Sunday, January 13, 2013

Battle For The Crown Down Under...

Having A Ball: Roger enjoys playing the part of a ballboy during Kids Tennis Day at the Australian Open!

Famed trio of Djokovic, Federer & Murray are the usual suspects; Serena, Azarenka & Sharapova battle for supremacy

The New Year signals a kind of reboot in most people's lives. The same holds true for professional tennis players. Resolutions are strengthened. Sponsorships are extended. Pleasantries are exchanged. Minds are reset. Tennis being one sport where the off season is barely over a month, this break is the all-important rejuvenator.

Regardless of the previous year's results or lack thereof, a renewed sense of hope leads players to the Australian Open. The opening Major is a favourite with players because of its relaxed and friendly atmosphere, leading it to be rechristened as the ‘Happy Slam'. Its slow-paced hard courts provide a welcome change from the faster ones that are used during year-end tournaments.

World No 1 Novak Djokovic has tremendous belief in himself and his game which suffocates even the most gifted opponents. The two-time defending champion finished as No 1 for the second successive year, cementing his status as tennis' Mr Consistent. Winning the World Tour Finals has also given the Serb a much-needed boost.

No 2 Roger Federer, the 31-year old Master, is still shining brightly. After a brilliant 2012, in which he reclaimed his beloved Wimbledon title, the Swiss is looking to add another great year to his burgeoning resume. He always seems to be supremely confident.

Andy Murray, who finally broke his Grand Slam jinx in New York is now bound to play with newfound freedom. Over the years, the pressure seemed to always get the better of him in Slams, but now no one can call him unworthy. The Scot, ranked 3rd, definitely belongs in the Big 4 now!

One glaring absentee Down Under will be French Open champ Rafael Nadal. Now ranked No 4 and guaranteed to fall at least one spot after the tourney, the 2012 finalist is yet to fully recover from a knee ailment. The Spaniard hasn't played since Wimbledon and is likely to return next month.

Although the Aussie Open used to be famous for relative unknowns scorching the field, chances of that happening seem remote because of the amazing consistency of the Top 8. David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are all hungry for that one major breakthrough and have the weapons to achieve it, but need that ‘something extra’ – strength of mind that could carry them past the top three. Except for Del Potro in 2009, none of the others have managed to do so.

On the women's side, the Express Train that is world No 3 Serena Williams promises to once again batter the opposition mercilessly. The American, winner of Wimbledon and the US Open, is actually the best player in the world and everyone knows it.

No 1 ranked Victoria Azarenka is a fighter and boasts a heavy game, but seems to have Serena-phobia. Being the defending champion, the Belarusian would like to prove otherwise. Maria Sharapova completed her Career Slam by winning the French Open last year and will back herself to bag at least a few more big ones. Ranked 2nd, the Russian's shoulder seems to have healed well and she's feisty as ever.

The rest of the top ten that consists of Agnieszka Radwanska, Samantha Stosur, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki among others don't seem mentally able to bring in that unwavering focus day-in day-out to match the main contenders.

The Oz Open is also known for its extreme heat, making it both a mental and a physical battle, where Skill and Will go hand in hand. That really spices things up now doesn't it?


The Indian subcontinent will be well represented in Australia, with four players vying for doubles and mixed crowns. The ageless Leander Paes along with his partner Radek Stepanek, Mahesh Bhupathi with Mark Knowles and Rohan Bopanna with Rajeev Ram are all contending for the men's doubles trophy. While Paes–Stepanek is a tried and tested pair, Bhupathi and Bopanna split after playing together in 2012 and their new partnerships may need some time to mature.

In women's doubles, Sania Mirza and American partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands have been working well in tandem and seem to be gaining in confidence. In mixed doubles Sania will be partnering world No 1 doubles player Bob Bryan, also from the United States. It may be a lot to ask, but let's hope at least one of these pairings can do well.

(Published in The Sunday Standard and The New Indian Express with some minor alterations)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Number One For A Reason

True Grit: Novak exults after winning a match at the World Tour Finals in London

Novak Djokovic has cemented his place as the most consistent player in world tennis

At the end of the 2010 season, everyone was speculating whether Rafael Nadal, the world No 1 who had won three straight Grand Slams to bring his tally to 10, could go on to complete the non-calendar Slam and more importantly challenge Roger Federer's then record of 16 the following year.

On the flip side, fans of Federer were hoping that he could extend his record and stop the Spanish Bull from getting within striking distance.

Not many had thought that Serbia's Novak Djokovic, who had won the Australian Open in 2008, could put up a serious challenge to the Swiss-Spanish duopoly.

2011 was the season where Djokovic eventually came of age and put his two more famous compadres in the shade. He displayed mental toughness and physical ability to such an extent that one had to pinch oneself in disbelief – 3 Grand Slam titles; 5 Masters 1000 tournament wins; a 70-6 win-loss record; the world No 1 ranking!

Given that it's incredibly hard to repeat an almost perfect season, all eyes were on the Serb in 2012. How would he thwart the challenge of Federer, Nadal and the ever-improving Andy Murray? Could he actually succeed in doing so?

Now that this season has come to an end, that query has been answered aptly. Djokovic finished as the year-end No 1 for the second straight year. If 2011 was about him soaring over the field, 2012 showed him fighting tooth-and-nail to defend his kingdom.

He successfully defended his Australian Open title over five sets in a marathon 5h 53min win over Nadal, fell in four sets to the Spaniard in the French Open final, at Wimbledon he lost to eventual winner Federer in four sets in the semifinal and was unable to hang on to his US Open title, losing to Murray in a five-set final.

It's true that for the first time since 2003, each Slam has a different champion, an occurrence that according to most pundits suggests a sense of parity in the men's game.

But even so, Djokovic has managed to cling onto the No 1 ranking adhering to a simple yet difficult process – consistency. The Serb plays a brand of tennis that is characterised by impenetrable defense, water-tight returns and heavy top-spin groundstrokes.

This doesn't mean that his offence is second-rate. Nobody in the men's game reaches the top spot if their offence is anything less than extraordinary. Djokovic's ability to retrieve and keep points alive allows him to open up and go for broke on his shots off either wing. Plus he now has such self-confidence that even in crunch situations there seems to be no hesitation on his part to play to win as opposed to playing to draw errors from opponents.

His serve, once unreliable as a result of too much tinkering, is now a weapon, allowing him to get out of sticky situations with a single strike. The forehand, always a powerful shot, was not stable enough to trouble the big guns consistently, but now it is steady and delivers deep shots that are akin to body blows. Added to that, he has developed a good volley and knows when to move forward.

Along with these improvements, he has also continually sharpened his strengths – a rapier-like backhand, perfectly-guided returns, a circus performer’s agility and a never-ending commitment to getting the ball back in play.

There is no doubt that he has worked extremely hard to get all of these things working in machine-like order, but his biggest weapon has to be his belief. That is one thing that cannot be faked. Look at his eyes when a big point is played. They have a veritable fire burning in them.

That is the mark of a champion!

(Published in The Sunday Standard and The New Indian Express with some minor alterations)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Showdown In The Big Apple...

Chilling Out: At 31 years of age, Roger is allowed to relax a little! 

Federer, Djokovic & Murray look to claim US crown; Serena is the main women’s contender

The last week of August is upon us and the time is ripe for the final Grand Slam event of the year, the US Open held at Flushing Meadows in New York. Played on fast-paced hard courts, this tournament, known simply as ‘the Open’ among players, is notorious for its distractions. From boisterous crowds, to ‘hot dog’ sellers in the stands, to loud music at changeovers, the US Open has it all!

The men’s event marks the return of the great Roger Federer to the world No 1 position for the first time in two years. The 31-year-old Swiss played a remarkable Wimbledon, outgunning both No 2 Novak Djokovic in the semifinal and No 4 Andy Murray in the final to annex a record 17th major crown. He also added a silver medal to his resume at the London Olympics. The speedy courts at the Open suit his game perfectly and his hunger doesn’t seem to have diminished.

Defending champion Djokovic, the Australian Open winner, seems to have lost some of his appetite from last year where he won 3 Grand Slams. The Serb has had a solid year but failure to win an Olympic medal stung him hard. He relishes playing at the Open and the only true balm for a painful defeat is a Grand Slam title.

Great Britain's Murray endeared himself to his nation by first playing a wonderful Wimbledon final that he lost and then winning the Olympic gold medal in a sublime display. That both those finals were against Federer at the All England Club was just icing on the cake. Named the third seed because of world No 3 Rafael Nadal's unfortunate withdrawal, Murray has always maintained that New York's hard courts are his favourite.

The tenacious David Ferrer, No 5 in the world, leads ‘the dark horse group’ that includes No 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No 7 Tomas Berdych, No 10 John Isner and No 16 Milos Raonic, all of whom are capable of causing seismic upsets. Plus former champion and world No 8 Juan Martin del Potro (the Olympic bronze-medallist) who outslugged the top stars to win in 2009 seems to have regained his confidence and is a definite threat.

In the women’s section, the world revolves around No 4 Serena Williams. She has proved that no matter how many injuries or distractions come her way, when she is focussed, no other player can compete with her. Now 30 years of age, she won Wimbledon in utterly dominant fashion to clinch her 14th Grand Slam title and then dismantled world No 3 Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 in the Olympic final!

It’s not that the other girls are pushovers... world No 1 Victoria Azarenka, the Australian Open champion and Olympic bronze-medallist had a great start to the year. No 2 Agnieszka Radwanska, reached the Wimbledon final this year. Sharapova, the French Open winner and Olympic silver-medallist, comes closest to matching Serena in terms of raw power. But all of them have failed to find a way past the American on the grandest of stages, which is testament to her character as much as her longevity.

World No 5 Petra Kvitova, No 6 Samantha Stosur (defending champion), No 9 Li Na, No 12 Ana Ivanovic and retiring former champion Kim Clijsters have all won Slams, but they would have to overcome their inconsistencies to go all the way.

It is a wonderful time for tennis as a whole with the present narrative being the established youngsters versus the older legends of the game. And what better place to have this play out than at the Celebration that is the US Open!

(Published in The Sunday Standard and The New Indian Express with some minor alterations)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

It’s Wimbledon Time, Expect Fireworks...

Say Cheese: Roger's in a jolly good mood!

The Triumvirate of Djokovic, Nadal & Federer are firm favourites; Sharapova, Serena lead women’s contenders

With the clay season done and dusted, it is that time of the year when Tennis is being played on the surface of its inception. Grass. The surface that once rewarded attacking play like no other, may not be as quick as before, but it is still synonymous with the most famous Tennis Championship of all, Wimbledon. There is nothing more beautiful for a true tennis enthusiast than the sight of the hallowed lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club in all its glory when the Championships begin on June 25.

In the Men’s Singles event, predictably, all eyes are on the ‘Big 3’ – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – who have won a staggering 28 of the last 29 Grand Slam events. With all the current surfaces playing more or less the same way, it remains to be seen whether anybody else can break this trend.

World No 1 Djokovic is the top seed and defending champion. The Serb has had a solid year so far, beating Nadal to win in Melbourne and falling to the left-hander in Paris. It was at Wimbledon last year that he played electric tennis to usurp the number one ranking from Nadal. The right-hander has a brutal power-baseline game and hunger that can only be matched by the player ranked right below him. He elected not to play a warm-up event before the Championships.

Nadal, the world No 2 and last year’s finalist, seems to have finally cracked the Djokovic code. After losing a marathon final in Australia, he played a near flawless clay-court campaign to triumph in Paris and end the Novak’s quest for a Calendar Slam. Nadal lost early in Halle, a pre-Wimbledon tune-up event, but the Spaniard is a two-time Wimbledon champion and knows his way around grass-courts.

World No 3 Federer has been playing well since last year’s semifinal collapse at the US Open against  Djokovic. At almost 31 years of age, he has a remarkable body and incomparable talent, but is unable to maintain his intensity long enough against the Top Two. But Wimbledon is his favourite tournament and it still rewards his all-out attacking game the most. Although he lost to Tommy Haas in Halle, Federer looks like he’s ready for a tilt at Grand Slam glory once more.

Great Britain’s Andy Murray, the world No 4, has had a somewhat strange year. After hiring Ivan Lendl as his Coach and playing well in Australia, he has struggled of late. Although he seems to have a complete game, it’s his mental fluctuations that are a cause for concern. He is trying to be more pro-active in matches, but an early loss in the Queen’s Club warm-up means his preparation is not up to scratch.

Of the other contenders, big-hitters Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic can be considered to have outside chances, but playing consistently well over a fortnight is something that none of them have done before.

In the Women’s Singles section, unlike the Men, the last six majors have been won by six different players. World No 1 and 2011 finalist Maria Sharapova who completed a Career Slam by winning in Paris is playing aggressive tennis. Australian Open winner and world No 2 Victoria Azarenka seems to have slowed down after a sterling start to the season. Defending Champion Petra Kvitova, No 4 in the world, played wonderfully last year, but has been plagued by inconsistency this year. World No 5 Samantha Stosur won in New York last year and her big game should translate well on turf. Lastly, world No 6 Serena Williams and the unseeded Venus Willliams can never be disregarded due to the sheer number of Wimbledon titles they own and their love of grass-courts.

As one looks forward to two weeks of top-flight tennis in London, the only thing that’s certain is that it’s going to be a glorious spectacle!

(Published in The Sunday Standard and The New Indian Express with some minor alterations)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Master in Transition

Once a Lion: Roger roars on his way to a devastating loss in New York.
Roger Federer had Novak Djokovic on the ropes in the 5th set of their epic US Open semifinal match as the ticker flashed on the television screen.
5-3. 40-15. Match point.
Federer sliced a serve out to Djokovic’s forehand on the deuce court, only to watch the Serb fire a cross-court forehand that landed plum on the line. Lucky.
Match point # 2.
The Swiss guided a serve down the middle that handcuffed Djokovic and floated back, begging to be smacked for a winner. Federer uncoiled into an inside-out forehand, a shot that had worked magnificently that afternoon, and hit the top of the net instead of finding the open court. Unlucky.
Fifteen minutes later though, it was all over. The winner basked in his glory and the loser walked off the court as quickly as he could. The great Roger Federer had blown a two-sets-to-love lead for only the second time in his illustrious grand slam career. Hardly a serious offence! However, the fact that he let the same thing occur at Wimbledon is worrisome to say the least.
The Swiss star is one of the most attacking players the game has ever seen. A gunslinger that has always played tennis at high speeds and barely clipping the lines, even his detractors have their hearts in their mouths when he conducts his orchestra.
Federer’s name is not synonymous with the word ‘meltdown’. It is a name that evokes the highest of praise and draws numerous comparisons to titans in every field. But for a while now, he has been involved in strange grand slam matches, many of which have ended in five set battles where his play has fluctuated from the sublime to the ridiculous.
A man of the world, he is probably the only sportsman today that can hold conversations on the most diverse of topics and come up trumps. The problem is that now on the tennis stage, he is no longer able to sustain his trademark brilliance. At times it almost seems as if Federer has lost his will to win and is simply bored of winning so much. He looks careless or lackadaisical and frankly has too many things going on in his head, from ‘what his daughters are feeling’ to ‘what’s cooking for dinner!’ This chemical change mostly takes place at a subconscious level and requires long periods of self-analysis to comprehend.
It is very easy to criticise Federer, and so many theories seem to be floating in the air presently. Everyone has an opinion on what he should do in which situation even if they have no clue about what it’s like to play sport at the highest level. One has come to expect nothing but perfection from the Swiss star and when he fails to deliver one feels betrayed by the gods. How can the sport’s most artistic practitioner end up on the losing side? How is that fair?
Rewind. US Open 2010 semifinal. Federer vs. Djokovic. 5th set. Djokovic serving at 4-5. 15-40. Match point. Two blinding points and fifteen minutes later the result was that of a dejected Federer and a jubilant Djokovic. What are the odds…
A whole year later, one can’t help but draw comparisons to that match. Lightning never strikes twice? Apparently, it does! And both times it struck at the heart of Roger Federer.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Drunken Master

Normal Service: Roger about to let one fly at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia tournament in Rome.
 The second grand slam event of the year will commence in just under a week’s time in the fashion-conscious city of Paris. Roland Garros 2011 will mark the culmination of the clay court swing for the current year as the top players battle it out for the biggest clay crown of them all. As of now, the year has belonged to Novak Djokovic who has played tennis of the highest quality in winning the Australian Open as well as four Masters 1000 titles (he is yet to lose a match!) and is the best player in the world even though he is listed at No. 2 in the rankings. Rafael Nadal is always considered a favourite at any major event because of his mental fortitude and even Andy Murray has started showing signs of improvement since his tepid show in the Australian Open final four months ago...

All eyes, however, will be set on a certain Swiss who attempts to recover his lost mojo and silence his numerous critics for a billionth time. Roger Federer is no longer the force he once was. His uninspired play in crunch situations over the last five months is proof that the single-minded focus that became synonymous with his name has now gone on indefinite vacation. Watching him play is like going for a Shakespearean tragedy – his leonine character and fluid strokes make him loved by all and sundry, but his tragic flaw is his lack of interest which results in matches that are lost inexplicably.

There is a host of advice being thrown at Roger from all corners ranging from making changes in racquet specifications to changing his on-court demeanour. What must Paul Annacone be thinking? He had before him a very tough task and has done admirably well by making the Swiss hit aggressive returns and attack the net more amidst other tactical adjustments. Roger’s results were very good towards the end of 2010, but now that game plan of all-out attack is not bringing in positive results. There may be many theories for his consistent fragility in the face of danger, so here are three of them that hold water.
·         Roger is 29 years old while most of his competitors are much younger and hungrier than the 16-time grand slam champion: After having achieved so much in his already unbelievable career, the drive to win week in week out has certainly dimmed if not altogether disappeared. This problem coupled with the raging aspirations of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and the rest have made it difficult for him to mount a challenge when necessary. Where there is no will, there most certainly is no way.

·         He is a married man with twin daughters to take care of and has other interests: His marriage and the subsequent birth of his little ones is also another factor as it has changed his life completely. They are also his priority which means that his focus is now divided and that usually spells trouble for anyone in top-flight sport. Unwavering concentration is the key to success, but by his own admission, Roger thinks about lunch, dinner, kids and movies while on court in the middle of a match!
·         His movement is a full step slower than his peers: For someone who was always set and balanced in his heyday, Roger’s magic feet are now a liability in his attempt to achieve even more greatness. Is it because of his age or just because his body is no longer willing to obey his mind? Movement is the foundation on which the game of tennis is built. Hitting serves, forehands, backhands and volleys is only made possible through the proper use of one’s feet.

Of course Roger’s current predicament can be resolved. He will have to if he wants to win more grand slams and regain the No. 1 ranking. It will take a lot of effort though as he needs to reinvent himself once again along with the help of his coach and team. No matter what Roger says, one thing is clear that he really has to change something in his game and that which has to be changed is known to the great man alone. He is like a man who has been drinking too much and can’t recall who he actually is. It’s time for this drunken master to sober up and prove to the world once again why he is the greatest player of all time.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Roger's Roster: Australian Open (Jan. 17-30)

Whoa: Roger makes an acrobatic volley during the 'Rally for Relief' on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.
Another year brings another tilt at a possible Grand Slam crown. Roger starts his quest for the 17th GS title of his career on Monday the 17th of January. He will open against Lucas Lacko of Slovakia and seems quite confident (as usual) about his chances.

Friendly Rivals: Roger and Rafa celebrate winning a point during the 'Rally for Relief' on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.
 The form that Roger has displayed from October last year has been devastating to say the least. The serve is smooth and accurate. The forehand is as sharp as a rapier. The backhand is a weapon once again with its quick flat,  heavy topspin and deceptive slice options. The volleys are crisp and executed beautifully (the man's skills are just out of this world). But, more importantly the foundation of his ethereal game, his nimble feet, seem to be enjoying themselves thoroughly as they dance all over the court leaving everyone spellbound. 

Bear Hug: The two buddies bond over a well played point during the 'Rally for Relief' on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne.
 The whole world will be watching to see if King Roger can defend his crown... Of course he will! Let the games begin...