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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.

I bring this up because — in many situations and contexts, not just tennis — professional athletes encounter marked variances in their performances based on the location of their performance. Sometimes, this is based on weather or atmospheric conditions. For instance, baseball games played in the American city of Denver, Colorado — with very high elevation — will cause balls to travel farther than they would in many other cities. It is harder to pitch and easier to hit in Denver than nearly anywhere else in Major League Baseball’s 30-team competitive universe. It is also true that in some cities where baseball is played, the size of the field is different, which creates unique challenges for pitchers or hitters on a case-by-case basis.

In basketball, however, every court is the same in every American arena: 94 feet long and 50 feet wide, with a basket 10 feet high. Weather is not a factor. The playing surface is not a factor. How well the other team plays might be a factor, but in terms of the mechanics of shooting a basketball, nothing is fundamentally different in a well-lit gymnasium in one city versus another. It is the same sport. Yet, athletes can and do get affected by the change in location all the time.

This brings up Madrid, which is creating typically wacky results yet again. This year, the ATP owns more of those results than the women, but the WTA was more volatile in previous years (specifically, the past three). Without question, the conditions in Madrid are not reflective of the rest of the spring clay season or the other clay tour stops in general. Madrid does play differently, and that is not to be dismissed when factoring in results. Yet, something has to be said in the midst of this conversation about Madrid: As much as conditions might sometimes affect performance, it is still up to the players in the arena to perform. This is still tennis, not squash or cricket or baseball, and the specific techniques an athlete must bring to the court are just as necessary in Madrid as they are in Rome, Paris, and other clay locales on the schedule.

Denis Shapovalov made his win over Milos Raonic look easy on Thursday in Madrid. Yes, I wouldn’t bet on Shapovalov making a deep run in Rome or Paris, but it remains that not every player can play a compatriot (Raonic) who is several years older and exhibit total ease and comfort. Plenty of players would be awed by the occasion — think of another ATP Madrid quarterfinalist, Dusan Lajovic, who had absolutely nothing to offer Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo. Shapo’s sharpness reflected a sound mental approach to a big moment for Canadian tennis.

Did Madrid have something to do with the way Shapo’s shots penetrated the court? Probably… but that still can’t change the larger point that Shapovalov had to compete well, which transcends any specific locality or atmosphere. It’s still tennis, still competition, still a constant test of skill and fitness on tour. Shapovalov exhibited growth, whether or not that growth carries through Italy and France in the next month. It is still worth appreciating.

The same goes for the aforementioned Lajovic, who obviously took a huge step forward from Monte Carlo. He had never won a main-draw match at ANY clay-court Masters event. Now he is in the quarterfinals with a legitimate shot at a semifinal spot. Falling behind 4-0 in a final-set breaker against a player of Juan Martin del Potro’s caliber, and then rebounding to win, required a lot of patience and poise.

Did the fact that Delpo was just returning to the tour after five weeks off help Lajovic? Of course it did… but the work Dusan did to stay in the match and not lose heart — in spite of two cringe-inducing mistakes at the start of that final-set breaker — still required a lot of internal growth. Again, that growth was achieved regardless of court speed or altitude.

Karolina Pliskova — as a fellow Czech, Petra Kvitova, has done on previous occasions — has used a big-hitting template in Madrid’s conditions to thrive in Spain. She finally defeated Simona Halep in a regular tour match (1-6 overall heading into Thursday, her one win being in Fed Cup in 2016) to reach the Madrid semifinals.

Once again, did the way Madrid clay plays have a role in shaping this match? Very likely so… but Pliskova still had to do the work needed to serve lights-out (70 percent with her aggressive delivery) and crack the ball with a level of quality Halep had not seen in two years. The place where the victory was forged probably contributed to the win, but the player had to do the work, and Pliskova put in the hard yards.

Do any of these results have relevance heading into Paris? Pliskova has advanced her position among the Roland Garros WTA favorites, while the ATP examples probably contain less significance in relationship to the 2018 edition of Roland Garros. They might hold more value in future years. Yet, those answers (which will vary from one person to the next) are secondary to the larger point of this column: While conditions and climates can affect performance in sports, the person within — the mind tasked with getting out of the body’s way — still has to do the work.

The specifics of context and circumstance do matter — if you have read my commentaries for any length of time, you know how much I emphasize those details. Yet, as much as I do value the particularities which surround tennis matches, it is also true that achievements aren’t handed to athletes. They have to step forward and take them. We shouldn’t blow the size of an athlete’s achievement out of proportion with a tsunami of hyperbole, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore achievements forged in unique circumstances, either.

Tennis is still tennis — Shapo, Lajovic and Pliskova have all earned their results and plaudits this week in Madrid.

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Image taken from Zimbio
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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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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. (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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