The Field Narrows at Roland Garros

Actually playing tennis made me look beyond being a pure fanboy (vamos Rafa!) and appreciate the game and its talents a bit more. So for someone who loves following tennis, the closest French Open in over a decade might be upon us. Rafa’s bastion was breached last year with Djokovic striking the decisive blow but Wawrinka grabbing the trophy by turning up in his career-best avatar.

An improving Murray and Nadal with a slight dip in Djokovic’s clay season has made this year’s edition very interesting. Let us look at the contenders now that there is no outright favourite anymore.

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Djokovic: The safe bet

A betting man shouldn’t look beyond Djokovic. He was stopped only because Wawrinka played the best tennis of his life last year. He has raked up a crazy number of points and there is day-light in terms of ranking points between him and the second-ranked Murray. Djokovic won in Madrid and rescued lost causes repeatedly at Rome to showcase his mental strength and extremely strong gameplay. His shots are flat and fast and give little time to the opponent at decisive moments.

Detractors might point to his defeat by the unfancied Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo and his relative subdued performance at Rome where most players pushed him hard with Murray triumphing in the final. His dropshots to end points prematurely were picked off easily by Rafa at Rome. He does look a little less invincible than before and this means the other have a chance. It is a slim one though as Djokovic is harder to beat over 5 sets than over 3.

If it was general tiredness causing a lower performance in Rome then the 10-day break should help him get back to prime fitness. But the pressure will be immense given the French Open has been a jinx for him over the last 2 years and the only Grand Slam missing from his trophy cabinet.

Murray: Will the real Slim Andy please stand up?

Murray, who has never really found his feet on clay despite formative years in Barcelona, is now the top clay-court player (ever so slightly) over the last one year when it comes to win-loss records. He pushed Djokovic to 3 sets at Madrid and beat him at Rome.

His improved clay-court performance is at a level now where it is hard to predict who will win over 5 sets, Djokovic or Murray. His second serve is much improved and his court movement and backhands are giving him an advantage. His mental strength has improved. All this means Murray probably has the best chance of pulling off what Stan the Man did last year.

I think his biggest enemies are his back issues and mental strength against the strongest opponents and he will be hoping they keep away at Roland Garros.

Rafa: Much improved, but more is needed.

Nadal ranks #2 if you look at win-loss records in clay over 52 weeks. This is deceptive because Nadal has more losses but balanced that by playing more tournaments. During this clay season he did defeat Murray, Nishikori and Wawrinka apart from tricky upstarts like Fognini, Kyrgios and Thiem who’ve beaten him over the last one year. He managed to win Monte Carlo but came up a bit short against Murray and Djokovic at Madrid and Rome.

The improvements are noticeable. Deeper and stronger forehands, better serving and solid backhands along with his usual quick court movement and defensive skills give him some chance. The confidence is back, more or less. He has been frank about his mental struggles so I would believe him when he says he is feeling much better now.

He still needs to do better in the close moments against the top players as he was a break up in both sets against Djokovic and still lost in straight sets. He stopped hitting the deeper shots at important moments and tried to play safe. It may work against most but not against the top 2. He also seems to fear the Djokovic cross-court backhand a little too much and avoids going cross-court with his forehand against him. He finds it more comfortable pushing at the beginning of a set and taking early breaks but he needs to find a way to stay competitive at the end.

Nadal is also someone who can take time to come up to full speed and a ranking of 5 meant he might run into Djokovic in the Quarters like last year. But Federer dropping out means he can breathe a bit easy although Fognini, Thiem and Tsonga may all test him first.

The others

Wawrinka has had a poor run of form and is unlikely to defend his title. But as I write this he is up a set against Cilic in the final at the Geneva Open. If Stan the Man decides to put on a show he might still make it all the way.

Nishikori is consistently good but not good enough to win top-level tournaments. He did win clay titles at Barcelona twice in 2014 and 2015 but the Masters and Grand Slams are a different cup of tea.

The best challenge from the next generation comes from Nick Kyrgios, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem who are now beating top 10 players fairly often. Krygios has a pretty good rate of defeating Top 10 players but is too erratic to be consistent over 7 rounds. David Goffin handed 2 bagels to Tomas Berdych recently and has a decent record against top 10 players. Thiem always seems in the cusp of a breakthrough season.

The draw at Roland Garros puts Nadal and Djokovic in the same half while Wawrinka needs to get past Murray to get a shot to defend his title. The overall quality of play may not reach the greatest heights because the only top player who seems to be in career-best mode is Murray. But this does mean we can expect some exhausting rallies and tight matches as everyone races to try and deny Djokovic the Career Grand Slam!

 

My Experiments with Tennis

Recently I had a crisis of the kind that come up only when your age reaches decadal round numbers. I graded myself on a number of parameters and came up short on several. Career-wise I was fine with what I was doing but everywhere else there was an issue. I hadn’t played a sport or done any physical activity seriously for the latter half of my life. A few games of cricket every couple of years don’t count! I had somewhat kept up with my reading but writing was a zero. This meant I had to do something so I started with yoga and this blog. Yoga, primarily because I didn’t need to find company and it would be good for my back as I have a lower back issue.

This went on for a couple of months and I was doing fine. Yoga was good for me but something was missing until a friend persuaded me to join him for tennis. Over the last few years quite a few tennis places have sprung up in the area where I live in Bangalore. This place – True Bounce Tennis Academy (TBTA) – sounds all structured and rigid but was quite informal. The coaches there were mostly young chaps and knew how to deal with corporate types like me with a good dose of humour to motivate us! They had to be more patient with us than with kids who might end up making a career of this. A few months prior to this, I had gone to enquire at a different place where the dealings were quite different: pay us X for 20 classes; we teach you stuff and test you at the end; if you pass you get to play a person of appropriate level. Makes logical sense but sounded too cold and intimidating to me to go there. I more or less did the same at TBTA! But it was a fun process.

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On day 1, I was down on my haunches in 15 minutes of drills. I couldn’t run any more. This is how the drills work. The coach sets up his position at one point and feeds you balls by hand or racket. You run to the ball, hit it, run to the back of the queue, wait your turn, repeat ad infinitum! With queues of 3-5 people there was no break. When he ran out of balls it felt like heaven. They knew this so the coaches and ballboys sometimes decided they wouldn’t let the basket go empty! After a couple of months I could do 45 minutes of drills. The drills help with fitness, movement and building skill with strokes. It also builds muscle memory. You then get into practice sessions where you hit with a partner or coach. The serve has to be practiced separately. Everything is harder than it looks when you watch the Nadals and Djokers fight it out!

The game was addictive and for several months, work and tennis were all I did. No blogging, no yoga. A confession: I am a huge fan of Rafael Nadal. I believe he won the 2014 French Open final against Djokovic solely because I sat in a certain spot for the longest time before emptying my tank! So running around a clay-court was awesome for me. But having played for a year, I would say my hero-worship has reduced. Getting beaten 6-0 by the coaches here who themselves would get beaten 6-0 by a top-300 player who don’t stand a chance against the Top 30 or Top 10 is humbling. Imagine the Top 4 (yes I know Nadal is out of it now!) in such an environment. We just have to enjoy the show put over the last few years by all these greats. This doesn’t mean I’ve switched camps but at least I swear less now!

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Tennis is quite hard on the body. You need to be able to sprint quickly, do turns at a moment’s notice, switch wrist and elbow actions with each stroke, strength and action on the upper body to impart both power and spin to the ball, head movements during serves and strokes and maintain all this for a couple of hours to play 3 sets. The funny thing in tennis is it takes more strength to hit a slightly slower shot with topspin than a speedy shot with no spin.

Forehand bio-mechanics is demonstrated in this cool sounding Swedish video:

If you are gifted with awesomely fluid bio-mechanics (read Roger Federer) there is nothing like it. Experts recommend that serious players train as much as they play. Interval training for stamina, lifting and rowing exercises for upper body strength, and movement exercises are all essential apart from the usual warm-up which is the only thing I did! If you have a choice, a clay-court is better for your body than the concrete hard-courts.

It finally caught up with me physically. My lower back was the weak spot but somehow it held up fine. My fitness improved. I had knee niggles at the beginning that got sorted out as I played more. I paid careful attention to my grip so that my wrists were fine (my friend got wrist injuries so this is important). I used to get niggles in my neck area and I wasn’t sure how to strengthen it so I didn’t bother. Some parts of the body strengthen by just playing more but others need specific exercises or routines. Recently I sprained the muscle going from the neck to the shoulder and this caused the whole upper back to get locked up. A month of waiting to get better and building some strength. An enforced break, hence the blogging!