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Two "Characters" in Search of a Semi 11/27/2010 - 9:51 AM

Novak

by Hannah Wilks, TW Contributing Writer

Sometimes you expect much more from a match than it delivers. This has been the case a lot this week, whether because of the weaknesses and flaws inherent in the round robin format or because sometimes it just happens that way. The strength of the ATP is so concentrated in its elite players that even among the top eight, a natural division has quickly emerged between the best and the rest. Three semi-finalists have already been settled, with the fourth to be determined by tonight's clash.

Surely this one won't disappoint. Two players from whom one never knows quite what to expect; Novak Djokovic, an unpredictable firecracker, prone to lapses of concentration and bizarre physical reversals, and Roddick, the workhorse who can be relied upon to give his all, but whose game can run the gamut from almost unbeatable to ineffectual.

Their head-to-head is 5-2 in Roddick's favour, which in theory looks one-sided, but most of those wins have come for the American during Djokovic's prolonged slump. I understand it's strange to use the word to describe the progress of a consistent trophy-lifter who has been, during his 'decline', as high as no. 2 in the world. But since Wimbledon 2008, Djokovic's game has touched for periods on every variant of toothless. His serve has been broken down and rebuilt, he's visibly struggled for confidence. He's often looked like a shadow of the cocky upstart who barged on to a world stage dominated by Federer and Nadal and demanded that they yield the floor.

But all of that has seemed like ancient history since Djokovic's September resurgence in New York, wher he defeated Federer and stretched Nadal in the final of the US Open. Surely this time he can take it to Roddick.

An extra frisson is added by the fact that at times these two don't seem to like each other very much. Whatever latent animosity exist came to the fore following Djokovic's last victory over Roddick at the 2008 US Open, when the Serb's attempts to retaliate against Roddick's mockery saw him booed by the New York crowds. That the spat was public seems inevitable, as both have well-deserved reputations for being entertainers, earned with Djokovic's impersonations and willingness to make fun of himself, Andy Roddick's sardonic wit in press conferences and on chat shows. They're frequently referred to as 'characters', actively seeking to be larger than life.

One thing that doesn't disappoint is Djokovic's entrance. Aware of the fact that the abiding impression he has made this week came when contact lens problems derailed what promised to be a classic encounter with Nadal, he takes the court accessorizing his grave expression with a rakish black eye patch. Solemnly letting the small mascot lead him to his chair, he fits the eyepatch on to her head and sends her on her way. It's possible to read the stunt as a plea for affection, but the twitch of his lips, betraying his own enjoyment, suggests that in the final analysis he did it because he knew he would relish the joke more than anyone. It's a generous piece of slapstick, and the crowd love it. It's hard to imagine Roddick doing the same thing.

There's an odd, tense atmosphere. The crowd are more well-oiled than usual, enthusiastic but ragged, with no consensus favorite. Someone yells out during Djokovic's service motion and is roundly tutted for his pains. On the evidence of the first few games, it's going to be a proper tussle - maybe not in terms of quality of tennis, but it promises to be a prolonged bout of psychological grappling. Roddick pushes from the baseline, mixing up spins and pace, giving the Serb all the rope he needs to hang himself. It works; the rallies end more often than not with an error from Djokovic. Seduced into these circuitous exchanges, Djokovic's aggressive instincts seem to desert him. It's puzzling;  how can Djokovic be out-defended when he's so much better at it? The simple answer is that Roddick seems to bring out the worst in Djokovic.

But Djokovic has come a long way. He rapidly gathers himself and finds purpose and aggression. As soon as he starts hitting forehands moving forward into the court, everything is different. You expect Roddick to hold his ground, but as soon as he meets with resistance, he crumbles, giving up the first service break with a backhand slice that drifts wide. He holds the next game, but cannot find the wherewithal to finish points. At one point, he was obliged to wait for Djokovic's third defensive, desperate lob to get the miss. Roddick gives up the set - and I do mean gives up - with another unforced error long over the baseline, and we plunge deep into the realms of the anti-climactic.

Djokovic has qualified for the semi-finals, and he knows it. All that is left on the line for the American is pride. It seems like that should be enough, but he still cannot capitalise on the momentary lack of attention with which Djokovic starts the second set. In fact, it's the American who is lacking in intensity. The usual audible heavy breathing, the huffing and puffing like a steam engine which seems to get him around the court, is absent. After a failed Hawkeye challenge, Roddick stares at the umpire with obvious displeasure. The crowd cheers, hoping for Roddick to shed his patience and get fired up. But his unbelievably passive play continues. Roddick has had his health issues this year, but this seems almost a trend, and it's worrying. How can such an energetic and forceful person play so timidly?

One could also ask how someone as complex as Djokovic, with all the faults and fissures of his past, can play a game so miraculously smooth? I could watch him hit all night, not that Roddick seems likely to enable it. I've been searching for an image that describes the flight of his groundstrokes, when it comes to me; the limpid parabola of a stone skimmed across water. There's so much talent evident in every stroke. It's exciting to watch, simply because we don't know yet how his week, his year, his career, will turn out.

Roddick, it is plain, has no surprises left. He makes a gallant last stand to hold his final service game, but succumbs on yet another unforced error long over the baseline. He leaves London with no wins, but the crowd cheer him out of the arena with an affection that clearly demonstrates that Roddick is best-liked these days as a plucky loser.

Djokovic stays to chat, joking with the crowd, friendly and adrenaline-drunk. He's twenty-three years old and has proved he has the ability to stay in the mix; he has unnumbered chances left to shape the rest of his story. Roddick's opportunities are growing few and far between; his time in London has already run out.   


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Posted by deuce 11/28/2010 at 12:24 AM

thanks for your thoughts ladyjulia. I think you make a good point. He does like to put the pressure on his opponents. It will be interesting how this tendency plays out in 2011.

Posted by Crazy-for-Rog 11/28/2010 at 01:35 AM

manuelsantanafan - your argument makes no sense to me. The human species may not have changed, but the amount of stress and strain that the tennis pros put their bodies (and minds) through has definitely changed, owing to the evolution of the game that requires players to use more power. They push their bodies to limits like never before. Physical conditioning has to be top-notch. Borg, McEnroe and Connors were nowhere as conditioned as today's top players. The physical demands of the sport have steadily increased with each passing decade, and this is the main reason for the shorter career span of tennis players today.

Posted by Crazy-for-Rog 11/28/2010 at 01:49 AM

ladyjulia - If Rafa "doesn't enjoy tennis", then I don't know who does !
How can you say that about a guy who so obviously relishes the thrill of battle, who plays every point as though his life depended on it? The fact that he deflects pressure does not mean that he doesn't enjoy the game. Rather, it provides an insight into the tactics he uses to cope with the pressures of the game, as well as his shrewd understanding of the psychological aspect of the sport and extracting any advantage he can get.

Federer is a different personality from Nadal. He loves the game, but he clearly doesn't enjoy his time on court when he is playing badly and is forced to grit it out. He only looks like he's enjoying the match when his game is flowing and he's in control.

The fact that the two top players of the world have both dominated the sport for the last 5 or 6 years itself tells you that they both enjoy the sport, albeit in different ways.

Posted by jodiecate 11/28/2010 at 03:15 AM

Hi Hannah, enjoyed your article!
Think this is my favourite line:
"Djokovic's game has touched for periods on every variable of toothless"
LOL!! I like Djokovic and he's a fun player to watch when he's playing well, but i agree, there have been plenty of times when he seems all gums!

I was sad that due to contacts the Rafa/Djoker match didn't go anywhere great. Very grateful that the Andy/Rafa match very made up for it. Gave me the kind of FULL-ON tennis duel i'd been hoping to see. And amazing shots.
I hope the final is AT LEAST just as exciting!

Posted by x-fan 11/28/2010 at 07:12 AM

Crazy-for-Roger,

Very well said @1.49am

I spent some time last night (early morning) trying to compose a post to Ladyjulia about the same issue but I guess I was tired and didn't seem to make much sense. You said basically what I wanted to say :)

I don't think it's possible to compare these two other than in the sense that they are both great champions, but just like their games are different so are their personalities.

Posted by manuelsantanafan 11/28/2010 at 11:19 AM

Crazy-for-Rog:

According to J.Mac; Borg, along with Rafa, are the two best athletes he's ever seen on the ATP tour.

McEnroe spews much nonsense, but on this matter, he probably is correct.

Borg, arguably, was even better conditioned than Rafa.

When Borg and Vilas were engaging in their clay court marathon points, they weren't towelling off after every other point and taking 40-50 seconds between points to recover.

Furthermore, the rackets they and the other top pros were swinging were heavier than Rafa's rackets.

And Laver, in his 30s, could go five sets with an in-his-prime Borg, as demonstrated by their five-set match WCT finals tournament match.

You may want to believe that today's pros are much better conditioned than Borg, Vilas, and many of the Harry Hopman-trained Aussies. You are welcome to such delusions.

Posted by ladyjulia 11/28/2010 at 11:42 AM

CfR,

I never said Rafa dosen't enjoy the game in the sense of the battle..I only said he dosen't enjoy the game in the sense that its just "a game".

His offcourt personality is quite different from his oncourt personality ( at least from what I have read). There is no OCD offcourt...nothing like making other people wait for him...his oncourt stuff are coping mechanisms like you said.

He enjoys battles yes, but battles are never relaxing. My point was that he is not relaxed. He is not "cool" about it.

He couldn't stand that Murray was saying something which would take the pressure off Murray (who was going to be his opponent in the battle)...I am only interpreting that he cannot be relaxed about it.

Its just my perception...I may be wrong ofcourse.

Posted by jess 12/01/2010 at 08:43 AM

http://jessicam.gknu.com/shop/store/shop.php?c=1&x=Tennis

Posted by arizona seo services 04/26/2011 at 04:17 PM

What in the world has let you to believe, ladyjulia, that rafa doesn't enjoy the game as a game? He doesn't always take it so seriously, in my opinion. I think you're a bit off base here.

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