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The dominance of Novak Djokovic

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2015 has been Novak Djokovic‘s year. The Serb has won eight ATP World Tour titles, three of which were Grand Slams. He has accumulated an impressive 72-5 win-loss record with four of his losses coming in title matches. Only one player (Roger Federer) has beaten him more than once this year and comparisons are already being made to his successful 2011 season. His biggest regret will be his failure to capture the French Open title after dethroning Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals, the man who has denied him on many occasions. The tears on the podium said it all, reflecting on a lost chance. Nevertheless, this has been a season that will go down in the history books along with Federer’s 2006-7 and Nadal’s 2010.

Is Djokovic better than he was four years ago? A breakdown of both his seasons is provided below along with my personal view below.

Djokovic Analysis

Even though the 2015 season has not concluded yet (Djokovic is still scheduled to play in Paris and London) we can safely say that this has been the best season of his career. He is the overwhelming favourite to beat Tsonga in the Shanghai final (he leads 13-6) and is a strong contender to take out both Paris and London, titles he won last year. Victory in Shanghai and Paris would break his 2011 record of five wins and be an all-time record for most Masters 1000 wins in a year. That would put him ahead on all the categories listed above and would justify why this has been his best yet. The Belgrade native is injury free and is in the prime of his life. Novak Djokovic, take a bow this has been your year.

The end of the road for Nadal?

© Reuters/Alessia Pierdomenico

Before Rafael Nadal could step into the world of competitive tennis, he first had to beat his fragile body. A serious foot injury at 19 should of ended his career but his love for the game prevented him from walking away. To conquer his foot problem, the Spaniard wore specially made shoes, fully aware that his knees and back would buckle under the pressure. Many tennis pundits had predicted a short career for Nadal. But after turning pro in 2001, the Mallorcan has racked up an impressive 14 Grand Slams, 27 ATP World Tour 1000 events and an Olympic Gold Medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

His career has been plagued by injury with three Grand Slam no shows in the past three years and have led many to question whether he can still challenge for the top echelon. 2015 has been one of his worst seasons since turning pro, for the first time in a decade he doesn’t have a Grand Slam to his name. Nadal has only beaten two top 10 players this year and has seen his ranking fall to No. 8. The clay season like many times before has offered him a safety blanket, but that hasn’t been the case this year. His record is 26 wins to 6 losses (81%).

For many that would be a spectacular record, but not for someone like Nadal who has gone most seasons undefeated or suffering the odd loss or two on crushed brick. Calls have grown louder to make changes to his coaching team or even get married to reverse his imminent slump. There is no doubt that his style of play is conducive to injury but few would of expected such a swift decline. He is no longer physically imposing like a few years ago and more and more players are hitting the ball harder, forcing Nadal on the back foot.

On a more positive note, the 29 year-old sits comfortably at No. 7 in the race to London and has won three titles this year with an opportunity to add a fourth in Beijing. As recently as last season, he was an Australian Open finalist and French Open champion with Federer’s all time Grand Slam record seemingly close. In the space of twelve months, that has evaporated with Novak Djokovic being the biggest beneficiary with no consistent challenger at the Grand Slam level apart from an aging Federer.

What has been most surprising is that fact that Nadal has been quite frank about his decline saying things like “I’m not the player I once was” and “I might not win another Grand Slam.” It makes me wonder as to how a player can go about winning matches on a consistent basis with that kind of mindset. Opponents will that as ammunition for e.g. Dustin Brown at Wimbledon. The problem is not a physical one but a mental one. This is where a super coach can be of benefit in restoring the equilibrium and instilling belief into Nadal that he can once again contend for major titles.

In the spotlight: Hyeon Chung

© ATP World Tour

As we move onto the Asian swing, the attention turns to Asia’s No. 1 male tennis player in Kei Nishikori. The Shimane native has consolidated on his success from last year with titles in Memphis, Barcelona and Washington. The current World No. 6 became a superstar in his home country with a finals appearance at the 2014 US Open, knocking out World No. 1 Novak Djokovic on route to the title match. As Nishikori has proven, one man is all it takes to inspire a new generation of tennis aspirants for a country renowned for it’s football success.

Prior to Nishikori’s rise, there was of course Paradorn Srichaphan who became the first Asian born man to reach the top 10 of the men’s rankings and won five ATP World Tour titles before retiring in 2010. More recently on the women’s side, there was Li Na a former Australian and French Open winner. Young Asian tennis stars have been hard to find but they are slowly emerging from the unlikeliest of countries. One player is Hyeon Chung, a 19 year-old Korean who has solidified his court craft in the challenger tour.

YTR Hyeon Chung

The current World No. 55 has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past three years and now sits on the cusp of becoming the highest ranked South Korean in history (Hyung-Taik Lee reached a career high 36 in 2007). At 6’1″ and 183lbs, the Suwon native isn’t your typical Asian tennis player and definitely has the physique to make it to the top. 2015 has been an immensely successful year for Chung on the Challenger tour, with titles in Burnie, Savannah, Busan and Kaohsuing.

The talented teenager has also had his first taste at Grand Slam level, making appearances at Wimbledon and the US Open, losing in the first and second round respectively. Game play wise, Chung is solid on both wings with strong court movement to support his game. For someone of that height, his serve does need additional work in order to win more free points. He has already demonstrated that he has the mental strength to hold himself together and rebound from adversity.

Not making the headlines early on his career could be a positive thing for Chung as he continues to strive the best he can be and when the time comes, he can grasp the opportunity with both hands. While he may not be as well known as his fellow teenagers Coric, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis, Chung will be someone you will definitely hear of in the years to come.

Assessing Federer’s longevity

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon this article which detailed a young Spanish gentleman who fell into a coma in late 2004 only to awaken in August of this year. At that time, the tennis atmosphere was very different, Federer only won his 4th Slam by winning the US Open that year and Djokovic and Nadal were relative unknowns. 11 years later, the Swiss is still a major force in the sport, currently ranked No. 2 and reaching two Grand Slam finals in 2015. Nowadays, tennis pundits love to debate whether he’s the greatest ever by naming of all his achievements and accolades. Most would not dispute that he’s the greatest ever while others would argue how that could be the case when he fares with his modern contemporaries.

One area that I feel that doesn’t get much concentration and analysis is how Federer fared in his age group for e.g. Hewitt, Safin, Nalbandian and Roddick. Below is the year end rankings for 2004. How did he fare?

© ATP World Tour

2004 rankings

1. Andy Roddick

Reached three Wimbledon finals, with the 2009 edition being the most memorable with a gallant five set loss to Federer. Didn’t fare well against Federer, only winning 3 of the 24 matches they played. A constant fixture in the top 10, before retiring after the 2012 US Open.

2. Lleyton Hewitt

The only active player on that 2004 list apart from Federer and has announced that he’s retiring after the 2016 Australian Open. Unfortunate to have played in Federer’s era, even though he had his measure early on only to lose to him 15 straight times.

3. Marat Safin

Hugely talented Russian player who called it quits after the 2009 season. Only beat Federer twice in 12 meetings but his win against the dominant Swiss at the 2005 Australian Open was the most memorable of them all. Regarded as an underachiever.

4. Carlos Moya

Never managed to beat Federer in seven meetings but we shouldn’t forget that Moya was a French Open champion and a former World No. 1. Found himself ranked No. 5 in 2004 after a consistent season in the Masters Series tournaments even though he was past his prime.

5. Tim Henman

Most will be surprised, but the Brit actually had Federer’s measure in their first six meetings before Federer blitzed their last six. Henman reached two Grand Slam semi-finals in 2004 and enjoyed a resurgence after a disappointing 2003. I’m sure his failure to win Wimbledon will be his biggest regret.

6. Guillermo Coria

The pair only met three times, with Federer winning all three. Coria, regarded as a clay court specialist never recovered from his 2004 French Open loss to Gaudio and went on a downward spiral after that. The former World No. 3 virtually disappeared from tour after 2006 before retiring in 2009.

7. Andre Agassi

Agassi, the ageless American who at that time was 34 and still striving to be the best. Fared well early on against Federer, winning their first three clashes before losing the next eight. Their matches at the 2004 and 2005 US Open stand out from the rest.

8. David Nalbandian

The talented Argentine, who caused Federer a world of trouble early on before injuries dented his progress was a former World No. 3 and a former Wimbledon finalist. Their highlight match was no doubt their finals clash at the 2005 Tennis Masters Cup, with Nalbandian winning in five after losing the first two sets.

9. Gaston Gaudio

Gaudio, another bunch of talented Argentinian tennis players crashed onto the scene by winning the 2004 French Open. His matches against will be ones he’ll least want to remember, with a double bagel against the Swiss in the semi-finals of the Tennis Masters Cup. Retired in 2011.

US Open 2015: First week wrap-up

The end of the first week of the last Grand Slam is drawing closer and we are no clearer to finding out as to who will emerge as the men’s champion. Djokovic and Federer have proven themselves to be genuine title contenders with flawless victories, while others like Andy Murray have had to fight a little harder. As always there has been drama and sad goodbyes but that is part of the spirit of the game. No individual is bigger than the game of tennis.

1. Mardy Fish bids farewell

© AP

Mardy Fish has played his final professional match at the US Open.

Along with the likes of Andy Roddick and James Blake, Fish was part of a new wave of American tennis players who came to prominence in the early 2000s. He reached three Grand Slam quarter-finals, reached a high of No. 7 in the world and made four ATP World Tour 1000 finals appearances. An undisclosed illness struck the man from Minnesota (which was later revealed as an anxiety disorder) at the peak of his powers and has riddled him ever since. But he refused to bow out, soldiering on before announcing his retirement at the end of the US Open this year. He lost in the second round in five sets to another veteran, Feliciano Lopez.

2. The heat

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Jack Sock has been one of numerous casualties to the humidity.

So far the humidity seems to have affected the men more than the women. 13 retirements on the men’s side have taken place prompting questions as to whether the heat rule that is applied to the women’s side should be allowed for men as well (a 10 minute break at the end of the second set when the temperature reached a certain point). Some would argue against such a rule, saying that such a player should be in top physical shape when playing in such an important tournament. They should of conditioned themselves beforehand. Most would train their bodies to tolerate such a temperature for e.g. Novak Djokovic struggled early in his career but nowadays it doesn’t seem to bother him.

3. Federer’s sneak attack

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This has been a shot widely discussed…

This has been a shot that only been added to Federer’s arsenal and it has been instrumental in his latest success. The sneak attack as most would call it, involves returning a second serve on a half volley in the hope of throwing off an opponent. It paid dividends in his recent victories against Murray and Djokovic and we are seeing it on show again at the Open. The 34 year-old has demonstrated that it’s not too late to reinvent yourself and consistently resorted to methods to give himself an advantage. His coach Stefan Edberg has been of the initiators, encouraging the Swiss to serve and volley and be more aggressive.

4. Nadal’s shock exit

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For the first time in 10 years, Nadal will not have a major trophy to his name.

Until today, Rafael Nadal has never lost a five set match after going two sets to love up. His record stood at an imperious 151-0. A fourth round place seemed likely for Nadal mid way through the third set until his opponent, Fabio Fognini started clubbing winners (70 to 30 in his favour). The momentum quickly shifted toward the Italian and he never looked back. Early exits have become a commonality for the Spaniard, especially at Wimbledon but in the past he has always managed to find solace in the Parisian clay. The Mallorcan turns 30 next year and time may be running out for him to add to his 14 Slam victories. Is his physically demanding game finally taking a toll on him?

5. Nick Kyrgios

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Kyrgios has had a controversial 2015.

The name says it all. Even though the Australian lost in the first round of the US Open, he is still making news headlines for all the wrong reasons. Cricket legend Shane Warne penned a letter on Facebook, pleading for Kyrgios to change his attitude and not waste his talent. 12 time Grand Slam winner Roy Emerson called on the 20 year-old to change his ways or take a break from the game. Couldn’t of chosen a better mixed doubles player in Eugenie Bouchard, a Canadian who has been criticized for her lack of sportsmanship (snubbed a handshake with a Fed Cup opponent). Many observers noticed the “sexual tension” between the two in their first match together with some comparing it to an episode of the Bachelor.

US Open 2015: Players to watch

The final Grand Slam kicks off this coming Monday, and as always critics and pundits are keen to rate each players chances of capturing the title. Here’s my personal take.

  1. Novak Djokovic (SRB): Arguably the player to beat in 2015 and is hoping to capture his third major this year, a feat he achieved in 2011. He is in excellent form at the moment, reaching finals in Canada and Cincinnati. Has reached the semis or better at the US Open since 2007 and that streak looks set to continue in 2015.
  2. Roger Federer (SUI): Built on his resurgence in 2014 by once again reaching the final at Wimbledon before falling to his nemesis Djokovic. Has had mixed fortunes at the Grand Slams this year but will be buoyed by his recent title win in Cincinnati. Hasn’t captured the US Open since 2008 but would expect his name in the second week of the tournament.
  3. Andy Murray (GBR): Bounced back superbly in 2015 after a dismal 2014 to his standards. Back troubles seem to be behind him and has reached the semi-finals or better at the Grand Slams this year. Recently clinched the Canadian Open against Djokovic, ending an eight match losing streak against the Serbian. Has a tricky opener against Kyrgios.
  4. Stan Wawrinka (SUI): Proven that he’s no one-slam wonder by winning the French title against the heavy favourite Djokovic. Has had mixed results of late but would expect him to reach the latter stages of the tournament. Been unfairly dragged into the Nick Kyrgios controversy, and is scheduled to meet the controversial Australian in the quarter-finals.
  5. Kei Nishikori (JPN): Made history last year at the Open by becoming the first Asian born man to reach a Grand Slam final. Built on his success in 2014, by winning titles in Memphis, Barcelona and the Citi Open. Beat Nadal for the first time in his career in Canada before falling to Murray. Faces a potential rematch with Cilic in the quarter-finals.
  6. Marin Cilic (CRO): Not to take anything away from him, but I’m sure few would of expected the tall Croatian to be last year’s winner. Has struggled in 2015, with a quarter-final at Wimbledon his only noteworthy mention. Hard to see him replicating his success from last year but does have a good draw to make at least the quarter-finals.
  7. Rafael Nadal (ESP): It’s hard to believe that on his last visit to New York he was hoisting the trophy. 2015 hasn’t been a good year for the Spaniard, for the first time since 2009 he hasn’t won Roland Garros and his woes at Wimbledon continued. Has had to resort to the lower tier to find form. Making the quarters would be a respectable acheivement.

Battle of the sexes

This is a debate that’s raged on for years. Challenges have been proposed, some accepted and some declined. There have been positives, with tennis being one of few sports to have equal prize money for men and women. Many unofficial clashes have taken place over the years, with the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs being seen as the original. Even though Riggs lost convincingly, some have argued that their age difference made it an uneven contest while others have speculated Riggs threw the match to pay off his gambling debts.

John McEnroe, a former tennis player from the United States renowned for his tantrums and outbursts, recently reignited this debate by saying that he would beat current World No. 1 Serena Williams. McEnroe, who is now a respected commentator but is still active on the senior’s tour made the claims on the Jimmy Kimmel show but conceded that he would be at loss if they clashed in a boxing ring.

In my personal opinion, if a clash were to happen which is probable, McEnroe would still have the upper hand. With the evolution of racquet technology, men’s tennis has been dominated by power whereas women have had to rely on their touch and feel since they don’t have the physical strength that men do. McEnroe has demonstrated that he’s still got the game to match it with the likes of Roddick and Sampras on the seniors tour while Williams has relied on her sheer power over her career to dominate her opponents.

However, I would stop short as to whether McEnroe would be victorious. If he were to be given the run around, that would be a battle he probably wouldn’t win. Return of serve would be key for him and once he is in the rally he would need to reach the net at every possible opportunity to keep the points short. Williams on the other hand would need to be solid from her end and hope that her adversary goes off the boil a little bit over a line call. It would be a match I would love to see provided there are no gimmicks and for a good cause.