Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Leaving the Australian Open Behind
The Australian Open provided enough thrills throughout the two-week long tennis festival, and concluded with Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic confirming their statuses as the best players on their respective tours. The first major of the 2015 season also allowed the players to step back and evaluate the state of their game and adjust their expectations based on what they have seen from other players. We witnessed the arrival of Madison Keys to big-time tennis on the one hand, and realized on the other that Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep, who did arrive earlier than Keys, still have some steps to climb in order to win their first major title.
Most evaluations on the day after the finals of a major focus on the last few days and the well-known names, and overlook a few so-called "lessons-to-learn" that get pushed aside by other news during the week. Understanding the possibility that others may have mentioned one or more before, here are three conclusions that stood out in my mind.
Challenging the Canon in Men's Doubles
The final match of the men's doubles draw featured two unseeded European teams. The Italians Fabio Fognini and Simone Bolelli defeated the Frenchmen Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert in straight sets to win their first major title in one of the most unexpected outcomes in Melbourne. How they did it, was even more astonishing. Fognini and Bolelli proved that one of the most common presuppositions in men's doubles, that a doubles team cannot win if they "stay back," is simply inaccurate.
They constantly played return games with both staying back. They chose to trade rallies in which their opponents aimed to put the ball away at the net while the Italians stayed at the baseline, looking to pass or lob. Fognini and Bolelli rarely used serve-and-volley on their service games. The server exclusively stayed back on second serves and seldom came to the net after first serves. Their plan on service games was to win the points rallying crosscourt with one player up and one player back, and to hit passing shots if the Frenchmen approached the net. It was very elementary, the kind of tactic that you see at club level tennis, yet effective and suited to their strengths. Now they have their names engraved forever as major winners in doubles.
The "Real Young Guns": Far From Ready For "Big-Time" Success
Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori are often labeled "newcomers" or "next generation of players" in men's tennis There is no doubt that they present formidable challenges to the elite players, although it took time for them to get to that stage. The players often grouped under the term "young guns" comprise of a different set of characters. We can for example include Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Borna Coric, and now Elias Ymer among men's players, Cici Bellis, Belinda Bencic and Océane Dodin among women's players in this group. This Australian Open's message was clear to most youngsters belonging to this group: physically, they are not ready!
Let's take the extreme case Nick Kyrgios who reached his second major quarterfinal last week. He was tired during his match against Andy Murray and managed to play a close second set only thanks to the sheer energy that he generated from crowd support and the grandeur of the occasion. Note also that he just announced his withdrawal from the upcoming Marseille and Dubai ATP events because of a bone stress in lower back following his grueling run to the quarterfinals in the Australian Open.
Elias Ymer and Borna Coric lost their early-round matches not due to lack of skills, but mainly because they could only compete at a high level for three sets before they began to get flat-footed and physically waned. Bencic is in the middle of a down period following her quick burst on the scene in 2014, and the difference between Dodin and her second-round opponent Karolina Pliskova was how much fresher Pliskova was in the last few games of the final set. Of course, Dodin's three-set thriller against Alison Riske a day earlier did not help either.
Succeeding in majors takes getting used to mentally as well as physically. The pressure is higher, the crowds are bigger, and mentally, the players must remain in their intense competition mode for more days that that required in other tournaments. And for men, the matches last longer in Slams than in any other ATP Tour event due to the five-set format. It took Murray and Djokovic years, and several semifinal or final match failures, to finally get to the level of Nadal and Federer. Now Dimitrov, Raonic, and Nishikori are experiencing the repeated failures in those stages in majors against mostly the "big four" players. In short, Coric, Ymer, Kokkinakis, and Kyrgios better take note; they still have a long way to go.
Don't Play a Tournament the Week Before a Major*
This is not new, but rather a confirmation. As you noticed, it comes with an asterisk. If the player does not expect to reach the second week of a major, or if he or she is ranked in the lower part of the acceptance list, I can understand his or her choice to play an event the week immediately preceding a major, thus the asterisk. The player would hope to win matches in the main draw, benefiting from the lack of top players who are preparing for the following week, and collect valuable points, at the cost of under-performing when the major comes around.
This was the case for a number of players three weeks ago. Heather Watson lost in the first round of the Australian Open, suffering from menstruation-related pain, apparently a taboo topic in elite professional sports. While it is questionable how much the exhaustion from the full match schedule of the previous week may have contributed/added to the degree of pain that she felt, it is also not an exaggeration to wonder if she could have prepared better for her first round match in Melbourne had she not been preoccupied by the intense preparations of day-to-day competition in Hobart. In retrospect, Watson will cherish the points that she gained from winning a WTA event, so in her case, it was a trade-off and not necessarily a bad decision.
I do, however, have to question the decision of Petra Kvitova to play the WTA Sydney event during the week before the Australian Open. Yes, she won the tournament, but unlike Heather Watson, she did not need the points (she is No. 4 in the world), certainly not at the cost of risking a major tournament. She lost to Madison Keys in Melbourne. It is true that Keys had the tournament of her young career. Yet, the American did not play as well against Kvitova as she did in her matches against both Williams sisters in the quarterfinal and semifinal. Kvitova looked sluggish at times and lacked the first quick step to get into position to strike her powerful groundstrokes.
In the men, Adrian Mannarino who reached the final of the ATP Heineken Open in Auckland had to withdraw from his match against Feliciano Lopez in the second round of the Australian Open, feeling ill while he was two-sets-to-one up. In fact, none of the four finalists from the two ATP tournaments held the week before the Australian Open made it to the second week in Melbourne, with only Victor Troicki reaching the third round. On the one hand, the decision to play that week can suit a particular player depending on that player's ranking and immediate goals. On the other hand, history shows that it will most likely have a negative impact on the player's chance to do well at the major in question.
According to Brad Gilbert, when he became Andy Roddick 's coach in June 2003, one of the first things he told his new pupil was to forget about scheduling any tournaments prior to the majors. He was specifically referring to the St. Poelten tournament before Roland Garros that Roddick played and won, two months before they joined forces. In Gilbert's opinion, playing that tournament was the main reason why Roddick got upset in the first round of the French Open by Sargis Sargsian. Side note: Roddick did finish 2003 as the number one player in the world, the last American to do so.