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The power of footwork

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MARATHON MAN: Ferrer defeated Nadal in three hours 28 minutes after playing three hours 57 minutes in the previous round.
MARATHON MAN: Ferrer defeated Nadal in three hours 28 minutes after playing three hours 57 minutes in the previous round.

The reason Federer hits the ball so purely is because he arrives at every shot in time to assume the right position, writes Rohit Brijnath

Serena Williams arrived on court in a trendy black outfit and long earrings, took out a small bag, removed two hair clips, arranged her hair, removed her matching top. Then she was ready, a perfectly made-up warrior.

If Justine Henin has ever worn anything stylish it was obviously a mistake.

Somehow you can’t quite see the dutiful Belgian sheathed in a shimmering cocktail dress borrowed from Sharapova’s closet. Henin is wonderfully unvarnished, as businesslike as a nurse with a syringe. When she looks at Novak Djokovic, playing with a smile, you are unsure if she sees him as a blasphemer or an object of envy.

What style Henin has is in her game, in her fluent racket and stylish feet, moving as she does with the ease of a thief through a crowd. If she plays Venus Williams next, prepare to be dazzled, for their footwork would earn them an audition with any modern dance company.

Quick, tall and committed, Venus is women’s tennis’s patron saint of lost causes, reaching balls others would only stand and sigh at. Federer, of course, is the men’s tour’s choreographer in residence, and part of the reason he hits the ball so purely is because he arrives at every shot in time to assume the right position.

Serena walloped the ball yesterday, as did Venus the day before. So it’s intriguing that, amidst all the violence on court every day, Sharapova was recently singled out after her loss for lacking “subtlety” in her game.

After all, most players appear to think delicacy and variety is the devil’s work. Sure players alter spin and subtract pace from shots, and have diplomas in geometry, but predominantly their tactics are hit hard, deep, repeatedly, and don’t stop running.

Even Federer, who can be subtle on command, is persistently powerful, except he looks elegant even while whipping vicious forehands into foreign corners.

What he owns, and Henin, and Serena (except not yesterday), is a consistency of shot-making, especially when it matters. Both skills have abandoned Sharapova, who, alas, is not helped by a footwork that brings to mind a stork with a hangover.

Remarkable athletes

Modern tennis may have a sameness to it, but it is not unsatisfying. David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal have clearly taken vows to abstain from finesse, but they are remarkable athletes, whose ability to defend yesterday, to attach the perfect amount of topspin to each ball, to be accurate even while swinging from the heels, to run through exhaustion (Ferrer won in three hours 28 minutes after playing three hours 57 minutes in the previous round), to shut out pain (in Nadal’s case), is admirable.

But grinders also need vacations, and the defeated Nadal’s body is fraying gently under a heroic schedule. No doubt some players need more matches to tune their game, and some bodies are more resilient, but the difference between Nadal and Federer here is significant. Both run beautifully, but one too much.

This year, till the Open, Nadal had played 1598 games, Federer 1318. Federer constantly takes breaks (he did not play before the Australian Open, or between the French and Wimbledon, and took a month’s rest after Wimbledon) while Nadal constantly plays high-intensity tennis where each point is a struggle. Last year Nadal did not win a tournament after Roland Garros; this year it has been only one, on clay.

Tennis players don’t run 10-14 kilometres every match like football midfielders, but unlike footballers they are always involved in the action.

In a recent five-setter at the Open, Djokovic reportedly ran 2.9 kilometres and his opponent Radek Stepanek 3.4. It is a fair distance, run in quick repeated bursts, often on unforgiving surfaces.

At 26, Federer has had no telling injury and has not missed a grand slam event in eight years; Nadal has already missed French/Wimbledon in 2004, the Masters Cup in 2005, and the Australian Open in 2006 because of injury. This Open he played on courage because his knees were temporarily out of order.

At 21, that has to hurt.

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