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2007 Davis Cup – Lessons Learned
Davis Cup is still fresh in my mind – from the drama, the extremely high level of play, the shot making, the fan involvement, to finally the recapture of this venerable cup after a 12 year drought. Last week our Joel Drucker covered this story in an article, "Davis Cup: Come Together," for our December 8th newsletter.
I would like to concentrate on what I took away from the matches (and I witnessed it from the stands in Portland) as a teacher and player and how you might apply the lessons learned to your game. Tennis is as much about tactics as technique. And more so about how certain tactics fit one’s style of play, and how those same tactics can expose an opponent’s tendencies and weaknesses. Roddick and Blake employed wildly different game plans, and those wonderful Bryan Brothers put on a veritable doubles clinic for the overmatched Russians, but there is much “between these tactical lines” that you and I can use on court.
Andy Roddick: Keep the Ball in Play
Roddick dispatched Dmitry Tursunov, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in the first match to give the U.S. an opening lead. Roddick’s unreturnable serve and consistent backcourt play drained most of the emotion from the match. He secured one early break in each of the first two sets, two breaks in the third set, and faced just one break point in the entire match. Roddick finished the 2007 Davis Cup campaign with an unblemished 6 and 0 singles record, and in many ways his style of play – unreturnable serves and error free defensive tennis from well behind the baseline - presented insurmountable problems for all his Davis Cup opponents.
Certainly, Jimmy Connors has been retained by the Roddick camp to instill a baseline-hugging, moving-forward, offensive style of play. And though they still work together, Connors was no where in sight during the Davis Cup, nor was Roddick’s interpretation of Jimbo’s style of play. But though he may still work on that game, he chose to play defense against Tursunov and did it exceptionally well. Whenever the rally exceeded three shots, Roddick, often playing 12, 15, or even 18 feet behind the baseline, was always the more consistent. Heavily under spun one handed backhands, spiny rather than driving forehands, all used in service of error free play.
Tursunov, a capable top 30 player, plays without the necessary skills to counter the Roddick game plan. First and foremost when returning serve, whether Tursunov or you and I, the receiver must get the ball back in play. Blocking, chipping, floating, do anything to make the return. Dmitry hits big shots and this worked against him on the return game. Secondly, when an opponent plays way back from the baseline, move forward, find sharp crosscourt angles, and or approach the net because it becomes exponentially more difficult to pass from that deep in the court. But Dmitry played a straight-ahead power game with little feel for angles, finesse, or volleys. And from Roddick’s winning point of view, there was no need for him to change his game plan. When winning – continue to impose your tactics and style of play. When losing – change your tactics, change your style, change some thing or the end result will not be (nor was it) in doubt.
James Blake: Accept Risk and Withstand the Errors
The Blake Youzhny affair was a match of a far different color. Both men are big hitters and capable and nimble volleyers. And both made incredible shots from unbelievable positions, stunning the crowd with beautiful one handed topspin drives, and deadly forehands. As ever, the Blake forehand may be the most lethal shot in tennis, and his forehand return of serve, when timed correctly, is bigger I think than Agassi’s.
Youzhny did not serve particularly well, and escaped with some suspect second serves whenever James fell into his occasional spells of inexplicable inconsistent play. But as the match progressed, with both players truly neck and neck, James captured the fourth set tiebreaker; trailing 2-3 he delivered two unreturnable serves, followed by two steady return points, to finally finish the match with a forehand winner.
In James’ elated post match interview he commented on mental toughness and alluded to the persistent questions he received during the week about his ability to deliver in big situations. And, as he captured the first and second set, the overhead scoreboard showed that Blake had lost four matches over the years when ahead 2 sets to 0. But I disagree. Blake is mentally tough – in fact very mentally tough; the truth is that Blake plays extremely high risk tennis. His flat ground strokes lack margin over the net. He is prone to go for the big shot rather than keep the ball in play. And often he plays down the line for no discernable reason, where the net is highest and the player has a shorter distance to work with. The story, or the question to be posed by the press, should be more about his feel for tactics and strategy rather than the state of his mind.
That said, when you or I encounter a high risk, aggressive player, the trick is to keep the ball in play, and favor crosscourt ground strokes. This countering style encourages the high risk opponent to play down the line. Further, under spin backhands tempt these big hitters into extremely difficult approaches. Youzhny, however, appeared to play equally big high risk tennis – pleasing to the audience but not exactly a countering strategy. If, on the other hand, you are the big-hitting, high-risk player looking to hit winners and force errors rather than simply waiting for the opponent’s mistakes, the secret is to accept the risks that go hand-in-hand with this style of play, and not dwell on missed opportunities. James did quite well on this score, and we saw the evidence in the fourth set tiebreaker.
Mike and Bob Bryan: Move Forward and Dominate
The Bryans, on paper, the world’s number one ranked team entered the match heavily favored. The wily Russian coach inserted Davydenko and Igor Andreev, each without any real doubles results on their professional resumes. That said, the first set showed a glimmer of the Russian tactics with Davydenko and Andreev playing mostly from the baseline, rarely venturing forward or playing competently when at the net. But with both teams holding serve and through to a first set tiebreaker.
In the breaker, the Bryans fell behind a mini-break with Davydenko serving at 3-2, at which point the Russian wheels fell off. Davydenko lost both points on serve, Andreev ended the tiebreaker with a double fault, and Davydenko proceeded to be broken once in the second set and twice in the third, as the Bryans ran out the match and captured the cup.
Get your first serves in, make all your returns, and dominate at the net. On this score the Bryans play picture perfect doubles. Both serve consistently, both return serve simply, favoring placement over brute power, but oh, at the net, these guys really dominate. As they pressed their advantage at the end of the first set, and then began to steamroll, I counted more than one dozen spikes. And though that may not be the normal term to describe volley winners, Bob and Mike move so darn close to the net that they often hit sharply down on the ball, almost like a volley ball spike. And their spike volleys and reflex overheads were unreturnable.
Normally when players crowd the net, they may be susceptible to the lob, and in fact there were two well placed topspin crosscourt lobs by the Russians. But two lob winners in no way overcome more than one dozen spike winners. When you get the chance, watch these guys and marvel at their explosive quickness, and make your own count of their spikes.
This Davis Cup team, and in particular, Andy and James, have labored under the unfortunate scenario to play in the shadow of our greatest generation. Pretty tough to follow in the Davis Cup and Grand Slam footsteps of Sampras, McEnroe, Agassi and Courier. But Andy and James consistently put it all on the line, and endure persistent criticism about aspects of their games that might be improved. And certainly this writer continues to be one of those “technical” critics. But I say, celebrate these guys. They love the game. They love captain Patrick McEnroe. And they have captured the Cup. Bravo! As to the Bryans, I expect they will eclipse all Davis Cup records by any twosome for most wins – these guys will be around for a long time.