Australian Open diary: Djokovic's and Murray's negativity, Federer's casualness, and Azarenka's nerves
Two days ago I had written about how lonely and difficult a tennis player’s life can be, not unlike any ordinary person’s. But the more you watch the pros in action, the more you realise just how many things they have in common with us.
Here's a look at some of the most human traits I noticed among the top players over the last couple of days:
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have a pathological need to berate themselves
The way Djokovic has been playing over the last one year, you'd think he was in a state of zen, armed with a new and devastating form of inner peace. But he's anything but zen-like on the court, as I've been reminded repeatedly ever since I've come to Melbourne.
During his infamous marathon against Gilles Simon in the fourth round, Djokovic was a bit of a ticking time-bomb. He yelled at his box, rapped his knuckles against his racquet, and sometimes even laughed sarcastically.
Sure, 100 unforced errors will do that to you. Also, Djokovic has always worn his emotions on his sleeve, so there's nothing new in him being vocal. But what surprised me was how little it took to set him off – not just against Simon, but also in his routine victory over Kei Nishikori yesterday.
If he made a single unforced error, he'd start shaking his head in disappointment. If he made errors on two consecutive points, he'd glare at his box, as if it was their fault. And God forbid if he made three or more errors in succession; that would elicit a proper tirade, alternating between pleading in desperation and screaming in fury.
Murray was, if possible, even more edgy today against David Ferrer. He would sometimes berate himself even after winning a point, presumably for an error on the previous point that had brought him in this position. And if he lost a point, even if it was through a brilliant winner by Ferrer, Murray would look on the verge of a total meltdown.
In fact, the Scot was pretty much carrying on a non-stop monologue in the direction of his box throughout the match. I kept looking towards Amelie Mauresmo to see if she was at all engaged in his reactions, but her face always remained thoroughly impassive. This was Murray in conversation with himself, and no one needed to respond.
But is there any benefit to this kind of self-created drama? From where I'm looking, there is.
Both Djokovic and Murray, with their incessant self-admonitions, show us just how personal and real the on-court struggle can get. These may be supreme athletes and unparalleled competitors, but they still have to dig deep and be intensely critical of themselves to produce their best. And nine times out of 10 they DID produce their best after letting loose with their self-criticism.
The world of tennis is unforgiving, and to succeed in it you have to be unforgiving yourself. Djokovic and Murray know that all too well.
Even Serena Willams can start a match groggy and uncoordinated
If you've ever played tennis at any level, you'll know that there are times when you miss so badly that it becomes embarrassing. I'm not talking about an off-day here; I'm talking about a day on which you wouldn't be able to find the broad side of a barn even if you were standing a foot away from it.
Well, guess what – even the greatest female player in history can have an experience like that. In the first two games of her match against Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams hit her strokes so wildly that it looked like she was playing with her eyes closed. She was missing by metres, not even feet, and in a development that shocked the entire tennis world, Sharapova won two consecutive games against the American.
But while Serena showed us her human side by playing such uncoordinated tennis in the first two games, she also showed us her superhuman side by putting that right out of her mind and regaining her composure in a matter of minutes. It almost seemed unreal that it was the same woman who played those groggy first 10 minutes and the razor-sharp last 60 minutes.
Serena won 12 of the next 15 games after that horror start, and by the end she was again playing as if with eyes closed. Only this time, she was hitting winners rather than errors with ridiculous ease.
Wouldn't it be simply terrific if we could all turn around our stinker days like that too?
Roger Federer CAN get too casual on the court
For the better part of a decade I've argued against the idea that Federer gets ‘too casual’ with his play. Us ordinary people can get nonchalant about our work on occasion, but not these sporting superstars. It's impossible to be at that level and play a loose point, I've always maintained.
But yesterday, I saw with my own eyes that Federer doesn't take every point with 100% seriousness – at least not in his return games.
Early in his quarterfinal match against Tomas Berdych yesterday, Federer had struck a beautiful inside-out forehand off a strong return that elicited a floating half-lob from Berdych. Federer was half-way towards the net, and had so many options with the putaway that it seemed like even a recreational player would've won the point from there.
But not Federer. You could see his gaze drop a little and his racquet decelerate a bit, and he ended up making a hash of the shot, hitting it about two feet long. He had taken his eye off the ball at exactly the wrong moment, and it had cost him.
Berdych went on to hold, and he broke Federer the very next game. And if Federer had lost the match, he may well have had his lackadaisical play to blame for it.
But Federer DIDN’T lose the match. He started timing the ball infinitely better after that momentary lapse, and by the second set he was hitting backhand winners at will.
So yes, Federer does play a little casually during some of his return games. But it doesn't always cost him, because he's got such a sensational serve to fall back on. Could his energy-conservating, leisurely return game be one of the reasons of his longevity? It would be comforting for us mortals if that is actually the case.
Victoria Azarenka can choke like the worst of us
Things can change very quickly in tennis. Two days ago we were all celebrating Victoria Azarenka's irresistible play, and in her previous press conference I actually asked her whether this was the best she had ever played at the Australian Open. Many had predicted her to win the tournament when the draws were out, or at least to reach the final.
But now, all of a sudden, she is out of the tournament and left with the bitter memory of yet another Slam that finished way too early for her. It's not a total shock that she lost to Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals today, but it IS another setback on her seemingly inevitable return to the top 5.
But it is the manner of her loss that comes as a total surprise. After losing a competitive first set that was mostly dictated by Kerber's fast start, Azarenka had seemingly got back in her groove by going up a double break in the second. She even had three set points at 5-2, 40-0, and no sane person would have bet against the match going to a decider at that point.
But as I said, things can change very quickly in tennis. Kerber suddenly couldn't miss, and Azarenka was suddenly besieged by nerves. The drives that were pushing the German back for the entire set were now falling short or out, and her defense started looking inadequate in the face of Kerber's newfound aggression.
Long story short, Azarenka lost five games in a row to hand Kerber the set, and with it the match. With the set on her racquet and the semifinal in sight, she had choked her way right out of contention, much to the crowd's dismay.
Azarenka was pointedly asked about her collapse in her press conference, and she wasn't able to give a convincing answer. “For me personally, it was a little bit 10% not enough of everything...I felt I did a little bit too many unforced errors in the key moments. I created a lot of opportunities, but then I was not enough on my opportunities. I didn't take them; I had plenty.”
'Plenty’ is a bit of an understatement here, to my mind. She had the set in her bag, and she threw it away. But how many times have we choked in our day-to-day lives too, when we have had the opportunity to move up? That time you wish you had asked for a raise but didn't, that moment when your crush was just waiting for you to ask him/her out and you chickened out, that chance to run for class president which you turned down?
Choking is a lot more common than we think, and today Azarenka showed, like many others before her have, that it's common among the stars too.