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Friday, June 05, 2009

French Open history looms

Federer's big chance

At long last! A post!

Rugby 7s triumph - dissected soon

Apologies again for the lengthy absence - the IRB Sevens Series is now a thing of the past, and so I can't even use it as an excuse for not posting this week! However, I've spent much of the last week catching up on sleep, and had a few failed attempts at posting (call it writer's block) since the final tournament in Edinburgh last weekend!

The Series was duly wrapped up, for those not following the game, and South Africa won its first World Series title! I'm not going to allow the opportunity for a post or two on it to pass, don't worry - I'm just waiting until next week when I've had time to sift through the thoughts (and emotions) of the season's victory, so that I can post something objective and meaningful to those who perhaps don't follow the Sevens game closely! So that's on the way.

Roland Garros - history looms for Roger Federer

For today though, it's less a proper post than a short comment on the big sports happening of the weekend, the French Open.

I guiltily confess that I haven't been able to watch a single shot from Roland Garros, what with the rugby and the subsequent travels. So, my "expert" opinion is based on nothing more than what I have read or heard in news reports.

Pretty much everyone will know that Roger Federer has been given the greatest opportunity he'll ever have to claim the elusive clay court Grand Slam. Before the tournament began, those standing in his way included Novak Djokovic (this year's second best clay court player), Andy Murray, Fernando Verdasco, and of course, Rafael Nadal.

Twelve days in, and not a single one remains. It was Nadal's defeat, at the hands of Robin Soderling of Sweden, that sent shockwaves through the tennis world, since it was Nadal's first loss ever in the French Open. Not much time was spent dissecting that defeat, because attention immediately turned to the Swiss champion, who has, year after year, found a Spanish street-fighter from Mallorca standing between him and the career Grand Slam.

Semi-final, final, final, final, and four defeats must have created in Federer the perception that a brick wall stood between him and the title. That wall is now gone, courtesy Soderling, and Federer has two matches left to win the title many must have thought he never would.

Standing between Fed and the title are...

He plays del Potro in the semi-final, and then one of Fernando Gonzalez (hand of stone, for his big forehand) or Soderling in the final, and both are matches you'd expect him to win. Yet this is not quite the same Federer as in years past, and he stuttered past Haas and Mathieu earlier this week before finding form against Monfils in the quarter-finals. If he is anything close to his best, he should claim this one.

The problem, however is pressure. As I mentioned, nobody gave too much attention to dissecting Nadal's loss (which, by the way, I believe is the result of playing too much tennis, because Nadal's game at 95% is not effective. He starts leaving balls short, denying himself time and giving more time to the opponent. He needs to rethink his playing schedule, in my opinion)

In any event, the focus switched entirely to Federer's quest to win the tournament now that his nemesis was gone. Federer must surely recognize the magnitude of the moment, and while he is downplaying it, he will tackle these matches knowing that this opportunity may not come around again. That's not to say he won't win it, of course, but he'll be desperate to do it now.

And pressure does funny things to people. Here, I can relate a story from the SA Sevens triumph - we went into the England tournament well clear in the overall world series, and needed only 13 points to clinch the overall title. Yet the pressure was enormous, and deny it as much as we wished, it became a factor that very realistically affected performance.

The focus among elites in such situations is to stick to the routines, focus on small targets that have formed the foundation for success for so long, and don't allow the mind to drift onto the big picture, but this is very nearly impossible. Focus on each step, the small essentials that sum to produce performance, is the goal, but under pressure, it's very difficult to achieve.

That pressure, which for Federer must be even greater, is a key factor that will influence the outcome of the matches. Not only for him, but for those he plays against, because they will enter an arena loaded with meaning that is not normally present.

Some will rise to it, and raise their games, others will be weighed down by it. If Federer encounters a challenger who rises to the occasion, and plants doubt in his mind, it might unravel very easily. If he gets on top, and stays in the moment, then he could walk it comfortably, with the perception that "destiny in on his side". Either way, it could go quickly. My very brief exposure to a similar pressure is that rather than denying it exists, it should be embraced and channeled towards making sure that performance is not compromised. Time will tell how Federer handles it!

The good news (for me, anyway), is that I'll actually be able to watch the final, and so might even comment with a little more insight than the big picture come Sunday!

Enjoy the action, and join us soon! We should be back on track now!


P.S. For an excellent piece on the tennis, check out this article by Dan Nicholl of iafrica.com. One of the funniest sports writers around, he also knows a thing or two about sport


Vava said...


And Federer just went through in 5 sets. What a match!

Duff said...

Welcome back Ross:
Congrats on winning. It will be good to see your positive posts.
(especially after your gut renching rant in SA. good to see you have recovered)
Meanwhile back at the reason for this psot
I am instructing a marathon clinic and one of the runners wants some 'motivational talks', I will refer them to some other SOS articles. Something like you have to want to win. So looking forward to what you told your sevens team to keep them in the game and win.

AND now that you are back ...really waiting for the series on running through the years (i.e. aging runners)