Sunday, January 29, 2012

How the Aussie semi-finals affected the finals

For both the men and the women at the Australian Open this year, the semi-final matches seemed to play a decisive role in determining who ended up holding the trophy. Of course one can argue that this is always the case tennischick so find something else a tad more original to say. But in fact it is not always the case that a semi-final match ends up playing a critical role in the outcome of the finals.

Take for example the 2011 US Open women semi-finals. The match between Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams did not help prepare the latter for the finals. Serena beat Caroline so easily it was embarrassing to watch. As a result, she arrived at the finals without the match-readiness that is ideal in a huge showdown.

It’s important to get tested and challenged along the way to the final meet-up. Winning tough matches over the course of the two weeks gives you the confidence to keep going forward. Winning a challenging semi-final match can give you the resilience you need to fight for that trophy two days later.

That’s what Sam Stosur got from her three-set semi-final match against Angelique Kerber at the same US Open event. She arrived at the finals much more physically and emotionally prepared to be there than Serena. Do you get my point?

I believe that in Australia this year, for both the men and the women, the semi-final matches made a difference to the eventual outcome. And the difference was not just one of physical readiness but also of mental confidence. Let’s start with the women. 

Victoria Azarenka beat Kim Clijsters in three tough semi-final sets. It wasn’t just that Kim physically tested her. The crowd was loudly partial towards ‘Aussie Kim’ as they still fondly call her. She may have broken up with Lleyton Hewitt but Australia has never ended its love affair with Kim. And they let Azarenka know it, mocking her prolonged shriek as she hit the ball. It’s important in tennis to survive these kinds of challenges. Against a former #1 player, Azarenka surged back from a 1-6 second set loss to close out the third set 6-3. She arrived to the finals confident and prepared.

On the other side of the court also stood a winner. But the difference was that Sharapova did not so much win the match against Kvitova as that Kviotva lost it. I used to get annoyed whenever players said that they beat themselves. I found it disrespectful to their opponents. Well today I eat my words because I finally see what they meant. Kvitova beat herself in the match against Sharapova. And in the last game a half, she just stopped fighting.

The result was that Sharapova came to the finals not as confident as she should have been. In her heart she must have known that the win over Kvitova was closer than the score-line indicated, that she really should have lost. Vica was the more confident of the two, and it showed. She smiled where Maria remained grim-faced. She was loose where Maria remained tense. She pumped her fist with delight as Maria smacked herself on the calf, leaving a red line of pain and a presage of failure.

My point also holds for the men. Sure Rafa played a tough match against my Fed. But beating Federer is no longer something that gives Rafa self-confidence. A victory over Roger is something that will take some work, there will be magical moments, he will be tested, but Rafa can almost always count on the win. I don’t want to make it sound as though Federer in any way underperformed. For once this entry is not about him (ha!) but about the impact of that match on Rafa’s readiness to face his true nemesis.

I believe that Nadal would have been better off playing Andy Murray in the semi-finals. Murray may have shown him a different kind of defensive look that may have been served him better when facing Djokovic for the seventh time in a final.

Of course this is pure speculation on my part. But I’m speculating on the basis of the awesomeness of the match between Murray and Djokovic. Sure Andy had his moments of mental walkabouts. But this was by far the best tennis he has ever played. He pushed Djokovic almost to the limit. Surviving this challenge was the preparation that Novak needed to face Nadal once again. And the test was close. But did anyone ever truly doubt that Djoko would win again?


8 comments:

Anonymous said...

mat4:

I didn't watch the lady's semi, so I can't comment on that.

But, as you rightfully noted, a tested player in the earlier rounds, when those earlier rounds don't weight physically to much (the case of Nishikori against Murray, p.e.), usually performs better when it matters most.

In the final, the semi against Murray had two consequences on Djokovic: the first one, more obvious, is that he was not fresh enough, and although he dominated gamewise in the first three and a half sets, he made unusual errors and didn't close the match in three or four sets.

On the other side, that hard fought victory in the fifth, from the brink of defeat, against an opponent that played better for most of the encounter, gave him probably the inner belief, the confidence needed to hang in the fifth set of the final, and to win eventually.

I don't think that playing Andy would have helped Rafa. Perhaps in another sense: Roger could have won a semi against Novak.

But, like I wrote here before, for Roger tennis is a game, where craft, elegance, strokes matters. For Rafa and Nole, it is a fight. Roger loves the game in himself, Rafa and Nole love themselves in the game.

Once again, I am sorry for the mutual misunderstandings we had with my previous comments.

tennischick said...

Thanks for your comment Mat4. I agree -- my point applies only if the player has not been overly tested in the previous match. There is a point at which the test can be excessive and the player arrives to the finals with nary a drop of juice in the tank.

I feel badly for both Nadal and Djokovic. They are both killing themselves with this rivalry. There is no joy in it at all. I get why they both agree that the season is too long (although I don't support their whining for a minute). It's not that the season is too long. It's that they both play a brutal style of tennis that will destroy their bodies.

Hence I love your comment: "...for Roger tennis is a game, where craft, elegance, strokes matters. For Rafa and Nole, it is a fight. Roger loves the game in himself, Rafa and Nole love themselves in the game." There is an article embedded in there that you just inspired me to write. Thank you.

What misunderstanding? :-)

Anonymous said...

mat4:

I wrote on tennis-x some times ago that their matches, when they were at the same level of form, those intensely fought battles, had terrible consequences on both: Hamburg and Queens 2008, Madrid 2009, last year six in a row. Nadal and Djokovic slumped for months after that.

It is not only about the body (they spent about one hour and a half more serving, compared to a match between Federer and Roddick. I calculated precisely how long they played in New York: about one hour, not more.), but about the emotions, the will, and, ultimately, the fear not to become what they think they have to.

Anonymous said...

mat4:

I feel also that, between them, this could be their final war (with a lot of battles), and that the loser in this quest for a place in history will be completely shattered. That's what keeps them standing when others would have fallen. For Rafa it was a chance to reach Roger's records, for Novak to make some of his own.

Another thing.

First, I calculated in september how long they played in New York (enough stats were available). Not much more than an hour. They covered about six to seven miles in four hours. Roughly, it is a middleweight boxe match in 15 rounds, the blows less.

I was really surprised. It looks much more physical than it is really.

It is more a battle of nerve and emotions. Just compare a match between Roger and Novak, and a match between Rafa and Novak.

Roger and Novak play fast, take risks, unleashed their strokes. Djokovic, most of the time, serves faster than against Rafa. You feel that there are important points, and less important points.

But when Rafa takes 30 seconds to serve at 40 love, you know immediately that there are no less important points. The tension never fades. There are no ups and downs.

In Melbourne, when I watched the first set of the semi, I had the impression that Roger was ready, this time, to play that game, always the same, without respite. He tried to pin Rafa on his backhand and open the court.

But soon, he was -- not bored, as I have read -- but discouraged: play _endlessly_ the same game, in the same corner, not to try, not to change, never to risk, never to enjoy. He reverted to his usual game, and lost. To beat Rafa requires a certain asceticism gamewise. Roger is unable, or unwilling to do that. Novak needed four years to learn: he went so many times for all or nothing in 2010 and lost, and it made him mature.

Anonymous said...

mat4:

For some stats:

http://blogs.wsj.com/dailyfix/2012/01/30/novak-djokovic-master-of-the-slow-escape/

Doug Messenger said...

Outstanding analysis of what happened to Roger! You've redeemed yourself for past rudeness and it's great that you tendered an apology to the Tennis Chick.

Anonymous said...

mat4:

@Doug:

The first time I wrote a comment here, it was to say that this blog was outstanding and that such a thing had to be said. It shows, I believe, the respect I have for the author and his writings.

Unfortunately, when I wanted to post here and show that I am an assiduous reader of those articles, everything went wrong.

I never intended to be rude and the third post was not mine.

But I was trying to make a lot of points and write something interesting, not superficial, in a language that is not mine, and the effect was disastrous. I lack some of those "little" words to make my sentence more nuanced and, sometimes, acceptable when arguing. I hope that next time, when I make a misstep, it will be taken in account.

Or should I stick with French next time? Perhaps nobody will understand, but, at least, it will be elegant :-)

tennischick said...

Mat4:
It must be the early dementia setting in but I truly have no memory of conflict with you. Honestly I'm just thrilled that folks read my blog. Like any writer I want to be read. It's totally OK with me if folks disagree with my views. I just appreciate y'all stopping by. No hard feelings here, ni en espanol ni en frances. Je parle un petit peu. So please write in whatever language you choose. That's what google translate is for!