The weak side of the greatest champions of tennis - UBITENNIS
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The weak side of the greatest champions of tennis

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Current world number 1 Novak Djokovic with former Former World number ones, Boris Becker, John McEnroe, Carlos Moya and Mats Wilander and ATP CEO Chris Kermode at the O2 Arena.

After years spent analysing and admiring the technique of the greatest champions … what were (and are) the things that tennis no. 1s – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick – have done (and do) not so well?

 

On August 23rd, 1973, the ATP launched the official ranking system managed and compiled by a computer. From that date onwards, 25 tennis players were ranked number 1, and  obviously they all were – some more, some less, some for longer, some only briefly – champions of our beloved sport. Given this premise (I underline  that we are talking about indisputable champions, therefore the benchmark is at the highest possible expectation), we can say that – from a strictly technical point of view – not all of them have been  technically exemplary and complete in every phase of the game. There is an interesting correlation between these aspects and the years under consideration, as well as the number of weeks at the top of the ladder.

Following a chronological order, from 1973 to 1983 we have the first group of “number ones” consisting of Ilie Nastase, John Newcombe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. In 1983 Ivan Lendl gets to the top, and will interchange the top of the rankings with McEnroe until 1988. In that year Mats Wilander will become n1 –  with the deed of three quarters of a Grand Slam,  followed by Stefan Edberg (1990), Boris Becker (1991) and Jim Courier (1992). Then the era of Pete Sampras (1993)  and Andre Agassi (1995) comes, with the raids by Thomas Muster (1996) and Marcelo Rios (1998). The old millennium ends with Carlos Moya, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Patrick Rafter (all in 1999), the new one starts with Marat Safin, Gustavo Kuerten (both in 2000) and Lleyton Hewitt (2001). In 2003 the top of the ladder belongs to Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick; after that, from 2004 to today we had a lot  (really a lot) of Roger Federer, and quite a lot of Rafael Nadal (2008) and Novak Djokovic (2011).

In my opinion, the first thing you notice is that from the beginning until 1990 all number ones have been – even if  in different ways – technically complete players in every respect. Strategies and tactics were extremely different, but they all were all rounders, some of them from the beginning (Nastase, Newcombe, McEnroe, who could do everything well), some of them perfectioning their tactics rather than their technique  (Connors, Borg, Lendl and Wilander who evolved into great attacking players when needed, especially on fast surfaces). Those were years when you could not hide behind an extreme technical specialization:  if you were the best, that meant that you could do anything at least extremely well, if not excellent, and there was no area of the court where you were uncomfortable or out of position.

The 90s were the beginning of extreme specialization in tennis. Big serves over 200 kph started being the rule, rather than the exception, net game and serve and volley dominated the scene, and in fact we can identify Stefan Edberg as the first player who got to number one with a specific technical aspect which was not up to the rest of his sublime game: the forehand. Eastern grip, rigid arm, too much shoulder kick, and too much frontal stance for that type of grip, made him the first case of clear gap in a champion (otherwise technically fabulous) who has come to the top of  tennis.

Boris Becker was much more complete, nothing to say on the execution of the strokes, but suffered from a less than exceptional mobility from the baseline. He was however not  penalized too much by the fast / superfast surfaces of that time. At the net, despite his size, Boris was as agile as a handball goalkeeper – remember his spectacular diving volleys? – and the return  was absolutely top notch. On clay, unfortunately, it was a different story (no title won in his career), partially because of his stubborn  tactics which drove him to always to try and win from behind.

Jim Courier, the first major product of Nick Bollettieri Academy, has possibly been the least complete number one: he brought to perfection  the weapon “invented” by Nick: the inside-out forehand from  the baseline, thus masking a not-so- fluid – if not  clumsy – backhand, looking like a baseball stroke, and a simply nonexistent net game. But that was enough, along with great strength and conditioning, huge leg work, concentration and killer instinct, he spent 58 weeks at the top of the rankings, and reached the final at Wimbledon on a grass which at the time was still super-fast (although that 1993 was characterised by courts reduced to brown remnants of grass and a lot of bare dirt).

There isn’t too much to comment on Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Pistol Pete’s backhand was not memorable but  good enough, and the rest of his tennis was simply amazing, legendary serve and forehand, a cat at the net, the best and most powerful overhead ever (the famous NBA style “slam dunks” jumping on both feet). The Vegas Kid , on the contrary, was not happy to go to the net, but he was so fast and explosive taking shots on the rise and when returning. During matches on the ultrafast 90s grass surface he attacked the powerful serves of players such as Ivanisevic and Sampras himself, produced winners with his extraordinary hand-eye coordination. In contrast, a bit like Borg, Lendl and Wilander, whilst using it parsimoniously, Agassi had superb net technique (especially timing and position), and it was difficult to pass him because he was often following up withering attacks with his fantastic fundamentals –  forehand and backhand equally effective – covering angles with great geometric sense.

Thomas Muster has been undoubtedly the biggest “clay warrior” before the coming of Rafael Nadal. However, he had limits similar to Courier with volleys, and his one-handed backhand was just enough (not a bad execution, but not as deep and continuous) and it was offset by a huge forehand with left-handed rotation, along with the already mentioned tremendous competitiveness. On grass, even in his best years, there were very little satisfaction for Thomas.

Marcelo Rios was a supreme left-handed talent, and aside from a temper which could be described as moody and difficult (to say the least), he was second to none in the groundstrokes from the baseline and with his touch. He might have achieved even better results, if he had a more incisive and powerful serve, when facing the “ace machines” of those years: the left-handed curves were always a trouble for the opponent, but you also have to hit hard at top levels. Only one month was spent at the top of the ladder for him, in April 1998.

The last three top ranked of the ’90s were Carlos Moya, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Patrick Rafter. Carlos and Yevgeny were technically excellent, although hitting their game only from the baseline, Moya with a better forehand, Kafelnikov with a better backhand; at the net they were doing their “homework” when they had to, especially the Russian who was also an excellent doubles player. On the other hand Patrick’s immense class was expressed almost exclusively at the net: possible the most perfect net player of all times, and the technique of his groundstrokes was still of the highest quality.

Marat Safin has been the first “total talent” of modern tennis, great build, serve, forehand and backhand, fabulous hand on any ball, not too comfortable on the grass because of the foot work (and the effort of always having to be very low, the legendary Marat was known to be lazy) but devastating on the fast and hard courts. His only limit – if you can call it like that since we are talking about technique – was precisely his reluctance to work out and train hard, and the will to enjoy life. Nine weeks at the top are really few – we are talking about someone who could play a vintage Federer in 2005 and on court he was not afraid of anything or anyone – but he probably had more fun than all the others previously mentioned combined.

Gustavo Kuerten had the most powerful and loaded one-handed backhand in history along with Stan Wawrinka, capable of hitting top-spins from above shoulder height, as if they were mirror side smashes – was also a talented under every aspect: perfect serve and forehand, but the big backswing and relatively slow preparation movements have limited his results beyond clay, with the exception of the Cincinnati Masters in 2001.

Lleyton Hewitt was also technically sound and yet another phenomenal agonist. Italian tennis journalist Gianni Clerici affectionately nicknamed him  “Little Satan” when he was returning impossible balls, and not missing a single shot. He was the nemesis of Sampras at the end of his career, burying Pete with passing shots. The Australian was (and still is) without any flaws in his shot execution, but he was limited in his serve and power by a normal build at the dawn of the super-athletes era. 

Juan Carlos Ferrero belonged to the same breed of Moya and Kuerten, baseliner with perfect technique, good at the net, but only if it was absolutely necessary to venture there, very adaptable to all surfaces except really fast ones. A great tennis mind, great tactical intelligence, adaptability and strategy, the distribution of his best results substantiates it: victory at Roland Garros, final at the US Open, semi-final at the Australian Open, two-time quarterfinalist at Wimbledon.

Andy Roddick brought the modern serve technique to the extreme and highest peaks, with front loading (as Rafter already did; Pat was looking to place to follow to the net rather than looking for the ace), and abbreviated backswing on a low ball toss. Andy has built his success on his devastating serve, both first and second ball, and on a great semi-western (tending to western) forehand. At the net he was excellent, but his backhand was somewhat similar, in a negative way, to Courier’s (rigid, poor shoulder rotation, little fluidity in the follow through) and was always his achilles’ heel, known to his opponents, who could always try hit the ball there to his left, to escape the bombing.

And so here we are at today’s era, started on February 2nd 2004 with the settlement of Roger Federer at the top of the rankings. No need to reiterate the completeness and technical perfection of Roger, let’s just say that if for example someone like Courier had the “worst stroke” of the Swiss – the backhand  – which technically is impeccable, and is the best slice ever,  for Sampras and Agassi it would have been really, really tough in those years.

Rafael Nadal has been a super-specialist from technical point of view, built on what is the most effective forehand (speed and topspin) ever. Great backhand from right-dominant and great touch at the net (no frills, no magics, but always perfectly placed volleys, and exemplary positioning at the net). The only thing technically barely above sufficient is his serve: a bit like Rios left-handed curves masked a lack in explosiveness, but the percentages and choices of direction have always been perfect: maybe Rafa does not claim too many points directly with the serve, but it’s extremely difficult to attack him on his serve.

finally Novak Djokovic, who is dominating the current tennis landscape, and has achieved what I do not hesitate to define perfection in interpreting the modern game. Not surprisingly, even in terms of teaching and coaching progression, the models of high performance are Nole’s  forehand and backhand. In biomechanical terms, as well as balance and power management we are reading a groundstroke manual. Over the years the serve has become an extremely reliable and adaptable weapon, and the touch, especially the excellent drop-shots and lobs (stuff that you cannot even dream about unless you have a great touch), is appropriate for the level we’re discussing, i.e. the absolute crème de la crème. The problem, and in my opinion it is a significant problem, is the net game, especially overhead. Djokovic is obviously struggling with overheads, starting from the incorrect positioning of his feet (too often he is too much under the ball, and too frontal), that causes what in the jargon can be defined as “belly smash”, executed without sufficient torso coiling, and with the axis of balance pointing backwards. Personally I find Nole’s overhead smash one of the great mysteries of modern tennis, because it is difficult to understand how a super champion such as Novak could bring along such a specific technical gap within an otherwise fantastic technique. Unfortunately for him, this lack of confidence in approaching the high volleys (he always gives the impression that he is trying to avoid missing the smash, while it should be hit to win the point) is going to affect his whole game at the net, and it has already costed him very dearly.

The infamous high volley in the semifinals at Roland Garros against Nadal, which Nole has awkwardly approached in search of a correct position of the feet, without any automatism, made him stumble in the net (but also several unfinished overheads , at least three in the final stages of that match) or the ugly error on the match point against Wawrinka in Australia – weight on one side and ball on the other – as a result of a meaningless serve and volley, were episodes that heavily conditioned Djokovic’s results. He could have easily won those two tournaments (I find it hard to imagine Ferrer beating Djokovic at the final in Paris in 2013, or either Nadal or Berdych in Melbourne in 2014). The latest example is against Italian Simone Bolelli in Beijing, during a match otherwise perfect and dominated from start to finish: during the second set, Bolelli up 1-0, 15-15, Nole hits two weak and poorly placed smashes, and on the second one Bolelli returns a bomb in his feet. It is really strange that someone like Becker, who was doing whatever he wanted with the ball above his head, has not yet been able yet to fix this last piece of the technical puzzle which would make Nole a champion without defects. Never mind, he is already practically unbeatable.

In conclusion, just to remind ourselves that we are analysing the biggest champions in the history of tennis, let’s try to do the opposite of the common fanta-technique game where you take the best strokes of all the tennis players of the past and the present to build the imaginary perfect champion. Instead let’s put together the not-so-good executions. A player with Rios’ serve, Edberg’s forehand, Courier’s backhand, Becker’s mobility, Muster’s volley, Djokovic’s overhead and Safin’s will to train … well, I think this hypothetical player would be in the top 50 in the world anyway.

(Written by Luca Baldissera and translated by Robbie Cappuccio)

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The Year-End Rankings: The Rise Of Alcaraz And The Eternals, Djokovic and Nadal

Image via ATP Twitter

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By Roberto Ferri

Let’s start our last article on the ATP rankings by quoting the words which are said to be the last of emperor Augustus: “The play is over, applaud”.

 

We cannot but applaud Novak Djokovic, six-time ATP Finals winner just like Roger Federer. And we applaud the season, which, for good or ill, has been unique. Just consider the most striking events: Carlos Alcaraz rising to No. 1, Roger Federer’s retirement, all the issues involving Djokovic and the Wimbledon affair.  

The top positions of the ranking have been significantly impacted by Djokovic’s absence from two Majors (Australian Open and US Open), four Masters 1000 (Indian Wells, Miami Open, Canadian Open, Cincinnati) and by ATP’s decision to not award points for Wimbledon.

If we compare the ATP rankings published after the ATP Finals in 2021 and 2022, this fact is clearly noticeable. 

22 NOVEMBER 2021

PositionPlayerCountryPts 
1DjokovicSerbia11540
2MedvedevRussia8640
3ZverevGermany7840
4TsitsipasGreece6540
5RublevRussia5150
6NadalSpain4875
7BerrettiniItaly4568
8RuudNorway4160
9HurkaczPoland3706
10SinnerItaly3350
11Auger-AliassimeCanada3308
12NorrieGB2945
13SchwartzmanArgentina2625
14ShapovalovCanada2475
15ThiemAustria2425
16FedererSwitzerland2385
17GarinChile2353
18KaratsevRussia2351
19Bautista AgutSpain2260
20Carreno BustaSpain2230

14 NOVEMBER 2022:

PositionPlayerCountryPts
1AlcarazSpain6820
2NadalSpain6020
3RuudNorway5820
4TsitsipasGreece5550
5DjokovicSerbia4820
6Auger-AliassimeCanada4195
7MedvedevRussia4065
8RublevRussia3930
9FritzUSA3355
10HurkaczPoland2905
11RuneDenmark2888
12ZverevGermany2700
13Carreno BustaSpain2495
14NorrieGB2445
15SinnerItaly2410
16BerrettiniItaly2375
17ShapovalovCanada2105
18CilicCroatia2075
19TiafoeUSA2000
20KhachanovRussia1990

Novak Djokovic ended 2021 with 4720 points more than Carlos Alcaraz; also Medvedev and Tsitsipas earned more points than the Spaniard, who would not have reached 7000 points even counting the 135 points he wasn’t awarded at Wimbledon.

A few comments on the 2022 rankings:

  • Casper Ruud, the ATP Finals finalist, concludes his excellent year in third place, overtaking Stefanos Tsitsipas with an impressive final rush.
  • Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal are the only top 10 players born in the 80s; the other 8 were born in the second half of the 90s.
  • Cameron Norrie and Pablo Carreno Busta are the survivors of the lost generation, born between 1990 and 1995 and that was most overpowered by the Big Four dominance. 
  • Only North America, beyond Europe, is represented at the very highest: Auger Aliassime, Fritz, Shapovalov and Tiafoe.
  • Holger Rune has gained 92 positions since the start of the year. Carlos Alcaraz “just” 31.
  • A final note: Kei Nishikori ends 2022 without a ranking. Does this suggest he’s going to retire?

BEST RANKING

Owing to earned and dropped points, as well as results in the Challenger events, five players in the top 100 have achieved their career highest this week:

Emil Ruusuvuori – 40

Quentin Halys – 64

Christopher O’Connell – 79

Roman Safiullin – 89

Nuno Borges – 91

A special applause for the 20-year old Ben Shelton, a bright prospect for USA tennis, who has made his debut in the top 100. Thanks to his victory in the Champaign-Urbana Challenger he’s now ranked 97.

Is that all? Not yet! Just a quiz for everybody: which was the last year which saw the first two places in the rankings occupied at the end of the season by two players of the same nationality?

That’s really all for now. We’ll be back in 2023.

Translated by Kingsley Elliot Kaye

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ATP Finals Daily Preview: Novak Djokovic Faces Casper Ruud in the Championship Match

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Novak Djokovic on Saturday in Turin (twitter.com/atptour)

The biggest ATP non-Major final of 2022 takes place on Sunday in Turin, Italy.

 

2022 has been a bizarre year in the career of Novak Djokovic.  It started with his deportation from Australia, forcing the unvaccinated Djokovic to miss the first Major of the year.  That would be one of six prominent events that Novak would miss this season due to COVID-19 entry rules (Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Montreal, Cincinnati, US Open).  Yet Djokovic was still able to accumulate a record of 41-7, and win his 21st Slam at Wimbledon.  He is now 17-1 at indoor ATP events this fall, and will end the year as the World No.5  With a win on Sunday, he would tie Roger Federer for most all-time ATP Finals titles.

2022 has been a groundbreaking year in the career of Casper Ruud.  He had already established himself as a top 10 player, but prior to this season, was predominantly thought of as a clay court specialist, with five of his six ATP titles coming on that surface.  Yet that all changed this season, starting in Miami when he reached his first Masters 1000 finals.  Casper would go on to also reach his first two Major finals, in Paris in New York.  He is now 51-21, and into his fourth big final of the year.


Sunday’s action in Turin starts at 4:00pm local time with the doubles championship match, featuring Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic (4) vs. Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury (2).  Both teams are an undefeated 4-0 this past week.  This is Ram and Salisbury’s second consecutive year in the final, having lost a year ago to Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut.  Mektic won this title two years ago alongside Wesley Koolhof, while this is Pavic’s first appearance in the final of this event.  These teams have not met since the semifinals of this tournament last year, when Ram and Salisbury prevailed.


Casper Ruud (3) Novak Djokovic (7) – Not Before 7:00pm

Ruud is 3-1 this past week, with his only loss coming in a dead rubber against Rafael Nadal.  Prior to his three top 10 victories across the last seven days, Casper only had two all season (Zverev, Auger-Aliassime).  And he is yet to win a title above 250-level in his career, with the aforementioned three losses this year in big finals.  Ruud was a semifinalist here a year ago in his ATP Finals debut.

Djokovic is an undefeated 4-0 this week, which includes an arduous effort to defeat Daniil Medvedev on Friday in a dead rubber.  Novak is now 10-3 against top 10 opposition in 2022, having taken nine of his last 10 against the top 10.  He is 4-2 in finals this year, though he lost his most recent one, two weeks in Bercy, to Holger Rune.  Djokovic is an eight-time finalist here, though he hasn’t won this title since 2015.

Djokovic has played a lot more tennis across the last two days than Ruud.  On Friday, Novak spent over three hours on court, while Ruud had the day off.  But Djokovic still looked plenty fresh for his semifinal on Saturday against Taylor Fritz, and was able to prevent the American from extending that tight contest to a third set.  Novak is 3-0 against Casper, which includes a straight-set victory at this same event a year ago.  And considering Ruud’s poor record in significant finals, Djokovic is a considerable favorite to win his sixth title at the ATP Finals on Sunday.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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ATP Finals: Fritz Close But No… Final, Djokovic Advances

Novak Djokovic beats Taylor Fritz in two tie-breaks and is just one win away from his sixth title at Nitto ATP Finals

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Novak Djokovic - 2022 Nitto ATP Finals Turin (photo Twitter @atptour)

[7] N. Djokovic b. [8] T. Fritz 7-6(5) 7-6(5)

 

Even when physically not at his best, Novak Djokovic can still count on his incredible ability to play the most effective tennis in the most important moment. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if the opponent misses an easy shot while attempting to close out the set, but the pressure Djokovic puts on whomever is on the other side of the net makes even the easiest shot look a little bit harder.

The former world no. 1 has put together a clinical display of efficiency during the first semifinal of the Nitto ATP Finals in Turin edging Taylor Fritz by two points in the tie-breaker of each set to reach his eighth finals in the end-of-year Championship.

It was not the best Djokovic, and it was not the best match: lots of errors on both sides, and a huge opportunity for Fritz to take the match to the distance when he served at 5-4 in the second set and then missed an easy backhand sitter to go a set-point up at 40-30, blaming an idiot spectator who indeed shouted in the middle of the point, when he really should have been able to put away that point blindfolded.

Fritz did not start the match in the best possible way: 10 unforced errors during the first five games, a break conceded at love at 2-2 and Djokovic appeared destined for a relatively quiet afternoon. But it was not going to be that easy: errors started flowing also on the Serbian side, and Fritz was able to equalize at 3-3. A tie-break was then needed to decide the winner of the first set, and the deciding point was a laser forehand down the line by Djokovic who swept point and set at 6-5 and headed off to the toilet for a comfort break after taking a one-set advantage.

But the break did not do him much good: unforced errors kept coming from the baseline, and Fritz blitzed 2-0 up with a break. At 4-3, the American wowed the Italian crowd with a magical backhand stop-volley to recover a service game where he found himself down 0-30, but when it was time to serve out the set, he missed that easy backhand we described earlier to give Djokovic another chance to close out a match in two sets.

And another chance is the last thing Djokovic should be gifted, although on a day like today, with Christmas time upon us, gift trading became the thing of the match. Two great points at 4-4 in the tie-break warmed the 12,000-strong crowd at Pala Alpitour to what could have possibly been a great end of the set, but Djokovic first earned a match point to be played on his serve with a good action from the baseline closed by a volley and then squandered it all with a very unusual unforced error on a routine backhand. But on his second match point, just a minute later, Fritz badly missed an inside-out forehand putting an end to the match and gifting Djokovic a chance to win his sixth title at the Nitto ATP Finals, the first in Turin.

On Sunday he will face either Casper Ruud or Andrey Rublev: he has never lost to Ruud in three previous matches (3-0) and the only time he did not beat Rublev (2-1) was last spring in Belgrade in the final of the tournament organized by his family.

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