Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Full Monte Pt 4...

Well you didn't seriously think that would end in any other way did you? Did you? Because I must confess for a few brief moments during the opening three games of the final set -- all forty minutes of them -- I thought we might have a an upset on our hands. With all the rewriting of history (and my clay court guide) that implies.

(Photo Credit: AP)

Yes, I'm afraid I went a little soft in the head during those pivotal moments. But can you blame me? Apart from a small timeout for some minor treatment to his back there were no signs of the fitness problems we normally question Novak for. But what really stood out for me in Novak's return to form (coz that's what it is), was the variety and cunning he displayed from all over the court.

Here was a man who clearly recognised that while he's capable of (and will need to play) what Pete Fleming calls 'lights out tennis' from the back of the court, that that alone woudn't be enough
to win him this match (never mind the unsustainability of it all), and if he is to pull off the impossible will need to bring something a little more 'Abagnalian' in nature to to keep Rafa guessing.

So that's exactly how he played it, pushing extremely hard (and risking
fatigue) with his natural prowess from the back of the court when the situation demanded it, but then suddenly shortening the points with well crafted drop shots and some net play that at times seemed to have it all. His half volley cross court winner would have been my shot of the day had Rafa not been Rafa and made that amazing get (a cross court winner as it turned out) of what should have been a point ending drop volley. If you don't know the one I mean, it's the winner that left Djoko spending what seemed like a minute semi-prostrate on court.

As for Rafa, well yes he was expected to win, but this win is more noteworthy I believe, not because he's the first man in the Open Era to win here five times in a row, nor that he's now level with Federer at 14 Masters Titles apiece (Agassi tops the list at 17). As far as I'm concerned Rafa's going to be posting more 'Borgian' stats over the next few year. What makes this one a little special is that Rafa was significantly below his best for large parts of the match. Don't pretend you Rafanatics didn't notice how wayward and erratic Rafa's (nor
mally dependable) inside out forehand was, or how poorly he served in the second set. But like a true tennis great, still managed a (relatively) comfortable win over the #3 player in the world playing the match of his life. That really is as good as it sounds.
Parting Thoughts.

-- There'll be no more talk here of whether or not Djoko is 'back'. He's not back. If this performance is anything to go by, I'd argue he's moved forward - for all the reasons I've already mentioned.

-- Similarly all references to the change of racquet being an issue are henceforth off limits. If it ever
was a problem (I'd argue his difficulties began long before the change), he's learnt to wield it quite masterfully now.

-- Djoko knew he wasn't going to win this match from the back of the court and came with a bag of tricks more bulging than usual. He's added a new shot to his armoury. Quite possible he nicked this one f
rom Murray. Its the high bouncing moonball he uses to gain some extra time and get back into a point when stretched out wide. You've gotta be careful though - if it lands too short, the points over, but he used it more than once and played it deep enough to keep Rafa pinned back.

-- The drop shot made a reappearance. Quite a few times in fact. Not as an act of desperation but as a well calculated shortening of the point.

-- 9/9 net points won by Djoko in the second set. Anyone else want to argue against the value of coming in against Rafa on clay? My stat of the day.

-- The first three games of the final set took 40 mins to complete. My second stat of the day.

-- Stanislas is not a choker. He's a double choker.

-- Andy Murray is a good clay courter but needs to work on his movement. He also needs to play more aggressively throughout a clay court match. Particularly in three setters.

--Another guy that's 'back' this week: Nikolay Davydenko. His wins over Karlovic and Nalbandian erased any thoughts I might have had of a slow, unsteady return to tour. I'd go as far as to suggest he was the better player in the match against Murray, only brought down by his inability to keep a ball in court during the last 20 mins of play.

-- Nikolay and Djoko are amongst the best 3 or 4 clay courters in the world.

-- Too early to say whether either of them have overtaken Federer on this surface. Rome will answer some tough questions for him.

-- Let me just say this now as it probably won't ring so true ever again: Roger? Honeymoon's over.

-- I'm still undecided whether Flavio Fognini most resembles Ken (from Barbie and Ken) in tenniswear, or a cheesey Pilates instructor - you know those
self styled Adonis types that seem to feature so much in those workout videos. That 'redder than red' look he was sporting against Cilic was also screaming 80s superhero to me.

-- It
is possible to beat Rafa on clay. You can take a set from him. If you play out of your skin. But unless you can back that game up with David Ferrer like fitness and intensity, will most likely age nearly 20 years in the process and play the remaining set like a senior member of the seniors tour.

-- Corollary: If David Ferrer had the groundstrokes of Novak Djokovic we
may have had the closest you can get to a contender against Rafa on clay.

-- Fernando Verdasco was not at his best at this event despite his quarter final showing and 6-2,6-1 cutdown of Ferrer. But his peformance was still several levels above Ferrer's which in turn was slightly better than Maran Cilic's poor showing.

-- Fashion faux pas of the event? Well there were quite a few candidates ranging from Djoko's blue not-so-suede shoes, Oscar Hernandez's black socks on white shoes, but nothing quite so foul as Flavio Cipolla's black leathery shorts. I'm pretty sure these are the ones but am almost glad I can't find a decent pic.

This weeks Rousing Rhetoric:

Novak Djokovic - As above.

Andy Murray - Keeping in mind his self professed difficulties adjusting to the surface, a semi final loss to Rafa is not bad for your first clay court outing of the year.

Ivan Ljubicic - Another great week for the Gentle Giant, including a win over Del-Potro

Andreas Beck - First Masters quarter final for a guy more familiar with the Futures circuit, and for looking remarkably similar to someone I went to school with.

This week's
Idle Gossip:

David Ferrer - I know he went out to Ferdasco, but there's something quite disgraceful about a 6-2,6-1 scoreline from a top tier clay courter.

Ernests Gulbis - Beginning to lose faith in young Ernie - nothing wrong with a first round loss to someone as experienced as Kohlschreiber but there's been too many similar losses these months gone by.

Tommy Robredo - I don't normally come down so heavily on anyone possessing a single handed backhand, but I'm beginning to think his best is far behind him.
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