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Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Musings on Miami

The Arrival of Djokovic

As a 19-year-old with a realistic sense of who he is and what he could accomplish, Novak Djokovic has demonstrated to us all in his last two tournaments that he is a serious force in the men’s game. The Serbian was runner-up to Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells in the Pacific Life Open in his first Masters Series final round appearance. Following up on that showing, he swept through the field in Miami at the Sony Ericsson Open, becoming the first man since Ivan Lendl 18 years earlier to win that prestigious tournament without losing a set.

In 2006 he finished as No. 16 in the world, and played increasingly well over the course of that stellar year. But he has moved to another level now. He thoroughly deserves to be the No. 7 ranked player in the world, and it is hard to imagine how he will not conclude 2007 among the top five in the sport. My estimate is he will finish the year at No. 3. He has improved by leaps and bounds over the last two months.

This is a player with an admirably diversified game. Djokovic has excellent ground strokes. He can crack the forehand relatively flat, roll it at incredibly short angles, or hit it with heavy top deep down the middle of the court. His two-handed backhand is sound and penetrating, and he seems to have a knack for when to go down the line off that side. And his backhand drop shot gives his game another dimension. In the semifinals of Miami, he destroyed Andy Murray with that shot. Djokovic disguises the drop shot well, and hits it with sidespin down the line. He'll make his share of winners with the drop but also is very good at reading his opponent’s response and ending the point with the follow-up.

Moreover, his serve has become one of the best in the sport. In Miami, he dropped his delivery only once in six matches. He combines impressive power with extraordinary placement, and has acquired the habit of backing up that serve with a disciplined array of shots that enable him to take control of rallies. His decision to have Mark Woodforde help him with his volley was first rate; there is every sign that his technique and anticipation at the net are considerably better as a result.

After losing to Nadal 6-2, 7-5 in the Indian Wells final, he reversed that result with a 6-3, 6-4 triumph over the left-handed Spaniard in the quarterfinals of Miami. That was a high quality clash and Nadal---despite some bad patches off his backhand side---played better that the score would indicate. And then the Serbian removed an out of sorts Murray (6-1, 6-0) and Guillermo Canas in straight sets to win the biggest title of his young career.

The encouraging thing for Djokovic is that he can perform at a high level on any surface. He should do very well on the upcoming clay court circuit and then keep on succeeding right on through the rest of the year. This is not to say that there will not be any setbacks for an emotional competitor who is still maturing. He has a lot to learn about his game and how to exploit it. But he will be in the thick of things from here on in. No one will be anxious to confront this rapidly rising player when he is anywhere near the top of his game.

If anyone other than Roger Federer and Nadal manages to secure a major title in 2007, Novak Djokovic has the best chance to do it.

Federer Falls Again

Heading into Miami, Roger Federer was surely determined to make amends for his loss to Guillermo Canas at Indian Wells. That was the Swiss maestro’s first defeat since August of 2006, and it ended a 41 match winning streak by the world No. 1. He was due for that loss in many ways, and he had not become acclimated to the conditions in California. His meeting with Canas was his first match of the tournament, and Federer was clearly caught off guard by a determined and disciplined opponent.

It was believed by many in the know that Federer would reassert himself in Miami and play with renewed purpose and vigor. But, once more, Canas took Federer out of a Masters Series event with a terrific display of resolve and court coverage. Canas---a straight set victor over Federer at Indian Wells--- toppled Federer for the second straight time in a much tighter contest, coming through 7-6 (2), 2-6, 7-6 (5) in the round of 16. This time around, Federer had the benefit of playing two matches before he took on Canas, stopping the promising American Sam Querrey and the Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, winning both battles in straight sets.

Canas, meanwhile, had played in the qualifying, as was the case at Indian Wells. In the main draw at Miami, he worked his way through tough matches with Juan Carlos Ferrero and Richard Gasquet. So he was primed for this appointment with Federer. Canas served for the first set at 5-4, played one of his few bad games in the match, but was unerring in the tie-break as Federer missed a cluster of shots to lose that sequence.

But Federer was not discouraged. He played a superb second set, went up 2-0 in the third, and had four break points to take what would have been an insurmountable 3-0 lead. On two of those crucial points, Federer made unprovoked mistakes; on the other two, Canas came through with a winning volley and a forcing first serve. Federer held on for 3-1 but Canas broke back for 3-3. From that juncture, they stayed on serve to set up the final set tie-break. Federer came out of a 0-2 deficit to lead 4-3 on serve but a resolute Canas took both of his service points.
Now, with Federer serving at 4-5, he sent a wicked kick serve wide to the backhand of the 29-year-old Argentine. Canas had virtually no play at all, but he had the good sense to throw up a lob return down the line. Federer moved forward to cut it off on the air but his anxiety surfaced as he timidly hit a forehand swing volley into the net. He was double match point down. Two points later, Canas closed out the win.

Federer played much better tennis this time around. Had he broken in the third game of that final set, he would surely have won. But Canas must be saluted for holding him off. Canas made only 15 unforced errors in three long and arduous sets. Time and time again, he prolonged the points and gave Federer one or two extra opportunities to miss. His defense was as good as it gets, and Federer faltered at critical moments. Canas was saying to Federer, "You may be the best in the world and I can’t match your shot making brilliance, but I am going to make you beat me. You are going to need to earn your keep. I am not willing to give you this match."

The strategy worked, as it had in Indian Wells. Too many players overplay against Federer and beat themselves in the process. Canas---who was aggressive when he had to be and served with authority when it counted---understands that more tennis matches are lost than won. He gave Federer a chance to beat himself at Indian Wells, and did the same thing in Miami. That is a philosophy more players should think about sharing when they confront Federer during the upcoming clay court campaign.

Henin’s Wasted Opportunity

Justine Henin has won five major titles across her distinguished career. She made it to the finals of all four Grand Slam events in 2006. She is a tough competitor, a seasoned campaigner, a top of the line match player. That is why her failure to close out Serena Williams in the final of Miami was so disappointing to her long time followers.

Consider the circumstances: Henin had won her last two WTA Tour events coming into Miami. Williams had not played a tournament since her stunning triumph at the Australian Open in January. To be sure, Serena picked off where she left off in Melbourne, ousting many of the same formidable players she had stopped at the Australian. In Miami, she took on Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals. In the Australian Open final, Serena had routed Sharapova 6-1, 6-2. This time around, with Sharapova sadly suffering from the same service woes, Serena was a 6-1, 6-1 winner over the U.S. Open champion. After that, Serena remained in top form as she defeated Nicole Vaidisova and Shahar Peer in straight sets.

But in the final, Serena was struggling mightily from the outset. Henin was composed, concentrated, and was controlling the tempo of the match. The Belgian took the opening set at love, and then had all kinds of chances to get the job done in straight sets. Henin broke for 1-0 and then lost her serve. She broke again for 4-3, but faltered again. Serena was finding her range, fighting furiously, sinking her teeth into the contest.

Nevertheless, Henin broke again for 5-4 and served for the match in the tenth game. She reached 40-15, double match point, poised on the edge of an emphatic straight set triumph. But Henin failed to put a first serve in play on either match point, and Williams went on the attack. Serena swept six games in a row to move ahead 3-0 in the final set. She lost three games in a row to allow Henin back to 3-3, but then confidently closed out an improbable 0-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory.

It was great to see these two formidable champions meeting for the first time in nearly four years. The rivalry promises much in the months ahead. But Henin has to ask herself some hard questions. There was no way she should have lost that match. She is far too experienced a player, a five time Grand Slam tournament winner, a match player of the highest order, a front runner of the first rank. She let herself down badly on this occasion. This is to take nothing away from the redoubtable Williams, who is phenomenal under pressure and never willing to concede defeat. She wages comebacks like no other player in the women’s game.

But Henin had no business not recording a victory in that final. Serena has made some stupendous comebacks this season. At the Australian Open, she was down 6-1, 5-3 to Nadia Petrova and stormed back to win. Peer served for the match against her later in that tournament, and Serena survived that. But Henin should have had the nerve and the confidence to close out that account. And she should have been smarter. She went for big first serves on both match points and missed them. Why not spin that first serve in and keep Serena at bay? Why look for an easy way out when she is so good at taking control from the baseline and then working her way forward?

Justine Henin had that match thoroughly in her grasp, and let it slip away. In the final analysis, it was as simple as that.


At June 06, 2007 12:54 AM, Blogger Keyser Soze said...

Steve, you're right in your criticisms of Justine Henin not closing out this match but, to be honest, this is nothing new for Henin. I've been a fan of hers since I saw her play the Gold Coast in Jan.2001, immediately claiming that she had the best technique I'd ever seen from a woman player, but I've had to learn (along with every other Henin-fan) that she constantly eases up when she has a big lead. In fact, it's almost a standing joke amongst the Henin-faithful that the time to worry is when she's up 4-0 or 4-1. By contrast, she plays considerably more focused and urgently when she's behind. Contrary to the media's depiction of her as "ruthless" and "relentless" on court she's anything but in reality.

That's one of her two weaknesses. The other is her failure to win her service-games consistently despite having a very good service. I've argued that holding serve is a matter of being conservative because of the scoring-system. Because games are discrete semi-independent units you need to be good every single game you serve to hold serve consistently. It's no good to be brilliant one game and mediocre the next because - unlike a continuous scoring-system - you don't get any credit in one game for what you did ten minutes ago. And as the server has an inherent advantage they need to simply maintain this advantage in every service-game and not throw it away with flurries of double-faults, missed first-serves, etc. Justine just doesn't know how to optimize her serve to get a high-percentage in, limit the number of second-serves and thus the potential for double-faults - her Achille's Heel that often results in her dropping serve. She blasts her first serve and is either very,very good or just plain horrid from game to game instead of just trying to be solid and efficient every single-time. Watching tapes of Steffi Graf playing, I was struck by how she hit mainly 90 MPH first-serves but got a high-percentage in and won most of her service-games as a result. Henin serves around 15 MPH faster and I really believe she would profit from Graf's more conservative and tactically intelligent example.


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