Roger, Rafa, Serena, Venus. Form is temporary, class is permanent

January 28, 2017

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The Australian Open singles finals became the sporting event of the year when four of the greatest tennis players of their generation faced off for the titles

January 2017: Melbourne Australia. Four great tennis players have battled to reach the finals. None had started the tournament as top seed. The tennis tensions are palpable.

All four have shown astonishing resilience against younger and arguably fitter opponents. It was all the more unusual because all four had been written off before the tournament on grounds of injury, Ill-health, and advancing years.

Andy and Novak battle for top seed

In the men’s game, for nearly a year Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic had been fighting for top dog (or top seed, as they prefer to say in tennis.) Roger and Rafa were left behind.

Roger, after a career of injury-free successes had succumbed to the perils of fatherhood, namely prepared his twins for their bath, and severely damaging his back when turning the tap on. (I couldn’t have written that in a fictional account).

Rafa after an equally-illustrious career but one blighted with injuries was recovering from his latest injury time-out. His appearances now reveal residual damage to knees, legs, fingers (ugh, particularly unpleasant looking.)

Recently they met to share medical reports, dreaming of one day when they might be both fit enough to limp on to court for one last public match.

Serena versus Venus

In the women’s game, the Williams systers had already become medical phenomena with debilitating conditions which has not prevented them from collecting multiple titles individually and just for fun as a devastating doubles partnership.

The younger sister Serena became by far the strongest and most talented and winningest woman player of her generation. Venus, by comparison Spiderwoman to Serena’s Superwoman, would also hold more singles titles (but fewer doubles, probably) if her sister had not been around.

A year ago, Serena reached the pinnacle of her career in the Senena Slam in New York, widely touted as the tournament in which she would be crowned as winner of all four slams in a calander year. Partly through nerves she slipped up. Since then she has won out only on  injury bragging-rights.

However, earlier in the tournament she summoned up her remarkable depths of bouncebackability to sweep past the new British hope Joannah Konta. She is installed as favorite once again.

Age shall nor weary them

Age shall nor weary them. This weekend, the tennis world watches with huge anticipation the battle of the four thirty-something’s. At clubs around the world, the four golden-oldies will be celebrated by millions of mere mortals, some still swinging as the decades slip by.

A tweet from Donald?

Donald Trump used the US Open to launch his political career. He may just find time for a phone-call to Australia or maybe a tweet today.

To be continued


Fame, wealth, celebrity. What more could a top sportsman want?

June 3, 2016
Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

The answer, if you are Novak Djokovic, is the unconditional love lavished on his two great tennis rivals Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal

Read the rest of this entry »


Doping in Tennis. Nadal plays an attacking game

March 15, 2016

Rafa Nadal

Three years ago we published a post about doping in tennis. The story re-emerged this week as Nadal says he intends to sue for remarks about his alleged drug taking.

The original post suggested that tennis may be in denial about the state of drug taking in the sport.

A colleague with legal experience suggested I leave the specific aspects of the post out of the more recent publication Tennis Matters.

This post will be updated as the story develops.

Read the rest of this entry »


“Masterminds who give genius a guiding hand” Analysis of top tennis coaches

June 18, 2011

A thoughful examination of coaches of the top four male tennis players suggests their skills involve trust-building and seeking to make marginal changes

Hugh MacDonald writing in the Herald provides an impressive piece of sporting journalism. He stuck to supplying readers with evidence above opinion, in analysing the coaches and their impacts on the big four of Men’s tennis.

They are the best in the world, perhaps the best quartet in world tennis ever. So how can anyone make them better? This is the task facing those who choose to coach Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. They are four different personalities with distinct playing styles, but with the same driving force that demands improvement in their game.

Long-term relationships

Djokovic and Nadal have persisted with a long-term relationship with one coach. ‘Uncle Toni’ has been with Nadal for ever. Djokovic has stuck with Marian Vajda for much of his career. A brief period with the distinguished player coach Todd Martin did not work out. Federer has also stuck with Severin Luethi for some while. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying “We don’t particularly set up and say, ‘let’s do a brainstorming session’, like in business school or something. It’s somewhat more casual. We are in track suits and lounging around and all of a sudden it happens,”

Not so long term

Which brings us to Andy Murray. The snarly Scot seems to need a coach as target for his on-court frustations. Relationships appear to be intense and ephemeral in contrast to the other three players. MacDonald is tactful when he writes:

The most intriguing set-up, however, is situated at the heart of Team Murray. “I have a coach,” was Murray’s brisk answer to enquiries at the French Open about when he intended to appoint a full-time mentor. Murray now has access to Darren Cahill and has Sven Groeneveld in his box. Cahill coached Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi and Groeneveld worked with Federer. The 24-year-old Scot thus has a mine of experience to seam. The approach of player and coach, though, show the relationship is built on trust and then faith. Murray talks of the “stability” the Australian has [recently] brought to his game. He said: “He did not just steam in and say, ‘you need to do this, you need to do that’, and start telling everyone what to do. He spent a few days not really saying very much, but he was figuring everyone out.” Murray added: “He’s someone who has been around big events and who has played at a high level as well so he knows how to deal with things emotionally. He knows how a player feels.”

Do coaches make a difference?

The accounts suggest that they do. Perhaps Murray has been the toughest challenge of the four. Perhaps it is one factor which keeps him behind the others in his ranking and tournament successes.


Nadal beats Murray on clay. No surprise. Confirmation Murray needs to unlearn some play patterns

April 17, 2011

Nadal continues his astonishing winning streak on clay. It is no surprise to anybody that he beat Andy Murray in the Semi-finals at Monte Carlo, although romantic British commentators on Sky spoke briefly of momentum when Murray won a set.

Update

The semi-final of the French Open chapionships [June 3rd 3011] saw a replay of this contest …

Even winning a set against Nadal on clay is an achievement for any tennis player. Particularly so for a player such as Andy Murray, who has had such deep swings in his playing performances over the last two years.

A thought from leadership research

One thought from leadership research: the leadership maps remain unclear as to how easy it is for a leader to switch behavioural style according to circumstances. Behaviours can be consciously modified. For example, someone comfortable with a task-oriented style can recognise when people skills are needed, and act accordingly. However, under pressure, the tendency is to revert to the habitual and preferred style. High-level sports contests in general, and Murray’s performances as a specific example, confirm this general principle.

A pattern of setbacks

In January 2009 Murray played great tennis in the Australian open before losing in the final. The loss triggered a dismal series of further losses over a period of months. In January 2010 he again reached the final of the Australian open. Once again he lost without winning a set. Once again the loss was followed by a miserable run of form which extended to this week’s tournament at Monte Carlo.

Meanwhile, Murray continues to seek a coach that will help him make a step up to become a serious contender for Grand Slam titles. At present he is (again) ‘between appointments’.

If you always do …

If in trouble in a match, Murray often switches play and more often than not goes on to extricate himself from trouble. That being said, There are patterns to his play which together with natural talent make him one of the strongest players of his era. Yet in sport, as in strategy, there is no such thing as an absolute strength. Stylistic strengths have what are sometimes called ‘allowable weaknesses’. Murray is a great counter-puncher. This can sometimes be favoured and he is acc used of being unwilling to attack powerfully enough. His skill at breaking back lost serves may have contributed to his persisting difficulty in developing a reliable first serve.

Patterns of play can be broken. A great player, and Murray deserves such an accolade on various counts, can overcome weaknesses. It is not an impossibility that Murray will reach the final of a grand slam event several more times; winning one is not beyond the bounds of possibility. However, (and it is a big however), without some radical developments in his game, he may well remain one of the nearly greats who nearly achieved greatness in the eyes of the sporting world. He will remain an example of the maxim If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got.


Nadal v Soderling: Nothing Personal?

June 1, 2009
Nadal reviews defeat

Nadal reviews defeat

Nadal crashed out of the French Open to Robin Soderling. The post-match interviews suggested there was nothing personal between the two. Or was there? And did it contribute to the result?

Nadal’s loss to Soderling in round four of the French Open [May 31st 2009] has been classed as one of the biggest upsets of the year. It has already been written upon at length. I just have one additional thought which may be more suited to back page gossip columns

There may have been something personal between the players. It may have worked to help Soderling’s game.

You have to go back into the history of their games to see what might have happened between these two players. And whatever it was may have been no more than one of the spats that might be expected to be no more or less in frequent in Tennis than in any other sporting area.
The BBC offers some history to the match and its antecedents.

World number one Rafael Nadal suffered his first ever defeat at the French Open in a shock 6-2 6-7 (2-7) 6-4 7-6 (7-2) loss to Sweden’s Robin Soderling. Nadal, chasing a fifth straight Roland Garros title, saw his 31-match unbeaten run in Paris come to an end in one of the biggest upsets in tennis history.
Soderling’s win comes a month after he was beaten 6-1 6-0 by Nadal in Rome. [Clue no 1]
“I told myself this is just another match” said the 24-year-old Swede … All the time, I was trying to play as if it was a training session. When I was 4-1 up in the (fourth set) tie-break, I started to believe”

The article goes on to supply other clues to the players’ attitudes to one another:

Soderling had lost his previous three matches against Nadal [Clue no 2 including a recent humiliation in Rome, which Nadal went on to win] but seemed a man transformed on Court Philippe Chatrier ..

The Spaniard struggled from the outset against a player with whom he was involved in an unsavoury spat at Wimbledon two years ago when Soderling mocked his pre-service routine [Clue No 3].

The evidence suggests?

Not a lot really. The story I am putting together may be no more than speculation.

Stay with the speculation, if only because Nadal losing is more than just ‘he had to lose on clay sooner or later’. What if any were the special elements in the loss? Might they the history between the players have worked for once as a spur to Nadal’s opponent rather than a deeply damaging mind-set of anticipated defeat.

Players say they go into every match believing they can win. This tends to get modified to ‘if I play well I have a good chance’ (Murray’s current favorite and cautious pre-match remark).

Soderling may have had visualised avenging his recent humiliating loss in Rome. He may have had two years regretting Nadal’s triumphs after their Wimbledon encounter. Which (we still don’t know how) he was able to turn to his advantage.

It’s nothing personal, as we are taught that the Mafia believed. Except I’m suggesting that revenge is always personal.

I rest my tenuous case.

Postscript

After an injury break, Nadal begins 2010 with a win over Soderling at a mini-tournament in Abu Dahbi. The Swede had advanced into the top ten in the world, Nadal had regained his number two spot, and Soderling had beaten Roger Federer in the previous round.


Playing in the zone: Examples from the French Open

May 31, 2009
Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

When Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal crashed out of the French Open, their opponents were said to have played in the zone. But what does that mean? And how does it come about?

[Stop Press: Nadal lost in one of the upsets of modern tennis today to Swede Robin Soderling. The story has much in common with one I prepared following a less spectacular upset which occured a day earlier (and is published below). Both stories deal with the mysterious effect of playing in the zone.]

I don’t know how I did it

I don’t know how I did it, the delighted Kohlschriber said afterwards. He had just emerged from three hours of overwhelming tennis. Commentators said he had been paying completely in the zone. But what does that mean, and how does it happen?

To say an athelete was playing in the zone is partly another way of saying he or she played out of their normal routines, keeping to an unexpected level of excellence, minimizing mistakes, and perhaps producing one or more flashes of brilliance.

Kohlschreiber needed to be in the zone for an entire match to have chance of beating Novak Djokovic. He was certainly that.

I watched with growing interest, as at first I was mildly interested, having little expectation of a tight game [May 30th 2009] . The in-form Djokovic was a bit more erratic than usual. His opponent, from the start, was metronomic.

“Good technique” I told myself. “Good baseline strengths with forehand and backhand. But a bit too predictable”

Predictable like Nadal

He went on being predictable for three hours. But it was predictable like Nadal is mostly predictable.

Nadal’s opponents now pretty much know what is coming, but just can’t so much about it. Cricketer Shane Warne liked to say much the same about the effect he had when bowling. You might know what I’m going to do, but you still have to deal with it.

Today, Novak increasingly knew what was coming, and could never deal with it.

In the zone

There is an excellent on-line article by Matthew Krug on the theory of being in the zone . He suggests that being in the zone is akin to the concept of creative flow, noting

The zone is the pinnacle experience. It represents the absence of all that we dread in life. No fear, no worry, no problems. The individual feels at peace, one in body and mind. Individual movements that took years to master flow together in an amalgamation of body and mind that comes and goes like a thief in the night. Researchers study the experience and our knowledge of the phenomenon increases over time.

I’m not sure we understand it as deeply as we might, but the theory has considerable possibilities for further testing.

It suggests that skill execution involves differing kinds of mental activities which usually are mutually inhibiting. That is to say, we let one set of performance needs interrupt necessary delivery of another set of needs. The need to attend to signals of what the opponent is doing will often be blocked by the need to devise or stick to a strategy.

The more pressure there is under competitive conditions, the harder it is to avoid ‘beating yourself’ before letting your opponent do so.

There is much still to be learned about being in the flow, as there is about creative leadership, and as with other creative processes, it’s easier to recognize than to understand.

Technical Note

The article by Matthew Krug is a valuable contribution to understanding the theory of flow, an makes a good easy to understand starting point for sports scientists and athletes.

The article deserves a deeper critique than I can offer here. I would mention that the notion of flow as presented in the article differs from interpretations offered by creativity researchers. I feel that the ‘two-by-two’ model (external/internal; broad/narrow attentional span) needs a little more careful handling to provide convincing explanations of behaviours that sustain flow and ones that contribute to its breakdown.

Nadal v Soderling

Nadal’s defeat by Soderling would have been an equally good example of a lower ranked player pulling off an upset and playing to an utterly unexpected level. I leave that to anyone interested enough to ‘stay in the zone’ and complete the analysis …