When Dudi Sela took out Andy Roddick yesterday at the Aegon Championships, I considered taking full credit. I almost sent his coach a bill in the mail. After all, it’s not everyday that his giant-slaying virtuoso performance just happens to coincide with a series that I just happen to be writing on giant-slaying. Of course I am just kidding. But really, Sela’s performance fit right into any manual that I could consider developing on how to take down the best in their prime. I’m sure you’ll agree that Sela seemed at times to be guided by the following principles.
Step 4: Attack his weaknesses, and his strengths
It goes without saying that any player hoping to take down a giant in his prime would necessarily go after the giant’s areas of weakness. And truth be told, no matter how good you are at playing tennis, there is always going to be some area of weakness that your opponents can exploit. Mary Pierce would drive her opponents crazy by taking forever to fix her hair and pluck her eyelashes in between probably saying a complete rosary before she served the ball. Her opponent’s increasing frustration with Pierce’s unhurried pace of play then became something that could be exploited. I am not saying that Mary got up to these shenanigans just to drive her opponents bonkers. I’m just saying that it worked, and that in her day she could beat anyone at their best.
Which is all by way of saying that attacking a player’s weaknesses does not only mean going after her technical flaws. Attacks can be completely psychological, or may be a combination of both. When Azarenka rushes in her matches against Serena, her strategy seems to be both to gain control of the pace of play, as well as to catch Serena mid-step, knowing that Serena is inclined to be lumbering and heavy at times. As a strategy this would work if Azarenka also had the ability to endure. Her problem is that this strategy takes more out of her than it does out of Serena, hence their lop-sided head-to-head.
But one of the biggest mistakes that would-be giant-killers make is the tendency to focus only on attacking the giant’s weaknesses. One of the reasons why this is a bad idea is quite simply because repeatedly going after the same shot gives the better player a chance to develop and strengthen it in the middle of the match. Remember when Justine Henin’s forehand used to be weaker than her backhand? Well after everyone and his sister kept pounding her forehand in efforts to beat her, guess what happened? Justine’s forehand ended up just as lethal as her backhand.
The true giant-slayer has the guts to know when to catch the giant off-guard by also attacking her strengths. For example, a common strategy for attacking Venus Williams is to attack her relatively weaker forehand. As a strategy, this is time-tested and sensible. But the players who beat Venus actually do so by taking away the angles, driving balls straight up the middle of the court as Venus is sprinting to the other side, throwing her off-balance, and then pounding her backhand when she least expects it. The trick is to deploy the element of surprise.
Step 3: Into every life, some luck must fall
One of my grandmother’s favorite sayings was, “everyday can’t be Sunday”. She said this whenever anything bad happened, either to herself or to someone she loved. By this she meant that everyday couldn’t be perfect, that some days are just going to be rotten, and that that is perfectly OK because other Sundays would eventually come around.
But the opposite is also true. Everyday can’t be Monday either. Sometimes you just get damn lucky. The best kind of luck is when you happen to be facing the giant on her off-day. I often wonder how tennis players deal with their menses. For me, that time of the month is a nightmare. I know that there are ways to shut the entire system down, and this is what I assume most professional sportswomen do. After all, you can’t tell the Queen that you’re not coming to Wimbledon because it’s a bad time of the month to wear white.
Luck of course can take many forms. Federer insinuated that the weather conditions on that particular day at Roland Garros favored Söderling’s game. Sometimes a Lucky Loser makes it deep into a draw. And sometimes fans interfere and root against the top-dog, giving the underdog the lucky break of a life-time. I’ve written before about my own participation in rooting noisily for the aging Italian, Gianluca Pozzi, in probably his last appearance at the US Open. I believe that crowd support alone buoyed Pozzi as he took Marat Safin to five thrilling sets. As much as I adored Marat Safin, I remember how much we all wanted to see the giant go down.
(to be continued)