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And the Oscar goes to….

Saqib Ali

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by Anand Mamidipudi

The Academy Award for the Best Original Screenplay has been awarded to some of the most distinguished and gifted writers in history. Past winners include titans such as Woody Allen, the Coen brothers and, the youngest winner, Ben Affleck. The clear leader in this year’s race is another titan who, in real time, continues to script one of the most dramatic screenplays we have seen. Last week,the great  Novak Djokovic, one year removed from holding all four slams, put the kibosh on his entire coaching staff (Marian Vajda et al) and hit the reset button in an attempt to regain his numero uno ranking.

The decision to go coach-less is not unprecedented in men’s tennis. Others have done it with varying measures of success. Most famously, Roger Federer dominated tennis during portions of the past decade without a full-time coach until he realized that he needed help to conquer his chief nemesis, Rafael Nadal. The mercurial Nick Kyrgios is currently scaling new career peaks going solo.
In a vacuum, Djokovic’s decision to fire his coaching staff appears to be a logical one. As Djokovic’s fortunes have plummeted since he scaled the Mt. Everest of tennis at Roland Garros, it is apparent that his coaching staff have failed him on several counts. He has looked jaded and lost mental battles against Kyrgios, which would have been unthinkable a year ago. His body started breaking down physically, possibly hinting at an extreme training regimen. He has also experienced a metaphysical decline, which has manifested as a crisis in confidence and a renouncement of ambition, all strange outcomes considering that he was erstwhile the possessor of the most unshakable mind in men’s tennis.
Before we get any further, this is not meant to be a commentary on what’s eating Djokovic. There is enough precedence in men’s tennis (e.g., Borg, McEnroe, Wilander) with great champions who experience extreme burnout at the peak of their skills and tumble down to earth. Djokovic’s sudden decline, all speculations aside, is natural and explainable. In fact, even more perplexing than his loss of form is the one of the gentleman currently ranked number 1, Sir Andy Murray. Men’s tennis may be in a crisis mode even as its two best players are playing like stooges who need a private session with Dr. Phil. There’s only so long the two ageing warriors, Roger and Rafa, can buttress the temple of the Big Four. Simply put, Djokovic and, to a lesser extent, Murray need to find their mojo quickly for their sport to prosper.
 A quick examination of events in the past year suggests a flagging intensity in Djokovic’s game even as the background grew noisy. There were rumblings of discord between Djokovic and his supercoach Becker. Soon a “guru”, Pepe Imaz, appeared from nowhere to calm down and refocus the great man. Injuries to the elbow and ankle surfaced and have stubbornly continued to be a bother. Now finally, after a middling start to the year, his entire support group has been dismissed in a wave of the hand. During this tumultuous time, Djokovic has struggled to put together a sequence of matches that would signal a turnaround.
A lesson we have learned about great champions is that they call time on their own terms. Even in decline, Djokovic’s caliber is beyond question. While his pinpoint accuracy has given way to inconsistent execution and crucial errors in close matches, he continues to display the single-mindedness that made him so great. If he took a feather from Federer’s cap, it would be to find a way to reinvent his game to make up for the drop in his baseline efficiency, which may never return to those lofty levels. On the other hand, he would also do well to emulate Rafa, who has flourished under Carlos Moya. The noticeable change in Rafa’s game has been a resurgence in self-belief and intensity that once made him unbeatable. It isn’t unrealistic to expect Djokovic to catch a second wind and return stronger.
Djokovic, even in his greatest matches, enjoyed the theater and the “it’s me against the world” sentiment. It spurred him to play tennis like no human played before him. He chased down dying balls, turned himself into a contortion artist, painted the court with laser missiles and won matches with his mind before they even started. The events of the past year will only reinforce his motivation to be back at the top of the totem pole. He will find a coach and he will win again. That’s because when it comes to screenplays, Djokovic writes them like nobody else!
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THE CAPACITY FOR GROWTH

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Whether you are watching the NBA basketball playoffs or not, it is worth sharing this small collection of statistics with a tennis-loving audience:

The Boston Celtics, through two completed and successful rounds of the NBA playoffs, have played 12 games, seven at home and five on the road. In the seven home games, the Celtics hit 47 percent of all their shots and 40 percent of all 3-point shots, averaging roughly 111 points per game. In the five road games, the Celtics hit 41 percent of all shots and just 31 percent of all 3-point shots, averaging just under 95 points per game. The Celtics won all seven home games and went 1-4 in their five road games. In the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics went 4-0 at home and 0-3 on the road. Being able to play Game 7 at home mattered a great deal in that series. (more…)

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DJOKOVIC’S MAIN POINTS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

There are many points to ponder in the wake of Novak Djokovic’s loss to Kyle Edmund on Wednesday at the Madrid Open.

How concerned should Djokovic be about the velocity of his second serves and his ability to win second-serve points? How close is Djokovic to restoring his game? He did not play that poorly against Edmund, but in a reversal of the natural order of tennis relative to when he dominated the tour two years ago, he didn’t win the points he needed to win, chiefly a 30-40 point on Edmund’s serve at 2-2 in the third set. As soon as Edmund escaped a love-40 hole to somehow stay on serve, he never encountered another moment of great difficulty for the remainder of the match. (more…)

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Back to the future

Saqib Ali

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by Anand Mamidipudi

If you are the sort of person that is nostalgic about those epic matches between Roger Federer and Andy Roddick, then we have good news for you. Yes, we managed to sneak in the word “epic” into the previous sentence because Federer merely led Roddick 21-3 in their rivalry! But there is hope for the A-Rod fans coming from the next generation.Yesterday Jack Sock, of Lincoln, Nebraska, born not far from the birthplace of the great Andy Roddick, defeated Grigor Dimitrov, the Roger clone also fondly known as “Baby Fed” to many fans who just can’t seem to have enough with one Federer in their universe.

Sock relies on a big serve, a whiplash forehand, a prayer of a backhand and oodles of gumption to compete against some of the top players in the world. If this all sounds very familiar to Roddick fans, then they would have been terrified by the sight of his opponent, Dimitrov, who plays with balletic grace, oozes creativity and flashes a single-hander like he was the second coming of Zorro. The difference, then, is that Grigor, while not quite an impostor, is not touched by genius like his idol, Roger. On the other hand, Sock is a reasonable facsimile of his Nebraskan predecessor, with a lesser serve, but a more devastating forehand.

Mentally, Sock and Dimitrov are poles apart. Sock is making a career out of nerveless comebacks (a case in point would be his win against Cilic in Davis Cup), while Dimitrov’s creativity extends to finding new ways to lose. This factor evens out an obvious gap in talent and Sock now leads their head-to-head 3-1, the last two on hard courts being epics (that word again) that would sit comfortably alongside the greatest hard court matches if these two ever progress to the next level and win a few slams.

Yesterday, they met for the fourth time in their budding rivalry and played their best match. Grigor made a statement with his pristine shot-making to take the first set 6-3. Sock was looking flat as a noodle. Then the young American pulled up his socks and began to show why his bazooka forehand is so feared in men’s tennis. Sock won the second set and seemingly had the momentum when Dimitrov stepped it up another notch to lead 3-0 in the third set.

In the past decade, Andy Roddick fans would be shaking their heads and heading for the exits when Roger found that imaginary sixth gear. Luckily, we’re talking Sock-Dimitrov here. Two simultaneous switches turned on and off as Sock hit his way back into the match while Dimitrov took a mid-deciding set siesta. Dimitrov woke up just in time to suddenly hold three match points on Sock’s serve at 5-4, 0-40. Surely there was no Houdini act coming from the young American this time. Wrong. Sock hit three of his specialty forehands to pull himself even at 5-5. Atlanta Falcons fans know the moment when the tide changes. This was that moment in the match. In the tie-break, Grigor fought hard and even held a match point at 7-6. But sport’s cruel karma always rewards the guy that really wants to win and not the one who is trying not to lose.

Roddick fans will remind you that Andy had the last laugh against Federer, defeating him in the Miami Masters in three sets. Yesterday, Sock beat Dimitrov, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7).

 

 

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