The Rally: The New Landscape

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 /by

Nd After a double Grand Slam hiatus, the Rally—featuring tennis writer Kamakshi Tandon and myself—picks back up and looks at the state of the pro game at mid-season.

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STEVE TIGNOR: We haven’t talked here in a couple of months, Kamakshi, and obviously a lot has happened in that time. There’s always such a long build-up to the French Open and Wimbledon, and then they’re over in a flash. For months we say, well, wait until the French, wait until the Slams, then we’ll see who’s really playing well, then we’ll get the meaningful matches. This year, on the men’s side, the majors threw us a curve before taking us right back where we had been for the first five months of the year. By the time it was over, Novak Djokovic had legitimated his early season run, and showed that his confidence and overall excellence weren’t just a product of his momentum during that time—he showed he could get them right back once that momentum had been stopped. I picked him to lose to Nadal in pretty much every tournament leading up to and including Wimbledon, and he proved me wrong every time. I'll go out on a limb: I think he’s here to stay.

I guess the question, though, is how long will his stay be. Is he going to be roughly what Nadal has been to Federer, the guy who has his number, who's ready to succeed him? Or, as Nadal said after Wimbledon, is this just as seasonal thing, and is Djokovic’s level bound to drop?

I’d take the second of those two options. First, Federer did just beat Djokovic in Paris, so he isn’t out of the picture. Second, Nadal at 25 is too young to suddenly begin his decline. And tennis, despite its lack of a definable year, really has worked in single seasons lately. In 2008, it seemed that Nadal had  overtaken Federer; the next year Federer was back at No. 1. Last season it looked again like Nadal, with three Slam wins, was ready to grab the baton for good. But again he’s slipped a little. 

Djokovic says he’s “lost his fear,” but as Nadal knows, it doesn’t take long to get scared again—he was the two-time champ at Wimbledon and Novak was the rookie, but it was Nadal who was nervous.

Then again, I’ve been betting on Nole’s level dropping all year so far, and look where that's gotten me.

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KAMAKSHI TANDON: From Federer-Nadal at the French to Nadal-Djokovic at Wimbledon—quite symbolic, really. Like you, Djokovic points to his rebound from the Federer defeat at the French as the most significant achievement during this period. The timing of the defeat was very tough, costing him a significant  achievement or two, and it upped the stakes at Wimbledon. He came into this period in a bit of a can't-win position—the more he achieved, the more the pressure to back it up by doing it at a Slam. If he hadn't won Wimbledon or the French, people would be asking where it all went wrong.

At the same time, losing wasn't all bad. It removed the burden of the streak and reset things a bit. It's easy to forget that Djokovic looked a little vulnerable at various stages at Wimbledon, like against Marcos Baghdatis or Bernard Tomic. The fact that the Serb was able to shake that off and carry on and win signals that he can do it when it's business as usual, not just in those rare periods when everything comes together.

That's what separates the dominant from the merely dangerous, and makes it look like he's here to stay. Of course, he's been "here" for a while  now, always sneaking in periods of success in between Federer  and Nadal's dominant patches, so it's only the 'to stay' part that's new. It implies that his current level will be his normal level from now on—and that's what we're debating. Will it?

On the one hand, I don't think you go back to being a run-of-the-mill player after doing what Djokovic has done. On the other, as Nadal pointed out, everyone has highs and lows. He's right, of course. Nadal never loses perspective, except maybe when he's complaining about the schedule. The hardcourt Masters events will be interesting because they'll come after the first real break Djokovic will have had since the beginning of the season—the first real chance to decompress, let things sink in, and then try to get pumped up to go again.

The second question is how Nadal responds. For the first time, he finds himself getting  thumped repeatedly by another player—at the French, Uncle Toni said Nadal had never lost to someone four times in a row, and it's now five. But at the same  time, he hasn't been playing as well as he did a year ago, when all the wins and confidence made him look almost untouchable by the second week of the U.S. Open. Can he get back to that level fuelled by defeat rather than victory? Another thing to wait and see.

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TIGNOR: I think we can count on Djokovic’s consistency to keep him up there and in constant contention. His game itself has never been all that up and down; it was always his confidence level, as well as his conditioning, that suffered from swings. He doesn’t win with risk; he wins because he doesn’t have any easily exploitable weaknesses, so it may now be to his opponents to find a solution to him. And yes, coming right back after the Federer loss in Paris should help him recover from any big losses in the near future. Djokovic has to feel now that he really does belong at No. 1; that was something he hadn’t seemed sure of since he failed to crack the Rafa-Rog duopoly back in 2008.

Or something like  that. As you said, we’ll have to wait and see. Two other thoughts come up in relation to this. The first is that I keep waiting for the top guys—formerly  Rafa and Fed, this year Rafa and Djokovic—to crack just a little. To lose in, say, a quarterfinal of a major, or go out early at a Masters event. I guess I’m still living in the past, when Sampras and Agassi and Becker and guys like that occasionally took an early whipping, when you were happy to see them play twice a year, let alone the five times that Nadal and Djokovic have already faced off in 2011. That’s another question to me for the future: How long  can this type of top-line dominance last? I think it’s been great for men’s  tennis, but will it ever get old?

My second question is about Djokovic  himself. Do we think he has the star quality, the ability to inspire such passionate fan groups, as Rafa and Federer have? Or will he be more of a representative of his own country? It’s hard to imagine him becoming deified, à la Federer—"Djokovic as Religious Experience," anyone?—but being No. 1 does things to people’s perceptions of you.

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TANDON: More than most, Djokovic's play has been influenced by his emotional state. In the past he's gone through unsure periods where he plays passively and gets beaten. That may be what doesn't return, at least for a while. On the other hand, his game does look risky to me when he's playing like he wants to—all those shots that right now land perfectly placed in the corners, but wobble when he's off. That will remain a danger in the high pressure matches, I think, and it'll be especially interesting when he plays Federer again, or someone threatening like Juan Martin del Potro.

The  one matchup we haven't seen for a while is Djokovic and Murray, so perhaps we can get reacquainted with that during a part of the season they both like a lot.

The dominance of the top guys is just astonishing. Are they really so good that they can win on their bad days as well as good, or do they just have so few bad days? It's hard to categorize it into one or the other; I've seen evidence of both. And it's not just the top guys—the men's game has been pretty heirarchical for the past few years. You know I don't like the phrase "it's good for tennis," but it certainly allows for big matchups on the big occasions, even if it means the early rounds seem a bit rote.

What it has done for Djokovic, though, is give him instant chops as No. 1. I mean, he had to go through both Federer and Nadal to get there. Two  Grand Slams, four Masters, 43 straight wins. Since Nadal won his first Slam, there have been only four occasions when the winner wasn't Federer or Nadal, and three of those four times it's been Djokovic. He's done it the hard way, and just overhauling those two gives him status it would otherwise take much  longer to achieve. I don't think he's got quite the cult potential of Federer and Nadal, but he's much more of a showman and much more willing to play around in public. Look, he ate the grass after winning Wimbledon. The morning after he won, he did the usual round of interviews—running an hour late, as  usual, though apparently this time is wasn't his fault—and went from being  emotive one second to tossing out one-liners the next. It's a different feel. Do you think people will like having a fresh focus, or look back for their familiar figureheads?

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TIGNOR: Nadal talked about possible reasons for the unprecedented dominance in men’s tennis at Wimbledon. He seemed to think this was a stronger generation than past ones because each of the top guys felt the pressure to always perform at their best, to maintain their spot in the “top positions.” They know they can’t afford to give away a match at an important tournament. I guess you could say that Federer’s dominance inspired Nadal, and their co-dominance has now inspired Djokovic. He said something to that effect at Wimbledon; the ultimate proof is that, as you said, it took 43 straight wins, two Slams, and four Masters titles to get him there. If I had to choose between this type of regularity in the finals of big tournaments, and something more random, I think I would take this. It’s not the same as Chris and Martina, who played 17 straight Slams finals; that would have been OK if Martina hadn’t been so dominant in those matches. Rog, Rafa, and Novak have still given us a certain amount of variety and unpredictability within their hegemony.

As far as Le Djoker's star potential, I think it's there. He's certainly not a duller character than Rafa or Fed, and I love his game as much as those two guys'. It isn't as immediately unique or eye-catching, but he makes versatility, consistency, and defense into a snappy tennis cocktail—a cocktail with a slightly acquired taste. Along the way, his personality has grown as well. Where he used to seem brash for his britches, he's now the tour's leading gentleman—winning helps your graciousness quotient, too. The big upward shift will happen if he becomes a dominant champion; that gives you an automatic star aura.

I mentioned Chris and Martina above, which reminds me that we haven't talked about the women at all yet. What did you make of the French and Wimbledon, and their effect on that perennial trouble spot, “the state of the WTA”? This is always a two-headed question for me. On the one hand, I saw many tweets from fellow writers and fans and tennis junkies about how great the two events were for the women. And for the most part I agreed. Some superb matches—Schiavone-Jankovic, Schiavone-Pavlyuchenkova, Sharapova-Garcia in Paris, Date Krumm-Venus, Bartoli-Serena, Lisicki-Li at Wimbledon (I'm sure I'm forgetting a few)—and two new faces in the winner’s circle, in Kvitova and Li, made them compelling in a much less predictable way than the men’s tournaments. I personally don’t mind not having name players in the latter stages of these tournaments; I’m just as happy to see other players get their shot at glory, and see how they react to it. There’s been a joy in discovery at these last two women’s tournaments.

Then there’s the other hand, which I encounter when I leave Twitter and go to my tennis club. There nobody knows an Azarenka from a Pironkova from a Kvitova; they say the women all look the same and play the same way. I disagree, but I still don’t like hearing that. I want to see new faces, but at the same time, without stars and familiar stories, the tour can start to take on a minor-league vibe, especially when compared to the men’s side, with its huge celebrities (of course, this is an American talking; you can't say Li's win didn't draw an audience). So anyway, as always, I’m torn when it comes to tennis. I like it enough to enjoy watching whomever is winning, but at the same time I don't want to feel as if it's a tiny niche sport with ever-declining mass appeal.

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TANDON: There are probably a few layers to it. The increased uniformity creates the conditions for heirarchy—a more uniform calendar, more uniform surfaces and more uniform playing styles. It makes sense: you're better on X surface playing X way against X players and that's what you face most of the year, then you're going to win most of the time.

But on the other hand, this is exactly the same scenario that seems to have created utter anarchy on the women's side, so maybe the top guys are just that much better than the rest. It's a cycle, too, with periods of anarchy and heirarchy, change and continuity. Right now we've got two extremes.

In the end, I like having both fields there because you get a bit of both—no need to decide what you prefer. The best combination—look for the tight women's matches early, and then gear up for the big men's matches in the later rounds.

And things change. As I keep saying, at the end of the 1990s it was the exact opposite—great men's early-round matchups, big women's showdowns later. We tend to separate the men and women, but people experience everyone together and having both sides brings variety and balance. The good thing about dominance at the top is that it's simple, accessible, large-scale—lots of mass appeal. That's what you have with the men right now. The state of competition on the women's side is too complicated at the moment and requires too much time, investment and knowledge to really understand; it's hard to get mass appeal from that. But if you're really into it, there's a lot more to chew on. I certainly find a lot more intrigue when first scanning the women's draws than the men's these days. So you take your pick depending on who you are. The men for your tennis club, the women for your Twitter group.

The big win for the women this year, I think, is that we're starting to regularly experience good matches again. The problem for a while was that there would be all these great matchups that almost invariably fizzled, but now you're seeing a lot of exciting contests, at least in the early rounds. Almost all the Centre Court matches at Wimbledon went three sets, for example. The next big step is doing that in the later stages. It's been a long time since there was a real classic in the semifinals or finals. There are a whole parade of players—Kvitova, Li, Schiavone, Wozniacki, and so many more—but they need to stick around to stick in people's minds like Clijsters, Serena, Venus, Sharapova do, and had to do to get there.

It's about familiarity and legitmacy, and both are achieved by memorable victories against memorable opponents. Federer got to the top of the mountain, Nadal scaled him and then Djokovic did the same to Nadal. The stars make the matches, but first, it's the matches that make them stars.

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