Sunday, January 20, 2008

Notes on the Aus Open '08

It’s the lowest-profile of the four Grand Slams in tennis, and it’s played on a surface that’s a bit tricky for my favourite player, but I love the Australian Open. For starters, the timings suit me: it’s very stimulating (purely on a short-term basis, of course) to get up at 4 AM (at which point I can also, ahem, switch on the booster for the 3.30-4.30 AM water supply), take out the laptop and get down to work, and put the TV on at low volume after an hour or so. Sipping a cup of hot tulsi tea, writing notes for a review or interview, whooping and waving one's fist at the TV’s the very definition of multi-tasking. And the wonderfully atmospheric late-night matches take place in the evening (India-time) which is also very manageable.

The surprise element is often greater here than in the other majors, since this one comes immediately after the off-season and conventional wisdom about form, fitness etc has to be discarded – unless the player in question is Federer, that is. Dark horses who have trained really hard during the off-season often do well despite not being ranked very high and there have been a few surprise finalists in the last few years (Fernando Gonzalez and Marcos Baghdatis in the last two editions).

I’ve seen a few matches so far, including three marathons (Baghdatis-Safin, Roddick-Kohlschreiber and Federer-Tipsarevic, all superb in different ways). Eyedrops have been pressed into service: watching even four straight hours of power tennis – long rallies with the ball darting back and forth – can be harder on the eyes than a couple of days of Test cricket. Also, the way this particular Open has been going, the action often stretches to 16 straight hours (the Aussies are so sports-mad they actually started a third-round match at midnight Melbourne time – it finished past 4 AM) and my tired eyes have also been surfing the thousands of comments on Pete Bodo’s Tennis World blog, which are far more entertaining and informative than any news report could be.

Some favourite moments so far this year:

The human Fed: It’s well-established by now that Roger Federer is an android, but we saw him doing a fine impersonation of a person during his match with veteran Fabrice “The Magician” Santoro, a very popular medium-rung player who is in his last season on the tour. The android won comfortably and was always in control of the match, but it was seen to be laughing its head off during the many points where the nimble-footed Santoro repeatedly floated the ball back into play, even after Fed had hit seemingly clear winners and smashes. (Take a look at this point.) At the end of the match, Federer actually climbed over the net and hugged the Frenchman. I wonder if there was a short-circuit in the system or he had actually been programmed to do these things, just for this match? Either way, it was very nice to see.

- The new Plexicushion surface used this year has been a big subject of debate with commentators wondering whether it will play faster or slower than the earlier surface and how it might advantage or disadvantage different types of players. Sitting in the Star Sports studio, Vijay Amritraj and Alan Wilkins waited breathlessly to see what the world’s best player has to say about the finer points of the new turf. Cut to a Federer press conference where he says, very gravely:

“Well, I sort of liked the green surface better, you know. This shade of blue is hard on the eye – the reflection from the overhead lights is more difficult, though maybe that’s because we haven’t got used to it yet. In general, I like green better than blue...”

And he goes on for a minute or two about the differences between the two colours without mentioning how the surfaces compare in other respects. Basically, this is the android telling his opponents: “It doesn’t matter if we’re playing on quicksand, I’ll still beat all of you in straights.”

- For an awkward, lumbering American tree that has little personality on the court, Andy Roddick has a sense of humour off it; his press conferences/post-match interviews are often quite piquant, especially when he loses. After his five-set loss to Philip Kohlscreiber, an over-enthusiastic reporter says to him:
“You tried a lot of ways to get into his service games...Especially the last set, seemed like you were climbing uphill the whole time trying to get the ball back in play, and then he was dictating pretty quickly, and then that went on for a few games...”
And Roddick cuts in:
“Is that a question or are you having, like, a monologue here?”
With my thesis-length questions, it’s a good thing I’ll never have to interview him.

(Some earlier tennis posts: Thoughts on complete dominance, Dealing with the Federer problem, Mixed singles, Perceptions)


  1. There was a match between Paes/Bhupathi and Woodfore/Woodbridge. I dont remember the year but upna Indians lost that match in the finals of the Australian Open (They went on the claim two other grandslams that year I think). That is my all time favorite match in Aus Open. The Roddick-KohlSchreiber match, this year was also top class.

  2. You bring back childhood memories of waking up early in the morning to watch the Australian Open, wrapped in blankets to ward off the cold.. setting the alarm for 4 a.m. and waking up 3 times in the night to make sure the alarm has somehow not gone off already..

  3. nice post. Fed also said that the match against Tipsarevic should have ended a draw. Its hard to not like the guy! But I hope Djokovic wins!

  4. Great post :) though did you really have to link upto Aussie open on wiki? Just reading your blog doesnt really imply low intellect,you know :P

  5. I remember Fedex's interview about the blue or green surface. I think he said he prefered the blue. He said the green was too hard on the eyes... the green was too green he said.

    ROGER FEDERER: I prefer the blue over the green, absolutely. I think it looks nicer on TV. It's nicer on your eyes when you play. The stadium looks just more friendly, more nice. The green was very much too green from my point of view. Especially when the lights were on, it's very a very strange place to play, especially at night sessions sometimes. So I really prefer the blue over the green.

  6. Paritosh: Sorry, guess I got that bit wrong - no chance of him agreeing to play an exhibition match on my blog template then! The main point about him not saying anything about the surfaces still remains though...

    Destination Infinity: Ya, the Roddick-Kohl match was stunning. You'd normally expect the lower-ranked player to fade in the end/start making unforced errors, especially after Roddick made such a good comeback - but Kohl just kept going. I think he played a Grand Slam five-setter last year that included a 21-19 final set (no tiebreak) - can see where that energy came from.

    Quirky Quill: just hoping it would get a few people interested in the tournament. Though really, the Tennis World blog beats anything else.

    Lekhni: I used to do that a lot with cricket in Australia (no matter who the visiting team was) - mainly because I loved the grounds and the commentary team/Channel 9 coverage.

    Sportsnob: I wouldn't mind seeing Djokovic knock Fed out in the semis, but in case it's a Djoko-Nadal final you know who I'm rooting for!

  7. Good heavens! This is surreal! I was debating whether or not to leave a comment requesting for a post on your thoughts on the Australian Open, and here it is! How capital!

    Oh, and the Favourite Player has stormed into the semi-final, even as we speak :-D Wheeee!!! *a few complicated dance-steps in joy*

  8. Oh, and did you happen to catch the commentary during the Venus Williams-Sania Mirza match? It annoyed me to no end, Vijay Amritraj and Alan Wilkins constantly plugging away for Mirza, and oohing and aahing and sighing over her shots, her misses, her forehand, even her challenges (!!) and her temperament. It was so trying I wanted to watch the rest of the match in mute mode. I'm not particularly a Venus Williams fan, but this one-sided commentary was extremely annoying, and I ended up rooting for la Williams.

  9. Empress of Blandings: yes, but he'll probably face Youzhny there, and remember the Chennai final? Rafa's played with focus and solidity in the last two-and-a-half matches (including Mathieu's retirement in the last round), but I don't know if he's playing at a high enough level to take out Youzhny on this surface. And if perchance he does, I definitely don't want to see him thrashed by Fed or Djoko in the final.

    (But what if he somehow found a way to win the whole thing, huh?! If that were to happen, I wouldn't mind if he suffered a decline in the clay-season results.)

    Regarding Amritraj-Wilkins on Sania, it's irritating alright, but in fairness commentators all over the world show a great deal of partisanship now. Not to mention TV networks - on Tennis World, ESPN-watchers are constantly complaining about how the network would rather show the replay of a replay of a James Blake third-rounder than Live coverage of a Federer match. (Apparently, Sharapova is the only non-American attraction.)

  10. You're right, he got absolutely trounced by Youzhny in the Chennai Open, but I'm still keeping my fngers crossed, of course. (And this time round, he's had plenty of rest, as opposed to that marathon semifinal clash with Moya.)
    Amen to the "win the whole thing" thing!! :-)

    Gosh, and I thought this was purely a subcontinent TV network problem! Quite awful, all this partisanship..didn't know it was so widespread. I miss the old days!

  11. my favourite match at the Australian Open definitely has to be the Roddick vs Ayanoui match from three years back, what an absolutely cliff hanger!

    And regarding the commentary, I think it was more balanced in her second round match against a much lesser ranked player.

    You got to consider the fact that she was facing Venus Williams, most people expected her to fold 6-2 6-3 and full credit to her for fighting hard. The commentary was a bit over the top but I thought it was ok.

    Ma Sha has just ended up thrashing Henin! Ivanovic for the title?!

  12. Sportsnob: that was quite a stunning display by Sharapova - she blew Henin off the court. Think I'd have to back her for the title now. She's looking supremely determined.

    Meanwhile, Youzhny looking ready to fold against Tsonga. He even called for a trainer after being one set and a break down.

  13. jabberwock,

    Roddick made Kohli look like Federer, like he makes Federer look like God. I have a strong feeling that this hype about Federer being invincible roots from the inadequacy of Roddick and the hype machine that is American tennis media.

    The Australian Open this year is one of the most unspectacular grand slams to me. Simply for the quality of tennis in display. Are they playing on clay or hard courts? Did you look at the number of rallies, with all western grips and consistent cross court shots. Nobody is sure how to play on this court, including Federer. So everybody's going the safe way.

    Federer was all at sea even against Berdych, until birdman decided to self destruct. So, no, Federer is not comfortable with the surface. If he has claimed that somewhere, he is only going to regret that he made such an hasty claim before winning the thing.

    I am sure Federer realises how hard it is to beat these guys consistently on the ATP. Just because he wants to unwind by joking about it, doesn't mean he means it.

  14. I thought Nadal only had Spanish or girl fans, not tennis fans. With the kind of defensive tennis he plays, its hard to like him. The champion with no gameplan. That is Nadal.

  15. Haha...whatever you say Fed is a God. I like your Rafa too, but he isn't a God (yet), or an android, depending how you look at it. That point which Santoro won is awesome. Makes me want to watch tennis again.

    The reason I stopped is because of the huge divide between Fed and the rest of the gang in the men's circuit. The only matches worth watching are the Fed-Rafa games, especially on clay.

    In the women's circuit, it is a bit more even, but Henin is pretty good. Saw highlights of Serena's defeat to Jankovich (sp?) in the gym and I thought it was an upset. Then I saw their seeds and realized how out of touch I was. Not taking anything away from Janko of course, especially since she was cramping.

  16. Gasquet Fan: I'm not Spanish, so I must be a girl. But yes, it's quite interesting how so many players end up playing "out of their skins/the match of their lives" when Roddick happens to be on the other side of the net.

    ArSENik: God, android, same difference. Incidentally, Jankovic has been cramping since the very beginning of the tournament - I saw part of her first match, where she was nearly upset in three sets, and there was a medical time-out there as well.

  17. Playing against a hapless James Blake today, Federer had an evil aura about him, and a sinister look on his face. Reminded me of Darth Vader.

  18. Nikhil: tennis fans often refer to him as Darth Federer when he wears the black outfit. But Blake wasn't as hapless yesterday as he usually is against Fed, and Fed wasn't as dominant as usual - though he won the crucial points. The patchy form he's in this tournament, I fully expect Djokovic to stretch, or even beat, him in the semis.

  19. So that's that! What an emphatic win for Tsonga! Am still reeling. Wonder who's going to play him in the final now, looking forward to it!

  20. Sigh. Yes. I was all set to see him lose (either here or in the final) but didn't want such a lopsided result. This was an unpleasant reminder of the loss to Gonzalez in the quarters last year, and at least 2-3 of his other recent hard-court losses. All I can hope at this stage is that even if he never becomes a HC champion, these disappointments shouldn't end up affecting his clay game as well and causing an overall slide.

    Commentators are saying that Tsonga's full two days of rest before the final could disadvantage him - give him too much time to think about his achievement, get nervous, lose his rhythm etc. All valid - but on the other hand, if Federer and Djojovic end up playing a marathon semi tomorrow night, then Tsonga will definitely be better-rested than the other finalist. Wouldn't it be amazing if an unseeded player were to break the Federer-Nadal duopoly after the last 11 Grand Slams!

  21. Nadal should stick to his clay job!

  22. Rahul: well, okay, but then he'd be depriving the world of its second-best non-clay player and third-best hardcourt player. (That's what the ATP stats for the last three years say - he's behind only Federer and Djokovic on hard, and ahead of ROddick, Nalbandian, Ferrer, etc.) It speaks for his determination and consistency, though I think these one-sided defeats on hard-courts will probably continue - it's never going to be a comfort surface for him.

  23. Yes, exactly what I was thinking. And if it's Djoko who wins the (possible) marathon today, then the Frenchman's chances are even brighter against a tired young Novak. (You see, I subscribe to your android theory too ;-) )

    Grin, yes, that would be quite incredible! An unseeded player breaking the Fed-Nadal Grand Slam hold! Mon dieu!

  24. Jabberwock,

    Lets just look at the way Nadal plays the game. On a hard court - and indeed on every court - once he is a little behind his opponent, Nadal switches on his defensive bulb and starts playing to save the match rather than win it.

    He hardly has a gameplan. Atleast I haven't seen one in the two years I have watched him play. And the stat about him being the 3rd best hardcourter is a bit misleading for the simple reason that Indian wells and Miami hardcourts are as good as clay courts. He has always done like crap after August, anyway.

    I am not sure why as a fan you are not even acknowledging his disgusting defensive tactics on hard courts, when he can play so much better if he tries.

  25. I am not sure why as a fan you are not even acknowledging his disgusting defensive tactics on hard courts, when he can play so much better if he tries.

    Subhash: I'll ignore that "disgusting" and treat you like a serious commenter, not a troll. But I'm intrigued. How are you so sure that he can play so much better on hard courts "if he tries"? How do you know he isn't playing the very best he can play (given his natural game and his weak serve) and getting as far as he does through determination and consistency? As far as I know, he's one of the very hardest triers in the business, often to the ridiculous extent of sprinting around the court even when the other player is 40-0 up on serve.

    ...the stat about him being the 3rd best hardcourter is a bit misleading for the simple reason that Indian wells and Miami hardcourts are as good as clay courts. He has always done like crap after August, anyway.

    Let's your definition of "done like crap after August" is a) winning the Madrid Masters, the Canada Masters and the China Open (all in 2005, so maybe you'll say that's ancient history), b) reaching the Paris Masters final and the Canada Masters semifinal this year, c) finishing in the top two in his group in the last 2 Tennis Masters Cups despite the field being full of better natural hard-courters, d) a couple of other quarter-finals I can't take stock of now (check Wikipedia, etc).

    But that's beside the point anyway. If you're going to negate IW and Miami because they're slow, you might as well accept that surfaces all over are getting slower anyway (Wimbledon included) and then get back to the business of evaluating players by how they perform on the surfaces currently available to them across tournaments. Since when has success on "genuine" hard-courts been the benchmark for rating players anyway? In Laver's time, and most of Borg's time, the US Open and the Aus Open were played on grass.

    All that said, I agree that in a general sense Nadal is a defensive player. The point is, I'm not sure this is something he can meaningfully change without screwing up the other things in his game that are effective. If he loses his number 2 ranking this year because Djoko is a better hard-court/all-round player, well, c'est la vie...

  26. jabberwock, I was kidding,partly at least.Federer reportedly has said that if Rafa changes his game to perform better on non-clay,he wouldn't be so dominant on clay.Could it be something technical,like the grip?
    Meanwhile,Hail to the DJokerovich!

  27. Jabberwock,

    let's be honest here. Nadal had a joke of a draw. Mathieu was the only decent opponent he met before the semifinals and he retired because of injury. Actually Giles Simon is also good and I expected him to beat Nadal, but Nadal played perhaps the most defensive tennis I have ever seen to beat him.

    Still I feel Nadal being the number 3 hard court player is a bit of a stretch. He loses when he plays a decent hard court player and just because he had the luck of the draw and wins a tournament doesn't make him the 3rd best in hardcourts. Anyway, I think Djoko is almost like Nadal with a better serve. Both of them are defensive and will never be fun to watch them play.

    Actually I consider clay court tennis as the best to watch. All my favourite players have been clay court players. Like Kuerten, Berasategui, and even Nadal on clay. I am more irritated that he is not trying to attack a little and finish points sooner. He plays so much behind the baseline and there is very less chance of him to take control of the match from there. From what I know, standing so far behind is a mental thing and has nothing to do with tactics.

    I am surprised that he wins so much on clay with this tactic and his forehand. He will lose this year's french open, I think. Last year Hewitt troubled him, Davydenko troubled him. Anybody with a double handed backhand will not have problems with the spin he generates.

  28. Rahul: cool. And hail to Cassius Clayius Tsogius!

    Subhash: just for the record, I fully expect Nadal to slip to number three sometime during the year, and quite possibly even before August. His discipline and determination (which are among the strongest I've ever seen in a tennis player) are at some stage or the other going to come short against the incredible strain his playing style puts on his body.

    I won't argue too much with your point about the draw, despite my own feelings that judging the quality of a draw on paper is always a big mistake and can never factor in the current form of different players, especially in a year-opener like the AO. Just one example: Nieminen (not a high-quality quarter-final opponent on paper) had a hard-fought, impressive win against Kohlschreiber, who in turn played arguably the single most impressive match of the tournament against Roddick (hitting - what? - 100-odd winners). In a not-too-distant parallel universe, Kohl could have been holding the AO trophy up this year. And Djoko's quarter was supposed to be so difficult, mainly because of Nalbandian, but ol' Nalby simply rolled over in the third round.

    But I do take umbrage to your questioning of Nadal's clay-court successes. Regardless of how well or badly he does this year, it's simply peevish to nitpick about two tough matches against Hewitt or Davydenko, given the way he's dominated nearly everyone on that surface in the last 3 years. It's a bit like someone saying "Oh, Federer isn't so great because he lost to Canas and Volandri last year." At least give credit where credit is very obviously due.

  29. Though I'm hardcore fan of Federer, I'm not too worried about the result of singles. Because in the past three or more years Federer playing excellent game, and won title in almost all the tournament. Loss like this will give him a better chance to improve his game.
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