As the second round match between John Isner and Paul-Henri Mathieu yesterday went into overtime, you realized that yelling “8-9 in the fifth! How can these guys even stand?” and “13-all now! This is getting beyond RIDICULOUS!” wasn’t as much fun as it once used to be. Yes, our minds did cast a few dark looks back at that 70-68 match that Isner played against Nicolas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon, and some of us even marveled at how lethal the Isner serve is, even on clay. But for the most part, we just felt annoyed at how Isner tends to drag out every match to the point where handing both the players the winner’s trophy seems like a far more humane option than asking them to continue playing any longer. Our admiration for Isner’s never-say-die attitude doesn’t outweigh our frustration at the soporific pace with which he coasts through his matches, specially his return games, any longer. And that frustration is magnified even further when you have watched, just hours earlier, a vintage Rafael Nadal clay beatdown – a match in which every single point was played with an urgency that suggested the players’ lives depended on it.
The contrast between Nadal’s and Isner’s matches yesterday got me thinking about the different ways in which the top players approach the early rounds of a Grand Slam. Nadal and Isner are at the two extremes of the spectrum, at least among the top 10 players. Nadal, ever the self-doubter, never feels entitled to lord over his lower-ranked opponents, and so plays every point like a man possessed. He’ll chase down every laser groundstroke hit by his opponent, and will not allow himself to take his foot off the pedal even if he’s leading 6-0, 6-0, 5-0 and his opponent is serving at 40-0. Give up a point for want of trying? An obscene thought like that doesn’t even enter Nadal’s consciousness. Ever. On the other hand, Isner knows that his serve is so unshakable that he can afford to take it easy on his return games. The set has gone to 6-6? No sweat, we’ll just bomb our way past the opponent in the tie-breaker. What makes studying these diametrically different methods even more interesting is that the efforts expended by the players are usually not reflected in the match scores and timings. A 7-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-6 victory for Isner, which looks like a hard-fought battle on paper, will likely have sped past in just over 2 hours, while a routine Nadal demolition job, with a score that reads 6-1, 6-0, 6-2, would likely have been filled with a million deuce games and taken 3 hours to complete.
Roger Federer leans towards the Isner approach; how many times have you seen Federer biding his time through the early part of a set, doing nothing more than taking care of his serve, and then making a well-timed strike towards the end to take the set 6-4 or 7-5? Where Isner differs from Federer is that he often forgets, or is simply unable, to make that late strike before the set goes to a tie-breaker. Of course, Federer himself sometimes falls short in the execution of this modus operandi: in his second round match against Adrian Ungur, Federer won in fairly routine fashion, but not before his opponent managed to sneak out a set in a tie-breaker due to Federer’s less-than-sharp returning through the set.
Novak Djokovic, like everything else about his game, is more balanced in his approach to early round matches: while he doesn’t exactly coast along in the early part of a set, he does spend a good chunk of it camped well behind the baseline, retrieving shots from one corner of the court to the other. Andy Murray is in the Nadal mould: fight tooth and nail to fetch every missile fired by your opponent, and refrain from giving away too many free points. Where Nadal scores over Murray, of course, is in his forward-moving mindset: while Murray usually focuses his intensity on reacting to his opponent’s game, Nadal focuses his intensity on imposing his athleticism and shot-making ability to direct the course of the match.
It goes without saying, of course, that the way a player goes about his early round matches is influenced greatly by the tools at his disposal. Federer and Isner can afford to be a little lax in their return games because they have the luxury of falling back on their serves should things get a little sticky. Nadal and Murray, on the other hand, know that they don’t have an automatic advantage in their own service games, so they go all-out both while serving and returning.
If the approaches of these five players were to be arranged on a scale, Nadal and Isner would be at the two extreme ends, Djokovic would be bang in the middle, Federer would be between Djokovic and Isner, and Murray would be between Djokovic and Nadal. Now for the million-dollar question: which approach is the best?
At first glance, Federer’s remarkable consistency at the Grand Slams over the last decade (the last time Federer failed to reach a Slam quarterfinal was in 2004) would suggest that his energy-conservation method in the early rounds has paid him handsome dividends. But then you look at Isner and his struggles to finish matches quickly (which invariably lead to tired, listless performances in the subsequent rounds) and you begin to question the practicality of this approach. Djokovic has enjoyed an incredible run of success over the last two years, a run of success that he has largely built around having near-perfect balance in the physical as well as mental aspects of his game: he’s neither too intense in his early round matches, nor does he let things drift at any stage. Murray often ends up spending too much energy in fighting off the relentless attacks of his hard-hitting, streaky opponents, which leave him in inadequate shape for the critical late stages of the tournament. As for Nadal, while his no-holds-barred investment in every match that he plays does drain his energy, it also gives him the best possible practice for the money matches in the second week.
On the face of it, then, it would seem that the Federer approach works better in the long run, while the Nadal approach gets better results in the short run. Since Federer conserves his energy in the early rounds, he reaches the semifinal stage without too much fuss, while Nadal huffs and puffs his way to the semifinals, but is in top competitive shape once he gets there. Is it any wonder that both Nadal and Djokovic, battle-hardened as they are by the time they reach the second weekend of a Slam, have been getting the better of Federer at the Slams lately? Nadal is so used to pulling out all stops even on seemingly meaningless points that in a match against Federer, in which a point or two can determine the whole outcome, his intensity proves extremely valuable. On the flip side, the strain that Nadal’s body undergoes with all that desperate running would make it almost impossible for him to continue playing into his 30s at the incredibly high level that Federer has been doing.
So ultimately, is one approach ‘better’ than the other at all? Maybe not, but I do know which extreme I’d want to be at if I had to choose one. At the age of 27, Isner has never reached the semifinal of a Slam, while Nadal has, before the age of 26, won 10 Majors. Why would I want longevity when I could have sharply concentrated but enormous success instead?