In appreciation of Dustin Brown

As a kid, I used to watch a fair bit of tennis. This “fair bit” must be qualified, though, since it was limited by what Doordarshan, India’s state broadcaster, would show. So this would typically mean the second weeks of the French Open and Wimbledon (US Open and Australian Open were in “wrong” time zones, and DD seldom telecast non-Slams), and the odd Davis Cup tie.

I don’t remember much of the Davis Cup ties (apart from Leander Paes and Ramesh Krishnan’s run to the semifinals of the Davis Cup one year (where they got roundly thrashed by a Wally Masur-led Australia) ), but some of the French Open and Wimbledon memories still stay, the high point being that I still remember the full scorecard of the 1992 Wimbledon finals when Andre Agassi beat Goran Ivanisevic in an epic 5-setter (6-7 6-4 6-4 1-6 6-4; checksum being that both players won 25 games each).

Over the last decade or so, though, I’ve steadily lost interest in tennis. I surely watched the two European slams (which are telecast in prime time in India) most years during the Sampras era, but remember very little of the Federer-Nadal era. The last Grand Slam final I remember watching was in 2009 when Federer beat Roddick at Wimbledon. That final I remember as one I wasn’t particularly interested in, as I polished off Aakash Chopra’s Beyond the Blues as I watched it.

In the last few years, I’ve tried watching tennis (mostly out of Twitter peer pressure; yes such a thing exists), but have found it very hard. Rallies are way too long. It’s too much of a power game nowadays than one of guile. You get bored watching players hitting it across from baseline to baseline endlessly.

And then there is Rohit Brijnath. This is one journalist most people on my Twitter timeline worship, but I think he has ruined tennis for me. His endless articles about Nadal’s “grit” (which get a page all for themselves in Mint Lounge) have resulted in my over-analysing the playing styles of anyone playing, not able to enjoy the game for what it is. And with endless baseline battles (which I didn’t really mind back in the era of Courier and Agassi and Bruguera) there is not that much to enjoy either!

Living alone has meant that I watch more TV nowadays than I used to earlier (but strictly restricted to live sport), and that has meant that Wimbledon has been the “default background process” during the last few evenings. That hasn’t necessarily meant that I’ve watched much – it’s just a “background process”, except for one game.

I started watching Dustin Brown’s game against Rafael Nadal sometime in the second set simply out of sheer curiosity given the way Brown looks. Noticing that Nadal was a set down, it seemed like it might be an interesting game, but I had my laptop out for good measure. Soon, it became evident that this Brown guy is different, and it wasn’t too long before I was heavily rooting for him.

The way he was playing was refreshingly different. A really big first serve. A quick rush to the net immediately after. Great net play. Innovative shots. And he was erratic as hell. Within a game or two of my switching on, it was certain that this was going to be one of those legendary games.

Nadal is one of those guys who is intelligent and accurate. If you are erratic, he will make sure he will take advantage of you. And advantage of Brown’s errors he took as he wrapped up the second set without much ado. But it was from the third set onwards that it seemed that this wasn’t going to be as straightforward after all.

Brown was erratic for sure, and played some absolutely strange shots (like this double handed shot with the racquet in front of his face), but his playing style surely unsettled Nadal. He simply didn’t let Nadal get into a rhythm, and his frequent rushes to the net meant that Nadal simply wasn’t able to play his usual waiting game where he breaks down the opponent (has anyone written a piece yet drawing parallels between Nadal and Magnus Carlsen?) slowly. This was a kind of opponent one doesn’t come across too often nowadays, and Nadal failed to adapt. By now, I was strongly rooting for Brown.

But life wasn’t easy then, given Brown’s propensity for errors. You would think he had all but wrapped up a game, when he would make an outrageous move and lose the point. And then make up for it a minute later with some spectacular brilliance. It was a brilliant roller-coaster ride, but the best part for me was that after a long time I was watching a brand of tennis I had grown up on!

Watching that game, I was reminded of some of the tennis vocabulary that I had grown up with, and never come across later on. “Passing shot”. “Down the line”. “Cross-court”. The dominant style of tennis nowadays make all these terms moot. And it was exhilarating to be reminded, albeit for one match, of what tennis used to be like a couple of decades back!

There was no surprise in Brown’s loss in the next round to Troicki. His style is too erratic to take him too far, and his ranking around 100 is probably deserved. But he has surely left his mark on the world of tennis, and on me for sure! Kudos to him.


I just came across this other piece I’d once written about Wimbledon, and it’s not funny how much these two posts have in common. I seem to be repeating myself way too much. Maybe I should just retire from blogging.

Wimbledon 92

Currently reading last Saturday’s Mint Lounge Wimbledon special. Was reading this article on the McEnroe-Borg rivalry, and I was taken back to the only McEnroe match that I clearly remember seeing. This was in Wimbledon 1992, which was more like a typical French Open. Upsets left right and centre. Unknown players making it to the latter rounds. Familiar players nowhere to be seen..

Back in the late 80s, when as a small boy, Wimbledon was probably the only Grand Slam I’d watch. Maybe the French Open, too, but I don’t really remember any French Open finals before 1990 (was that when the Ecuadorian Andres Gomez beat Andre Agassi, or was that in 1991? I guess that was 91, since Michael Chang won in 90). And in the 80s, Wimbledon meant just four names to me. Men’s finals had to be Boris Becker versus Stefan Edberg, and the ladies finals between Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova.

Coming back to 92, there was no Becker, no Edberg. Even Michael Stich, who had come from nowhere to win the previous title wasn’t anywhere to be seen. There was no Navratilova or Graf in the ladies’ tournament, which I think was won by Conchita Martinez (don’t remember the game, but remember seeing a Sportstar pic of her at the Champions’ Ball). As I told you, the 92 tournament was like a French Open (for pre-Nadalian readers, the French Open is supposed to be a tournament where heavyweights all lose in the early rounds, and each year there’s a new unexpected person who wins. It’s not supposed to be the monopoly it’s turned into of late).

In hindsight, looking back at the 1992 tournament, just looking at the semi-final line-up, I realize what a legendary tournament that was! Some names were then unknown, and were to become legendary later. One other was known, and you had reason to feel sorry for him at that point in time. And there was the lovable veteran.

Goran Ivanisevic beat Pete Sampras
Andre Agassi beat John McEnroe

No one had heard of the first two (Sampras had won the US Open in 1990, but we didn’t watch him, did we? No one watched either the Australian or US Opens those days. The timings were inconvenient), but they would show us their greatness in the coming decade. We all remembered Agassi as the guy who had lost two consecutive French Open finals (to Gomez and then to Jim Courier, having been 2 sets to nil up in the latter). And I don’t need to say much about McEnroe, except that perhaps that was the last I saw of him, save the odd appearance in Davis Cup.

Agassi beat Ivanisevic in the finals. 6-7 6-4 6-4 1-6 6-4. I still remember the scorecard. Thanks to the “checksum fact” that the Deccan Herald had published the following day. That both players had won exactly 25 games each.

Think, and tell me, if you can think of any other major tennis tournament with this kind of a semi-final line-up, spawning eras. Don’t throw up tournaments where the top four seeds were in the semis (that’s so increasingly common nowadays I’m losing interest in tennis).

And reading this issue  of Mint Lounge made me long for Sportstar again, for the times before it had become a tabloid. When I would read through pretty much every word of it, and crack sports quizzes.

PS: This post has been written entirely out of what I remember things to have been like, and I haven’t bothered checking the facts. So pliss excuse me, and correct me, if I’m wrong.

Rafa and the Ranatunga Principle

Today seems to be a massive theory session. In the morning, I introduced you to the Mata Amrita Index. Now, as I write this watching the third set of (ok it’s the third set now – when I’m starting to write. for all you know, by the time I finish this, the match might be over) the Australian Open, I think it is a good time for me to introduce to you the Ranatunga Principle of energy management.

The Ranatunga principle states that:

When you don’t need to run, walk.

Yes, it is that simple. And if played an instrumental part in Sri Lanka’s victory in the 1996 Cricket world cup. Arjuna Ranatunga, the captain, was a massive guy. Yet, he was an excellent finisher, converting the ones into twos, and the twos into threes, running them hard, making everyone wonder where he managed to get so much energy and stamina from. The key to his performance was what this terriffic energy management.

He knew that the effort involved in each run wasn’t the same. There were a few that were “obvious singles” or “obvious twos” and he correctly realized that there was no point in running them faster than was necessary. And he simply walked them, saving up his precious energy and stamina for the runs that required more energy. In fact, if you recollect, the defining picture of Ranatunga in the 1996 world cup was his nudging a ball to third man and lazily walking a single.

Similarly, in tennis, due to the unique game-set-match scoring system, not all points are of the same value. Some points are more equal than others. For example, it doesnt’ matter if you lose a game at love, or if you lose it after making 30. However, certain points (break points, especially) can make a tremendous difference to the game, and it is important that you win those.

Tennis, especially of the non-grass court variety, is a highly energy-consuming game. We saw on Friday the Nadal-Verdasco game being played for almost five hours. The final also promises to go on for a similar length of time. Even on grass, as we saw in the last Wimbledon, tennis can become an endurance game. To remind you, Rafa Nadal beat Roger Federer in the final back then, taking the fifth set 9-7 (Wimbledon has no tie-breakers in the last set). It was his superior energy-management and stamina-management that saw him through that day.

It had been a long time since I had seen Rafa play, and looking at him play today, it is clear that he has understood the Ranatunga principle well. In fact, he seems to be an excellent exponent of the same. A while back, Federer was leading 40-0, and Rafa just gave up and allowed Federer to take the game, choosing to preserve his energies for more important point. I’m not saying that Rafa has been completely giving up. What I’m saying is that he seems to be doing some kind of a “value analysis” for each point, and then deciding how much energy he is willing to spend on it.

I don’t know if he is a math stud, but you don’t need to be one in order to do simple Ranatunga analysis. You can get a computer to work out the relative values of points for you depending upon the match score, and broadly remember that when you are playing. And once you have done that a few times, you will automatically be able to figure out how much effort to put into each point (remember that you don’t need to know complicated projectile physics in order to catch a ball).

A lot of managers, especially fighters, don’t like the Ranatunga principle. Their management philosophy is that you always need to be f resh, and be prepared, and if you don’t dive on a regular basis, you won’t be able to dive when you actually need to. However, the Ranatunga reply to this is that as long as you know how to dive, and have general practice in diving, you will instinctively dive when you need to, and you should make sure that you have enough energy to dive.

Extending the analogy to work, there are some managers who like to push their subordinates to meet deadlines even when it isn’t important in the larger scheme of things. Their argument here is that their subordinates should have enough experience in diving so that they can use it when they need it. The Ranatunga response to that is for the subordinate to be smart, and to see the larger picture, and to call the manager’s bluff about the criticality of the project whenever it turns out to be not critical.

Ok, so Rafa has won the third set and leads the match 2 sets to 1. If this ends up being a pure endurance 5-setter, I would put my money on Rafa. He seems to be showing superior implementation of the Ranatunga principle.

More on studs and fighters

I was watching Wimbledon last night when I realized there aren’t too many pure serve-and-volley types around. Even the 5-time champion Federer plays mostly from the baseline. I don’t recall any pure serve-and-volley types after Sampras and Ivanisevic. Anyways, while watching Roddick play Schwank, I came up with the following hypothesis:

When a new field opens up, in the beginning, it is mostly dominated by studs. Soon, people start figuring out. Soon the code gets cracked, and a manual gets published. And the field becomes less and less stud as time goes on. And it gets dominated by fighters. The stud has no option but to do something and take things to a new level, or a new field, where the studness can be applied.

Let me know if this is true. Background reading about studs and fighters.