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THE Ozzie Men's Final: One More Nail Left to Go in the Coffin of The Greatest Defensive Artist Ever

'The End of the World as We Know it, and...


January 30, 2012 | 12:31 PM

I feel fine...' When Michael Stipe recorded his song, he meant this lyric ironically, as it is meant here.

Rafa tried and perhaps succeeded to appear genuine when he said after the match that he is happy about how I did, but how could he be? And could Joker really hope that they have many more finals like this?

As he pointed, it was too bad there couldn't be two winners.

We've already been primed by the media for the opportunity this win opens up for Joker, but what about the loser...

I've usually preferred the tennis style and demeanor of Federer over Nadal (or anyone), but I am now finding myself with many reasons to wish Rafa success in defending his Paris title. It is not only because of my tremendous admiration for him as a player and competitor, and for his outstanding character. It is because there seems to be something greater at stake here for the modern game.

THE Final: One More Nail Left to Go in the Coffin of The Greatest Defensive Artist Ever

Imagine a basketball game with a final score of 193 to 176 (the number of points won by Joker and Rafa respectively in the final yesterday). Now double that score to 384 to 352, since each successful scoring drive results in about 2 points. What you'd have then, given the 60 minute clock in basketball, would be a 1 hour game with 5 hours of OT, or an perhaps All Star game without any defense played by either team. In an All Star game, the lack of attention to defense is deliberate and enhances the entertainment value of the showcase of offensive stars who are primarily selected for the team and play most of the game. But in a regulation game, giving up on defense would happen only if it failed to stop or even slow down the offensive drives.

The utter failure of defensive tennis is exactly what happened on Laver arena in the men's final (come to think of it, there wasn't much defense in the women's final either; their little 82 minute affair is now forgotten after the drama of the men, leaving us to wonder only at the unfairness of it all: Azarenka being paid the same $2.3 million as Djokovic, while being criticized by fans for her role in creating the noisiest women's final when they soaked up 6 hours of the two loudest men grunting at the top of their lungs).

Joker-Nadal was very long and very grueling:

- the longest ever final in a professional event

- the longest ever match at The Australian Open

- the longest ever match played on hard courts (with or without tie-breakers)

Had it not been for Isner-Mahut, this final would have made more than headlines in every media for being a marathon, which would have failed to capture the real story, as headlines usually do.

While the basketball comparison and these tennis records suggest the grueling nature of the contest, they distort the strategic essence of what went on during the final. Yes, there were epic battles on almost every point, 11 breaks of serve, deuce sets of 7-5 book-ending the match, and a 4th set tie-breaker on which the outcome seemed to hinge a la Borg-McEnroe in '79 (the result was the same: in both matches the final set was won by the loser of the 4th set breaker. And, yes, the ebbs and flows of the drama kept over 15,000 spectators screaming as only a football match in Australia would occasion (again, what antiquated notion about women on court shrieking could possibly bother such a noisy crowd? At All England, it might seem unseemly, but in front of Aussies?).

It was primal. When it was over both men stripped to the waist. Rafa, in his seat with his water bottle, stared vacantly ahead, a tear on his cheek. Joker threw his final set's black shirt into the crowd and marched - like a bird of prey with his teeth showing in a grim smile after a kill - toward his box, sinewy chest pumped out, long neck craning this way and that as if readying to spit his prey up to his backers in their box. Minutes later the two men stood side by side and waited through what to everyone watching was a comically prolonged 6th set of speeches by sponsors and dignitaries oblivious to the suffering of the two men they were there to recognize and celebrate. The cameras forsook the speakers and focused only Rafa and Novak together, looking like two uncomfortable teenagers, alternately grimacing and shifting from one wobbly leg to another, unable to stretch or stand at ease, their bodies seizing up after the effort, craving the respite of ice bath, shower and massage table. At one point, both men were bent over hanging their arms to their feet, while on and on non-native english speakers went or Aussie dialogue jawed. In the final moments when Rafa leaned back on the net, one could imagine the two gladiators collapsing into each others arm, entangled in the net to be dragged off to a burying ground outside the stadium.

When finally Rafa was invited to the podium, the first to walk stiffly to receive his due ($1.15 million and a cup he could barely lift over his head), he found his composure and spoke graciously and as eloquently as his much-improved english would allow, omitting thanks and recognition for no one (except the lines people, whom Novak also omitted from his thanks). It was a completely genuine seeming and winsome act, admirable under any losing circumstances and befitting of one in a higher office than him as VP of the ATP. Contrasting his Melbourne moment of despair with Federer's breakdown in '09, one couldn't help but see Rafa as the greater ambassador and foresee the day soon coming when as president of the ATP, he will speak up forcefully for the wrongs to the players on the circuit. he'll be what's called a change implementer after the change facilitating role of the current Obama-like president from neutral Switzerland.

Why Rafa as a change implementer?

Looking at what Rafa has done with his game, against his very defensive and highly protective nature, we see what is happening to tennis in general: the demise of the defender.

The better part of his career is history. With 10 majors won, and younger foes like Joker and Murray and Del Potro, not to mention older rival Roger, at almost 27, how much more can be expected of Rafa?

He flattened out his groundstrokes to play more aggressively, winning two Wimbledons; he added umph to his serve to win The US and Australian on hard courts. And still, in his heart he knows he must change further to stop what may be the greatest revolution in Paris since the fall of the Bastille: a loss to the Serb at Roland Garros.

Last spring it appeared to be coming, stopped only by a canny, inspired performance from Federer in the semis. Joker is not likely to allow that again to Federer or Murray (though Andy served notice on hard courts and reached the Paris semis in '11, it hardly seems the most likely venue for him to stage an upset of #1 or #2).

The media is salivating over the idea of Joker taking Paris to complete his Serena Slam, but the implications of his stripping this last bulwark from Rafa go beyond making Major history. They have profound implications for the way tennis is played.

Until Rafa, we'd seen the Open era marginalize clay court specialists like Kuerten who could not do what Borg, Wilander, Vilas and Rafa managed: win on hard courts. At heart, each of these multi-surface champions remained a defensive baseline player who did just enough to enhance their errorless play and use their court coverage advantage to win on other surfaces until confronted with a superior attacker. McEnroe, Edberg, Sampras, and Federer overtook them on faster courts but could never strip them of their clay pre-eminence. With Joker, this is about to happen for the first time.

It's meaning cannot be underestimated for the future of the game. By the numbers, Federer is playing better offensive tennis than when he dominated the world. Whether to age or to tactics (more likely to both), he has largely abandoned his amazing defensive repertoire in favor of offense in order to have a chance against the top four. He is beating everyone beneath the top four more often than before, and arguably they are a more talented group than ever existed. While his not dominating disturbs his loyal fan base, and while as an artist of point construction and completion he can still make tennis look relatively easy, the beauty of his prior winning style which captured and drew so many sports fans to tennis is somewhat diminished.

By the end of the 3rd set in his final with Novak, Rafa too had to abandon defense in favor of offense - not to save his legs for the end, but in response to his uncompetitiveness in the 3rd set when he fell back on playing far behind the baseline in an effort to get play on favorable terms. He lost that set 2-6 in a mere 45 minutes, and was done with defense.

If defense can't help Rafa any better in a Paris 5 set final than it did in 3 setters on clay against Joker last spring in Madrid and Rome, the Rafa we know will be a thing of past glory, and the counter-attacking defensive style he used - unique in technique but time honored in principle - will be as obsolete as a Roman shield before mortars and land mines.

We won't be left with finals so evenly and dramatically played as this one was. No - we shouldn't be seduced by the drama into thinking tennis is reaching a new and wonderful plain. Concerns abound:

- Where was their touch and their drop shots? Few, far between, and not particularly successful.

- Where was all court play? A mere 50 points ended at or near the net (barely 10%)

- And, where were their brilliant angled shots and rallies?

Rafa aimed largely to the center of the court to eliminate Joker making angles and running him further right and left, while Joker won primarily with down-the-line winners. Rafa's own opportunities to create angles with his inside-out forehand were few and far between. The result was a very repetitive pattern of play, with Joker metronomically steering balls and moving his opponent from side to side until he aimed one for the corner lines and ended the ordeal. The focus of commentary and observation was on matters not even discussed before recent Hawk-eye technology could provide the information for statistics to be quickly derived during play:

- where in relationship to the baseline the players chose to return serve

- where in relationship to the baseline the players were positioned during rallies

- how deep the balls their shots landed

Little mention was made of their serving tactics, so capable were they both of returning 1st and 2d serves. Neither player had a bad day serving or returning, though the number of service winners were few considering their percentage of 1st serves was about average (60 to 70% yielding only 19 aces, a relatively low 8% of 1st serves for hard courts; contrast that with Isner-Mahut). By the end, a foray to the net seemed a last ditch effort. On his last trip forward, Joker's legs were too dead to position him under a lob that would have been routinely put away 3 sets earlier: his overhead landed feebly in the bottom of the net. Tennis like this was no showcase for a leaping, scissoring Sampras Smash or a tweener. Change of directional shot-making was infrequent though perhaps all the more effective when pulled off, as shown by Rafa with a rare down-the-line backhand winner that left Joker flat-footed before the brief rain delay at the 3 hour mark in the 3rd set.

By the last two sets, most points were ending with winners or forced errors. With the exception of Rafa mixing in a few backhand slice skimmers and floaters, there was little thought to variety from the players, and it was a fight to the death, conducted from one baseline to the other. That's where they would win it, or go down trying.

The outcome, while in doubt til the end due to Rafa's tenaciousness as a man down, never favored Rafa's game. Joker seemed to play largely within the zone of his usual stroking capacity, while Rafa had to red line his ball striking with flatter backhands and harder serves (his average groundstroke speed was a few mph faster in the 5th set than in the first, which he won 7-5). In mid-set Joker was broken at 2-3 when, his legs seeming about to buckle between points, he uncharacteristically made unforced forehand errors. The denouement in the 5th contained moments which will be forever etched in the minds of tennis fans:

- at 4-2, 30-15, Rafa serving, he drew Joker forward to the net with an unexpectedly sharply angled reply, weakly hit back by Joker to set up a simple opening down-the-line for Rafa's backhand at mid-court, which Rafa missed by an inch wide.

- at 4-4, Rafa fought off a break with one of his hardest service winners up the middle; at deuce, he played a rare drop which Joker couldn't reach, and with the ad we saw Joker again make another rare error with a backhand return into the net.

- at 5-5, Rafa began his service game with a rare forehand winner up-the-line on the run, but missed the same shot a point later.

- at 15-15, a deep Joker return to Rafa's backhand resulted in a wild half-volley error.

- at 15-30, Joker failed to capitalize on a 2nd serve, and lost a raly when his gte (a lob) missed wide).

- at 30-30, Rafa played another deep return with a backhand volley from the baseline, but lost the point with a BH error in the net.

- at 30-40, Rafa got his 2nd serve out wide enough to force a short return which allowed him the opportunity he too often failed to earn: an inside-out forehand set-up that forced a Joker error.

- at deuce, Joker's deep return resulted in Rafa missing another desperate forehand up-the-line attempt.

- at ad-out, Rafa's 1st serve didn't prevent a powerful return and exchange which ended with a Rafa slice into the net for the final break.

- at 6-5 serving, Joker put in 1st serves and went up 30-0 before making a forehand error long.

- at 30-15, Joker feebly missed the overhead from mid-court when his legs couldn't get him off the ground.

- at 30-30, a brutal rally ended with a Joker backhand error in the net.

- at 30-40, Rafa's return of a 2nd serve was short, allowing Joker time to set-up for an inside-out forehand; on his 3rd forehand inside-out Joker put it away.

- at deuce, a hard 1st serve led to a vicious exchange of drives and two Rafa lets; the 2nd one went long.

MATCH POINT itself was anti-climactic: a hard Joker 1st serve up the middle, a weak reply, and an inside-out forehand winner into open court.

It was then that the shirts came off with the wristlets, though the sweat and the tears poured on.

In Paris, lest defensive tennis be buried forever behind the baseline of Court Chartrier, let there be blood...

Rick

2012 Australian Open Mens Final: Jok


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