but because they often did not consider coming forward during points.
The transition game has been neglected in their developmental years. The first priority was given to finishing the point via the use of powerful strikes from the baseline.
Let us keep Coach Cahill’s informative observation in the back of our minds for now; it will become relevant later in this piece. Let’s consider instead the men’s draw at the U.S. Open, or more specifically, the chances of players outside the Big 3 of having a shot at reaching the final, if not grabbing the title.
The initial answer seems to be, there is no such thing!
Let’s be honest. If Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer can reach the semifinal stages of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon as routinely as they did, losing a total of only six sets among them in 30 matches and never experiencing a moment of being genuinely close to trailing anyone, there is no reason to expect them to stumble early at the U.S. Open.
There are essentially two groups of players to consider if one wanted to push the envelope and look for possibilities of a surprise name appearing in Arthur Ashe Stadium on the last day of the competition.
There is the group of seasoned players led by Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, and including Marin Cilic, David Goffin, Roberto Bautista-Agut, Kei Nishikori, John Isner, Nick Kyrgios, Lucas Pouille, Milos Raonic, and a few others.
By “seasoned,” I do not mean their age, but rather their accumulated experience in playing best-of-five-set matches. This is a paramount distinction: Majors have now become the only way in which a player can gain experience in dealing with best-of-five matches. (Masters 1000 tournaments 15 years ago had five-set finals, but not 10 years ago, and not at any point since.) Needless to say, defeating an elite player at a Major is a much more elaborate task than in a best-of-three-set context.
Despite having played an extensive number of five-set matches, some of the players in this group have yet to completely prevail in their quest to turn into formidable threats in Majors.
For instance, Nick Kyrgios is a legitimate adversary to any player because he is a phenomenal shotmaker. However, I dare anybody to claim within reasonable parameters that he is a legitimate prospect to reach the final on September 8, let alone lift the trophy.
Even a previous Major finalist like Kei Nishikori, for example, still struggles with the balancing act of the two weeks, often spending extra time on the court during the first, leading to exhaustion or injury in the second. Cilic and Isner are not where they were a year or two ago. Bautista-Agut is probably one or two more good showings at Majors from being considered a serious threat.
Novak, Rafa, and Roger, on the other hand, have been longtime masters of tackling the intricacies of tactical shifts during a five-set duel and have numerous receipts to show for it, not that their opponents need to see them. Looking across the net to one of them counts for a receipt all by itself. Chalk down a 1-0 early lead for them, before the first ball is struck.
Dominic Thiem’s case on clay illustrates how a player could achieve predominance at the Majors, or in his case, at “a” Major. It does not happen by overnight success, but by a slow process of digging, failing, persevering, getting back to rummaging through options, problem-solving, and finally bearing the fruits of labor.
Ingredients must be collected, the right mix must be determined, the solution must be brewed, marinated, and served with the hopes that the end result represents the right recipe.
Thiem has successfully climbed these steps over the course of last five years on clay courts at Roland Garros – yes, five years, give or take one, depending on your perspective. Through that period, he has also managed to gain traction on hard courts, though much less than he has on clay.
Yet, he has shown just enough improvement, at least for me, to reasonably say that he carries the know-how necessary to defeat an elite player given the right circumstances on hard courts.
Is it likely to happen at the U.S. Open? Perhaps not! Is it possible without it being labeled a “shocker”? Certainly!
Then there is the second group of challengers, mainly consisting of younger players, up-and-comers so to speak, who have shown significant improvement over the last year or two, or in the cases of some, just in 2019.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Karen Khachanov, Félix Auger-Aliassime, Hubert Hurkacz, Reilly Opelka, and Taylor Fritz come to mind, and I am sure you can add a few more to the list. They may be promising but they are not seasoned best-of-five-set players.
Zverev could have been considered an exception to this group had he reached the semis a couple of times before and beaten an elite player or two on the way, but he has not. To make matters worse, he is not coming into the U.S. Open high on form.
Sure, you can point a finger to an exceptional match one of these players may have played at a Major (Tsitsipas vs. Federer at the Australian Open), or to a couple of sets in which another stayed toe-to-toe with one of the big 3 (Hurkacz vs. Djokovic at Wimbledon), but those examples are rare and hardly point to a pattern of success equivalent to the one they need to put on display, in order to reach the final round at the U.S. Open.
You can even mention Medvedev’s outstanding hardcourt season, but that is no guarantee that he can do the same in a series of best-of-five-setters over 14 days, with a day in between matches, a process that includes a ton of variables in a player’s day-to-day routine.
That process also demands a high level of mental discipline (mastered by most of these players), excellent physical conditioning (which most have), high I.Q. (possessed by most, in my opinion), and the ability to combine the above three qualities over a three- or four-hour match while adjusting one’s game plan multiple times, and to repeat that combined performance at the same level or higher with each round through a series of four to seven competitive matches at the highest level (now, we step in muddy waters).
None has so far shown signs of fully absorbing that last requirement above. It also relates to a certain type of mental state into which the player must grow. That is an essential part of what it takes to be “seasoned” in Majors.
While Wawrinka or Thiem, for example, may consider it a disappointment to lose before the semis, none of the players in the second category will be disappointed, I presume, with a quarterfinal showing in this U.S. Open. This is not a criticism of them.
As I noted above, they are up-and-comers and young. It’s simply the nature of the beast created by the standards of excellence set by the Big 3 over the last decade or more, magnified further by the distinction of the best-of-five-set format at the Majors.
Now, let me bring back into the fold Darren Cahill’s astute observation that I underlined in the beginning of the article.
In my opinion, for a player from either group, seasoned or up-and-comer, to have a chance to overcome the challenge of the Big 3 and contend for the title – or shall I dramatize and say, pull off a miracle run – he must find the correct mixture of baseline prowess and transition-game efficiency.
It’s highly unlikely that any player can eliminate any of the three elite players (or two in a row) by simply overpowering them via groundstrokes. Cilic and Wawrinka at the 2014 and 16 U.S. Opens are gigantic exceptions, and neither had to go through two members of the Big 4 (Andy Murray was in the mix), not to mention that they are now far from their winning forms of that time.
It is possible to hit one home run after another and defeat a Big 3 member, as Medvedev did in Cincinnati, in a best-of-three-set setting. The Russian did indeed go for broke for about a set and a half and pulled the stunning upset over the world number one.
However, can his level skyrocket to that height for three sets and remain there through the many adjustments that great tacticians like Novak, Rafa, or Roger can cook up over an extended period of time?
Can he continue to hit booming second serves for two and a half or three sets rather than a set and a half? Can he nail returns to the corners for that long? Even so, it would be near impossible to catch an elite player off guard for more than a set and not have them sprinkle a different set of challenges his way.
The only recent example to which I can point where a player executed against a member of the Big 3 via the right mixture of baseline power and transition game in a Major is Tsitsipas’s win over Federer at the Australian Open.
The Greek player controlled most of the rallies and did not shy away from approaching the net when presented with an opportunity. It also helps that his volleying skills are a step ahead of the rest of his peers (probably thanks to his willingness to put himself on the spot).
Incorporating a productive transition game into one’s ‘Plan A’ goes beyond simply “winning the point at the net.” That is the short-term goal, to win that particular point by pressuring your opponent.
The long-term goal – if executed well, the one causing the most damage to an opponent – is to make the opponent fear the prospect of you approaching the net. If his balls that land short in the court lead to your solid strikes to the corners (they do NOT have to be winners), and you follow them behind to the net, you are relaying an unpleasant message to your opponent that goes something like this:
“If you give me a short ball, not only will I make your life miserable on the next shot, but you will need to do something more than just float the ball back, because if you do, I will volley it for the winner to the open court.”
The first part of that message can still be accomplished with a nicely hit shot to the corner, but the second part becomes valid only if that shot struck to the corner turns into an approach, forcing the opponent to come up with a hard-hit shot from a difficult position to get it past you at the net (in other words, a passing shot).
You repeat the above process again and again: Your opponent soon develops the fear of you putting him under constant pressure anytime his ball lands short, thus pushing him to take more risks in regular baseline rallies.
As a consequence of feeling the tension, your opponent becomes more likely to err on what appear to be regular baseline shots due the pressure of keeping his balls deep. That is the long-term damage a game plan including an efficient transition game can cause to your opponent.
It will not necessarily show up in the stats. In fact, some of your opponent’s mistakes will go down as unforced errors, whereas they were the result of the pressure he felt in needing to hit balls deep to keep you from coming to the net and forcing him to produce passing shots.
Whether Tsitsipas (or any player mentioned above) can recreate that type of performance (and possibly do it twice) is the big question mark. I find it doubtful, frankly.
Some of these players I am referring to are simply not willing to insert net approaches into their Plan A (confirming Cahill’s point), preferring to slam the next shot for a winner instead. Some do not trust their volleys enough to come forward. Some have the courage to do it but lack the skills necessary to put the ball away at the net. Others have the skills but fear the defensive dexterity of their opponents.
Here is a quick glance at some of the challengers, while taking into consideration the factors above.
Medvedev came to the net a total of 12 times in the Cincinnati final against Goffin and won half of those points. I counted six points in the first set alone when he had chances to come in, but passed on the opportunity, choosing instead to relaunch the rally with a deep shot or go for the direct winner from the baseline.
Medvedev approached 16 times against Djokovic and won 10 of those points. I speculate that if he faces Djokovic in the U.S. Open again (a possible quarterfinal), he will have a better chance to win approaching the net on chances that he gets, in addition to his usual baseline consistency, as he did in Montréal against Khachanov (14/17 at the net) and Thiem (8/11).
I also speculate that he has zero chance to defeat Djokovic (or Rafa and Roger) if he tries to reproduce the second-serve-acing, direct-winner-returning, thunder-baseline-hitting game that he executed so well in Cincinnati for a set and a half in the semifinal.
Tsitsipas has undoubtedly shown more promise than others in terms of willingness to use an all-court game — that cannot be stated enough. I personally do not believe either of his losses in Montréal (to Hurkacz) or in Cincinnati (to Jan-Lennard Struff) can be labeled as big upsets, especially if taken on their own.
The two taken as a packet, with the underlying “first-round-loss” perception, can understandably lead to reluctance in considering his chances at the U.S. Open, but in my opinion, that apprehension can quickly dissipate with a good first-round performance against Andrey Rublev.
Another youngster à-la-Stef, showing no hesitation to approach the net if given the chance, is Felix Auger-Aliassime. Against Vasek Pospisil and Khachanov in Montréal, he came to the net 33 times, winning 20 of those points. In fact, against Karen, he approached 10 times in the one set he won, but only seven times in the two sets that he lost, combined.
Add to that his 7/8 success rate at the net in his loss to Miomir Kecmanovic in Cincinnati, and one can comfortably conclude that Félix integrates his transition game into his game plan just fine.
However, he falls extremely short on the experience barometer. He needs to get through Denis Shapovalov in the first round, but his draw is such that this could be the Major in which he could take significant strides toward becoming that next big threat in the Majors in the next year or two (it is a process, remember?).
Struff and Opelka are two other names not holding back when capitalizing on opportunities to move forward. They may even be half a step ahead of Auger-Aliassime in terms of the five-set experience, but their measuring stick for success stands for now at making the second week.
Hurkacz, for his part, is a dangerous player with average technique in his volleys, but he makes up for it by setting up the point well and coming forward with aplomb. His loss to Djokovic at Wimbledon showed that he can hang with the best for a while, but not seasoned enough yet to do it for four (or five) sets straight.
Pouille, unlike the previous three I mentioned, is a seasoned performer at the Majors with an all-around game who will have to prove himself in the first week already, with Federer looming large in the third round, assuming the seeds hold up. When that happened six weeks ago at Wimbledon, it ended in Roger’s favor in straight sets.
Karen Khachanov, unlike the ones noted above, ventured very little to the net in Canada (29 times in his last three matches combined, winning 14 of those points). He is simply happy to slug it out from the baseline. If so, he will need to fabricate a performance reminiscent of Stan’s in 2016, or Marin’s in 2014, or Juan Martin’s in 2009.
I will not hold my breath for it, although I would love for Karen to break through sooner than later.
Zverev’s chances of winning the U.S. Open, let alone a Major title, are also slim if his option is to rely on big serves and groundstrokes. He is in the same boat as Karen, explained above.
Rublev does well when at the net (his numbers at the net were exceptional against Federer and Medvedev in Cincinnati, for example), but like Khachanov and Zverev, approaching the net is not part of his Plan A (total of 11 times in those two matches in Cincinnati).
I counted 12 points in which he passed up clear chances to move forward behind nicely struck shots, pushing Federer to a corner. In that match, the phenomenal 1-2-punch prowess he showed proved to be enough. Can he duplicate that in a best-of-five set encounter in a Major? We may find out the answer to that very soon.
Rublev is facing Tsitsipas in the first round. That by itself is already a tall order after his injury woes of recent times. Even if he pulls the upset there, slugging it out from the baseline for four or five sets just to go through Kyrgios and Bautista-Agut, just to reach the second week, simply does not come across as feasible in his case.
His only shot at making the second week is through a healthy combination of aggressive groundstrokes and an opportunistic transition game.
Yes, I am sure I left out quite a few names, maybe even your favorite one. My apologies to fans of Fognini, Raonic, Paire, Isner, or others. I hardly talked about Wawrinka and Thiem (who may not have recovered from a recent virus), still the two players with the best chance to break through in my opinion, along with Bautista-Agut to a lesser degree.
Yet, even they will need to go further than just smacking winners or winning multiple rallies of 25 shots or more from the baseline in order to claim the title, and their path will probably include two of the Big 3, given what occurred at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
For anyone to break the stranglehold of the Big 3 in New York, and in Majors in the near future, he must step forward, literally and figuratively. It does not guarantee success, but it is a step in the right direction, in terms of having a better shot at winning this U.S. Open and in the name of advancing toward sustainable long-term success at the Majors.