Friday, October 08, 2010

Jarkko Nieminen : The Masku Marvel

It's time for one of these entries again. This is about one of the most popular and likable individuals on the tour. Jarkko Nieminen known as 'the Shark", not because of his pool playing skills or his ruthlessness on court, which I will come to later. It's more of a term of endearment and play on the name.

Finland haven't had a great tennis tradition, they have been an excellent sporting nation especially when it comes to rally racing, cross country skiing, javelin throwing and distance racing. Apart from ice hockey, this is due to the amount of talent they have in their country, that it would be almost impossible for them to not have an excellent team. They excel in individual sports and it's not such a surprise given the history of the country, plus silence and solitude is not something that is frowned upon or looked on badly.

Before Jarkko, there was a Finnish player named Veli Paloheimo, who made the most of his talents as a player, had the famous Finnish fighting spirit known as sisu. The perfect example of this, some would say stupid, he reached the 4th round of the 1990 Australian Open his best ever GS result in defeating the #14 Carl Uwe Steeb in the 1st round, then taking out Guy Forget who the Aussies love saying his name phonetically. In the 4th round he played Mats Wilander, fought very hard as usual lost first 2 sets 7-5 6-4 in an impressive performance. Then he went over and injured his ankle on the sticky surface, got it strapped and could hardly walk but refused to retire and played out the set losing 6-0.

Nieminen has surpassed what Veli has done in Finnish tennis, but it's important not to forget the past. It would be interesting to get Jarkko's thoughts and whether Paloheimo had any role in helping him make the transition to the tour. Jarkko was an excellent junior defeating Kristian Pless in the 1999 US Open final. The big hitting Dane was hyped to do well on the tour, but he was surpassed by the unassuming Finn. He had already started playing Davis Cup in 1999, something he has been willing to do for his career, not turning his back on it unlike Federer and others have because they have lacked the necessary back up, though with young Henri Kontinen there is some potential coming through and Jarkko would be great in a mentoring role for young Finnish players trying to make it on the ATP cricus.

In his second ATP tournament he like Jose Acasuso made the final of the Stockholm indoor without losing a set defeating Pless, El Ayanoui, Thomas Johansson and Enqvist before losing to Schalken in 5 sets. This is where he first came to be known on a wider scale, sadly for Nieminen his finals record is one of the worst on tour at 1-9. In many of the finals he has been the big underdog in many of the finals he has played Federer and Nalbandian twice, Gaudio on clay, Schalken was his second tournament on tour and Blake in Stockholm again when he was outclassed by the ballbasher who was on fire. The toughest losses were against Llodra in Adelaide and the recent one to Garcia-Lopez in Bangkok, where he had numerous break chances in the 1st set but Garcia-Lopez took his only chance, this is something that has been a common factor in Nieminen's career.

Jarkko has an excellent all court game, consisting of good changes of pace and not too much differential in level between his forehand and his backhand. He can do more with the forehand but will go down the line with the backhand when the opportunity arises. For his game to work at its best, he needs to be aggressive at the right moments, being aggressive isn't just closing your eyes and swinging as hard as you can without any thought. It's about not being passive and reactive which Nieminen can be at times when he is just pushing the ball with no real intent. It's not easy to get the balance right, because defensive skills are very important in tennis and Nieminen does well in this aspect of the game, but when he isn't taking the ball on rise and using the variations of angle and direction to keep the opponent off balance, then he becomes less effective and it impacts on other parts of his game.

The biggest weaknesses for Nieminen are the second serve, the lack of self belief against the top players, plus being passive and inhibited on big points instead of being aggressive. These are all linked together through different phases. Nieminen's first serve is reasonable, not very fast but well placed and can move it around the box, which he needs to do at his height and build. The problem is the second serve is weak, there isn't much pace on it, hardly any leg drive or back arch to get heavy spin. If the pace isn't there on the second ball, then there should be a high degree of topspin or slice to compensate for this. The off season will be good for that, some work in the gym doing some squats and other strengthening of the core will help in addition to just repeating the drill. As it stands when it gets tight and the Shark's first serve goes missing, then his second delivery isn't up to the standard of the rest of the game and can be cannon fodder as it's short, nothing on it and he will put too far on the defensive even if he can get the ball back off the return. If he can improve his second serve to a point, where it's not so attackable most of the time, then even further improvement is possible. In reality, especially in tennis it's when under pression that the weaknesses really get highlighted.

Lack of belief, Nieminen doesn't have a great record against the top players. He is the guy when playing to his optimum level will defeat the players better than him, but will not beat the ones above him. This is due to a lack of a massive shot, he doesn't have the huge forehand or the massive serve to get him out of trouble. An example of this was in Barcelona where he was playing Nadal leading a set and a break, playing intelligent and aggressive tennis, in spite of this the feeling was around that Nadal would turn it around. Nieminen always fights hard to the end, but the lack of belief in these big moments, also at the Aus Open he had a set point against Nadal in the 1st, but was too passive and that opportunity was past. After the completion of the set, the inevitable happened with Nadal winning in 3 sets. The fact that Nieminen becomes passive and tentative on big points, forgetting what took him to the lead and not playing the ball on its merits at these times has hindered them in many matches and prevented the breakthrough he deserves.

Personally I wish Nieminen all the best in the later part of his career, he is very down to earth especially for a pro sportsman. He is very good and respectful to the fans, got a good sense of humour and well respected by his peers for the most part. He went and did his military service without any hooplah or found an excuse to get out of it, like he could have done with his high profile. Sure it was not the frontline, but good that he completed the service.

Not even the cantankerous Robin Söderling has a problem with him. All anyone can ask of a pro player or person in general that they took the right steps to maximise their respective talents in their general field, and Nieminen has done that.

If Slams were rewarded on good character then Nieminen would be a multi Slam champion, but the good bloke factor doesn't play a role in the results orientated world of professional sport. Nieminen represents himself and his nation very well and that won't change irrespective of how many titles he wins or how many finals he loses.


rocketassist said...

Great guy. The Finns ooze class.

Marc said...

The guitar skills are impressive, but it's not easy for a guy like Nieminen coming from a place with very little tennis culture and besides Paloheimo not having anybody from Finland to be able to help.

He did train in Sweden for some time which makes sense as the level of competition was higher for him to improve.

Great article/

Henry C said...

Good read AJ.

Shark is one of the tour's nice guys. Maybe if he was more a prick he'd be more ruthless on the big points

Denys said...

Excellent article on the Shark, but as Henry maybe onto something if he was more of a prick. Tennis world has enough of them.

martine said...

Great write about a great guy!

Rose said...

Thanks for the very interesting article.