Big guns behind the firing shoulder!

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic...a question of the Melbourne crown.-AP

Having won the last three titles in Melbourne, Novak Djokovic remains the top favourite, alongside Rafael Nadal. Among the women, it seems unlikely that Serena Williams’ hold over her opponents will loosen anytime soon, writes Priyansh.

At a time when the birth of new, celebrity player-coach associations has set the tennis society aflutter, Rafael Nadal has decided to play Ebenezer Scrooge. Like that Dickensian character who despised Christmas festivities, the ambidextrous Spaniard seems to have little time for such razzmatazz pairings. In fact, Nadal chose to present his own version of “Bah, humbug!” recently.

“I think coaching tennis is not a big deal. We are not doing something very, very difficult — tennis is a simple game at the end of the day. It’s more about the player believing in the work that his coach is doing. I don’t need to have a great champion in front of me coaching to believe that what that person is telling me is the right thing.”

To be fair to Nadal, he didn’t brush the idea aside completely. But neither did he seem minutely enthused, unlike Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. While the Swiss has joined hands with Stefan Edberg, Djokovic will be assisted by Boris Becker in the 2014 season. Not to forget Richard Gasquet and Kei Nishikori’s alliance with Sergi Bruguera and Michael Chang, respectively.

As the tennis jamboree makes its way to the luminously blue courts of Melbourne for the year’s first Grand Slam championship, the role and impact of former player turned coaches could prove to be decisive. This subject has been investigated with greater scrutiny than before due to Andy Murray’s rise over the past two years.

Under Ivan Lendl’s tutelage, the Scot was transformed. Murray has displayed a greater conviction over his ability, leaving his old ways of disappearing in the face of an imposing challenge. Sure, there are moments still when he could attack his opponents more aggressively. But nowadays, he rarely wilts.

Murray’s success vindicated his choice for himself and others. In that context, the Federer-Edberg and Djokovic-Becker alliances could be considered a natural consequence. After all, once you know that a pie is delicious, you want a bite of it too, don’t you?

In fact, one could argue that Federer was left with no other choice. The Swiss’ career is nearing terminal decline and he no longer features among the top contenders for Slam titles. The appointment of Edberg has been accompanied by the announcement that Federer will use a bigger, 98-inch racquet. The 17-time Grand Slam champion did try this equipment last year for a while before returning to the usual frame (90-inch).

While this move’s impact remains to be seen, Edberg has a more serious issue to address. Last season, Federer was ranked only 10th in the world in return games won. Though Edberg was renowned for his serve-and-volley game, he was also among the best in his time when it came to receiving the ball.

Djokovic, though, has no such worries. The Serb’s return game is immaculate while the other aspects of his play don’t offer any pronounced weakness. Much praise has already been delivered to his incredible fitness and agility. Yet, Djokovic could only win one of the three Slam finals he played last year and lost a thrilling semifinal to Nadal at the French Open.

Becker was characterised by his aggressiveness and killer instinct in his playing days, something the Serb would do well to incorporate. Yet, this may prove to be not straightforward. Djokovic had sought the help of Todd Martin a few years ago, but the American’s presence only seemed to make him weaker.

The world number two’s decision to appoint Becker is a bit surprising for another reason. Djokovic’s rise to the top of the sport was brought about by adopting unconventional practices, like faith-healing. Hence, the degree to which the 26-year-old will be receptive to Becker’s ideas is debatable.

Yet, having won the last three titles in Melbourne, Djokovic remains the top favourite, alongside Nadal.

Murray lost to the Serb in the 2013 final, but will find it tough to make the title clash this time. The Scot missed three months due to a chronic back problem and upon making a comeback recently, looked rusty.

Nadal, though, seems ready to hit the top gear, as witnessed during his triumph at the Qatar Open on January 4. If he stays fit, nobody except Djokovic should threaten him. Juan Martin del Potro, riding on an impressive end to the 2013 season, could challenge the illustrious duo.

The pre-dominance of men’s tennis means that its female counterpart is usually mentioned in footnotes. None of the top women players have ex-player cum celebrity coaches, though Sharapova did appoint an established name recently in Sven Groeneveld. It may not be long before it happens, though, as Marion Bartoli found success at last year’s Wimbledon thanks to her alliance with Amelie Mauresmo.

Currently, it seems unlikely that Serena Williams’ hold over her opponents will loosen anytime soon. Last year, the present world number one suffered a surprise defeat against Sloane Stephens in the Australian Open quarters. But to expect something similar to happen again would be counter-intuitive. For Serena’s toughest enemy is herself.

Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova slither below the American’s dominance. At 2014’s first WTA tournament in Brisbane, Serena defeated the latter in the semis and Azarenka in the final to win the trophy. The 32-year-old has lost only five of her 32 matches against the duo. More importantly, Sharapova has been beaten 14 consecutive times by Serena. As the Russian put it after her latest loss, “I just found 14 ways not to win.”

The 15th may not be far-off.