Post-Australian Open Mailbag: Ljubicic's role in Federer's win over Nadal and more
- Final thoughts on Roger Federer's win over Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open, including comments on medical timeouts, coaching, tactics and more.
Lots of post-Aussie questions. This is the jetlag edition but also the Melbourne afterglow edition. That was such a special event, a validation of tennis and a repudiation of insular policy. Here come short responses so we can get to as many as possible…..
Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at email@example.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.
Mailbag question? Now that Fed is in the top 10 how fast can he move since he will not be defending points most of the year?
• About as fast as the court inside Rod Laver Arena.
How did Ljubicic contribute to Federer’s success at the Aussie Open?
—Vivek, Houston, Texas
• Good question. Federer had a real gameplan in all of his matches. In the finals, he worked Nadal’s forehand. He played aggressive tennis—note how few slices he hit—willing to pile up errors so long as he was dictating. He also “played the score” altering his tactics depending on the game. We debate how much of this credit should be apportioned to Ljubicic but there’s enough credit to go around.
NOBODY touched upon @theljubicic's role in this renaissance. Remember folks going gaga over Edberg? Power of celebrity. Unfair.
• Correction. When then reader tweeted this, we were told that Patrick McEnroe was all over this. Good job, PM. But, yes, Ljubicic probably didn't come in for enough praise. I don’t think we need to denigrate Edberg. And between/among Lendl/Murray, Chang/Nishikori and Becker/Djokovic (RIP), the celebrity coaches did well for themselves.
You want meaningless stat the poster child is unforced errors. Ain't no such thing as "unforced.”
• I really struggle with tennis and data. Having had my data sports analytics phase—I’m coming out of it—I agree that tennis is comically behind the times. Did you guys know, for instance, that “aces” count as winners? (At Slams they do anyway; another problem with data is the lack of uniformity). We hear that a player has X winners in the first set; but if half of those came on aces it tells a much different story than if all came off the ground. And yes, to the reader’s point, “unforced” is highly subjective and doesn’t account for pressure. There are only two things you can control in tennis: your attitude and your serve. The rest necessarily involve the opponent. So every “error” is subjective.
All that said, is it possible that tennis simply resists measuring and counting? Heresy I know. But matches like Sunday’s final—and, for that matter Saturday’s final—involve so many immeasurables. Nerves, fatigues, the occasion of history, crowd support, nagging injury, taste for combat. Even a casual fan knew that the match was about so much more than X’s and O’s. As perhaps you could tell from my tweets, I caught myself spending a lot of time on the stats. In the end was this really about Federer’s winners-to-errors ratio or total points won or first serve percentage?
Hi Jon, I've always thought your tennis coverage was fair and balanced. So I was wondering what you thought of Roger's consecutive medical timeouts (SF, F) in this year's Australian Open?
—Regards, Martin, Hong Kong
• Didn’t bother me, in large part because he was legitimately injured. He talked about his groin injury on Thursday night after the semis. There were reports that he was supposed to have had an open practice before the final and closed it. (This usually means: there’s an injury we don’t want to disclose to the world.) The medical timeouts exist for a reason. That Federer is hardly known as a rules bender—accumulated good will is a big theme here—further douses cynicism.
Nadal up a break….You thinking “I told all these people so, a long time ago; here we go again….” And then….voila. Was great to see.
• I think part of what was surely extra gratifying to Federer (and his tribe) was how dramatically this departed from the script of the past. Traditionally, it’s been Federer who’s capitulated a bit and Nadal who’s closed these matches. His rallying from a break down in the fifth—after losing the fourth—and reel off the last five games was an all-time great fightback.
Query: Has Fed ever hit his backhand better than he did on Sunday? If not, I have high hopes that my forehand could improve as I age. I was blown away how cleanly he was hitting it.
• Agree. I’d love to know the drive-to-slice ratio from Sunday’s final compared to other Nadal matches. Pity the match stats on the Australian Open website don’t give us basic backhand information.
But, yes, apart from hitting his marks, Federer’s message was: work that one-hander all you like, I’m taking my cuts. I may make some errors, but I’m going down swinging.
It is absolutely egregious that “Rafa was well off his level.” That is simply way way way off and the excuse narrative is sad. The 30-year-old still near his athletic prime was “more tired” than the 35 year old because of one rest day? Come on.
• Not an “excuse.” No one is denying that Federer won outright, with courage and aggression. For all we know Federer was comparably injured. But it was clear that Nadal was not at his best physically and had not fully recovered from his Friday five-set semifinal. There were times late in the match where he slapped desperately at shots that, at full strength, he would arrive to in plenty of time. Look, too, at the mph on his serve, which dipped with each set. He was asked about this after the match and—for a guy who rarely if ever cites fatigue—had this to say.
Just watched the great Federer-Nadal Australian Open final and loved it for all of the reasons we know. I hadn't watched Nadal for a while and was struck (again) by this: why does no one ever mention his "grunting/shrieking"?? I've never understood why people have gotten all hot and bothered about the "shriekers" on the women's side, which has never bothered me in the slightest: it's sports, it's brutal work—plus, who cares? But no one ever mentions, at least that I've ever seen, that Nadal screams like a maniac on every stroke. Why the double standard? Or is it just obvious?
• The half-full answer: we draw a distinction between grunting as tactic and grunting as byproduct of exertion. Nadal plays such labor-intensive tennis we assume his grunts are involuntary. Half empty answer: we have a double standard for women.
Just finished reading your 50 Parting Thoughts on the Aussie Open but noticed you didn't mention the termination of Doug Adler from ESPN regarding his comment during the Venus Williams/Stephanie Voegele match (if you did, I missed it, at my age the eyes start to go!) If he meant "gorilla" in his comment then that is truly unprofessional and has no place in modern commentary but if he meant “guerilla,” should a career be eclipsed and destroyed by an innocent homophone? Two things to note:
1) This reminds me of papers I submitted in college and the professor would circle the words in my paper with an arrow off to the side with the initials in red "WC." Word Choice.
—Tomas, New York City
• I think we can all agree that this was a highly regrettable word choice. Beyond that, I don't know. I don’t really know the broadcaster very well. I don’t know his history or his terms of employment. As Thomas says, he asserted that he meant “guerilla” and I supposed it’s up to the employer to assess whether they accept that. A few points:
a) I often think we’re often way too cavalier about demanding people be fired. Job loss is horrible and disruptive and destabilizing. (Especially in this media climate.) Depriving someone of their livelihood—and often with it a core of their identity—is not something to undertake lightly. Again, maybe this is an offense worthy of termination. I just don’t know.
b) Rule of thumb: stay away from animal metaphors. Cheetahs and lions and gazelles and the catch-all “beasts”….great for the zoo. Less great for human comparisons.
c) One of you wondered why no one asked Venus if she were offended and used her response to gauge punishment. I see the point but I don’t think we should be placing that kind of onus on the offended party.
The men's and women's Finals matches at the Australian Open. The matches were played in the middle of the night in the U.S. central time zone. How does the Australian Open decide the start times for the finals matches? Does it want a prime-time start locally? Does it want to have a reasonable start time for Europe (Breakfast at Rod Laver Arena)? Was the U.S. market considered?
I woke up at around 3:30 a.m. and checked the score. Federer had won the first set and I believe he was up 3-0 in the second. And I went back to bed. It's a shame the match couldn't have started at about 2:00 p.m local time, like the other Slam finals. (I guess the women's final in New York was U.S. prime time for a few years.) Even if it had started at 2:00 p.m. local time, I suspect tennis no longer moves the needle in the U.S. But Federer-Nadal surely would have.
—Jim Yrkoski, Silver Creek, Neb.
• T.V. rules. When I first started covering the Australian Open, the finals were held in mid afternoon local, late the previous night EST. Clearly the host broadcaster wanted a prime time final and you can hardly blame the tournament for accommodating the biggest client.
Do you think Federer wins that fifth set if he and Nadal played their semis on the same day? I do not understand one finalist getting an extra day off before the final.
• T.V. rules, part deux. You want a prime time session on Thursday and Friday, you essentially have to play the men’s semis on different days. I agree it’s prima facie unfair. But I’d feel more strongly if a) the data suggested the “earlier” semifinalist is at advantage. But it does not. b) the “late” semifinalist didn't get a day off. As it was, Nadal has almost a full 48 hours. If anything this is a bigger deal at Masters Series events where there’s usually no day off between matches.
I was watching the Federer-Nadal Australian Open match yesterday, and it was clear that Nadal was standing extremely far away from the baseline on Federer's serve in order to give himself more time to react. Not a bad strategy per se...
But, I was wondering why players don't occasionally hit a light, dink serve over the net a couple of times a match when the opponent is standing so far behind the baseline? (and I mean truly a light tap over the net—like the serve of a dad to his son or daughter). It seems to me, that a lightly hit serve could be a nice surprise tactic, that could easily catch the opponent flat-footed. I know in Federer's case, his serve is a huge strength, but I don't see a reason why players wouldn't take advantage of a chance for a cheap point or two.
Is this an optics thing? Like, this strategy could make my opponent look bad and/or embarrass them. Or worse, this could make myself look bad (since it might be breaking something that is more of an unwritten rule)?
—Tom from Boston, Mass.
• Think it's more of a question of efficacy than optics. Take Nadal’s footspeed (even at a Sherpa-take distance from the baseline), take the fast court and take the advantageous position Nadal would be in if he made a play. Then compare than to a conventional 120 mph, spin laced serve. I like your thinking, I like this as a periodic keep-em-honest tactic on clay. But I just don’t think it would have been effective.
In Stroke of Genius I asked you to change the ending. This time I loved the ending.
• Hah! But seriously, if I had the bandwidth I was thinking there could be a book about the 2017 Australian Open. Here was a sensational event—a 14-day infomercial about everything virtuous in tennis—playing out as, elsewhere, democracy was getting pushed to five sets.
Looking forward to reading your Strokes of Genius II. (AO 2017) Happy writing.
• Okay, done.
Any idea why Mike Bryan and Bethanie Mattek-Sands pulled out of mixed doubles?
• Mike Bryan was still alive in the men’s doubles and BMS was alive in the women’s and the schedule was starting to get constipated. (The Bryans lost in the finals. Mattek-Sands and Lucie Safarova won.) As a rule, before entering a mixed draw, partners have an understanding that this kind of a situation is a possibility.
• Theirry takes us out with a very valid complaint about the Davis Cup: In your AO wrap-up: I considered booking a trip to Ottawa for the Canada-GB tie and ultimately decided against it because of the usual uncertainty about participants. Now I genuinely feel bad for people in Ottawa as well as for Tennis Canada, because with Raonic and Murray's withdrawals, they are left trying to sell an event featuring few marquee names (no offense to Pospisil, Polansky, Nestor, Evans, Edmund or Jamie Murray), and, with 3-day tickets priced between roughly $150-350 (120-275 USD), an event that's in no way representative of the cost of attending a pro tennis tournament—which I would argue remains the best value of all the major sports (especially in the early rounds). In other words, as you said, there is plenty of room for an exciting team-based event in tennis, but the Davis Cup the way it's currently set up clearly no longer works, nor does it provide much value beyond occasionally bringing pro tennis to markets that don't necessarily get it on a regular basis. And in this case, at a cost for fans that is often significantly higher than what they would pay to see, say, a Challenger-level event.