The Rally: Surveying the Landscape, Part II

Friday, September 20, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Here's Part II of my discussion with Kamakshi Tandon, editor of Tennis Journal, about where the U.S. Open has left us, and where we may go the rest of the season. You can read Part I here. I'll be back with a final entry on Monday.

*****

Kamakshi,

If Nadal had lost to Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, it definitely wouldn't have negated his hard-court season, but there would have been echoes of Agassi-Sampras in '95—people would have said that he still couldn't get Nole on hard courts when it counted; and despite Rafa's amazing year, his only major would have been his usual major, the French Open. You're right that no one says Gaudio was the better player because he beat Coria in one five-set final in Paris, and nobody would have said Djokovic was the better player in this case either. But he would have at least re-asserted himself on his favorite surface.

As far as whether Djokovic should have beaten Rafa in their two big Slam matches this year, I can see that being true for the French semi—Djokovic was close in the fifth set, and he lost it on a careless/fluke mistake by running into the net. But in their U.S. Open final, I can't say that someone should have won a match when he only ended up with one set. Yes, Rafa snuck out of the third set, but Djokovic had to play his absolute best to win the second and take the lead in the third. He wasn't going to do that all day, and Rafa was clearly better in the first and fourth sets.

As you said, Nadal has adjusted and taken the lead in their rivalry. Now Djokovic needs to readjust; relying on zoning isn't going to do it over three of five sets. But it's not over for him—in 2011, he beat Rafa in large part because he was confident that he was the better player, and that he could even outlast Nadal. That was the psychological difference; Rafa had never been out-endured before. Djokovic doesn't seem to feel the same way in their matches now, but he obviously still remembers 2011, and one good win might make him think that way again.

Fortunately, their rivalry should have a few more twists and turns, because as you say, Kamakshi, we're still waiting for their successors to arrive, and it seems like we'll be waiting for some time more. While one of the Big 4, Federer, slipped this year, the other three have still won every Slam and Masters event between them. On the women's side, it might be even worse. The only surprise winner this year, Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon, promptly retired.

Why are there fewer young breakout stars on each tour? The main reason given on the ATP side is how "physical" the sport is now. And when you watch the best juniors, you can see why people say that. Even the top 17- and 18-year-olds appear to be a long way from being able to go toe to toe for three hours with anyone in the Top 20. You mentioned that Stan Wawrinka has had a late breakout at 28. His coach, Magnus Norman, said it had nothing to do with his game; the main thing was "making him stronger" so Stan could hang with the guys ahead of him in the rankings. There's also professionalization by example—the "team" concept has been adopted across the board by all the players who can afford it. There's enough money for them to travel with coach, physio, hitting partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, best friend, Red Foo, etc. That has to help with consistency and longevity.

For now, the men's Next Gen—Janowicz, Raonic, Tomic, Dimitrov—remains collectively flawed. It's easy to imagine Rafa (27), Djoko (26), and Murray (26) monopolizing the game for five more years. The women's future is hard to even identify. At the moment it seems to consist mainly of Sloane Stephens; she may also be flawed, but she's the youngest player in the Top 30. (Did you know that Caroline Wozniacki is still the third-youngest player in the Top 20, and that she's younger than Jamie Hampton?)

Meanwhile, the champions get more dominant. Maybe it's just an accident of history. It can seem impossible for a new star to appear...until he or she appears.

*****

Steve,

Beating Djokovic definitely added an extra layer to Nadal's U.S. Open victory. The match was similar to their Montreal encounter—Nadal looked like the better player most of the way, then Djokovic somehow edged ahead before Nadal grabbed back the initiative again.

I wasn't saying that Djokovic "should" have won all the matches he lost to Nadal this year, just that *he* should feel that he should have—though by most perspectives he "should" have won the third set of the U.S. Open final. (Had Nadal lost those matches, he might have a "should" feeling about them too.) But he also has to look at the fact that while they played a bunch of close matches, he lost all of them. That's got to mean something, too.

The question now is what Djokovic does from here—how does he counter Nadal's new approach, raise his own game? Djokovic's most successful periods in the final were when he stopped letting himself get pushed around by Nadal and started going for more on his own shots in the second set. But it also cost him in the end because he couldn't quite sustain that form at the key moments, like the volley he missed with a two-sets-to-one lead on the line.

You probably remember that when Nadal was asked how he was going to start beating Djokovic again a couple of years ago, he said that he was simply going to wait, because Djokovic wasn't always going to play this well. That wasn't all Nadal did, of course, he also went back made adjustments and improvements himself. But waiting did turn out to be part of the answer. I wonder if Djokovic, who doesn't quite have Nadal's patience, feels the same way.

Going forward, we now know that Andy Murray will be out of the mix for most if not all of the rest of the season. That means one of the big storylines of the fall—will Federer make the tour finals?—might become redundant. Federer is currently in seventh place in the race, with Wawrinka and Gasquet fairly close behind and a bunch of others who could jump into the running with a big result. But if Murray doesn't play, three players would have to overtake Federer to keep him out. Still, just discussing the possibility is big given how regular a presence Federer has been, and how successful he's been during the indoor stretch. What do you think of the rest of Federer's season, Steve? I'd say he shouldn't worry about qualifying or about his results for the rest of the year, but work on getting used to the new racquet or whatever and try to get back in a groove for next year.

Nadal has never dominated this part of the season, but his late start to the year means he might have more left for the indoor tournaments. He's never won a year-end championships, so that's a goal he can aim for over the next few weeks. As for Djokovic, it'll be interesting to see what he chases—keeping No. 1 (unlikely), the year-end title, or Davis Cup.

It's interesting that you name Dimitrov and Co. as the Next Gen—are we giving up on Del Potro, Gulbis and that lot? Actually, I falter even as I say that. Del Potro did look impressive at times this year, and even Gulbis seemed to get going for a while there, but as a group they just haven't had great momentum. Maybe 28, like Stan, will become the age of the breakthrough. (I was joking when I started that last sentence, but by the end was wondering if that might indeed turn out to be the case).

On the women's side, no, I didn't realize at all that the third-youngest player in the Top 20 was ("washed-up") Woz. There is actually a group of young players with promise—Madison Keys, Laura Robson, Stephens, but as your stat indicates, they're still inconsistent and so far down the rankings that it's hard to see them as an imminent threat. People have grown skeptical of "promising players," so many of whom haven't panned out. It now takes a lot more to get them excited, to convince them someone is for real. Even a Slam doesn't always do it any more.

It looks like Serena may not play much this fall—she just pulled out of Tokyo—and Sharapova is on the sidelines. It's an opportunity for Azarenka, and maybe others as well. Anyone you'd like to see take advantage? Stephens is the one young player who has a decent chance of getting into the year-end championships, with veterans like Roberta Vinci and Jelena Jankovic the other contenders for the last spot. Kvitova at No. 7 might also be threatened, but everyone ahead of her seems likely to make it. 

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