I like this guy’s posts about tennis on The Awl. His wrapup of the final weekend says clever things about Federer maybe or maybe not being a bit of a choker (his record in matches that go to 5 sets is not that great), Serena Williams’ badly misjudged rant at the umpire, and of course the confirmation we had of Djokovic’s emerging greatness. If he retired right now, he would still have had one of the most remarkable achievements in tennis; if he maintains the level he’s playing at for a decent period of time, we’d have yet another genuine contender for greatest player of all time, playing alongside the two who we’re already familiar with.
For once this weekend I actually got to watch some tennis. Given the amount I write about it, you might think I quite regularly sit down and watch a match, but before Saturday all I’d managed to see this year was a few Aussie Open matches (the time zone helped), most of the French Open final between Federer and Nadal and about half a Wimbledon match. But on Saturday I made some time and watched the opening set and a half of Federer-Djokovic and the opening two sets of Murray-Nadal, and on Monday after work I caught the last set and a half of the final. I hadn’t been prepared for the sheer ferocity of the hitting. In the two Djokovic matches I saw, it seemed the intensity had gone up even compared to the many Nadal-Federer matches over the years. Obviously Djokovic has quite a different game to Federer, but it still amazed me to see quite how hard he hits the ball. But it’s not just that. I constantly boggled at the depth of the shots, the players’ ability to take the ball early – essentially driving on the half volley, from baseline to baseline; the reactions or anticipation or whatever it was that allowed them so often to catch and return smashes and volleys. It keeps being said these past few years, but I can’t do better: it’s tennis taken to another level. In earlier eras they had the skill, but these players seem to combine it with an unprecedented athleticism and audacity in shot-making that causes the viewer time and again to take a sharp intake of breath.
Where’s Andy Murray then? He played one superb set against Nadal, and the clear, stand-out statistic from it was that he reduced his unforced error count by more than half compared to the other three sets. Murray was born a week before Djokovic but has consistently been a couple of years behind him in their careers – turning pro in 2005 compared to 2003 for Djokovic, taking longer to win his first title, etc. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam in 2008 – the Australian Open. When Murray reached the US Open final, also that year, it seemed as though he had finally caught up. But he folded against Federer. Maybe he was still experiencing that 2-year lag, but when he next reached a Slam final at the 2010 Australian Open – exactly two years after Djokovic first won it – it was another meek surrender to Federer.
Amidst all the praise coming his way since Monday, people have been asking Djokovic what he did to get this good. The answer appears to be the exact formula that Murray needs to follow if he wants to emulate Djokovic’s success: “I’m more aggressive and I have a different approach to the semi-finals and finals of major events. I am not invincible. I just think a positive attitude keeps you on top of your game when you go on court.” Murray is clearly capable of executing everything that Djokovic does skills-wise – even with a little more variety and flair – but it’s that sort of calm focus that he lacks. All of the top three simply shrug it off when they lose a point, while Murray’s self-berating has become legend. To get over it though, what he probably needs is a couple Grand Slam wins under his belt.