Jun 12, 2021

2021 Roland Garros ATP Finals

Finals time and if you wanted 8 hours of the best 4 players in the event going head to head, you got it. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back for Wimbledon. For those of you who joined our bracket contests, thank you! Winners will be posted once the tournament concludes : ) It was a lot of fun and we’ve decided to keep doing them. The link to join next week’s grass events is below :

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Novak Djokovic vs Stefanos Tsitsipas :

The match that was so good the Roland Garros Youtube highlights video was actually more than 2 minutes long :

“This would be a good spot for everyone to lose their money” was one of the initial thoughts I had when heading into the semifinals of the top half of this bracket. Although I agreed with the -250 odds for Nadal, this is one of the largest prices that has ever been offered for a RG clash between these two champions and I would still guess something like 80% of the money was placed on Nadal. Everything pointed to Nadal winning this. Their match in the finals last year seemed like Djokovic simply had no answers. Nadal’s play at the end of the Schwartzman match looked unbeatable. Djokovic was playing well, but had dropped sets against two lesser opponents than Nadal. The final nail in the coffin though, was that they put clay on the court. “They put clay on the baselines!” declared Novak to a confused crowd while losing in the first. More bad news would come, as many feared he would look around and notice that they had put clay literally everywhere. His complaints about the bounce of the ball being a bit altered by too much clay aside, the first set looked very much like a repeat of last year. I imagined Nadal and Djokovic enjoying a nice quiet double date in their hotel rooms, letting a video replay of last year’s final do the work instead. Something changed out there though, and on further review, it likely wasn’t CGI.

The good news this year for Djokovic fans was that he was a lot fresher than last year. Last year he played an epic 5-setter with Tsitispas that saw him dig very deep to win. Fatigue is a bit different from what you undergo when you are already exhausted within a match and will yourself to keep competing. Your body actually begins to break down from exertion past the point of fatigue, and it becomes a bit like working out but a bit more dangerous because you begin making the same small tears in muscles that lead to regrowth. Anyone who’s spent time in the gym though knows that it often takes 2-3 days for that type of soreness to actually retreat. The matches against Musetti and Berretini were long, but they didn’t see Novak hit the point of exhaustion, and he had a steady level throughout. What I expected going in was that Novak would have a similarly difficult time scoring points as last year, but that his defense would hold up and Nadal would have a grinding but eventual win. This is 2021 Roland Garros though, and there is nothing stable to cling to in this tournament.

Nadal started this match the same as he always does. Tennis is often about showing your opponent that it is going to take an exhausting number of shots in order to win rallies. The more you lock in the way a guy like Bautista-Agut or Schwartzman does, the more neutral rallies start to feel like a prison to the other person. They go to plan B, and plan B often does not exist in tennis because it involves trying to supply all the offense to hit/finesse your way to victory. If this were easily achievable in tennis, we’d see it played more like racquetball. Nadal’s first service game was almost 10 minutes, and although there was pressure on him it set the tone that this would be a long match. The announcers were already a bit too excited in the second game of the match, announcing “this is a big game.” It was literally Novak’s first service game in the first set. There could not be a smaller game. He was broken though, and similar to last years final he began forcing offense. The ball was bouncing too high on his backhand, and he was spraying it long and wide when he tries to create angles. His forehand was effective early on, but Nadal’s speed pretty much negates the ability to dominate affairs just off one wing. Djokovic began playing dropshots and not really look to hang in rallies, and many of the fans on reddit and the DC discord chat began to groan as Nadal jumped out to a 5-0 lead.

“I probably wouldn’t even look to break this game” I said at 5-1 as Djokovic began to finally make some inroads on Nadal’s serve. The reason was simple. It is almost impossible to win 5 games in a row on clay against Nadal. Djokovic managed to break, and held serve. He saved 3 set points, but Nadal was able to close out, and despite the minor comeback it still seemed like Djokovic was forcing offense. I didn’t like that plan simply because worse players had already done well against Nadal simply by accepting the loss. Diego and Norrie both played their normal games and dug in on rallies even though Nadal would likely beat them. The result was a number of break points for both of them. Nadal is brilliant, but part of his constant success in breaking comes from his opponents feeling trapped and forcing shots that aren’t there. When you hang in rallies you may lose, but Nadal also begins to make errors. It’s hard to say what clicked in the second set. Djokovic began to iron out the errors, and his probing shots saw Nadal making some uncharacteristic attempts at dropshots. This was a theme throughout the match really; Nadal was in position on a lot of balls and chose the wrong shot, which is something we usually don’t see from him. Another fun theme, and one that’s plagued Djokovic for a while, is his difficulty in hitting the overhead smash. He doesn’t seem to fully commit to watching the ball while it’s up in the air, and considering he’s had neck issues I suggested that maybe he just always has a bit of stiffness there that makes it a tough shot. Someone from DC pointed out though that it’s not just technique. He manages to hit smashes back to where his opponent is standing almost all the time. It really is a puzzle, but one he was able to overcome here.

I watched this entire match, and despite Novak’s tremendous returning and creative yet measured play, it seemed that something was off with Nadal. It seemed like the first set left him almost expecting errors from Djokovic, and for the last three sets they really didn’t come. It reminded me a bit of Sakkari and Krejcikova where Sakkari just kind of fell into retrieval mode without realizing it. Nadal went away from his usual grinding patterns, and this turned into a cerebral contest between two top tier athletes. Nadal is well equipped to outduel anyone, but his normal game and shot pattern is already pretty much perfect, so the dropshots and looped backhands were a bit of a step down. I’m scared to say Nadal got tired, but I did watch a replay of the match where I watched only him, and the amount of scrambling and moving he did was monumental, and almost nonstop. He played great, and could have edged out the 3rd, but he really did not get a chance to settle very often on the baseline. As far as temperament, oddly at the same time early in the match that Djokovic was complaining that they had added clay to the court, Nadal was arguing with the umpire about the shot clock. This may be a bit speculative, but the tour adding a 25 second shotclock has always seemed like an indirect way to speed up his routine between points without approaching the actual conversation with him. Tournaments have proved relatively ineffective at forcing the top players to do anything, and generally when they assess penalties a worse fiasco ensues. The Osaka withdrawal, the Novak disqualification, the coaching penalty assessed to Serena, time violations assessed to Kyrgios in Australia, denying Nishioka coffee due to Covid protocols; these are all wildly different scenarios, but 0 of them worked out well for tennis. Nadal is literally becoming an NPC video game character with his routines on court between points/games, and whether you love it or hate it, the shot clock is bothering him. In his defense, the patterns and routines he engages in help him silence thought during a match. He’s able to stay very focused and regimented on the moment because he is always actively doing something. In the shotclocks defense, Nadal knocks clay off his shoes when there is no clay there. He fixes his hair when it doesn’t move. He does little sexy samba steps before heading to his chair and refuses to cross lines. You don’t want to instruct people to change to your whims, and you don’t want to let them skirt the rules, but the shot clock seems like it has not really been implemented perfectly. I don’t want a distracted Nadal. I don’t want to hear them discuss two separate viewpoints about when the clock was started. It makes both parties look stubborn. I want to see Nadal at his best with zero distractions, playing Djokovic at his best with zero distractions.
Diatribes aside, this was one of the best performances ever and it was because of the first set. Djokovic looked as if he had no chance to even win a set, and managed to wind up as the dominant player in the fourth. Pressure and fatigue may have put Nadal off his game, but those things were created by Novak. His forehand angles had great height and angle, and his backhand created sharp angles that kept Nadal from really implementing his forehand to great effect. He outdueled Nadal at net in the dropshot/lob exchanges, and he was the better server. It was a classic performance, and a well deserved victory.

The semifinals was definitely a tale of two cities. As the Zverev Tsitsipas clash was in the 5th set, I guiltily asked “is this really bad? pls stop me if i’m wrong” in one of the tennis chats. The scoreline, the players involved, and some of the play should have made for an electric atmosphere, but it was hard to really get excited about this match. The nextgen guys have shown up in a few big matches here and there on tour, playing each other for something major. The results has always been a bit underwhelming. Zverev was downright awful from the baseline in the first two sets, putting a number of simple offensive shots into the net, and seeming resigned to his fate. Tsitsipas went about his business in the first, but seemed content to roll the ball in on his backhand and wait for Zverev errors. This is fine, but these guys are both too good to be playing such conservative ball. I’m not criticizing their ability nor their talent, but their games come out looking very overcoached. Predictable choices, safe options. It leads to a lack of execution in the big moments. Zverev with a simple forehand after a weak return manages to hit the net. A routine backhand down the line lands around the service line. There is a lot of wasted effort in his game at the moment, as it seems he hits every shot as hard as he can. The result is more errors, and a very readable game. You can crush your forehand, but if it lands 5 feet in front of the baseline and the guy is already standing there, it’s ineffective. Tsitsipas has produced some brilliant displays on his backhand, particularly against Nadal and Novak, and to see him almost going exclusively short in the court and to Zverev’s backhand just leaves something to be desired. I don’t think either of them would even miss if they went for more. Zverev can hit any shot, and the only reason he’s missing is because he’s trying to make the ball explode. I played a similar sport and had this exact problem. I’d get the edge in a rally, find an easy ball to put away, and then wind up trying to add power and spin and create something that didn’t exist. Guys like Federer and Goffin and Chardy don’t reinvent the wheel. The right shot scores.

Zverev would have fared as well and could possibly have won if he had just serve and volleyed nonstop. There are non-athletes with worse serves like Cressy who have done well against Tsitsipas with this strategy. It’s no automatic victory, but a player-specific one. Tsitsipas takes a full swing on his forehand returns, but on the backhand side he either blocks it back (easily put away if you’re coming forward), or backs up and looks to hit a loopy backhand. The latter can get decent depth and height, but is never really hit with power, and Zverev’s height and relatively solid volleying mean he could win more points, quicker, and reverse the court position by just moving forward. If his team looks at tape of returns and say “well you would have gotten passed there so you can’t move forward” then they’re not worth the money they’re being paid. Part of the bonus of Federer moving in is that you apply pressure to your opponents shot. They see you coming in, so sometimes they smoke one, or hit a perfect lob, but they also are changing their shot a lot of the time, and cheap errors can creep in. Zverev’s serve gets extremely high even on second serves, and he’s wasting effort sitting at the baseline trying to be some strange combination between Rublev and Medvedev.

Bright points for the match were the way Zverev seemed to turn the tides in the 3rd and 4th sets. His serve and physical stability make it very difficult to outlast him in a match, and even though he was off his game he was still almost able to win this match. He had break points in the first game of the fifth against Tsitsipas’ serve, and likely should have broken. His faltering in these spots can be forgiven despite him being half a villain on tour in recent history. He’s very young, and very sheltered. These moments are things he’s been building up to forever, and not only are they new and difficult to navigate, but the are also coming against players who are at their best. Tsitsipas was playing lights out claycourt tennis before this. He absolutely dismissed Carreño-Busta, and made Medvedev seem like he couldn’t win a single set no matter how many they played on the day. His forehand was a huge weapon and his serving outwide is very efficient. Part of Zverev’s difficulty in these spots is also that he’s already expected to have done this. It’s easy to be hungry when you get a great opportunity, but when people already have demanded these things of you, it becomes work. When success is expected, it tarnishes the prize in our minds. Zverev is going to win a major. He is too good, and has the biggest weapons of all the top players at the moment. He’ll get dragged there by his talent, and if he gets the right understanding of how to utilize his tools, he’ll win a few majors before he’s done. For now, Tsitsipas has earned this finals. His draw has been difficult, and he has rolled through it. The semis took 5 sets and saw some hesitancy, but he finished things off in the 5th with a flurry of the offense I really am looking for from him. My criticism of these two is more surprise that they aren’t already playing the level of Nadal and Novak, because they’re both capable of it already. Keep the coaches home, and have these two play a match in an empty gym, and you’ll see a nonstop highlight reel. As soon as the moment stops being more important than their enjoyment of it, the next gen will be extremely exciting to watch.

For this finals, it would have been a lot easier had Nadal won. The 5-set epic last year between Novak and Tsitsipas took it out of Novak for the finals, and he’s just played the time and effort equivalent against Nadal. Tsitsipas managed to make that match competitive despite being soundly outplayed for the first 2/3 of it, and he is a way better player this year. He’ll be fresh, as the Zverev match featured very short sets despite going 5, and the comfort level playing against Novak and avoiding Nadal will hopefully let him swing a bit freer. Working against him is the unreal work ethic and hunger than Novak Djokovic has marched out time and time again in the big moments. The 8-7 40-15 moment is less about Federer failing and more about how composed and able to compete Djokovic is regardless of the moment. We see players in big moments at the end of matches go for big singleshot winners on returns. We see players with match point decelerate on their second serve and miss. We see players who see the open court and the matchwin swing too hard and push the simple shot long. What we see from Novak is the ball put into the court. He never does too much, and always believes in his ability enough that the rally doesn’t need to end in a single shot. He’s serving great this week, and even at almost a 3:1 favorite I think the odds are correct. Tsitsipas will have to play his best, but there are possibilites for him. Stefanos’ forehand is the biggest weapon on the court, and since he tends to go crosscourt with it, I think this is the exchange he’ll want to sit on. He’s a bit taller than Novak, and has a bit more power. If he can wear down Djokovic’s forehand last year’s match will pop up in Novak’s head, and there’s very little way to predict what will set Djokovic off emotionally, but we have seen it happen in less frustrating circumstances. The problem with getting across the finish line for Tsitsipas is Novak’s returning. He was able to put almost every serve back in play against Nadal and Tsitsipas struggles when his time is taken away. He takes very big swings and Novak will be expending a lot less energy as this match goes. I think they may trade sets early if Tsitsipas starts off serving well, but Novak should pull away as this goes. He’s shown the ability to problem-solve within matches all year, and this is one of those spots where he’s really earned the title. Djokovic in 4.