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Tebbutt : The whole story

Nov 27, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

Alexander Zverev defeated Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-3 in the final of the ATP Finals two weeks ago in London. Afterwards, there was well-deserved praise for Zverev who played an excellent match.

But it was obvious that Djokovic was well below his best. In what turned out to be the key juncture in the match – 4-4, 30-all with Djokovic serving in the first set – he made two abysmal forehand unforced errors, one long and one into the net.

That wasn’t anywhere near peak Djokovic form, especially considering his inspired tennis dating back to his Wimbledon victory in July. Zverev proceeded to serve three aces to start the 10th game – he held a superb 19/22 first serve points won against the best returner in the game – and wrapped up the set two points later when Djokovic erred long with a forehand.

The second set was mostly Zverev. It was clear Djokovic was not right – he looked weary and sickly. Despite the fact that he had beaten Kevin Anderson 6-2, 6-2 the previous day in the semi-finals with an impeccable performance, he was not the same player the day of the final.

An obvious give-away was when he squatted after the third point of the third game in the second set (above), clearly not feeling well.

At the time, ATP Media commentator Nick Lester suggested that Djokovic was “emotionally flat” and his co-commentator Robbie Koenig chimed in, noting that he looked low on energy and was “sniffling a lot.” They mentioned that he had a head cold and that the match was similar to his 7-5, 6-4 loss to Karen Khachanov in the final of the Paris Masters two weeks earlier when he was also feeling under the weather.

“Health-wise I haven’t been really perfect in the last three, four weeks,” Djokovic said after the loss to Zverev. “That took a lot out of me.”

He added, “obviously he had big serves. I wasn’t returning well. I wasn’t making him, so to say, making him move too much. I was making way too many unforced errors. From 4-4 in the first set, my game really fell apart, to be honest.”

In the semi-finals, Zverev had beaten Roger Federer 7-5, 7-6(5) and was full measure for the win. But again, there was an element of Federer not being at his best.

He has had a hand problem dating back to the June grass-court event in Stuttgart – a 7-6(6), 3-6, 6-2 loss in the final to Borna Coric.

As reported on Tennis.com after his loss in London, “while speaking to the press from Switzerland, Federer added that the hand injury from the grass-court event at Stuttgart was still affecting him to some extent.”

“I felt the hand for a long time, even here in London, even though it has been getting better and better,” he was quoted as saying by the Tages Anzeiger newspaper. “That shouldn’t be an excuse, [but] it broke my rhythm sometimes. I hope that the problems are gone during the holidays.”

None of this is meant to diminish what the 21-year-old Zverev accomplished. This observer has never seen him play better – great serving, terrific off the ground, especially on his sometimes shaky forehand, and competent volleying. As well, even if a Djokovic or a Federer is subpar, they can often still win. So, just the fact that Zverev beat them back-to-back is worthy of accolades.

But the question remains – how much of Zverev’s wins, specifically the one over Djokovic, was due to his fine play or poor play by the Serb?

This tennis writer listened to a podcast following the match when there was no mention at all about Djokovic not being fit as an explanation for his disappointing showing. Instead, it was totally about Zverev’s emergence and his chances for 2019, especially at the Australia Open. All that despite the fact that Djokovic easily handled Zverev 6-4, 6-1 four days earlier in the round-robin portion of the ATP Finals.

It has often struck yours truly that it would be useful if it were possible to have a ratio using percentages to measure the results of matches. For example, was Zverev defeating Djokovic a 50-50 proposition – 50 per cent Zverev’s fine play and 50 per cent Djokovic not playing well? When another tennis writer was asked for their assessment – they suggested it was 70 per cent Djokovic poor play and just 30 per cent Zverev playing well. Personally I was more generous to the German – suggesting it was 60 per cent Zverev’s high level and 40 per cent Djokovic’s off day.

Of course these relative percentages would be subjective and hard to calculate – but it would be very interesting if some system could be worked out.

Even though he has only one quarter-final appearance in the 14 Grand Slams he has played (Roland Garros ’18), betway bookmakers have made the 21-year-old Zverev a 2-1 favourite to win one in 2019. So, maybe even astute odds-makers got carried away by one hot weekend from the German.

There’s an obvious tendency in tennis – and in most sports – to generally make a result attributable to the performance of the winning individual or team. Usually reports stay away from focusing on any illness, injury or outside factor that might have affected the outcome.

Several years ago, this reporter asked Philippe Bouin of L’Equipe in France, now retired but IMHO the best international tennis journalist of the last several decades, what his approach was to writing about injuries in his articles. He replied that he thought his readers deserved to be informed if an injury or other external issue had affected the result.

It would seem that if sports had the same gravitas as politics or world affairs, there would surely be more thorough and balanced reporting on mitigating factors such as a player being unfit or unwell.

It is of major relevance in situations like these – it should never be underestimated just how much better the inferior player can perform if the superior player is playing below, or well below, his or her best. Just a little (or a big) something missing from the superior player’s game can give a huge boost to the inferior player, both in terms of confidence and level of play.

In 2009, Juan Martin del Potro won his one and only Grand Slam title at the US Open – in the semi-finals he defeated Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 as the Spaniard struggling with an abdominal strain. In the final, he overcame Roger Federer 3-6, 7-6(5), 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 with Federer bothered by a back issue.

That’s not meant to diminish del Potro’s triumph, but rather to help explain the circumstances of those two matches. The Argentine has a 6-11 lifetime record versus Nadal and 7-18 against Federer. While at first view not very flattering, those numbers are much better than virtually every player who has faced those two giants on as many occasions. And few would argue that del Potro isn’t deserving of a Grand Slam title.

On the subject of injuries, it was fascinating to listen to Federer after he lost to Zverev in the semi-finals in London. Reflecting on past experiences he said, “five years ago, where was I? I was probably fighting with back pain in 2013, not sure if I was ever going to figure that back pain out again because I had it for almost probably four or five months of the season. It really rocked my tennis for a bit.”

Photo: Mauricio Paiz

Here are some of his results during that “rocked my tennis” period – losses to no. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky (Wimbledon), no. 114 Federico Delbonis (Hamburg), no. 55 Daniel Brands (Gstaad) and Tommy Robredo (US Open) – the only win in 12 meetings with Federer for the Spaniard.

In hindsight, although it was not known at the time, those results can be explained about 95 per cent by Federer’s lack of fitness and five per cent by strong play from his opponents.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Swiss Maestro won the 2017 Wimbledon final 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 over Marin Cilic when the Croat was essentially incapacitated by a foot blister. And just the previous year at Wimbledon, Cilic almost beat Federer in the quarter-finals – losing 6-7(4), 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(9), 6-3 after holding three match points.

So, the 2017 final could have been Cilic’s time for revenge. Or… was the 2016 five-setter vs. Federer an outlier because the Swiss had a knee problem and wound up calling it a year after his very next match – a 6-3, 6-7(3), 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 loss to Milos Raonic in the semi-finals?

It’s easy to see how all the factors that affect any specific result can become complicated and messy.

But while it’s a shame these external factors come into play in tennis matches – sometimes in very important tennis matches – that doesn’t mean they should be ignored and not reported. They’re part of the overall story and should not be dismissed as excuses or poor sportsmanship from the losing side. Reporting the broad nuanced scope of a result is something that’s owed to a reader, viewer or listener. In words of the late bombastic broadcaster Howard Cosell, it’s all about “telling it like it is.”

TRANSITION EXERCISE

It was remarkable how they were able to get the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille ready for last weekend’s Davis Cup final after it was used for a rugby match four days earlier. Here’s the fast-forward version of the make-over.

FABIO’S FEET UP

Is there any player you’d expect to be relaxing in the off-season more than mercurial Italian Fabio Fognini? Well here he is.

FAVOURITE VLOGS – SUMMER OF ’18

It’s completely the opposite of the weather we find outside today in Canada, but here’s a trip back to one of the hottest days during this year’s US Open – “How hot is it?” It even includes a mini-performance by a singer from the Metropolitan Opera Company.

Feature Picture: Susan Mullane