Sunday, February 01, 2015

Score One for the Numbers Guy

Novak Djokovic is a sneaky Serb.

Even as he's been relegated to playing in the same era as two ultra-famous players who have simultaneously vied for all sorts of ATP all-time records and "best ever" pronouncements, Djokovic has managed to carve out a career for himself that will ultimately put him in the same conversation as Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal when the "greatest players ever" are discussed. He'll just be the guy mentioned by the numbers-loving stats-geek type who speaks with the certainty of a mathmatician, who may or may not have ever actually seen the Serb play but will look back on his career accomplishments a generation or two from now and point out that he pulled off some amazing things WHILE PLAYING IN THE ROGER/RAFA ERA.

"So, imagine what he would have done if one, or both, of those guys hadn't been around," the Numbers Guy will surely say. "HE would be the one everyone was talking about as maybe the best ever. HE would be the all-time slam title leader. HE would be the King, not just a Serbian Prince forever fated to live in the shadow cast by the brightness of the other two."

Everyone involved in that future conversation will listen to the Numbers Guy, and agree with it all, and a few who actually might have watched Djokovic play will note how he evolved into a stone-cold competitor who was maybe the best big point player on tour for the majority of his career. But they'll still rank him behind Federer and Nadal when they have a secret vote to determine the "best" player. Djokovic will get a list-topping vote or two in that tally, though... even if they're only cast by a few spare voters who tend to side with the iconoclasts of history, often overlooked and underated by mainstream opinion simply because they didn't adhere to "the party line." They'll feel good about their vote, content with the fact that they at least gave Djokovic his due. Well, a little bit of his due, at least. The Numbers Guy won't won't stop stating his case, either. He'll speak up at the next meeting, too. Even if, deep inside, he knows it will always be, ultimately, an argument made in vain.

(We could all do worse than to have a Numbers Guy on our side, I say.)

It wouldn't be a bad legacy to have. Eventually. But, in 2015, Djokovic's career is still about making that Number Guy's future case. Today in the Australian Open men's final, the Serb gave him another talking point.

Seeking a record fifth AO title in the Open era, Djokovic faced off with an even more "off-brand" opponent in the "Big (whatever number you wish)" argument of the day, Andy Murray. The Scot, all the way back now from back surgery in '14, was making his appearance in his fourth final in Melbourne and was still seeking his first title. Having reached his first slam final since picking up Amelie Mauresmo as his coach, though, Murray was in position to make a statement. Not just about the it-shouldn't-be-an-anomaly fact that he has a female coach, but to raise his OWN legacy a bit by picking up a title in his third different slam, having already won at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (and won Olympic singles Gold in '12).

The many Djokovic/Murray match-ups have never been aesthetic pleasures of contrasting styles. Their six previous slam meetings, four of them in finals, had mostly all highlighted the same thing -- that there's a lot of "same" doing on there, with both being masterful defenders who play long rallies filled with remarkable gets in exchanges that cause the two men to remind you of world level table tennis champions facing off, showing incredible accuracy on a court that, because of their ability to cover its entire expanse, looks a bit the size of a postage stamp. Thing is, Djokovic has almost always been better at all the similar things that he and Murray do. It's why he entered the final with a 15-8 head-to-head edge over the Scot, including going 4-2 in slams.

Essentially, the key when Djokovic and Murray clash is what goes on between the ears and inside the chest. Murray often carves out advantages for himself, but usually doesn't make full use of them... and never lets himself forget it. Even as he's learned to win major titles, he is almost always a game away from believing he's closer to losing than winning. Meanwhile, Djokovic has made a career out of taking advantage of even the smallest edges given him, usually leading to huge comebacks or keys moments when he's reached deep inside to held off an opponent's tide of momentum just long enough to turn it back in his favor. You get the feeling that he never believes that losing a match is a foregone conclusion... not when winning just one more big point might make all the difference. Unlike Murray, frustration never gets the best of Djokovic.

In this final, it was more of the same. The rallies were long, and Murray had his chances as he found himself with an advantage in multiple games and sets. But as those advantages were only partially utitilized or quickly given back, his frustration grew, and Djokovic seized the moment to rise in Melbourne yet again.

In the opening set, Murray grabbed a 40/love lead on Djokovic's serve, only to see the Serb save a break point with a slice volley to the corner and a volley put away of a Murray forehand up the line to end a 27-shot rally. A Murray return error followed, then a Djokovic ace up the "T." Djokovic's backhand volley winner held serve for 2-1. He then extended the momentum into the next game, leaning in anticipation of Murray's serve and then whacking a crosscourt forehand return winner to break for 3-1. Murray broke back a game later, finally converting his first of six BP chances, but then gave it right back on his own service game when Djokovic broke for 5-3 despite throwing in a few errors and often pausing to shake out his right hand after injuring his thumb while falling on his racket when he extended his reach for a ball in the mid-court.

The set went to a tie-break, and Murray once again got an early edge as Djokovic double-faulted on the first point. But the Scot handed the advantage back six points later by double-faulting himself to bring the TB back on serve at 4-3. Djokovic's great defense and Murray's long volley gave the Serb his first lead at 6-5, then a Murray backhand return error gave Djokovic the tie-break at 7-5.

The 2nd set saw Djokovic stumbling and shaking out his leg as Murray went up 2-0. But with Djokovic looking to end points quickly, he regained his balance and got the break back, then went up by breaking Murray again for 3-2, reeling off a total of thirteen consecutive points. The string finally ended with the Serb up 4-2, as Murray held serve. After a wait while several fans jumped onto the court and a protest group was ejected from the stands, Murray came out and broke Djokovic's serve to take a 5-4 lead. Despite going up 40/love on serve a game later, Djokovic was forced to save a set point in game #10, a four-deuce affair in which he held on his sixth game point after using his defense to extend and then win a long rally to even things at 5-5. Murray saved three break points a game later, and again the two went to a tie-break.

There, finally, Murray didn't give back his lead. He went up a mini-break early at 2-0, then raced to a 6-2 advantage. He nearly squandered it, but eventually put away the set on his third set point in the TB (and fourth of the 2nd set) to win 7-4 and knot the match at one set all.

The final two sets highlighted the major difference between Djokovic and Murray. Both long ago erased early questions about their fitness in long matches, so it now comes down to the mental side of the game when they meet. Djokovic's nerves of steel can now convince himself that no disadvantage is deadly, so no deficit can't soon become a lead. No game's momentum turning against him can't be soon used as a psychological lethal weapon against an opponent. It didn't take long for Murray to take the brunt of all that as the Serb turned the Scot's 2nd set victory, which should have sent him into the 3rd on an emotional high, into the very weapon that allowed Djokovic to ran away with the title.

After having knotted the match by winning the hard-fought 2nd set, Murray went up an early break in the 3rd. The Scot led 2-0, but saw the Serb break back and the set tied up at 2-2. In game #7, Murray held a break point on Djokovic's serve, but failed to convert. Djokovic held for a 4-3 lead, and that was enough to push Murray's frustration over his missed opportunities over the edge. Djokovic never lost another game.

Murray's double-fault handed a break and a 5-3 lead to Djokovic, who held for 6-3 and then broke to take a 1-0 lead in the 4th. From there, his game took full flight as Murray's sank. You needn't see the scoreboard to know who was winning, or losing. It was written all over the gaits -- confident, or quite the opposite -- of the two men as they walked across the court. Djokovic coasted down the runway in the end, making a soft and triumphant landing when he served out a love set, winning on his second match point when he followed up his wide serve with a short ball get that Murray netted to end the match. Djokovic claimed his Open era record fifth Australian Open crown with a 7-6(5)/6-7(4)/6-3/6-0 victory, winning the final nine games and twelve of the last thirteen.

The win moves the #1-ranked Serb into some pretty high-rent territory when it comes to ATP history. Aside from the record "one for the thumb" AO win (hey, a little Super Bowl reference on Super Sunday -- why not?), Djokovic is tied with the likes of Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and Ken Rosewall with eight career slam titles, is 32-1 in his last thirty-three matches in Melbourne and his fifty career AO wins put him third in the Open era, behind only Roger Federer (75) and Stefan Edberg (56), with Novak being just one more title-run Down Under from passing by, oddly enough, Federer's current coach on that list.

A bit more food for thought:

With wins at seven of seventeen slams played since 2011, it's hard to avoid thinking that Djokovic has the chance to make the "Big 3" from the current era also the Top 3 when it comes to career slam titles. Nadal will likely win at least one more Roland Garros crown, moving him into sole possession of second place behind Federer on the all-time list. Six major titles out in front, Pete Sampras' fourteen slams is still a ways ahead of Djokovic's eight, but if he wins two more by the time the 2016 Australian Open has concluded he'll be in double-digits, and that "14" number won't loom so large. Since he's been running on a 1-win-in-4-slams pace for a few seasons now, winning two seems at least a semi-decent bet. While the "Big 4" of men's tennis will now re-assume the Top 4 rankings (w/ Murray moving up) for the first time in eighty-eight weeks, soon, Djokovic will be the last legitimate line of defense by the "old guard" -- aside from Rafa in Paris, since he could probably ONLY play clay court events down the line and still contend there -- against the NextGen of champions rising through the ATP ranks. His slam-winning pace might actually pick up a tad as he remains standing the tallest from the group of four men who have now won thirty-seven of the last forty slams, and thirty-nine of forty-three.

He still has some work to do on his legacy, mind you. Finally wresting away one Roland Garros title from Nadal's grasp would complete a Career Grand Slam, and that combined with next year's Olympic tournament in Rio -- where he'll likely be the favorite, in what might be his last best shot at Gold -- would give him the chance to join even more rarified air by achieving the "Career Six Pack" in singles by having won all the major singles titles available in the sport: the four slams, the year-end championships and Olympic Gold. Only Agassi, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams have accomplished the feat in professional tennis history. Not even Federer (he's won doubles Gold, but not singles) or Rafa (no year-end tourney title) lists that on his resume of accomplishments.

After Federer's career fades to black, and maybe Rafa's, too, as he loosens his grip on Paris, and Djokovic becomes his generation's last sentry, just where will the memory of his career leave him in the pecking order of the greats? Based on the popularity of the aforementioned two, his ceiling has probably already been set in the eyes of the public. But he still has time -- more than either Roger or Nadal -- at the top of his form (that period is already in the past for other two) to at least make the numbers very, very close.

For sure, the Numbers Guy will still need a bit more.

But, hey, if Djokovic ends up going down as the the most "underrated and underappreciated" 12-time (or more) grand slam champion with between 200-300 weeks at #1, then I suppose he can live with that.

But I'm just guessing there. I figure, in his mind, he's already won the lottery.

...earlier in the day, Martina Hingis & Leander Paes claimed the Mixed Doubles crown with a straight sets win over defending AO champs Kristina Mladenovic & Daniel Nestor.

Hingis claimed her first slam title in the Wimbledon doubles in 1996, and her maiden major singles title when she swept the Australian Open singles and doubles in 1997 at age 16. She went on to win three AO singles crowns (consecutively from 1997-99), but hasn't lifted a slam title of any kind since she won the AO mixed in 2006. Back from retirement (and Hall of Fame enshrinement), she's now picked up four women's doubles titles in her comeback, and today's win was her sixteenth career slam crown.

Combined, Hingis and Paes have won thirty overall slam titles (well, 31 if you count this win as one for both of them). Veteran Paes, a 15-time slam champ, is the first man to win slam mixed titles with both Martinas, having grabbed the Australian and Wimbledon mixed championships with Navratilova in 2003.

...DAY 14 LIKE #1: The congratulations pour in...

...DAY 14 AND OFF-SHE-GOES: Meanwhile...

...DAY 14 TO-CATCH-UP-ON-SOME-LIGHT-READING: ...the rest move on.

...and, finally, a quick January recap and a preview of this coming week's Fed Cup action will appear here in the next few days

#1 Serena Williams/USA def. #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS 6-3/7-6(5)

#1 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #6 Andy Murray/GBR 7-6(5)/6-7(4)/6-3/6-0

Mattek-Sands/Safarova (USA/CZE) def. #14 YJ.Chan/J.Zheng (TPE/CHN) 6-4/7-6(5)

Bolelli/Fognini (ITA/ITA) def. Herbert/Mahut (FRA/FRA) 6-4/6-4

#7 Hingis/Paes (SUI/IND) def. #3 Mladenovic/Nestor (FRA/CAN) 6-4/6-3

Tereza Mihalikova/SVK def. #14 Katie Swan/GBR 6-1/6-4

#1 Roman Safiullin/RUS def. #7 Seong-chan Hong/KOR 7-5/7-6(2)

#2 Kolodziejova/Vondrousova (CZE/CZE) def. Hobnarski/Minnen (GER/BEL) 7-5/6-4

Delaney/Polmans (AUS/AUS) def. #8 Hurkacz/Molcan (POL/SVK) 0-6/6-2 [10-8]

Jiske Griffioen/NED def. #1 Yui Kamiji/JPN 6-3/7-5

#1 Shingo Kunieda/JPN def. #2 Stephane Houdet/FRA 6-2/6-2

#1 Yui Kamiji/Jordanne Whiley (JPN/GBR) def. #2 Jiske Griffioen/Aniek Van Koot (NED/NED) 4-6/6-4/7-5

#1 Shingo Kunieda/Stephane Houdet (JPN/FRA) def. Gordon Reid/Gustavo Fernandez (GBR/ARG) 6-2/6-1

4...Andre Agassi
4...Roger Federer
3...Mats Wilander

2011 Australian - Novak Djokovic 6-4,6-2,6-3
2012 U.S. Open - Andy Murray 7-6,7-5,2-6,3-6,6-2
2013 Australian - Novak Djokovic 6-7,7-6,6-3,6-2
2013 Wimbledon - Andy Murray 6-4,7-5,6-4
2015 Australian - Novak Djokovic 7-6(5)/6-7(4)/6-3/6-0

25...Roger Federer, SUI (17-8)
20...Rafael Nadal, ESP (14-6)
8...ANDY MURRAY, GBR (2-6)
4...Lleyton Hewitt, AUS (2-2)

25 Roger Federer (17-8)
20 Rafael Nadal (14-6)
19 Ivan Lendl (8-11)
18 Pete Sampras (14-4)
17 Rod Laver (11-6)
16 Bjorn Borg (11-5)
16 Ken Rosewall (8-8)

8 - Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal
7 - Rafael Nadal/Novak Djokovic
5 - Andre Agassi/Pete Sampras
5 - Ivan Lendl/Mats Wilander
4 - Bjorn Borg/Jimmy Connors
4 - Bjorn Borg/John McEnroe
4 - Roger Federer/Andy Roddick

**ACTIVE SLAM TITLES LEADERS - singles/doubles/mixed**
23 - Bob Bryan
19 - Mike Bryan
17 - Roger Federer
14 - Rafael Nadal
12 - Mahesh Bhupathi
12 - Daniel Nestor
10 - Max Mirnyi
8 - Nenad Zimonjic

2002 Daniela Hantuchova & Kevin Ullyett
2003 Martina Navratilova & Leander Paes
2004 Elena Bovina & Nenad Zimonjic
2005 Samantha Stosur & Scott Draper
2006 Martina Hingis & Mahesh Bhupathi
2007 Elena Likhovtseva & Daniel Nestor
2008 Sun Tiantian & Nenad Zimonjic
2009 Sania Mirza & Mahesh Bhupathi
2010 Cara Black & Mahesh Bhupathi
2011 Katarina Srebotnik & Daniel Nestor
2012 Bethanie Mattek-Sands & Horia Tecau
2013 Jarmila Gajdosova & Matthew Ebden
2014 Kristina Mladenovic & Daniel Nestor
2015 Martina Hingis & Leander Paes

2006 Yan Zi & Zheng Jie, CHN/CHN
2007 Liezel Huber, USA
2008 Alona & Kateryna Bondarenko, UKR/UKR
2009 Sania Mirza, IND
2010 Cara Black, ZIM
2011 Gisela Dulko & Flavia Pennetta, ARG/ITA
2012 Bethanie Mattek-Sands, USA
2013 Jarmila Gajdosova, AUS
2014 Kristina Mladenovic, FRA
2015 Bethanie Mattek-Sands & Lucie Safarova, USA/CZE

2015 Venus Williams, USA & Martina Hingis, SUI

5 - Cara Black
5 - Lisa Raymond
5 - Katarina Srebotnik
4 - Daniela Hantuchova
3 - Sania Miraz
3 - Samantha Stosur
2 - Anna-Lena Groenefeld
2 - Kristina Mladenovic

TOP QUALIFIER: Renata Voracova/CZE
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #7 Genie Bouchard/CAN
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): #1 Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1 - Renata Voracova/CZE def. #17 Zhu Lin/CHN 5-7/7-6(5)/6-2 (saved MP in 2nd set)
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #2 Maria Sharapova/RUS d. (Q) Alexandra Panova/RUS 6-1/4-6/7-5 (saved 2 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - Madison Keys/USA d. #4 Petra Kvitova/CZE 6-4/7-5
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr./Doub.): WC Singles Final - Jiske Griffioen/NED d. #1 Yui Kamiji/JPN 6-3/7-5
TOP LAVER/MCA NIGHT MATCH: 4th Rd. - Madison Keys/USA d. #4 Petra Kvitova/CZE 6-4/7-5
FIRST VICTORY: Julia Goerges/GER (def. #32 Bencic/SUI)
FIRST SEED OUT: #32 Belinda Bencic/SUI (lost 1st Rd. to Goerges/GER)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: China (year after Li wins title, 1-5 in 1st Round)
LAST WILD CARD STANDING: Chang Kai-Chen/TPE, Oceane Dodin/FRA & Irina Falconi/USA (all 2nd Rd.)
LAST AUSSIE STANDING: Casey Dellacqua, Jarmila Gajdosova, Samantha Stosur & Alja Tomljanovic (all 2nd Rd.)
Ms. OPPORTUNITY: Ekaterina Makarova/RUS
IT (??): [Madisons] Madison Keys/USA & Madison Brengle/USA
COMEBACK PLAYER: Victoria Azarenka/BLR
CRASH & BURN: #5 Ana Ivanovic/SRB (lost 1st Rd. vs. qualifier Hradecka/CZE; one of eight seeds to lose on Day 1)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Maria Sharapova/RUS (2nd Rd.: saved 2 MP vs. Panova/RUS)
LADY OF THE EVENING: Genie Bouchard/CAN (2-0 in night session matches on MCA, with her Army serenading her from the stands)
DOUBLES STAR: Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Lucie Safarova (USA/CZE)
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Tereza Mihalikova/SVK

All for now.


Blogger Eric said...

This stat is not right:

7) Serena has now won 23 of her last 24 matches against fellow Top 10 players.
Since the start of the 2013 US Open fortnight, Serena is 23-1 against Top 10 players. The only loss? Simona Halep beat her in the 2014 WTA Finals round robin - and Williams won the title anyway.

Vika beat her twice when she was in the top 10...I think they are not counting it bc Vika is not currently in the top 10...but that means that the stat is meaningless...

anyway... *shakes head at WTA*

Tue Feb 03, 07:50:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Actually, I think they're right since they say that's her record since the start of the 2013 U.S. Open, not the start of the '13 season. Vika's wins over Serena were in Doha and Cincinnati that year. Overall, she was 21-2 vs. the Top 10 in '13.

Amazingly, Serena was 9-0 vs. Top 10ers that year in just her final three events (and had a win over #11 JJ, too). Then 12-1 last year (w/ the Halep loss) and 2-0 so far in '15.

If you go back a little big longer, she's 53-5 vs. Top 10 players since 2012, with her losses coming vs. Azarenka (2), Wozniacki, Kerber and Halep.

I was actually looking over all that in the last 24 hrs. because I was going to include that in the January Awards. ;)

Wed Feb 04, 01:20:00 AM EST  
Blogger Eric said...

Do you have single set ace records?

The best I could find:

Wed Feb 04, 08:47:00 PM EST  
Blogger Todd.Spiker said...

Yeah, that's all I can find, too. Although, with the record for a match being 24 (25 in a qualifying round match), I've got to think that Serena's 15 in the 2nd set vs. Sharapova might have actually set a record.

Wed Feb 04, 09:10:00 PM EST  

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