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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Federer and Phelps

Life in a fishbowl: Phelps and Federer under the sports marketing and performance magnifying glass

It's been a bad couple of days for two of sport's greatest superstars. Last night I was watching Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn on ESPN (great shows - if anyone in South African broadcasting is reading this, you should make a point to watch them and learn what expert sports analysts should be like - informed, fluent in English, and opinionated), and the topics of conversation included:
1. The Superbowl (what a game, incredible)
2. Michael Phelps for his marijuana-smoking bong photo (see below)
3. Roger Federer for his tears on the podium after the Aussie Open final

There's little I can contribute to the Superbowl discussion, because it's so heavily analyzed and discussed by experts in the USA, so I'll leave it at my description of an incredible game, the Steelers effectively winning the match twice after a brilliant comeback by Arizona. It was, to use a cliche that is overused, a pity that one team had to lose, because both were excellent. In the end, however, the officiating played more of a role than it should have, but the lack of discipline, particularly by the Cardinals, was costly. Still, incredible plays.

However, on the Phelps and Federer matters, there is more to say. And while they may not be scientific insights and analysis, they are sports management and marketing matters, and that's the other half of my area of specialisation, so here are a few takes on those issues, starting with Roger Federer's tears.

Tears of a champion

Roger Federer is well-known for crying on the podium, but usually it's as the winner. On Sunday, he was the loser, beaten by Nadal for the third straight Grand Slam final, in an epic match, and it was all too much. He was unable to complete his speech the first time around, but came back later to acknowledge Nadal's efforts and the crowd. The internet chat rooms have been buzzing with hate speech, eulogies and apologists for Federer, with just as many supporting him as condemning his tears as those of a bad loser. People's emotions clearly tend to run away with them, as they did for Federer on Sunday.

My take is that Federer's tears are a symptom of what may go on to become a very deep problem for him. The pressure and the stakes are clearly now so high, and the whole world has seen that. Displays of negative emotion are generally not encouraged in sport, because they provide the opposition with a weak spot to be exploited, and that fact would not have gone unnoticed. Federer is now there to be beaten, and as I discuss below, Nadal has put Federer into a position where about five or six other guys will now be aiming for him.
That said, part of Federer's appeal is his human-ness, and I certainly wouldn't criticize him for it. Some have said that he is self-indulgent and only concerned with himself, which is a little harsh. What I will say is that for the last year or so, every time Federer speaks, he comes across as very defensive, because he's had to justify why he is no longer so dominant. So he's in a difficult situation, but his handling of it has not been, in my opinion, what it might have been.

Federer's "kingdom" and the over-inflation of status

He has continued to defend himself, talk himself up and build pressure for himself, and it often seems that he has accept the role created for him by the media as the "custodian" of the sport, and that he now has this enormous responsibility to defend his kingdom. It's quite ridiculous, actually, because he's just a tennis player (a great one, at that), but his own positioning seems to have caught up with him, and his tears may be a sign that this "kingdom" has changed and he's trying very hard not to believe it. Eventually, the facade cracks and Sunday night is the result.

Nadal's gesture of consoling Federer on the podium was one of the greatest I've seen in sport. Nadal is a champion, intelligent, brave, talented, humble and mentally unbreakable. Federer, however, does not seem to have many of those qualities. He is a champion and gentleman, of that there is no doubt. But some of his decisions, his tactical play, his statements, come across as arrogant and indulgent, and may well be part of the crack that Nadal exposed on Sunday. And I do believe he'll go on to surpass Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles. About a year ago, it seemed he might run away with it, and possibly get to 20. That no longer seems possible, with Nadal now, in my opinion, the undisputed number 1.

Federer's mental block

Federer has now lost 12 times out of 18 matches against Nadal. Admittedly, many of them are on clay, where everyone loses to Rafa pretty much 100% of the time. But for Federer, the signs are very worrying indeed. Everyone on the internet is saying that he has this mental block against Nadal, and I certainly wouldn't dispute that - in the final set on Sunday, he just melted down completely and handed the victory to Nadal. So I think it's certainly true.

However, as I tried to point out in my post match analysis, Federer's problems are much deeper than a mental barrier against Nadal. There is also a technical issue with Nadal, in the forehand vs backhand match up (which I discussed yesterday), and a question of fitness and ability. Let's not forget that Nadal was 2 sets up in Wimbledon and it actually looked like he would win in straight sets until the rain intervened. He also murdered Federer on clay in Paris last year, and in this final, he came in with 314 minutes of tennis in his legs. That must have had an effect. Yet he was still able to win the match.

Federer's real challenge is about to come from everyone else, NOT Nadal

The point is, the odds are stacked against Federer moving forward. But here's the thing no one has really commented on. I believe that Federer's biggest problem in the future is not going to be Nadal, but rather a cluster of players who have now been shown the way to beat him. Remember that last year Federer lost against a host of players who he had previously been unbeatable against. And since his crown slipped, a number of players have narrowed the gap - Murray, Djokovic, Tsonga, even Monfils and Verdasco are now in striking distance.

And so Federer's biggest danger is that he used to be the untouchable, now he is one of the many great players in the bunch, and Nadal has been the catalyst who has closed that gap and led the way for everyone else. Let's not forget, for example, that Andy Murray was the form player before the Open, and he beat Federer in three out of their last four matches. Federer would struggle to beat Murray right now. So too, Tsonga, Verdasco, Gilles Simon, and Djokovic all have their sights set on a target that is infinitely closer, and getting closer all the time.

What's next for Federer?

There are a few hardcourt tournaments in the USA, where I'm sure he'll feature as always. But we'll get a really good indication of the changing dynamics, because those tournaments are likely to be very closely contested, with about five or six players all with equal chances of winning. I think it will be very open, and even Nadal might battle to win those tournaments.

Then we go to the red clay of Europe, and Nadal's strongest part of the year. His game is perfect for the clay, whereas on the hardcourts, I still think he has a sub-optimal game. That's another reason why Federer will win another Slam, unless Nadal can adapt his game on the hard surface. Clay, however, is another matter, and if Nadal stays healthy, he should win a few tournaments. For Federer, unfortunately, the timing could not be worse, because he'll only have his confidence further undermined as the very definite second-stringer for those two months.

Then we move to Wimbledon, and by then, we'll have a much clearer picture of how the sport is going. By then, I think that we might have found that Murray and Djokovic have closed Federer down even more, and Federer will have not one, but three challengers for that Wimbledon title.

Should be a fascinating season. But one thing is for sure - Nadal is now the man to beat.

Michael Phelps: Regrettable behaviour with potentially enormous consequences

For those who may have missed it, Michael Phelps, he of 8 gold medal fame from Beijing, was caught on camera smoking from a water pipe (bong) that is usually used for smoking marijuana. The story was published in News of the World (a UK tabloid), with the photo apparently taken at the University of South Carolina. In response, Phelps yesterday issued the following statement:

I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.
The problem for Phelps is that this has already happened before - at the age of 19, just after the 2004 Athens Olympics, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and made similar comments about his irresponsibility and his commitment to change his behaviour. Back then, he was fined $250, did some community service work including talks to school kids about the danger of drink-driving, and the story went away pretty quickly.

The implications: Is it that bad, or is it worse?

This time, it might be a little different. He was famous in 2004, having just won 6 gold in Athens. But post-Beijing, he is THE superstar. And most importantly, the sponsors have come onboard since Beijing, recognizing his transcendant value in sports. This kind of publicity is enormously damaging. In Hollywood, they say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Unfortunately, in sport, that's not true, particularly when you're the All-American, wholesome athlete whose success is built on your reputation for hard-work, discipline and excellence.

Part of me therefore thinks this kind of behaviour is "normal", though wrong, and it does seem a little hypocritical to condemn him for it. He was not competing, he'd just come off what must have been years of dedicated training, and having cilmbed a higher Olympic summit than any other athlete in HISTORY, he may be forgiven for letting himself go a little (note that I'm not condoning his behaviour, which was wrong and stupid, as it would be for everyone else. All I'm suggesting is that it's being hyped up to create controversy that really should only be mild).

It's also hypocritical because dozens of other sportsmen and women engage in this kind of behaviour all the time. There are widely reported and substantiated stories of cyclists at parties using potbelge, a concoction of heroin, cocaine, caffeine, amphetamines and other analgesics. Athletes have even written autobiographies of their wild partying after big events, and been celebrated for them. I've hosted world-class athletes (at Olympic Champion level) who swing wildly between extra-ordinary discipline during training and exception lack of discipline away from it. It seems to me that athletes have personalities that lend themselves to the extremes of both training and wild, "irresponsible" behaviour. So certainly, Phelps is being held to a different standard here.

Endorsement 101 and consequence

That is the result of his exception profile and the fact that his endorsements are really based on his discipline, success, excellence, purity and work ethic. When a company makes a decision to endorse an athlete, they do so with a very specific strategic purpose. Endorsement is part of promotion, which is an element of the marketing mix, which is itself driven by the company strategy. So you have to appreciate how a company views an endorsement from a strategic standpoint. Part of it is brand awareness - just put your brand in people's minds and they'll buy it. But the best kinds of endorsements have a strategic element, and endorsement does not actually work all that well unless the brand and the athlete can craft some kind of "synergy" in the form of a strategic fit.

Nike's endorsement of Tiger Woods works because Tiger appeals to the masses, is a world-class performer and relates so well to the market Nike are targeting. He communicates the values of the brand simply by being himself and winning. Nike are hoping that you make associations with their product based on his behaviour. It's a tenuous link, but works well in some instances. There is also the obvious product integration, in that people will buy Nike gear because they idolize Tiger. Tiger therefore pushes Nike gear, and tells people what it means. Nike chose him for those reasons and anyone else, or any other behaviour, would not fit with their strategic intentions.

(Just as an aside, sometimes endorsements are absolutely ridiculous. In South Africa, we have a cricketer who endorses a skin care range called Sanex. They make shampoos, deodorants and soaps, and we see adverts of this player in the shower, using the shampoo, with the message that our skin must perform as well as the player. The funniest thing of all is that this player is himself losing his hair, and so the company are promoting shampoos with an agent who is slowly going bald. I'm sure they see value in it though - for them, it's nothing more than exposure and brand awareness)

For Phelps, those fits are often not as simple (as they are not for many athletes). How, for example, does Phelps communicate Mazda (one of his endorsers - he is the face of Mazda)? He could do this through his performances (allowing Mazda to leverage the association by promoting the world-class performance of their cars in conjuction with his, much as Rolex does for Tiger), but that's about it. When he then tarnishes his own image with this party lifestyle, Mazda's value is reduced. He devalues their brand and as a result, his own (and vice-versa, since the endorsement is an equal partnership or marriage)

Also, Phelps is only the biggest thing is sport every four years, at the Olympics. Swimming is, sadly, nothing like golf or basketball. LeBron James gets $90 million from Nike, but he is in the media every year, for 7 or 8 months a year. And he's pushing basketball shoes, not swimming costumes, which are obviously a much less sought after product. So Phelps' endorsement value is tenuous at best, and away from the pool, he has to compensate for that apparent marketing weakness. Being caught smoking and partying is not the way to do it. So unfortunately for Phelps, he's probably reduced his potential quite a bit as a result. Other than that, I feel that people are hyping this up far too much.

The tabloid media

Without wanting to condone Phelps' behaviour further, one thing I must point out is the absolutely disgraceful coverage provided by News of the World in their story. Those who know the tabloid media will of course not be surprised, but the gutter media in this article is really disgraceful. Quotes by people saying that Phelps "out of control from the moment he got there.“If he continues to party like that I’d be amazed if he ever won any more medals again” were a feature of the article.

They also make a point to harp on the doping issue, because cannabis is banned during competition. What they fail to point out is that Phelps was not competing and cannot be banned for an out-of-competition test for this substance. The IOC have since confirmed that, and the paper will have known it, yet they deliberately emphasized doping, casting doubt on Phelps' legality as an athlete (effectively implying that he is a doper). If it was up to me, tabloid journalists would be deported to salt mines and kept there forever...

In any event, a bad couple of days for two of sport's superstars.

Both will pull through, they'll emerge on the other side and keep winning and one day this article will seem over-hyped itself.

Ross

13 Comments:

vikram said...

Its true that today Nadal seems mentally unbreakable, and that Federer has tons of problems ahead of him. However, lets keep in mind that Nadal has been around for a smaller amount of time, while Federer has been winning for several years now. Lets see Nadal 5 years down the road - competing with perhaps another strong and upcoming youngster. They are both great players, but I suspect that Federer will eventually bounce back to break Sampras' record before Nadal gets there.

Cheers. Great post as always.
vikram

Simon Martin said...

So tears now count as a display of "negative emotion" do they? God help us!

maryka said...

Surely no one but the close-minded crusaders of anti-drug America believes that smoking a bit of pot here and there is any big deal? If he'd been pictured funnelling a beer, there would have been no controversy at all. I missed the Superbowl ads this year, but I'm sure many of them showed young people having a grand old time guzzling various alcholic beverages to excess. Given that alcohol is at least as "bad" for you as marijuana, I find it somewhat dismaying to read that you're "not condoning his behaviour, which was wrong and stupid, as it would be for everyone else". Give the kid a break already!

What's truly sad is how an entire country of people can be duped into thinking smoking weed is any worse than smoking tobacco, drinking beer, gambling, or any other of the legal vices out there. Personally I think this episode just makes Phelps look like a regular human being. We already put a lot of unfair pressure on athletes and superstars like him to live up to our perfect ideals, I'm frankly surprised he's able to live a normal life at all.

Nice coverage of the tennis stuff, by the way.

Duff McLaren said...

Like your coverage. Couple of points
-wonder who his friends are that released the picture
-wonder how his performance would improve if he didn't smoke or drink
-wonder what "brand" he was smoking as one of our Canadian snow boarders in the Olympics was "caught" as he was in the same room as pot.
I don't usually follow tennis but your commentary made me want to watch.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

Thanks for the comments. Responses to each:

Vikram:

I'm sure you're right. Federer will win another slam at least, maybe two. But he won't bounce back to dominate, because he's now one of the cluster, not the dominant player, which is what I think will be the result of this - as I said, it's not Nadal, but the OTHER five guys who Federer now has to worry about. It makes the sport great to watch, that's for sure!

Thanks, as always, for reading

To Simon:

No, not directly, but what they represent in this case is without doubt a negative situation for Federer. I tried hard to stress in the post that they tears represented something, and that "something" is undoubtedly the pressure that Federer is now feeling.

I think Maria's post on the finals analysis post is really great, because she's picked up that Federer's meltdown in the fifth set may be a sign that he switched over from an internal focus to an external focus and suddenly started to think about the stakes and the other factors. That affected his game enormously. That is VERY negative, and it was then followed up by the tears on the podium.

To me, that combination (which is really what I was saying) is a very negative display. I'm not sure how else you'd look at it? You could say it's an expected display for a passionate, emotional player who'd just given his all, and that's all it means. Fine. But that ignores the context and the fact that he's lost before, and it forgets what happened in the match.

So, yes, in this case, they were a very negative display. Ask yourself what you'd be thinking as the next in line - Verdasco, Murray et al.? They're saying "This guys is vulnerable, he breaks under pressure, we can beat him". If you're Federer, that's negative.

To Maryka:

Thanks for the comment, you have a point. You'll be even more angry to hear that the police are now looking at criminal charges against Phelps.

And while I am not going to defend my position on his smoking, I will point out that if the police can press charges against him, then it means that what he did is illegal. And one can debate whether it SHOULD BE illegal or not, but the point is that it IS ILLEGAL. Therefore, I can't condone it - it's illegal and therefore stupid. You can't break laws you disagree with (not that he was most likely thinking that way at the time)

I agree that alcohol and gambling and other LEGAL vices are just as bad. But then maybe they should be made illegal too? I'm not here to debate the issue of marijuana and its legality. But what Phelps did was illegal, so it can't be condoned. Also, it can't be condoned because of the impact it will have on his reputation and endorsement potential. And yes, that's an incredibly tough standard to hold someone to, and they are only human, but they're humans trying to earn $50 million a year with their reputations, and that requires more discipline that we need.

And I am very much trying to give him a break - I hope they don't press charges, and that this goes away, and that he can continue to do what he wishes (as long as it's legal). But what I was trying to emphasize is that his choice (acceptable or not) carries consequences, and as a marketer, I'd be looking at that and saying the my value has just gone down.

To Duff:

Thanks for the compliment. Glad we added some flavour to tennis for you!

Good point about PHelps' lifestyle and its impact on his performance. One can only assume that he doesn't do any of this during training cycles. I suspect that Phelps lives this life of extra-ordinary discpline for months while he trains, but then switches over to the complete other end of the spectrum when he doesn't train, and lets go completely.

I think that's quite common among the elite athletes - the live at the edges, with discipline on the one end and an intense party lifestyle on the other.

I don't know who released the photo - I wonder what they think now? I'm sure they cashed in and have made a few dollars off it...

Ross

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your posts. Allways very interesting. As an ironman triathlon age-grouper I enjoy a lot all your posts related to cycling, running, etc, but since I has been a frustrated tennis player (too short 1.65m to be good and with a very week mind when I was boy and was enjoying everything BigMac was doing and I wasn't even able to imagine to do), I also love tennis the way you do.

I would like to comment a couple of things, mainly on the Federer issue.
I am spanish (sorry about my english writting) and I should be supporting Nadal as a compatriot. I nevertheless have my heart divided any time Nadal-Fed are on court. I think what I would like is Nadal winning in his surface, clay, and Fed winning in his, grass and hard-courts. I even think that this should be the most fair and normal thing. I consider Federer as a much better player (technically speaking), but tennis (as it occurs in many other, if not all, sports) is not only a question of being good but of performing good when you have to do it.
I think Fed is so good that he is able to come back from situations that break mentally most of other players, but is not because he is mentally strong (even if I think he is when compared with others) but because he is too good.

What he did, I agree with you, it is going to be very bad for him in the future. There are some players that realized some time ago that they can break Federer's mind: Nalbandian does it (lots of tough matches between them), Cañas did it, winning him 2 times in 2 weeks (just a mental question if we compare both players), Murray has got it now, etc and some others will begin to think they can do it, he opened the door too much. Is that good? Well, I think the world should be like that, everybody being a good person, everybody showing his feelings, and all of us feeling bad because the guy saw he did not win and was very sad.
My 10 years daughter, being very happy for Nadal victory, was very upset seeing Federer crying, she was thinking, poor man, he lost, he is such a good player, why only one has to win? they both are so good!.
At the same time, while I was saying her that crying is not bad, that he is just showing his feelings, he is a very good player and wanted to win, etc I was thinking, why are you so frustrated Fed? You have everything you need to win most of the time, why you change your play when playing Nadal? what are you doing showing the world that you do not know how to handle this situation?
So, I agree with you, this is not going to be good for him in the future.

By the way, I also agree with Maria's comments on the match in your previous post.
In addition to that, what I think killed Fed in the 5th was seeing that Nadal was still there. He was not ready for a dogs fight then, he thought that winning the 4th set was enough and the guy (coming from a 5 hour SF) was going to break physically and mentally, but by they contrary he saw the boy as if it was the beginning of the match, and he was not ready for that, he was thinking, "I won the 4th and this is going to be an easy think". It is normal he thinks that way, in fact it is what happens most of the times, and certainly this is what happens many times with Fed's opponents; they are able to fight during the first set, they go to 7/5 or even a tie-break, lost the 1st set and then begin to think, "I played very well and lost with the number one, I can't do more..." and Fed wins an easy second set. Murray has shown that this should not be like that, he losses first set and comes back (he did it twice lately against Fed), and now everybody is going to see that: "Ok, I lost the 1st set, but let's continue being here, the guy is not so tought, I will have a chance, let's just show him that I am still here, let's make him beging to think this is not going to be an easy task..." And in tennis, you think too much with your head and you begin to think with your arm, and your balls start to go out of the lines...
This doesn't mean he is not going to continue being a great player, and I hope (really I think with his talent he deserves it) he will win some more GSs, hope at least 2-3, he will have chances in Wimbledon and the US Open this and year and in the next seasons, he is so good he can even win with his tortured mind.

And by other way, he is so good that on the AO, even playing a game that was not his (any time he plays against Nadal he does such strange things...), even being mentally a boy against an ironwarrior as Nadal, and even making a 50% first serve, he was very close to win. One single point in the 3rd set and he was the winner, a 10% more on the first serve (let's say a normal 60% first serve) and he was the winner, so he will probably win some great championships, but he also made, and I think he knows that, a big mistake showing his competitors that he has many doubts in his head...

Sorry I wrote too much for my first comment. Won't do it again... ;-)

Toño

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Dear Tono

Thank you so much for your very insightful comments, please don't apologize but rather keep them coming!

I agree with most of what you have said, except I can't help feeling that Nadal is being a little hard done by here. I really do believe that to do what he has done, turn a perfect clay court game into a game that is now good enough to beat the best on grass, hardcourts, and STILL dominate on clay, is a magnificent achievement. I would go so far as to say that he is the most complete player of the modern era - better than Sampras, better than Agassi, and you have to go back a long way to find someone with more weapons.

I agree that Federer possesses amazing technical ability and talent - even Nadal's coach says this. But I think Nadal deserves more credit than he is getting, because he doesn't make mistakes, he's fit, strong, intelligent and has incredible weapons. So while I agree that Fed is a great champion, Nadal is deserving of even more praise now.

But your thoughts on the mental side are spot on - I think Federer may have wanted Nadal to just "go away" after the 4th, but he didn't, and it caused Federer to come outside that "bubble" of mental strength that these guys put themselves in, and he collapsed.

But most of all, I agree that Federer showed that he can't handle the situation. And everyone now talks about him being great apart from this mental block against Nadal. I fully expect Federer to have a battle to hold onto his number 2 ranking. Murray is going to close him down, Verdasco would have beaten him in Melbourne, and guys like Djokovic and Gilles Simon (my favourite player right now, by the way) have shown they can beat him, and will beat him in the future.

Nadal is really only one of his worries moving forward!

Thanks again, great comments!

Ros

Lesser Idiot said...

Why is the behavior of Pehlps smoking pot "wrong"? Stupid? Yes, it was stupid. But wrong? What sort of ethical problem is there with it?

Anyone who ever drank a beer or glass of wine should probably refrain from passing moral judgement on someone for smoking pot.

I for one and delighted to see Pehlps dismissing the notion that smoking weed implies that one is lazy =)

Lesser Idiot said...

Also, regarding illegality and morality.

You *can* break laws you do not agree with. Almost everyone does (think of speed limits)

In fact it is often morally required that you do so. (think slavery in America, think WW2 Germany)

Obviously Phelps wasn't taking a brave stand for freedom or anything, but breaking stupid laws is a proud tradition of all free peoples =)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Lesser Idiot

Yes, but just because you speed because you don't agree with the speed limits doesn't make the law irrelevant - it makes your behaviour wrong. It's not a question of ethics, but law, in this case.

You can't do things just because you disagree with laws. And no one is passing moral judgement - point is, it was illegal, so shouldn't have been done. Just as I should have hit 70 km/hour in the 60km/hour zone. But then I did get a traffic fine for it, and I paid it. Perhaps I shouldn't have because i disagreed with it?

I would never have said it was a sign of laziness. That's actually the first I've heard of it. What I am saying is that if your "brand" is built around your discipline and hard work, and that your brand is worth $50 million, then there's a standard that has to be kept to. He didn't. But I think the general reaction is over the top. It's still illegal though (that is another debate entirely. One I don't care much for, so I don't debate it). We'll see if the police press charges or not...

Matt said...

I have to complicate (or simplify) your take on Federer. Last year it's pretty clear that Federer was feeling the affects of mono (I believe that's what he had), so the Djokivic win at the Aus. Open was not so much a case of him surpassing Federer, but of him certainly playing well and Federer not having his A game. Granted the Serb and perhaps Murray represent new blood on the list of men's "contenders."

However, if Nadal wasn't playing right now, Federer would have his take on several more majors - he'd reach 20 most likely. Murray and the Serb are good (potentially great) but DO NOT have the game to consistently beat Federer in a grand slam final. Federer has the mental edge against those guys. And the Serb has some issues, certainly (family, health, etc).

The 2009 Aus. Open final was historical in that it determined who is the best today and most likely Federer's place in the pantheon. He is not the greatest. He's not even the best now (Brad Gilbert actually said that at some point during the coverage). Nadal has brought his game up to speed with the hard court. That's clear. Sure he's at a disadvantage (hitting 10+ feet behind the baseline), but he's done it. He now has the chops to play with anyone. But, he has the mental make-up to beat anyone. One of the best points someone made (BGilbert I think again) about Nadal is that he "doesn't know the score" while he plays. What that means is that he is simply grinding out another point. He doesn't quit. That can be very tough on an opponent mentally, and since Nadal has the edge physically against anyone he plays, the combination is brutal.

That's where Federer is in trouble. His brilliance on the court usually produces some level of concession from his opponent. But not Nadal. And now, Nadal is just as brilliant tennis-wise.

If Nadal can stay healthy, he will go down as the greatest.

Remember, he's 22 years old.

But he's tough on himself, too.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Matt

Nice post, thanks for the visit. I agree with most of what you've said, especially about the current status of the game. We didn't get the commentary with Gilbert, but it certainly sounds like he's said some very direct and, in my opinion, correct things (as have you).

Where I will disagree slightly is on the Murray angle. I think (though I stand corrected) that Federer has now lost 4 out of the last 5 times he's played Murray. And yes, he was ill last year, but those kinds of things don't change the fact that Murray does believe he can beat Federer. But more than this, I think 2008 was Murray's breakthrough year, and I see him getting better and better. I think he'll be a huge challenge for both Nadal and Federer.

For Djokovic, I think his is a more volatile future, because he doesn't seem to have a very good grasp of his own limitations. He seems to believe his own hype, and so I'd predict he'll be up and down. But definitely Murray could go on to displace Federer as number 2. There's no doubt that this time last year, you'd never have gotten any price on that, but the gap is closing rapidly, and i think it's a matter of time.

So I'm predicting that in the future, Federer's position at number 2 will be challenged, unless he can change things. And yes, if Nadal wasn't around, then Federer would be near 20. But we could say that about many people. If Federer wasn't around in the early 2000s, then Roddick would probably have 12 titles (4 at Wimbledon, maybe 6 on the other hard courts). He's gone a little backwards (or others have come forward), but same kind of thing.

If I had to stick my neck out, I'd say that Wimbledon this year goes to Nadal or Murray. French is Nadal's to lose, and then the US could see Tsonga or Simon threaten the top 3.

Ciao!
Ross

Matt said...

Ross,
I'm so into the topic I hope you don't mind me commenting again!

I guess I simplify the game based on results and although hindsight does play a part of that, the speculation about what will happen I feel is just that, speculation. I am a skeptic until I see a real pattern emerge.

Roddick may have more majors were Fed not playing, but it's certainly not like Federer has beaten him every time, therefore Fed has been the difference. Roddick is weak mentally (and I'm an American!). He's proven again and again that he has a big serve but that's about it. But sure, maybe another few majors, but Roddick is not that "special." He's lost to many other players, shown again and again that he can get too emotional, etc. He's not on that level in terms of all-around dominance. No way. As for Murray, Simon, Tsonga and players like Verdasco, they are very talented and have the potential to beat Roger, but they have to get there to do it.
Part of the challenge is getting through the draw, and although Murray may have the game to beat Roger, he has to beat all comers to get there. Roger and Rafa are the top two and the finals of the last few majors prove that. It would be considered an upset were one of these other players to get to the big dance. Will Roger fade? Perhaps, but again, the contention that these other talented players like Monfils, Tsonga, and Verdasco becoming grand slam champions, do they really have much of a chance given the draw? Roger is pretty much unbeatable still, especially at majors, unless he's playing Nadal. I'm pretty sure Roger would have beaten Verdasco soundly in the final.

Federer, despite the massive vulnerability, is still going to win almost every match at a major (at any tournament). He's not too shabby on clay either, I might add.

These other players just aren't in that same "tax bracket," if you will. They're just not on the same level. What will make what I'm saying wrong and what you're saying right is Federer making an early exit from a major. Or Nadal. That's why we know who Tsonga is, etc. But most likely, unless Federer is really reeling from this latest meltdown against Nadal, the two of them will square off in those finals.

If I were Federer, I would skip the French (only real insiders would note this in the future) so he can go in super fresh to re-claim the grass court this year(that would not be a bad bet) and then be ready for NYC in September where he is very very tough. If I were coaching Rog, I'd do a little sports psychology, but perhaps improving his first serve would be more important. He will be untouchable on the grass or the hard hard surface if his serve comes into form.

So, yeah, I'm going on and on about Rog. He's still the best player this side of Rafa. Rafa has his number, but Rafa will be feeling some fatigue by July, not to mention September.

I wonder what the odds will be that Murray wins Wimbledon? Is he favored? Do you think he can ride the English crowd to the win? Hmmmm. We'll see. But I'd say unless Nadal stumbles, Rog and the Spaniard will play another classic in all white.

Thanks for the great writing and analysis. I'll be reading.