Lessons For Us Too
Part One of this story addressed what happened with the women’s game in 2007 — and what I see is a powerful lesson to be learned by recreational adults, juniors, parents, and coaches.
I’ll take up the same theme with a look at men’s tennis in 2007. For the fourth straight year, Roger Federer is the man. But while it’s hard to say this about someone who just earned three Grand Slam singles titles, I’ll venture he showed a few cracks last year. Besides losing twice each to Rafael Nadal, David Nalbandian and Guillermo Canas, Federer actually looked even worse in losing his second straight French Open final. He was also forced to work his way through some very rough patches in winning both Wimbledon and U.S. Open.
But yes, there’s a lot to be learned from Federer. First, though, a look at the main contenders.
Rafael Nadal had another brilliant but beguiling year. As usual, he threw his heart and soul into winning the French Open. To have won this event all three times he’s played it is remarkable. Not only does Nadal compete ferociously, but he continues to improve, mostly by looking to add more variety and power to his serve and come to net more. It’s unfortunate, though, that after so rigorously testing Federer in their five-set Wimbledon final that Nadal showed signs of fatigue in the balance of 2007. I hope he does a better job pacing and scheduling himself in the years to come.
One of the more interesting tidbits I learned about Novak Djokovic is that he was coached by a woman. Much like Jimmy Connors, who was taught by his mother, Djokovic has an exceptional base, a game initially built more on fundamentals than raw strength. But now, as he seeks to ascend, will he build even bigger weapons? As former pro David Wheaton recently pointed out to me, “To win Grand Slams you don’t want to get caught up in having to always play long matches. I wonder if Djokovic has the skills to really crank up his game.”
On the American front, Andy Roddick and James Blake each must be scratching his head at what happened in 2007. While certainly winning the Davis Cup will be a lifetime highlight for each, throughout much of the year, neither Roddick nor Blake quite lit up the court in the manner we’ve often expected from great Americans.
Roddick suffered a haunting loss to Richard Gasquet in the Wimbledon quaterfinals, losing to a younger man from two sets to love and 4-2. The good news, says Wheaton, is that Roddick has “a short memory. He’s able to rapidly put these losses behind him and keep moving ahead.” The tricky part is that I’m wondering if Roddick has enough skill to make the best possible charge at the top. I also wonder where things are at with Roddick and Jimmy Connors. Davis Cup has meant so much to Roddick — and so little to Connors. Does that kind of difference in attitude towards a major event infest Roddick’s head? Or does he continue to draw on Connors, with Jimbo ostensibly acting as senior advisor and Andy’s brother John handling the day-to-day duties. The good news, though, is that Roddick will take every step possible to ensure success. In a way, he tasted enough money and fame when he reached number one in ’03. Comfortable financially, Roddick will leave nothing on the table.
As for Blake, recently my TennisOne colleague Jim McLennan adroitly pointed out that in a strange way, Blake is a very mentally tough player given the low percentage nature of his game. But unquestionably Blake can captivate. It will be interesting to see if he can generate sustainable consistency throughout 2008.
A number of other explosive players are also vying for more. Firecracking Fernando Gonzalez has the forehand, flashy Richard Gasquet has the backhand, David Nalbandian has just about everything and while it’s hard to be smitten with any single shot Nikolay Davydenko hits, anyone who’s finished in the top five for three consecutive years obviously knows a lot about how to play this game. Ditto for another ascending grinder, David Ferrer, who in 2007 took over the title from Lleyton Hewitt and Michael Chang as the A-1 grubber.
What’s fascinating here is to see that while all of these players are disciples of contemporary baseline tennis, a closer look reveals various nuances in how they hit the ball, how they build points, and which shots they prefer to strike under pressure.
And what of the great Federer? Surely his coronation will continue over the next two years. Hardly anyone doubts he will soon enough break Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles. Imagine how incredible it would be if Federer won his 13th in Australia and could tie Sampras with a win at Roland Garros. I don’t see that happening, but to me, predictions hardly do anything to raise anyone’s consciousness, so, who knows?
What is known, though, was something very interesting from the Sampras-Federer exhibition series. While in no way am I opining that Sampras’ performance on those ultra-fast indoor courts would make him a full-fledged touring pro — and he’d concur — what I found intriguing is that Sampras revealed a blueprint for someone who wishes to beat Federer on any surface other than clay. Sampras’ message was simple: There will be no rallies. You will not jerk me around. Nor will you establish a comfortable tempo.
Coming in on his own serve, attacking Federer’s serve, Sampras showcased one aspect of this game that so many recreational players, juniors, coaches, and parents overlook: The name of the game is forcing the other guy to hit shots he doesn’t want. Federer knew this too as a child. He’s spoken much about how he studied the greats and pondered which shots he’d need to develop so he could beat them.
Of course, in Federer’s rare case, he kept building and building and now pretty much has every shot. But what I hope is that aspiring players are influenced properly by Federer. I was talking with a parent of a junior recently and she said, “But Federer’s so beautiful. How can you even come close to his form?” I countered: That’s not the best lesson you can learn from Federer. It’s not about beauty but about effectiveness, imagination, and guts. Sampras did it when he thought about how he must play to compete effectively versus Federer. Perhaps somewhere on this planet there’s a boy learning how to attack second serves and come to net.
In the case of Federer’s game, I’ve always felt that much of his genius is because he wins ugly pretty; that is, he gets opponents off-balance and then strikes. And he does so with technical elegance lacking, say in the case of the man who wrote the book on winning ugly, Brad Gilbert. But face it: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do something like hit two slice backhands and then drive the third. As I urged when waxing on Henin in part one, you don’t need to be a pro to think this way. To quote my other favorite “Emmo,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Man does not stand in awe of man, nor is his genius advised to stay at home.”
Joel Drucker is a writer for TennisOne, you can read more from Joel at www.TennisOne.com.
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