Tennis Lessons from BNP Indian Wells
I learned three things about pro tennis at this finals' weekend at the BNP Indian Wells tennis tournament:
❖ John Isner is more than a huge serve(er). He's moving better, hitting his forehand harder, and is now committed to the strategy of going for broke on return games.
❖ Roger Federer has more tennis personalities than Sybil. If you ignored the RF next to the swish on his shirt and only watched the ball, you'd swear that three different players were on his side of the court in his final three matches.
❖ Women's tennis sure misses Andrea Petkovic because Vika Azarenaka's celebrity Dougie shows she may have wicked ground strokes but that lady can't dance a lick <g>.
John Isner is a Tennis Player
Isner has made a large jump in the last year. He's tried to play aggressively on return games, going for flat out winners, assuming that since he would hold serve, if he puts togehter a cluster of winners for a break that's good enough. But until now Isner hasn't had the forehand and footwork to pull that off. Now he does. Add in a new commitment to rush the net, and he deserves his new, top ten ranking.
That's not to say his game doesn't start and end with his serve. People focus on MPHs, and Isner delivered with serves up to 145 MPH, but hitting the ball down from 13 feet high is almost as important as sheer velocity. Isner aced Novak Djokovic with a second serve that landed short in the box then bounced over Djokovic who could only smile wryly and shake his head.
Also, any opponent with decent coaching will know that the way to beat Isner at the net is to simply hit the ball straight at him; Isner does the 4.0 jump-away-and-slash-then-watch-the-ball-go-into-the-net move (been there, done that!). While Isner is never going to have quick hands, I suspect that in six months his volleys will be much, much better.
Roger Federer Has Multiple Personality Pro-Order
Again, if you watched Fed's last three matches at the BNP, all straigth-set wins against truly great players, you'd think you were seeing three different top ATP players.
Fed Psyche #1 Gets Touchy Feely. Against Juan Martin del Potro, one of my personal favorites, he completely neutralized the big guy's power by playing nerf-and-turf that makes Giles Simon or Brad Gilbert look like a power player.
Fed hit more drop shots than Andy Murray hits in a tournament, and constantly exposed Delpo's movement, by forcing him to move diagonally.
Fed Psyche #2 The Aggressor: Next up, when Fed faced his arch-nemesis Nadal he left almost nothing short. Only a couple of (masterful) drop shots. Virtually no slice backhands. It was hyper-attack-mode.
Fed Beat Nadal With His Feet -- And His Backhand
Yes, yes Fed hit a lot of inside-out forehands, even from his backhand alley. But what made the difference in this match was his footwork. It was windy and gusting. On one critical point, Fed lined up for a forehand and the ball literally stopped in the air after it bounced and moved sideways. No problem. Just shuffle your feet, extend your arm and add some top. Winner.
Fed basically ignored the weather and hit through it.
But Fed's backhand!
Annacone, presumably, has Federer coming over his backhand more and is it an elegant one-handeder. Fed's tactics against Nadal were radically different than vs Delpo -- you can count the number of times Nadal went / was drawn to the net on one hand. Everything Fed hit was deep or wide and hard. The idea was to give Nadal nothing to tee off on. Result: Nadal only hit four (4 count 'em) forehand winners in the entire match and three of those came in one game. When Nadal tried to pick on Fed's backhand, Fed either hit a forehand to either corner, or hit a backhand sharply cross-court taking Nadal out wide.
Nadal said afterwards that his ball didn't bounce as high in the cold weather. That's probably true, but this is one of the highest-bouncing surfaces on the tour.
Fed was less predictable than he normally is against Nadal.
On his service returns, Fed varied his backhand instead of blocking every serve to Nadal's backhand. Some he hit down the line, others from the deuce court he hit to Nadal's forehand corner, while Nadal was backpeddling to attack from the opposite side.
Normally, Fed serves out wide in the ad court to keep Nadal from being able to set up his inside outforehand. But Sunday, Fed hit seemingly every serve to Nadal's backhand on both sings ("How do you like it?") until critical points when we went out wide to Nadal's forehand in the ad court. Most notable was the final point of the match: After sitting in the cold wind for a couple of minutes for a rain delay, Fed calmly walked up and hit an ace wide. End of match.
Fed Psyche #3 Gets Defensive. Finally, only Isner remained.
Riddle me this: Supposedly, Djokovic has the best service return in history. Yet, Isner hit 20 aces against Djokovic on Saturday and only 4 against Fed on Sunday. Moreover, by early in the second set, Fed was blocking his returns back firmly to within a yard of the baseine, forcing Isner to start each rally while backpeddling. Granted, Isner's serving tactics were somewhat different against Fed than Nole, hitting fewer hard ones and more kick, body serves.
As for their ralies, Fed repeatly hit hard, low forehands that landed short in the deuce service box's outside corner, driving Isner off the court. It was as if Isner spent half the match returning wide slice serves from outside the court, except they were forehands.
Oddly, for tiebreaks between Fed, the player with the best tiebreak record in ATP history, and the tenth-best tiebreak player, Isner, there were several minibreaks.
Nole is Mentaly Worn Out.
Not much to say about Novak Djokovac except that he looks burned.
The great strokes are still there, but the energy level seems lacking.
Understandable given how hard he had to work through his tremendous 2011. But Nole seemingly never gets an easy point. And without that extra spark he had to work hard to win against the likes of Pablo Andjuar and in Dubai, Sergiy Stakhovsky
Against Isner, Djokovic got the early break he needed, then surrended it, getting outrallied by the less mobile giant, then was over-powered in tie-breakers.
Nalbandian is Under-Appreciated
Nalby Returns Rafa's Lefty Slice Serve with Ease ©jfawcette
TV analyist and über-coach Darren Cahill said, "The three cleanest ball-strikers I've ever seen are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and David Nalbandian" We saw why Nalbie was included during his quarter with Rafa. People forget that Nalbandian was Fed's arch-nemesis before Rafa arrived, and has beaten the Fedal duopoly back-to-back.
Saturday, every time Rafa hit his get-out-of-jail-free cross-court topspin forehand, Nalbanian simply took it at its peak with his two-hander, and smoothly hit it sharply down and cross-court, forcing Nadal to scramble. A slugfest resulted. Nadal needed two tries to serve out the third. Both struggled to hold serve from the side where they hit into the wind.
If Nalbandian hadn't had injuries (serious hip surgery), distractions (he owns a Grand Prix race car team), and faced some questionable line calls against Andy Roddick at a Wimbledon semifinal (He would have faced Fed in the final back when Nalbandian beat Fed several times), he might have the appreciation his game deserves.