Monday, 27 April 2009

Red Devils...

Not much play in Rome today because of the rain, so some time to reflect on something a little different. Well not that different really considering it's all about Rafa on clay again.

I know it's pretty futile (not to mention desperate) given stats like being 165-4 on clay since 2005, but I've come up with a list of players that in my opinion are definitely capable of getting to Rafa and maybe even edging past him in competitive three set matches.

That last bit is very important as you've got to be pretty brash to think you can go at it with Rafa for 5 sets. Then again, maybe that kind of thoughtlessness is exactly what's needed. No, but seriously no one's touching Rafa in 5 right now, not even Roger. So let's aim for something more achievable.

The first thing to note is there's no clay courters on there. No true clay courters anyway. I know that's slightly at odds with my recently proclaimed wish to see 'clay court tennis returned to the clay courters' -- well maybe that's putting it a little strongly -- but the reasoning behind this is not all that complex.

Put simply, I don't think clay court tennis in it's present form -- with it's lengthy physical exchanges, short high bouncing returns -- can hurt Rafa very much. In fact if anything that type of game plays into his strengths. Which, in case you've been living under a rock for the last 4 years, are being an ambidextrous monster that hits unprecedented levels of top spin with (what Roger described as) 'a forehand off both wings'. Oh and he doesn't get tired, which means problems like hot conditions, 5 setters, or players like Canas/Ferrer playing the match of their lives, don't get to him.

I also don't think you can shy away from the reality that the guys that have had any level of success against Rafa tend to be those that hit flat, take the ball early or come in a lot. Last time I checked neither one of Ferrer or Robredo possessed any of those plays.

Roger Federer

Look, I know his current state of play is a little dispiriting. And a clay court with Rafa on the other side of the net should probably be the last place in the world you should venture to try and rediscover your confidence. But I don't think you can ignore that Roger has been for some years now, the 2nd best clay courter in the world, and more importantly that some of the more competitive recent 4-5 setters that Rafa's been made to play on clay have all been against this fella.

You could argue that Rafa's grown as a player since then and that Roger during this same period has been feeling the pressure from increased competition. But you could also argue that if he takes a set (as he's done many times in the past) and doesn't succumb to that final set madness that have become a defining feature of his recent encounters, then it's not a nonsense to suggest he might also force his way to a third.

After all, he's not been found wanting physically these past five years (one of the more nonsensical explanations I've recently heard for his present issues), finding the ability to go five competitive sets with Rafa at a time when he was blitzing through the rest of the field. He can surely find his way back to producing three again? Maybe even edging through some of them - and that's all I'm contemplating right now.

Nikolay Davydenko

A strange choice? I don't think so. He managed to get a set off Rafa at Rome two years ago and blew him (along with most everyone else) away last year at Miami on the hard courts. It's not just his ability to take the ball as early as he does that I find persuasive - after all James Blake is a great example of that too. But where I think he outstrips James and is especially adept, is in finding the lines with those flatter groundstrokes of his.

I also think he's one of the few non-Spanish players that can endure a three setter that feels more like a five setter with Rafa. In fact I was at one time strongly critical of Nikolay for playing far too many 5 setters en route to the many Slam quarters and semis he's been part of. But it never seemed to tax him physically, and he often only fell short to that Federer bloke.

But there's a third reason I've elected to begin a one-man Nikolay bandwagon - and that's his new found abilities at the net which are nothing short of sensational. We first saw it at Miami last year and then again at Monte Carlo last week. Two years ago, and he wouldn't have made this list as his net play was non existent. Very different now.

David Nalbandian

Just because of his well known abilities to make you cringe and go gaga in equal measure. See the first two sets of their match in Indian Wells if you don't already know why. Also because of his double hander - which along with Murray's and Safin's is my pick for the best on tour.

Everyone knows the well chronicled tragedies Roger has suffered on account of his single hander being -- and it pains me to say this -- a liability against that monstrous left handed forehand of Rafa's. Heck if Thomas Hardy were still alive he'd write a novel on it entitled 'Far from the Madding Topspin'. Double handers on the other hand, don't tend to struggle with it. Not nearly as much. And if you possess one as strong and flat as Nalbandian's, you might be on to something.

Oh and don't forget his gravity defying movement and ability to find the lines. Or his winning record against Rafa, which admittedly consists of two thrashings on a hard court. It's interesting they've never played on clay. Barcelona last week would've been their first encounter had Daveed not pulled out.

Novak Djokovic

You couldn't not include him on this list after his performance at Monte Carlo. As wonderfully varied as that performance was (and needed to be), I think the reason for his 'success' (read, 'not getting drubbed'), is largely down to his aggressive style of play and taking the ball on the rise. A tactic that enables him to stay camped on or around the baseline.

But what also makes him so effective is his ability to change direction following up a short angle with a down the line winner. Not many players manage that which such fluidity.

If he manages his energy well (like he did in Monte Carlo) and maintains that intensity for the best part of three sets, it's surely not inconceivable that he win once in a while? But the conditions would have to suit him. Don't see him pulling it off in searing heat. Not with his breathing problems.

Ivo Karlovic

Just coz he can serve anyone off court anytime, any day, any place, anywhere, on any surface. If he holds all his service games, and catches Rafa napping in even one of his, it could happen in a short three setter. Couldn't it?

Guys that didn't make the cut:

Andy Murray - Doesn't (yet) move well enough or play aggressively enough on clay. Though there's no question he has it in him to 'take it to Rafa'. Whatever that means.

James Blake - A one time nemesis of Rafa's. Probably for the same reasons I mentioned above. No more. Now it seems he's his own nemesis. Probably just as well they've never met on clay. Bit misleading now, that 3-2 H2H.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - Only very narrowly missed making the list. No question whatsoever of this guy's Rafa-Baiting credentials. But on a clay court with all that sliding around? With all those Somersaults Rafa makes you do? Don't think Jo-Willy will risk injury, even if he thinks he can win.

So there you have it. My team of 'Red Devils' - guys I'll be backing to make something of an impression on the insurmountable edifice that is Rafa on clay. Not a dirt baller amongst them.

I should say my '1st Team' of Red Devils, because I'm also really hoping that the real dirt ballers start living up to their name. Instead of mostly not even making the quarters. But I don't they'll be factor against Rafa. Which is why they make up the 2nd Team:

David Ferrer - Have a look at his match against Gonzales in the semis of Barcelona last week if you want to know why.

Fernando Gonzales - Have a look at his match against Ferrer in the semis of Barcelona last week if you want to know why.

Nicolas Almagro - Been out in the cold for too long.

Tommy Robredo - Against my better judgement, but I'll back him one more time.

Fernando Verdasco - This guy should be '(red)dirty dancing' with the form he's shown us recently. How can you not back him to do well on clay?

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