The Rally: What We're Looking Forward to in 2014

Thursday, January 02, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

For the new year, we're debuting a new feature at TENNIS.com: A weekly discussion between myself and fellow editor Richard Pagliaro. Each Thursday, Richard and I will bat the latest issues in the game around here. For our inaugural chat, we do the only thing we really can do at the moment: Talk about what we're looking forward to seeing over the next 11 months.

*****

Richard,

Are you ready for tennis? You don’t have a choice if you aren’t, because tennis is ready for you. This week we can follow tournaments in Brisbane, Doha, Chennai, and Auckland, as well as the Hopman Cup exo in Perth. Nadal, Serena, Murray, Sharapova, Federer: They’ve all been in action. The off-season has been “expanded” in recent years by three weeks, but I still don’t notice it enough to actually start missing the sport. And I doubt anyone who isn’t a tennis fanatic would understand that the ATP’s World Tour Final, played in mid-November, was supposed to exist in an entirely different season from the tournaments that began the last week in December.

So I try to pace myself and stay away until the calendar year officially begins—there’s 11 more months of tennis where that came from, after all. Now that 2014 is here, I’ll start our first Rally with a simple, global question: What are you looking forward to most? Here are five things that come to my mind:

1. The resumption of the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry. After trading the top ranking and playing 39 times, they seem to be all-square going to Australia.

2. The still-forming next generation on the women’s side. Stephens, Bouchard, Keys, Robson, the mysterious Elina Svitolina: Who, if any, will take a step forward?

3. The legends effect. Djokovic and Federer have followed Andy Murray’s lead and hired a champion from the 1980s as their coach. Will the “been there, done that” theory of mentorship work for them as well?

4. Serena, continued. This year she could move toward greatest-ever status, or she could finally begin to show her age. Either way, it still all seems to be up to her.

5. Whatever Ernests Gulbis has to tell us.

*****

Steve,

When I found myself spending the night after Christmas serving up a double-shot of old Australian favorites—the 2002 Capriati-Hingis final followed by the 2005 Safin-Federer semifinal on YouTube—I realized I was either experiencing tennis withdrawal, or my life has become as narrowly defined as a center net strap. Probably a bit of both. 

I’m excited for the 40th reunion of Djokovic-Nadal, as Rafa played the best hard-court tennis I’ve seen from him last season, and Djokovic is at his best in Melbourne. Bill Scanlon once told me facing Becker on grass “made me feel more helpless than any other player I ever faced.” Becker was so dynamic and could be such an imposing force, I’m curious to see the tactical and emotional influence he can impart on Djokovic. I just hope he’s not as bland in the box as he could be on TV. I liked the days when Djokovic’s entire box would scream encouragement and throw him fist pumps. With all the stars returning, the coach-cam may get as much use as Hawk-Eye during the Australian Open.

Serena is a major story because if she’s stays healthy, I think she has three to five years left. People can snicker, but they’re probably the same ones claiming she’d be done at 30. I think she’s super-motivated to win 20-plus majors.

Reflecting on the new coaching alliances, I’d love to see an elite woman player hire a former women’s champ. Mauresmo helped Bartoli out during grass season; imagine a Hingis-Radwanska pairing? 

Gulbis is a trip. He hits as hard as a guy imitating that Antarctic ice-breaker, and his pressers are a guilty pleasure, but I never get the sense he’s willing to bleed for it. It’s like watching exceptional ability trapped in an Xbox attitude: “there’s always another match so this one doesn’t really matter” is the vibe he exudes sometimes. But they all matter to the best. 

I’d like to see Dimitrov break out in a major. I thought his win over Djokovic in Madrid Masters last year would launch him, and I was wrong.

*****

Richard,

Speaking of the ever-erratic Ernie, he was up to his old tricks in Doha today. At the first sign of a drizzle in his match against Rafael Nadal, he wanted off the court ASAP, to Rafa's semi-irritation. I like your assessment of Gulbis: "exceptional ability trapped in an Xbox attitude." He has just one gear, and for all of his ball-striking talent, his game lacks nuance and grit. But I’d miss him if he went away.

I'll move on to the year's first big topic: The continuation of That 80s Show at the top of the men’s tour. You say you're "curious to see the tactical or emotional influence that Boris Becker can impart" to Novak Djokovic. That's the question with both Becker and Edberg, just as it was when Ivan Lendl began working with Andy Murray. Early on, Murray said he "wanted to make Ivan proud" when he played, and I think that’s been a big part of their success. With Lendl in his corner, Murray had someone whose stature in the game was greater than his. First and foremost, he didn’t want to embarrass Ivan.

Djokovic is closer to Becker in stature, as well as in age. More than anything, I think Novak wants to hear and feel Becker's champion's confidence around him—as you say, judging by Boris's TV commentary, Djokovic shouldn't look too hard for subtle tactical insights. But there’s a danger here. A few years ago, wanting a new voice, Djokovic brought in Todd Martin. The relationship proved to be more disruptive than helpful. Martin's technical advice, especially on the serve, threw Djokovic off.

This week Lleyton Hewitt described the Becker-Djokovic team as “strange.” How would you characterize Federer-Edberg? It makes sense in that Federer was an Edberg fan growing up, and he can help his attacking game. But Federer won't look up to Edberg the way Murray did with Lendl, and Edberg hasn't coached before. What do you think the realistic expectations are for how much Edberg can help Federer? As Stefan learned in his late-20s, serve and volley, which requires a fast first step, is a tough thing to do as you age. It would be even tougher to start doing when you're 32.

*****

Steve,

A diet of strict serve-and-volleying in today's ATP is about as realistic as hands-free mechanical bull riding—you're bound to get bounced—so I don't see Roger returning to the style he used to beat Sampras at Wimbledon all those years ago.

Still, it can be a productive partnership because Edberg can help Federer in transition and in the return game. Federer is a versatile player, but he can be pretty inflexible on the return. He doesn't alter his positioning nearly as much as Rafa and Novak do. I can envision Edberg encouraging him to give the server some different looks on return. Mix in occasional chip-and-charge with driving the ball and running around the backhand return at times.

Checking the 2013 stats, Federer held in 87 percent of his service games (Nadal and Djokovic held 88 percent) but he was 10th in return games won. Edberg is synonymous with serve-and-volley (and sportsmanship), but he was a very tough guy to ace, he did more than put returns in play. He understood the subtleties of attack and altering spin and location of approaches off the return as well.

Years back, I attended a training/fantasy camp Edberg did in Arizona. He told me then if you ask any player of any level, "What's your weakness?" they can all answer straightaway, but if you ask those same players, "What's your strength? What's your go-to play to win a crucial point?" many—even some elite pros—won't be able to provide a clear answer. Edberg said he always worked on his strengths more than his weaknesses because when that pivotal point arrived, he tried to impose his strength rather than protect a weakness. 

I still think Federer's variety and his serve—when he's on—distinguishes him among the Big Four, but the confidence will only come from tournament wins. Federer has a history of absorbing all he can from coaches—Lundgren, Roche, Annacone—then moving on when he feels he's gleaned what he can, so I don't think he'd commit to 10 to 14 weeks with Edberg, especially with the career clock ticking, unless he believed there is substance to be gained. Plus, Edberg knows about back issues and using the kick serve.

What's your take on the future of the over-30 crew: Haas, Youzhny, Hewitt, and Robredo?

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Richard,

Good points on Edberg, his return, and his thought process. We tend to think of the top guys as God-given talents or forces of nature, but they're always tactically astute as well, at least when it comes to their own games. Edberg, and even the much-maligned Becker, may surprise us in that department this year.

Maybe I should come back to your question about the other over-30 men another day and finish with some thoughts on the women's game in 2014. You think Serena could stay at the top for a lot longer, and I agree. I also don't see anyone who is going to come along and vanquish her; I'm guessing her ultimate demise will be due to some kind of chronic injury. Who do you like among the up and coming women? I'd say Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys have the most potential game-wise, but Eugenie Bouchard has the most potential attitude-wise. The ceiling is probably higher for Stephens and Keys, but the road upward may be smoother in the short term for Bouchard. Have you seen their fellow youngster, Elina Svitolina, play yet? I haven't.

For the most part, I like the WTA's prospects for 2014. In Serena, the tour has a dominant champion who brings in casual fans and gives the No. 1 ranking a definite stamp of legitimacy. Yet it also has Azarenka and Sharapova just a few steps behind her.

Still, there's something missing at the top of the women's game right now. Ideally, we'd have a situation where we wouldn't have to wait for Serena to beat herself to have a surprise result. 

*****

Steve,

Agreed. The WTA has entertaining players—the dynamic, dominant No. 1 in Serena, and a tier of talented former Grand Slam champions in Azarenka, Sharapova, Li and Kvitova, the rising young players as you mention. Now it's a matter of developing the plot lines.

If Top 10 rivalries emerge—be it Azarenka-Kvitova or Sharapova-Radwanska, for instance—it could add another layer of intrigue. I think you're spot-on in your assessments of Stephens, Keys, and Bouchard.

If Keys can put two healthy seasons together, she can be a big-time player, but that's tough to achieve for young players experiencing injury interruptions. One of the things I like about Bouchard is she shows a sense of joy in playing and problem solving—I like that quality in Halep too, you can see her trying to figure out solutions—whereas with Stephens and Robson, I sometimes feel they can emotionally degenerate too quickly into frustration or disengagement when things aren't working.

Several of the usual suspects are too power-reliant to trouble Serena, who grew up playing against one of the hardest hitters we've seen. You can't hit through Serena and very few women can run with Serena and that's a reason why Stephens, if she has the hunger and can find the consistency, can be a dangerous Top 10 player because she's so quick around the court and has the movement to complement the power. The question is, can she use her speed offensively?

Look at Jankovic. She isn’t a power player, but she pushed Serena to three in the Charleston final and WTA Championships, in part because she can extend the point and use her movement to create angles. Li is a quick mover, but plays too flat and is too erratic to beat Serena.

Serena said in Madrid last year: "I feel pressure every day. I think it's a good thing a little bit because it means I'm still really hungry." 

As long as she sustains health and hunger, I don't see any one player looming as a major obstacle.

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