Australian Open (5)

Wow what an epic finish to the Aus Open 2012, one of the best matches to be played there and one of the best matches to be played for a long time. This is why I love tennis.

Novak started slowly in the first set but Rafa’s level dropped in the next two sets and he lost them convincingly. I was wondering whether Djokovic would show any signs of fatigue after the long semi-final with Murray but apparently not. He has matured so much from the weak-hearted player who retired due to “heat” in 2009.

Rafa did himself a lot of credit for hanging in there in the fourth set but it was just papering over the cracks — he simply has no game plan against Djokovic right now. Serving at 0-40, 4-3 down, he managed to reel off 5 points and then force a tie-break. In the tie-break, Djokovic was up 5-3 when he missed a simple forehand and hit another shot into the net to gift Nadal the set. The fifth set was a tense battle with Rafa getting the early break but Djokovic showed the physical and — more importantly — the mental strength to break back and ultimately seal the tournament.

Djokovic dictated play for most of the match, running Nadal from side to side. Rafa for his part defended gallantly. It might be enough against 99% of the players on tour but Novak is truly special. Running around defending, (i) waiting for your opponent to hit a mistake and (ii) hitting amazing running gets is simply not enough against the number one in the world.

I don’t see an easy way for Nadal to get out of his bind. One thing I will say is that he has to take more initiative and stand closer to the baseline. When faced with a barrage, his natural instinct is to back up and get hyper-defensive. It normally works a charm and it worked against Berdych in the quarter-finals. But it doesn’t work when the opponent is super hot — my immediate thought goes to that fateful quarter-final in the 2009 French Open when Robin Soderling pulled off the most shocking upset in modern tennis when he inflicted Rafa’s only loss there. Speaking of which — Djokovic vs Nadal at the French Open final? Now that would be something.

We’ve had Nadal-Roger (8-2 in Grand Slams to Nadal) and now Djokovic-Nadal (7-0 in finals since 2011 to Djokovic) – is this the beginning of another glorious (non-)rivalry?

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Australian Open (4)

Another Rafa encounter, another disappointing loss for the Swiss. It seems to me that, at least in best-of-fives, their battles invariably follow a familiar pattern: (1) Roger gets hot and streaks ahead, while Rafa doggedly holds on. (2) Mistakes creep in, Rafa makes a couple of incredible gets, demoralising his opponent. (3) Roger forces a tie-break or laboriously conjures a break, but Rafa then goes on a rampage and sweeps an easy set. (4) Eventually the weight of inevitability slowly squeezes the life out of Fed’s game.

What could Roger have done? As I noted, going into the game the odds were stacked firmly against him. No right-handed, single-backhand player should stand a chance against Nadal, but Fed being Fed, he is able to produce brilliant tennis at times. The problem is Nadal just needs to play his normal game to win, while Federer needs to play consistently at an exceptional level.

Looking at the stats, Federer served well (64% first serves, a supreme improvement over the devastating 2009 Aus Open loss in which he served barely 50%, if I recall). However, he was only able to win 66% of the time, which is really really low for Fed. Full credit to Nadal, who applied constant pressure and made some mind-blowing gets. Federer also made a lot of unforced errors, which is understandable given that he needs to go for more against Rafa. However, last night he dumped too many forehands into the net. It’s a vicious cycle — the harder he tries, the more mistakes he’ll make (and the more incredible Rafa’s returns get!), which shakes his confidence and leads to more mistakes.

Overall, Fed’s strategy seems to have been hit hard and deep to Rafa’s backhand, taking him off the court and negating his forehand, then going for the winner down the ad court. It was going great while Fed was hot. His one problem was coming in off an approach shot that is hit to the ad court (Rafa’s forehand) that wasn’t going to be a winner. As this astute tennis observer noted, Rafa gobbled them up, inflicting damage not only on the scoreboard but Fed’s psyche. When Fed approached off an approach shot to Nadal’s backhand, he had much more success.

If Federer makes that tactical change and execute his shots better, I think he definitely has a shot of taking Nadal down at a Slam event. There were some encouraging signs — he played with positive, aggressive intent and his backhand held up pretty well under the onslaught. Then again, people have been saying that Fed can beat Nadal in best-of-five for ages now and it hasn’t happened since 2007…

Australian Open (3)

Here we go again.

So Federer and Nadal are on track to meet in the semis, the first time this has happened since the 2005 French Open. Watching the tennis on TV and listening to it on radio, often the commentators receive questions like “Who is the best player” or “Why does Federer struggle so much against Nadal”. It is especially frustrating to hear people say “well, since Federer has such a poor record against Nadal, clearly he can’t be the best of all time”.

Of course comparing players — especially from different eras — is an inexact science. I think the case for Federer being the greatest player of all time rests on several bases:

  1. His record collection of Slams, 16 in total.
  2. His style. Love him or hate him, the way Federer plays is almost objectively as beautiful tennis as one can play.
  3. His consistency. 65 consecutive wins on grass, 56 consecutive wins on hard court, 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals, 6 ATP World Tour Finals. I doubt these records will ever be broken. Incredibly, he has played 1000 matches now and has never retired during a single one.
The GOAT? Probably.

Other than his winning record (17-9) against Federer, Nadal doesn’t really have any other claims to be the greatest ever… yet. He still has a shot at equalling or surpassing 16 Slams. He is also clearly the best clay court player of all time and the youngest player to obtain a Career Grand Slam.

How does Nadal own Federer so comprehensively? It’s all in that vicious topspin lefty forehand to the one-handed Federer backhand. That simple. I had the great fortune of watching Nadal (on the practice court) at Wimbledon and it’s absolutely amazing. From side-on you can really see the ball dipping in midair before kicking off the court. It’s hard to return the ball (let alone hit a good shot) when the ball is coming up past shoulder height, especially with a one-handed backhand.*

Inhuman.

On the clay court, the effect is exacerbated. Also, due to the slowness of the court and Rafa’s amazing movement and endurance, it becomes almost impossible to hit winners against him. He slowly grinds Federer down, both physically and mentally. This explains Nadal’s 12-2 clay court domination over Federer. Notably, Federer holds a 5-4 advantage on hard court (including 4-0 on indoor surfaces, where conditions are quickest) and 2-1 advantage on grass (having lost the epic 2008 Wimbledon final while stricken by mononucleosis).

What are my predictions for the match? The conditions are stacked against Fed. Despite being a hard court, the Aus Open surface has gotten slower and slower. The balls get heavy and fluffy, becoming harder to hit through. The match takes place in the cooler night time (the hotter it is, generally the faster the conditions). Nadal is pumped and seems to be showing no signs of knee trouble that has hampered him in the past two Aus Opens. There is also this incredible statistic: Nadal is 134-1 in Slams once he takes the first set.

On the other hand, Federer has been looking really good for the past few months, since the US Open. I thought del Potro would be a tough challenge last round but Fed handled him with ease. Federer will come out firing and try to put Rafa on the back foot. He has to take that first set! The longer the match goes the more you expect the match to swing in favour of the Majorcan. I don’t like making predictions so here is my hope: Fed in 4 sets.

*One reason why Djokovic was able to convincingly get the better of Nadal each time they met in 2011 was his ability to handle that high, heavy forehand. The Joker’s two-handed backhand is the best in the game right now. Whenever Rafa goes to it he gets punished as the ball is right in the hitting zone.

Australian Open 2012 (2)

Quarterfinal time at the Aus Open and unsurprisingly the Big 4 have come through with ease. Murray and Djokovic are on track to face each other in the semis, I don’t see Kei Nishikori or David Ferrer challenging those two in their respective matches. Much more interesting will be Federer and Nadal’s matches.

Federer faces the resurgent Juan Martin del Potro, who is in ominous form this tournament after a decent comeback year in 2011. Meanwhile Nadal comes up against Thomas Berdych, a big-hitting Czech with nothing to lose and a much more confident mindset, a belief that he can beat the top players in the game. My pessimistic self sees a potential vulnerability for Federer while Nadal should be able to blunt Berdych’s attack and come through.

Also I’d like to give another shout-out, this time to Lleyton Hewitt. I still remember him in his prime in the early 2000s, back when I was in high school. He was loud, bratty and tempestuous. The worst exemplification of Aussie boorishness. I didn’t like him at all. However, over the years he seems to have mellowed and so has my attitude towards him. Hewitt is renowned for his fighting spirit. While I dismissed that as a load of fill-good tripe early on, I can finally appreciate him for it.Despite his (lack of) game, despite his physical pain, Hewitt consistently punches above his weight and his never-say-die attitude is certainly something to behold.

Nobody expected him to beat the talented Milos Raonic in the third round. Indeed, in the opening set there were ominous signs as it became clear Raonic served much better and hit much harder. However, through sheer force of will and experience Hewitt clawed in front. Nobody expected him withstand Djokovic, who had dropped 10 games in 3 matches prior to their meeting. He took 14 games, including a set, off the seemingly invulnerable Serb. That’s a bloody good effort. So Hewitt, here’s to you — a great champion not just for the trophies but for the inspiring way you play.

Australian Open 2012

It’s that time of the year again, the first Grand Slam of the season. I must confess I am a huge tennis fan — horrendous player, avid watcher — and I will be following it with great interest.

Just my initial thoughts: my head says Djokovic. I must say I wasn’t a fan of him for a long time — partly because of his ‘joker’ tendencies but mainly because I thought he was mentally weak. He had a tremendous year in 2011 of course and now has my grudging respect. Barring any crazy results I expect him to beat Murray and be in the final.

My heart still says Federer. It probably always will. However, there’s some substance behind that hope. Of the big-3 (or 4 including Murray), Federer has the best chance of beating Djokovic. In 2011 Djokovic absolutely OWNED Nadal, defeating him in 6 finals, over all surfaces. Nadal’s biggest weapon, the heavy topspin forehand, is neutralised by Djokovic’s awesome movement and two-handed backhand. Otherwise, his game is fairly one-dimensional and just does not faze Djokovic right now.

Federer, on the other hand, brings a much more varied game and his brilliance is often improvised. He is able to pull Djokovic out of the comfort zone and actually trouble him, as demonstrated by his victory in the French Open and near-miss in the US Open. Federer is on track to meet Nadal in the semi-finals, the first time since 2005 they’ve been in the same half. I would generally tip Nadal to beat Federer (except on grass and indoors) but given the bigger injury cloud over Nadal, I think Federer has a good chance.

Finally, a shout-out to Bernard Tomic. I like an unconventional guy and he is definitely that. He’s a breath of fresh air in the current men’s game, full of one-dimensional big servers/hitters. Looking forward to his match on Friday against Alexandr Dolgopolov, another talented, unconventional youngster.

How to Love Others

I attended my first Gracepoint service in six months today. It was great to be back — to soak in the warmth of good friends that I have not seen for a while was really invigorating. Our pastor Owen gave a fantastic talk on the way we should show love to one another, drawing from 1 John 2:3-14. The talk is particularly relevant given the resolutions that I have made re helping other people and giving money.

Here are the key passages mentioned in the talk:

4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. (1 John 2:4-6)

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

How are we to “be” Christian? How do we determine our godliness? Is it through meticulous personal habits, devoted service, dutifully attending church every week? Maybe. Motives play a big part of course. Are you (and am I) doing X or Y because we feel guilty, because we feel obligated, because it will make us look and/or feel good?

Owen said something that I feel really hit the nail on the head. The greatest evidence that we are disciples of Jesus is the love we show to one another, as Jesus loved us. That seems pretty broad doesn’t it? I suppose, but I think we all know ways in which we can show love. What I find amazing are those final four words.

They obliterate all doubts as to motive and intention. How did Jesus love us? Completely. Unconditionally. Humbly. Irrespective of our status. Earlier in John 13, Jesus gets down to wash his disciples’ feet, which encapsulates his love pretty well.

For me, the problem is not finding ways of showing love but doing it as Jesus loved us. I love discriminately, I decide who I want to love based on that person’s positive characteristics and how much that person contributes to my own well-being. Self-regard typifies my actions.

So I know what the problem is, but here’s the kicker. Why do I want to volunteer and help the less fortunate? Part of the reason is I am taking Jesus’ message to heart — I want to show love to others. Another part, admittedly, is pride. I’ve told myself (and others) how much I want to help people but infuriatingly I’ve never acted upon that desire. This is a chance to prove to myself that I can. Self-regard kicks in again.

Will human beings ever be able to act with pure intentions? Cynics will say no. I am reserving my judgment for the time being…

Why can’t life be simpler!