Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic: Back to Square One

Rajat JainSenior Analyst ISeptember 20, 2009

CINCINNATI - AUGUST 03:  (L-R) Andy Murray of Great Britain and Novak Djokovic of Serbia smile during the award ceremony of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters on August 3, 2008 at Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The last Grand Slam of the year is over, and it has resulted in a brief end to the domination of two players.

It will be foolish to count those two players out, though, because they are most dangerous when hurt. We know what happened in this year's French Open after the Australian Open. We saw the aftereffects of Wimbledon '07 at the French Open '08.

The brief end of this hegemony means that we should expand our horizons beyond artistic touch of one and brute force of the other. The world (of tennis) has lots to offer, and a lot of it is worthy of attention—if not of appreciation.

One of them is Juan Martin del Potro.

Enough has already been said about the tenacity of the giant Tandilian, and the purity—and power—of his game, but there were two other things which caught my attention.

First, he becomes the first man to defeat both Federer and Nadal in best-of-five matches, in the same tournament.

Second—and more importantly—he won his major in a five-set tournament.

Winning the very first major final in five sets is a truly rare accomplishment. Not many have done it before, and not many will achieve it in the future. Bjorn Borg and Jim Courier come to mind, but that is about it. Will he have the same resolve of steel as the former?

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, let's move on to Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, for whom the season is as good as over. Sure, there are two more master series and a year-ending Masters Cup—all big tournaments—to look forward to, but the excitement, interest, and enormity of these tournaments will not be the same as those preceding any Grand Slam.

These two had a dream run in 2008, and wonders were expected in the present year, but the two failed to make any impact in the majors—despite Andy reaching the No. 2 ranking for two weeks—with a solitary semis appearance for both.

What went wrong?


Novak Djokovic

Djokovic shot to fame in '07 and promised to be a lad for the future after winning the Australian Open in '08—defeating the Swiss maestro in straight sets along the way. With two other GS semis and a Tennis Masters Cup, he kept his promise. He was a victory away to topple Nadal from the No. 2 in Hamburg, while ended the year with a mere 10 point deficit against Federer. 

From an entertainer who was good at imitation, he became a contender for the top spot and a media darling. The sudden increase in media attention did not bode well for the Serb. He said some strong words against Roger in 2007, and took on the NYC crowd in 2008.

It was more of enthusiasm of youth rather than arrogance or cockiness, as we have known more about him this year, but it had a bad effect on him. Add to that his fitness problems early in '09 and the emotional loss against Nadal in Madrid, he has left his fans disappointed.

He has come a long way after '08 and made amends by displaying the better—more fun loving—side of his character this year. He is back to being the crowd favorite, especially in New York.

However, he is struggling to draw a fine line between showing off his aggression while having spirited fun on the court. He has become too gracious a loser being "all smiles and no regrets" at the conclusion, while sometimes being overtly nice on court.

The trademark chest thumping is not visible too often, while his N.O.L.E. camp has calmed down as well. He falls short of ideas against tough opponents like Nadal and Federer, as he frequently looks up to the sky to look for divine help, while his lack of aggression is worrisome. This was one of the major factors which resulted in his one-sided defeat against Federer at the Big Apple where he played a very good game.

He has no visible weakness in his game, and has all the shots—maybe his forehand can get a bit better—in his arsenal to come at the top. Will he be a fitter and mentally stronger player in 2010?

Andy Murray

He had his breakthrough year in 2008 with his epic match against Richard Gasquet on his home turf, the US Open final and winning multiple Masters Series ending the year at No. 3.

He became Britain's real hope for a Grand Slam champion and created a buzz around the tennis world. He is the front-page celebrity in Britain, and boasts an autobiography at age 22.

He continued his success in '09 with titles at Miami and his best clay court season. He reached the semis at Wimbledon and then shot to No. 2 for a brief period by winning at Montreal and making the finals at Cincinnati, coming off as the second favorite after Federer for the Open. He had Roger's number for most of the year by defeating him four consecutive times!

Yet, he bowed down to Marin Cilic in the fourth round shattering the dreams of his fans and the country.

The problems are deeper for Murray apart from the media pressure. He does not have a "killer" weapon apart from the return of serve. Agassi had his strong backhand to back his return of serve, while Hewitt had the ability to fight down to the last point in his earlier years for their success.

Murray, on the other hand, has a weak second serve—probably the weakest among the top 10.

It is devoid of pace and lacks the spin and kick for it to be effective. His forehand is passive most of the time—except when converts defense to attack—and has no surprise weapons (drop shot? running forehand? serve-n-volley?) to keep the opponent guessing.

He has shown the ability to attack, but his passiveness against Cilic highlights the wider problem. He is more comfortable in defense than attack. But standing 10 feet behind the baseline would never get you a Grand Slam on Deco Turf!

The sooner he realizes this fact, the better it is for him. His counter punching game will not hold for a long time against better and stronger players who are hitting the doors. Jim Courier realized it against Pete Sampras, Hewitt was Federer's bunny after enjoying initial success, and even Nadal has added more attack and net play in his game.


What next?

"I have three words for Roger Federer. He is going down"—Djokovic.

"But the one thing that wouldn’t change my mindset is that you realize every day is different and that if I lose to him (in Cincy), I can easily beat him at the US Open in a couple of weeks."—Murray.

"When I would have a dream, it was to win the U.S. Open, and the other one is to be like Roger. One is done."—Del Potro.

There is a fine line between supreme confidence and overconfidence.

Having a low light in the media definitely helps, at least it eases the pressure. Del Potro benefited from it, as he was not the top three in the list of favorites to win the Open. He silently cruised through his business.

The racket speaks louder than words. The Argentine proved it, and Djokovic realized it this year. It will be good for the Scot if he realizes it as well.

Tennis world still needs their present world No. 3 and 4 to dominate in the future.

PS: Special thanks to antiMatter. A conversation with him resulted in these thoughts.


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