Things I Saw at the Australian Open 2013

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It’s an interesting and different experience to watch tennis live. Several contradictory things happen.

Because of the way the camera is angled on TV, it seems like the ball is slow because it takes longer to travel a shorter distance. Up close and personal, the balls shoot along the full length of the court. Especially on the serves. And especially when they’re being issued by this fellow.

On the other hand, up close you see more clearly the variation of stroke play. The balls come at different trajectories, is met by the player skidding across the court in different ways, and is struck by the racquet at different angles and velocities. Points tend to be carefully constructed — generally the players don’t try to belt every ball. In actuality, on average they hit at 80% power, with placement and spin. Yet on TV it seems as if they’re ripping every shot, which creates the illusion of speed. So the game can seem faster or slower, in both real life and on TV. Weird.

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Up close you also get to observe players’ styles and mannerisms, which are quite interesting.

Sharapova

Maria is a fierce competitor. She is so intense. Her intensity manifests in a physical tic — when readying to receive serve she will shift from foot to foot, left fist clenched, then open it up and pat her left thigh twice before bracing herself for the serve with both hands welded to the racquet. This motion demonstrates that she is a relentless creature of habit. Sharapova is superstitious too — she will studiously avoid stepping on the painted lines between points.

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Djokovic

Serial ball bouncer. He bounces the ball 7-8 times on the first serve, 5-6 times on the second. If he is down in a game, he will bounce the ball 10+ times. Novak is loose-limbed, a rubber man. He crashes and dashes around the court, splitting his legs and making outrageous gets. His game is not pretty, but it is effective in its own breathtaking way. When called upon to deliver a powerful blow, Novak winds his body tight, then uncoils in a spray of limbs.

Wawrinka

I was at Rod Laver Arena until almost 2am watching the 5-set epic between Wawrinka and   Djokovic. Stan “the Man” gave a really good account of himself, standing and delivering blow after blow. He is swarthy like a big teddy bear, but also surprisingly agile. He is known for his wonderful one-handed backhand. In contrast to Federer’s elegance, Stan’s is big and brutal. Up close, it’s like watching a battering ram. One oddity that I noticed: typically a player getting ready to serve asks for three balls, inspects and chucks one, and keeps two; Stan asks for four.

I hope he can sustain the brilliance of that night. Stan has the game to be a steady top 6-8 player.

Serena Williams

An absolute monstar. The only player who can beat her is herself. Her serve is smooth and natural, reaching the 190s with ease. She is not selective — just give her a ball and she’ll pound it down. Serena is like Fed in the no-nonsense way she conducts herself on the court. Oh, she also had the biggest, thickest pair of legs out of everyone that I saw in Melbourne.

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Federer

The whole reason I got into tennis. Deadly forehand, sublime backhand, balletic footwork. Roger is very composed and he is all-business on court. He’s an effortless showman during play and also a bit of a showman between play. Roger likes to help the ball boys and girls by hitting balls to them, either at the net or along the far wall. A casual flick, a catch, applause.

ADDENDUM: I’m writing this post while watching the semi-final between Federer and Murray, with the Scotsman prevailing a few moments ago in a 5-setter. While I don’t think this is the symbolic moment marking the Swiss maestro’s decline, I do believe it is representative of a general trend: down. The warning signs have been evident — failing to convert match points, failing to close out a match while two sets up, falling regularly in the quarter-finals. In tonight’s match Roger was being completely outplayed and should have lost in straight sets. Yet he took it to 5 by tenaciously hanging on in Sets 2 and 4 and lifting his game in the tiebreaks.

Like an ageing fighter, he is relying on experience, guile and a deep well of self-belief. This may get him through a few tight matches, but is unlikely to carry him through seven best-of-fives. But he won’t change, and he can’t change. This is all that he has. And increasingly it won’t be enough.

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Up until 2012 I believed, perhaps unreasonably, that Federer was favoured to win the Slams he entered (except the French Open). I watched anxiously and joyously as he went on an inspired run to beat Djokovic and then Murray to win Wimbledon, then capture his 300th week as Number One. I don’t think he will reach the peak again. I think he will win one more Slam (he plans to play until Rio 2016). Even as he experiences a slow decline, his main competitors are hitting their prime years. He has to beat at least two of Murray, Djokovic and Nadal to win a Slam (and not get ambushed by someone like Tsonga or Berdych along the way, which is no easy ask). At the moment, I’m sorry to say that he is probably a slight underdog against each of the other Big 4.

Roger has been a pretty constant presence in my life, ever since early high school when I started paying attention to sport. I could count on him to play beautiful tennis and win, to be the champion. To realise that I can’t rely on him to do so anymore is sobering. But I will continue to cheer him on, to hope against hope, for him to make one more run at the prize. I think he can do it.

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