The ‘Next Next Generation’

Another long overdue post!

For so long, we have been marvelling at the sustained excellence and consistency of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and yes, Murray in regards to the Masters and Grand Slams.

We have been waiting for the Next Generation to really establish themselves – Dimitrov, Raonic, Nishikori, Dolgopolov etc but a quick look at their ages 23, 24, 25, 26 shows they’re not really the new guard any more. Even the prodigy of yesteryear, Richard Gasquet is now 28, having already been on tour for 13 years!

A year is a long time in tennis though. The two surprise Grand Slam winners last year Wawrinka and Cilic are 28 and 26 respectively. Hard to believe Cilic is only 26.

Dimitrov has the all-round package but hasn’t quite figured out how to make his game as efficient as it could be. For all the effort he puts into his shots and movement, my gut feeling is that he still labours to end points as easily as his predecessor, Federer. That extremely conservative Eastern backhand grip mystifies me too – if he does not strike it with the perfect angle of flex in his wrist, it goes awry very easily.

Raonic has a serve to die for. The real issue is his mentality, not necessarily his movement or backhand or anything technically apparent on the surface. He can mow down lower-ranked players with the ease of a Top 5 player but struggles when he faces the Big 4. Why? Because they bring chaos to his neat-and-orderly-one-serve-and-maybe-one-forehand-if-needed-game, they can return his missiles and then can tie him up at the baseline or bring him to the net against his will. Word is that he is very very academically intelligent and good with numbers, as was his father so people like that usually are very logic-orientated. “If I do this and that, therefore this should happen.” As of late, he has been working very hard to think outside the box and to go with the flow. Adaptability is what will make him a more watertight and coherent force in the big moments

Nishikori has serious game. Weapons off both sides, touch, foot speed, agility, endurance, improving first serve. His second serve is dubious under pressure due to his not-quote Continental grip but because his hands are so good, he gets away with it until he comes up against someone willing and ready to punish it! At the moment, because he was out for so long with injuries, career-wise, he is still about 22-23 years old in my opinion. It’s going to take time before he consolidates that rock-hard self-belief that he needs in the later rounds of the tournament against the big boys. Not just one match on clay against Nadal or against Djokovic on hard court but Masters after Masters and major after major. This is the real reason for Wawrinka’s ascension so when Nishikori catches up, watch out!

Dolgopolov – explosive. He is a lot like Nishikori in his physical gifts, but game-wise, he is willing to pull the trigger a lot earlier. Bigger serve and serious touch off the ground. He has talent to burn and expresses his love for the game in the way he plays. Will he continue this or will he ever decide he wants more? To want more means to carefully examine your shot selection and decision-making processes in order to be more effective at winning the big points but this does not gel well with his exciting, flashy game.

Tomic is sort of between the Next and Next Next Generation is now the elder of these guys and is now learning (maturing) what real professionalism is. Game-wise, his court craft and ball control is second to none. He can serve big, hit big, volley, slice, construct and deconstruct points, win without exerting too much energy, reads the play before opponent even hits the ball, there’s no question he knows tennis. The question marks are his movement and ability to hang with the big hitters when they’re on song.

So, until the Next Generation find out how to really win the big matches against the Big 4, time is ticking away and new blood is always emerging.

This brings us to our new group of rising stars, the Next Next Generation.

Kyrgios, Kokkinakis, Coric, Vesely who have made a real splash in their first foray onto the ATP tour. Their age and weapons and early results have earmarked them as real contenders for huge careers. In particular, Kygrios has displayed huge physical weapons and big-match experience to go for glory under pressure. Kokkinakis is a year younger but has the same fearlessness as Kyrgios, though perhaps not the same level of nuanced point execution yet.

This is the perfect time for them to combine their youth, athleticism and no-fear games to consistently forge big results but the real key will be who acts on their development the best. There is plenty of information out there but only those who are willing to explore everything and anything in search of success will win.

They are the ones who will not wait for their turn.

It’s entirely possible that when all of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray are really ready to step out of the game and the Next Generation are absolutely poised to finally snatch up their first majors, being nearly 30 themselves, they will be beaten to it by the Next Next Generation!

 

Is Djokovic a more complete player than Federer?

Novak Djokovic.

I was just watching highlights of his recent Davis Cup rubber over Sam Querrey of USA. In the second game, Djokovic rolled his right ankle severely to the point where it was nearly a 90 degree angle between his leg and foot. Despite excruciating pain, he managed to not only win the first set 7-5, hold set points in the second, but actually raised his level and dominated Querrey 6-1, 6-0 in the next two sets. Such a far cry from the Djoker who’d retire as soon as the mercury hit 32 degrees.

This got me thinking. I have to say that this is the most remarkable metamorphosis I have ever seen in tennis (despite my relatively young age)  since Roger Federer himself transformed from an inconsistent, brilliantly talented contender into the leading candidate for the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT).

Federer, in my eyes, is the most gifted all-round player I have ever seen in terms of aesthetic quality, hand-eye coordination, kinaesthetic awareness, creative shot making in all departments, the marriage of traditional and modern style of play and his ease of effortless output. The results speak for themselves. But we all know of the mental price tag that is demanded in proportion to the talent inherent in the player and Federer is no exception. Whilst it would be grossly unfair to call Federer mentally weak in light of his incredible career consistency and clutch plays over the years in the biggest situations possible in tennis, there are obvious frailties that have been laid bare by Nadal and even Djokovic.

Let’s look at Djokovic and the qualities he possesses:

Extremely durable physically and ability to play punishing 5-set matches back to back

Djokovic's incredible physicality
Djokovic’s incredible physicality (I do not own the rights to this photo)

? Check.

Outstanding mental fortitude? Check.

Tactically astute? Check.

Rock-solid technical fundamentals and biomechanics? Check.

Exceptional court coverage? Check.

Excels in defence and attack? Check.

Able to create and capitalise on opportunities at the net? Check.

Actively improving? Check.

Performs at the highest level on the biggest stages time and time again? Check.

Displays leadership qualities above and beyond what is required i.e. Davis Cup? Check.

He may not be the most aesthetically appealing player i.e. Federer or the most awe-inspiring player i.e. Nadal but right here, right now, he is the deadliest.

Everything you’d need in the modern prototype of today’s player, Djokovic has in spades: exceptional court coverage, astute court positioning, a strong and accurate first serve and an ever-improving second serve, sound net instincts, variety, power, touch off both groundstroke wings, the ability to play first-strike tennis buttressed by an ironclad mental fortress inside his head.

Whilst detractors may point to Federer as having the better hands and Nadal the bigger heart, I digress in two areas. Federer, for all his talent, has a major Achilles heel that has prevented him from becoming an even more complete player – volleying. He has stoned countless volleys of all kinds on crucial points over the years – low volleys, half-volleys, high volleys, sitting volleys, stretch volleys, drop volleys. Very rarely has Djokovic missed one on a crucial point due to his better net positioning, tactical understanding and willingness to treat every volley with the respect it deserves. He knows why and how to finish the point at the net and actually executes it.

Nadal may have built his career on his exceptional fighting qualities and physicality but Djokovic has matched and bested him in titanic matches on all surfaces. Nadal’s fighting qualities are often impotent in the face of Djokovic’s baseline supremacy and on the rare occasions where everything has been thrown at one another and it comes down to pure desire to win without fear, Djokovic has triumphed.

Nadal fights like a demon for fear of failure whereas Djokovic has absolute self-belief and confidence in his abilities in the most intense pressurised situations where only those who are unafraid to lose can win. He has the rare aura and ability to be both dangerous when behind in a match and be the most ruthless of champions when it comes to delivering the killer blow. Even Nadal himself says that if you give Djokovic an inch, he will take everything in a blink of an eye. The way Djokovic finished off Nadal in the 2011 US Open and 2012 Australian Open finals is evidence enough.

In rebuilding his serve into one of the most underrated weapons in the game and with his peerless service returns, he continues to actively seek improvement in his quest for destiny.

On a final note, from what I have seen, neither Federer or Nadal had the same depth of desire and self-belief that they would be No.1 that Djokovic did.

Federer had ambitions and dreams of being a good player and perhaps winning a Grand Slam, and was once advised by his father to aim for the Top 100 so that he could at least cover his expenses!

Nadal is too fatalistic in his attitude to profess such an attitude, with his work ethic and the incessant deliberate use of injustice in Toni’s coaching methods would have prevented any outward burning self-desire. If Nadal had had a coach other than Toni, I believe that he would not have become the fighter he is today.

Ever since Djokovic first laid eyes on a tennis court, he has possessed an unbridled fervent desire to be World No.1 and this is what separates him from every other tennis player on the planet today.

So do I think Djokovic is a more complete player than Federer?

Yes.

The final challenge

Already, the twilight years have begun.

The man who is considered by many to be the Greatest Of All Time, if not by virtue of his achievements, but also by the completeness of his game and sheer audacity of his talent, has now entered his final years on the professional tour.

One could forgive Roger Federer if he chose to simply play out his final years whilst basking in the glory and the adulation showered upon him from adoring audiences wherever he went.

Instead, he is facing the greatest and most formidable challenge of his entire career. This is not a challenge wrought by any particular player, neither the Spanish nightmare or the Serbian juggernaut. This is a challenge that arises from the very core of Federer, lurking in every impossibly graceful movement and every incredulous shot he undertakes.

How can someone with the hand-eye coordination far beyond what ordinary people can comprehend, miss the most basic shots at the most inexplicable times and yet is capable of supernova-grade brilliance without blinking an eye? The answer is simple but yet so audacious that it beggars a more complex answer befitting someone of Federer’s stature and achievements in the game.

He is not as mentally strong as he should be.

At first, it appeared the jitters were only caused by one certain Spaniard and only on clay. Even the Australian Open 2009 final was deemed to be an aberration by some Federer loyalists, given its slow playing qualities at night.

Even after losses to Del Potro at the US Open 2009, Soderling at Roland Garros and Berdych at Wimbledon in 2010, and Tsonga’s stunning win from two-sets to love down at Wimbledon 2011, the general feeling was that he had been unlucky to run into extremely dangerous players who happened to be riding a wave of incredible form that day.

The one match that really laid bare Federer’s mental fragility was the semifinal of US Open 2011.

Federer surged strongly to a commanding two sets to love lead and many felt that after his loss to Tsonga at Wimbledon, he would not make that same mistake again. Especially when serving for the match at 5-4 in the 5th set against a punch-drunk Djokovic. Yet 3 games later, it was Djokovic who raised his hands in victory. In spite of that famous all-out service return winner at 40-15 by Djokovic, despite having one more match point on serve, despite still being on serve at 5-5, Federer was already a broken man. A startling sight to behold of a man considered to be the Greatest Of All Time.

How can such a statement be true now with not one, but two arch-rivals who have demonstrated much stronger mental fortitude on the biggest of stages?

This is Federer’s true challenge and the defining one of his career. His generational rivals, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, David Nalbandian all burned brightly but faded quickly and Federer was unchallenged in a display of unparalleled dominance over a period of 4 years. It is fair to say that he is the greatest of his generation and never was truly pushed to improve.

Against Nadal and Djokovic, two incredible players who are more than 5 years younger than Federer, it is only now Federer has realised he has to make tangible improvements mentally, physically and tactically in order to compete. They force him to concentrate at crucial points, to develop truer self-belief under pressure and to actually take the win from his opponents, not just to wait for them to miss – something his generational rivals could not do on a sustained and consistent basis over a lengthy period of time, let alone in matches.

Nearly 31 years old and at No.3 in the world, facing public pressure, the weighty burden of his incredible past successes, two players who have thwarted him at every turn and his own mental demons, can Federer survive this career-defining challenge?

Since the US Open final, Federer has been on fire. He has won 6 tournaments in the space of 6 months and compiled a staggering 40-3 win-loss record, including wins over Nadal both on fast indoor court and outdoor slow hard court.

I wouldn’t bet against the great man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The magic elixir

Why is Djokovic flying so high right now? What is the one thing that is allowing him to look down upon all others from stratospheric heights? What is the magic elixir that keeps him from becoming the modern day Icarus?

One word – confidence. Not the fleeting, day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour flimsiness version. The tangible, rock hard, version that can only be achieved with a clear mind and accumulation of wisdom.  The difference between a talented player and a true champion.

Despite his inherent natural ability and formidable athleticism honed through years of backbreaking, mind-numbing practice and hundreds of mental battles fought in matchplay, there was always a seamlessness missing from Djokovic’s tennis despite a game that professed exactly that. From the ever-present familial influence in his players’ box, his frequent gasping for air after long rallies, his slumped shoulders and bowed head and to his sometimes violent verbal outbursts, Djokovic appeared to be a man who played for something or someone outside of himself and was drowning under that burden. He was playing not for himself but for Serbia.

Djokovic is a proud and patriotic citizen of his beloved Serbia to the point where he felt compelled to address a rally in Belgrade commenting on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. It was no secret that last year following the US Open and during the Masters Cup, his real focus was on the Davis Cup final against France as the implications of a triumph would be the makings of history.

In that fateful final, he stood tall. He swept aside Gilles Simon to level the tie for Serbia at 1-1. Then, facing a 2-1 deficit on the final day of singles, he rose to the occasion again dismantling Monfils in straight sets to set the stage for Troicki to seal the historic triumph. Not only had Djokovic spearheaded his country to their first ever Davis Cup win but in doing so, he cast off the Atlas-sized pressure of carrying his country and consolidated his confidence that he could perform under immense pressure in one go.

In short, he became a man who plays free of any mental or physical shackles. A man of true confidence.

We saw it with Roger Federer from the Tennis Masters Cup of 2003 to the Tennis Masters Cup of 2007 before his wings began to smoulder from the sun’s fierce heat and he was forced to retreat to a lower, less perilous height where he steadily circles today.

We saw it with Rafael Nadal in 2010 when he emerged reborn after his triumph at Monte Carlo which sparked his superhuman rampage through the history books to the point where he went supernova.

And so we see it today with Djokovic. It is apt that the latest Head commercial features Novak playing tennis on an old world biplane in the skies and his results show that he is still playing such audacious tennis in reality.

Win or lose against Nadal in the final of Miami, this time his confidence won’t desert him so easily.