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Brilliant Li Na Ends Up Second-Best

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It wasn’t a masked ball at the Rod Laver Arena on Saturday yet the final moments led to some spontaneous unmasking. Kim Clijsters of Belgium told the fans in the stadium that they could finally call her Aussie Kim while Li Na was very cross with her own supporters claiming they were trying to coach her in Chinese what to do mid-point.

Li Na has been the story of the tournament and to her credit she has put a face to China and broadly some would say even to Asia. Her on court interviews have delighted people across the world and her tennis has won her many admirers. It was the first Grand Slam final for Li and also a first for the large continent and she rose to the occasion and came out firing in the first set. The experienced Clijsters was pushed back and she had no answers to the power and accuracy of the Chinese star.

It was something that even Clijsters acknowledged later. “She did everything better than me in that first set,” said Clijsters. “Her ground strokes were heavier, deeper, she served better and she returned better. She was playing really well, probably the best she has ever played against me.”

Clijsters was also playing well but Li was playing brilliantly and she took nine out of the first 14 games. However, that was where things started slipping away from her. Once her clear-sightedness was clouded by impatience, Li got flustered and struggled to get her composure back. She won just three out of the last 13 games as Clijsters tightened her game and saw her opponent make a host of unforced errors.

Earlier Clijsters needed some help from Li to get back into the contest and it was her experience and the relative inexperience of her opponent that turned the tide. “I tried to do things differently to break her rhythm a little bit and make her think a little bit more,” Clijsters said. “I mixed it up a little bit, put some slices in, also hit a few higher shots and it made her make some unforced errors. And then she got a little bit aggravated and I just tried to hang in there.”

This was backed up by Li’s claim: “If you haven’t got that experience, if you come across some problems, you can’t get out of them that easily. It’s not that there’s no way out, it’s because you don’t know how to find a way out.”

Afterwards, Li said: “I don’t know why after I got to the final I had so many Chinese coaches on the court. Of course they want me to win the match but they were trying to coach me how to play tennis.” Can the crowd be blamed for Li Na’s downfall? That can only be considered if the crowd can be credited with her winning the previous rounds and reaching the final. “Be a master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big, worthwhile things. It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.” The quote by poet Robert Service could well be said for Li Na.

The witty and graceful Chinese needed to keep her tunnel vision going and there was no reason for her to be paying more attention to the crowd than to her game. Clijsters had changed her approach mid-way in the second set when she started defending from the baseline and scooping some high balls for Li to hit from the back of the court. Li needed to be aware of what her opponent was trying to do and also aware of the fact that she was still in the ascendancy.

Sadly the couple of errors Clijsters drew upset Li’s rhythm and that is when she started getting bothered by the crowd. Clijsters used the occasion to get her rhythm going and squeezed out the second set. From there on it was Clijsters all the way. The final score read 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in Clijsters favour.

Nevertheless, the experience would do a world of good for Li Na and if she finds herself in the same situation next time she may well be prepared to listen only to the rustling of the tennis ball. It would be wonderful if she treats everything else as just noise.

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Written by Deepan Joshi

January 30, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Nadal Has Bigger Accounts To Settle

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Just as Roger Federer has feet of clay when it comes to playing Rafael Nadal on the red clay of Paris similarly Nadal has some serious questions to answer on surfaces other than clay. I am only considering the Grand Slams for seeing relative performance as they to me signify the bigger and the more important battles.

Allow me to take the same reference point that I took in my previous piece, the past 19 Grand Slam titles. There isn’t any special reason to pick the last 19 apart from the fact that at random I prefer to pick an odd number. I tend to agree with Samuel Johnson: “Round numbers are always false.”

The golden period of Nadal is closer to the immediate end of the spectrum as three of his six Grand Slam titles have come in 2008 and 2009 and he also reached the semi-final of the US Open and the Australian Open for the first time in 2008 and then won the Australian in 2009 while again reaching the semis of the 2009 US Open. He also won the Gold medal at the Beijing Olympics and took over the number 1 rank for some months.

This proximity to the end of the spectrum gives an exaggerated view suggesting that Nadal has finally taken the mantle from Federer on all courts. Nothing could be far from the truth as Nadal’s best season has given him two Grand Slam titles and two semi-final berths. Roger Federer has won three Grand Slams in a year thrice and two in a year once. In his worst year he has reached three finals losing two to Nadal and winning one in New York.

Out of Nadal’s six titles, five have come by beating Federer in a Grand Slam final and one by eliminating him in a semi-final. Out of seven Grand Slam finals that they have played, Nadal does have an imposing record of 5-2. If I count from the 2008 French Open title, where Nadal totally-dominated Federer and gave him his worst Slam final defeat till date, then Nadal has won three out of eight Slam finals while Federer has won four out of eight Slam finals. Federer has made it to all eight finals in this period while Nadal has just reached the three that he has won.

Why has Nadal reached just 8 Grand Slam finals out of the last 19 while Federer has made it to 18? For Nadal it is: Four French Open finals, three Wimbledon finals and one Australian. For Federer it is: Five Wimbledon, five US Open, four French Open, and four Australian Open finals. The chances of Federer reaching a Grand Slam final are 95 per cent according to the data of the last 19 Slams while for Nadal it is 42 per cent.

If I take the French Open out of the equation then Federer has won 12 out of 15 matches—two of the three losses have come to Nadal. That is a win percentage of 80 per cent on three surfaces other than clay. If I take the French Open to see Nadal’s performance in the corresponding period then he has won three out of four finals and has a win percentage of 75 per cent on his best surface.

I repeat eighteen Grand Slam final appearances and one semi-final appearance for Roger Federer; a very simple proof of great consistency. Now the 19 previous Grand Slam tracker is quite complicated for Nadal as he has had one second round exit, one third round exit, two fourth round exits, two absence, three quarterfinals, three semi-finals, two finals and five slam victories. That adds up to nineteen.

Let us check their relative win percentage on different surfaces taking five previous appearances as the yardstick and a total of 20 as the grand number in disregard of my preference for even numbers. At the Australian Open Federer has reached the final 80 per cent of the times with a win percentage of 60. Nadal has reached the final once and won it hence his win percentage as well as the percentage of reaching the Melbourne final is 20 per cent.

At the French Nadal has won four times out of five appearances and his win as well as the final reaching percentage is 80 per cent. For Federer the win percentage at the Roland Garros is 20 while the final reaching percentage is 80. Federer may have won just one French Open final but he has reached the final on three more occasions and a semi-final in the fourth. Nadal has had one elimination in the fourth round.

At the Wimbledon Federer has a final reaching percentage of 100 and a win percentage of 80. Nadal at Wimbledon has a win percentage of 20 and a final reaching percentage of 60.

At the US Open Federer has a final reaching percentage of 100 and a win percentage of 80. Nadal has a zero for both win and final reaching percentage at the US Open.

Overall Federer has 12 wins out of 20 appearances and 18 finals out of 20—a win percentage of 60 on all surfaces and a final reaching percentage of 90 on all surfaces.

Nadal has a win percentage of 30 in this period with 6 wins out of 20 and his final reaching percentage is 40 with 8 finals out of 20.

In Nadal’s recent words those who consider him as a better player than Roger Federer do not understand tennis. Federer has some questions to answer especially his performance in finals against Nadal but that does not mean that Nadal is the all-conquering ogre with no issues to settle.

Written by Deepan Joshi

June 1, 2010 at 2:44 pm

Federer Still Has Accounts To Settle

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On his 19th birthday Rafael Nadal made a blistering entry to the tennis world by beating World Number 1 Roger Federer in the 2005 French Open semi-final. He then went on to win the title two days later on his maiden attempt. The next year in Paris Clay Nadal became the first man to beat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final. The Man from Majorca made it three years in a row when he defeated Federer in the 2007 French Open title fight at the Roland Garros in Paris.

Federer won his first Grand Slam in 2003 by defeating Mark Philippoussis at the Wimbledon. Apart from all the money, which obviously wasn’t on show, the world got to see the new champion shed a few tears and then receive a beautiful cow, perhaps brought from his hometown in Basel, Switzerland.

Federer then leapt up to a different plane and 2004 saw him win three Grand Slam titles, the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. The year 2005 didn’t start that well and he did not make it past the semi-finals in both the Australian Open as well as the French Open, losing on both occasions to eventual champions Marat Safin and Rafael Nadal respectively. He did make up by winning both the Wimbledon and the US Open.

The year 2006 again saw Federer win three Grand Slam titles but lose the one that had started to matter more by now. Federer tasted his first defeat in a Grand Slam final as Rafa outmuscled him from the baseline. It was the same story again in 2007 and Federer added three more Grand Slam titles while Rafa picked up his third silverware at Paris.

And by the end of 2007 Federer had 12 Grand Slam titles while Rafa had three clay court crowns. The next year was the Golden year for Rafa as he picked up his maiden Wimbledon crown after he had demolished Federer on Paris Clay earlier. In 2008 Rafa also won the Beijing Olympics Gold medal and dethroned Federer from his number 1 ranking. Federer bounced back from a nervous period to pick up four more Grand Slam titles, including a French, in the period till now.

Federer now has 16 Grand Slam titles and Nadal six, but he is yet to achieve what Nadal has already accomplished. Roger Federer needs to beat a fit Nadal on the surface that suits the style of Nadal. Out of Nadal’s six titles five have come by beating Federer in a Grand Slam final and one by eliminating him in a semi-final. Out of seven Grand Slam finals that they have played Nadal has an imposing record of 5 : 2.

Three of those five titles have come on clay and the other two that Nadal has won demonstrate how he has year-by-year improved and adapted his game to reach a higher level on grass and hardcourts. And if Nadal has raised his game it begs the question as to what path has the game of Federer taken?

Has his prowess declined, has his game remained stationary while the field has caught up with him, or is it that he too has improved on clay, where he won last year, and has been improving on grass and the hardcourts as well but his incremental improvement is slower to that of Nadal?

It is a tough question to answer because in this very period of the ascendance of Nadal it is Federer who actually takes the spotlight. At the Australian Open in 2008 Federer lost the semi-final to eventual champion Novak Djokovic and this loss ended a record run of 10 Grand Slam final appearances in a row for Roger Federer. Then he lost in the finals of the French Open and the Wimbledon to Nadal. He ended the year on a happy note by lifting the US Open trophy. In 2009 Federer made it to the finals of all Grand Slam tournaments and won the French and the Wimbledon. He lost the Australian Open to Nadal and the US Open to Juan Martin Del Potro.

The two finals he lost were both tight and Federer looked in control and on course to victory before he was surprised. At the Australian Open he surprised himself and others by showing that he too can be a victim of nerves. He played an abysmally-poor fifth set which the fighting but tiring Nadal gleefully accepted. In Flushing Meadows he was two sets to one up having lost the second in a tiebreaker and had surgically dissected Del Potro and seemed on course for an easy win. This time he was surprised by Del Potro, who got his rhythm going and seized the momentum from Federer and blasted away to his maiden Grand Slam title.

In the last 19 Grand Slams Roger Federer has been there on one end 18 times—the loss to Djokovic dividing his record run of 10 final appearances and his current continuing stretch of 8. In the last 19 Grand Slams Nadal has reached the finals on eight occasions and he has an impressive 6:2 win-loss ratio. Federer has won 12 out of 18 finals in the same period but importantly 5 of the six losses have been to Nadal. Rafael Nadal can boast of a better win-loss ratio but Federer gives himself a greater chance and that is the reason why in the same period Federer has won double the number of Grand Slam titles than Nadal.

You don’t, however, become a Federer by resting on laurels and he would be conscious of the fact that he still has to put the stamp of his authority on this rivalry. This rivalry is raw and alive and only time will tell whether the Spaniard inflicts more pain to Federer or whether the Swiss comes out as a Gladiator and fights for his life.

The Flight Of Federer

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A young correspondent, apparently in love with Rafael Nadal, once left me in a philosophical bind about the nature of all crafts, although she was just talking about tennis. When Nadal was locked in the battle for his life with fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco at the semi-final of the Australian Open last year; the girl and her friend were worried about the final as they reckoned, and probably rightly, that only Nadal could take out the Swiss. For that moment it was more to do with Federer losing the next match than Nadal winning the one hanging in balance.

A month or so later a corridor conversation cleared my doubt and left me speechless and I wondered about the nature of art, or, more specifically, the understanding of it. I was telling the girl ‘see how easy Federer makes it look’ to which she, thrilled by the observation, replied “that’s the whole point because it doesn’t even look like he is playing.” She was young and Rafa, of course, is a wonderful player, therefore, I didn’t want to disturb her equilibrium by my oozing admiration of the ease with which Federer operates. I should have told her; please don’t mind, Federer does make people mad. How else can you define what Nikolay Davydenko must be felling in the locker room after today’s match?

Davydenko began his flight in earnest and in top gear and you could see the speed of it like one sees the white streak that a supersonic jet leaves as its mark on a cloudless blue sky. Federer lost the first set 6-2 and was trailing a break at 3-1 in the second. And just like that from that position he won 13 games in a row and Davydenko did not know where to go or what to do. It was as much tennis as it was torture; made excruciatingly-painful by the whiff of the ‘disdainful and regal’ detachment with which Federer conducts himself on court more often than not. And he did it with such finesse today that you could only see the executioner; as the one being executed had been taken out of the equation. The scoreboard for Federer-Davydenko read: 2-6, 6-3, 6-0.

Davydenko then made his presence felt in the fourth set when he came back from 3-0 to three all. The fourth set swayed for a while and Federer blew the first chance to take the match on his serve. He then broke Davydenko again and this time there was no stopping him. Game over.

When Federer is in full flight he is less like a jet and more like a swift eagle; born to fly without leaving a mark in the sky. And he rules the court like some ancient monarch in full control of his territory. No doubt that Nadal handed Federer one tough year and the young Spaniard is one of the game’s best defenders from the baseline; who can additionally pounce and attack when given a loose ball. Nadal forces the opponent to play an extra winner and that is why his presence induces an error.

Unlike Nadal, whose physical game is unleashed in grunts; Federer operates in relative silence. That one year when Nadal won the French Open and the Wimbledon and followed it up with a win in Melbourne the next season was his golden period. And if you come closer and just see the last season then Federer reached the finals of all four Grand Slams and won two. There is no one in the circuit who could make it to even two finals. Nadal could make it to just one and he has already pulled out of the first one this season.
Do you have to be Einstein to see that the Swiss is a cut above the rest?

Written by Deepan Joshi

January 28, 2010 at 2:33 am

Federer’s Whispering Feet Keep Him Afloat

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In 2008, Roger Federer lifted the US Open trophy in New York and ended what could arguably be called his worst year. Federer’s worst year coincided with Rafael Nadal’s best season till date. In 2008 Roger made it to three finals and lost two, Nadal on the other hand made it to two finals and won both.

Nadal was at his imperious best on Paris clay, where he blasted Federer in three sets and handed the Swiss the worst defeat of his glorious career.

At Wimbledon, Nadal and Federer played what is regarded as the greatest match of tennis history. The Wimbledon final that ended almost in darkness seemed like the beginning of a new era; the era of power tennis, endless energy and the street fighter’s attitude. Along with Wimbledon, Nadal also took the World Number 1 rank, a few weeks later; ending the longest streak by any player at the top of the table.

It was on September 22, 1997 that 16-year-old Federer debuted on the ATP computer. As documented in the book On This Day In Tennis History, Federer was less than two months after turning 16 when he debuted on the ATP computer with a world ranking of No. 803. Six and a half years later Federer had climbed to the number 1 spot.

As the 2009 season progressed Federer found his feet and defeated Nadal in the clay court tournament played in Madrid as a run up to the French Open. He then lifted the French Open for the first time by beating Soderling, who had shocked the tennis world a few days earlier by eliminating Nadal.

Against Tommy Haas earlier in the tournament, Federer was down two sets and serving at 30-40, 3-4 in the third when he played a blazing forehand that turned his year around. Just five points away from being out of the tournament, Roger ran to his left and cracked an inside out forehand that sailed over the net and flew without any hint of fear to land just inches short of doom. He won nine straight games after that.

Unlike Nadal, whose physical style is unleashed in grunts, Federer operates in relative silence. Having finally won the tournament that had eluded him for so many years in Paris, Federer added one more Wimbledon title to his tally in another marathon five-setter against a rejuvenated Roddick.

In 2009, Roger Federer reached the finals of all the four Grand Slam tournaments and faced a different opponent at each venue. The two finals he lost were both five setters in which a poor final set by Federer sealed the match he otherwise looked more in control of. With 15 Grand Slam titles, he is already in unchartered territory and fit to play for a few more years.

“The argument for Federer as the greatest player in men’s tennis history starts from the ground up, with feet snug in lightweight custom Nike sneakers, with muscles sculpted from training sessions in Dubai, with movement that makes Hall of Famers marvel,” wrote Greg Bishop in The New York Times. When Federer struggled in 2008, he had missed three of his usual training sessions in Dubai because of mononucleosis, the Beijing Olympics and a bad back.

Even ballet dancers are impressed by Federer’s footwork. Kathryn Bennetts runs the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium. She grew up in Australia with tennis courts all around and when she became a professional dancer she saw a correlation of movement between both the passions.

“Elite dancers combine speed, dexterity, power and coordination. Grace stems from their awareness of their feet and the way movement flows from there. They move easily, in balance, made to appear that way through thousands of hours of repetition. In Federer, Bennetts found the Mikhail Baryshnikov of tennis.”
“He has this smoothness to him,” she said. “He’s an artist, so refined. Like how dance transports you to a different place, so does he,” Kathryn was quoted by Bishop in a story about Federer’s footwork.

Written by Deepan Joshi

September 23, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Federer and Roddick battle for history

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I’ll go back in history to paint a background that puts today’s Wimbledon final in perspective. I could pick any point and there are 14 of them or I could pick the one that’s determined to add another one. The problem is that in the context of this match neither of those points are the most significant.

A significant point in a tennis match is a break point. And a significant one in a player’s journey is also a point when he is broken, pulverised to dust, robbed of dignity and left with the challenge of picking the pieces in order to become whole again.

On June 8, 2008, Rafael Nadal thrashed Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 to win his fourth successive French Open title. Federer had 12 Grand Slam singles titles before that day, and in the next four Grand Slams he’s added two more to the tally but the two that got away have their own meaning.

On July 4, 2008 when Federer and Nadal met next after Roland Garros, in last year’s Wimbledon final, Andy Roddick had just landed in Texas with wife Brooklyn and the television in the airport lounge caught his eye.

The epic struggle in which Federer made a stirring riposte after being two sets down was somehow breaking Roddick. He could not watch. He was quoted as saying he didn’t want to watch. He could not take his eyes away from the match either. He didn’t leave the airport till the match got finished and Nadal prevailed in the titanic struggle. Roddick felt he was in an abyss. He missed being there.

Just eight days earlier he was in Centre Court as the number 6 seed and had been sent packing in the second round by unseeded Serbian Janko Tipsarevic. Watching the match at the airport was a moment of truth for Roddick, and it led to his questioning his game and laying bare his doubts with Brooklyn. In came coach Larry Stefanki and Roddick went back to the drawing board. Stefanki has the reputation of ruling with an iron rod and the result is a lean, fast and positive Roddick.

On the other side Federer ended the season lifting the US Open, beating Andy Murray who had dismissed his nemesis Nadal on way to the finals. It was a season that would have made any player proud, but Federer is not any player and for him the season would have hurt like hell.

This year Federer came out to Melbourne in great form, making light of the challenge of Roddick and Del Petro on his way to the final. Nadal reached the final a spent man, having survived the match of the tournament with fellow countryman Verdasco.

It was a tight match till four sets, Nadal was tired yet fired up while Federer was good but not the man who at his best combines beauty with disdain. Everything deserted Federer in the final set; his first serve, his accuracy in hitting the lines, and most of all his belief. It was a match he said he could have or should have won.

This was the second time he was beaten by Nadal on a surface that suits him more after the annihilation in Paris. In one year the king of clay had snatched the overall Number 1 crown, conquered grass and the Australian hardcourt and had an Olympic gold as crowning glory.

Federer broke down to uncontrollable tears in Melbourne, his long-time girlfriend and now wife Mirka Vavrinec looking shocked in the audience. He had somehow managed to say a few words at Wimbledon, ‘the worst opponent but on the best court’ and had also maintained his poise.

In Melbourne he could not do either, when the crowd shouted, ‘We love you, Roger’, Federer was completely lost. Nadal didn’t know what to do, his moment of glory drowning in a sea of tears. Nadal took his trophy and came and put his arm around Federer to empathise, and both of them smiled for a while.

That’s when Federer intervened and did what summed up his character more than the whole of last year had. That’s when he became whole again. Let me try once more he said, I don’t want to have the last word. That man deserves it. Congratulations Rafa, you are the deserving champion. That moment of giving credit to the victor lifted the burden from the vanquished.

Roger Federer has buried the past and lifted the French Open this year. Andy Roddick has turned the clock back; when Stefanki told him he needs to lose 5 kgs, Andy responded by saying that he hasn’t been that slim since he was 21. To which his coach said: But what happened at 21, you won a major.

The stage is set for the defining moment and one way or the other history would be made today. The two men in the Centre Court know that history would be made only if they forget history. It would be sad if Roddick plays with the burden of history tied around his neck and it would be dangerous if Federer plays with the comfort of history in his mind.

Written by Deepan Joshi

July 5, 2009 at 3:58 pm

In admiration of Roger Federer

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There is this funny anecdote that effectively drives a serious point home. A man well over 100 years was asked the secret of his long life. The old man thought for a while, and then replied that I think it’s because I’ve had many many birthdays.

Longevity is perhaps the toughest to maintain at the top level of any sport and is therefore the yardstick for measuring greatness. The players who do it year after year, at one Olympic and then the next do not share their place in history with those who quickly melt in the immense heat of the arena. Any cricketer who has played over 100 Tests can tell about the feeling of satisfaction that comes with having lasted that long.

I wonder what Roger Federer would say if he was asked the secret of his amazing career? Yesterday he strolled past Spain’s Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 6-2 6-2 6-4 to enter the third round of Wimbledon. Raphael Nadal, his nemesis throughout last year, didn’t make it to the semis in Paris and is out of action in Wimbledon due to a knee injury. In his own way Nadal too is carving a place in tennis history, but that can wait for now and be a subject for another post.

By Federer’s standards, last year was the worst that he has had till now; it started with a semi-final exit at Melbourne and then a crushing defeat in Paris clay, where Nadal blasted him out in straight sets. Then it was the unbelievable match that Nadal and Federer produced in Wimbledon, and in fading light Nadal prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7. Roger said in broken sentences, ‘the worst opponent, but on the best court’. Federer won the last slam, the US Open, by beating Andy Murray; who had accounted for Nadal earlier. …

Written by Deepan Joshi

June 25, 2009 at 12:10 pm

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