Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Australian Open 2018 - Federer wins (stop me if you've heard this before)

A tournament that signaled the start of a new era in men's tennis!

How wonderful was it to see a new champion? Grigor Dimitrov, having beaten Dominic Thiem in the quarter finals took advantage of the injuries to Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic by beating American Jack Sock who was having a great run, in the semis, before then defeating David Goffin, who himself had upset 19 times grand slam champion Roger Federer in the semi finals, to take the title.

That is how it could have gone - for that is how the ATP Tour finals in London went at the end of last year - a tournament that could have signaled that finally the lost generation of men's tennis players was taking over.

But no.

He won. Again.

Roger Federer, in a shock to no one except his obsessed fans, who despite his having won 19 grand slam titles previously, always think he is just a few absent minded service games away from losing every match, won the Australian Open title and reached 20 grand slam titles.

It is a stunning number of titles. Only Serena Williams and Steffi Graf remain ahead of him among Open Era tennis players with 23 and 22, and Nadal is now again 4 titles behind him among the men.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect about it is how by-the-numbers it felt.

To be honest, up till the first set of the final, I didn't even think Federer played all that well.

He was solid against Gasquet in the 4th round and against Berdych in the QF, but no more than that. The semi final was literally not a contest due to Chung's blisters.

The reality was he didn't need to be any better than solid. First gear was enough, with the occasional 2nd gear shift to get a break.

Last year however, he was astonishing against Berdych in the 3rd round - perhaps the best he has ever played; he was solid against Misha Zverev in the QF, but in the 4th round, SF and Final he had to bring out every weapon he had to beat Nishikori, Wawrinka and Nadal in 5 sets each.

This year until the final against Cilic - a worthy finalist in any year - his progress was rather dull... indeed the men's tournament was pretty dreary.

There was a lot of raving about the Kyrgios-Dimitrov 4th round match, but I thought it a match between two guys who don't know what to do with all the shot-making ability they have. It was entertaining in patches, but mostly it was so because both seemed equally fragile when getting in a winning position.

Equally the Chung-Djokovic match was absolutely raved about like it was some classic, when for me the first set especially might have been some of the worst tennis I've seen played. Djokovic was clearly barely fit, his serve was awful - he double faulted 7 times! - and yet even though he was well below his best he was able to nearly win the first set despite having been down 4-0 with 2 breaks.


None of this really matters, nor even diminishes Federer's achievement - you can only beat who is on the other side of the net - but I think it highlights a big problem with men's tennis at the moment.

The depth of men's tennis is very shallow at the moment, and the problem is being covered by popularity and brilliance of Federer and Nadal.

First some graphs.

The age one first because it is rather bonkers.

Had Federer remained on 17 it would have made sense. Winning after you hit 30 is not really the done thing. Mostly you compete, keep the older fans entertained, have a couple good runs to a semi-final, maybe a final, and then if you are very lucky you win one, and then you retire.

When Federer won the Wimbledon title in 2012 it had already been 2 and half years since his last slam title. Now during that "drought" he did make every quarter final and reached 5 semi-finals and one final, but it was long enough to think, yep, this was his final one. Well done Roger, off you go, enjoy retirement.

And then he kept going.

I first wrote about Federer in 2008 after he won the US Open that year. Already at that point the talk was about how long would he go - most assumed he'd try to keep going till the London Olympics, as it would be played at Wimbledon.

Back then Federer had just won his 13th title, but was yet to win a French Open. He would go on to win the French the following year and was in the midst of possibly the greatest run of Grand Slam performance anyone has ever done. A run that saw him make the final of 18 out of 19 slams - a number really only Steffi Graf and Martina Navratolova can match - Steffi reached 13 finals in a row from 1987-1990 and Martina reached 22 out of 25 from 1981 to 1987 (the best Djokovic has done is 6 finals in a row, Serena, 4; Nadal 5; Chris Evert is tougher to count because she skipped the Aus Open a lot).

So he made 18 out of 19 finals, won 12 of them, and people were talking about his getting to 20 slams.

Kevin Mitchell writing in Guardian stated as a mater of fact, "This was Federer's 16th slam. There will be more".

Joe Drape in the NY Times pondered, "By winning his fourth Australian Open, Federer may have his best opportunity to join Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962, ’69) in taking down the sport’s holy grail: a Grand Slam, a sweep of the four major tournaments in the same year."

Instead that title marked the end of the era - knocked out in the quarter finals at both the French and Wimbledon and losing in the semi finals to Djokovic, who at that time had won only 1 grand slam title and was about to start his own era.

Just how much one era finished and a new one for Djokovic began is evident from their respective Grand Slam performances:

After Federer's win at the US Open in 2012, he would win one more in the next 6 years - in that time Djokovic would win 11 out of 22.

And then Djokovic stopped. Injuries, yes... but when we compare Federer and Djokovic's performances by age rather than year, it is less surprising:

Federer's era ended when he turned 28, Djokovic's when he turned 29.

Djokovic's drop-off has been sharper because he suffered injuries, unlike Federer, who did not miss a grand slam until the 2016 French Open, by which time he was already 34 - 4 years older the Djokovic is now.

It shows the task ahead of Djokovic. Unless something very odd happens, he is never going to be as dominant as he was when he was from age 24 to 29. But he might be able to be as good - which is what has happened with Federer.

Federer is not as dominant, because he'll still get the odd back issue (cf last year's US Open) and he'll generally skip the French Open - he hasn't played it since 2015 and I wonder if the next time he plays that tournament it will be because he is doing a bit of a farewell tour - but he is as good.

The weird thing about Federer's past 12 months is how after last year's Australian Open the titles have felt a bit anti-climatic. The Wimbledon win was so by-the-numbers - not dropping a set, not really facing anyone dangerous - Cilic was, but he was so hobbled in the final that is was not a fair fight - that I didn't even bother to write a post about it.

And now he has won 20 titles.

So what does it all mean? Superlatives aplenty - he probably has the most of any man sewn up. Nadal might get to 20, but no one else.

For Djokovic to get to 20 would require not only his getting his game back (a big call, given how awful it was to watch him founder against Chung in the 4th round) but he needs to do so before the younger generation steps up.

As I always like to point out, Djokovic - and even Nadal - are not really Federer's contemporaries.

Fed's peers - Hewitt, Safin, Roddick, bowed out ages ago. He has been playing against younger guys for most of his career now - his Wimbledon win against Roddick was in 2009, since then he has really been playing against Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in their primes, rather than them in his, and those three are among the best three ever to play.

For Federer to get to 20 he needed to win a stack before the younger mob - especially Djokovic - worked out how to win. Now the younger gen of Thiem, Kyrgios, Zverev are learning how to win. They haven't really clicked at the slams yet, but it can happen quickly.

When Federer won his first slam title he had before that never been past the quarter finals, and Nadal (clay freak that he is) had never even made a quarter final in a slam before he won his first title.

But this time last year I suggested we were about to enter an era where there would be 3 or 4 different winners of slams each year. That the past 5 have been Federer, Nadal, Federer, Nadal, Federer does suggest a few things:

  1. Federer and Nadal are freaks
  2. Technology and strategy
  3. Luck and injuries
  4. The depth of men's tennis is not great
Federer and Nadal are really the only two in the contest for greatest male player of the open era - so we can safety assume they are a bit out-of-the-box different.

But they have been helped and have also adapted. The technology means Nadal is able to play the way he does for longer than would have been possible with the old racquets and strings. Federer too is not the same player he was when he won Wimbledon in 2012 - he has a bigger racquet and he is playing differently - especially on the backhand.

The Federer of 2018 would beat Federer of 2012 - a better backhand, smarter use of serve volley, more attacking return, more emphasis on shorter points rather than stubbornly trying to beat Djokovic, Murray and Nadal at the baseline.

And both Nadal and Federer have been helped by injuries (which to be fair, they too have had recently).

But let's not put any asterisks on any of these wins. That Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka may have been injured is irrelevant. You want to win at sport - stay healthy and turn up. Richmond might have been helped by the Crows having Brodie Smith and Mitch McGovern out injured for the grand final, but so what - best team on the day wins.

In 2008, Federer had glandular fever when he lost to Djokovic in the semis of the Australian Open - that doesn't diminish Djokovic's victory at all. Life it tough at the pinnacle of sport - tore a hamstring? Got blisters? Pity. So sad. Sorry, someone else gets to win. 

But the loss of Djokovic, Murray and Warinka to injuries - much like the loss of Federer in 2016, revealed that there is not much else there. 

Here are the men's finalists of the past 5 slams:
Federer, Nadal, Cilic, Wawrinka, Anderson. 

Just five players. That's not many taking advantage of all the injuries to top players. 

Here were the men's 3-8 seeds at the Australian Open and their best ever slam performance:

Dimitrov (SF), Zverev (4th), Thiem (SF - French), Cilic (W), Goffin (QF), Sock (4th). 

That is not a murderer's row of players. Zverev is young, so he gets a pass, But Dimitrov is now 26 - and should be at or near his peak, Thiem is only 24, but outside of the Paris clay he has not reached a quarter final, Goffin is 27 and as honest a player as you can get but 2 quarter finals in his entire career says it all really, and Sock might one day make a run somewhere, but he is 0-8 against Federer/Nadal and I doubt either of them cared too much whether he ended up in their half of the draw. 

I could see Dimitrov winning one, Zverev could (will?) win a bundle, Thiem surely will crack it for the French Open (maybe even this year), and Cilic is every chance to add to his US Open title. 

But this was the men's top 8 seeds at the Australian Open two years ago and their best performances:

Djokovic (W), Murray (W), Federer (W), Wawrinka (W), Nadal (W), Berdych (F), Nishikori (F), Ferrer (F). 

Now that was a line up. 

And we're a long way from seeing its like. 

Federer has certainly improved his game - the topspin backhand is a thing of beauty all Federer fans wish he had been using throughout his career given how it has enabled him to beat Nadal 4 times in a row last year. But he is right when he said at the start of the tournament that a 36 year old should not be the favorite. 

And neither for that matter should Nadal at 31 year old. Where are the 24-28 year olds? 

Alas that group - led by Dimitrov, Raonic and Nishikori have not been able to snag a slam title - let alone look like reaching number 1.

And the lack of real depth has meant Federer and Nadal have been able to grab a couple more titles at an age when they really shouldn't.

That Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka have faltered due to injury/age (call it what you will) is not all that surprising. It is what happens.

Usually what happens is the best players get older, drop off and then the new guys come through.

It is exactly what happened to Federer. Yes he beat Sampras in the 2001 Wimbledon 4th round, but when he won his first grand slam title at the 2003 Wimbledon, Sampras was retired, and so too were the other best male grass court players, Pat Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic. Agassi was still there, but at 33 would never win another slam and only one more Masters title.

Here were the men's top 8 seeds of Wimbledon that year:

Hewitt, Agassi, Carlos Ferrero, Federer, Roddick, Nalbandian, Coria, Shalken.

All except Agassi and Shalken were 20-23yo.

The time was ripe for a win from the younger brigade - and Federer did, beating Mark Philippoussis who was having his last moment in the sun.

But on the way Fedeer beat Lee Hyung-taik (older journeyman), Koubek (older journeyman), Mardy Fish (same age), Feliciano Lopez (same age), Shalken (older better journeyman), Roddick (same age) and then Phillippousis who had taken out Agassi, so was in effect subbing in as the best player from the previous era.

So to win his first title, Federer mostly had to beat his peers and then beat just one of the very good older gang.

Now the easy answer as to why the generation of 24-28 year olds has not broken through is that they keep hitting into the older top 4/5 who have stuck around longer and healthier than previous late 20s, early 30s players.

But here is who Dimitrov has lost to in Grand Slams since turning 23 before the 2015 Wimbledon:

Gasquet (3rd rd), Kukushkin (2nd), Federer (3rd), Troicki (1st), Johnson (3rd), Murray (4th), Nadal (SF), Schwartzman (3rd), Federer (4th), Rublev (2nd), Edmund (QF).

So yes, out of 11 tournaments he has had to play Federer twice, and Nadal and Murray once. But what about the others? At last year's US Open he came into the event having won his first Masters title at Cincinnati, and then he lost to 19 year old Rublev. You can't blame the older guys for that. Nadal played Rublev in the quarter finals - Rublev won a total of 5 games.

Edmund, who he lost to last week in the QF, is younger than he is.

This is not to pick on Dimitrov, whom I love to watch play, but at least Milos Raonic has lost to either Murray, Nadal or Federer in 4 of his past 8 grand slam tournaments.

Most male players reach number 1 between the age of 21 and 25:

There are only 4 players under 25 in the top 20 - Zverev, Thiem, Kyrgios and Pouille. At the grand slams they have 2 semi final and 4 quarter final appearances between them (and the SFs are both Thiem's).

Since Connors reached Number 1 in 1974, there has been a pretty consistent turnover of new Number 1 players in the world - on average going from one player to someone born 18 months after they had been.

If that were to follow, the next number 1 would be born around the middle of 1989 - but that would make that player already 29 years old.

And the reality is while there is a general smooth increase in ages, what usually happens is there is a bunching of players around the same age, and then a jump to a new bunch of players who are 3-5 years younger:

Connors-Borg, give way to McEnroe-Lendl, who give way to Wilander, Edberg, Becker and on and on. Yes the older guys stick around a bit or some of the younger ones come a bit earlier than others, but pretty much it holds.

So we should now be looking for an era of players who were born 4-5 years after Nadal, Djokovic and Murray - players born in 1992-93 - that is 24-26 year olds.

Right now there are 4 players aged 24, 25 or 26 in the top 10 - Dimitrov, Thiem, Sock and Carreno-Busta.

But there are only 4 more in the rest of the top 50.

Federer and Nadal are great players, certainly. But not only are they helped by their great ability, they are also helped by there being a dearth of talent among the players who would normally be peaking right now - it shouldn't be Federer and Nadal who are the ones taking advantage of injuries to Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka.

Now maybe that peak will occur at an older age and Dimtrov et al will win a lot of slams from aged 27-30.

My suspicion however is Kyrgios, Zverev, Chung, Rublev, Shapavolov, Medvedev and others yet to turn 23 will not be so lacking in titles over the next 3 to 4 years.

They are young enough not to be thinking "Why oh why did Fed/ Nadal/ Djokovic/ Murray/ Wawrinka  have to be around when I was playing?", instead they are thinking, "Get out of the way, Grandpa."

And so Federer's 20th title is a great achievement. It was one which I, as an obscenely obsessive Federer-fan, loved to watch.

But the sport needs new champions. One reason talk about Federer retiring has diminished is there is no reason for him to do so. Nothing makes a player feel older than getting beaten by players a decade or more younger than he or she is.

That's when you start thinking about how you're getting too old for this crap.

And right now, Federer is thinking he is still the right age.


So who is the greatest of all-time? Whenever this question is asked, generally the response is - "Federer! Nadal" and "Excuse me, Serena is!"

I'm not a big fan of comparing men and women against each other in sport. I don't think it serves any good purpose. I didn't watch the last Olympics and think, "Gee who is a better 100m runner, Usain Bolt or Elaine Thompson?"

Karrie Webb is certainly Australia's most successful golfer of all time, but does that make her the greatest? It's one of those questions where if you answer "Yes", you are admitting a few caveats (ie she never beat any men), and if you answer "No", you are assuming being greatest automatically means being male.

Serena might have more slams, but is she better? In what sense? Is Federer better? If so, is it not only because as a male he has inherent advantages that don't really go to who is the better "player" (whatever that means)?

That Federer won last year after 6 months off after knee surgery was amazing, that Serena won while 2 months pregnant is unbelievable. But I have no idea which is the greater achievement, and I just can't see much worth in arguing either way.

But I can understand people getting pretty damn annoyed when you see media orgs write that Federer is the "first person to win 20 grand slams". And I can also understand those who feel that the "Greatest of All-time debate" is always inherently about men. It's not hard to say "Greatest male player" or "Greatest woman player" and maybe that is where is should stand (not so good for the GOAT acronym though!), and to be honest I'll often say Federer is the greatest of all time, just as I'll often say Serena is the greatest of all time without any gender adjective - such as I did here.

It is hard enough to compare Federer with Nadal given Nadal's better head-to-head record, but Federer's better performance on non-clay (11-8 on hardcourt). There are three Masters events on clay, none on grass, would not Federer's head to head record be better were that not the case?

On the women's side it is even harder to compare the three greatest of the open era - Serena, Steffi Graf and Martina Navratalova. Who played in the era of more depth? Whose record is better? Serena has 23 slam titles, but Steffi was number 1 for 55 more weeks than Serena has been, and she retired when she had just turned 30 - so Williams has had 6 more years than Graf, but been Number 1 for 55 weeks fewer? Does that make Steffi greater?

Some days I think, yes, others I think no.

But a few have wondered about Serena's path to 23 grand slam titles so below is the graph with Serena, Graf, Federer and Nadal:

One thing: Graf was amazing. I have long believed her to be the greatest women's player, but I now think Serena has just edged ahead (at least I think I think this). That Graf won all 4 slams 4 times, however remains an amazing feat (Serena has "only" done it three times - Fed and Nadal just once).

The main reason I believe Serena is the greater of the pair is that I can't recall a time when she has not been favourite in a tournament. If she is there, she is the one to beat. That was not the case with Graf once Monica Seles came along (and to be honest has not been the case for either Federer or Nadal for large portions of their careers).

But think on this, had Serena retired at the same age Graf did, we would be comparing two players one of whom would have won 9 more grand slams titles. That is astonishing.

So Graf probably gets it for brilliance at the top, Serena for longevity. Who is the greatest? Serena... no Steffi... no Serena....

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Federer releases "Imagine"

Whenever I return to this blog to look at things I wrote about in the past, more often than not it is the non-political posts that I re-read, perhaps because now that I am paid to write about economic and politics, the writing on sport and movies and music still has the appeal of a hobby - which is what this blog only ever was.

This week I did get to write in Guardian Aus on tennis and while that was fun, I decided to write another post here because this week a few people on Twitter had reminded me of things I had written about Federer in the past. And on looking back over the posts I realised, I just have to write another post after this win.

For you see I have written a bit on Federer.

The first time was in 2008 when I commented on his winning the US Open that year meant he had avoided in the eyes of some critics a failure - because after 4 years where he had won 3, 2, 3 and 3 slam titles respectively, in 2008 he was merely a semi-finalist at the Australian Open and runner-up at the French Open and Wimbledon.

Now sure, 2008 was in some ways a nadir for Fed. The French Open flogging he received from Nadal was otherworldly. He met the greatest clay court play at the absolute height of his powers, and was destroyed, winning only 4 games in 3 sets.

But he won the US Open in 2008, and went on to make the finals in the next 5 grand slams, winning 3 of them.

I was already waxing pretty lyrical about Federer then.

I can't remember whether I had read David Foster Wallace's NY Times article on Federer that he wrote in 2006, but nonetheless I was certainly already in the spirit of those Fed articles that are now so prevalent across the web, given the title was "the effortlessness of gods" .

I wrote that one reason Federer was held in higher regard than others such as Nadal (Djokovic was a one slam winner at this stage, so not in the conversation yet) was that he achieved what he did with (to quote Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire) "the apparent effortlessness of gods".

I still think that holds up. Yeah we love sportsmen and women who win, but we always hold those who seem to do it with ease, just that bit higher.

In 2009 when I next wrote on Federer - this time about his winning the French Open - I opened the post with perhaps the most absurdly naive thing I have ever written:
Last night I stayed up till 1:30am watching Roger Federer play a game of tennis. I don't think I'll ever have to do that again.
 And just to fully show how deluded I was, I ended by writing:
But now that Federer has won the French Open; and now that he has equaled Sampras' record of 14 titles I don't feel such a need to will him over the line. Perhaps now I can relax and just enjoy watching him play, rather than live every point and worry when he gets down 15-30.

Wimbledon starts in a month; and we'll see, but I'm betting I'll be setting the DVD recorder going rather than looking at the clock and thinking "I have to get up for work in 5 hours..."
Lets just say I lost that bet. - seven and half years later, 3 grand slam titles later, and I am still living every point and still worrying when he gets down 15-30.

By 2011 I had taken a different tack. When Federer lost in the Wimbledon quarter finals to Tsonga after being up 2 sets to love, I decided to compare him to The Beatles - suggesting his glory years were akin to the run of The Beatles going from Rubber Soul to The White Album - wherein everything in popular music was changed.

I argued his loss to Tsonga was the equivalent of him releasing "Let it Be" - ie not that great and basically meaning the end was nigh.

I suggested it showed that his decline was not a blip, but that his time as the very best player ever - and more so as a player whose game was so far above all others it changed the way the game was played - was over.

However, I also suggested:
Tennis fans, and especially Federer loyalists, will hope that there is time for an Abbey Road – that one last Grand Slam where the stars align and for 7 matches he comes back. It is more likely to happen than not.
And so it did come to pass.

In 2012, when he beat Murray in the Wimbledon final I wrote that "Federer releases Abbey Road" (which of course was released before Let it Be, but recorded after - just to fully ensure the analogy is mangled).

And just to demonstrate how wrong I was in 2009 about not caring, I watched that final in a small cabin in Port Macquarie on a little portable TV, while on holidays. And it wasn't 1:30am, but 3:15am that I stayed up till watching. I also spent most of the match standing up because at one point while Federer was facing break point I happened to stand up, and when he saved the point and held serve, I decided that I needed to remain standing in order to help him win.

Yeah, I'm that deranged when it comes to Federer.

When in 2013 he then lost in the 2nd round at Wimbledon to Sergiy Stakhovsky I suggested he had released his first solo album.

But as despondent as I was, I did still hold out some hope that despite the end of his 36 slam run of quarter final appearances, there was still a chance for some more glory:
And so last night we saw what happens after the band splits up. Out comes the disappointing solo album. In this case it is more “McCartney” than “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”, but in either case it was a long way from the magic that once was.
Will Federer release an “Imagine”? Who knows. He still seems to love playing, and he can still at times sing on a tennis court in a way that reminds you that this guy was once better than anyone else ever has been.
Well it was a long wait, but on Sunday, Federer released "Imagine"

It's an analogy that I think works particularly well, because like Lennon's album, Federer's win against Nadal in 5 sets will likely be over-rated. I believe his win was among the toughest he has ever had to do - beating 4 players in the top 10 to do it, and comeback down a break in the 5th against his longest and perhaps only nemesis, after not playing a tournament in 6 months?

How do you do that? How do you do that at 35 years of age?

But even still, the tennis he played was not relatively speaking a patch on the glory years. It was certainly great and because sport always moves forward Federer 2017 would beat Federer 2005, but back then he was doing things with the racquet that had never been done - and more than that, had not been dreamed of being done. In the past fortnight he was "just" doing things as well as anyone else.

And while "Imagine" the song is the favourite of many of Lennon's fans, the impact of the song on world culture was nothing compared to that which he wrote with McCartney in 1963-67.

But by God, like "Imagine", that 5th set will be for many who saw it as the peak of Federer's career.

I thought he was gone. But then I didn't rate him a chance to beat Berdych in the 3rd round.

Federer's 1st and 2nd round matches were the text-book definition of "rusty", and even though he beat Rubin in straight sets in the 2nd round, I thought his game pretty poor.

And then he reduced Berdych to a spectator....

I still thought he'd probably lose to Nishikori in the 4th round. And when he lost the 4th set, I really thought he'd let a big chance slip, because by that time Murray had been knocked out and so too had Djokovic.

By the time he played Wawrinka in the semi-final I was in full "well he's done so well to get this far" mode. And after he lost the 3rd and 4th sets I was in full trying-to-convince-myself-it-doesn't-matter-all-that-much mode, life is still good, I told myself.

To be honest I didn't want him to play Nadal in the final. I knew he would of course. I knew that would happen from the 4th round on wards. Of course Federer would make the final and of course he would face Nadal and lose.

Pessimist that I was I was actually preferring he lose to Wawrinka in the semis than make the final and lose to Nadal.

But he played against Nadal the way he should always have played against Nadal - attackign and stepping in to hit his backhand, rather than trying to slice or just out-rally Nadal. For so much of the match it all seemed on Fed's racquet. The points felt like they were either Federer winner or Federer unforced error.

Nadal of course did hit winners - 35 to Fed's 73 - and of course he did force a lot of errors, but the overall tone of the match was of Nadal remaining solidly good and Federer being very good, then very bad, then very good, then very bad.

The first 4 sets were not to be honest great tennis. The Nadal-Dimitrov match was better viewing. None of the set required a player getting to 7 games. No tie breakers. It was 4 sets where both players took turns wining it comfortably - hardly a classic.

But then Lennon's Imagine has a few dud tracks (does anyone ever hum "Crippled Inside", or "It's so Hard"?

But then came the 5th set, when both players were amazing at the same time.

All that needs to be seen to know how good they both were is this rally with Nadal serving at deuce with Federer down a break 3-4:

That is tennis played by gods.

And of course Federer was down break points when serving for the match. Long time Fed watchers know he always makes you earn it. He doesn't get broken often while serving for the set or match, but he rarely seems to do it easily.

The scars of the break to Djokovic in the semis at the 2011 US Open will never quite heal.

At 30-40 in the final game Federer unleashed an inside out forehand winner that long-time followers should have predicited.

Despite facing a couple more break points, that shot took me right back to 2009, when against Tommy Hass in the 4th round of the French Open, when down 2 sets to love and facing a break point at 3-4 he let rip the same inside out forehand for a winner. 

It is the shot that ensured he got through to the French Open final that year. It is the shot that changed men's tennis:

For me Federer is the greatest of all-time, not because of the number of titles, but because since 2003 men's tennis has been viewed through the Federer lens, in much the same way as women's tennis since 2002 has been viewed through a Serena lens. 

You either had to develop a game as attacking as Federer's or come up with one that could defend his attacks for long enough to break him down - this is the path Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have taken; Del Potro and Wawrinka took the more attacking route (though Djokovic better than anyone perhaps ever in history is able to turn defence into attack).

At 18 slams he probably will hold the record for men for a very long time, but as we shall see, Djokovic could get there (I really can't see Nadal winning another 4 - it doesn't sound like many, but given his last 4 wins have taken 5 years, I just can't see it happening) 

I will of course be greedy for more wins and will get nervous and spend half of matches standing up or sitting in a certain way, but to be honest, I can't see Sunday night being topped for emotion.

And so now to the graphs.

Here what Federer's career Grand Slam graph now looks like:

And here's the path to 18 slam wins by age compared to Nadal, Djokovic and Sampras:

Now looking at that graph might have you thinking that if Djokovic keeps going at the same trajectory he has for the past couple years, he will reach Fed's 18. But it also shows how tough it is to win once you hit 30 - the age Djokovic (and Murray) will be by the time of the French Open.

The graph also suggests Djokovic will struggle to get to Federer's total because he came good a couple years later than did Federer.

Federer took longer to win his first slam title than did Nadal or Djokovic (let alone the 19 year old Sampras). But once he got a taste for it, he really gorged himself:

If we look at Djokovic's Grand Slam graph we see a gap after that first Australian Open win until his second Aussie Open win

After he broke through beating Tsonga in the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic did not make another final until the 2010 US Open (he lost to Federer). But once he won the 2011 Australian Open, he like Federer did, got a taste for it. His peak had a bit more of a "lull" than did Federer's, but after winning just once slam each in 2012, 2013 and 2014, he got his full mojo back and won 6 out of 8, including the incredible 4 in a row - something Federer was never able to achieve.

Comparing the careers of Federer and Djokovic is more interesting to me than that of Nadal. Nadal with his French Open dominance never has had the consistency across the slams as has Fed and Djokovic. In "only" 3 years has Nadal reached the quarter finals of every slam; Djokoivc has done it in 6 years and Federer in 8.

If you took away each of the three player's best slam, Federer would lose 7 Wimbledon titles and still have 11 slams; Djokovic would lose 6 Australian Opens and still have 6 slams, while Nadal would lose 9 French Open titles and have only 5 slams.

So Nadal is certainly great, but for comparing all-surface careers, Federer and Djokovic are much more similar.

If we assign 1 point for losing in the first round of a slam and 8 points for winning the championship were are able to figure a running 4 slam average for each player. Doing so allows us to see the impact of Djokovic's rise had on Federer:

When Djokovic won his second Australian Open title, Federer had already won 16 grand slam titles. Since then he has won 2 and Djokovic has won 10 more. 

The impact of Nadal was not as stark. When Nadal won his first non-French Open slam in 2008, Federer had already won 12 titles, but he would still win 4 out of the next 6 before dropping off. 

What is interesting about Federer and Djokovic is how their career paths have been remarkably similar. If we take the above graph, but adjust it according to the ages of each player rather than year, we see the similarity more clearly:

It also shows how tough it is for Djokovic to get to 18. By the time Djokovic won his second title, he was at an age at which Federer had already won 5. 

The chart shows pretty clearly that the peak age for a tennis player is from 23 to 29. During that period Federer won 12 titles, Djokovic 11. So Djokovic needs to make up for his slower start and that one less title during the peak years. 

And while Federer dropped of a touch earlier than did Djokovic, the fall was remarkably similar, and if anything Djokovic's had been more sudden. 

After Federer won the Australian Open in 2010 his next 4 slam performances were: QF, QF, SF, SF. Since winning the French Open last year, Djokovic has gone 3rd, F, 2nd. 

Will the French Open see the continued drop off or will he recover? 

Sport is a damn funny thing. When Federer won that 2010 Australian Open he had made the final of 18 of the previous 19 slams - an unheard of level of dominance. People were talking about 20 slam titles. 

And then he only reached 3 of the next 19 finals and only won 1 of them. 

So you never know. 

The path does not look good for Djokovic. But one thing he has in his favour is that unlike Federer, there is not a Djokovic around about to come into his peak. 

The only other slam winners (besides Fed and Nadal) playing the tour at the moment are Wawrinka, Murray, Del Potro and Cilic. They are aged 31, 29, 28 and 28 respectively. 

Dimitrov is 25 and looks to be ready to make the leap to champion, but he is a very long way from being one of the 5 best players of the open era (something that Djokovic is legitimately in the discussion of). 

But that said, slams don't need to only be won by one person, or split between two (or a "Big 4"). Maybe Dominic Thiem (aged 23) will begin his rise to the top, or Sasha Zverev (still only 19) or Kygios (21) or maybe Tomic can turn things around (at 24 and ranked 33, there's still time to avoid "journeyman" status, but less than there once was).

My gut is that we're about to enter an era were having 3 or 4 different winners and 6 or 7 different finalists in the slams each year is not uncommon - a bit like the period from 1996 to 2003. 

But then, who knows. I'm the guy who said he was going to stop caring about Federer in 2009. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

The lost generation of men’s tennis: or where are the freaks?

My favourite men’s tennis bit of trivia is that Bernard Tomic is closer in age to Novak Djokovic than Djokovic is to Roger Federer.

Tomic is 23, was born in October 1992; Djokovic is 28, was born in May 1987 and is 5 years and 5 months older than Tomic; Federer is 34, was born in August 1981 is 5 years and 9 months older than Djokovic.

I like it because it reminds me why whenever Federer is asked about his favourite or toughest opponent he invariably talks about three generations of players – those who where there when he arrived, like Sampras and Agassi, those who arrived at the same time as he did – Hewitt, Safin and Roddick – and then he mentions Nadal and Djokovic (Nadal is 4 years and 6 months younger than Federer).

We think of Djokovic and Federer as peers in a way which we would never think of Djokovic and Tomic.

That Djokovic and Federer, although separated by nearly 6 years, have become perhaps the greatest rivalry in the history of professional men’s tennis says a great deal about both. That Federer has been able to keep playing as well as he has for so long is amazing, and that Djokovic began playing as well as he did so early is worth remembering when valuing his greatness.

Remember as Djokovic begins his quest for a 6th Australian Open that he won his first title 8 years ago in 2008. He was 21, and it was no real shock. Sure he upset Federer in the semis, but Federer was suffering glandular fever and Djokovic even then was far too good to pass up an opportunity to beat a wounded Federer.

But Djokovic was the 3rd seed at the time, had lost to Federer in the previous year’s US Open and made the semi finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2007. He was already very good, even if he was almost more known for his ability to impersonate other players than his tennis ability:

And yet now no one expects 21 year olds to win.

And the usual talk is that, well the game has changed, and older players have an advantage because the physicality of the sport etc etc.

Bollocks I say.

In my view, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic are better than the usual level of players who dominate the circuit for periods (usually 3-5 years), and the players a few years younger than Djokovic are just not good enough.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are freaks, those who are a few years younger than Djokovic are not.

This year, for the second year in a row my summer holidays ended with a trip to Brisbane to watch the Brisbane International tennis tournament.

As with last year, we went to see Federer. Although to be fair, we also went because we knew there was a decent field assembled.

I am admittedly a Federer fanatic, but I don’t have a great deal of need to see him play an exhibition, qasi paid practice event like the Fast4 silliness, or the pretend importance of the Hopman Cup. Always know, if it’s not for ranking points it doesn’t count. (and alas it would seem for some players, even when it is for points, it doesn’t count)

The Brisbane International is truly an event worth going to if you are a tennis fan. You are close to the play, the centre court is excellent – most of the crowd is in the shade for most of the day – and the field is very good. The women’s field this year was to be excellent, but was hit by a number of withdrawals.

Last year we saw Federer annihilate James Duckworth 6-0 6-1. It was great to be able to say we saw him play (and my daughter got an autograph) but it also felt rather hollow – like an exhibition.
In the semi finals last year he took care of Grigor Dimitrov with relative ease and then beat Milos Raonic in the final in 3 tight sets.

Those two players are always interesting to watch because they, with Japan’s Kai Nishikori, have been a for a few years now been considered the next in line.

This year we saw Federer play Dimitrov in the quarter finals and it was as enjoyable a match to watch as any tennis fan could ask for. The shot making was exciting, the play interesting – lots of net play as well as baseline rallies, and the result (for at least me) perfect – Federer winning in 3.

My daughter also got another Federer autograph (he signed probably 30-40 of them after his match, great stuff).

It is interesting that the two were playing in the quarters this year.

The reason is that last year Dimitrov was ranked 11 in the world and the 4th seed, this year he was number 28 in the world and unseeded.

So while he improved on last year by taking a set off Federer, his lower ranking indicates that he has gone backwards.

And in tennis the ranking never lies.

Federer in the post-game interview talked about Dimitrov having a great career ahead of him etc etc, not mentioning that when he was Dimitrov’s age of 24 year and 8 months, Federer had already won 7 grand slam titles. 

Federer then faced Dominic Thiem in the semis. Thiem is among my favourite of the young breed. Federer dealt with him with little ado – 6-1 6-4 –and then in the post game interview he talked about how Thiem had a great career ahead etc etc and failed to note that when he was Thiem’s age of 22 years and 4 months he had already won 2 grand slam titles:

In the final Raonic met Federer playing like a man who had been suffering from the flu and who was playing for his 4th straight day in the Brisbane heat (which of course he had been).

It takes nothing away from Raonic who despatched Federer with ruthless efficiency. Winning sport is about being physically able to do it. And if you are unable – for whatever reason – well that’s just tough.

But it does make it tougher to judge whether Raonic has improved on last year (or Federer has declined) because clearly Federer was labouring with an unusual illness, so the comparison is skewed.

That Raonic last year was ranked number 8 in the world, and this year he was 14 suggests he hasn’t improved.

In the post game interview Federer noted that Raonic had a great future etc etc and failed to note that when he was Raonic’s age of 25 (his birthday is on 27 December) he had won 9 grand slam titles.
It is evidence of the bizarre world of men’s tennis that Raonic, who is just 3 1/2 years younger than Djokovic, is considered less of a peer of Djokovic than Djokovic is of Federer’s.

And it goes to the question of whether there is a lost generation of male tennis players – players who will never get to number 1 because they were unable to crack the Djokovic, Nadal, Federer code, and who get overtaken by the younger ones of which Tomic and Thiem represent the elder stage, and players 21 years and under such as Lucas Pouille, Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Alexander Zverev represent the younger stage.

When we look at the history of the ATP tour, only 25 players have reached number 1, and only 16 have been Number 1 at the end of the year (remember that when you hear anyone suggest Lleyton Hewitt, who was number 1 at the end of both 2001 and 2002, wasn’t that great).

Jimmy Connors was the first of those 25 players who really hadn’t had a career or any note prior to the ATP forming in 1972.

If we look at the successive dates of birth  of the number ones from him (he was also the first born after WWII) we see that there is a pretty regular progression.

There are occasions where the next player to reach number 1 is older than the previous player – but mostly the number 1 is succeeded by someone younger.

On average the latest number 1 is 1 year and 7 months younger than was the previous person to attain the pinnacle.

Thus on average the next player to achieve the number 1 ranking would be expected to have been born around September-December 1988, and thus be now aged 27.

But when we look of the ages of the players when they first became number one since Jimmy Connors we see that only one player – Thomas Muster – has been older than 27 when he first became number 1:

The average age of players when they become number 1 is 23 years and 1 month – just a bit younger than Bernard Tomic is now.

On a best case scenario the quickest Milos Raonic could get to number 1 would be for him to go on a tear, win the Australian Open, win at least one of the Masters events in the USA in March, go well on the clay courts and French Open and then win Wimbledon (and even that would rest on Djokovic doing poorly). That would have him as number 1 at the age of 25 1/2 years – only Muster and Patrick Rafter would have been older.

Now Rafter was a great player. His career is one envied by 99.9% of people ever to pick up a tennis racquet. But he was number 1 for a week. He hardly dominated his era; he was at the top in somewhat of a nether period of men’s tennis. That time when Sampras was no longer at his peak, Agassi had come back, but there was also a fair jumble of players at or near the top.
It was a period defined by a lack of domination.

Mostly the tour is dominated by 3 or 4 players of around the same/similar age.

Player Date of birth
Jimmy Connors Sep-1952
Bjorn Borg Jun-1956
John McEnroe Feb-1959
Ivan Lendl Mar-1960
Mats Wilander Aug-1964
Stefan Edberg Jan-1966
Boris Becker Nov-1967
Jim Courier Aug-1970
Pete Sampras Aug-1971
Andre Agassi Apr-1970
Thomas Muster Oct-1967
Marcelo Rios Dec-1975
Carlos Moya Aug-1976
Yevgeny Kafelnikov Feb-1974
Patrick Rafter Dec-1972
Marat Safin Jan-1980
Gustavo Kuerten Sep-1976
Lleyton Hewitt Feb-1981
Juan Carlos Ferrero Feb-1980
Andy Roddick Aug-1982
Roger Federer Aug-1981
Rafael Nadal Jun-1986
Novak Djokovic May-1987

There’s always a bit of bleeding over in eras – Borg and Connors into McEnroe and Lendl’s; Lendl into Wilander, Edberg and Becker’s, Edger and Becker into Courier, Sampras and Agassi’s etc etc
And generally you see gaps: 3 years to McEnroe, 4 years to Wilander, 3 years to Courier, 4-5 years from Agassi to Kafelnikov-Rios etc or just 3 years if you include Rafter among the Sampras-Agassi era, then 4 years to Safin and Carlos Ferrero – the first of the Federer contemporaries to make it.

So this is where my thoughts on the lost generation of tennis players occurs. Nadal and Djokovic (throw in Murray, who will likely never get to number 1) is an era. Federer definitely bleeds into it, but you would expect given tennis history for there now to be a bit of a jump to a new era – a jump of 3-4 years.

That jump would take you straight to Raonic and those such as Dimitrov and Nishikori, but the jump would occur to when they are already somewhat aged tennis players.

I actually think Raonic could win the Australian Open. He has an excellent draw, would have to beat Wawrinka in the quarters and Nadal in the semi and I think he has the game to do it.

But it is unlikely, even if he were to do that, and even if he were to go on and win another slam (surely Wimbledon or the US Open), for him to really stamp out a new era.

It seems much more likely we are to see a late 1990s period, where no one utterly dominates – even if perhaps Djokovic does enough to stay Number 1 at the end of the year for another couple years.

There is no reason to think that peaking in tennis now is something that only can happen at an older age. Sure you need to be stronger, but Nat Fyfe was 23 last year; is anyone thinking he needed to get a bit older before he could match it with the mature men? But yeah, he’s a freak.

Sure technology has allowed older players to stay good for longer; but Jordan Speith won the US Masters and US Open at the age of 21. And yes, he’s a freak – but that is the point. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic were all freaks, so were Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Connors, Borg…

You don’t say the same of Raonic, Dimitrov, Nishikori etc.

I wonder if Federer – now the very elder statesman of the game – realises this, and perhaps slightly wonders if it will affect his legacy as the greatest of all time.

He has 17 slams. It is unlikely he’ll add to it. His best chances were in the 2014 US Open, and last year’s Wimbledon and US Open. In both tournaments he played his best matches in the semi finals, and in both he hit Djokovic in the final, and Djokovic was just too good.

Federer didn’t play his best in either final, but that was mostly because Djokovic wouldn't let him play his best, and Federer couldn’t stop Djokovic from playing his.

Djokovic now has 10 slams and is a legitimate entry in the debate of best 5 players ever in the ATP era; by the end of his career he is a big chance to be debated as the greatest of all time.  

He might not get to Federer’s 17 titles, and he is an outside chance to break Federer’s 302 weeks at number 1 (he needs another 121 weeks) but neither record is impossible.

The barrier to Djokovic reaching Federer’s records is not Nadal or Murray or Wawrinka but the young brigade.

Two weeks ago, Federer when talking about Bernard Tomic’s ambition to get to the top 10, said “he's been good, but then top 10 is another story. The year is not just one month long or one week long. It's 52 weeks. It's every day”. In effect - stop talking, start doing.

And that’s just to be in the top 10 – the current Number 10 is on 2,635 ranking points – Djokovic is on 16,790, and winning a Grand Slam gets you 2,000 points.

Since Connors took over the number 1 ranking from John Newcombe, there has been a new person reach number 1 for the first time every 1 year and 8 months.

It has now been 4 1/2 year since Djokovic became the 25th player to reach number 1. If we push that out to June – which would be about the earliest someone new could take over, we’re at 5 years – the second longest wait.

So who will be the next one?

Raonic would be the best bet. He has a big game, but it would require a big step up. He has only made the Quarter Final or better at a grand slam 3 times; he has only reached the final of a Masters event twice.

And time is not on his side.

Tomic is 2 years younger than he, and he is making good strides. Last year in Brisbane I watched Tomic lose to Nishikori in straight sets – the first set he lost 6-0 and the word “try” was not a descriptor you would have worn out using; he barely looked like he wanted to be there.

This year we again saw the two play and the difference was stark. Gone was the lack-lustre movement, and his forehand had changed from being one reminiscent of a stroke hit by someone almost seemingly too bored to bother, to one where effort was visible, and power evident but which still had his exquisite timing.

He won in 3, and then lost to Raonic in a tight 2 tie break sets. It all looked good.

And then he went to Sydney and pulled out of his quarter final citing food poisoning.


It merely reinforced what Federer had said just a week earlier – you gotta turn up week in week out, day in day out.

The tour is a god awful grind. You don’t get to number 1 except by turning up and winning week in week out.

Tomic has the talent; but he is a danger of also being taken over by younger players if he is not careful – Kokkinakis showed in the French Open last year, that the younger Australians certainly don’t hold him in awe on the court.

Dimitrov is one who I would love to see make it. I love his game, but again he teases – he can play well, and then not. The top line consistency is not there.

And it has nothing to do with being stopped by Djokovic or Nadal or Federer.

Yes he lost to Federer in Brisbane but he then lost to Victor Troicki in the Sydney final the following week – after having beaten him in Brisbane.

Federer in Brisbane noted of Dimitrov’s win over Troicki (which meant the two would play each other) that they were the type of matches Dimitrov needed to win if he wanted to get back into the top 10.

Troicki is a 29yo journeyman – a good journeyman, but one who has never made a grand slam quarter final. Dimitrov should not be losing to him in finals – especially when winning the first set 6-2.

But for the next fortnight it is hard to go past Djokovic. His game is just perfect for the Australian Open courts.

Federer has a very tough draw. After Basilashivili in the first round, he then will likely have to beat Dolgopolov (another one of those “young” players who is now 26, but ranked 36, so definitely a tough unseeded opponent) , Dimitrov, then Thiem or Goffin (another young player, who is now 25yo), then Berdych or Cilic, then Djokovic, just to get to the final.

Tough ask for an old bloke.

I would love to see someone new step up – even if it is someone “old” like Stan Wawrinka did in 2014. Even better though, would be for someone young – someone of whom people might start saying, cripes, he’s a bit of a freak.

Friday, September 12, 2014

U2 releases “Songs of Innocence”

Before I start, I think we should all pause to honour the many brave individuals who have taken to social media in the past few days to let everyone know they hate U2. Swimming against the tide is a very tough thing to do; I just hope their reputations can recover. But we should thank them as well – it’s not often social media in 2014 can take you back to 1988.

The reality is U2 have been hated for most of its existence. The period it went from being known by enough members of the public to then being hated was pretty short – perhaps from the time it took The Joshua Tree to sell squillions of records till the moment people saw the horrendous megalomaniacal mess that was Rattle and Hum.

U2 have never been cool. The release of Achtung Baby in 1991 and its follow up Zooropa, plus the incredible Zoo TV Tour did give them a bit of a nudge towards coolness; but fortunately for all concerned, the release of Pop in 1997 allowed everyone to go back to hating them and not having to worry about such an opinion being out of whack.

I’ve been a U2 fan for far too long really – since probably around 1984 when I think I first saw footage of them singing Sunday Bloody Sunday at Red Rocks. I was 12 at the time and not really a big enough consumer of music to be able to say I was all the way with U2. Back then I was just young enough to think Duran Duran’s The Reflex was about as good as music got.

But within a year or so U2 was it for me and so it has remained. Songs of Innocence

Back when they released their last album, I was someone who actually did blog and so I did a ranking of all the U2 albums. It would have been perhaps correct at the time to suggest U2 were done and they would be able to retire to the Greatest Hits concert circuit.

And yet the release of Songs of Innocence as part of the iPhone 6 launch sees them actually more relevant than they were 5 years ago.

Of course such a statement is absurd: U2 are not relevant. We know this because in the approximately 7,846 instant reviews of the album on every single newspaper/magazine/news website we have been told how they are not at all relevant.

Judging this album is tough because of the way it was released. It’s free and inserted into your iTunes library whether you liked it or not.

I can understand why some people don’t like that, though most of the objections are pretty stupid. The ones about privacy are easily the dumbest. I wonder if these people have ever had Windows automatically updated on their PC? How about apps on the iPhone, ever noticed how they also get automatically update now? Yes people, IT companies whose product you have agreed to use can change things on your computer.

But perhaps the thing I have most liked on Twitter is people making jokes about worrying the person next to them on the bus might see their iPhone/iPod has a U2 album on it.

Here’s a news flash, no one gives a shit about anyone’s record collection anymore.

When I was at uni I knew a bloke who had an amazing LP collection. It was jaw-dropping the great and obscure albums he had, and it was a source of pride and respect. Now I probably have almost as many albums as he does – and if you subscribe to Spotfiy so do you.

Sure everyone was given this album for free, but albums have lost pretty much all the currency they once had, and certainly your record collection has.

You got an interesting album on your iPhone? Wow, how long did you have to go round town to find that? Oh I forgot, you just clicked “purchase”. Well done you.

At this point I should acknowledge how old and get off my lawn I might sound – don’t worry in 15 years you’ll be saying the same about… err you know that band that is the biggest thing now… oh ok, not really. Bands like U2 don’t really exist anymore, unless they are carry overs from the 1990s.

Heck in 20 years time music might no longer be what it is now. Surely some computer programmer is working on an app that takes all your favourite bands and mixes their songs together in this weird mesh and jumble that spits out a computer generated songs which people will at first think is a travesty and then find bizarrely seem to work.

And bands like The Rolling Stones, U2, Led Zeppelin will make squillions from it.

(If no one has thought of this, I’m claiming copyright here and now)

At this point you can talk about how magnificent music is now, how we’re not reduced to the old mono-culture (geez, I loved using that word when I was young as well, it sounded like it meant something). And then we turn our eyes with glazed boredom to the charts and see it’s as mono-culture as it ever was.

Wow, Taylor Swift, Redfoo, Nicki Minaj, G.R.L., Paloma Faith. Talk about the full gamut…

As Redfoo said recently in response to his critics:

“People write ‘His song is so annoying, it’s No.1, I hear it every day, I hate that guy’. Relax guys! They complain about me using autotune, when I bet there are 20 songs on their iTunes that use autotune.”

Well, quite.

And so when we turn to reviews of U2 we find it has not just become a review of the album but a review of generations – perhaps in a way that has never occurred before.

Let’s go back 20 years and think of reviews of The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge.

I scarce wonder if anyone cared one way or the other – by this time even Rolling Stone magazine knew there was little interest in them. There was no need to tear them down to try and demonstrate how the younger generation had surpassed them – there was already U2 (already gettin’ a bit old), Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine etc etc.

There was in fact still bands making rock albums that mattered. There aren’t anymore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t the occasional good rock albums but none really that are going to take over the world.

And maybe that is good, but don’t blame my generation that the biggest concert acts are people who last wrote a good song before you were born.

And look, it’s not all bad. You’ve got Kanye riding a motorcycle with Kim Kardashian – live it up!

It’s not hard to then see the generational divide in the reviews of Songs of Innocence – mostly there are the oldies like David Fricke for Rolling Stone who gave it 5 stars (even I think that’s a bit much), then there are the younger one’s who are wondering what the hell is this whole thing with 4 guys with guitars a bass and drums.  And then there are those who seem above all just desperate to show they don’t like it.

One of the best of these is from Elmo Keep, and yet even in-between the fairly standard disparagements (yeah corporate band, yeah mention of Coldplay…) even she notes of “Songs for Someone” “that “This is kind of a great song”, and then of “Volcano” “This is also a pretty great” and of “Sleep like a baby tonight” “Where did this amazing Kate Bush song come from? Why isn’t there a whole record full of this stuff? Why isn’t there a whole record full of this stuff? Oh, there is, Zooropa.”

And thus we get to it – the most common reaction from those who have grudgingly found songs they actually like on the album, but really (really) don’t want to have to admit it, the “regardless of anything, they’re not as good as they used to be” view.

Well, yeah. Just how long have you been listening to music?

No band in their 35th year is ever as good as they were in the 5th.

It’s a bit like reading the commentary on Federer at Wimbledon and the US Open – the praise of his play, but the acknowledgment that he’s no longer the player he was from 2003-2007.

Sportsmen and women have primes and so too do music acts.

This doesn’t always have something to do with quality – it’s about that period where you can matter in a way that is never going to happen ever again.

The Roger Federer of 2014 would likely beat the Roger Federer of 2005. That sounds absurd, but the reality is Federer is the number 2 player in the world – tennis has not gone backwards in quality, to stay at the top you need to keep improving. But no one is going to watch Federer play a match this year and think he is doing things with a tennis racquet that have never been done before. 

Music is similar. Popular music is and always will be a young person’s game. You need to make an impact before you are 30. I think some of the songs on Dylan’s most recent album are among his best – “Roll on John” is one of my all-time favourite Dylan tracks. But no one was thinking that song or album was going to change our world like any of his early work did. 

In fact an artist’s music, if it is going to make an impact, pretty much needs to do so within that artist’s first 8 to 9 years.

U2 are a unique band. They are the same 4 guys who have been recording together now for 35 years. They haven’t had a member end up dead in a swimming pool or mysteriously choke on something that may or may not have been his own vomit. They haven’t lost a member who has had enough of touring. They haven’t decided to go their separate way because a lead member wants to explore different music.

And yet while their longevity is unique, their pattern of making it big is not.

Below is a chart of the yearly album releases of U2, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Due to size I couldn’t include more acts, but the full table is here.

From first release to last, The Beatles were run and done in 8 years. They were perhaps smart to end it then, because it is around the mark of when the decline generally begins. (My favourite bit of trivia – they were recording Rubber Soul before Help was even released, and on both albums only one song went for longer than 3 minutes, there’s something to be said for not mucking about)

To keep making good music – music that will register in the cultural consciousness – is bloody hard once you enter your second decade of recording.

Years U2 The Beatles The Rolling Stones
1 Boy (1980) Please Please Me / With the Beatles (1963) The Rolling Stones (1964)
2 October (1981) A Hard Day's Night / Beatles for Sale (1964) The Rolling Stones No. 2 / Out of Our Heads (1965)
3   Help! / Rubber Soul (1965) Aftermath (1966, UK) 
4 War (1983) Revolver (1966) Between the Buttons / Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
5 The Unforgettable Fire (1984) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) Beggars Banquet (1968)
6   "The White Album" (1968) Let It Bleed (1969)
7   Yellow Submarine / Abbey Road (1969)  
8 The Joshua Tree (1987) Let It Be (1970) Sticky Fingers (1971)
9 Rattle and Hum (1988)   Exile on Main St. (1972)
10     Goats Head Soup (1973)
11     It's Only Rock 'n Roll (1974)
12 Achtung Baby (1991)    
13     Black and Blue (1976)
14 Zooropa (1993)    
15     Some Girls (1978)
17     Emotional Rescue (1980)
18 Pop (1997)   Tattoo You (1981)
20     Undercover (1983)
21 All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)    
23     Dirty Work (1986)
25 How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)    
26     Steel Wheels (1989)
30 No Line on the Horizon (2009)    
31     Voodoo Lounge (1994)
34     Bridges to Babylon (1997)
35 Songs of Innocence (2014)    
42     A Bigger Bang (2005)

Consider that by their 9th year, U2 were doing Rattle and Hum, having already permanently entered the music firmament in their 8th year with The Joshua Tree.

By their 9th year The Rolling Stones were releasing what many consider their best – Exile on Main St.  If the Stones had pulled up stumps right there, I seriously doubt anyone would care. What, we’ve lost “It’s only Rock’n’Roll if I like it”? Well that’s ok. No “Emotional Rescue”? Can I get a “hell yeah!”?

If you go to the full chart you see by his 9th year Dylan was already putting out Self Portrait – his pinnacle of Highway 51 Revisited and Blonde and Blonde having come in his 4th and 5th years of recording.

Pink Floyd’s 9th year saw Wish You Were Here released. Led Zeppelin were perhaps the fastest to get to their peak – getting out their first 4 albums in three years – although they were an odd band – forming as they did after all members had already done significant music elsewhere. 

REM released Out of Tine in their 9th year; Radiohead put out Amnesiac, and whatever you think of In Rainbows and other releases that came after, it’s hard to argue they haven’t declined in the cultural sphere since then.

It’s easier somewhat for single artists – like Dylan – to keep going into their second decade, but even they need to make an impact early. Springsteen for example by his 9th year had put out Born to Run and Nebraska; similarly Bowie still had Heroes and Lodger to come, but by his 9th year had set his foundation as an artist that mattered with Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs.

Once you get past that first 9 years, yes you can put out good albums, but it becomes damn hard to make an impact.

U2 did Achtung Baby in their 12th year and rather astonishingly All that You Can’t Leave Behind in the 21st. By that stage REM were putting out very forgettable albums like Reveal, Pink Floyd were putting out A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Springsteen was thinking Human Touch and Lucky Town were good ideas, and even someone like Madonna in her 21st year was trying her best with American Life.

Everyone, band or artist, once they get to their 15 or 20th year is no longer generating new fans in the traditional sense. When I was in my teens I became a fan of the The Rolling Stones, but it wasn’t because I heard “Dirty Work” or “Undercover” that were being released at the time; it was because I came into contact with those songs they had released in their first 9 years.

So it will be with U2. If any kids become fans of their music, it likely won’t be because of Songs of Innocence – it’ll be because they hear The Joshua Tree or War or The Unforgettable Fire

It’s not surprising that U2 have declined in importance, it’s surprising they stayed relevant for as long as they did (have?)

Much has been made of Apple using U2, and it saying something about their target audience. For me it says two things. Firstly that there is perhaps only one other band/artist that could have done it: Beyonce. Seriously think of anyone else who would have the impact – not just the masses and masses of instant reviews (for good or bad), but also in the media.

And the way it was done shows that U2 are still actually trying.

This is of course not the first time a computer company has made use of a band to launch a product. Microsoft launch Windows 95 with The Rolling Stones being paid a shirtload of money to use “Start me up”

At the time The Stones were in their  32nd year (compared to U2’s now 35th) and they used a song that was 14 years old. It would be like if U2 was used to launch the iPhone 6 with “Beautiful Day”.

Instead they put out a new album, and against all the odds it has music worth listening to.

They haven’t turned into those bands who decide to tour playing some 20 year old record in its entirety or who like the Stones pretty much just play greatest hits (great as those hits may be).

They are a weird band, because their output is more like a single artist – like Springsteen who plays his greatest hits and whole albums, but also keep putting out new, and at times interesting, albums even if (yes) “they aren’t as good as they used to be”.

And so to this album: what do I think? The past three days I have pretty much had it on repeat play, and I haven’t bothered to hit skip all that often – something I couldn’t say about their past 2 albums.

I like the opening track, “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” but maybe I like it because I know name checking Joey Ramone shits people the same way Bono back in 1988 said he was stealing back Helter Skelter from Charles Manson. It has a nice guitar lick; probably wish it had a bit more of it.

“Every Breaking Wave” is very U2, better than No Line on the Horizon’s “Magnificent”, which isn’t saying much, but it’s a bit safe for me.

“California (There is no end to love)” is the most annoying track for me. It starts of interestingly with the repetition of “Bar… bar… Barbara… Santa Barbara”  but then doesn’t really do much for me from then on. Oddly when reading the many reviews, there is very little agreement on which are the best tracks, and some considered this to be one of those that will get concert crowds going. I don’t see/hear it. If there is a criticism that a song sound too much like Coldplay then this one is it. 

“Song for Someone” is just beautiful. Had it been released 25 years ago, in the time since it would have featured in about 1.5 trillion weddings. 

“Iris (Hold me close)” about Bono’s mother (who died when he was 14) is another very U2 song. As Elmo Keep noted, it must be damn awful to get to point where your sound is so distinctive that your new songs can sound like old songs you wrote. But that said, it’s a good song – nice chorus.

“Volcano” is a bit too wannabe Vertigo for my liking. I don’t mind it, and it is a million times better than No Line of the Horizon’s “Get on Your Boots”, which I struggled to listen to more than once.

The second half is my favourite half – a bit like how I prefer the second side (back when there were sides) of Achtung Baby. This is the side where Danger Mouse has the most influence, and it’s all the better for it

“Raised by Wolves” is the song I’ve probably listened to the most, it has a lot of interesting things going on (oddly I’ve seen reviews complain the album songs being too much the same, while others that they’re too confused).

“Cedarwood Road” feels like it should be better than it ended up. The lyrics I think let it down, because the music is great – especially The Edge’s guitar work.

“Sleep like a Baby Tonight” Is the best song on the album for mine. It wouldn’t have been out of place on Achtung Baby or Zooropa. Do I wish the whole album was like it? Maybe, but I’ve already got Achtung baby and Zooropa, I don’t need a replay. But the chorus here is lovely – even Bono going falsetto is bearable. I’ve always liked it when U2 go dark – eg Love is Blindness – and this mines that territory brilliantly.

“This is Where You Can Reach Me” is apparently a kind of an ode to The Clash. Now I love the The Clash (I don’t think you could be a real U2 fan and not) but to me the song isn’t so much an ode to The Clash as an ode to Us during the time it recorded “War”. And I’m happy with that.

“The Troubles” has U2 ending as they always do, with a slow song. And like (in my opinion) the best song on No Line on the Horizon, “Cedars of Lebanon”, this song’s title tricks listeners into assuming it will be some political heavy rant. Instead it’s a very inward looking song. Here they bring in Swedish singer Lykke Li to assist with vocals and it works perfectly.

Her singing

Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control

is rather haunting. And sure people will say, yeah thanks U2 for inserting your album inside my iTunes account, and letting us know someone else is in control.

But that’s U2 for you, annoying you while also giving you some good music.

And after 35 years, it’s damn amazing they still are able to do either.