Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - "Who's the Pigeon Now?"
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"Who's the Pigeon Now?" 08/04/2008 - 7:58 PM

AnWhat can we take away from our time in Toronto and Cincinnati? From my perspective, the last two weeks subtly but perceptibly deepened, entrenched, normalized, the changing of the ATP guard that began with Rafael Nadal’s win over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final. The sport has always taken its cues from what happens in its capital, the All England Club, and it was true again in the far-flung outposts of Canada and Cincy. There, Nadal consolidated his stirring victory on Centre Court by finally overtaking Federer at No. 1 after three years of toiling in the second spot. Just down the totem pole, two fellow members of the “young gun” generation, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, made significant statements—Djokovic by ending Nadal’s 32-match win streak and putting himself back in the mix for the Olympics and the U.S. Open, and Murray by winning his first Masters title.

Just as significant were the Top 10 players who didn’t appear in the later rounds at either event: Federer, who will be 27 next week; Andy Roddick, 26 at the end of August; Nikolay Davydenko, 27; and James Blake, 28. Tennis “generations” are pretty brief, lasting only about three or four years—in Toronto we were already talking about an even newer face in 19-year-old Marin Cilic of Croatia, who recorded the biggest win of his young career by defeating Roddick. But if this was not a full-blown coup by the young guns, it was the beginnings of a quiet revolt. Most significant to me was how natural it suddenly seemed that Murray and Djokovic would be the last ones standing at a Masters tournament.

We knew Djokovic belonged there, but while it was Murray’s first Masters final, it was also hardly a surprise after the improvement—in his play and, more important, his demeanor—he showed at Wimbledon and last week in Toronto. There he notched his first career win over Djokovic after three humiliating defeats. By the time the two 21-year-olds began their match in Cincy, the turnaround was complete. You might say that they switched their normal roles on Sunday: Djokovic was negative and volatile, while Murray was poised and able to channel his eclectic game into a simple, winning formula.

Djokovic had been scintillating the night before in beating Nadal. But there had been something a little too flashy about the way he went about it. The down-the-line forehand winners he kept firing past the Spaniard from outside of the court were not shots that anyone, including Djokovic, can keep hitting on a regular basis—as someone once said of the way Jimmy Connors hit backhand winners, the Serb seemed to think his shots were worth two points each. By the middle of the second set the next day, Djokovic had traveled 180 degrees in the other direction. As in Toronto, he couldn’t keep two consecutive forehands in the court against Murray. He spent the rest of the set fighting himself, his racquet, and even his normally trusty backhand, which he began to spray almost in imitation of his forehand. Only his serve allowed him to remain anywhere near Murray.

Part of this was physical. Djokovic was breathing hard early in the match and looked exhausted by the end. But I don’t think that was the decisive factor. I’ve said in the past that he carries a dangerous amount of frustration with him during his matches—think of it as a debt load that, on occasion, he can’t pay off. On Sunday ESPN’s Darren Cahill took this observation one step further. He noted during the second set that Djokovic had let his frustration overwhelm him to the point where he had checked out competitively and conceded that it wasn’t his day. I’d never thought of it quite that way, but it’s a trend with the Serb when things aren’t going well. The dissatisfaction gets to be too much, and he pulls a mental trigger. Sometimes he calls it a day completely (see his match against Federer in Monte Carlo), sometimes he chucks in his now obligatory drop shot when he’s down match point. Djokovic did that again on Sunday, except that the ball skimmed the tape and ended up winning him the point and eventually the game. That’s how the entire second set went for Djokovic; as Cahill noted, the more the Serb conceded, the more relaxed his shots became, and the better he played. Djokovic saved four match points at 3-5 and extended the final tiebreaker all the way to 7-5. Looking desperate to lose the set most of the time, he very nearly ended up winning it.

This is a different version of the Djokovic that I was writing about as recently as May. Regarding his recently-erratic forehand, maybe it’s Murray’s defensive speed that forces him to try for too much, or maybe that little flourish at the top of his backswing really does hurt its consistency. Djokovic can hit flashy winners from that side, but now we know that it can go off and bring down his entire game. More important was his mental approach to Sunday’s final. This wasn’t the same guy who was so uncannily confident, organized, and psychologically uncluttered at the U.S. and Australian Opens. What’s changed? I’d chalk it up to the expectations game. At those events, Djokovic was still the hunter; he had encountered almost no resistance on his shockingly smooth ride up to No. 3 in the world and a Grand Slam title. But that ended when he couldn’t pass Nadal this spring; since then he’s had to deal with defending his own position rather than hunting anyone down. He hasn't been quite the same player, first at Wimbledon and now against Murray. Maybe this is the downside of having such innate and uncanny confidence. When Djokovic’s game doesn’t match his own very high expectations for it, he reacts with an unsustainable and unproductive frustration.

Does this sound like someone we know? Until Wimbledon this year, “unsustainable and unproductive frustration” seemed to be the basis for Andy Murray’s game. But his victories at the All England Club proved once and for all to him that putting childish things away—including his distinctly adolescent rage—really did help. He had more evidence for that on Sunday, as he kept his temper in check all afternoon. But beyond that, Murray also showed a new maturity from a tactical point of view. His downfall in the past had been his entertaining but ultimately misguided passion for variety and degree of difficulty. Murray never hit two serves in a row the same way or at the same speed; when he put himself in a winning position in a rally, he tended to use his drop shot as a putaway (tellingly, it was Djokovic, rather than Murray, who was doing this in Cincy); and he seemed to go out of his way to get himself into scrambling defensive positions, just so he could try for a spectacular forehand on the run. As his ex-coach Brad Gilbert said yesterday, Murray was constantly changing his “playing philosophy” in the middle of matches.

Instead, he beat Djokovic by going against all his tendencies and sticking to one simple, disciplined philosophy: Keep the ball up the middle until an opportunity presented itself, and then work the ball outward from there. It’s baseline tennis 101, and it was the best way to beat Djokovic, who looked like he would have had trouble hitting the broad side of a barn at times.

Still, there were echoes of Murray's past. Despite outplaying his opponent for the entire first set, he couldn’t capitalize on any break chances. Up 6-1 in the breaker, he squandered a few points before Djokovic finally handed it back to him. Then, serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set, Murray double-faulted twice and retreated into his old defensive stance when he had match points. Up 4-2 in the second-set breaker, three points from the title, he made two bad errors and let out some vintage teeth-baring vitriol.

That’s when the new Murray reasserted himself, just the way Djokovic has on many other days. The two produced the best point of the match, a back-and-forth, corner-to-corner slugfest that Murray finally won with an aggressive, but not too aggressive, backhand crosscourt winner. It was the shot of a born tennis player, smooth, instinctive, and easily powerful. But it couldn’t have happened it Murray hadn’t channeled his frustration in a positive direction. All that was left was for him to stagger forward and hit a final backhand winner before collapsing into his seat on the sidelines, a Masters winner. As the ever-argumentative Chris Fowler of ESPN said of the budding rivalry between these two, "Who's the pigeon now?"

Together, Djokovic and Murray represent the latest form of the modern baseline game. Rather than building their games on killer serves or forehands the way Federer, Roddick, Blake, and Fernando Gonzalez did, they win with all-around efficiency and rely on their two-handed backhands as consistent weapons—their tennis is stylishly compact and made for all surfaces. But they’re also flip sides of that same modern coin, and they have the makings of an intriguing rivalry. Djokovic seems to be almost a computer-generated tennis player, with the perfect frame and an ideal blend of contemporary and classic technique. He arrived on the pro scene with his game fully formed, and is only now having to struggle with a little with the expectations he has created. Murray seems at first glance to be the consummate non-athlete—how many pro tennis players have wild red hair and look like they're hobbling around the court between points? Emotionally, he has also been a more typical kid than Djokovic. Murray has gone through a public growing-up process to get to where he is now, trying on a variety of coaches, attitudes, and facial-hair styles. But as of right now, these two young guns who were born seven days apart have arrived at pretty much the same place. Djokovic is No. 3; Murray is now No. 6, his highest ranking yet. It will be fun to watch them exploit their individual talents, and learn to deal with their individual frustrations, in the future. It will also be fun to watch them deal with facing each other. But that's the future. For today, with Murray's arrival and Nadal's ascent to No. 1, the ATP's new guard feels just a little more entrenched, a little more normal.


 
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Posted by mcakron 08/06/2008 at 12:00 AM

Weird that Murray has now become the pick du jour, at least in a semi-darkhorse sense, for the USO. But give him credit. Two recent victories of late over Djokivic and his first Masters-level title. Still, I picked the Djoker a couple months back and I'm sticking to it. He's the best hardcourt player since Fed in his prime, and I would think last year's runner-up result will serve him well.

All credit to Nadal for his POTL results and finally ending Fed's reign, but though I do think he'll have his best result ever at Flushing (reaching at least the semis), I don't see him winning unless a true darkhorse comes out of the other side of the bracket, which seems highly unlikely. Bottom line is that Rafa is just not near the player on hardcourt that he is on clay and grass. At least not yet.

Which leaves us with now disconcerting Federer. Both intresting and silly points have been made countless times on these threads, but one thing I haven't seen given much discussion (and maybe because it's assumed) is his age. Dude's 27. Yes, doesn't mean his career is over. Sampras, Aggasi and Connors all won slams in their early 30s, but with the exception of Agassi (who pissed away a good chunk of his 20s), none were as dominant as they had been when younger. Until someone proves otherwise, a male tennis player's prime is from the ages of 20 to 25 or 26. Doesn't mean Fed still can't surpass Sampras's all-time Slams record (I'm hoping he does) but I think it will be much tougher now and I can't see him ever as being dominant as he once was, which in some ways is to be expected.

Anyway, after the crushing Wimbeldon loss and his baffling results in Toronto and Cincy, it's hard for me to see him winning the USO. In fact, I wouldn't be surprise to see him "shocked" in the quarters or sooner. (Remember, Tipsarvic almost beat him at the Aussie.) Would love to be proven wrong, but I just think he's done for the year.

On the bright side, what I could see happening is that he takes a little of the winter off to rest and re-tool and then begins the '09 Aussie with a bang. Reaching the finals against a Djoker or Murray or even a Nadal, ready to make an "I'm not done yet" statement after having slipped to #3 in the rankings.

Posted by 08/06/2008 at 02:32 AM

Dont sleep on Feds or Roddick, they both got at least 2 more good years left in em!!!

Posted by marija 08/06/2008 at 03:27 AM

Sorry for my very bad english.BUT:
I can`t beleve what happend - Andy won few maches last two weeks and he is already in the same group with Roger, Rafael and Novak. This is so unfair to other players as Davidenko, Ferrer and Nalbandian , unfair to players that are so long time among top 5 in the world.This is unfair to top three players also, especial to Djokovic, because he is performing so well last cupple of years, he is AO Chammpion, he defeted few times all the best pleyers (incl. Federer, Nadal, Rodick...) and what he get - only critics when he sed that his dream and his goal is to be No. 1. Shame on him, that he dreamed about it!!!!
After Andy`s victory in Cincinati, on Eurosport we can watch his interwiev in 3 parts!!! And lot of reporters, especialy from Britan, already talking about him as future No. 1 and nobody complains that this is something bad, arogant to Federer or Nadal or Djokovic ( who is very consistent on third plase on ATP lists).
I could call all this histerie on Andy`s achievemnts last coupple of weeks - big professional gap.

Posted by serhan 08/06/2008 at 04:22 AM

I am sure Fed knows what to do in order to regroup and i do not think it is a bad year for him, he make at least sf in all grand slams. I strongly believe Fed will do much better at USO because
- toronto and cincy failings does not matter much for USO, at USO you have to win 3 sets against defending champ not 2.
-At grand slams, the feeling is totally different and also physical strength counts more for a 5 set match at any given day. Fed knows how to prepare a grandslam tournament more than anyone else.
- Fed will focus on the tournament as it will be his first gs.(He come Bejing early to practice more and stay at hotel for more concentration)
- Fed ultimately see that he cannot win always effortlessly with being no-2.

challenge begins now:)

cheers
-

Posted by Rock 08/06/2008 at 06:44 AM

Nice article Steve. And comparing Djokovic to a computer generated player was a very good one. Would love to see Djokovic getting his upper hand back over Murray in the coming tournaments.

We've been talking about Djokovic's and Murray's being the floaters in every tournament. How about the unofficial No.2 Roger becoming a floater when he gets to No.3 ? For now, more than a few could not even digest seeing no 2 seeding beside Roger's name in the USO.

Posted by svelterogue 08/06/2008 at 07:02 AM

hey rock

count me among those who savours seeing the #1 next to rafa's name, and wishing the #2 would be next to nole's name. ajde nole!

marija

great point. if nole even squeaks about becoming #1 or answers reporters that he thinks fed is more beatable now (i mean, duh! i wonder if he's been wrong this year thus far!), he's the brattiest most arrogant SOB in the tennis world. but when the brit media talk up andy's chances at cracking the top 3 (which has been the top 3 for nearly 2 years now), it's a love fest. damn media, and damn the so called tennis fans who are willing to believe all the bull they read about nole in the papers. i've even read some posts from people in these threads (more at pete's, actually) about how they WANT or EXPECT nole to behave to please THEIR sensibilities. frankly, it's juvenile (very). maybe people should realise what growing up means and grow up. i'm in a very protective-about-nole mode of late and i am with you in your sentiments above. ok, 'nuff said.

Posted by art1000 08/06/2008 at 07:54 AM

What impressed me most was Murray's dismantling of Karlovic. That will have send a huge signal to the all other players that you just cannot serve through Murray. To beat him you will need an all round game and answer all the questions he will set you. All his future opponents will be extremely anxious to play him from now on and this will cause them to overplay and make errors. I suspect Murray will fancy his chances against anyone now - except maybe on clay.

Posted by unknown 08/06/2008 at 09:58 AM

“Plus, why is it more remarkable to rely on the two handed backhand as a weapon rather than a killer serve or a forehand?”

I’d like to get an answer to that myself. Great question.

Posted by Known 08/06/2008 at 10:53 AM

"Plus, why is it more remarkable to rely on the two handed backhand as a weapon rather than a killer serve or a forehand?”

No doubt a great question, but however great a backhand or a forehand can be, it also contributes more towards unforced errors than a serve (by way of double fault) does.

A great serve wins free points, but a great forehand/backhand does not, even though it takes skill, practice etc. to master/possess a great serve.

In this context though, the forehand and the serve have been clubbed together, while it is considered to be more remarkable to rely on the backhand as a weapon maybe because very generally speaking backhand has been considered the weaker wing. Normally players use it to stay in the rallies or set up points to finish off at the net or with the forehand.

There are of course players on the tour whose forehand/backhand combination cannot be considered a weakness..like Nadal, Agassi for example. Hence if the backhand is employed as a weapon, it tends to stand out....just reflects the evolution of the game.

Posted by Rob 08/06/2008 at 11:20 AM

Players are better today than during much of Fed's dominance the past four years, but it kills me to see this website and other media outlets suggesting his decline. Nadal definitely has stepped up (I'm thinking of the first two sets at Wimbledon, not the final result), and Fed's lost a little focus, but that's it. If Fed wins the USO, suddenly the media will say, "Fed's the greatest." If he loses a tough match in the semi's, the media will say, "See, I told you he's done for."

I've been a fan of Fed as a person, but not as a player, for the selfish and immature reason that he began shattering my sports idol Sampras's records. But I may just begin supporting him. If he wins the Open, I hope he says, "The tales of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Posted by Iain 08/06/2008 at 04:34 PM

Steve, when you look on this site's homepage there is an article called Gen then to Gen now I think , or something similar, above the article about Judy Murray. Misselling! It just directs you to this article which is underneath it on the homepage. What's the deal with people submitting articles for consideration? Is that allowed?

Posted by Iain 08/06/2008 at 05:06 PM

Hi Mariej,

No need to apologise for your English. It's very good. Eres de espana? Soy un profesor de ingles como un idioma extranjero, asi que entiendo un poco de los problemas cuales habladores de otras idiomas tienen. Pero tu ingles es casi perfecto. Por suerte, yo no tengo la confianza visitar los sitios extranjeros de tenis.

re what you said about Murray. I realise the media coverage of Murray can be frustrating but he is the only British player inside the top 100. Of the 4 countries to host grand slams, Britain is conspicuous as the only one which has not enjoyed a few home contenders consistently challenging for honours. Can you imagine the US open without one American player in contention, or the french or the Australian? Britain has been lucky to have henman then Murray close on his heels. They had long barren spells before that. I always liken Wimbledon to theUS masters in golf. Imagine that competition with only one American golfer to speak of. It's utterly unimagineable. So please forgive a little hysteria. There's a reason behind it.


Posted by VV Varaiyya 08/06/2008 at 06:58 PM

Murray has the gift of reducing his opponent's abilities... i.e. he magnifies out the warts and mental fragility in opponents. Murray's deceptive speed, power, spin and guile aren't compelling tennis. Nalbandian had the same ability but he's put on 25 lbs and his beautiful backhand has lost its effectiveness.

Posted by Rosangel 08/06/2008 at 08:09 PM

Panda: Murray was injured for four or five months last year and took a while to come back - that's the key reason why his ranking dropped (maybe that and getting taken out by Tsonga in the first round of this year's AO). Nothing to do with his inherent ability to hit a tennis ball or play matches. We are currently entering the part of the season that Murray likes best, and there are ways for him to pick up points in the coming few months.

Posted by tico vogt 08/07/2008 at 12:02 AM

I'd rather watch Murray's style of tennis than Djokovic's, and now that he's matured,gotten fitter, and had these great wins I'll have a chance to do so in the later rounds much more regularly. He's great at the net, has tremendous touch, lobs, drops, serves huge and with offspeed. And, he returns so well.
For all this year Federer has been playing with no fifth gear. He'll find it again and everyone will remember why he's got the greatest game ever.

Posted by Freddy 08/07/2008 at 05:01 AM

Great comment and especially great analyses of Nole's mind-set. I hope he and his coach red it too. Interesting that his mental crisis started with one of his best performance ever - against Nadal in Hamburg, after winning Rome Masters. He was so self-confident playing that match and really believed he could beat Rafa on clay, which he almost did. That match made him dreaming on beating Rafa in RG and that way tied his arms and legs so that Rafa woke him up very easily. Queen's was supposed to be a great revenge, but instead it created even deepest "Rafa-complex". Safin only pushed him a litlle deeper. OK, I agree Murray played a great game in the final, but for Djokovic the whole job was done day before when beating Nadal. Federer is his idol, but Nadal is his biggest rival, simply because of his age. As for Murray - everybody knows how talented he is. ONly thing that was missing was his consistency. Do you think he got it now. I am not sure...

Posted by jjv 08/07/2008 at 09:33 AM

J-Block wrote: I think Roger's fall from the top will be blindingly fast....

Björn Borg said exactly the same thing a couple of years ago, that when Federer did slip it would hit him so hard mentally that the downward slide would be rapid.

I read in the Spanish press that Alex Corretja spent more time talking to Murray about how to stay positive and not become angry and frustrated when he achieved less than the impossible perfection he was constantly demanding of himself, than about how to hone his clay court play; his counseling is obviously bearing fruit...

Posted by SwissMaestro 08/07/2008 at 03:24 PM

Steve-

No bracketology for the Olympics?????

Posted by SwissMaestro 08/07/2008 at 04:42 PM

Ok, here are mine then...

First Quarter.

Undenieably Federer is on a bad a streak but he has plenty of reasons to look at a deep run in these olympics. Why? Well... first, there is the need for his first big title of 2008; second, this is a great opportunity to re-establish himself as a serious contender to regain the no.1 spot Nadal has taken away from him and third, the olympics are a tournament that are highly ranked in Federer's scale, this is why I expect this environment to bring out the best in him, the real question is if he can sustain a decent level of consistency all the way through to achieve his ultimate goal. He opens up his quest for Olympic gold against a tough customer like Tursunov just to keep on finding several difficult obstacles along the way with a possible look at payback time in potentially facing Karlovic, Simon, Gonzalez or Ferrer and why not? Nadal, this can also be an extra motivation factor.

Great first round match up in Berdych vs Karlovic.

Semifinalist: Federer


Second Quarter.

This quarter is some sort of an enigma. Is Davydenko suddenly going to come back to form this summer? This could be his opportunity but he has a hungry -and very talented- youngster to face in the form of Ernest Gulbis, this has 'upset' written all over itself to me. Olympic bronze medalist Fernando Gozalez and grinding Spaniard David Ferrer are also in this section of the draw and they can match up as far as in the 3rd. round and while neither one of them has shown great signs of form this summer I expect Gonzalez to come through just because it seems to me he wants it a bit more and his game is somewhat better adapted to the hard courts. Watch out for Kiefer and Cilic as two very dangerous floaters.

Semifinalist: Gonzalez


Third Quarter.

What half of the draw will Novak Djokovic fall on? Yes, this still remains the most morbid question before a tennis tournament releases its draw. Ther Serb has shown that he can handle the soon to be No. 1 Nadal on a hard court but can he handle physical and mental fatigue? His way is toppled with plenty of players that can give him trouble -or beat him- any given day and he will have a look at this against his first round opponet, Robby Ginepri, who also almost beat Federer last week in Cincinnati. After that, the Serb could meet Youzhny and his shot making ability, the very eager Almagro or the always impredictable Nalbandian just to get to the Semis. I still think he can find a way to win matches when he is not playing his best just to right the ship at the right moment. The defending Champion Massu? Well, he has to make it past Nalbandian and Almagro to get to Djokovic in the quarters which I find unlikely...

Semifinalist: Djokovic


Fourth Quarter

Nadal and Murray could give us one match to remember if both happen to make it to the quarterfinals. These 2 have been in great form as off late and I would not expect anyting but a great 3 setter if they meet but both of their paths are not 'walks in the park' by any means. Nadal could face former No.1 and 2 time grand slam champion Lleyton Hewitt as soon as second round. As Seteve has said before, Nadal will find in the Aussie an extremely determined player that can mirror his defence and match his patience, plus Hewitt's game is better adapted to hard courts as he hits the fall flater, deeper and on the rise. Hewitt also happens to be one of the very few players with a winning record against the Spaniard and all these ingredients make this a must watch 2nd rounder. The always tricky Stepanek or the Russian with the big forehand Andreev could be waiting for him in the 3rd round and then of course the always crafty Murray in the quarters, remember the Scot has a thing for figuring out players he has never beaten before -like Nadal- this summer, just ask Djokovic. All these said as handful of dangerous floaters will looming in the mid of this section: Wawrinka, Ljubicic and Andreev to name a few.

Semifinalist: Murray


Semifinals:

Federer d. Gonzalez
Murray d. Djokovic


Final

Federer d. Murray

Posted by SwissMaestro 08/08/2008 at 09:41 AM

I forgot the bronze medal match:

Djokovic d. Gonzalez

Posted by biljana.jovanovic@gmail.com 08/20/2008 at 04:16 PM

I can not help but sense a bit of negativity you expressed towards play and personality of Novak. If one would not know one would think he is 27 years old and has many years of atp tennis behind him.
Remember Nadals last year and his struggles. Novak is an organic player- his game comes from who he is not from who he is told to be.
His only problem is not enough greed on court(which is a very good quality Nadal has).
I have a feeling your comments come from subjectivity which should not be present in fair writing.
Also , yes, he did retire few times from matches but he never said after lost matches he was ill or injured which other players said often enough after defeated by Djokovic.
I think he was really ill during the match with Murray. He was having trouble breathing. He never said anything.
Thank you.
Biljana


Posted by Argumentative Essays 05/17/2011 at 08:22 AM

Who's the Pigeon Now <--------that's what i was looking for

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