Sunday, May 17, 2009

Second best can be good enough (or my crazy theory on broken streaks)

You know what I would've said to myself if Rafael Nadal had lost that epic match yesterday against Novak Djokovic? And you know what I think after he lost to Roger Federer today?

Good for him! (And believe it or not, the "him" I'm referring to is Nadal!)

You see, I have this feeling about players on huge streaks going into Majors: I actually don't like to see them, particularly if a player is the favorite to win the event that's set to start just days after their latest victory. I think a loss to break a decent stretch can actually be a good thing. Two examples come to my mind that kind of shaped my thought on the matter, and in both of these cases, I think a loss would've helped going into the Slam, but it didn't happen.

The first one happened waaay back in 1989: That was the year Ivan Lendl won his first Aussie, Stefan Edberg made two Slam finals and Boris Becker won two Majors, but still didn't end the season in the top spot. Michael Chang won the French and John McEnroe was a top-five player.

As I mentioned, Becker won two Slams, one of them being the U.S. Open. But you know what's funny? Despite his good form all year, he wasn't the hands-down favorite heading into the Big Apple. There wasn't one: not Lendl, not Edberg. Nope, a lot of things changed that summer because Mr. Winning Ugly, Brad Gilbert, was dominating the hard-court season. If you don't remember way back when, I promise you I'm telling the truth! Gilbert was having a career year in '89 and hit a ranking high of four. Going into the Open, he had won three tournaments in a row, including the big Cincinnati event, where he beat Becker and Edberg back to back. He got to Flushing Meadows as the man to beat, but a game Todd Witsken and a stomach virus knocked him out in the first round. This was supposed to be his moment, but the fates conspired against him.

Let's say he loses in the quarters of one of the second event he won: Could a tiny bit of extra rest helped his body? Maybe made him a little more cautions going into New York? Who knows, but I've always wondered.

The other incident I remember was in 1995 and involved my main dude, Andre Agassi. That year, Andre's resurgence from the end of '94 was in full swing. He won the Aussie on his first trip down under and only lost before the quarters at a tournament once the whole season. His big stretch of success that year also came before the U.S. Open when he won four events in a row going in. One match during his run sticks in my head: The last one before the Open when he played Richard Krajicek in the finals in New Haven and he had to rally big-time for the win. I had already been thinking, "Why was he even playing that tournament"? But play on he did and won (Just barely in that final). He did storm through the draw at the Open and got his winning streak up to 26 matches in a row before losing to Pete Sampras.

And this is another thing I wondered about: If he had lost his match against Krajicek would he have gone into the Open a little-less invincible-feeling against Pete? That loss really derailed Agassi for a while.

I'm sure Rafa would have been just fine going into the French on an amazing streak, but I feel this loss gives him a moment to pause, reset the batteries and be even hungrier at his next event, which happens to be the big one. And look what's happened the past couple of years when he's lost during the clay season.

I know this mind-set of mine might seem a little out of the ordinary, so if you feel that way, please feel free to let me know!

(Photo: Getty Images)


TopSpin said...

Fantastic post Van!

I didn't follow much tennis outside of wimbledon during those periods you mention so it's nice to have a snapshot of what was going on. Particularly as regards Gilbert.

I also think you might be on to something there with that theory of yours - Nadal too might have had that mindset subconsiously with having to play four hours the day before and not being entirely happy with the surface and altitude coming into the event.

hcfoo said...

Hey Van! Omigod, finally someone is on the same page with me.

I'm not sure if anyone remember the 2007 Hamburg Masters where Roger ended Rafa's 81 match winning streak on clay. Rafa rebounded after that to win at Roland Garros defeating Roger.

To me it's like deja vu all over again. Rafa needs to go into the French Open with less burden with him. And he's doing exactly that.

van said...

Hey TopSpin and HCFoo, thanks for the comments! I'm glad that post made sense; I thought some might think it was nuts! But if you look at the stats, I guess you can't argue against it!

freakyfrites said...

Hi Van,

I love how you know the history of the game (is it scary that "history" applies to the 1990s?) Really interesting insights on Gilbert and Andre (wait a second, aren't those two connected, somehow?)

Rafa hates two things: losing and being called a favorite. But I think he doesn't mind losing to Roger. So this loss in Madrid helps him more than hurts him. Plus, having lost to Roger in 07 and Ferrero in 08, I think he likes to get one loss in before the French. The guy's so good he can pick and choose when he loses :)

Still hoping for the insane, mind-blowing upset by Federer, though.