Sunday, 29 November 2009

WTF: Wrap Up, Vol. 1

davydenko (GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Davydenko d. del Potro 6-3, 6-4

Not the best match after the week we’ve had, but a fantastic conclusion nonetheless, and the right one I believe.

Nikolay came out playing the tennis, that as far as I’m concerned, he should have done in the three sets he contested against Federer 24 hours earlier.

And big brother Eduardo agrees with me. So there.

del Potro, played well but looked as if fatigue had finally caught up, and lacked the intensity which I’m all but certain he now saves for his bashes with Federer.

There were even a couple of his off-the-cuff, flatter-than-flat “fly swatter” cross courters, usually played on the run stretched out wide, and which might well go down as one my fave newly-introduced strokes of 2009.

Interviewed before and after the final today, Eduardo, Kolya’s brother and coach, didn’t give the impression of being at all overwhelmed by his brother’s big win over Federer the day before, drawing attention instead to the poor opener Fed played.

After today’s win, he said Kolya did what he should have done, by overwhelming Juan with his speed around the court; not that he was much more entranced than before, characterising Nikolay’s play as about “normal”.

Lofty standards yes? But the right attitude to adopt if Nikolay is to take that vital next step and win that elusive Slam, which by the way, is now a realistic question to pose, though still not as easy as it sounds given Kolya has yet to experience the un-watered extremities of playing in a Slam final.

Davydenko d. Federer 6-2, 4-6, 7-5

I’m largely in agreement with Eduardo.

I stand by my assessment yesterday, that if Kolya didn’t serve big, the match would be over in straights. 12-0 is not a H2H to be taken lightly, especially when you take into account that although some of their matches have been close, Kolya’s only ever managed to take a single set from Fed in the last seven years.

And all appeared on course for a 13th win, when Federer opened up by winning the first seven points of the match on the trot.

What I didn’t take into account in my pre-match hype take on things, was the origami-like way in which Fed would fold. He’s lost the opener of every match he played this week, but the three or four games he played after coming out and holding serve here, might well rank amongst his worst.

What has largely been forgotten though, is that Davydenko played one of his poorest matches of the week too.

Sure Fed served a very tacky 40% of first serves in that opener – Davydenko served at 38%. And though Fed lifted his form in the next two sets, Davy continued, much in the same, somewhat listless vein.

His shots, normally the benchmark for ‘early-risers’ (my term of endearment for players that take the ball early), normally so reliable, looked largely tentative and ineffectual out there . And that way it remained, until the awesomeness that ensued in the second half of the final set.

All quite shocking really, when you consider how well he’d been serving all week, but against Big Rob in particular. His serve and net play have been much improved over the last year and a half, and Federer quite rightly drew attention in the pre-match interview to the fact that the last time they played was at Estoril last year – a match they didn’t even get to complete.

All the other losses were accrued at a time when Davy was as metronomic as ever, but maybe a little more thoughtless as regards point construction – not that dissimilar to Dementieva actually, with the amount of balls that landed aimlessly down the middle – and certainly far from the polished article we’ve seen this week.

Fed raised his game in the second and third, just like he has in all his matches this week, and had he not gone origami on us so conspicuously in that first set, maybe it would have been a straights dismissal after all.

I liked it that Davy pulled himself together in those final four or five games, where he, not so much raised his level drastically, as much as he played to the form Eduardo know he’s capable of, and I for one, love to see.

But, like Eduardo, I would have much preferred to have seen the Kolya that raced out of the blocks today, quickly extinguishing any rays of hope Delpo might have entertained.

We may see it yet – he’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last player to have fully blossomed during his last few years on tour.


Saturday, 28 November 2009

WTF: Riot Control

davydenko (GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Davydenko d. Soderling 7-6, 4-6, 6-3

So Big Rob had his first let down against Nikolay yesterday.

I say let down, it was more a case of playing too tentatively for a set and half in which he still managed to force a tie break in the first.

Then of course, he took that tumble mid way through the second (which looked nastier than it turned out to be), and re-emerged the brash, aggressive figure we’ve become accustomed to seeing this year. Though he had a subsequent dip in form in the final set that ended up costing him the match.

I’ve no idea whether that performance stemmed from a lack of motivation from knowing he’d already qualified, or whether he was simply now ripe for a loss.

Whatever the case he’ll need to revert back to ‘Rioteering Rob’ if he’s to overcome Delpo’s heavy artillery this evening. Argentina’s finest form of riot control.

That said, Nikolay’s play was truly impeccable, using his serve out wide to incredible effect.

Over the course of three sets, his level didn’t drop an inch, and you could argue that it was this more sustained form of ‘riot control’ that resulted in Big Rob’s derailment.

There were reports circulating in advance of the match that Kolya was suffering not only from those breathing problems, but also from a leg injury that – shock of all shocks – might actually result in the reintroduction of Nadal back into the mix of things, should Kolya have pulled out.

I saw no evidence of any such injuries, and neither did the broadcasters who’d been doing their morning rounds of following all the players’ practice sessions.

Kolya’s an incredible athlete, and if there are any problems with his leg, they’re likely of the garden variety, that he’s paced his way through so successfully over his five year tenure in the top ten.

What is less certain, is whether he’ll be as competitive today, having to play his greatest nemesis, not fifteen hours after leaving the court last night.

Meanwhile Roger’s rested up, secure in the knowledge that it’ll be a somewhat well-worn version of a guy against whom he has a 12-0 winning H2H , and not Nole facing him out on court today.

I’m not in the business of conspiracy theories, but I would have liked to have seen a rested up Davy taking to court today.

His game has grown substantially since he accrued many of those losses to Fed, not only at the net, but also as we saw yesterday with that serve.

Such a match would result in a more satisfying event all round, especially now that we’re entering the crescendo stage of what has been an incredibly well-run event (the farce that was Juan’s qualification announcement not withstanding) that has seen record crowds even for doubles matches – surely now the benchmark for a successful event

Switching the matches around doesn’t solve the problem as all the same objections would be raised by Big Rob’s team.

I’m in favour of a solution I heard yesterday: start the event a day earlier on Saturday, and have a break between the last matches in the group stages and the semis.

You could even use the day off to stage a big concert, that wouldn’t seem out of place at an event that is after all, a prestigious send-off to tennis season. Just make sure Cliff Richard is not part of the equation.

Kolya's, perhaps the best timer of the ball in the game today. Comparisions were being made yesterday of whether there's been anyone that has taken the ball any earlier. Only Agassi, in his earlier years, came out on top.

Trouble is, that wonderfully metronomical style of shot making that causes everyone else so many problems, and that is largely behind his five year stay in the top ten, makes no dents whatsoever in Fed's armour - I believe it actually feeds in to his strengths.

If Kolya doesn't make big serving a priority today, the match will be over in straights.


Friday, 27 November 2009

WTF: By the Skin of his Teeth - No, Really

delpo (Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

del Potro d. Federer 6-2, 6-7, 6-3

I’m going to keep this one short because, well, I’m tired.

Ashamed to admit it, but there it is. That’s what following this crazy sport, and then having the audacity to write something about it does to you.

There’ll be no commentary here today.

Just to give you the breakdown, if Fed had gone out in straights today – which he came within two points of doing – Murray and Delpo would have gone through to the semis.

We all know that didn’t happen. Once Fed won that second set, he was going to qualify no matter what.

For Juan to qualify, he now needed not only to win the match, but not to drop more than three games of that final set in doing so; which to further saturate my already adrenalin-saturated system, turned out to be exactly the number of games Delpo lost in winning that final set, and with it the match.

federer (Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

His second consecutive win over Fed - I might add.

We’ll leave where this win fits into the grand scheme of things for another day. Let me just say for now that I don’t find it at all remarkable that whilst the tide appears to be turning in Fed’s favour in the H2H situation he has with Murray, it also appears to be showing signs of drift in Juan’s general direction with him now being 2-6 against Fed.

Probably too early to say any more than that. But worth noting that the two wins he’s scored are at a Slam, and the next most prestigous event on the calendar.

Just to further clarify how close for comfort this all was, if Murray had won even a single further game in his total tally, it would be him and not Delpo gracing the O2 Arena on Saturday.

It doesn’t get any more nerve shredding than that.

And just for extra effect, and other perverse reasons known only to themselves, the ATP supervisors at the event spent nearly twenty further minutes after the players had shook hands, calculating what the broadcasters, the assembled media and tennis anoraks worldwide had already figured out for themselves: that Delpo had pipped Murray by an apple pip.

tevez (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Ah well at least we got to see Carlos Tevez shanking three balls out of the court before engaging in a more elegant and adept form of tomfoolery.


Thursday, 26 November 2009

WTF: Big Rob first to make the cut, and Rafa’s Last Stand


(Glyn Kirk/Getty Images)

Soderling d. Djokovic 7-6, 6-1

As easy as that.

Straight sets.

And just like that, the guy that snuck threw the back door is the first to make the semis.

Don’t you just love tennis?

I’m absolutely loving this run from the guy that makes a sport as elegant as tennis, look like the front line of a riot.

Be warned I intend not to remain entirely objective about the whole Big Rob situation.


(Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

As for Djoko, I actually thought he gave a great account of himself….for one set.

During that one set, Djoko played ‘kitchen sink tennis’, mixing things up, attempting to get the big guy off balance..

But it was all to no avail. From what I can tell, movement may not be Robin’s strongest point, but he’s perfectly adept at moving side to side, provided he’s allowed to play the match on his own terms – which you almost always are if you’re able to sustain the lights out quality he did today.

Then, as they did with Murray in that final set yesterday, the floodgates opened.

During the second set there was a stage at 5-1 down, where Djoko had only won 9 points to Big Rob’s 22.

There are those (myself included) that thought that with the amount of matches Djoko’s played, and with the quality he’s brought to the table recently, he might just run out of gas.

Maybe some of that played a part, but not very much; Djoko simply ran out of answers. Nor did he much appreciate the look of the questions Robin was incessantly throwing his way, electing instead not to invest himself too heavily in that second set.

Which is a little strange considering points are yet to be accrued – rolling over here might end up costing him a place in the semis.

davydenko (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Davydenko d. Nadal 6-1, 7-6

Um…that’s the exact reverse score line of the Big Rob match – and it don’t surprise me one bit.

As one sided as the first set was – scary as hell when you consider Nikolay wasn’t even playing with the monstrous intensity he was opposite Djoko a couple of nights back – the fact that he gave Nikolay something to think about in the second set should give Rafa some hope.

If I’m not mistaken, he even looked to be testing out a new, flatter breed of hit.

Smart move.

You know your form is kaput - where else are you going to find a better testing ground than a field comprised of the top eight players in the world?

nadal (Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

And with that, Rafa’s quite magnificent, if somewhat lopsided year, comes to an end.

He will of course take part in the remaining token singles match against Djokovic, which he could make an extra special effort to win just to spite Djoko.

But who qualifies second in the group also depends on how Nikolay fares against Big Rob. Both Djoko and Kolya have won and lost one match each, though it’s Kolya that hasn’t gone down in straight sets.

See what I meant about not rolling over?


Wednesday, 25 November 2009

WTF: On Belief and Cuckoos' Nests

delpotro (Glyn Kirk/Getty Images)

del Potro d. Verdasco 6-4, 3-6, 7-6

Ok so I guess we were due for a drop in quality, right about now.

Today’s bash between Delpo and Dasco didn’t stink per say.

It was actually a thoroughly well fought, competitive affair. But it was a match that was allowed to get more competitive than it should have, by virtue of a tendency for both players’ to seize up, just as any window of opportunity to make any kind of lasting impression in the match opened up.

I’d describe it as a poor man’s version of the Djoko/Slick-Nik match up from the day before (that really was a bash in every sense of the word) and not feel as though I’ve been harsh towards anyone.

There was nothing incredibly sophisticated going on: two heavy handed, ultra-aggressive players trying to wrestle control from each other and open up the court.

‘cept Djoko and Nikolay did it so much better.

verdasco (Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Part of this is down to athleticism. Nando and Delpo are incredible athletes in their own right, but neither are in the same league as Djoko and Nikolay.

Probably more telling though, is the fact that neither one of Dasco or Delpo were on the same performance trajectory as those other two coming into this event.

If anything Dasco, over-performed in both his matches, losing belief as he so often does at those critical junctures; and as for Delpo it was his belief alone that carried him through this match – he’s been something of a facsimile of the guy that stole Fed’s thunder in New York.

That unfortunately, all but spells curtains for Nando as far as this event is concerned; and though Delpo has this win under his belt, you have to rather stretch your levels of belief, or better still, to adopt an altogether more defiant belief system to expect him to follow up against Federer.

Though I sense I’d better cover my a*s by saying that stranger things have happened.

Federer d. Murray 3-6, 6-3, 6-1

federer(GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Let me start by saying that I was rather dismayed by the indecisive, uncommitted figure that showed up in the guise of Federer for the first set.

After spending the best part of last week fanfaring about how he now knows how to play Murray, and how it’s always the attacking player that holds the key to success, Fed came out and played such a tentative mess of an opener that I was almost glad Murray put him away as soon as he did.

I had no strong loyalties here.

All I really wanted to see was an equally contested three setter that knocked the pants off the Djoko-Nikolay match from the day before; and both these guys, favourites as they were to win this group, seemed best qualified to do that.

murray (CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

To say Federer upped his game in the second set would be like saying Nadal hits a good topspin.

Not only did he have a gameplan, but he was out to very publicly validate his claim to mastery over Murray’s game.

I’ve been witness to this brand of snarky, dominating play before. He uses it against players that get under his skin (Murray, Djoko), or against styles of play I believe he has no respect for, and whom he presumably thinks have no business playing tennis. Think Dr Ivo and the Delpo of last year.

If Dasco was hit with shock therapy a couple of days back, then consider this Tennis meets “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, with Murray the one forcibly restrained and attached to the ECT machine.

I don’t care that he bagged the first set: this is the single most stinging defeat I believe Fed has ever inflicted on Murray– made all the more poignant by how ineffective he made him seem in the second set, and how mentally worn down Murray looked in the decider.

That last set in particular, with Murray unable to buy even a single groundstroke, much less a first serve. was perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen him play.

"I served terribly and that was the main difference in the match.

"In the first set, at least when I was behind in games, I was coming up with big serves, being able to dictate the points. But after that I served pants.

"It was probably the most double faults (eight) I served in a match maybe this year.

"You can't serve at 40% against Roger because you give him so many opportunities to dictate play, but that's what I did.

(Source: BBC)

I must confess I don’t quite understand why this is. It’s not as if he hasn’t been on the losing side before, and the loss he suffered to Fed at Flushing last year would have to be considered more of a heartbreaker.

Maybe it’s an acute awareness that that ‘winning’ record he continues to have over Federer is looking increasingly tenuous and more academic with every passing month. This is the second consecutive caustic dismissal Federer has inflicted on him in a three set match, the last one meted out with equal indifference in the semis back in Cincy

I don’t believe we can, with any seriousness, now doubt Fed’s claim to Mastery over Murray. The gameplan seems clear enough, even if he might encounter the odd hiccup in it’s execution.

Wanna know what I don’t find surprising? That it’s the same bludgeony, in-yer-face, brand of aggression that Cilic, Dasco and Gonzalez put to such good effect against Murray during the Slams this year.

Why should we be surprised that Fed’s interpretation looks more polished?


Tuesday, 24 November 2009

WTF: Armageddon and Sweaty Man-Hugs

(Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images)

Soderling d. Nadal 6-4, 6-4

Not quite the ‘End of Days’ struggle I had predicted.

Not even the one sided smackdown I was dreading for Rafa’s sake, either.

The truth, and I know many people saw it differently, is that Rafa fended off Big Rob’s larger-than-life, free-swinging savagery with a lot more belief and swagger than I had expected.

Robin had his wobbles, but was, for the most part, secure in the knowledge that his A-Game trumps Rafa’s high bouncing loopies nine times out of ten on a fast indoor court.

Somewhat relieved to learn that he left behind bleary-eyed ‘Bog Rob’ with his head slumped down on the table in some Parisian nightclub. He clearly relishes any opportunity to score a win over Rafa. How far will his form carry him this time?

Rafa will always be vulnerable to Big Rob’s groundies – it’s what makes tennis so interesting.


(Photo: AP)

That a guy, with perhaps the most unique game in the history of the sport, can be troubled by someone like Big Rob, and possess the tools to then go on and pick apart arguably the greatest player that ever lived, is one of the reasons I keep returning.

“My level right now I think is not to be No. 1,” Nadal said. “My level is to be still fighting and practicing hard to be ready as soon as possible to compete another time with equal conditions with everybody.”

(Source: ESPN)

Rafa is, as we all know, in something of a slumptuous lull; and it’s a little unreasonable to expect him to suddenly snap out of that on a fast , indoor court against arguably the flattest ball striker in the game.

Now about that handshake. Hatchets buried? No looking back? I think not.

Unlike the Murray-Delpo bust up, this “rivalry” is destined, I believe, to remain as contentious as ever.

Their meeting at the net was as cursory as it was back in Roland Garros – the only difference being that this time round, Rafa appeared ready for it, and responded in kind.

Not an entirely unhealthy state of affairs, it must be said. Not everyone is destined to get along.

Djokovic d. Davydenko 3-6, 6-4, 7-5

(Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

These guys clearly are in the business of getting along.

If only Rafa and the Sod could be made to see the benefits of engaging in a sweaty manly embrace once in a while, all their ill will and bad vibes could be put to bed….actually shall we not go there?

Not a lot I can say about the match will do it justice.

Clearly the match of the event so far, and one that will take some beating. What I will say, and to use Novak’s own words, is that Nik was the better player for the first two sets, only floundering away the second set on the back of a single break, a temporary dip in form carrying over into the early part of the final set.

He actually called the ATP doctor during the changeover, and appeared to be having problems breathing.

Whatever was troubling him, found it difficult to keep a good man down, and the good man rallied to ensure the deficit was kept to only a single break in the final set.


(Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Perhaps bolstered by Nik’s early hiccup, Djokovic too, rallied in the final set, and seemed on course to eking out the win, until at 5-4 down, with Djoko serving for the match, Nik finally broke back, producing a blistering backhand winner, that along with an earlier running forehand pass, will surely go down as one of the shots of the tournament.

As is so often the case in such instances however, the glory was short lived, and Nik ended up handing the break straight back with a scandalous service game in which he was clearly a spent force.

Full credit to Djoko for weathering the storm of the first two sets. There’s not very many players that come out on top against Slick Nik when he’s playing as well as this; something Djoko is only too well aware of from that recent loss he suffered against him back in Shanghai.


Monday, 23 November 2009

WTF: Nosebleeds and Shock Therapy

murray (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Nice opener.

Murray, as expected, looked the fitter of the two, and caused all sorts of nosebleedy problems for Delpo in the first set, with his somewhat scrambly, defensive play and well-timed winners.

Though I found it difficult not to get behind Delpo for the way he raised his game in the second. Some of those running forehand winners were straight out of Flushing.

delpo (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Not that surprised he lost focus in the third, but it’s hardly the end of the world.

On another note, I’ve just realised that Murray has a winning H2H against everyone in his group.

Probably a mistake to read too much into that, his match against Fed -- which you’ll remember, is on Fed’s racquet – could go either way.

The night match – yes the UK does night matches now – involved Fed facing off against Nando.

federer (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

I had dark visions about Nando’s fate in this match. But I’ll hazard a guess they weren’t half as dark as the ones Fed Fans were having after the first set, in which Fed’s own shadow, like Nadal’s this past month, would likely take offence at the description “shadow of himself” – eventually losing it 6-3.

Fed upped his game in the second but it was still very far from what you might call “running a tight ship”.

Nando on the other hand played with an altogether different, more assured and quieter brand of sustained intensity, I’m pretty sure I’ve not seen from him before: The Philosopher-Scientist to the Bloodless-Vivisectionist we’re more accustomed to.

Heady stuff. And just like the fragile dream-like state we felt a part of (or in the case of Fed Fans the nightmare they felt they couldn’t escape), the rude awakening came right on cue at 5-5 in the second: Nando’s only poor game since the beginning of the match.

Then the floodgates opened.

At the beginning of the third we got a rare exhibition of the backhand that has largely been missing from Fed's inventory – with precious few exceptions at Wimbledon of course – since 2007.

nando (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Fernando managed to salvage a game, but all at once, and without any warning, the match was over.

I have no idea if Federer intends to continue administering this new found brand of “shock therapy” to his opponents. It’s proved to be a useful stratagem to dig himself out of trouble. Trouble that appears to be following him around in his last few matches.

Rafa v Sod next - the grudge match that makes Armageddon look like a high school punch up.


Thursday, 19 November 2009

WTF: Eight questions

By now everyone who’s anyone will be aware of Roddick’s decision to forgo the festivities in South East London this year. Step forward Big Rob, name-and-number.

murrayWTFDraw (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

I love the concept of the best eight players of the year pulling out all the stops in an Armageddon like ruckus to cap off perhaps the strangest year of tennis in, well, years.

With the calendar being what it is though, the event seems doomed to being perceived as an anti-climactic exhibition that only approximates ‘the cream of the crop’ in the loosest sense of the phrase - less of a crescendo than a glib winding up of a season that deserved so much more.

Is too much tennis really at the heart of the problem? After all, the event’s nearly 40 years old and I don’t remember injuries and burn out being as big an issue even four years back.

Here’s what I think. Certain players have reached, or are approaching, the limits of what I call ‘tennis viability’ as a result of either how long they’ve been on tour, or of the way they play. Something’s got to give.

8 questions for eight 8 players.

Group A

Will Roger Federer finish the year ranked world #1?

Do I even care after the year he’s had? I know it goes down in the history books, but let’s just say I’m mildly horrified by how much speculation and controversy this question has caused.

For what it’s worth, I think he will. Nadal is as out of sorts as I’ve perhaps ever seen him uninjured. He’ll need to pull off a near miracle to be in with a fighting chance. I know Rafa’s conjured up miracles in the past, but experience suggests the end of the season’s not that best place to begin searching for them.

As for the WTF I expect Federer to give a great account of himself even if he doesn’t go on to win the whole thing. There’s no reason to suppose he’s not capable of playing at least as well as Djoko has been these last two weeks.

Will Andy Murray benefit from the home advantage?

I should bloody well hope so. But after what happened at Wimbledon I’m not nearly as sure as I once was.

Brits are quite a cynical bunch, not given over to displays of emotion at the best of times, and if you know anything about how unglamorous South East London is, or the history of the failed Millenium Dome, now known as the O2 Arena, you’ll understand why one might be forgiven for thinking the portents don’t look particularly good.

My theory about Murray is that he’s near incapable of performing at the height of his powers for two consecutive weeks. After winning Valencia without so much as trickling a sweat bead, he bowed out early in Paris.

Which means he should be good to go, right about now.

He’s had nearly two weeks to recover, and Federer’s set the scene nicely with some wonderfully colourful trash talk.

So WHY TF should he not do well at the WTF?

Can Juan Martin Del Potro follow up on his very flashy Flushing performance?

I’d like to think so but I doubt it will be at London.

I think he’s more or less burnt himself out physically and mentally as is evident by the fact that he’s retired with injury in the last two Masters events. It’ll likely be next year before we see him at his best again.

Why do I get the feeling not being able to give it his all, after a year that saw him defeat Fed in the final of a Grand Slam, won’t bother him in the slightest?

What now for Fernando Verdasco?

Ok NandyMan, so you muscled your way into the top ten on the back of one of the best matches of the year, and after a brief period that remains unaccounted for, were able to play sufficiently well to finish the season amongst the very best.

Now what?

At the beginning of the year Nando didn’t feature very prominently on my confidence radar, in fact he was barely there at all.

Don’t look now, but if he’s not sharp from the get go next year, it might only be a matter of months before he’s reacquainted with the less frilly environment of the top twenty; and it will take more than just a furious forehand to avert that.

As for the WTF, he’s more than earnt his place at the winner’s table – sometimes on the back of matches that were too painful to watch, and that he had trouble finishing; maybe, just maybe, the accolade of qualifying alone might be enough.

Don’t see him feeling the need to fight his way past injury.

Group B

WTF has happened to Rafael Nadal, and are the WTF the best place to understand it?

First things first. Rafa’s not injured. Not as far as I know. He may not be as vibrant as he was at the beginning of the year, but he’s not injured.

He’s not been the same since he was forced to forego Wimbledon, a period in which we now know he was dealing with the fallout from his parents’ divorce, and since then his tennis has been sketchy at best.

Not being able to perform leads to it’s own set of problems of not gaining sufficient invaluable court time opposite the world’s best.

It happens to the best of us (well ok, maybe reaching WTF doesn't happen to the best of us).

I’d like to see him play well, but he’s unfortunately been grouped with a bunch of players particularly adept at taking a piece out of him.

I harped on about how I wanted to see him face off against Big Rob last month, but I don’t now know that there’s any satisfaction to be derived from watching him being butchered, vulnerable as he now seems, ill equipped to fend off Robin’s mighty blows.

Ditto Davydenko.

And Ditto Djoko, who’s not normally the Rafa Bane that Kolya and Big Rob are.

Still, Rafa’s surprised us before and you’d be a fool to write him off, but I’ll be very surprised to see him reach the semis.

Can Novak Djokovic keep it going and cap off one of his best indoor seasons ever?

Do you know, I’m not sure he can.

You already know my thoughts on ‘Born Again Novak’, and I know it seems silly to bet against the best current elite performer on tour.

I do believe he’ll make the semis (though it might not prove as easy as many seem to think).

Let’s just say that three out of three might prove to be a tournie too far and that he might get more than a surprise from Federer and Murray’s direction.

That’s if Kolya doesn’t get there first.

Why has Nikolay Davydenko only made the finals once in four appearances?

Alright, I already know the answer to that question. Federer.

But let’s not forget that Rafa is largely inactive during this part of the year, and that Nik is one of the fittest players on tour, not given over to wildly fluctuating performances. Nice window of opportunity you have there son.

I like that he reached the finals last year. Fed was out with a bad back. Has he missed his best chance?

Where have you been all my life Robin Soderling?

Alright, I realise I’m a minority within a minority here, but I rather like Big Rob.

I like his imposing, antagonistic presence.

I like his big swinging groundies.

I like it, that his double handed backhand is as fiercely struck (if not more so) than his forehand.

I like it, that hitting the lines or near abouts isn’t the exception but the rule.

I like it that he’s a quirky and slightly misunderstood figure.

But most of all, I like it that he’s turned inelegance into an art form.

Oh, there’s also the possibility that *actual* Armageddon might take place when he takes to court opposite Rafa.

All very interesting, ticks all the boxes, dontcha-think?

Well ok, maybe not for everyone, but he does for me. Shoot me down, but I was even rather glad to see him make the cut at the expense of an injured Andy Roddick.

Now I’d like to see him take the next step by improving his record against Federer. Juan-Marteen did it – why shouldn’t he?

I dunno how far he’ll make it at the WTF this time round, given the fact that he’s been battling injury and that very dubious hung over performance he gave in Paris, but let’s just say that I look forward to him being a dependable top ten presence next year.


Monday, 16 November 2009

Paris: Novak Repackaged, Not Reborn

Djokovic d. Monfils 6-2 5-7 7-6 (3)

For a set and a half yesterday Novak Djokovic played the kind of flawless tennis that made you think it was 2007 all over again.

It all looked very grand indeed.

Only twenty four hours earlier Novak had dusted off Nadal using the same blend of unrestrained flamboyance, and precision guided play, not seen from him for well over 18 months.

djoko (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Gael, for all his flamboyant bravado, looked like a school kid well and truly out of his depth, on his way to being comprehensively stripped and gutted before being hurled on to a heap in some remote landfill site.

Then something happened.

The paint stripper stopped working. The jackhammer seized up.

Mostly it was about everything misfiring, all at once.

I was worried ‘Grinderman’ was about to resurface – that at least would have meant he would more than likely have kept his cool to put Gael away in two -- but this was more serious than that.

We’d seen this Jekyll and Hyde act at various points thr0ughout the year, so the sight of Djoko unable to keep the ball in play, perhaps shouldn’t be that astonishing. Think back carefully and you’ll remember it happened this very week, in that second set he played against Big Rob.

Which is why I feel it’s all very premature to read too much into his recent wins over Messrs Fed and Nadal, and that many journos are rather overreaching themselves in their desperate attempts at recasting him as ‘The One Reborn’.

It's not just that Nadal's own shadow would likely take offence at being made an exemplification for his shoddy form (though I'm actually sorta glad its a dip and not a bad knee that’s at the root of the problem).

Or that this weekend's result might readily have been so very different had Federer not run into an impromptu demonstration of French Tennis, the way it should be played.

The real reason I'm having diffculty buying into the concept of 'Novak - Reborn', is that this is not so much a return to his old form as it is a carefully managed optimisation of a different brand of tennis. A game that's had commentators perplexed since he switched frames at the beginning of the year, with it's uncharacteristic and bizarre forays into grinderman territory.

Don't worry, I'm not going down that road again. My point is that, whilst I'm glad Novak has managed to optimise his play into something more in line with his standing in the game, it's not what led him to winning a Slam.

He may reach those less manufactured heights again with further successive optimisations and, I hope, a gradual curbing of that grind I once found so offensive, but which has now given way to a kind of unapologetic indifference. But until then, let's just say the occasional shocker wouldn't shock me.

That said, Djoko deserves all the plaudits he’s been receiving these past two weeks for being one of the few players seemingly fit enough and committed enough to make something of the remaining few weeks of the calendar: there’s still tennis to be played whatever you might think of the post-USO variety.

What’s more is he’s deserving of a Masters 1000 title - maybe even on the back of that astonishing Madrid semi-final alone.

Maybe it's that sense of vindication that was behind that wolverine-like transformation that unfurled during the spectacle that was his victory celebration. It reminded me of those Maori-inspired Hakka Dances the New Zealand All Blacks perform before going into 'battle'. Try and picture this happening during a Serbian-American Davis Cup tie involving Djoko facing off with A-Rod.

Ok, maybe don’t picture it happening.

I don’t really know what to say about Gael, other than that he served exceedingly well. I don’t like the way he lurks behind the baseline. Never have, never will; and I despise his loopy defensive shots that barely clear the service line and, as far as I'm concerned, have no business being a part of the modern game (wouldn’t it be easier to play the match with the words ‘sitting duck’ emblazoned on your chest?).

monfils (Photo: AP)

But he did well to keep his cool (if you can call it that) when Djoko’s forehand went so awry during that second set, thereby forcing a third, and for that I guess he deserves some credit. It was certainly well received by the Parisian crowd.

I’m just not convinced this experience was anywhere near as life-changing or career-transforming as it might have been.

Why does that not surprise me?


Saturday, 14 November 2009

Paris: Comforting thoughts.

Comforting to know perhaps, that whatever happens from this point on, we’ll have a new winner this week in Paris.


(Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

There can really be no excuse for Nole not to clean up now. Aside from some wobbles against Big Rob, he’s been playing the most convincing tennis of the week. Not a wholly dissatisfactory outcome if it does come to pass.

Rafa pulled off what I think of as an upset against Tsonga yesterday, when he somehow found his way to some semblance of form. But it was as short lived as many had predicted: ‘RAFA IN FORM NOW – FOR ONE DAY ONLY – CATCH HIM WHILE YOU CAN’.

nadal (Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s still London, but I’m guessing it’s not just me that thinks it’ll be next year before we see his best once again.

I’m also more than just a little confounded and dumbfounded with what I saw from Big Rob. I’m not quite sure what happened there, but the guy that took to court, with his sunken red eyes, sweating profusely after being on court for little more than one game, was more ‘Bog’ Rob.

Too much partying at Marat’s leaving do, me thinks. Shame. With Fed and Murray going out early, this was an unexpected opportunity to eke out a win and strengthen his bid for London – and as delayed as his arrival was, he did have Djoko on the ropes for a large part of the match.

La Monf has just gone a set and a break up opposite Stepanek as I type; if he does go all the way here -- not wholly impossible for any Last Frenchman Standing in Paris – there will of course be many hoping he can build upon this and realise some of that potential, that still for the most part, remains unfulfilled.

I myself, continue to remain unconvinced of his top ten potential. But it sometimes only takes one of these Masters thingies to change all that.

And given so many people are busy hating upon Stepanek, I’ll throw my hat into his corner too. It’s all very last man standing, but he’s competent, fit and always works for his wins.

I’m willing to overlook a bit of dirty dancing for that.


Wednesday, 11 November 2009

A Blow for the Little Man…

Julian Benneteau has just played the match of his life, knocking out Roger Federer in three sets, in his opening match.

fedjulian (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

The funny thing is it’s difficult to see what Federer did wrong. If anything. He’s cruised through similar stages in the past playing only fractionally as well.

Today, he hit fifteen aces, hit more winners than Benneteau and served in the 70s. That’d be percentages, not the era of disco jingles.

He could maybe have thrown in a few more tactical lobs to Julian’s rabid net rushes, and I’m sure we’ll hear that rust had something to do with this.

But every once in a while someone succeeds in landing a blow for the little man. You'll pardon me if I take a moment to celebrate that (no offence Fed Fans); whether he was bolstered by the Parisian crowd or not, Julian will likely treasure this one for years.


(Photo: AP)

Now watch him go out in the very next round.

Roger will feel this one keenly too I believe; his second consecutive loss remember, and something of a knock to his campaign to end the season as world #1.

I still think he’ll keep a hold on to it however.

It would be more worrying had he lost due the errant play we saw so much of earlier on this year. Today he appeared confident and secure as ever; and if you contrast that with the horror of a match Nadal played today, you'll likely understand why I believe Rafa will need to pull out all the stops (and then some) to get anywhere near to staking a claim for the top spot.

Rafa got through alright. But only just, and he was considerably aided by Almagro in the later stages of this sorry mess; besides, rank amateurs get through, park players get through. Heck, I even get through sometimes.

Most troubling of all was the way he let rallies lengthen and play out unnecessarily in the most unRafa-like way imaginable; at times, it almost had the feel of an exhibition match, with the way in which each ball was fed systematically back to Almagro, who possessed neither the will nor the might to put it away.

A confusing, convulsing bloodied pulp of a mess.

I know it’s not always that Rafa does well here, but we’ve usually season ending injuries to thank for that.


Monday, 9 November 2009

‘Something Special’ from Djoko, and Daveed makes an honest event of Valencia.

“It’s disappointing to lose at home in the finals, no doubt,” Federer said. “I thought I missed plenty of opportunities. I’m not looking for excuses. He played tough and he played well when he had to, and saved a ton of break points that were crucial.”

Djokovic improved to 3-2 this year against Federer, and said the top-ranked Swiss pushed him to his limits.

“I have to produce something special to win,” Djokovic said at sold-out St. Jakobshalle.

The second-seeded Serb clinched the first set by saving five break points in a game that lasted 24 minutes.

“It was maybe the turning point in the whole match,” Djokovic said. “I was fortunate to keep my nerves.”


Djokovic d. Federer 6-4 4-6 6-2

Make what ye will of this result.

I’m finding it hard to think of it as that meaningful, one way or the other.

djoko_basel (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

I like it that Nole managed to close out a final, again ‘only’ at the 500 level, but this time opposite the very best. Here’s me thinking the politically ‘corrected’, though not so well adjusted version of Djoko hadn’t the stomach for the fight anymore.

I dislike analyses that are wholly predicated upon how one or both players were not at their best.

The result is what it is, and being only a 500 is, I daresay, not nearly as discomforting to Fed as is being suggested in some quarters; though it can’t of course be much fun losing at home to someone he considers an anathema to everything that is just and proper about tennis.

murray_ap (Photo: AP)

Meanwhile Murray cleaned up very easily in Valencia. A tournament that has none other than Daveed Ferrer and Juan Carlos Ferrero as it’s co-owners.

Wondered how long it would take Daveed to make it official. It had always been ‘his’ tournament.



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