The Best of Tennis in 2010: Part II

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The Best of Tennis in 2010: Part II
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This article is originally posted here: http://tennis-musings.typepad.com/blog/2010/12/tennis-the-best-of-2010-the-top-five.html

Find the first part here.

5. Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic, US Open final

When Nadal broke Djokovic in his opening service game, I thought the fatigue from a tiring five setter two days before was still taking its toll on Djokovic. Minutes later, he broke Nadal back, and later held after being down three break points at 0-40.  The match continued to grow interesting. Djokovic put pressure on Nadal by pushing him to his forehand side, and eventually drawing error from his backhand, while Nadal countered it efficiently with his own version.

The two Europeans have always produced electrifying displays of tennis, and they were on course to produce the first major classic final of 2010, before Djokovic’s legs gave away mid way during the third set. Had it not been the case, you would have been looking at this match four places higher than it presently is. Regardless of that, they continued to make a match of it for more than two hours. In the end, though, it was the image of Nadal, on his knees, eyes closed, and arms raised, and Djokovic, smiling genuinely with the runners up trophy, which made it even more memorable. Humble winner, and gracious loser, these two players.

 

4. Michael Llodra vs Robin Soderling, Paris Masters semifinals

For all the Llodra heroics in the match, there were two moments which really took me by surprise. At 5-6 and 15-15 in the decisive set, Llodra played three slices in a row to Soderling’s forehand (his stronger wing), and induced an error to go 15-30 up, two points away from the match. Again, at 40-40, he played five slices in a row to Soderling’s forehand (which most players wouldn’t dare to do) before Soderling pushed his forehand into the net to give Llodra a match point. Soderling, the better baseline player, was not at all comfortable at the back since he was not getting any pace or bounce to work with. After both points, Soderling promptly approached the net behind his forehand, and finished the points with a forehand and a backhand volley respectively (Soderling has the worst hands at the net in the top-10).

This was a sight to see. I have rarely seen him approach the net (on his own terms) even once in a whole set, and yet Llodra compelled him twice during a single game!

This match was the highlight not only of the fall season, but of 2010. Not only because of the excitement of the local crowd, the quality of play or the nail biting finish. Not only because of Soderling’s stubbornness and refusal to lose. But because this match alone made the whole fall season and the Paris Masters (criticized by many as insignificant) suddenly all the more noticeable. It made a statement that fast courts is still a viable option in this era of bigger, stronger players, and improved racket technology. That serve and volley can still thrive to produce the most compelling matches. And that tennis is most beautiful as an all court game, and not when played predominantly from the baseline.

Years later, when we might see a serve and volleyer holding a major trophy on a faster surface, we might go back and reflect on this match. For this match alone has signalled a switch back to the yore.

 

3. Nothing More to Lose – Novak Djokovic vs Roger Federer, US Open Semifinals

Novak feels he cannot beat Federer on the faster courts. He was beaten comprehensively at New York for three consecutive years, and Federer owns him at Cincinnati as well. The lack of belief was apparent when the Serb failed to close out the first set (eventually losing it) despite playing at the highest level he had played all tournament. Something similar happened in the third when he got down a break at the start. Federer should have closed it out in the even sets, but somehow he allowed Novak to get into the match, and by the fifth Novak was high on adrenaline, and what followed was probably the best set of tennis I have seen all year.

What caught my mind, apart from Novak’s extreme offense, was Federer’s defense. Defense is probably the most underrated skills of Federer, and a testimony of why he has done so well on clay (yes, he has reached three Roland Garros finals, and won the fourth). Despite keeping Federer on the run for most of the fifth, Novak failed to close it out. B-E-L-I-E-F. Or the lack of it. And he lost all of it at 4-5 15-40 down, when he felt he had already lost the match. Which is why he attempted that forehand swinging volley when he could have finished the point even after letting the ball bounce. Which is why he hit that huge down the line forehand, even when forehand is not his strength.

And which is why he stared at his camp in disbelief after winning, and later folded his arms in the air to thank the almighty. He really had nothing more left to lose even though there was a final to be played the next day. For him, he had already won the tournament. The demon of losing to Roger Federer was gone.

 

2. Rise Like a Phoenix – Roger Federer, World Tour Finals

When Federer’s serve is on song, his service games is a beautiful sight to watch. The quick and efficient motion, the great angles to produce aces or service winners even at 105mph, and almost no chance given to the opponent to regroup with minimal time between the points. Before you know, he has held the game to love in less than a minute, and the opponent can feel the pressure as Federer becomes more aggressive and the game length prolongs. Most of it was missing in the past two years (even though he has won three Slams during this period), but the addition of Annacone in his squad brought this back. Watching him dismantle Djokovic with ridiculous ease in the semi, and giving almost no chance to Nadal in the final brought back the Federer that we knew back in 2006. Roger Federer—The gentle and smiling assassin.

His even more efficient playing style was even more apparent, when Nadal—for the first time in years—was found clueless even when he was attacking Federer’s backhand. Sure, the low bounce of the court helped, but Federer did something which he had not done before, even when he beat Nadal—not letting Nadal attack his backhand. He counter attacked with his backhand winners at ridiculous angles, and attacked Nadal’s serve vehemently.

Sure, he was outplaying Nadal, but the look on Nadal’s face was not of being dominated. It was of …. confusion. Confusion of something he hadn’t seen from Federer before. Confusion of not entirely being at comfort.

This rivalry was fast reducing to ashes with the apparent decline of Federer, and rise of Nadal. Just like a Phoenix, it took a new life in the finals at London. Bring on Melbourne, said Roger Federer.

 

1. Apologetic Winner – Rafael Nadal vs Andy Murray

I did not pick any one of the four matches they played this season. It was this rivalry that caught my attention most, rather than one of their match. I liked how they developed over the course of the year, and producing their finest display of tennis in the penultimate match of the year, at London.

They both have different styles of play, but have a common strength of retrieving down balls, and picking the right moment to attack. Against each other, though, they know these strengths are diluted, and they change their strategy to become more aggressive. You can see with their body language that even while playing the waiting game, they are looking for that opening to end the point. And somehow, this new body language works wonders when playing against each other—the quality of play just goes up to another level. I never saw Murray so aggressive on his forehand as he was in Australia. The backhand drop volley that Nadal played in the second tie-break at Wimbledon is probably forever etched in my mind (first, how did Murray reach that spectacular drop shot by Rafa, and then how did Rafa made that volley?). Murray gained back the edge in Toronto with a straight forward win, but it was in London that they saved their best.

Murray showed the skills, which makes him believe that he can consistently beat Nadal when he won the second set 6-3, and went 3-0 up in the decisive tie-breaker (I thought it was all over for Rafa especially since Murray was serving lights out), but deep inside he has too much respect for Rafa (he has no hesitation in calling Rafa his favorite player) and perhaps that is his undoing. Rafa clawed his way back to 4-4, and never looked back.

The final score was Nadal 2–2 Murray for 2010, with all scores even. One win each in a major, and a win apiece in a Masters. But it was Nadal who heart broke Murray by winning the ones that mattered most to Murray—at Wimbledon, and WTF, Murray’s hometown.

And this is why it seems Nadal does not relishes playing Murray despite that fact that their matches cannot get more competitive. He is not afraid of losing, but he is almost regretful in winning. He feels he robbed the British crowd of the pleasure of watching Murray progress, of breaking Murray’s heart, of watching Murray’s face at London when he felt out of ideas of how to beat this rival.

Just like Federer-Nadal, there is a lot to like about this other rivalry.

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