Sunday, January 31, 2010

Congrats to the 2010 Australian Open Champions!

Photo: Findlay Kember/AFP/Getty Images

Congrats to Roger Federer and Serena Williams, two of the top players of our time, for their wins in the men and women singles at the 2010 Australian Open finals! Congrats also the Bryan Brothers (Bob & Mike) for their victory in mens doubles! Same to Serena and her sister Venus Williams who won the women's doubles! Well done!

All displayed some awesome tennis in their wins: Federer over Andy Murray, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (11), Serena over Justine Henin, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, the Bryan Brothers over Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3, and the Williams sisters over Cara Black and Liezel Huber, 6-4, 6-3.

Each set personal or historic records. Federer won his 16th Grand Slam singles title, adding to his all-time record. Serena won her 12th Grand Slam singles title, now tied with Billie Jean King for 6th on the all-time list behind only Margaret Court, Steffi Graf, Helen Wills Moody, Chris Evert & Martina Navratilova. The Bryan Brothers won their 4th Australian Open doubles title, and now enjoy 8 overall Grand Slam doubles titles. The Williams sisters won their 4th Australian Open doubles title as well, 11th overall Grand Slam doubles title.

Federer and Serena, I think, are the supreme examples currently of the big-match mental toughness...

And as many critics, fans and historians say, Federer at the end of the day may well be the finest player this sport has ever produced...

Many also say that Serena, together with her sister Venus, have defined the power baseline game and big-serve style on the women's tour in the 2000s, both in singles and doubles.

Federer: on-court elegance in movement and shot-making, a human whip in perpetual "kinetic-chain" motion, effortless athleticism...beautiful to watch...

Serena: stength and power-shotmaking, relentless athleticism, and refuse-to-lose competitiveness...wise to study...

Best, Gary

Saturday, January 23, 2010

DVD Review: 2005 Australian Open Semi-Final...A look back

In preparation for the upcoming semi-finals and finals of the 2010 Australian Open, I'll briefly review the match DVD from TennisDVDWarehouse of the 2005 Australian Open Semi-Final between Marat Safin and Roger Federer...

It was a dazzling 4 and 1/2 hour five set thriller and one of the best matches in recent memory in Melbourne, in my opinion. It was loaded with suspense and superb shot-making by two tennis giants in top form, and left some tennis lessons for us all...

Marat Safin vs. Roger Federer

Safin wins: 5-7,6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 9-7

The Pre-Match Setting:
Marat Safin faced the World No. 1 ranked Roger Federer, and his 26-match winning streak in this classic Australian Open semifinal. Federer practically had a monopoly on Grand Slam titles, but was matched against an enormous raw talent in Safin who had dismantled the great Pete Sampras in the 2001 U.S. Open Final and was playing some of his best tennis ever. The pre-match hype in the media and on the Melbourne Park grounds was deafening, and the warm Australian evening brought out a full-house to Rod Laver Area - 17,000+ standing-room only. And they were in for some fantastic tennis in a marathon match between two of the game's most gifted all-around players.

What They Saw:
This match offered world-class serves and returns, first rate holds-of-serve and breaks-of-serve, net cords and drop shots, volleys and drop volleys of the highest order. Every point was a struggle as each player would punish any weak shot, and both players found themselves exchanging magnificent forehands and backhands hit with great purpose. The pressure never let up from the word "play", and in fact just intensified until the climax. Safin's serve was dominating throughout, and Federer responded throughout in kind with his own arsenal of baseline winners, drop shots and volleys. Some truly amazing tennis in a land of legendary stories of tennis...

The Theme:
Safin playing up to his enormous raw potential defeats the apparently unbeatable Federer in a grueling 4 1/2 hour epic marathon, ending his string of Grand Slam titles.

The Match Play:
Set one (Federer wins) - From the first ball hit in the first set, the play is crisp and precise, indeed scintillating, as Patrick McEnroe commentating for USA Channel noted. Federer serves first, and there are no breaks of serve until Safin serves 5-6. Federer breaks serve and takes the first set, 7-5, and seems to be in the driver's seat.

Set two (Safin wins) - Federer serves and wins the first game, then Safin follows to serve and win his game. In the third game, with Federer serving, his game play level seems to drop just a bit. Safin presses successfully and comes though with a break, going up 2-1. Safins continues to serve magnificently and wins the second set, 6-4.

Set three (Federer wins) - Federer doggedly raises his game level. Players exchange serve games. Safins seems to be pressing a bit, and his game seems to be off. Federer's level of play becomes immaculate. He takes the set 7-5.

Set four (Safin wins) - The fourth set is a thriller. The match is a service contest as the players hold serve. They exchange devastating groundstokes and volleys. Federer is up 6-5 with a match point. Safin doesn't give up, he hangs in and reaches for some brillant play to save match point. The set moves into a tie-break after Safin levels it at 6 all. The tie-break was a point-by-point nailbiter. Safin claws and fights, and wins the tie-break 8-6. He seems to have found his game. He seems now to believe that he can win. As commentator Patrick McEnroe said at the time watching Safin's play level throughout, "Safin came to play."

Set five (Safin wins) - If the fourth set was a thriller, the fifth set was exponentially even higher on the suspense meter. Federer is treated by the trainer early in the set, and seems to be fatigued. Believing now that he can win, Safin pours it on, holds serve with relative ease and moves ahead 5-2. Federer is serving at 2-5 and barely hangs on and holds serve. It's now 5-3 Safin, with Safin serving for the match. Federer fights off match point, and wins the game, breaking serve. Safin seems to deflate a bit, but continues to believe and press. Federer is still down 5-4, then 6-7, each time fighting off match points and leveling the match.

It's 7 all. Federer seems to be getting stronger. Safin must summon all he can now. Safin holds serve to move up 8-7. Now at the 8-7 in Safin's favor, Federer is serving to stay in the match. But Safin ups the ante and forces Federer down 15-40. Two more match points for Safin. Federer saves the first match point in the game with an ace. He reaches the second match point ball and pushes it over the net, but falls in the process. Safin steers the ball into the open court. The match is finally over. And Safin slowly limps his way to the net, waiting with humped shoulders to shake Federer's hand.

An argument can be made, say some critics, that this match rates as the best played since the 1980 Wimbledon Final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. It surely rivals any recent Grand Slam final or semi-final in memory for suspense, shifting momentum and unrelenting world-class play.

And I think that this match, and in particular Safin's play and methods, may even hold some lessons for us all...

The Lessons Learned:
The right attitude towards a superior foe is respect but not awe
Commentator Patrick McEnroe remarked that Safin had the right attitude throughout the match towards the seemingly invincible Federer: "respect" but not "awe." By that McEnroe referred, I think, to points in the match when Federer might hit an unreturnable forehand winner, to which Safin would simply applaud with his racket, and then follow-up by simply digging right into the next point. To me, "awe" means that you have "internalized" your opponent's superiority, and thus may have likely cededed away the match mentally. In contrast, "respect" means that you simply acknowledge an opponent's better shot on that one point, and move on calmly and deliberately to the most important shot in the match - the next one.

Intentionality behind each shot
McEnroe also commented that in the fourth and fifth sets, which Safin eventually won, "every swing by Safin has a purpose". By this, McEnroe, I think, was pointing out that each Safin shot was aiming the ball into the corner, or deep towards the baseline, or meant to push Federer from side to side. No Safin swing at the ball was just a swing at the ball to swing at the ball. There was a clear intention behind every shot. And Safin's collective intentions behind all the shots eventually paid off.

Belief in your ultimate victory
Safin never gave up. He just kept plugging away until the mighty Federer began to show cracks. It was an awesome test of wills - a stupendous mental contest. Federer too showed his mettle by fighting off match point after match point, putting the heat back on Safin. Safin, for his part, never got nervous or intimated or scared by the defending champion, never got weary or tired of the battle. He just believed that he would eventually win, and he did.

Best, Gary

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book Review: "How to Play Better Tennis", Bill Tilden (1950)

New Year 2010 is the 60th year anniversary of Bill Tilden's classic book, first published in 1950, How to Play Better Tennis: A Complete Guide to Technique and Tactics, (Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1950)(reprinted in 1973 by Cornerstone Library, and republished in 2000 by Simon & Schuster.) (See Link on Amazon to Kindle version.)

Tilden wrote the book at the close of his record-setting career, having been voted by the Associated Press Sportwriters of America as the "Greatest Player of Half-Century". He meant the book to provide insights and concepts distilled from a half-century career in tennis.

In his foreword to the book, he remarked: "This book is intended for tennis players... If you are one of the real tennis nuts - and they are legion - this is written for you in the hope that it may fill a real want... If from its pages one player learns something of value that will lift him from just a person who hits a tennis ball to that very different status - a tennis player - I am indeed rewarded."

Six decades after its publication, and even after monumental changes in the sport, the book still surprisingly retains valuable teachings still relevant to today's player and game...The book is divided into 4 Parts and 18 Chapters. It covers tennis foundations, strokes and their uses, match play tactics and psychology and some conclusions, with black and white illustrations and examples. In the words of the publisher in 1973, each chapter is a lesson from the Master himself.

New York Times sportswriter Allison Danzig wrote in 1973: "William Tilden has no superior in lawn tennis as a master of stroke production and tactics. His command of spin and pace, his knowledge of the game and his footwork have never been surpassed...[The book] is as pertinent, commands just as much respect and should be every bit as helpful, as was the book when first published in 1950." The same could largely be said today.

The best way to review this book is to quote extensively from Tilden himself on various relevant tennis topics. You are invited to read the entire book for much more detail about his ideas in his interesting writing style...

On Playing Tennis
"I urge you - Play Tennis! Tennis the most valuable sport that any individual can learn...It is the most universally played of all athletics and its rules are the same the world over...Language is no barrier to tennis players, since whether a ball is out or in can be seen and understood without spoken words. Tennis, by its small requirements of time and playing space, and it comparatively inexpensive equipment, lies within the reach of practically everyone. The tremendous increase in public courts in almost all cities has taken the game away from the classes and put it in the hands of the masses, which is a healthy and splendid thing in every way."

On the Game of Tennis"There is nothing mysterious about tennis. It is a game of sound, scientific principles, that anyone with an average mind and body can learn to play well if he will take the trouble to work at it."

On Tennis and Fitness
"The greatest benefit that tennis gives its followers is the means to keep physically fit. It is a game that can be played practically from the cradle to the grave - and it is apt to aid in postponing the latter many years...It is a game that can be carried on along with practically any form of human endeavor. The businessman, doctor, lawyer, actor, singer, writer, etc. are all able to find enough leisure time to play, and by so doing, increase their productivity by better physical condition."

On Learning from History and Past Champions
"The champion of today owes his game to the champions of yesterday, just as he will add his bit to the champion of tomorrow. The wise student should know all he can about the styles and methods of the great players of the past, every bit as much as he does of the players of the present."

On the Importance of Racquet Head Control
"[The] all-important the head of the racquet and only the head of the racquet returns a ball in tennis...Power - speed and pace- is controlled completely by the manner in which the head of the racquet is swung against the ball in hitting it...The player who will always have his racquet head hit the ball solidly and travel directly into and through the line of his shot will always have complete control of his strokes...The greatest tennis motto I know is: "Let your racquet head do the work".

On the Mind's Intention Behind the Shot"Tennis should always be played with the head consciously directing the racquet. Every shot should be played with a definite intention behind it, one that will make it of value to the player that hits it."

On What is a Tennis Player?"The viewpoint on tennis that stamps a tennis player is that the game is a science and an art. It can reach its highest expression only if a player can study and practice in an effort to master the game in all its varied facets...Remember always that even more can be learned in defeat than in victory, if you suffered that defeat when you gave your best."

On Footwork"The reason that correct footwork is so vital to good stroke production is that correct footwork furnishes an automatic way to bring the racquet head into a position to hit directly into and through the line of the stroke...One universal feature is to be found in the games of all great players...They never seem to be hurried...Watching [them], one gains the impression that they glide or float to the ball."

On Concentration"The first great fundamental of tennis is to train yourself to concentrate so that you never stop concentrating while on the court. This applies when you are learning the technique of the game, when practicing shots, or playing in practice, but above all, when playing matches."

On Shot Preparation"The great player prepares his shot on the way to it, while the lesser player starts to prepare it when he reaches the ball."

On Strokes"Strokes are the weapons with which you fight your tennis battles. The better your weapons, the greater the chance of victory. Still you must remember that weapons alone never won a war. It is the way in which they are used that determines their usefulness...[they] are not the end, but a means to an end...never be satisfied to be just a shot-maker..."

On the Net Game"The net game - the volley and overhead smash - represents the ultimate attack in tennis. It is the crushing offensive that either blasts the opponent off the court or wrecks itself by the very fury of its own attack."

On Courage in Tennis"Courage embodies patience, philosophy, and the vision, to lift your eyes to the goal far ahead. It is the ability, in spite of discouragement, disheartening disappointments, even apparent failure, never to lose sight of the goal, or belief in yourself and your ultimate victory."

On Match Play and Tennis Psychology"Keep the ball in play and give your opponent another shot at it...Play a defensive game with an offensive mental attitude...Never give your opponent a shot he likes to play if you can avoid it...Never change a winning game...Always change a losing game...

On the Ideas and Philosophy in the Book"I am hoping that [they help] contribute to the return of the balanced, intelligent game. [If so], I can feel it is the climax to my tennis, and can lay down my racquet with a sense of complete contentment and fulfillment."

Best Wishes!