Nadal – the relentless winner …

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So another US Open is over, with what was nearly a classic final. This time in a display of brutal and sustained hitting from the back of the court Nadal prevailed in four sets.

This represents one of the most remarkable comebacks in tennis history.  Following an early exit at Wimbledon, followed by persistent knee problems, Nadal was out for the rest of the year and only returned in February.  He picked his tournaments carefully, playing on clay in South America and Mexico before his first tournament on hard courts in Indian Wells – which may have been ominous for his peers – winning and beating Federer, Berdych and Del Potro in the process.

He has been dominant on clay over the years, though this year it has been on hard courts that he has been undefeated, after winning four out of five clay court tournaments in the summer he has gone on to win the last three on hard courts.

What has also been hugely impressive has been his ability to win when his opponent is playing better.  In Cincinnati, prior to the Flushing Meadow, Nadal came up against a resurgent Federer, who despite his earlier woes, played some of his best tennis of the year taking a tight first set and playing well in the second.  Nadal, who is a master of the clinch, turned it around in four games at the end of the second and beginning of the third, holding on to win.  There was something similar in yesterday’s final.  While Nadal dominated the first set and early part of the second, Djokovic then started to step in and take control, winning the second set and going a break up in the third.

In the first set it was Nadal, who it seemed had taken a leaf out of Federer’s book, stepping in and taking good length balls off the bounce to deny Djokovic time.  Yet in the second and third the roles were reversed, with Nadal being pushed back.  A strategy that Federer has employed against both in his efforts to get back to the top in the last couple of years is now being used by them, illustrating the need to continue adapting and improving.

At this level the margins are slim and, with such brutal hitting and a consistently high standard of tennis, picking the pinch points is a rare skill. At a set and a break down, it was Rafa who, as so often in his career, was able to pick the critical points, breaking back and then taking the crucial third set.  From then, with an early break in the fourth it seemed that Djokovic lost that edge that had kept him competitive through the second and third sets and Rafa ran out a 6-1 winner.

John McEnroe observed of Nadal: “His will to win – I have never seen anything like it”.  Rafa, is both relentless, which puts extraordinary pressure on his opponents, and has this extraordinary ability to be able to pick the key moments and exploit them.

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Swiss vulnerability overcome by a fine Spanish vintage

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Well, Federer had looked like he had his preparation right for this US Open – starting to look like his old self in Cincinnati and, after the first couple of games, getting close to hitting the heights in a vintage performance in his third round match against Mannarino.

Tommy Robredo was winless against Roger in his long professional career – at 31 he’s only a few months younger. Prior to this match he had not beaten the Swiss in 10 outings, while the Swiss had not lost this early at the US Open for over 10 years, so I, like many, thought the odds on an upset were low. However, not to be underestimated with his experience and the fact that, unusually for a Spanish player, Tommy had grown up on hard courts.

It represents a remarkable mental battle ground – the player who has never beaten a legend before playing him at a time when he’s looking ever more beatable.  While Vitas Gerulatis famously said “nobody ever beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row” after beating Jimmy Connors at the 17th attempt, he also famously never beat his good friend Bjorn Borg throughout their professional rivalry. However, they only played 16 times so maybe that was the reason Borg really retired!

Back to Federer v Robredo – with Roger having lost early at Wimbledon and had a seemingly disastrous few weeks earlier in the summer when he was testing a new racket, he has been looking ever more vulnerable.  This may have given Tommy the additional confidence needed to actually believe he could win.  At the same time, despite what would seem to be incredible self-belief over the years, a string of losses to lower ranked players in the summer will have increased his sense of vulnerability.

On top of this, despite Roger’s fine performance in the previous round, including winning the second set to love, one of his age old failings, inability to convert break points, raised it’s ugly head.  Against Mannarino he created 14 break points, converting six, while last night, against Robredo he created 16 converting only two.  This was not the only issue for Roger, while I don’t think he quite ‘self-destructed’, as he put it, he did make over 40 unforced errors, nearly half of which came on his favoured forehand side,

Historically, in tight matches Federer’s ratio of break-points converted from those created is poor and would indicate that, unlike many greats of the past, it’s one area of potential mental fragility.  One of the best examples of this was in the famous 2008 Wimbledon final, which Nadal won 9-7 in the fifth.  Roger came back from two sets down, winning the third and fourth sets in tie-breaks, however, despite playing some outstanding tennis, was only able to convert one break point in the whole match, having created 13.

It would be folly to think of Federer as mentally weak, after all this is a player with one of the best tie-break win-loss records in history (of current players only Nadal has a better career tie-break record), however, it is contextual and at this level these small issues make all the difference.

In all of this lets take nothing away from a fine performance from Robredo – with another over 30 player using his experience to deliver.

The Sporting Gene – What Can We Learn From Dan Evans?

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With the recent publication of David Epstein’s “The Sporting Gene” there has been lots of debate essentially over nature versus nurture in sport.  The emergence of books like “Bounce” (Matthew Syed), “Talent is Overrated” (Geoff Colvin) and “Outliers: The Story of Success” (Malcolm Gladwell) in recent years has given credence for top performers in sport needing to work hard. The articulation of the 10,000 hour rule, the need to practice for at least that amount of time to achieve elite performance have extolled the work ethic over talent.

Epstein’s look at the leading edge of sporting performance takes a contrary view, looking at the evidence that some people are better suited genetically to some sporting activity than others.  Of course the truth is probably somewhere in between – that is whatever talent you may have, without hard work it will not result in elite, tournament winning performances.

So what has this got to do with Dan Evans?  Well he has just had two great results in the first two rounds of the US Open.  Having beaten 11th seed Kai Nishikori in the first round, 179th ranked Evans yesterday came from a set down to beat Tomic in four in round two.

Evans has been described as one of those talented players who has not fulfilled his promise.  He has frequently attracted the wrong kind of publicity, having had his funding withdrawn by the LTA for partying during Wimbledon.

At the beginning of last August Evans was ranked just below 400.  It’s only this month that his ranking has broken into the top 200 for the first time.  Over the last year he has spent most of his time playing ITF Futures tournaments – almost the non-league of professional tennis. As someone put it – here was a player with bags of talent but little application.  So what has changed?

In two Davis Cup ties over the last year, against Slovakia and Russia, he has won three out of four ties, against higher ranked players, demonstrating his undoubted talent, including winning the deciding rubber against Russia, when Great Britain had been 2-0 down.

“It was good how it worked out,” said Evans. “Every match, when you win against someone who is much higher ranked, definitely gives you confidence.”

Since arriving in the States over six weeks ago he has worked with a team from the LTA, sharing coaching and fitness training duties.  Evans explains: “I trained really hard with the fitness trainer, I practised hard every day and I’ve actually reaped the rewards from that.  I was pretty disciplined over this trip; I haven’t been out or anything, so it’s pretty good.”

So a talented player with a reputation for enjoying himself has buckled down and is currently, as he says, reaping the rewards, with at least a $60,000 pay check and a third round match against Tommy Robredo to look forward to.

Back to the Drawing Board

At the recent US Open, following his defeat to Thomas Berdych in the quarter finals, Federer commented that it was “back to the drawing board”.

For whatever reason, Federer’s first exit prior to the semis at the US Open since 2003 was to a big hitter – someone who out hit him with the sheer power of his ground strokes.  As an interesting aside his previous quarter final exits in the slams have all been to players who would be classed as big-hitters, Berdych, now twice, Soderling and Tsonga.

What is more instructive to us all, particularly those who are later in our careers, is this “back to the drawing board” comment.  All top players plan rigorously (as mentioned before) and all continuously seek to improve.  However, this is Roger Federer, the current number one player in the world, winner of 17 grand slams, the player who has spent most weeks as number one ever, arguably the greatest player of all time.  At the age of 31, in what many see as the twilight of a stellar career, he is still looking for ways to overcome the latest threat!  He has done this before, with the advance of Nadal and Djokovic he changed his game, finding ways to play more aggressively and get back to number one and, when many think he’s close to hanging up his rackets, he’s looking to adapt again.

This is the equivalent of a top executive, advancing rapidly towards retirement, in the twilight of his or her career still looking for ways to improve.  It’s a question for everyone, given that we are all human and far from perfect – what are we still doing to improve?

Tennis, in common with other competitive sports, is harsh in providing feedback through results.  If we are truly wanting to learn and looking to improve, what’s our view of our own performance and where’s the feedback coming from?

Work Hard & Focus on the Vision…Murray Wins His First Slam

So Andy Murray’s finally there!

Back in January Andy took Novak Djokovic to the edge in the Australian Open semi final but, for whatever, reason he came up marginally short. In this case the difference between success and not was marginal.  He’d also made a promising start in his fourth slam final at Wimbledon before being edged out by a sublime and resurgent Roger Federer.  Now Andy has finally won the US Open, his first grand slam, it’s interesting to reflect on what might have made the difference and what he and others have said.

It has regularly been said that Andy’s is up there with the other “big three”, more frequently referred to as the big four in the UK, though without a slam win, prior to this win, it was difficult to bracket Andy with Federer (17), Nadal (11) and Djokovic (5). His record in other tournaments and performance levels surely merited it but these guys live and work to peak for the slams.

After each major loss Murray has regularly stated that he needed to “work harder”.  The margins between winning and losing at this level are small and, while all these players work incredibly hard, it’s more about focusing on the vision of what it takes to win and the small things that make a difference.  One thing that Andy has done is bring on board Ivan Lendl to his team.  He has a team to cover a range of aspects of his performance, though this is the first time he has brought someone on board that has actually had the experience of winning a slam.  Ironically, he also lost his first four slam finals before going on to win eight grand slams, though at the point he joined Team Murray, Andy had lost just three finals.

One observation has been that Andy often gets angry with himself in matches with things are out of his control.  A number of times when he has had break points and his opponent has hit an ace or a winner he has berated himself.  This is a waste of energy, the other top players recognise that it is beyond their control and move on. It’s something that Lendl has been working on with Andy and, while it still happens, it is occurring less and less as he recognises that those things that are beyond his control are not worth getting wound up about.

While he has continued to work hard focusing on those little things that make a difference enabled him to stay in the present and lift his performance again when Djokovic had levelled the match, with the momentum very much in his favour, he will continue to work hard and look for more success.

“You want to try to win those big matches and big tournaments and I’ll keep working hard,” said Murray.

“I want to keep improving,” said Murray. “I know how it feels to win a Grand Slam and winning the Olympics.”

It’s that desire to continue improving and not settle for a particular level of achievement that makes top players continue to achieve.