The Rally: Final Survey

Monday, September 23, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Here’s my final answer in the Rally that Kamakshi Tandon and I had last week, about the U.S. Open and its ramifications for the rest of 2013. You can read Part I here, and Part II here.

*****

Kamakshi,

You left me three questions on Friday. After much—OK, not all that much—thought about them this weekend, here are my answers:

What does Djokovic have to do to re-turn the tables on Nadal?

The usual answer to this type of question is: Be more aggressive. And that is, in part, how Rafa got the upper hand again on the Djoker in 2012 and 2013. Nadal played closer the baseline, mixed more balls to the forehand side, and tried his best to dictate—he actually hit more winners than Novak in their five-set semifinal at Roland Garros this year.

But it was interesting that in Montreal and at the Open, Nadal said that it wasn’t the more aggressive tactics that led him to play better. It was the reverse: The fact that he was playing well—“feeling the ball well,” in his words—allowed him be comfortable using more aggressive, riskier tactics. That same equation held true for Djokovic in the U.S. Open final. After losing the first set, he began to swing more freely. Winners started to fly off his racquet, and thus he grew confident enough to be more aggressive.

That's called zoning, and it’s tough to make it last forever—or long enough to beat a player of Nadal’s caliber over the course of three out of five sets. When Djokovic was beating Rafa in 2011, he was doing it with patience. He was outlasting him, even on clay. Doing that also takes confidence, the confidence that you’ll be the one to eventually win the 20-shot rally. Of late, against Nadal, Djokovic hasn’t looked like he believes in his consistency to that extent.

So how do you start to believe in your ability to beat someone...when you keep losing to them? I would say, right now, for Djokovic, the key is to take it one match at a time. If and when he plays Rafa indoors this winter, he should theoretically have his best chance of winning—Djokovic is a good indoor player, while Nadal historically hasn’t played his best in those conditions. It probably won’t mean anything in terms of the year-end No. 1 ranking, but Djokovic should feel like getting a win over Rafa this winter could help his belief against him in 2014.

What should Federer do with the rest of his season?

You thought he should use this time to train and get used to his new racquet, Kamakshi, and not worry about his ranking or winning events. 

I agree with that. Federer said at the Open that his problem was, with his recent back troubles, that he couldn’t practice the way he wanted. Fix that first, try to get comfortable with the new racquet second, and worry about your results third. He has said he wouldn’t add to his schedule to make the year-end championships, but like you mentioned, if Murray doesn’t play, that’s one less guy ahead of him. 

That said, I’m sure Federer will play his normal amount this fall, and do his best to put his name in the conversation again. But it's hard to imagine it will be like 2011. That fall he built toward the next season by winning three events; this time the build-up will likely be about feeling good on the court and making adjustments. Still, I will be interested to see what he does against Rafa indoors. 

Is there anyone I would like to see take advantage of the Serena-less, Maria-less gap at the top of the women’s game?

I would always answer Radwanska in these cases, because I never get tired of watching her play. 

This time I might also say Sloane, because, as you said, she’s the only new face who might qualify for Istanbul. Plus, it’s better when she’s winning, because she gets so morose when she isn’t that it’s not fun to see.

I’d like to see Petra Kvitova put her best tennis together for more than a set at a time. I’d also like to hear her cut the blood-curdling scream out of her celebratory repertoire. Now that I've written them down, neither seems all that plausible.

I’d like to see Flavia Pennetta continue her Indian Summer. She’s cool, and, at 31, we won’t be watching her forever.

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