The tennis season is almost at an end for another year. The conclusion of the US Open, the final grand slam tournament of the year, has given us some key insights as to how the game looks to shape up in the near future.
To say that 2016 has been an eventful year for tennis would be an understatement. The betting scandal in the sport reported by Buzzfeed – and delightfully dubbed the ‘tennis racquet’ – was only a sign of worse things to come. Maria Sharapova currently has her tennis future hanging in the balance due to the controversy surrounding the alleged use of a banned substance. Sexist attitudes rampant within and about the sport reared their ugly head once again when the then tournament director of Indian Wells, Raymond Moore, made a public statement about how female tennis athletes “ride on the coattails of the men”. Things got more complicated when the current men’s world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic made an initial statement in a press conference that appeared to legitimise Moore’s views, before issuing a revised statement asserting that he was misunderstood and that he stands for “equality in the sport”.
We saw the flame of the Golden Age of men’s tennis officially start to flicker. Rafael Nadal spent the majority of the first half of the season recovering from a left wrist injury that forced him to withdraw early on from his beloved French Open, skip Wimbledon altogether, and then lose early in the US Open to Lucas Pouille in a thrilling five-setter. There was a time when you’d put your money on Nadal without hesitation in scraping out a win and wearing the opponent down in a tough five-set match even when he is not playing at his best. However, that’s not the case anymore. By Nadal’s own admission, he isn’t “hurting his opponents” with his shots anymore. His opponents seem to have realised this as well and hence are more willing than before to play lights out tennis and take their chances in order to beat him. As he grows older and his body shows signs of wear and tear, it’s now more obvious than before than if Nadal intends to prolong his career, he cannot continue to play with the strategy of wearing his opponents down. This strategy may have worked well for him in the past but that isn’t the case today. His playing style is having a counterproductive effect. Rather than breaking and wearing his opponents down, due to age, his own body is likely to give in first.
The other half of this magnificent on-court men’s tennis couple – Roger Federer – has had his own share of troubles this season. He missed the French Open due to recurring back issues. After losing to rising Canadian tennis sensation Milos Raonic in the semifinals of Wimbledon, Federer issued a statement outlining that he had decided to skip the rest of the tennis to get proper rehabilitation for his knee after the surgery he underwent earlier on in the year. He also suffered a freak accident in the most Federeresque way possible: hurt himself while giving his children a bath. Federer is now, as of August this year, 35 years old. How he manages his body and his workload is key to how long in the future tennis fans all over can continue seeing him on the court weaving his magic.
However, it’s not all been depressing news for the sport this year. We have seen the incredible rise and rise (and rise!) of Angelique Kerber, who has been undisputedly, the most consistent and improved player this season. And post her US Open grand slam win, at 28 years of age, she is the oldest female tennis player to reach world number one in the rankings for the first time. On the men’s tour, we witnessed the incredible return of Juan Martin Del Potro, who beat Djokovic and Nadal en-route to a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics and brought the crowd to tears in a highly emotional quarterfinal encounter at the US Open. He might yet have something to say, as he recently beat Andy Murray in a pulsating five hour plus duel in the singles rubber of the Davis Cup – setting up Argentina’s road into the final where they will play Croatia for the trophy.
Stan Wawrinka and Angelique Kerber: Mirror Images
It difficult to put in words the magnitude of what Angelique Kerber has achieved and the kind of whirlwind year she has had. She beat Serena Williams in a thrilling three-set women’s singles final at the first Grand Slam of the year – the Australian Open – in a match few would have touted her to come through as the victor. What has been more impressive than her breakthrough success this year is her consistency. She was the runner-up to Serena at Wimbledon, won the silver medal at the Rio Olympics, and went on to win the US Open singles title, making her a dual grand slam champion in the same calendar year. In doing so, she became the first player since Martina Hingis in 1997 to win both hard-court slams in the same calendar year.
Just pause and let that sink in for a moment. No other player has won more matches overall, won more hard-court surface matches, and faced more top 10 players this season than Kerber. A lot has been said about this mysterious and bordering on ethereal transformation of Kerber. In her interviews, Kerber recounts the pivotal moment: a brief chat with her idol Steffi Graf that changed everything for her. She started to believe in her game and something fell into place mentally. There was never any doubt about her ability and talent. She was always known to grind out points and play a physical game but seemed to wither away mentally in the crucial moments. But this new Kerber, energised with self-belief is a different player altogether.
A lot of ink has been spilled about how tennis is as much a mental game as is a physical one and Kerber seems to be a prime example of this diktat. However, the Kerber success story is not as neat a narrative as most have presented it to be. The fact is, Kerber has improved all aspects of her game and is now a more complete player than before. Her all-court coverage is exceptional. When she is stretched out wide or on the run she has many options: she is able to neutralise the point with an effective slice from the backhand side or hit a powerful running forehand that can go either cross-court or down the line. No one returns serve better than Kerber does right now. Her own serves also have a bit more pop and she is able to use the lefty angle, slicing the ball away from the court and getting her opponents out of position on their return very effectively with her first serves.
The truth is, there are many defensive counter-punchers in women’s tennis: Halep, Wozniacki, Radwanska come to mind. But none of them possess the power to hit an opponent off the court with their penetrative weight of shot. This is what sets Kerber apart. She not only has exceptional defensive skills, but has the explosive pace and depth of shot in her arsenal, especially on the forehand side, when she needs it. Let me give you an example.
It’s the US Open women’s singles final. Dropping the first set hasn’t unnerved giant-killer Karolina Pliskova, who beat both Venus and Serena Williams on her way to her very first grand slam final. Pliskova is playing aggressive tennis and her long arms are bestowed with the kind of easy power that makes your jaw drop. The difference here is that with the power, she is proving to be accurate with her shot selection and placement as well. Even though she dropped the first set, Pliskova comes back to take the second set, bullying Kerber with her powerful groundstrokes and breaks first in the deciding third set. However, Kerber breaks back and the game is balanced on a knife’s edge. It’s 3-3, 30-30 in the deciding set on Kerber’s serve. If Kerber drops this point, it would have given Pliskova a look at a break point once again. At this key moment in the match, Kerber does something exceptional.
Stretched wide and out of position on her forehand wing by a deep and powerful groundstroke by Pliskova, Kerber while on the run comes up with the shot of the match. She rips a forehand down the line for a cold winner with a kind of banana-esque topspin and accuracy that is reminiscent of another “scrappy” left-hander who could give you an adrenaline rush while hitting a forehand down the line on the run – Rafael Nadal. Kerber not only makes the shot, she celebrates with a strong fist pump that makes the whole crowd erupt inside the Arthur Ashe stadium. The complexion of the whole match turned on that point. Perhaps, an earlier version of Kerber would have played it ‘safe’ and gone for the cross-court forehand to stay in the point. But this newfound version of Angelique Kerber, who had found in herself the will and belief to win, went for the higher risk shot. That’s what makes a champion.
The men’s singles final had a completely different complexion altogether. It pitched the current world no. 1 Novak Djokovic against player whom you can arguably call his only nemesis for the past few years, Stanislas Wawrinka. Even though the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry might have been the most contested one historically, in the recent past, the Djokovic-Wawrinka matchup has been the more interesting and dynamic one. In their Round of 16 match at the 2013 Australian Open, Wawrinka took Djokovic to the absolute brink, eventually losing in a pulsating five-set thriller. Wawrinka had finally announced himself on his own terms at the biggest stage – grand slams – and it wasn’t as the “Other Swiss”. The cult of the Stanimal was born and he hasn’t looked back. His partnership with his coach Magnus Norman has not only refined his game, it has also instilled within Wawrinka a kind of self-belief and calmness that he seemed to have lacked in the early stages of his career. His signature point to the temple, raspberry blows and questionable fashion apparel on court have given tennis loyalists the world over a welcome relief from the staid monopoly of the Big Four in men’s tennis.
And as it happened in the 2015 French Open final, where Wawrinka denied Djokovic the career grand slam at the time, it was Wawrinka who stood victorious at the end of the match even though he had spent more than twice the number of hours on court than Djokovic had to get to the final of the US Open. Wawrinka is now a three-time grand slam champion, same as Andy Murray, has beaten the world no.1 on his way to the trophy in the final of all his three victories (Rafael Nadal, Australian Open 2014; Novak Djokovic, French Open 2015 and US Open 2016) and was on an 11 match finals winning streak before losing to Alexander Zverev at St. Petersburg last weekend.
And Wawrinka did it the hard way. As John McEnroe rightly pointed out during his commentary of the match, it was Wawrinka’s defensive skills that won him the match in the end. This seems a startling, if not an absurd statement. After all, Djokovic is the best defender in tennis at the moment. He has perfected the style of tennis that Nadal employed in bits and pieces: of returning every ball, sliding on hard-courts, returning serves and putting the ball back one more time with mechanical efficiency before finally pulling the trigger. Wawrinka is a naturally aggressive player. One of the major reasons why the Djokovic-Wawrinka dynamic has been a breath air in the recent past is that Wawrinka has emerged as one of the very few players who can really hit Djokovic off the court when he is on song. After all, that’s what he did during the French Open 2015 final.
However, during the US Open 2016 final we saw a slightly different Wawrinka. He would slice the ball back in play deep to neutralise the point when he didn’t have time to load up on his backhand wing or when he was pushed wide and out of position on that side. He was willing to engage in a prolonged cross-court backhand to backhand rally with Djokovic and wasn’t over-eager to finish the point with his signature backhand down the line shot. He saved 13 of the 17 break points that he faced on his own serve. It was Wawrinka and not Djokovic who came out on top during the extend rallies. This was controlled aggression on display at the highest level.
A word about Wawrinka’s signature shot: the backhand down the line which is unfurled with such a precise mix of raw power, beauty, finesse and margin that it just makes you wonder how unaccomplished you have been all throughout your life. It is perhaps the most effective shot in tennis right now. I find certain delight in the irony that we are discussing the sheer power and control Wawrinka is able to generate off the backhand wing, given that one of the major reasons the two-handed backhanded grew in popularity was the control and power it offered when compared to the single-handed backhand.
After the match, Djokovic confessed that he felt “nervous” and hence wasn’t able to capitalise during the key moments and praised Wawrinka was being mentally stronger at the decisive moments and seizing the opportunities when they presented themselves. Both Kerber and Wawrinka have gone through a lot in the early stages of their career. They have been at the losing end of some extremely tough and emotional matches, have had their ups and downs with regards to their ability to control their temperament on court and have found a way to come out on top late in their careers when many had thought they didn’t have what it takes to cross the final hurdle.
However, Kerber and Wawrinka get to have the last laugh. Much like the Beckett quote tattooed on Wawrinka’s forearm, both these exceptional players have perfected the art of failing better, one defeat at a time, making them into the champions we see before our eyes today. Perhaps we can learn from that. Success stories often gloss over the many failures that come before it. But Kerber and Wawrinka are different. Their success story isn’t the stuff of fairytales and that is the biggest takeaway from the 2016 tennis season.
“Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
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