Slumps And Plateaus in Miami: Blake, Gonzalez, et al.

I’m not sure Gonzalez is in a slump, he could be experiencing a plateau.

What is going on in Miami? Players are dropping like flies. Juan Carlos Ferrero lost his first match though it was Guillermo Canas who beat him so maybe that’s not such a big surprise. Tommy Haas lost his first match to Alejandro Falla and that was a big surprise. James Blake lost his first match to Florent Serra which is no longer a surprise. Blake hasn’t gone past the third round since Delray Beach and the clay court season is next and that’s unfortunate because clay is his worst surface.

Blake is in what we call a slump. Baseball hitters have them, golfers have them, I’m sure even curlers have them though they probably blame the ice. Blake knows that everyone will experience a slump at some point in their career and he knows exactly what happens during a slump, you lose your confidence and it shows up foremost on the big points.

It happened to Blake at the end of the first set tiebreaker in the match with Serra:

What happened is I locked up. That’s where my confidence came up…I locked up at the last second and saw he was covering where I was going to go. When I’m playing well I don’t even look up and I don’t notice what he’s doing. I just hit my shot to where I want to go.

What can you do when you’re in a slump? Blake has a plan for regaining his confidence:

Hopefully I can count on being a dumb jock and I can fool myself into thinking that I can play confidently next time. I think I can do that. It’s just a little bit of tricking yourself, and before you know it, the confidence just comes naturally.

If it works, Fernando Gonzalez might want to try it. He was tearing his hair out during his loss to Paul-Henri Mathieu in the third round. Gonzalez is barely over .500 for the last two months.

But I’m not sure Gonzalez is in a slump, he could be experiencing a plateau. Since Gonzalez hired Larry Stefanki as his new coach last year, his style of play has changed. He used to hit the ball as hard as possible and throw in a few drop shots here and there. I could be simplifying but certainly subtlety was never a feature of his game. Stefanki has added change of pace to his game and encouraged him use more strategy and less firepower.

Whenever you make a big change, you go through a learning process and that process often resembles a staircase. At the beginning you run up the stairs two or three steps at a time as you discover new things. Gonzalez reached three straight finals last fall and had a stellar performance at the Australian Open in January. But you can only jam so much learning into your noggin before you need a period to process and integrate and here is where you end up on the landing running in place before your next burst of improvement.

If Gonzalez thinks that learning is a linear process – you only get better – and forgets that he’s on a longer journey with even more adjustments ahead, he’ll get frustrated and angry as he did in the Mathieu match. Worst of all, he reverted to his old style of play.

Both Blake and Gonzalez could learn from two players who’ve recently made adjustments. Rafael Nadal’s win at Indian Wells was his first title in ten months. That’s definitely a slump for him but slumps aren’t always self-induced. Players caught up to him on fast courts. They hit through the ball and came to the net to take time away from him and it worked. Nadal improved his serve and rediscovered his forehand all the while holding on to his number 2 ranking and now he looks like his old self.

Andy Roddick’s problems weren’t self induced either. The game was passing him by. The best serve in the game and a pretty good forehand were no longer enough. He was getting his butt kicked on grass by Roger Federer and Andy Murray, players with better all-court games. Roddick had to round out his game by being more aggressive on returns of serve and coming to the net more often. After dropping to number 12, Roddick is now comfortably at number 3.

Notice the theme here, it’s no longer enough to be a clay court retriever or a hard court banger, you have to be an all court player to get to the top. As Charles Darwin said:

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.