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Steve Flink: Rod Laver's Open Insights

8/28/2011 8:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS—At the U.S. Open, there is always a heightened sense of drama and excitement surrounding the last major of the year. It is a time of enormous importance in the sport, a stretch that can be backbreaking for some competitors, a test of will and skill and character unlike any other. A wide range of authorities are on these grounds, following it all with vigor. But many others in the know are watching the Open from afar, eager to discover what happens each and every day of the tournament, fascinated by the entire process.

After the draw was made last Thursday, I returned home, picked up the phone, and called Rod Laver, the man many believe is the greatest player ever to lift a racket. From his home in California, Laver—the only player ever to secure two Grand Slams—spoke with typical clarity and integrity, analyzing the top players as only he can, presenting his views in a manner befitting only a champion. Laver—who swept the four majors both in 1962 and 1969—is a man of fundamental decency and clear convictions, ever humble yet willing to speak his mind, appreciative of today’s best players but aware of both their assets and their liabilities. He is a gentleman through and through.

I wanted to know how he felt about the dominance of Novak Djokovic in 2011 as he heads into the season’s final Grand Slam championship. Did he believe Djokovic could take hold of the game with such sweeping assurance this year? Laver responds, “No, I wouldn’t have thought he could to this extent. Certainly he has got a game that has always been very capable, but it seems like his fitness was a problem for a while and his lungs were giving out on him earlier in his career. His game is just amazing now. He is much more consistent, he has got more depth and a lot more shots going for him, and the biggest thing that has happened is that Nadal used to beat everybody including Djokovic with that big forehand into the backhand corner. But now Djokovic hits it back just as hard, and that puts Nadal back in a hole because that forehand was his weapon that he could go to at all times. Maybe what Nadal might do is hit that forehand short and pull Djokovic off the court, which could potentially open up the court so he can go either way. Djokovic has got a great game and to be this consistent all the way through the season is unbelievable. His playing on the clay courts in Europe when he beat Nadal twice and all the guys was quite uncanny. That was a hell of an effort, and then he wins Wimbledon after that.”

Having said that, Laver is nevertheless concerned about the state of Djokovic’s body as this U.S. Open moves through its opening days. Asked about Djokovic’s chances to win the Open, Laver replies, “I thought his chances looked a little suspect when I was watching him play against Murray in Cincinnati. It looked like he was really hurting, and once your shoulder goes—even if it is just a twinge—I don’t know how well you can prepare for an event like the U.S. Open. I would think that shoulder might give him trouble for the Open, not that he needs to prepare that much after playing so well all through the year. He doesn’t have to go out there in practice thinking he has to fix his serve or his backhand or his forehand up—it all looks to be working pretty good to me. But I just wonder if he is fit enough to go through the two weeks if he has got that suspect shoulder. That would be the only question I have that would take him away from winning the U.S. Open.”

How does Laver feel about the plight of Rafael Nadal after the Spaniard had a lackluster summer on the hard courts? Is Nadal ready to make amends, and can he handle the fast hard courts this year in New York? Laver responds, “I don’t think the court is any major problem for Nadal. He proved that last year and showed he could do whatever he wanted to do in winning the tournament. Nadal certainly has got to be co-favorite. I know that Federer and Murray are in there close together, but there will probably be some upsets with so many good players out there. Nadal did not have a good summer. Maybe some of his confidence has been beaten down with the way Djokovic has played against him. Nadal thought he had everything going for him with that great forehand and his double-handed backhand, and his serve had picked up as well. He had to be thinking, ‘Why wouldn’t I be winning all of these tournaments?’ But all of a sudden he was not winning them this year and that takes your confidence away. Yet with all that Nadal has done in the past and coming in as defending champion, that is always going to be a help going into the tournament. He is thinking, ‘Hey, I won it last year so if I can just improve a little bit I will win it again.’”

After that assessment of Nadal, Laver shifted his attention to Federer, whom he admires immensely. Yet Laver believes Federer is confronted these days by rivals who are no longer intimidated by the Swiss. “It will be interesting to watch Roger at the Open,” says Laver. “I thought Roger was going to play well when he beat Djokovic at the French Open. He was finally serving well and he had his confidence back and I thought he might be a force at Wimbledon. I don’t know what happened there. But the way the guys are playing now, it doesn’t always suit Federer that much. The ball is bouncing up pretty darned high and he prefers the ball waist or not quite shoulder high. When it is up high like that you just lose your advantage.”

How difficult will it be for Federer across this fortnight in New York after enduring an eleven tournament losing streak since his triumph at Doha back in January? Laver asserts, “You can’t write him off, but I think Federer’s game now is feeding into his competition. A lot of the players of today like the ball not bouncing up too high and Federer doesn’t put a lot of topspin on the ball, so that makes it easier on the competition. They think they have got a chance when they play Roger now, so Roger is probably going to have some tough matches at this U.S. Open. I think what Roger needs is to show that element of surprise. That doesn’t mean he should be going to the net nonstop, but you see some of those great serves Roger can hit and a lot of players just roll their returns back deep in the court. Every once in a while he should just sneak in behind his serve and knock off a few of those floating returns. You have got to get those guys thinking that they can’t get away with just putting the ball back in the court. Murray and Nadal are experts at that, floating the ball back with nothing on it. A guy like Federer can make errors off those shots because you are not as accurate when the ball is coming through slower.”

Is Federer—like many champions who have grown accustomed to winning on their own terms—simply too set in his ways after playing the way he wanted to for so long? Laver answers, “Paul Annacone has convinced Roger that going to the net once in a while is a good idea, and Roger did that at the French Open. So he is doing something he knows how to do. Roger probably likes to run the guys around from the baseline and let them make some errors, plus he can play a few drop shots from time to time and make his opponents uncomfortable with that. But sometimes Federer is not penetrating. He is playing almost a waiting game because some of the guys now are hitting these big groundstrokes, and what are you going to do against that? You can’t just put the ball back into play. You have to fight fire with fire.”

Can Federer win his sixth U.S.Open this year? “He certainly can do it. He can do anything he wants to do. If the courts are playing fast, Roger will still be dangerous at the open. A faster court suits him.”

But the fact remains that Federer has not won a major since the 2010 Australian Open, and has made it to only one final in his last six majors, falling three times in the quarterfinals during that span. Moreover, he has the added burden of trying to make more history this time around by becoming the first man ever to win at least one major for nine consecutive years. Pete Sampras was within one match of realizing that feat at the 2001 U.S. Open before he lost the final to Lleyton Hewitt. Is Federer helped or hindered by his pursuit of history over these next two weeks?

Laver replies, “I wouldn’t put much credit to saying I am going to have to try to win one of these majors every year. That sounds good but I don’t think it sits too strong in the way he has been preparing. That just puts more pressure on you. I would think he puts that kind of thing out of his mind. My guess is it doesn’t even enter his head. You might mention it to him but is that his thinking? I would think he is keeping his mind on winning tournaments, and just trying to win this one.”

Laver has watched Andy Murray for quite a long while. What are his thoughts on the world No. 4 at the Open? Laver answers, “He seems to have it in his head that he is going to win a certain way and he is just putting the ball back in play so many more times than he needs to. I think he is going to wear himself out on hard courts playing that way. When he really wants the point, he can’t get it because he has to hit 20 or 30 balls. Murray has gotten better but he is playing too long before he finds the right ball to hit. He has to be able to really penetrate and get to the net. Depth for Murray is important. If he starts chipping those balls back short he is going to be doing nothing but running. Djokovic is dictating when he plays, keeping the ball deep and into the corners, and he has got that forehand that he whips across the court short. So he dictates and doesn’t have to do much running. The other guy does the running against Djokovic. Murray should be doing that as well, moving his opponent more and not just putting the ball back.”

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych have all had their moments this summer. How does Laver assess their chances at Flushing Meadows? “Tsonga was dead lucky to beat Roger at Wimbledon. I think Roger felt he had that match semi-won and he just started being a little loose, and then Tsonga played out of his head with big serves and big forehands and topspin backhands with one hand. That is a shot he doesn’t own. Tsonga could be an upset player but not the winner of the tournament and the same is true of Berdych. Monfils seems to play the Murray style of keeping the ball in play. He has so much speed around the court that he is all caught up with showing that he can get to balls that no one else can reach. Monfils seems to be saying, ‘Hey, look what I did [with that court coverage]. I didn’t win the point but look what I did!’”

Now the conversation turns to the top ranked American and a player with a growing awareness of himself and his potential. That man, of course, is Mardy Fish. How impressed is Laver with Fish? Laver replies, “Fish has done extremely well and it just wonderful to see Mardy with his serve and his fitness and his groundies, which are pretty steady. Mardy has got a good net game and he serves so well. He is doing the things that I think Roger could be doing, putting that serve where he wants and getting in and knocking the ball away for a winner on the volley. Roger can knock those volleys off as well but he usually just places it out there and the guy can get to it. He doesn’t punish the ball into a corner the way Mardy does, and that to me is a difference in their games.”

Is Fish closer to winning a very big match like a potential quarterfinal with Federer in New York? “He is certainly closer,” says Laver, “because to win as much as he did on the hard courts this summer is a good primer for how you’re going to do at the U.S. Opens on the same surface. Why wouldn’t Fish feel pretty confident about himself? He is going in fit and confident and showing everyone what he can really do.” 

The conversation is just about over, so I asked Rod Laver to give me his overview on this years’ U.S. Open. He says, “Certainly Djokovic and Nadal have to be the two picks to maybe get to the semis and finals, but there is a lot of completion out there and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the top guys get knocked off. You have got guys out there like Fernando Verdasco and they are all tough. If you are not on your game they can sneak away with the first set and the next thing you know you are in a second set tie-break. That puts a lot of pressure on the top players. But I am looking forward to it and I will be watching my share of matches this year.”


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