US Open Semi Finals – Will the single handers usurp the Modern masters?

4 out of the 8 quarter finalists in this years US Open have something in common that is uncommon in this modern tennis era of aggressive attrition. They all possess a single handed backhand , and no not one of them was Roger Federer. Robredo, Youzhny, Wawrinka and Gasquet brought out the yesteryear nostalgia of the matchup between the one handed serve and volleyer versus the aggressive baseliner – Sampras v/s Agassi, Mcenroe v/s Borg, Becker v/s Lendl and numerous others. Yeah, ok the current lot cannot serve and volley, which is definitely a lost art.

The matches then were fairly even with the one-handers holding a distinct edge.  For a long time now ever since Federer stopped winning consistently , the double handers rule the roost. The general athletic abilities, the great racquets, the slower courts have meant the double handed backhand has become defacto. The backhands have to be as powerful as the forehand and there no room for a chink in the armour. Nadal, Djokovic, Murray all are equally powerful on both wings. Even Federer has been constantly troubled by Nadal’s pacy forehands high on his backhand side.

Youzhny and Robredo have already fallen by the wayside , so it was good to see the extremely talented Richard Gasquet come through against the great retriever David Ferrer. It is inconceivable that he had an 1-8 record against Ferrer because in terms of gifts there is not even a comparison. Apart from great top spin strokes, Gasquet has possibly the best backhand in the world – A supremely elegant, versatile,  powerful and consistent single handed backhand.  Yes even better than Federer’s. He is capable at the net and is a shotmaker with exceptional creativity. After so many years in the wilderness, it was good to see someone earmarked for greatness at least show some glimpses of his abilities. Will he be able to beat Nadal? With a 0-10 record, the odds are stacked against it but stranger things have happened. Most probably Nadal will destroy him in straight sets but my wishes are with the man with a backhand to die for.

S Wawrinka has lived in the shadows of the great Federer and apart from a few good victories really never has threatened to break through to the top tier. He outclassed Murray in the quarters with some brilliant hitting.  He has a great all round game and has been playing some unbelievable tennis. Again with a smooth backhand that can stand upto the barrage from the heavy hitters, Wawrinka is easy on the eyes. As I post this he and Novak are locked at one set a piece. Most likely it will be the World No 1 (Djokovic v/s Nadal) World No 2 but I hope Wawrinka and Ricahrd pull it out , it will be one to savour for the single handed backhand’s sake!

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The “Bell” curve & cricket’s great enigmas

Ian Bell’s recent performances against Australia has received rave reviews and cricket pundits hope that this will be the catalyst for him to rise to greater heights. Bell was often accused of not getting the “tough” runs, when the team needed it most. The criticism was mostly unreasonable as he has been an important cog in the English wheel for sometime now and his seventeen centuries before the ashes and numerous critical 30s and 40s  were all typecast into the “fairweather” category. The thing is that with people like Bell who make batting a visual treat for the spectators, the yardsticks are somewhat different. Not many would be making noises for example,  if Australia’s Chris Rogers was getting only regular 30s and 40s and the occasional hundred, he will be hailed as a true fighter and an essential part of the team. for all the runs would be tough runs.

The early potential displayed by artists like Bell, lead to a weight of expectations and many such talents have found it difficult to move up a notch on the greatness quotient. Hopefully Bell will have more success and bridge that gap, however as of now (even including this ashes series), he is in corporate parlance the “Bell Curve” equivalent of candidates who are meeting expectations but not exceeding them.

However my attention on this piece is targetted towards the Miloslav Mecirs, Ilie Nastases and Vijay Amritrajs of cricket, the enigmas with the flair and finesse to be at the very top but somehow failing to bridge the gap between good and  great. These cricketers failed to make the jump that Lara, Azhar, VVS, Mahela and Mark Waugh have made but when on song could make any spectators day.  I have picked five of my favourite batting enigmas, but there are a fair share of bowlers , all rounders and wicketkeepers too who fall in this space and possibly could be the topics for other posts. Of course I have restricted it to players I have seen and those without any visible short coming ( like Yuvraj against the moving ball and Offspin,  Cullinan against leg Spin or Hick against genuine pace)

5. Damien Martyn – Always easy on the eye, Damien Martyn had a languid grace and “relaxed” was the term most apt for him. His offside strokeplay was effortless and he possessed  all the shots. Like many fellow artists , he almost seemed to shy away from the limelight. Of course, he was a very proven talent and helped Australia to victories on treacherous turners and moving conditions. Yet he seemed to be incapable of  rising above playing the second fiddle to the Pontings and the Haydens,  whose weight of runs overshadowed his classical charm. Indian’s will remember him for helping Ponting’s all conquering Australian team scale the “Final Frontier” – winning a test series in India. He also was a brilliant fielder , a trait common to many of these artists. In his initial days, he played one shot too many and that robbed him of many years in the Australian team, perhaps preventing his transition from Good to Great.

4. “Marvelous” Marvan Atapattu – Making an atrocious start to his test career (his first six innings yielded fiveducks and a 1), he did make amends but fell short of scaling truly great heights. Possessing the touch of a master, Atapattu was technically correct and could play all the shots. The torrid start to his test career meant he took a more cautious approach.  Not that he looked bad while batting, but he overdid it and was generally slow in scoring. But that did not hide his elegance and ease. His career picked up and he captained Sri Lanka, but as a batsman he always left a feeling that he had so much more to offer. He played one of the innings of the tournament in World Cup 2003 against South Africa (124 ) which will be remembered for a long time in Lankan circles.

3. Michael Vaughan – An exception to the “good fielder” rule in this list, Vaughan’s batting was as breathtaking and kept him in the side despite his horrendous butter fingered dropped catches. He will be remembered for his heroics in a losing cause in the Ashes Down under and captaining the English to the famous 2005 Ashes series win. However batting wise many a time, he flattered to deceive .  He possessed all the strokes and never seemed to hit the ball in anger. A wonderful player of the short ball, he was prone to get out against the run of play. But nothing would go better with a lazy afternoon cup of English tea, than watch  Vaughan timing the ball through the covers. 600 plus runs against the Australian’s at home is no mean feat and his exceptional man management capabilities meant that he did rise to some amount of greatness but a niggling knee injury never let him fly freely and a career average of 41 in tests was surely too low for a batsman of his quality.

2. Rohit Sharma – Not yet in the calibre of others in the list, Rohit deserves a mention as a budding enigma. Hopefully I am proved wrong.  Rohit has been in the Indian scheme of things for the past 5 years and should have been the star given his precocious talent. Indeed some of his innings have been so classy that it could give the more established stars a run for their money. The ball seems to find a velocity out of the ordinary when it comes out the middle of Rohit’s bat. Yet something has kept him from firing consistently, some say attitude, some say a lack of dedication, some even say that he is short on talent to play at the highest level.  Recently he has shown us a different side and he is willing to stick it out . As a result he is now part of  a successful opening ODI duo along with the more acclaimed Shikhar Dhawan. His timing , range of shots and the time he gets to play them, seemed to make him the one to watch out for. But somehow against genuine pace , he has underperformed and this is not in any way related to weakness of playing the short ball. He can dispatch those well past the midwicket fence. His shortcoming has been loose strokes and not making the mental adjustment to play test matches in varying conditions. There is still hope that Rohit will make it big but one feels the 5 years already lost may weigh him down in the overall  scheme of things. Still no one can forget his contributions in India’s T20 World Cup triumph on the pacy South African wickets.

1. Carl Hooper: Easily the most gifted on this list. A batsman who at his prime had the potential not only to rival but even better Lara, Sachin and other greats both in style and talent. When he made his debut in India in 1987, he was talked of as the heir apparent to the great Viv Richards. A debut century at Eden Garden’s seemed to be a step in the right direction. But many soft dismissals led to a mid thirties average in test cricket. Among the most gifted timers of the ball, the best shot I can remember is him dancing down the wicket depositing Wasim Akram over extra cover in an ODI in the West Indies.  He played spin and pace with equal ease but was susceptible to the Australian’s mental disintegration tactics. Shy and assuming, he was an exceptional  all  round fielder , possibly as good as Mark Waugh. Yet one would have hoped he could have evolved into a batting legend as well. He admired Gavaskar & Martin Crowe, yet did not imbibe the mental toughness and tightness of both his idols.

A good video here on the man’s unfulfilled talents.

Surely should be remembered as more than Geoffery Boycotts “Lolipop Bowler” !!

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Hip Hip Murray – The Scot rules Britain!

The Last time a German male won Wimbledon was 22 years ago, a Dutchman 17 years back, a Frenchman 67 years back , a Serbian just 2 years from now, a Swiss 1 year back and a Britisher ? – 77 years ..hold your tongues  you incurable British Bashers!!!…. its just one day back.  Wimbledon, at last, has a native King. Not quite an Englishman, but close enough.

For a proud nation which has invented many a sport, it was becoming too much of a cross to bear. Year after year, they pinned their hopes on a hier apparent , only to taste disappontment and look forward to the next suitor. None of them were even average, Henman came closest but in the era of Sampras, all others had little chance. Desperation also led to a Canadian import in Greg Rusedski, obviously to no avail. Haley’s comet came around faster tahn a British champion.

And then from 2008 this Scottish kid provided hope. Seemingly having all the skills to combat the best in the business, he seemed just right m for the job. And so the media got behind him. Year after year the hopes rose, 3 times he reached the semi finals and then last year he seemed the best player in the tournament as he stormed into the finals and had the great Federer on his knees for a set and half. But something broke and it was Deja Vu for the nation once again. Murray’s tears at the presentation ceremony were more a result of the “Tendulkaresque” burden of expectation on him. Probably God did not want an English champion , thought the Poms.

But this is where the braveheart differed from his predecesors. With a strong work ethic and nerves of steel (having ice man Ivan Lendl in his team obviously helped), he ripped out Djokovik and Federer to win the Olympic Gold – that too within a month of his draining Winmbledon loss. Then he proceeded to get the Grand Slam monkey off his back , by winning the US Open. This year coming into Wimbledon, he was up for it mentally and physically. Having skipped the French Open due to a minor injury, he was fresher than his peers. Nadal and Federer being dumped out in the initial round added further fuel to the fire burning within the soul of a nation. They sensed this could be the year.

The support for Murray this year was unprecedented and they willed him through a gruelling quarterfinal and a tricky semi final. But in the final Murray showed why he belonged – Outserving, Out hitting and Outlasting the Djoker in straight sets. Murray was almost Nadal like in his retrieving, always forcing Novak to hit the extra shot. His forehand crosscourts were telling , even more effective than the Del Potro bazooka, that Novak just about withstood in the semi final. On the service return he took more chances and blasted more winners than Djokovic. The supremely fit Djokovic was the one making the mistakes in the long rallies, seemingly not having the legs to stay in them and going for too much on his shots. But doubts crept up once again like an unrelenting bad dream as Murray served for the championship. He squandered 2 match points and gave Djokovic the opportunity to break. Would it be heartbreak again for the nation?

Thankfully not this time. Some inspired tennis in an incredible final game  which saw 4 deuces, saw Murray forcing the final error and letting  Britain breathe a sigh of relief.

Mission accomplished, Murray can afford to let down his guard, with a well earned glass of the finest Scotch but not for long I would think. Pray tell me, when was it that you last had an English World No 1 in Men’s Tennis?

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