Reading the Readers: Asterisked Edition

Tuesday, May 01, 2012 /by

Patrick-rafterWe've had two weeks of the clay season and two weeks of comments about it. Here are a few comments back.

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From "Fighting Another Day":

If people asterisk this win of Nadal's then I reserve the right to asterisk all seven wins of Djokovic against Nadal previously due to luck, weather, health etc. If Djokovic was on court it meant he wanted to play and he failed to win. End of story. Logic, apparently many frothing at the mouth here cannot seem to get it.—Ava

We’ve talked about the (dubious) concept of the asterisk here quite a bit, and it came up again after Nadal’s win over Djokovic in Monte Carlo. I would never put a personal asterisk on a match unless one player is injured badly enough to be hobbling and still somehow manages to finish it, but at the same time it’s illogical and pointless to ignore all the circumstances involved. We can acknowledge that Novak wasn’t at his best that day for reasons other than the match itself, while also acknowledging that Nadal played very well and still had to go out and win it.

That last fact is another big reason to avoid asterisking, or even downgrading, most victories: Winning, as opposed to just playing well, is hard, no matter what your opponent is doing. One of the underappreciated ways that tennis is more of a mental test than golf is that a player can’t just go about his own business and perform his best in a personal bubble. You must overcome the person on the other side of the net and stick the dagger in (as it were). That’s a different skill from hitting 50 straight forehands into the court.

You can see how difficult it is when one player is injured or cramping. Rather than making it easier for his or her opponent, just as often it throws them off. And you could see it in the Monte Carlo final. Even with Djokovic flatlining through the second set, Nadal still played a nervous game near the end and was broken. He needed to remember not just how to serve and return well against Novak, but how to beat him as well.

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From "Fan Club: Richard Gasquet":

Well, as long as you continue to not recognise the existence of hardcore Andy Murray fans :)
On behalf of those of us who aren't in any of those camps, or who - gasp! - are more passionate about women's tennis ... no, though.

Also - and I can only speak for myself - I don't think 'champions resonate'. I think too much success can be quite alienating as a fan. How do you relate to superhuman excellence? How can you possibly continue to be invested in every match of a player if there's a 99% chance they'll win it? Why would you bother watching any part of a tournament except the final? That's just me, though.—Gauloises

This was in response to my assertion that most serious tennis fans these days are fans of the Top 3 men. Indeed, that was an overstatement—of course people like other players. What I was trying to say was that, even if they have a favorite outside the Top 3, more fans have at least a foot in one of their camps these days than they have in the past.

Seven years of dominance by Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, I suspect, has had an effect on tennis fandom. It would make sense that these would be the people who have drawn new fans to the sport over that time, since they’re always challenging for the big titles and they’re always on TV—everyone else has been shut out, which hasn’t been true in the recent past, at least in men’s tennis. I think this has led these players to represent more to many of today’s younger fans, because they’ve seen something in Roger or Rafa or Novak that was relatable to them. They’re the only guys in that time span, with the single exception of del Potro in 2009, who have achieved the sport’s ultimate achievements, so they’re going to be the most inspiring, the ones with the most on the line, the ones with the most drama surrounding them.

I agree, though, I also like players who don’t always win and are more flawed and human, and that if we’re honest most of us are more like the much-maligned Gasquet or Nalbandian than we are the much-praised Federer or Nadal. But part of rooting is “aspirational,” as the ad people say, living vicariously, and getting caught up in an athlete's quest.

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From "Catching the Tape: At Home with Andy":

To volley well one must be fully committed to the tactic. If a player finds himself asking "Why am I up here?" or thinking, "That wasn't a very good approach, I'm toast!" -- that's exactly the kind of mindset that results in a pass or an errant volley.

A true volleyer, even when facing a dire situation, always thinks, "I'm in the strong position. He's going to have to find a way around, over or through me, and the latter two options will never work. So, he'd better hope he threads the needle, or I'm all over it!"

I see very few players on either tour today who have the appropriate mindset to be really effective, fearsome volleyers.—Slice-n-Dice

Volleying is an attitude and a mindset as much as it is a stroke, and it's a difficult one for a baseliner to learn. It requires more decisiveness and aggression—more daredeviltry, if that word exists (which it should). Federer and Murray have the hands to do it, but they’re not predators at the net the way someone like Patrick Rafter was. He knew he had to finish points up there, whereas Federer knows he can finish them with his forehand. As for Nadal, he has good hands and drops and angles up there, but his greatest skill is not forcing himself to have to hit a difficult volley. You very rarely see him have to hit more than one.

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From "Catching the Tape: At Home with Andy":

Murray's story is striking -- all that monk-like focus hasn't had the desired results. Maybe he's an illustration of McEnroe's theory that too much focus on tennis is detrimental to a tennis player.—Kristy

Murray's groundstrokes look better back then. I don't know if this makes sense to anyone, but I sort of think of a circular followed by a linear segment as an ideal for groundstrokes. andy had that on both sides in this clip. he has it on neither side now, as his backhand is often too linear (flat) and his forehand is almost always too circular (spinny).—d

I thought the same things watching the clips of Murray as a teenager. His strokes were looser and his forehand looked more natural. You do wonder if he’s overworked himself and made himself too methodical in his preparation—unlike Federer, he’s never found a use for his quotient of genius. McEnroe would know, too, because he was able to utilize similar gifts. He hated practice and repetition and long points, so he tried to end them as soon as he could.

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From "Playing Ball: Hacker's Diary":

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how very deeply I care about something that makes absolutely no difference in the even slightly greater scheme of things. I never play for money; at this stage in my life I'm basically playing the same three or four guys all the time, a number of times a week in season; yet I still feel deeply pained when I hit an easy passing shot wide at 2-1 in the first set. And I'm pretty sure I get more nervous about a second serve at game point than I do about most other things in my life...—Christopher

Very true, and it’s one reason I don’t compete in serious tournaments—I don’t want to get that nervous, and we already compete so much in all other areas of life. It’s like a test I don’t want to take. But the competitive instinct doesn’t go away, either, even when I try to ignore it. If I’ve beaten a regular opponent a few times in a row, I’ll go out and start the next match thinking, “It’s OK if I lose this one.” So, because I’m too relaxed, I start to lose. Which bothers me, so I start going all out to win again. Which was exactly what I swore I wasn’t going to do that day.

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From "Playing Ball: Hacker's Diary":

I don't know why, but as the sun came out and we warmed and loosened up the song "disco inferno" started playing in my mind. this is a complete mystery to me, as I haven't thought about or heard this song in decades but I do admit that I like the song and love the movie Saturday Night Fever. anyway, it just kept going, like it did in the movie and I was hitting away with "burning, burning disco inferno" running inside of me and I could sort of channel John Travolta's kind of serious look when he was dancing and and it was a complete blast and I hit some nice balls and when I came off the court I was smiling.—d

Translating this to the pro level, this is another reason that the consistency of the best players these days is so amazing to me. Your mind can go in a million different directions and be in any kind of mood as you start a match—some of those moods will help you, others will distract you or depress you. I know it's their job to be focused, but how do Federer and Nadal not get tripped up by their own thoughts or lack of confidence or weird mood on a certain day more often?

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From "The Persistents":

Can we put Maria in the lead as far as winning the French Open after a good week defeating 3 Top 5 players who are currently reigning champions at all Slams except the French? When the headline is talking about Djokovic winning 4 Slams in a row for the first time in tennis since Serena, please do not forget that Maria is going for a career Slam. What would be unique about it is that Maria would have won each of them only once if she wins the French.—Master Ace

I wrote in a chat last week that I didn’t think Sharapova would ever win the French. Naturally, she went out and beat Stosur, Kvitova, and Azarenka, three of the favorites for the Roland Garros title, in Stuttgart. She’s in the mix, for sure, and I think the WTA is in a good spot all of a sudden. No one is totally dominant, but it isn’t total anarchy at the top, either. And a Maria career Slam would be a great, though strange, achievement. One of each; who needs more?

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From "Keeping Tabs: April 24":

It’s OK if you’re not snarky or skeptical once in a while. We can handle it.—Michele

Trying . . . so hard . . . to come up with something appropriately snarky in response to this. Wait! . . . No, that's no good. Hang on . . . where are you going? . . . I'll come up with something . . .

Oh well. Next time.

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