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Mistresses and Masters

Tennis has a new champion -- but what will his feet be like on clay?

By 4.4.11

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Too late, Maria Sharapova realized she really was losing the match to Victoria Azarenka. Tennis will do that to you, perhaps more than team sports: the feeling that getting behind is not ultimately important because it ain't over till it's over and if the other guy (or girl, in this case) got so many points, you can get the same and then you will be even.

And in fact it does happen that way often enough for the notion to remain viable. At the most recent Masters 1000 tournament, played in Key Biscayne, Florida, the agile and gracious Kim Clijsters was down 1-5 and 0-40 in the third set of a match against Ana Ivanovic. That is like being on a count of oh-and-two in the ninth with two outs and no one on base and your team on the wrong side of a lopsided score.

She pulled it off.

However, it took something out of her, and she was eliminated in the next round by Andrea Petkovic, who later got some criticism for doing a little victory dance. Maybe she was inspired by the routines some football players go into after a touchdown. Although German -- and Catholic, if crossing herself before stepping on the court means anything -- she may be familiar with American football. She could even be a fan. I have to defer to Mr. Hillyer on this, but my understanding is that our football is gradually following basketball into global popularity. One of John Grisham's books, Playing for Pizza, is about a pro league in Italy wherein a quarterback who is let go by the Cleveland Browns -- but I digress.

However, Miss Sharapova beat Miss Petkovic in the semis and more or less said at a press conference the dance thing was stupid, and Miss Petkovic, who is quite lovely and appears to embody the reassuring essential quality of today's Germans -- no matter what, stay out of fights -- said she would not dance anymore.

Maybe Miss Sharapova felt mean-spirited after that and, being Russian, it made her moody and caused her to play listlessly, at least until she was almost beaten. The fact is, however, that Miss Azarenka played an impressive match, wearing her opponent down with shots down the lines and staying focused, though you would not have thought so given the noise she was making. She attributed this clear-headedness to her realization, recently, that tennis is not the whole world.

Tennis is supposed to be a sport of decorum; trash talk, for example, is unheard of during matches. It is difficult to see why the loud grunts that have become almost a trademark among the Russian girls (I say girls because many of them are scarcely out of their teens) are not similarly penalized, notably Miss Azarenka (who is actually from Belorus) screeches at every shot, causing many to worry about what is happening to her.

Kim Clijsters, who does not screech, has been having a remarkable run since returning to the circuit after nurturing her baby girl for a couple years, with victories at the U.S. Open last September and a brilliant start this year at Melbourne, where she defeated China's small but mighty (and well-mannered) Na Li in the final, also in a come-from-behind win. She got as far as the third round a few weeks ago at Indian Wells (California), which is also a Masters 1000 tournament, and now this.

The smart money is on Miss Clijsters getting back to the top when the clay season begins shortly, with tournaments in Rome and Madrid leading up to the French Open, which mercifully is staying at the Roland-Garros stadium after some wild talk last year of moving it to the outskirts in search of more space.

The term Masters 1000 is derived from the fact that the Tour awards a thousand points to the winner, and fewer points to the runner-up and so on down the line. You get points and then depending on your points, you get a ranking.

The Unites States is the top country, in the view of anyone with common sense. True, we probably would not get a thousand points in the Libya derby, or whatever the kinesis is over there, but who would? If Moammar Gaddafi gets away with this war but loses his oil fields in the Libyan east, he should get a few points at least. If he gets killed he will not get any points. If any Americans are killed we ought to drop the big one on Tripoli. However, I am not a strategist and I admit I should not be sounding off like this in the middle of a sports column, although I know Mr. Tyrrell would not object to the notion of dropping the big one on Tripoli, philosophically. Politically, maybe.

At any rate, the reason Miss Clijsters is favored in the clay season, her main rival being Caroline Wozniacki (in the absence of Venus and Serena Williams, both suffering from ill health) is that the Russian and Belorussian and other Slavic girls cannot win on clay. They never have won on clay. They play hysterical games with poor footwork and crazy shots with little control, and that style may catch Kim Clijsters by surprise, especially when she is suffering from muscle cramps as she apparently was at both Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, but it will not work where she can stay at the baseline and move in for crafty drop shots at the net at moments of her choosing, catching the Russian girls unawares. But she is too polite to say she catches them unawares, saying rather that they played superbly and had a moment of inattention that gave her an advantage. She does not apologize but, you know, she is very nice about it.

Another thing tennis is supposed to be is a mental game. This does not make it different from other sports. Still, you could argue that since you are alone on the court, or at most accompanied by one partner, in doubles, for about an hour and a half or two hours, you have to keep you mind on every single play. In other sports you do that too, but you are not always required to do anything about the play, even if you ought pay attention to it.

Historians of tennis explain that perhaps the single most interesting contribution of Roger Federer, who lost to Rafael Nadal in the semis at Key Biscayne (he was crushed, to say it bluntly), after losing to Novak Djokovic in the final at Indian Wells, California, a couple weeks earlier (also crushed, though not so badly), was to bring back the all-court game, which is the mental game par excellence. Now of course the all-court game never went away, but the same historians who praise Mr. Federer for bringing it back point out that players increasingly worked on "power," trying to overwhelm their opponents with high-velocity service shots and attacking, as opposed to shrewd ground strokes.

Like most historical generalizations this one is simplistic to the point of being almost useless, but it is correct that Mr. Federer re-introduced an almost classical sense of form, which depends on long and steady strokes with finely tuned upper-body strength thrown into the ball, extremely adroit and rapid foot work, control that is like clockwork, and an uncanny sense of what your opponent is going to do, even before he does.

In reality, it is not so uncanny, because a player with Mr. Federer's mastery of the entire range of shots, from anywhere on the court, is almost by definition forcing the other player's shots. Mr. Federer returned to the fundamental Bill Tilden axiom: control the point. Controlling the point, rather than relying, for example, on an extremely strong serve, or an overwhelming two-handed backhand, requires complete mental discipline; the player must see the whole court and what is likely to happen on it over the next several shots, the same way, to stretch comparisons a little, the best point guards see several moves ahead in setting up a play.

By imposing this sort of tennis over the better part of the past decade, Mr. Federer changed the men's game, at least in the near term. The Tour leaders had to adapt to his game. The two players who have been playing, over the past two or three years, at a level allowing them to beat him fairly often, Rafael Nadal and, in the past year, Novak Djokovic, have developed games clearly inspired by his.

Thus it was perhaps normal that Mr. Federer's top students should meet in the finals of the last two major tournaments before the beginning of the clay court season, Indian Wells and Key Biscayne. Strictly speaking, neither Mr. Nadal nor Mr. Djokovic should be described as Federer students. They have highly particular games, unmistakably different from Mr. Federer's. Mr. Nadal's game is based on a forehand topspin that he hits with a ferocity that seems almost a caricature, often making reverse forehand shots to maintain the pressure. Mr. Djokovic, who comes from a family of professional athletes in a mountainous region of Serbia, plays an iron man's game, seemingly impossible to wear down (it has been known to happen), answering stroke for stroke until he gets an opportunity to put something near the alley and cause the moment of inattention or surprise that leads to an unforced error.

Each has his own style, if you will forgive the crashing banality, but each has learned, from Roger Federer, to adapt to others' styles: which means, in practical terms, developing the kind of game, or something approaching it, that made him unbeatable for a long time. The finals at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne went the distance, with the winner in both cases getting the final point thanks to a small edge on the mental side. Tennis has a new champion in Novak Djokovic, who since leading his team over France to win the Davis Cup last year has had an unbroken string of successes in the matches that matter. It is of course much too soon to rule out Rafael Nadal, whose dominance on clay is about to be tested, and it is certainly too soon to assume Roger Federer has stopped working on ways of beating his younger rivals.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.