Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tsonga Resembles Sampras, Plus Notes on Rafa and Roger

This brief video shows Tsonga's Samprasian tendencies. His instinct is to follow huge groundstrokes into the net. This aggression is important against Nadal. In fact, last year Sampras said he didn't understand why Roger stayed at the baseline during his clashes with Nadal, since the way to neutralize him was to blast him off the court. A few months later, Roger looked more like Pete than ever, in the fifth set of his final against Nadal. Nadal was winning but Roger just controlled that set with his serve. He didn't allow Nadal to touch the ball.

But we are here to analyze Tsonga's game. Onward:

First point. Ali in the far court. He punishes Nadal with a wicked forehand. He takes the return shot and slams it crosscourt. Then he does the very Samprasian move of following that stroke into the net. Where he hits a beautiful volley.

Point two. Ali still in the far court. They trade a few groundstrokes and then Ali smashes a forehand, blowing Nadal off the court. It takes a special player to hit a clean winner from that position.

Third point. Ali serving. He hits a pretty good crosscourt backhand and then takes Nadals reply and pushes a backhand down the line. Then he moves to the net and hits a gorgeous, almost behind-the-back touch volley.

Fourth point. Ali serving. He hits a strong first serve. Nadal's return is a bit short and Ali pummels it for a forehand winner...All while moving to the net. Attack, attack, attack. That was Pete Sampras. He could hang at the baseline and hit winners, but he was always looking to take control of the point.

Fifth point. Ali serving. Hits a crosscourt serve that has Nadal on the run, hits a strong forehand to the opposite court, pushing Nadal way behind the baseline. Jo moves to the net and finishes with an overhead. Look at the way Nadal is the one on the string, reacting to Jo. Usually Nadal is the one who is running his opponents off the court. 

Sixth point. Ace. Significantly, it is out wide, with more spin than pace. Pete did this too. He could throw the heater down the middle and follow it with an off-pace serve that curled away from the returner. 

Now watch it all again and just watch Tsonga's feet. Remind you of anyone? Sampras just danced around the court, he almost resembled a tap dancer at times. His footwork was so relaxed, it was like watching someone skip from shot to shot. I always thought he looked cool out there. Oh, to have your tennis game look so effortless.

It all looks so simple, doesn't it? Although today's players are all-court players, there's often little rhyme or reason to their movement around the court. I keep thinking that the guy who changes his game to a more focused attack will have great success. Pete Sampras thinks so too, and some have speculated that he told Roger that when they played those exhibitions in Malaysia last year. 

It seems funny to be saying Roger needs to change his game. But Tiger Woods broke down his entire swing after winning his first few majors. Why? Building it for the long haul, staying in front of the competition. Last year there were a few cracks in Roger. Back to back losses to Canas in the spring; back to back losses to Nalbandian in the winter. Plus Nadal. Don't misunderstand me, Roger is still superb, but he knows his competitors are raising their game. I totally agree with Pete Sampras that Roger would be brilliant as a more traditional serve and volleyer. He surely has the ability.

In Roger's first couple of matches in Australia he came to net more than ever before. But he reverted a bit against Tipsarevic in that five-setter. I think Roger understands that he has to tweak his approach to stay far ahead of the pack. I've always argued that his serve was underutilized. Well he used it in that Tipsaravic match as well, to the tune of more than 35 aces, the most in his career. So we may be seeing Federer's game evolve. 

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