US Open ’11

By Joey Agerholm

Goran Ivanisevic once said “As soon as I step on the court I just try to play tennis and don’t find excuses. You know, I just lost because I lost, not because my arm was sore.” I’ve got no idea in what context it was said. I just came across it on a tennis quotes website. I was looking at a tennis quotes website because I was trying to find out if it was Andre Agassi who likened tennis to boxing. I think it was and he and anyone else who said it before him is probably right. If Jo-Wilfred Tsonga was a little bit more consistent we’d probably be comparing him to Mohammed Ali too. I don’t know if he’s as quick-witted as Ali but he‘s a good look-alike. Last Tuesday’s US Open final was so physical it was frightening. It was some fight. Rafa nearly broke Novak’s back but like it does to so many elite athletes in the middle of a contest, injury only helped him focus on the task at hand.

I had a bet on Federer winning this year’s US Open. He was the only player I threw money at. I don’t like spreading my risk across more than one hope. I think it was more wishful thinking than anything else but I don’t like to think Roger’s time has come to an end. Looking back on the tournament, I think Roger got closer than anyone’s really given him credit for. The Fed was too good for Novak in the first two sets of their semi final clash. He  took it to the Serb until momentum swung early in the third set when Novak got an early break. Roger got his wind back after losing the third and fourth sets and then, with the Yankee crowd behind him, he broke Novak and served his way to two match points. He had Novak beat. I mean it.

Roger, serving for the match had got himself, without much resistance, to forty fifteen. Novak appeared resigned to defeat as he readied himself for the first match point. A little shake of the head as he crouched in preparation to receive. An ironic smile. The first match point Roger served wide to the Serb’s forehand. Novak swung free and fast at Roger’s serve to produce an untouchable cross court return. People who know tennis seem to ommit to mention how lucky Novak was when they talk about that return changing the outcome of the game. In a press conference afterwards Roger would liken Novak’s attitude towards those two match points to a kid sulking at the thought of losing. Roger’s serve wasn’t great but Novak swung at it like a man with nothing to lose, because he’d told himself he’d already lost. Swing hard and hope for the best.

Walking across to the ad side of the court for the next point, Novak pleaded, both arms up in the air, with the crowd to give him some credit for his winner. He smiled and shook his head. The crowd had thrown the majority of its support behind the Fed for the whole of the match. Wally Masur called it wrong on pay tv when he said in reflection that Novak had been so clever to get the crowd behind him after he stung the Fed with that return. C’mon Wally. Novak wasn’t using his smarts. Stirring the crowd worked in his favour, but Novak wasn’t asking for a little help in dealing with the next match point. He was expressing his frustration, with the crowd mostly. The last point of the game prior, the Djoker[1] served a double fault to hand the Fed the chance to serve out the match. The crowd cheered the double fault and according to Wally and his co-commentator (Josh Eagle) there were even some sections of the crowd booing the Djoker. And so they should have, but not for double faulting. Earlier in that final set the crowd erupted after a decent rally ended with the Fed crushing a forehand winner down the line. Even Novak looked to be applauding the Fed for his shot but Wally Masur soon enlightened those of us who weren’t paying close enough attention that Novak was in fact reminding the crowd that the Fed had  framed a shot early on in the rally. As if the cheers were underserved because Fed‘s winner should be cancelled out by the fact he‘d framed a ball during the same point[2].

So, forty thirty, Federer. Second match point. The first snatched away from him by a unreachable, slapped return from Novak. If Novak errs on this point alone, Roger’s back in our thoughts. He’s in the US Open final, just turned 30, and we’re all talking about how he’s got a few more slams in him. The crowd takes a little longer to calm thanks to Novak. The Fed serves. The Serb returns and Roger tries to force a winner but finds the net instead. His whole appearance changes. He looks the beaten man already. Novak breaks back and goes on to win the fifth set with very little resistance from the man most likely to be the best tennis player ever. My friend Steve tells me hindsight is an exact science and I can’t stop thinking those two match points were the beginning of the end for Roger Federer. He wins one of them, he‘s got Novak‘s measure mentally. He beat him at the French remember. He beats him in New York and he makes Novak second guess himself going forward and people stop suggesting Novak is having the best year ever.[3] Instead he bottles it. Big time. He tells himself those two points were his only chance and he loses to Novak for the second year in a row at the US Open in a five setter after squandering match points[4]. Can’t beat Rafa. Can’t beat Novak. Mental issues. No coming back? Too early for the science of hindsight I suppose.

I’ve got no issue with the way Novak plays. It’s tremendous. He’s probably doing it better at the moment than anyone else ever has save for Roger at his best. Novak’s stepped the game up again. He’s taken what the Fed does and what Rafa does and merged the two styles into his own. He’s got reliable and accurate service and he’s aggressive and hitting balls early like the Fed but he can hit a winner from his backhand as well and he’ll chase down everything just like Rafa does but he’s not doing it from three metres behind the baseline. He’s scrambling back and forth along the baseline!
The night before the US Open’s men’s final I had a bet on Novak winning. Spreading my risk retrospectively perhaps. I wouldn’t normally chase lost money but I thought I was onto a sure thing now. Rafa had lost the last five matches against Novak. That’s a big run against a man like Rafa. He’s not one to ever be off his game. His game is not dependent on form so much as his fitness and his mind. He hates losing as well. Everyone hates losing but somehow it seems he might hate it more than anyone else has ever hated losing[5]. So long as he’s out there you know he’s going to give it absolutely everything he’s got and never give an inch to anybody, regardless of their world ranking. Uncle Tony’s taught him that nothing comes for free. You only get as much as you put in. Rafa beats the Fed not because he’s got more talent but because he believes that if he chases everything down and  keeps hitting everything to the Fed’s backhand, again and again and again, he’ll break the man down. So the fact that Rafa had lost the last five in a row to Novak suggested that he didn’t know how to beat him. It’s not as if he wasn’t chasing everything down in those last five. It was just that Rafa hadn’t yet found a weakness to work away at.

The Djoker won the first two sets, but not easily. Early in the third set Wally Masur commented on the fact that if Novak went and won in straight sets, people were going to see the result and mistakenly think it was a whooping. It was a whooping but from both sides of the court. The Djoker chases hard. Perhaps just as hard as Rafa, but his shot selection is better and he’s more aggressive and he’s got more penetration from the baseline because he is hitting from the baseline, not behind it. His toes are on the baseline most of the time. This is impressive. These were long rallies. Rafa plays a lot of spin. His balls hit the deck and spring up high. It’s not easy darting from side to side and hitting the ball early on it’s rise after it’s spun up off the court like that. Takes some effort, timing and belief.  The Djoker was going 25 hit rallies with the games best rally man of this generation and relying on his agility and his technique and he was telling himself to force the issue. Be aggressive.

The first two sets confirmed to me that Rafa hadn’t figured out how to beat Novak. No matter how many winners the Djoker would hit Rafa would keep playing the same game. Chasing everything down and trying to put away the shorter balls. This only forced the Djoker to stick to his game plan. The Djoker chased everything down and kept up the aggression, made more unforced errors but hit more winners. The three aspects of Rafa’s game that were costing him after the first two sets were: 1. Rafa wasn’t earning himself any free points from his serve; 2. Rafa was hitting the ball from well behind the baseline – as much as three metres back in some rallies – and 3. Rafa was trying to hit a winner too soon in a rally. I’m no ex-professional but I reckon rafa told himself in that third set to keep chasing everything down and wait a little longer in the rally before going for that winner. And maybe he told himself to get closer to the baseline[6].

David Foster Wallace, a popular american philosopher who wore head bands and used a lot of footnotes[7] and loved tennis and ended up killing himself by choice in 2008 once wrote (I think in 2006) that watching Roger Federer play was as close as one might get to a religious experience. I really wish he was still alive to tell us what he thought about this year’s US Open Final. It was something else for me. Both players just kept hitting that ball back so hard and from all over the court. It started fast and it never let up. It was so exhausting for my dad he needed a break after Rafa won the the third set in a tie-break.[8]

Deep into that third set Novak started stretching his side. He started poking it and rubbing it with his hand and come the end of that set he called for the doctor. We  (Dad and I) started to wonder if that was it. If the Djoker might even retire because he had a history of throwing in the towel[9]. Surely not in a Grand Slam final. Not now. Rafa wouldn’t want that. Rafa likes to break you down but he doesn’t want you to quit halfway through. In his book[10], Rafa (or John Carlin who wrote the book for him) talks about one if his first significant junior tournament wins for the whole of which he played with a broken pinkie on his left hand (important hand for the forehand and serve in particular). He emphasised how much that injury forced him to concentrate and perhaps even helped him focus on the job that needed to be done. Novak clearly couldn’t put his back into his serves. So instead of trying to, he slowed his first serve down considerably and focused on putting the ball where he wanted to. Rafa had no answer. The serves were so well placed he couldn’t hit winners from them, and once he put the ball in play Novak was just fine, the injury didn’t seem to effect his ground strokes one little bit. Rafa couldn’t break Novak like he had managed to do six times prior to that fourth set. Novak was injured but it wasn’t effecting his game in any negative way. He broke Rafa twice and served out the championship.

Goran’s quote is relevant even though I’ve no doubt taken it way out of context. I’ll reflect on the second sentence first. If Novak had have gone on and lost that match in five I wonder if he might have blamed the back injury in the press conference. He reminded the crowd that the Fed framed a ball. I might be cynical. His back was no doubt sore but instead of costing him the match, it helped him seal it. Credit to him, he had the mental strength to use the injury to his advantage. The only part of his game effected was his first serve. So he slowed it down and put it were Rafa couldn’t do much with it.

The first sentence of Goran’s quote could be interpreted in any which way you like[11]. Define Tennis. Does “just try to play tennis” mean just hitting the ball according to the way you know how to play without any thought. He keeps his head clear of everything and just plays tennis? Does he mean to say he just plays his style of tennis ill affected by whatever it is his opponent is throwing at him? Or does he account for everything that tennis is when he says he just plays tennis. A rollercoaster ride physically and mentally. Physical exertion to your limit. Muscle, agility, technique and touch. A heated debate with yourself. Your doubts and your fears and your assumptions and calculations and frustrations and advice. Problem Solving. Rafa’s got a problem now. He can’t beat Novak. He can either take it on the chin and not give it any thought until he next steps out there, or he can figure out how he’s going to deal with this problem. We all know what he’ll do. In the press conference afterwards he suggested he’s already solved the problem. He said after Wimbledon he felt worse because he lost and he didn’t know how to beat Novak. This time he says he’s going away much happier after losing this final. He hints that he might have figured something out and he’s going away to work on it….and the best thing about tennis right now is that you know Rafa’s hard working and hates losing.[12]


[1] My friend Steve doesn’t like this nickname. He says Novak’s not funny despite all the youtube clips of him goofing around. He says he should be called Screech because he and a lot of other people think he is the spitting image of an actor who played a character called Screech in a popular American television show called Saved by the Bell that ran when we were growing up. Steve likes the idea of Novak following a similar career path as that of the actor that played Screech who lost all his money and a lot of his fame until he appeared in a porn movie or two in order to get his career back on track.

[2] I just can’t imagine the Fed or Rafa reminding the crowd that his opponent had framed a shot prior to producing a winner. I’m sure Rafa’s never ever done it and if the Fed has I haven’t seen him do it and no one’s ever told me about it.

[3] Give me a break. People have won Grand Slams ie every one of the four slams in the very same year. Novak didn’t win the French. How can the best year ever not be a year in which a grand slam was achieved?

[4] He also lost in five sets at Wimbledon this, the Slam prior to the US, after being up to sets to love against Tsonga.

[5] In his book “Rafa, My Story” he admits to hating losing so much that only recently he lost a game of cards against some family members and took it so badly he accused them of cheating him out of a win somehow. He assures us he apologised to them later on.

[6] I don’t know if there is video analyst or a stat man out there who can or has done this already but I’d like to know whether Rafa spent the third set maybe half as close to the baseline as he was in the first and second sets eg, I suggest maybe he was on average hitting from one metre behind the baseline in the third set whereas in the first and second he was on average two metres back. May be wishful thinking.

[7] He relied on them so much he even used them throughout a sixty odd page break up letter he wrote to his second last girlfriend.

[8] Luckily today’s technology allows you to pause live vision. Dad had to get his heart rate down. He’d have been forced to retire from the match in the old days.

[9] Back before Novak’s body was apparently able to keep up with the demands that were asked of it Andy Roddick was asked what he thought of Novak’s tendency to retire to which he replied by suggesting that he was either weak in mind or the toughest man in the world playing tennis with all these different physical problems that seem to pop up all the time (youtube it).

[10] “Rafa, My Story”, memoirs that he apparently is quoted somewhere as saying that he hasn’t yet read. I’m starting to wonder about autobiographies and ghost writers and whether there should be a rule that you can’t call it “My Story” unless you wrote the thing (let alone read it!). Open’s one of the best books I’ve read on sport but it seems a little strange seeing Andre’s name credited as the author on the front of the book when it becomes clear once you get to the end book (if you hadn’t already wondered in the first chapter how life could be so unfair to give Andre such tremendous storytelling skills to go with his tennis playing ability) that it was in fact written by someone else who just spent a hell of a lot of time with Andre. I guess it wouldn’t have had the same effect if it wasn’t written in first person but I just wonder if at least the ghostwriter’s name should have been on the front of the book along with Andre’s.

[11] I actually think it was pretty easy for Goran to say he “just plays tennis“. He had only had one choice when it came to game plan. Too big to be an all court player or a baseliner. He had no option but to serve big and get to the net as often as possible.

[12] I still hope Roger figures out how to get the better of the both of them


  1. A pretty handy debut on the site Joey. Interesting stuff. Like the call of Novak Dj being a combination of the Rafa-Fed styles.

    Thanks for your words.

    Hope you’re around durnig the Aust Open.

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