There are certain things every player strives to do regardless of surface or the ambient conditions. Putting an acceptable percentage of first serves into play, even on slow clay, probably ranks as the first commandment of winning tennis.
But every surface and tournament is different, and tends to put a premium on different elements of the game, both strategically and mentally. Back when the Australian Open was played on somewhat gummy Rebound Ace, footwork was at a premium, as was the ability to use the relatively high bounce yielded by the surface to good advantage.
Now the tournament is played on Plexicushion, a distant cousin to Rebound Ace. The creators of the surface had to walk a fine line between providing the desired “cushioning” while avoiding the tackiness for which Rebound Ace had been notorious—a basic problem compounded by the intensity of the Australian summer sun. They achieved their goal by putting the cushioning layer beneath the fairly thin Pleixpave playing surface, rather than making the spongy material the top layer.
Granted, there’s only so much you can do to tweak your game to the surface, but let’s a look at five general keys to success at the first major of the year.
1. MANAGE YOUR GAME
With the likelihood of significant heat and (for the men) five-set matches, there’s a greater premium at this major on making wise choices during the course of a match. Failing to close out sets or frittering away big leads—even if you still win—amount to begging for trouble, which is why the most successful competitors in Australia have been the ones who get on and off the court as quickly as possible.
Loose or overly casual play doesn’t just leave you expending more energy you may need down the road, it also fires up your opponent, and can very easily lead to the tables turning. Given what Mardy Fish has been going through lately, this example may be somewhat awkward, but who can forget how casually he played against No. 50 Victor Hanescu in the first round of the 2011 tournament? Fish dropped the first two sets but survived in five—only to be beaten easily by No. 52 Tommy Robredo in the next round in four sets.
2. PLAY THE WEATHER
One of the main reasons Pete Sampras never enjoyed working on the Rebound Ace courts in Melbourne was the difference he felt between day and night tennis. The balls flew much faster in the heat of the day, and they also bounced higher when the sun beat down on the rubberized surface.
The height-of-bounce issue is somewhat diminished on the Plexicushion, and we’ll have to wait and see if resurfacing has altered the bounce properties of the court. But the ball will still travel faster in the glaring light of day. It’s not uncommon for the days in Melbourne to be burning hot—and just as important, dry—while the nights are cool, and a player needs to take all that into consideration in his or her game plan for any given match.
3. CUT TO THE CHASE
Energy is at a premium during the Australian Open, which means that anything you can do to avoid wasting it helps. You don’t have to go out and play first-strike tennis, but it sure helps if you can pull that off.
A grinder can benefit from wearing down an opponent but, at least in typical day matches, he or she also will pay a fairly high price for doing so. Nobody is going to change his fundamental style for one tournament, but everyone ought to be a little more eager to avoid long, exhausting rallies unless physically outlasting an opponent is a major element of the opponent-specific game plan.
4. MAKE GOOD USE OF SPIN
In terms of speed, the hard courts in Melbourne Park are medium to medium-fast. That means that unless resurfacing has changed things, slice will come in handy. For the faster and smoother the surface, the more slice will do what it’s created for—to skid and slide, giving an opponent a tough shot to dig out, even as it provides you with a greater margin of error than if you’d tagged a roundhouse backhand. Slice is the most conservative of all shots, but it’s a great way to buy time, reset a rally, disrupt an opponent’s rhythm, or attack the net.
The way the kicker has emerged as the second-serve shot of choice has diminished the perceived effectiveness of the slice, but not its true value on a low-bouncing court. If the court is slick and fast, the slice serve can be an outstanding weapon.
5. CONSERVE YOUR ENERGY
I don’t know how often Rafael Nadal throws those high-kick upper cuts during a typical Australian Open match, but they waste a lot of energy. In any event, there is only one Nadal—just as there is just one chest-pounding, bellowing Novak Djokovic. Both are extraordinary—and extraordinarily successful—athletes in a sport where most players have their hands full just trying to stay nimble and fleet during the course of a long, five-set match.
Big emotional outbursts or mood swings are a drain on your nerves as well as your muscles, although the value of the adrenalin rush they represent is real (and available without all the histrionics). For most players, it’s best to keep the demonstrations to a minimum despite the temptation to showboat or throw one of those How-do-you-like-me-now?! celebrations after you win a big point. One player who has this figured out is Ana Ivanovic, she of the discreet, if sometimes irritatingly frequent, fist pump.
Time and again, we’ve seen underdog players go up two sets to one, or knot a match at two sets all, and essentially blow much of their emotional and physical reserves before the finish line is in sight. Under typical Australian Open conditions, it’s far wiser to control your emotions and maintain the assumption, from the very get-go, that the match is going to go the distance. You’d better be ready to go it, too.
These days, most players have explored all the avenues when it comes to things like hydration, cooling, and nutrition, but not too much thought is given to saving energy, especially in the scream and shriek-happy WTA. Besides, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Agnieszka Radwanska, and Chris Evert got or get along fine without making grand emotional gestures, and you can too.
It’s always better to have the win, than to win the battle of the leaping air punches.