The Rally: Marching On

Thursday, April 03, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The Rally returns this week, with a discussion between TENNIS.com senior editor Richard Pagliaro and myself about the month past, and what it may mean for the two months ahead.

*****

Richard,

We've made it through another March, which means we’ve made it through another month of chatter about which tournament is the true—by which I mean fake—fifth Grand Slam. What did you think were the most interesting stories, or topics of discussion? Here are three that have stayed in my mind this week.

Novak Djokovic proved that in tennis, you have to make your own confidence. He hired Boris Becker to help him with his mental approach, but it really took just one win on his own, with Becker 4,000 miles away, to turn himself around. Until the second set of his Indian Wells final against Roger Federer, many of us were wondering if Djokovic was going to have a tough year. By the time Miami was over, he had played some of the best tennis of his career in routing Rafael Nadal

—How much better can Li Na get at 32? Carlos Rodriguez has helped her get in better shape and hasn't been afraid to give parts of her game an overhaul. While she has struggled at times, it seems to be working. In Miami, I was impressed with the way she handled her inconsistency; until the final, she didn't let it beat her. Now the battle might be between her new game and her aging body.

Serena Williams is still the best, and she didn't drop a set to Maria Sharapova or Li in Miami. But after her slow starts there, her early loss in Charleston, and her talk of being fatigued after a "long two years," is there any reason to wonder about her going forward?

*****

Steve:

Your March points are on target. Driving from Miami to Daytona Beach after the tournament was a reminder of how Florida is still a spring-breaker’s paradise—and how Djokovic makes March a season of regeneration.

Djokovic started the month in New York for the Madison Square Garden exhibition with Andy Murray talking about searching for confidence when closing matches. By the end of the month he had edged Roger in the Indian Wells final, eviscerated Rafa in the Miami final, and remade his season. 

Potentially, Miami could carry repercussions because of how thoroughly Nole handled Rafa, the fact that he attacked Nadal's forehand without any apprehension, and at times played true all-court tennis. By the time the bubbles were bouncing off his head during the trophy ceremony, it reminded me of the end of Wizard of Oz, when the wizard tells the scarecrow: "They have one thing you haven't got: A diploma." Working with Becker, Djoker is seeking validation for closing time, but the confirmation that comes from beating two rivals in very different matches may carry him much farther.  

I'm not concerned with the weary Serena's slip-up in Charleston and here’s why: Look at the sluggish starts she had against Sharapova and Li, as well as some passive stretches against Caroline Garcia, yet she still took home the title. We've seen Serena play her way into form during the course of a tournament, but this time the form came in waves and she still won.

Going out early in Charleston could give Serena enough time to unplug, clear her head, and prepare for the big clay-court events in Madrid, Rome, and Paris.

Here's three from me on March:

—Djokovic-Nadal will be the primary narrative on the men's side this season, and not just because of the race for No. 1 and Novak's desire to win Roland Garros. Their head-to-head is so close, they currently share all the Masters titles, and Nole showed a bit of an adjustment targeting Rafa's forehand in Miami. Can that translate to clay? What's the next adjustment in that rivalry?

—Doubles Clutch. Martina Hingis and Sabine Lisicki winning in Miami, the Bryans doubling up in Indian Wells and Miami for the first time (and moving closer toward a 100th career title), all of the high-profile combinations in Indian Wells made it a showcase month for doubles—even if you couldn't catch it on TV.

—Tournament Experience. Indian Wells has Hawk-Eye on every court, a sparkling new stadium, Nobu, and the sight of stars playing soccer next to practice courts. Miami's facilities need an upgrade, but the city is so cosmopolitan, the fans so passionate, and the site so scenic, it was a real shame to see both semifinals wiped out by injury and illness. What is a tournament's responsibility as an entertainment package? You see Major League Baseball stadiums with hot tubs, batting cages, and pool tables and I think that detracts from the focus on the field. Has Larry Ellison's investment raised the bar to the point where other Masters events have to supplement the tournament experience?

*****

Richard,

Three good questions coming from Miami. Let me take a crack at them:

What's next for Rafa-Nole?

I'm not sure about the Oz part, Richard, but Nole was indeed a wizard in the Miami final. Yesterday I wrote that I had never seen Nadal have so much trouble finding his inside-out forehand, or get beaten so badly by an opponent's cross-court backhand, as he did against Djokovic in the final. Nole has found a soft spot in Nadal's game: The space he leaves open on his forehand side, to protect his backhand.

What can Rafa do to counteract that? I would say two things, each of which have been keys to his wins over Djokovic in the past. (1) Make the down-the-line forehand a regular part of his repertoire from the start. Whether he's hitting that shot or not is often the key to whether he beats Djokovic or not; and (2) Forget the slice backhand and hit over it whenever possible. 

Either way, if Djokovic is going to target Nadal's forehand, Rafa has to find a way to make Nole do that from more of a defensive position.

What can be done about doubles?

Last month, Pete Bodo and I Rallied about the future of doubles; one thing we left out was how often it's shown, or not shown, on TV. It's always a great scene when Federer or Nadal or Murray are on a small court in a doubles match at Indian Wells, but that doesn’t do anyone any good at home. I enjoyed reading tweets and reports about Hingis and Lisicki in Miami, but I never found them on my TV. 

The ATP World Tour Finals has probably done the best job of integrating doubles into its event, and into its telecasts. Is there a way for other tournaments to follow its lead, to feature doubles matches on prime courts and at prime times and have them broadcast? One positive is that the former tournament director of the World Tour Finals, Chris Kermode, is now the head of the ATP. Perhaps he can spread the doubles word around.

Miami vs. Indian Wells

It's true, while Miami gets a bad rap these days, it does have a more energetic fan base and atmosphere than Indian Wells—even Larry Ellison can't do anything about that. But I like what he has done with Indian Wells, and I left there this year thinking that more is possible on that wide-open site in the desert. It may or may not have anything to do with Ellison, but Rome, Madrid, and Cincinnati have all made, or tried to make, big improvements in their facilities in recent years. Miami now looks laggard for standing still.

To me it’s a positive sign for tennis that these events, and the dual-gender Masters/Premier structure in general, have made their marks on the game. We don’t want the Grand Slams to overshadow everything. 

A question: Do you think there's anything that can be done for paying customers on a day like this year's Miami men's semis? I know some brought up the idea of having a lucky loser fill in when there's a withdrawal.

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Steve:

Miami was a tactical shift in the Rafa-Nole rivalry, but the fun of shifting surfaces is seeing if the blueprint Djokovic used on a purple hard court translates to red clay. Novak can control the center of the court against Rafa on hard courts because he's better at hitting on the rise, but can he sustain the same aggressive court positioning on the slippery, slower surface? And how much does Rafa's defense neutralize Novak's aggression on clay? 

I agree with you on Nadal overplaying the slice backhand, which sometimes lacks both bite and depth and usually conveys the sense he's digging in for a defensive point. I'd like to see him occasionally hit heavier topspin with the two-hander to try to back the opponent up more—he sometimes goes to the short slice and then hits his two-hander too flat.

Last year, Nadal and Djokovic faced off on clay only once, in the Monte Carlo final, before their classic Roland Garros semifinal. It would be fun to see them play a couple of times before a potential French Open meeting this spring, to see how Rafa responds. Nadal is good at learning from losses and making adjustments, but he identified the issue in Miami by pointing out that when Novak is better with the serve and return, you can't gain ground in rallies. Djokovic has also played down the line more effectively in his recent wins, which is why, as you say, the Nadal down-the-line forehand becomes so important early in rallies.

As for doubles, a way for it to gain some traction is if more players used it as a game developer. Watching Hingis and Lisicki, one partner was talking to the other after almost every point. Those experiences can be more valuable than practice because you're being tested in a match from more positions on court, and you have a guide helping you work out solutions. When you see the singles success of former doubles No. 1s like Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani, and Sam Stosur, it makes me wish players like Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki played it more. 

And I like the late-round lucky loser concept a lot more than I like the thought of a tournament losing an entire semifinal slate. Obviously it's a rare occurrence, but I'd favor advancing the highest-ranked prior-round loser in the event of a late-round withdrawal—assuming those players hadn't left town.

At each of the Masters events in March, we saw big runs from players outside the Top 10—Pennetta reached the Indian Wells final, Alexandr Dolgopolov was an Indian Wells semifinalist and Miami quarterfinalist, and Kei Nishikori made the Miami final four. Given that Djokovic and Nadal combined hold all of the Masters titles now, which non-Top 10 players are most likely to go deep in upcoming clay Masters events? 

*****

Richard,

If only we could throw in blue clay as well, to go with the purple hard courts and the red and green clay we currently have. I was against it at first, and the stuff they laid down was too slippery, but I do find myself wishing that Madrid was still blue. It was photogenic, if nothing else.

I do agree with you on doubles helping singles players round out their games. The decline of dubs among the elite is probably an underrated factor in the lack of net play in singles. If doubles were more important to the top men and women, we’d likely see a wider variety of shots in singles.

As for the lucky loser concept, I don't think I like the idea of one fortunate player getting a chance to lose a match, and then still win the tournament. Somehow it reminds me of the time Radek Stepanek was brought in from vacation to play the Masters Cup after a withdrawal, because he happened to be in the area. He didn’t have his snaeakers. But it's true, a day like last Friday in Miami is a disaster not just for paying fans, but for the tournament's relations with its TV broadcasters and sponsors.

As for clay-court sleepers, I think you have to look at Stanislas Wawrinka being dangerous again; Grigor Dimitrov springing a big upset or two, as he did over Djokovic in Madrid last year; and I do like the possibilities for Dolgopolov's game on clay. Do you believe in him as a closer, though? That's always been his Achilles' heel.

Among the women, I'll be curious, as I said earlier, to see the continued progress of Li, the 2011 French open champion. I also wonder if we'll see more improvement from Dominika Cibulkova and Simona Halep. Both are in the Top 10 now; Cibulkova was a semifinalist in Paris five years ago, and Halep made the semis in Rome last spring. I also have to think Serena won't be quite as thoroughly dominant as she was last year. 

Who do you like this spring, Richard?

*****

Steve,

While in Miami, I got to hit on the purple Crandon Park courts, and whether it was the clear sky and high sun, or the fact I'd only hit on indoor Har-Tru where the dirt can disguise the ball, the visibility was so sharp. It felt like seeing tennis in HD for the first time. So for visibility reasons (read: My eyes are now worse than my second serve), I was one of the few favoring Madrid’s blue period. It was more lava lamp blue than Boise State blue, so the ball popped more to my eye. 

Players prefer the predictability of similar courts and ball bounce from week to week, and that makes sense from both a playing—and branding—perspective when you have Australian lead-in tournaments to Melbourne or the U.S. Open Series event setting the stage for Flushing Meadows. But I like tournament courts with their own quirky characteristics. The Miami court surface felt grittier too, and the balls got scruffier.

Dolgo is tricky because right now he's backing up the dazzle with consistency—three semifinals in his last four tournaments—but aside from an Australian Open quarterfinal run a few years ago, he hasn't done much at the majors. Still, when you see him in person he's got an electric arm, a quick-action serve that’s tough to read, he's so light on his feet, and in an inside-out forehand era he can break down players with the cross-court forehand. He's the son of a coach and knows the percentages, yet under pressure he hits the self-destruct button too often. I don't know if it's an involuntary reaction to pressure, or a deep belief that he's got to always beat the opponent to the punch, but he’s a bit like James Blake in his tendency to red-line. Dolgo may best be suited to the best-of-three-set format.

If Dimitrov can play with the kind of commitment he showed beating Djokovic in Madrid last year and Milos Raonic in Australia in January, I think he can do damage, but I thought the same thing last year. Fabio Fognini is an excellent Davis Cup player, and if he plays well this weekend I can see him having a strong clay-court season. Several people I spoke to in Miami are raving about Dominic Thiem's game as well.

On the women's side, if Caroline Garcia can put together a string of solid matches, I really like her game because she can play points on her terms against anyone. Bouchard put up a couple of good results on clay last year, she's off to a great start this year and she moves well so I think she's a threat too.

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