“I beat the Olympic champion, US Open champion. I beat Andy Murray. Unbelievable feeling for me.
Still, I have the feeling that in a few minutes I’m going to wake up and it will all be gone.”
That’s all Jerzy Janowicz was to me before this week: a name. The kind of name that pops up during a Grand Slam, around the time when the junior tournament is nearing its final stages. I remember Jorge Viale from Fue Buena tweeting something about a big Pole with an even bigger serve at the French Open a few years ago.
As I found out while I started watching Janowicz’s match with Andy Murray, the man who towered over the Scot during the coin toss was the junior US Open finalist in 2007, and the junior French Open runner-up in 2008.
Glad my memory still works.
Janowicz will turn 22 years old in less than two weeks. Before the Paris Masters, he had amassed a 15-15 career record in the ATP. Looking at his Playing Activity for 2012 on the ATP site, the inevitable conclusion you reach is that the very tall man from Lodz was playing the kind of schedule we are used to seeing top prospects play when they’re 18 or 19: a lot of Challengers, some Futures, and a lot of qualifying rounds for main draws of ATP events and Grand Slams.
But Janowicz is almost 22.
Sure, there are some highlights in 2012: he won two challengers (one in Rome and another somewhere in the Netherlands), lost a few finals, played three rounds of qualies and three main draw matches at Wimbledon, falling to Florian Mayer 7-5 in the fifth.
Still…what was he doing in 2011? Pretty much the same thing, with much worse results. Jerzy Janowicz lost a lot of tennis matches in 2011. And didn’t win many of them. No wonder 2012 was a repeat year in terms of scheduling. Janowicz had no choice, really.
I remember now that I was surprised to see at the beginning of the Murray match that the Pole actually had a 9-3 record in 2012 before Paris started. Which means that his career ATP record was 6-12 at the end of 2011. Oy.
Anyway, the reason I’m asking all these questions is because I woke up yesterday to the news that this relatively unknown character knocked out Andy Murray, the lone remaining member of the Big 4 in Paris. He saved a match point in the process, too.
But I’m also asking because Janowicz arrived at yesterday’s quarterfinal match without having faced a break point in 21 games of ATP play.
Read that again: the guy with the 15-15 career record in the ATP somehow didn’t face a break point when he played Philipp Kohlschreiber (won 7-6, 6-4) and Marin Cilic (won 7-6, 6-2).
I saw the tail end of the match against Kohlschreiber, intrigued to finally catch a glimpse of this name I had heard about intermittently for a few years now. I only caught a couple of points, one of which included an absolutely beautiful backhand slice down the line by Janowicz that left me wondering if I had ever seen someone slice the ball with that kind of aggression. The way Janowicz hit that particular slice, you’d think he was wielding a large kitchen knife and took a big swing a some sort of dead animal. Not a desperate, savage swing: a clinical, purposeful, natural swing. Kohlschreiber couldn’t do much about it.
I didn’t see any of Janowicz’s win against Cilic, and wasn’t really surprised at the result. After all, Marin Cilic losing to random people isn’t exactly news anymore.
But the question remains: how can a guy who had to play qualies beat the number 19 ranked player in the world, then the number 15 player in the world without facing a break point?
Where has this person been all this time?
After the initial surprise from the Murray result wore off, I had a much simpler question to ask:
Who is this guy?
Twitter sent me this. My favorite bits:
- Janowicz had a wealthy Polish benefactor who had to withdraw his support due to being politically persecuted by the Polish government.
- A number of countries offered Janowicz support in exchange for his nationalization. Apparently, one of them was Qatar, which included a provision of him becoming a Muslim. He refused, since he’s Catholic.
- He likes the old “Counter Strike” video game, hip hop and horror movies.
You can’t make this stuff up, right?
Tom Tebbutt then tweeted his Thursday piece, and midway through there was something about Janowicz. My favorite bits:
“I had a problems in my life. I don’t want to talk about this actually. First of all, I have had always problem with sponsors. I didn’t have money for my career; all the time parents was helping me. They were selling the shops, they were selling the few apartments, so they decide to go all in to help me as much as possible. This is the problems actually I can tell you.”
- Notice portrait picture of Janowicz during the press conference. He’s wearing a Lotto t-shirt. We’ll come back to this tidbit in a moment.
The ATP site had an interesting piece on Janowicz that included a video. Please watch the video. You’ll thank me later. However, the best part of that article is this significant piece of information about Janowicz’s 2012 season:
“In the beginning of this year, I had many changes in my life,” Janowicz says. “I changed the racquet. This racquet which I’m using right now is helping me a lot. Even if I have some weak days, this racquet is actually helping me. So this is one change.”
“The second one is, I [have] a new fitness coach this year, and he’s helping me a lot. I’m doing a lot of fitness. When I’m at home I’m actually doing more fitness than tennis. So there is this other change. My behavior on the court is also a little bit different. I decided [I'm] not to give up, whatever the situation is. I’m fighting right now for every single ball.”
About the racquet, he seems to have switched Babolat models. That’s as far as a Google search can take me.
The fitness coach is indeed key for someone trying to survive the epic grind that is being a tennis pro.
The third change, about “deciding” not to give up is a classic. The way Janowicz said it is like he sat down, reviewed the facts, made a decision, signed the memo, and moved on.
A good call, since he was on the brink of ending his magical run in Paris, when Murray had a match point on his serve at 7-5, 5-4, 40-30. Janowicz survived a long rally and eventually forced an error from Murray.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
When I loaded the ESPN3 replay of the match, my first instinct was to assess Janowicz from a physical perspective. Here are my notes:
- Janowicz is much taller than Murray. And Murray is pretty tall. (The Scot is 6’3. Janowicz is 6’8)
- Narrow shoulders. Huge head. Very thin legs.
- He has that brooding Eastern European air around him. Something about the way he carries himself reminds me of Safin. Maybe it’s that unassuming swagger, with a hint of fatalism. Here’s a visual aid.
I can’t help but notice that Janowicz is wearing all Nike, but none of the “official” Nike apparel that other pros are wearing in Paris. In other words, he’s pulling a Tommy Haas. The shirt seems like a knock-off, actually. Still, just to mix it up, the very tall Pole warms up with a strange-looking Lotto jacket.
All of this means he doesn’t have a clothing sponsor.
One thing I do notice is quite unique: the socks. They’re not Nike socks. They’re Jerzy Janowicz socks.
Don’t believe me? Here, see for yourself:
This somehow makes sense, since his parents own a few sporting goods stores in Poland. Or owned, since Janowicz said they had to sell a few of them and “apartments” to pay for his development.
Still, it’s kinda cool that Jerzy Janowicz wears Jerzy Janowicz socks. A clothing deal with himself – but only for the socks.
Anyway, the match starts, and it’s time to assess what this soon-to-be 22 year-old can do.
The first thing you notice with him is the serve, obviously. If you saw the video linked above, you’ll hear Janowicz say Sampras was his favorite player. About how he was “a little bit broken” when Pete retired. Like Milos Raonic, there’s some Sampras in Janowicz’s serve. But not that much. A little bit on the wind up, that’s all. The way they they go up for the ball and follow through is quite different.
Now, what happens when that serve hits the court, that’s what is fascinating. Janowicz has a nasty slice out wide from the deuce court. But it’s not really a slice. Or, it doesn’t LOOK like a slice serve. More like a kicker. You don’t feel like the ball is curling away – more like it’s bouncing away from the angle it was hit. It’s strange. But wildly effective. He can also drop the usual flat bombs up the T from either side of the court, can blast a flat serve out wide from the ad court, and he also has a nasty kicker of a 2nd serve from that side.
It’s all very impressive. To the tune of 22 aces dropped on the world’s second best returner of serve. Janowicz only dropped 11 of 65 points played with his first serve.
The second thing that strikes you from Janowicz is that forehand. Not since Agustín Calleri have I seen someone so eager to blast crosscourt forehands from the deuce court. He steps in and flattens the heck out of the ball, going for both angle and pace. The one he hits at 4-5, 0-all in the first set was just violent.
Crosscourt is the direction Janowicz always goes when he has a short forehand to put away. Surely people will pick up on that, but as Murray today showed, even if you do anticipate and move to cover that side, the ball is hit with such pace and angle that it’s very difficult to create any sort of counterpunching shot off of it. Janowicz knows this and always comes to net after his killer forehand, knowing he will more often than not have a simple volley left to win the point.
Murray did win one of these exchanges, though. But he had to hit a “Hot Shot of the Day” kind of shot to do it:
The Drop Shots
I’m not sure I’ve seen anybody hit as many drop shots in one match as I saw Janowicz hit against Murray. Think about that: a 6’8 guy was hitting finesse shots against one of the men who moves the fastest on a tennis court. In the world. Droppers came off either wing. At any point in the rally. All the time.
On set point in the second set, as Janowicz was trying to even the match and send it to a decider, he hit a backhand drop shot off a Murray second serve.
And won the point.
I repeat: Janowicz hit a drop shot off a Murray second serve. Make no mistake: this wasn’t a Federer-like short slice that ends up being a dropper. This was a very tall person drop-shotting the number 3 ranked player in the world off his serve. Nobody tries this play.
Because it’s insane.
Yet this wasn’t even the first time that Janowicz did it: the first one came in the first set, at 2-3, 40-15. My reaction to that? Laugh. Chuckle. And go get a good beer. Because I knew I was in for something special.
Murray’s reaction was not nearly as amused: he seemed startled, somehow got the the dropper in time, but hit his forehand wide.
Naturally, Janowicz tried this crazy play once more when he had a break point in his favor in the first set, at 5-6. He hit the dropper a little long, Murray pounced on it, and the commentary booth went after the suicidal Pole for being so reckless.
Yet they weren’t so critical when the Janowicz pulled off his play loaded with unreal levels of swagger and won the second set.
The Backhand Slice
It’s such a beautiful, pure swing. Djokovic and Nadal have been trying for years to hit good slices. They should ask Janowicz for some pointers. The scary thing is that Janowicz didn’t even use his slice all that much as a rally shot yesterday – he was always looking to hit droppers. But there were a couple of times that he used it to approach the net, and it was devastating.
The most remarkable thing about Janowicz is how he moves. It’s really surreal: you have this 6’8 individual who moves around the court as if he were around 8 inches shorter. You have to see it to believe it.
Even more absurd is how this very tall man slides into shots. Like he was playing on clay.
I repeat: HE SLIDES INTO SHOTS. AND HE’S 6’8.
The court coverage by Janowicz to set up 15-40 on Murray’s serve at 1-all in the 3rd is just unreal. Moved side to side and tracked a very good Murray drop shot. I wrote that down after it happened, and it still seems implausible.
Early on I noticed that Janowic’s knees are always bent. He doesn’t have that leg stiffness of the other big guys, who seem to run around on stilts. Again, he’s 6’8.
His parents were professional volleyball players. Very tall people who can move really fast play volleyball. They have to jump and move their feet with a lot of quickness. Makes sense that Janowicz has that genetic background.
The drive backhand is OK – he looks to attack with it when given the chance, and it’s a sound swing. But he misfires more often than not (not on match point, however – he stood his ground in a backhand to backhand rally with Murray).
The return of serve is better than average for a big guy. I think he could get even better, given his freaky athleticism. Let the record show that in the third set he broke Murray by hitting a return winner, and then a return that Murray barely got a racquet on to go down two breaks. So there’s plenty there with which to work.
Janowicz plays something that I might call swagger tennis. Or Alpha tennis. He seems like he’s a nice, laid back guy. But his tennis is anything but. There’s this great cockiness about the way he plays points. I mean, he hits drop shots off people’s serves.
Related: this is how Jerzy Janowicz sits during every single changeover:
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tennis player sit like this, right ankle over the left knee. Just look at the guy. He’s like Don Draper listening to a Peggy Olson pitch, trying to figure out the most hurtful way to tell her it’s crap. All he needs is the suit and the drink in his hand.
Watching Janowicz score the biggest win of his life was truly a pleasure. It reminded me of those special moments when you look at a player and not only see what is there now, but what could be there in the future. It reminded me of the morning I saw Novak Djokovic play for the first time, on a tiny TV showing an outer court of Roland Garros in 2006.
Earlier I noted about how Janowicz doesn’t have a clothing sponsor. This seems odd to me. I understand about 2011, which was a very mediocre year. But now? After Wimbledon? Surely someone will wake up and see what was evident to me yesterday: Jerzy Janowicz has everything needed to be a very successful tennis player. If his partnership with coach Kim Tiilikainen keeps developing his game (along with his fitness) along the lines that have produced this incredible run in Paris, I’m not sure there’s a ceiling for what Janowicz can achieve.
I think his parents can rest assured that they won’t need to sell more properties anytime soon.
P.S: Apparently Janowicz isn’t the only one with the Don Draper changeover stance. Must be a tall person thing:
@juanjo_sports Cilic and Isner sit like that all the time. Ankle over knee.
— Win or Lose, I WIN (@WinOrLoseIWin) November 2, 2012
@juanjo_sports I love the term "swagger/alpha tennis". One point: Ernie rests his legs in the blasé way during c/o's too. No coincidence.
— Zafar (@hypotemuse) November 2, 2012