History repeated itself in controversial and compelling ways at this US Open. For the second straight year, Novak Djokovic fought off two match points to overcome Roger Federer in a titanic semifinal. For her second straight Open, Serena Williams unleashed her venomous tongue at an official who made the right call, and she was penalized during the match and fined later. And in the Open final, for the sixth straight time this year, Djokovic dominated Rafael Nadal who had dominated the tennis world last year. Even before the fireworks began, Serena was strangely seeded only No. 28, which sparked a hailstorm of criticism.
Let’s analyze what happened by starting with thought-provoking comments from some of the best and brightest minds in tennis.
“Serena Williams seeded 28—are you kidding me? She’s the heavy favourite here. She’s playing great, confident tennis,” averred Tennis Channel’s Martina Navratilova, winner of 59 major titles in singles and doubles. How then do you accurately and fairly seed a former No. 1 and winner of 13 Grand Slam titles whose No. 28 ranking reflected her playing only five tournaments after being sidelined by injuries, illness and surgeries for 11 months?
You start by reviewing the origin of and rationale for tournament seedings. Surprisingly, it took big-time tennis nearly 50 years to realize just how necessary seedings are. “Big Bill” Tilden and “Little Bill” Johnston competed in the U.S. Championships final in 1919 and 1920 and were clearly America’s best players. But when the draw—sans seedings—came out in 1921, they were unfortunately scheduled to face each other in the round of 16. Tilden took that encounter in four sets and then overwhelmed the outclassed Wallace Johnson in a disappointing final. Henceforth, tournament organizers placed Tilden and Johnston in different halves of the draw, and their riveting rivalry continued in finals at Forest Hills in 1922 through 1925 to the delight of tennis aficionados. Wimbledon initiated its seedings in 1927.
Therefore, seedings have historically been intended for two closely related reasons. The most important rationale is to spread the top players as much as possible in the draw so that they cannot meet (assuming they keep winning) until as late as possible during the tournament. Second, besides treating the top players fairly by recognizing and rewarding their superior tournament records, seedings give the draw the most permissible balance for the benefit of seeded and unseeded players as well as spectators and TV viewers. For every quarter of the draw, and later on for every sixteenth, and now (controversially) for every 32nd section, Grand Slam events would have a high-quality player in the form of a seed. In the sport’s first 75 years that proved especially important because big-time tennis was far more formful and lacking in depth than it is today.
Serena’s case isn’t particularly difficult to resolve. So when her seeding was not upgraded from her No. 28 ranking, some observers wondered whether the United States Tennis Association and International Tennis Federation were retaliating for Serena’s outrageous misconduct at the 2009 US Open and unrepentant attitude afterward.
The only real question entailed how much higher Serena should have been seeded based on the two aforementioned criteria. Her short but strong record was highly relevant. In her first events since last year's Wimbledon, a rusty Serena reached the second round at Eastbourne, losing to Vera Zvonareva, and made the fourth round at Wimbledon, losing to Marion Bartoli. Significantly, Wimbledon seeded her No. 7. Serena rapidly regained championship form on the U.S. hard courts circuit. She won Stanford by whipping Maria Sharapova and Bartoli and captured Toronto with victories over Victoria Azarenka and Samantha Stosur, and then withdrew before her second round match at Cincinnati because of a toe injury.
All things considered including her three previous US Open titles, Serena deserved to be seeded no lower than No. 8. Instead, as the luck of the draw would have it, Serena would play and defeat fourth-seeded Azarenka 6-1, 7-6 in the third round, in what should have been a quarterfinal, semifinal, or even a final. That premature clash of elite players was terribly unfair to both.
In a debate with fellow ESPN analyst John McEnroe, Jim Courier contended hyperbolically that moving Serena up in the seedings would set a bad precedent and create “a subjective situation where they’re going to have to make subjective calls all over the place … and every year try and finagle and figure things up.”
On the contrary, the “slippery slope” argument is always flawed because each case must be weighed on its own merits. Courier was also wrong on the facts, the history. This case, while highly unusual, was not unprecedented.
Monica Seles was seeded a lofty No. 2 when she played the 1995 US Open in only her second tournament after a 27-month layoff. Seles had deposed superstar Steffi Graf as No. 1 and beaten her archrival in the 1993 Australian final four months before she was stabbed in the back at a Hamburg tournament. Before the US Open, she played only one tournament, Toronto, where she thrashed every opponent. The enthralling 7-6, 0-6, 6-3 final won by Graf might never have happened if Seles had not been seeded No. 2, which ensured her being placed in the other half of the draw.
In Serena’s similar case, objective criteria, such as her past record on hard courts (where she won eight major titles) and recent perfect summer hard court record, easily trumps her misleading ranking. Further, consider that with the absence of reigning Australian and U.S. champion Kim Clijsters and no dominant woman, oddsmakers, such as William Hill in the UK, made Serena a prohibitive favorite to win the US Open. Virtually every pundit picked Serena to win, too.
Therefore, while seeding Serena No. 2, like Seles, would have likely been defensible but controversial, any seeding from No. 5 to No. 8 would have been fair, reasonable and justifiable. Most important, that solution would have been beneficial for the elite players, fans, sponsors and the media because it would have prevented the top four players from facing Serena before the quarterfinals.
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“I don’t think Nadal has a problem mentally in trying to beat Djokovic. But tactically and technically, it may be a problem for Rafa on these hard courts,” predicted Tennis Channel’s Mats Wilander, before the US Open final.
You may remember Rafael Nadal saying something quite different after the streaking Serb beat him for the fifth straight time—on three different surfaces—in the Wimbledon final. “He’s in my head,” confided Nadal then. “He knows it, I know it, you know it. Everybody knows it.”
So, can Wilander be right?
It cannot be denied that just as wins breed confidence, losses sap confidence. It is also true that style match-ups often matter in varying ways and degrees.
Tellingly, Nadal also said: “When one player is better than you, at this moment, the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions and try to wait a little bit for your time. I’m going to wait and I’m going to try a sixth time. And if the sixth doesn’t happen, a seventh. It’s going to be like this. That’s the spirit of sport.”
That candid declaration epitomizes Nadal’s work ethic, determination and humility. Nadal’s key phrase, though, was “try to find solutions.” Wilander’s key words were “problem” and “tactically and technically.”
Technique rates as the highest priority because without topnotch technique—strokes, footwork and grips—one doesn’t possess the shots to execute clever tactics.
After several years of improving his technique and tactics, Nadal created a seemingly complete game that dethroned longtime king Roger Federer and culminated in capturing three of the four major titles last year. The Spanish conquistador climaxed his brilliant season with a brilliant four-set triumph over Djokovic in the US Open final.
But the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry turned around suddenly and completely this year for two reasons: Nadal regressed and Djokovic progressed. Nadal did seize his sixth French Open, but even on Nadal’s beloved clay, Djokovic stunned him in the Madrid and Rome finals. Overall, in their six encounters Nadal managed to win only four of the 18 sets.
Why? The first answer comes from Nadal’s declining serve, which is hampered by a low toss and insufficient shoulder tilt and weight transfer. At the 2010 US Open, his first serve averaged a potent 119 mph in the first six matches. He averaged 116 mph against Djokovic in the final, making it a weapon that helped him win an impressive 73% of his first serve points; and he averaged 88 mph on his second serve, enabling him to win a respectable 57% of his second serve points.
Contrast those numbers with this year’s stats. Nadal’s average first serve speed slowed to only 107 mph, and without that weapon, he won a disastrously low 52% of first serve points (Djokovic won 65%), and his second serve speed average dropped to 81 mph, while his second serve points won plummeted to 42%. In short, Djokovic, who boasts the best serve return today and probably in history—even better than that of Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi—attacked many of Nadal’s serves and repeatedly put him on his heels, forced errors or even hit outright winners. As a result, Djokovic had a whopping 26 break point chances—compared to just 4 in 2010—and converted 11 of them. “The way Djokovic is returning [serve] this year is beyond belief,” praised CBS analyst John McEnroe.
When Nadal receives serve, he waits with one grip, usually the forehand, and is forced to chip his return if the serve comes to the other side. Against Djokovic, he started the vast majority of receiving points on the defensive because Djokovic exploited Nadal’s faltering slice backhand struck from far behind the baseline. Unless those relatively slow slices landed very deep, and often they didn’t, Djokovic pounded his next shot deep into the corner, forcing Nadal to scramble to return it. Only Nadal’s indomitable will, speed and defensive skills prolonged the many rallies Djokovic dictated. Even with an aching back and leg cramps, Djokovic overpowered Nadal in the final set and wound up with 55 match winners, 23 more than Nadal.
On the defensive and out of position, Nadal could no longer effectively and consistently execute his best weapon, a viciously topspun crosscourt forehand to the Djokovic backhand. Second, he could get to net only 17 times where he won 13 points, for 76%, which minimized one of his great strengths. Conversely, Djokovic capitalized on his superior groundstrokes to approach net 47 times, winning 31 points for 66%. The 24-year-old Serb won the crucial Battle of the Baseline by returning most of Nadal’s best shots by hugging the baseline and hitting them on the rise, while Nadal retreated for Djokovic’s more powerful, more accurate and deeper shots.
In the past 12 months Djokovic has improved his forehand greatly, his serve consistency, court positioning, stamina, speed and even his once-suspect fighting spirit. His deadly down-the-line backhand often produces winners whenever he spots an opening. As Navratilova noted, “Now Djokovic’s defense is just as good as Nadal’s, and he has a lot better offense.”
How does Djokovic explain his phenomenal 64-2 record and 10 titles, highlighted by three Grand Slam titles?
“In big matches, the winner is decided by small margins, a couple points. I guess the winner is the one who believes in victory more,” said Djokovic. “I guess it just clicked in my head. Through the last couple of years, I didn’t change my game in any major way.... But I’m hitting shots that maybe I wasn’t hitting. I’m going for it. I’m more aggressive.”
The last three sentences provide by far the most accurate assessment.
Like Wilander, Nadal downplayed the mental game. “The mental challenge—was ready for that, to accept everything, to fight for every ball, and that’s what I did,” Nadal said.
To regain his supremacy, Nadal now must improve his technical weaknesses, plot new tactics, and do what Djokovic did: be more aggressive.
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“I hit a winner but I guess it didn’t count. It wouldn’t have mattered in the end. I guess I need to read the rule books,” was the only rational comment Serena Williams made in her evasive press conference that focused on her ugly tirade toward chair umpire Eva Asderaki during the US Open final. Serena was referring to her violation of the hindrance rule when she yelled “Come on!” before Samantha Stosur hit the ball. Her rare admission of a mistake was instructive. In fact, before the start of every season, amateur and pro tournament competitors should study the Rules of Tennis as well as the USTA’s Friend At Court, a 271-page handbook explaining the rules and regulations and their applications in a variety of cases.
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“All this illegal coaching is getting disgusting,” rightly criticized CBS analyst Mary Carillo, the sport’s leading voice of reason and conscience, during the men’s final. Toni Nadal, Rafa’s uncle and coach, had been barking advice in Spanish, and at one point tournament referee Brian Earley sat near Toni. With so many officials available for the final, at least one should be on call to monitor the players’ box to enforce the highly important no-coaching rule because the chair umpire often is too preoccupied with the match to hear everything a coach says or to watch his signals.
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