Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Cilic is a tough guy to read. Whether he plays well, or not so much, he plays at a similar level of intensity. In terms of body language, there’s not much of a difference, because he seems to be one of those players that try to find themselves in ‘automatic’ mode to find their best tennis, rather than an inspired mode.
It’s not too dissimilar to Tomas Berdych’s approach to ball-striking except that Cilic is relaxed, not casual like Berdych can be. Neither of them enjoy toughing out rallies much, they prefer hitting clean and accurate shots, and that’s where Djokovic had an advantage over Cilic though I’m not sure what Cilic could have done about that since Djokovic is naturally a better mover. Cilic is a much better competitor than Berdych though, more capable of fighting through bad days because he has a much better selective memory.
When Cilic plays well, it’s like he takes all of the elements out of the equation. Rarely have I seen such a high level of tennis being made to look so simple, almost as if Cilic never even went above his comfort zone, yet looking at his shot selection, he clearly redlined his game hitting close to the lines with alarming regularity.
This match was just as much about the errors as the winners, because it was all about Cilic asserting his authority, not hitting winning shots. He opened the match with a clear game plan in mind, to shorten up the points as much as possible, so that even if he made numerous errors, he didn’t allow Nadal to feel good about himself or that he had any control over the match. It all began with the return of serve which Cilic attacked relentlessly, and from there, he was able to take control of the point and finish it off.
The way Cilic played against Nadal, it was like he got in the zone for two sets and never really looked up to see who was on the other side of the net. He knew who he was playing against, he had his set tactics but it was all about execution and that’s what he focused on, hitting his spots. I’m sure it’s just his calm demeanor by nature, but how nonchalant did Cilic look changing directions almost every couple of shots? Precise, high-risk early ball-striking made easy. This doesn’t look sustainable to me over multiple matches, too reliant on timing and we’ve seen it in his career before, his game frequently wandering off for a set or two.
He also looked comfortable exchanging backhand crosscourts to Nadal’s forehand often winning that battle, and somehow managing to generate impressive pace and angle to find winners that didn’t look like they could be created. His height surely helped with that, and Cilic takes the ball earlier than the majority of players.
Nadal looked lost, and he tried several tactics, first prolonging rallies and taking the pace off the ball, anything to get himself more in points, but Cilic rose to the challenge. Then he tried to be more aggressive but it was too late by then. Unfortunately for Nadal, his serve didn’t allow him to start off on the right foot. He seemed to struggle noticeably with Cilic’s skidding flat balls as well that bounce relatively low off the court, making it difficult for Nadal to scoop up. I really think that taller players have the greater luxury of having a bigger margin of error on flatter shots, and that really helps Cilic out.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
The ATP players have long spoken about the need for a longer off-season, and it’s been one of the most widely discussed topics in the most recent years. It’s been such a cause of concern for the players that for the first time, three of the highest profile players, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic nominated themselves to be on the ATP Players Council in a bid to create change and make a difference.
Given the recent injury problems of Rafael Nadal and the recent announcement of Roger Federer’s withdrawal from the tournaments in Tokyo and Shanghai, it’s time to evaluate the ATP calendar again.
There are many sides of the story to this argument, and from a media perspective it’s always tempting to go with the players, given that they’re the stars of our sport. It’s obvious from their point of view that injuries are becoming more of a problem with the increasing physical demand and athleticism required of the sport.
There are many issues to consider, and the intention of this article is not to give a conclusive opinion but instead to consider each and every point available.
The 2009 ATP World Tour / ITF schedule
- Despite talks of improving the current ATP schedule, things appear to be heading in the opposite direction with increased mandatory tournaments, greater penalties for withdrawals and more travel required with the players, now with a mandatory Asian season due to the Shanghai tournament.
- Shorter breaks between Davis Cup, and the tournament preceding it, changed to a half week turnaround instead of one and a half weeks. Considering that the biggest cause of injuries is the change of surfaces, this is a controversial issue. The number of players that were sporting knee injuries during the US Open season as a result of the surface transition from clay, grass to hardcourt was alarmingly high this year, including players such as Gilles Simon, Fernando Gonzalez, Gael Monfils and Jose Acasuso.
- The off-season is equally as short as it was last year, and it’s the only opportunity for players to build up their strength and endurance, create that fitness base for the year. As much as the players have voiced their frustration, would players necessarily enjoy the greater extended period, more weeks of fitness training without a tournament in sight? It’d surely be a system that would reward the most focused and hard-working players. Up to some point, enough weeks need to be allocated to allow players to have a proper holiday but not more than that.
- An overwhelming majority of players expressed their preference for back-to-back tournaments and a shorter break in between Davis Cup and the preceding tournament, so it’s not really the ATP’s fault but more so, a voting matter. Players have consistently shown that smart scheduling isn’t the highest of their priorities. Instead spending less time in a particular continent or region seems to be of greater interest.
Ideally the best schedule would be playing on-and-off tennis with alternating weeks of rest and tournament tennis, but this doesn’t suit to fit the mindset of a tennis player. They prefer to play mini-seasons of tennis, and only take the breaks that are necessary for them to survive physically. Then take into account players picking the tournaments they like, building up form for Grand Slams, appearance fees and prizemoney and somehow smart scheduling becomes lost somewhere.
- Despite the mandatory events, the ATP calendar is still essentially a pick-and-choose system, planned by players themselves. At some point, players have to take responsibility for their own scheduling. In my view, any player that doesn’t qualify for the Year-End World Tour Final should certainly be capable of creating their own longer off-season if they wished to do so.
- Lower ranked players can benefit from playing for prizemoney, or may feel reduced effects of fatigue with fewer consecutive matches at each event.
The entertainment business / the spectators
- How would you feel if the tournament from your home city was taken away? It’s a spectator sport and no player is obligated to play any particular 250 event - these types of events forms the majority of events calendar. Therefore, in theory, any number of them could exist. In my opinion, tournament attendance is the best method of attracting casual fans, people that are more interested in the occasion and spotting stars rather than the matches themselves.
- Prizemoney is driven by revenue, sponsorships and television deals so the financial side will always be the highest priority. This is basically another way of saying that the players’ concerns will always have to be less important, and revenue is driven by the participation of the top players. This explains the increasing trend towards mandatory participation.
- One could argue that money could be invested into promoting the second tier players like Fernando Verdasco and Gilles Simon, but this broad approach would likely produce less effective results, because promotion tends to need to be streamlined to a select group of players. It is also difficult to impress casual viewers and players need to back it up with great results in the Grand Slams, not to mention the addition of an eye-catching game.
Do you think the ATP calendar should be shortened – and is it more of a players’ responsibility or is the ATP largely to blame for this?
It would be unfair to call Andy Murray’s successful 2009 season as a sophomore slump. In a way, it’s a reference to the mindset that changes, Murray’s second successful year as a solidified top player on tour, and it can be draining mentally. Adrenaline doesn’t last forever, and every peak levels out eventually, whether due to increasing expectations or declining play.
It’s a common observation in tennis, young players finding their forms and suddenly feeling like they’re on top of the world. They’ve barely started their careers and they’re already close to the top of the rankings. It’s not like Andy Murray first started his pro career, but his meteoric rise began in the US hardcourt season last year, highlighted by a US Open final appearance.
He’s had good results in 2009, but his Grand Slam results have left a lot to be desired not living up to the results from the Masters events. Tennis is a confidence sport, and somehow staying on an even plateau can result in a lack of inspiration, the feeling of being stagnant despite all efforts to move a career forward on and off the court.
Playing well requires a certain spark, a surge of interest and energy to play attacking and athletic tennis. Big events such as Grand Slams require this in spades, as witnessed by runs from Fernando Gonzalez, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling in previous years. Murray has it inside of him in case he needs it, but he needs to believe that he needs to use it. Murray is one of those players that will use just as much as he needs, and that has been his biggest downfall.
Is it a sign of cockiness, preference or inability to read other people’s full potential? I think, it is a combination of all three. As much as Murray is a thoughtful player, he is also a reactive player often bogged down into using too many deft slices and rolled over shots to the point where he is more entertaining himself than getting the job done in the best way possible. Ultimately if he is being outplayed, he will still believe in his ability to fight through a match without feeling a drastic change is needed, like the Montreal final against Juan Martin Del Potro. It’s the type of stubbornness that can often be seen with the best players.
Considering that Murray has the ability to drastically change the patterns of play, he doesn’t often make noticeable changes within a match, usually minor at best. His style of play is more varied in between matches, from one opponent to the next. His way of being aggressive in recent times has been more like hitting a panic button, trying to hit the ball harder rather than structuring a more aggressive point, like in his Wimbledon match against Andy Roddick.
He very rarely plays a statement match these days, those matches that send out signs to the rest of the locker room, to watch out. He’s not an intimidating figure, but rather a confusing player to play against at the best of times. The best way to beat him is to not get sucked into it, keep it simple and straightforward, patient target tennis like Cilic showed at the US Open. Forget about his athleticism because he can’t hurt you if he’s too much on the defensive.
As much as taking the long way round can be a sight for sore eyes, it’s obviously silly to take the longer route when you can take the shorter one. That’s something Juan Martin Del Potro showed loud and clear in the US Open final. If you can hit a winner into the open court, then do it. I suspect the problem is that Murray has not yet fully mastered how to control his faster paced balls.
What makes the best players in the world where they are, is generally that they don’t allow their opponents to have success even on their good days. They don’t play down their level noticeably, but they still keep that margin of error. Building up an opponent’s confidence is a dangerous thing, and I always feel that Murray is on the borderline to flirting with disaster.
He needs to get it ingrained in his head that anyone is capable of having a good ball-striking day, and treat every dangerous player as if they’re capable of Rafael Nadal-like consistency. It may not be true, but who would have thought that Robin Soderling would have made the French Open final?