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"The Future is not an Inheritance, Its an Opportunity and an Obligation" – President William Jefferson Clinton

Month: September, 2012

Andy Murray: Deliverance

Andy Murray with the US Open Trophy in Manhattan Island

Andy Murray with the US Open Trophy in Manhattan Island

As the clock reached four hours and fifty four minutes, Djokovic’s “Go for Broke” forehand return missed paint – and a page was turned in British tennis history, a page that Great Britain has been ever so eager to turn for the last seventy six years. There are movies you watch sometimes, not for what the tale is, but for the sheer pulsating and heart-throbbing way in which the story is narrated by the raconteur. This was one such tale, it certainly will not make the cut for the best match ever played in the history of the game – but what it lacked in consistent quality, it more than compensated with such exhilarating melo-drama. After all – more than twenty thousand screaming New Yorkers cheering and egging on a Scotsman had melodrama woven into its intrinsic fabric. No more justification needed, as even double o-seven was in attendance, as my friends would like to condescendingly remark – the ‘Real’ double o-seven.

The final was forced to be played under windy conditions, which is an interesting problem. On the one hand, we want grand slam finals to be decided on the quality of sport played by each of the two players, and not by external conditions. It is the reason why we were disappointed when Rafael Nadal withdrew, you want grand slams to be won against a full strength field and not due to the absence of players. It is not too unreasonable to say that natural hindrances such as winds do affect each player to a different degree – and it is not the player’s fault to what degree he is affected by such conditions. With Murray’s versatility juxtaposed against Djokovic’s precision, the winds do affect the player whose game is predicated on precision more than the reflexive counter-puncher. It became very clear that Djokovic does not like playing under such conditions, and his “HEAD” paid the price for his frustration. Now, did Murray handle the conditions better, absolutely. Murray reveled in it, while Djokovic was in “Make Do” mode. But is it disappointing that natural conditions did govern the result to a certain extent ? personally, to me it is. But I do see the point of handling whatever a grand slam tournament throws at you for fourteen (oops – fifteen) days, to eventually lift the trophy. Murray certainly deserves consummate credit for dealing with the conditions better, and the fact his game lends itself to such conditions more than Djokovic’s does is unfortunate, but it certainly is not Murray’s problem. After all – it is still an outdoor tournament.

As they played a titanic eight seven minute – first set, the tiebreaker presented opportunities for both men to take a crucial lead. One had an inkling Murray needed the first set more than the Serb did. Time and again you could see Murray adapt ever so elegantly to the wind, by employing his deft touch and softer feel on the ball, while Djokovic dug deep and defended with his backhand slice, in what reminded me of a trench-warfare. It was not always elegant, but it certainly was Battle Royale. Contrary to a close first set in the semis in Melbourne park earlier this year, Murray won 7-6, as Djokovic blinked first. If one has to be critical – the next half an hour or so was when Djokovic played like he did not belong there. He quickly went down 0-4 and mentally checked out, when you expect the opposite from him. He eventually equalised it to five all – but one wonders if this is where he let the lead get too big, and was found wanting. Djokovic has this look where he shakes his head by puckering his lip while looking at heavens, a hint of a sarcastic smile that screams, “You dont want me to win ? is that why you sent the wind ? Lets just see, I am Novak Djokovic, and you have no idea what I can do on a tennis court. Lets just see how this all shakes out in the end“. That look has two objectives – he lets his opponent know what he is thinking, and he also talks to God during those times. If you watch closely, he had the exact same look – a look of sheer disdain and lack of care, when he was match points down against Federer in last year’s semi-final. What happened next back then, as we more often than not say – is history. Murray held his nerve for a two set lead: 7-6  7-5.

It was now time for Arthur Ashe to witness the Scotsman’s weakness. One almost wonders if Murray enjoys problem solving too much ? He certainly has a knack for making simple things complicated. Great Britain has long embraced the tradition of suffering through its sportsman (the penalty kick shootout in soccer, being a true testament) – and Murray had no intention of diverging from that long cherished tradition. He lost the third set 2-6, and went down a break in the fourth as soon as it started. “JELLY”, he would scream at his legs, berating their apparent lack of energy. His fans knew what they were in for, its almost like Murray likes to suffer on court, even during the times when he has a clear path to victory. Ofcourse, if you ask him he would potentially say, he only wished he had the flexibility to lose and win at his own volition, but that is how it appears when you watch the Scot time again squander promising positions in a tennis match. All credit to Djokovic who found his range from the baseline – enough, but never completely with the wind blowing. With a potential to be as precise and streamlined as a Scuderia Ferrari from the baseline, Djokovic’s game barely reached the precision of a Volkswagen, but it got the job done this evening. To his credit, Djokovic dug deep and toughed it out – and showed New York that he can win when the going gets tough, after all, this is the world number two we are talking about. As we went past four hours, the final was dead heat. Murray knew the final set in his most favorite tournament separates him from history. It was now, or he gains himself another agonisingly close loss in a grand slam final, his fifth. Djokovic had the momentum – or so he thought, and even James Bond was found twitching in his seat.

The first ten minutes into the final set, and Murray had a break in hand. Djokovic had bloodied knees, they looked bruised and battered, and his movement – clearly off the pace. Murray played like he was indeed possessed – and his confidence soaring after a healthy lead in the final set. Djokovic got one break back, but Murray simply had too much game and confidence to let this slide. It was fitting that this convoluted tale finally had one of its protagonists derive and embrace the energy he drew from the crowd, to fuel himself to the finish line. Djokovic’s tank ran empty, as Murray encouraged the crowd to get more resonant – as if that was even possible ? Minutes after midnight, as Djokovic’s return sailed long, Murray stared at the crowd – mouth closed with both hands, and stunned in silence. The scoreline read 6-2, for the final set. He was the most silent man inside the cauldron of Arthur Ashe, but perhaps the most satisfied. Djokovic went past the net to embrace Murray, once again displaying his genuine appreciation for his opponents when they win. One can almost make a legitimate claim that this is probably the richest era in men’s tennis for a long time. It was impossible but to conclude that on this evening in New York – the better player won. As raucous celebrations ensued on both sides of the Atlantic, Murray remained satisfied, silent and had the look of a man who finished his life long crusade towards Deliverance. A number of grand slam trophies beckon – for the future. Somewhere, ever so silently across that little pond – a page was turned in the adorned British tennis history. This cold and windy morning in New York City truly belonged to a man we call – Muzza. Even double O-SEVEN was on his feet – you don’t get that every day now, do you ?

Novak Djokovic: Playing Like 1

Novak Djokovic after winning Del Potro in the US Open 2012 Quarterfinal

Novak Djokovic after winning Del Potro in the US Open 2012 Quarterfinal

Next time you watch Novak Djokovic playing on the specific side of the court at the top end of your screen – try placing a coin at each location on the other side of the court, where the ball lands during a long rally. I bet that pretty soon you would have filled the bottom of your screen with coins all over. Such is the nonchalance with which the world numer two moves the ball around, before the rally is over. He does it with such consummate ease that it almost seems pedestrian. Last evening when he played Juan Martin Del Potro, Djokovic consciously moved him from side to side constantly keeping him off balance – its second nature to him.

The match had its share of crests and troughs – and the apex was perhaps reached too soon for a typical rambunctious New York audience, inside the cauldron of Arthur Ashe on a warm summer evening. The more you watched Djokovic from the baseline, you simply cannot escape a feeling that this was not ordinary tennis predicated on mundane (and henceforth – conventional) baseline principles. Djokovic’s game is not merely evolutionary – but it tends towards Revolutionary. Evolution is a part of the game, and is perhaps the only consistent underlying theme in such a global sport. Its evident as light and day – evolution, the counter-punchers today have more power than the ones of yesteryear (Murray, Hewitt and Chang). The power servers of the previous generation can at best be considered as, solid in today’s climate – if one only considers the serve speed as the governing metric. However, true champions in any ara, remain as champions in other eras. A Sampras or Federer will preserve their excellence independent of whether they play with robust graphite rackets, or the more gentler wooden rackets. There is little doubt that the game evolves constantly with time.

What makes Djokovic’s game tend towards revolutionary is the fact that nothing in his game stands out as remarkable. Sure – that “Better than Sliced Bread” backhand is indeed his biggest strength, but he wins matches deriving from a myriad of strengths other than that backhand. It will not be an understatement to claim that Djokovic’s game is not very remarkable – and that will be the biggest compliment you would have paid him. Its his economy, efficiency – and an almost ruthless lack of moving parts that engenders such a lean and mean Serbian ball machine. He qualifies as a counterpuncher, and an extremely offensive one at that – but if you have boxes with many options on what type of player he is, you will think thrice before selecting the “counter-puncher” option. Similarly, he qualifies for the playing styles of a defensive counterpuncher, a ground and pound baseliner, and an offensive baseliner – all different shades of the ubiquitous modern baseline game, and all of them to a certain degree fit the unique Serb. But, none of them completely define him, because he does many of them ever so excellently – and that remains his biggest strength. From a playing style perspective – there isn’t a clear box that you can tick to define and perhaps – describe Djokovic.

As Del Potro rifled his serve at speeds that would have done a seasoned marine proud – time and again the returns came back, with both depth and speed. There is a certain sense of incredulity you experience, as time and again Djokovic returned serves that you had a hard time seeing with the naked eye. In his attempt to wrestle control of the match out of Djokovic’s hands – the Argentine red lined his baseline engine towards the closing stages of the second set. In the tiebreaker, Del Potro unleashed his beast of a forehand with ruthless consistency, only to see them all come back – too many times back for his liking. It was not the mere defensive skills of the Serb that left you gasping – it was something completely different. Djokovic does not merely defend – his scintillating defensive skills does not lead to him merely prolonging the point by hitting one weak response after another. If he did that he would have been toast as turkey on thanksgiving – against Del Potro. Djokovic’s does not defend with a defender’s mindset – his defense helps him respond with at the least, a neutral shot in the middle of a brutally physical rally. The response might not lend him an advantage in the point, but neither does it render him a disadvantage – and on the dead run, you’ll take the latter each time. Make no mistake – the Serb is by far the best returner and defender on hard courts on the men’s tour at present. Defense does win championships – if you defend like Djokovic.

At one point, you wondered if this was the defining set of the tournament ? If Djokovic can take the best of a former US Open Champion, and wrestle the set out of his hands – then its going to take nothing short of a jaw-dropping performance from Ferrer, Murray or Berdych, to send the Serb packing. The next time when the camera focuses on the returner at the court-side angle – look at how Djokovic’s legs look. Roddick’s calves almost resemble a wood like robust profile – and Federer’s is much slimmer. Djokovic’s legs have all the strength they need, but they are wiry and supple, and highly elastic. His elasticity helps his movement around the court, and to do those splits on the dead run on a hard court. They certainly aren’t as dense as Roddick’s – but they fuel his movement with all the strength he needs to derive from them.

After a long time neither Federer nor Nadal have reached the final four in a grand slam. Lack of a finishing shot will leave a weary Ferrer severely handicapped against Djokovic. It does really come down to either Murray or Berdych to stop Djokovic. Murray can potentially get through Berdych by extending the match into overtime, but no one would be surprised if the Czech finds himself playing for the title on second Sunday. Berdych has looked ruthlessly clinical from the baseline until now in the tournament – and Murray needs to be at his versatile best to stop the Czech. One does get the feeling that if Berdych needs to win the semifinal, he needs to finish business in four.

With that said, can either of them stop Djokovic in his quest for a second consecutive title in New York ? Not from what I have seen these two weeks – this is INDEED Djokovic’s to lose. At times I wonder, if the “two” before his name at the US Open needs to be replaced by its preceding number. It probably SHOULD, because he is playing like one. Today is one of the most exciting days on the tennis calendar – “Super Saturday” – enjoy the tennis, and don’t forget to say “AJDE”.