Monday, April 28, 2008

Making the move

There is a moment in certain professional tennis matches when it becomes clear that a player has decided that he is ready to make his move.

I say “he” because women seem to have fewer of those calculated moments. Mainly women just seem to try to get the break in every game that their opponent serves. And of course hold their own serve if possible. Indeed, it is not uncommon in professional women’s tennis for breaks to be traded back and forth until one player has enough of a mental lapse to allow the other to profit by it.

Not so among the elite at the top of the men’s game where winning is a much more calculated affair.

An important piece of the calculation involved in winning entails deciding when to make the move. Making the move is most effective when one’s opponent is either at his weakest or when it is clear that one can do the most harm. It all comes down often to excellent timing and intuitive strategizing.

At his peak, Sampras was the master of making the move. In a match, Sampras would wait patiently. If his opponent gave a good challenge, Sampras would initially not even try to break serve. He would just throw up his ugly but serviceable backhands, and continue to wait. Patiently. Then, in the penultimate game of the set, Sampras would make his move. He would break his opponent and then serve out the set or the match.

That this was predictable made it no less effective. Sampras’ opponents would see this maneuver coming a mile away, and yet would remain transfixed, helpless against his power.

Cliff Drysdale, the well-known tennis commentator, probably analyzed it best. Cliff would start making a deep guttural chuckle as Sampras moved in for the kill. Cliff’s face would light up with glee as Sampras managed to obtain the desired break of serve. And when Sampras would then serve for the set [or the match], Cliff would barely be able to contain himself as Sampras’ American beauties rained down upon his hapless opponent who by then would have no effective response.

Making the move requires the same kind of cold-blooded awareness and precision of a serial killer. I don’t know any serial killers but I can well imagine that they probably go after their prey in the same way. When I got mugged several years ago, it was clear that the bandits involved had studied my movements, were familiar with my vulnerabilities, and knew precisely when to strike. It is no different in tennis.

It was no different in the finals of Monte Carlo between Nadal and Federer. In the first set, they were equal at 5-5. Then Nadal held his serve, and the score was 6-5. And then he made his move.

Having made it his business to study Federer closely, Nadal’s timing was as precise as a Movado. As Federer served at 5-6, Nadal responded by upping his level of aggression. He pounded return after return into the Federer backhand. He didn’t just break Federer to win the set, he momentarily stunned him.

Nadal waited patiently during the second set as Federer went up 4-0. And then Nadal again made his move, aggressively erasing every inch of Federer's gain. It was a cruel display in prowess and ability. Federer seemed not know what hit him.

Or maybe he knew – how could he not, they have played enough matches against each other – but had no effective response for Nadal’s heavy, driving and insistent topspin shots to his weakened backhand. It’s hard to win from a defensive position. Survival is tough when a killer has made his move and is holding a knife at your throat.


Anonymous said...

that maybe true with Sampras but I don't completely agree when you make the same comparison with Nadal. On clay that may be true because Nadal has all the weapons and one more: his tenacity. Fed lacks tenacity and was in serious trouble everytime Nadal was able to put him behind the baseline 1 m or more thanks to his ultra top spinned balls. They both know eachothers game well enough specially on clay. Fed should by now know exactly what to do. If he doesn't it's because he finally realized he doesn't have a chance against Nadal on clay....ever

tennischick said...

you're right -- i should have specified that my comments about Nadal are relevant only to clay. he doesn't have the same level of confidence on other surfaces. in the same way, Sampras' confidence in making his move tended also to be surface specific (grass, hard courts).