Thursday, 30 April 2009

Roaming around Rome...

Quick Rome round up. After the rain delays early on this week, things are moving so quickly you never know what might happen next.

Casualties first.

I'm kind of mixed about the whole Andy Murray thing as on the one hand I've said in the past and continue to believe, that he genuinely does have the makings of a good clay
courter. Whether he'll excel or challenge Nadal is another question though, and very dependent on whether he's willing to adjust certain aspects of his game. In particular, a propensity to hang back, and try to out last your opponent into making an error.

I bring this up because there was a lot of discussion after his loss yesterday on whether Murray's unwillingness to change puts him in the same category as the
Federers and Samprases whose stubborn reluctance to modify their style of play sometimes cost them matches they should have won.

If I didn't want to keep this blog family friendly or wasn't such a gentleman (ahem), I'd take this opportunity for a well timed, well placed profanity. Do we even need to go into why I find such a comparison so outrageous?

If you won even
half the amount of Slams those two have, wouldn't you be reluctant to change?
Murray's won precisely -- oh wait,
lemmee see, no Slams at all -- even though he's better placed than some people might think to pick one up in the not too distant future.

But back to Murray and his pushing-it-real-good approach to tennis. I'm sorry to say this, and Lord knows I've been one of the most vociferous backers of his gem of a backhand, much improved serve and winners mentality, but at times he makes it difficult to argue against those that characterise him as a 'pusher'. Which I still think he's not.

It's all the more frustrating because you know what he's capable of if only he would, well stop pushing really.

The way I see it, you can only go so far with such an approach on
any surface, before the top players begin edging past you - on clay it presents Murray with a couple of more unique problems:

a) He's simply not (yet) that good on it.

b) He doesn't possess the energy to outlast the stronger, fitter,
dirtballers out there (there's a whole lot of them), and I don't just mean the top tier.

If he doesn't bring some of that contained aggression that's brought him so much success on the hard courts, to bear on the remainder of this clay court season, it won't so much be a question of 'Can he get to
Nadal?', more a case of 'Can he stay with a Monaco or even a Lapentti?'.

It wasn't just Murray who exited the stadium with his face roughly the same colour as the courts in Rome. The two other results that really stood out for me were
Ferrer going out to Mathieu in three sets and Davydenko going down in two (tight) sets to Jurgen Melzer.

Ferrer's efforts in Barcelona last week (try and dig out his semi versus Gonzales if you want to see something special), you have to cut him some slack. Everyone has a shocker every now and again and even though he may give the impression he's been carved from rock, you've got to think this was one match too far physically.

As for
Nikolay, it's not that I expect him to win every match he plays after his hiatus with injury, but you've got to be concerned by a straight loss to a guy you currently own 4-0. We'll let it pass this time Nikolay, but just remember you're a member of Team 'Red', the 1st team in fact.


The top guys have been making their way through the draw fairly routinely,
Djoko's double breadstick of Robredo, being the most clinical (Nadal's 6-0, 6-1 smackdown of Soderling doesn't count....any straight sets win from Rafa doesn't count).

But two guys that have really impressed me this week are Del
Potro and Gonzales.

I didn't expect much from young Juan this week or on clay in general, and it's still a stretch to suggest he's natural on the surface. But to come through against Stan-the-man in the manner that he did today, suggests real maturity.
Novak will have his work cut out.

And the way Gonzales has been playing of late, you've got to think he'll put a stop the Monaco runaway train.

I don't expect the
Nadal-Verdasco match to be that competitive as I just don't think Fernando's in the same place he was a couple of months back, but you never know.

One last thing. It's funny - this is the quietest, most uneventful, under-the-radar route through the draw I've seen from
Federer in a long time. A sign of a return to the old ways? Hope so.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

I Almost Forgot...

I've been a little neglectful in my coverage of the WTA recently, choosing to follow some very good advice I once heard along the lines of "If you haven't anything good to say, remain silent...". But there's been a number of positive developments on the women's tour recently that I thought I should mention:

Sabine Lisicki, a breath of fresh air from Germany. She won her first Premier level title in Charleston two weeks back beating Venus Williams in the process, and Wozniacki in the final. She's been likened to Jenifer Capriati in her ball striking ability. He tennis ethos reminds me a little of Davydenko in that she's (at the moment) very much about all out attack and going for the lines. I can't see a problem with that approach provided she continues to hit at this very high level she's set for herself. I mentioned some tim
e back that the WTA needed something very different to breath some life back into it. Well this girl can serve at 125mph, and outside of the Williamses, that really does put a rather different slant on womens tennis. Looks like she's about to take out Patty Schnyder at the event in Stuttgart (in straight sets) as I type.

-- Caroline Wozniacki continues to play well but seems to be carving out a Kuznetsova like year for herself by making finals she doesn't win.

-- Jelena Jankovic picked up a title in Marbella (taking out Navarro in the process) and seems to be getting some of her form back. She took out a pretty lame (literally) Cibulkova today in a match that at least demonstrated she has cut out a lot of those UFEs. I'm glad she's on the up as I picked her to win at RG this year, mostly because of her stunning performances at Rome these last couple of years. That prediction is looking less certain now, but I'm not about to chicken out.

-- Elena Dementieva has lost some fizz since making a brilliant start to the year, but is still playing convincingly enough to make her my second pick for RG. I always felt she missed out on the all Russian Slam cocktail party in 2004 -- she still managed to make two of those Slam finals. Given the less competitive state of the tour right now - it's almost her right to pick up a Slam, and I'd say RG is the best place to do that.

-- Dinara Safina made a fantabulous return to action at Stuttgart yesterday, by pounding poor old Sara Errani into the dirt 6-0,6-1. It was her first match as world #1, and did of course come amidst the predictable chorus of derision. I'd love her to win at RG too, if only to stick it to the haters.

Go Dinara - You stick it to the man...

-- Less happy news with
Maria Sharapova, who's now announced she won't be back until RG. You know, it's almost got to the point now where I wish she'd take the full year off, instead of staggering it out in this will-she-won't-she way. It's got to be heart wrenching to admit to yourself you may be dealing with what's beginning to sound like a chronic injury. But she's still very,
very young. Plus RG doesn't strike me as the best place to return from rehab anyway. Ease yourself gently into the grass court season I say.

-- Victoria Azarenka went out early to Gisela Dulko today. I'm not completely convinced by what little I saw from Victoria on clay, but she was returning from injury, so I guess it'd be a little unfair to read too much into that.

-- Anyone know what the hecks going on with Ana Ivanovic?

Guillermo Calls Time...

If you don't already know - Guillermo Coria's finally decided to call it quits.

It makes official what I sort of saw coming for a couple of years now, but the news will still I suspect, leave a slightly bitter aftertaste.

After losing to Gaudio during the 2004 RG final, that well documented meltdown costing him a Slam he almost certainly should have won, Coria still played well enough to reach a grass court final at Hertogenbosch the same year, and of course produce those defining matches during the 2005 clay court season against a plucky 18 year old Spanish kid named Rafael Nadal.

That really was the beginning of the end. Over the next couple of years he was troubled by poor form, injuries and an Elena-like chronic case of the service yips.

It became increasingly difficult to follow his career or even find much news on him at one point - the few dribs and drabs of information suggesting alarming levels of disillusionment with his game. Some suggest he never got over his loss to Gaudio.

Keepin' it Western...VERY Western

Whatever the truth of it, I'll miss ol' Guillermo. I didn't always appreciate his questionable levels of sportsmanship, and he was never one to turn down an opportunity to needle his opponents. But it was for the most part kept within acceptable limits. Nothing remotely Hewitt like about it at all.

It's not just his speed around the court or his drop shot (the best of it's time) I'll miss - skills that took him to #3 in the world at the age of 22; since Guga's departure, Coria for me was the last elite level dirtballer we had left on tour, and though it's pretty fantastic to suggest he would have been able to stay with Rafa had he continued playing at a high level, I've no doubt in my mind he would have regularly featured in many more clay court quarters and semis, providing this section of the calendar with a much needed window into a different style of play. A style that's sadly not currently finding it's heights with the shows put on by the Ferrers and Almagros.

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?


Friday, 24 April 2009

Looking Ahead to Rome....

I don't refer to Rome as the 'Italian Open' for the same reason I don't refer to Wimbledon as the 'British Open'. I'm also strongly against tournaments sounding like someones stock portfolio.

Besides, Rome conjures up colourful images of gladiatorial battle, chariot races, the Colosseum and some incredibly camp people dressed in togas. Why would anyone want to ditch that in favour of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia? Or the Barcelona Open Banco Sabadell. Or what I'm pretty sure is the worst offender the Abierto Mexicano TELCEL presented by HSBC
(no I didn't make that up).

It's not that I object to sponsorship. It is after all the price you pay for being able to offer unprecedented levels of prize money which, particularly for the smaller events, is sometimes quite necessary to attract the big names. Let's also not forget how difficult it is in the current climate to attract and retain a reliable sponsor. But I consider it a step too far, when I can't instantly recognise where an event's being held, or am not able to glean at least some idea of it's standing in relation to the other events (something that should be a lot easier now that the ATP has gone all Nascar on us).

Anyway, I love Rome. I consider it the
Crown Jewel of the Clay Court Season, an unofficial Clay Court Slam if you will. It's produced better matches these past few years than most anything I've seen at Roland Garros. Except of course last year, when Djoko cakewalked his way to the title in an event that saw both semi finals cut short by retirements.

See it's like this (in my head at least). If you want scenic views and prestige, you go to Monte Carlo. But for battleaxe tennis you head to Rome. Plain and simple. You've heard enough from me about Coria's and Federer's insanely competitive matches with Rafa there to know why. And as far as Hamburg goes, well that was for those that were interested in what clay court tennis would be like without Rafa (08), or either of the top seeds(06). Or in a time when Roger would still breeze through to clay court titles. I tend to remember it for it being the venue that Roger broke Rafa's 81 match winning streak.

I feel for Hamburg, I really do. It's a pretty big deal in Germany and has history going back to the nineteenth century. Whatever your view about a governing body's right to downgrade events and reposition them in the calendar, you can understand Hamburg not being entirely happy at being usurped in this way.

Still looking forward to Madrid though. I really don't understand what prevents there being more co-ed events outside of the Slams. You would have thought those in charge would have cottoned on to the very
box office appeal such an opportunity presents. Especially with the show Indian Wells and Miami put on. Though someone will no doubt now tell me it's something to do with 'scheduling difficulties'.

Maybe my love affair with Rome is all based on an illusion. Maybe the reason the event has lost some of its fizz over the last couple of years rests with the decision to limit matches to three sets. In fact I'm almost certain it does. But I'm also certain Rafa was slightly less invincible three years ago - and whatever other thoughts you may have on the credibility of Roger pitting himself against Rafa on clay, you must agree that he was better placed mentally to make a meal of some of those matches.

This year, both Djoko and Murray have given us every indication that they too intend to make a meal of Rome. Roger too will be pressing very hard if his Monte Carlo press con is anything to go by (and if he knows whats good for him). But what I really want to see is a 'Charge of the Red Brigade' - a strong showing from the likes of Ferrer, Almagro, Robredo, Verdasco, Monaco - heck I'm even prepared to put Nalbie and Gonzales on that list even though they're not what I'd consider clay court specialists.

As great as Nadal's feats have been these past few years, what's been notably absent are credible performances from the guys that should be effortlessly sliding their way through the draws - the so called clay court specialists.

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.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The Full Monte Pt 3...

I sometimes resist the urge to post too soon after a match as it usually means you haven't had sufficient downtime to form a considered opinion.

Not today. Today it was dead simple. Rafa and his side of the court was as impregnable as you might expect. But if Murray had started off playing with the aggression he displayed from 2-5 down in the second set, we may have had a three setter. That Rafa would still have won.

Instead he broke the second law of playing Rafael Nadal on clay (the one that comes right after "Don't play Rafael Nadal on clay"): "Never try to take on Rafa from the back of the court". I say 'take on', but I think we all know that's very quickly reduced to 'struggling to stay in the rally' as you're forcibly manhandled on to the 'Rafael Nadal Treadmill'. Federer knows a thing or two about that.

But what got me was that it almost looked a conscious decision on the part of Corretja and the rest of Team Murray to open proceedings in this laid back way. A kind of reverse psychology ploy maybe: Goodness knows, no one else DARES to play that way against Nadal, so what better way to keep him confused and 2nd guessing what you're really up to?

It's got to be hasn't it? Murray's surely smart enough to know that that kind of passive play is not sustainable for even a couple of games.

Whatever crafty games they may have been up to, Murray overplayed his hand. To be fair, he did look to be trying to crank things up earlier on, but his efforts were thwarted by not being able to put enough first serves in and perhaps more shockingly his trademark cross court double hander deserting him.

And then it happened. In a puff of smoke the terrier emerged and started serving bombs, running down balls and finding the lines in rallies he had no right to even be part of. It was all rather reminiscent of that US Open semi last year.

Of course it's completely ridiculous to suggest that anyone play that way for 2 or 3 sets. For one thing Nadal probably won't let you. And if you do manage to find some rhythm, he raises his game in that frustratingly effective way. Like he did in that 2nd set tie break.


Had Wawrinka made the final, there's no question he'd be part of this week's winners list. He'd built up some great momentum this week, even if you chose to ignore that win over Mirka's husband; and he almost had me convinced.

But then it happened. Losing his way completely in the 2nd set and then handing back a break in the final set. Novak may still be finding his way back to that unfathomable curiosity we call 'his best', but he's playing too well to let a double-choke-on-the-rocks like this slip by.

Singles - Semi-finals
[1] R Nadal (ESP) d [4] A Murray (GBR) 62 76(4)
[3] N Djokovic (SRB) d [13] S Wawrinka (SUI) 46 61 63

Friday, 17 April 2009

The Full Monte Pt 2...

Quarter Finals Day.

I knew I was going to have a hard time of it with the Murray Nikolay match; on the one hand I've been wanting to see Murray do well on clay ever since he turned into a pit bull terrier some time around the Gasquet match at Wimbledon last year. His game I thought, if you set aside for the moment the question of dodgy fitness, was particularly well suited to dirt.

But I was also strongly backing 'He whose name shall not be sung', who had returned from injury with convincing wins over Karlovic, Del Potro and Nalbandian.

Surely not a problem that Nikolay had already played Daveed early on today?

First set not at all, in fact I thought Nikolay had the upper hand as he yanked Andy this way and that with his relentless array of trusty drives, some drop shots and a particularly well executed backhand volley. The timing of the man, and how early he takes the ball never ceases to amaze me. Murray somehow stuck it out to force a tie break in which Nikolay capitulated. Rust maybe or the result of playing too much in one day?

That's it I thought, Murray's invested too much of himself in that set - he's not going to be able to see this through; and sure enough Nikolay was quickly 4-1 up. But then something funny happened. Murray -- between his usual verbose episodes of self chastisement -- started picking at his hand and occasionally gesturing to his box. Something was clearly not right as he was struggling to keep the ball in court. He's gonna get the trainer on I thought. Nope.

As we were to find out later it was in fact blisters - but what was interesting was the effect this all had on Nikolay who from that point on was no longer himself. I'm pretty sure around 2/3 of his total UFEs materialised after that point. Murray on the other hand, apparently picking up on this, went into grinders overdrive. Nothing wrong with that of course, in fact his defence was some of the best I've seen this year. But I can't help feeling that he would have had the trainer on (and perhaps wouldn't have settled into that defensive rhythm so quickly), had Nikolay kept up the quality of his onslaught.

But it's all good see. Nikolays back with a vengeance. I don't think the loss bothered him that much - getting to quarter final of a Masters event after a lay off from injury (and beating some big, bad bigwigs along the way) is more than he probably expected. And I don't think there's any question of gamesmanship from Murray, and even if there was a little, it was well within what is normally deemed acceptable. Besides it brought about the best exhibition of 'attack v defense' we've probably had this year.

I suppose I ought to mention something about the Djoko-Nando match. Didn't live up to it's billing I'm afraid. Exceptional start from Djoko, although with a helping hand from Nando who didn't really arrive until late in the first set. It then turned into a low-quality test of fortitude. And Djoko looks like he's growing on that front daily. I keep talking about whether or not I think he's 'back' after every performance. Now I'm not even sure what that means.

He's clearly on the up, but I think his return to form seems to be taking the rather more continuous trajectory of a series of performances where he doesn't do more than exactly what is needed. He's also answered some justified questions about his fitness. That was only a three setter, but a pretty tough one. The only difference was that it wasn't hot. The obvious inference I'm drawing is that his fitness problems are rather more to do with heat and the breathing problems he's had nasal surgery for, than more general issues with endurance. If he loses tomorrow he'll have defended his points from last year. And that ain't half bad.

Bit disappointed with Nando. I really thought the clay court season would serve as a homecoming. And with the form he's been in, I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking he'd flourish. Hasn't happened yet, though it's still early days.

But it's all good as I say from Murray and Djoko, who both came through drawn out tests of physical and mental strength in their very different ways.

Singles - Quarter-finals / Simples - Quarts de Finale
[1] R Nadal (ESP) d [WC] I Ljubicic (CRO) 63 63
[3] N Djokovic (SRB) d [7] F Verdasco (ESP) 62 46 63
[4] A Murray (GBR) d [8] N Davydenko (RUS) 76(1) 64
[13] S Wawrinka (SUI) d [Q] A Beck (GER) 62 64

(Murray Image: Reuters)

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The Full Monte Pt 1...

[1] R Nadal (ESP) d J Chela (ARG) 62 63
Rafa not yet hitting quite at his best - as if that mattered.

[2] [WC] R Federer (SUI) d A Seppi (ITA) 64 64
Look at you! Sliding and everything. I don' t know how much practice Roger got on the red stuff, what with all that snuggly domesticity going on, and deciding to enter the event quite late in the day, but apart from a couple of unsettled games early on he looked liked he was continuing from where he left off last year. Prior to last years RG final that is (No that wouldn't have been very encouraging at all).

[WC] I Ljubicic (CRO) d [5] J Del Potro (ARG) 46 61 64
I had no idea how well Juan could play on clay as he was ranked around #75 this time last year. I still don't know how well he can play as I didn't see this match. But I don't think simply being South American is any indication to dirt balling adeptness, in the same way as being Spanish very much
is (F-Lo not withstanding). Judging by the way he plays, I'd say he should struggle, but it still doesn't excuse him going out this early.
Continuing to love the whole Gentle Giant revival though.

[7] F Verdasco (ESP) d P Kohlschreiber (GER) 63 64
Missed this too, and the result doesn't surprise me one bit, but I'm more keen on his next match...

[10] D Ferrer (ESP) d M Gicquel (FRA) 61 60
That's right, Nando plays Ferrer next, and judging by this scoreline Daveed's looking very much like he's in a good mind to put right his sub par clay court season last year.

[8] N Davydenko (RUS) d I Karlovic (CRO) 64 63
THAT'S what I'm taking about! Taking out Ivo in your first match back from injury. In straight sets. On Clay. And no blinkin' tie breaks. Brilliant. More Nikolay clinics please. In fact I'm going to go as far as inducting myself as an honorary member of Nikolay's fan club for the duration of this event. So he's not a rock star and has about as much charisma as a pencil sharpener. Underrated and unsung.

[12] D Nalbandian (ARG) d M Granollers (ESP) 46 63 61
No need to play this many three setters this early on Daveed.

[Q] F Fognini (ITA) d [14] M Cilic (CRO) 62 60
Losing to a qualifier's bad enough but only winning two games in the process? Sheer bedlam. It suggests you didn't have a gameplan, were of your depth or physically ill. Or all of the above. Someone tell me what happened here please.

S Bolelli (ITA) d J Tipsarevic (SRB) 75 63
I love Simone's backhand and he's been playing some strong tennis recently. Janko on the other hand, hasn't. In fact his tennis has been more than a little tipsy (sorry) for about a year now. Back then, I thought he was due for some kind of a breakthrough as he'd cast himself in the role of a Giant Killer of sorts.

[Q] N Lapentti (ECU) d M Safin (RUS) 76(6) 26 76(6) - Saved 3 M.P.
Anyone who saw this will know how you can't do justice to the drama that transpired on court in a blog summary. What scares me is it's a repeat of what we saw against Monfils two weeks ago. Surely not again I thought , when Safin was 5-2 up in the final set. It wasn't all about Safin though, you have to credit Lapentti for playing some solid, unspectacular (nothing wrong with that - unspectacular's good) tennis to stay in and eventually come back saving three match points in the process. Can't say it will do much for Safin's self-belief though, he played some exceptional tennis before that third set mayhem.

[3] N Djokovic (SRB) d [Q] O Hernandez (ESP) 61 62
Oscar was completely out of his depth and has what I'm quite sure is the highest pitched grunt on tour. He also topped the amount of time Gasquet spends behind the baseline giving Novak ample room and opportunity to do his thang.

[4] A Murray (GBR) d V Hanescu (ROU) 63 62
Good all round performance from Andy but I'm beginning to understand what he meant when he said he's not yet fully comfortable on clay. Forget sliding, his movement looked unsteady, laboured even, and was caught out of position on one too many occasion. Bottom line is he found a (pretty comfortable) way through.

[Q] A Beck (GER) d [6] G Simon (FRA) 75 61
This would have been his third consecutive showing on Tennis is Served's loser's list and Gilles is only rescued from Room 101 (the fate of anyone with three consecutive showings) by him having a pretty nasty case of the sniffles. But I'll be watchin' Gilles.

J Monaco (ARG) d [11] T Robredo (ESP) 62 64
Hard to believe Tommy won Hamburg a few years back. Ok Roger and Rafa weren't there. Hard to believe he was #5 in the world. Our ends never know our beginnings.

It's too early to announce the winners and losers list but I just wanted to give an honorary mention to Lleyton Hewitt for playing his opening match against Safin within only three hours of getting off a plane (a delayed 17 hour trip back from Texas).

A less honorary mention to Gael Monfils. I didn't see his loss to Tipsy and though I'm predictably annoyed at how early it came, I found it more interesting that some people were suggesting he tanked the match.

Now, I've seen Monfils when he's all at sea, not having the faintest idea what to do out there and it looks
horrible. It's so bad in fact, that some might construe it as tanking. So I think its appropriate to give him the benefit of the doubt as he seems otherwise, a pretty decent enough chap not adverse to the odd episode of larking about. But I've said it before, Gael needs to conduct himself differently on court. Much as I disagree with the accusation you can understand why reasonable people might feel this way.

Monday, 13 April 2009

TopSpin's Guide to the ATP Clay Court Season

My rather unstructured intro to the ATP clay court season. It's made up of rules, observations and hopes I have for the new season. I also venture into 'Rafael Nadal Facts' territory.

1. If you still don't know how to slide, go back to the South American Futures Circuit and learn. Every surface has an art form and sliding is the poetry of the dirt baller.

Oh the dreaminess of it all...
(Photo: European Pressphoto Agency)

2. If you're not comfortable contesting rallies comprised of over 15 balls, expecting to torpedo a fast court winner on the forth ball, go back to the South American Futures Circuit and learn.

3. If you're a gasping, heaving wreck of a mess after just a set and half on the red stuff, go back and build up your endurance. Do some Bikram Yoga (it seemed to help Murray) or spend a week living with David Ferrer.

4. If you're excessively prone to injuries or have a problem with your knees, you should probably not expect to do too well on clay unless your name is Rafael Nadal.

5. There's something uniquely satisfying in seeing a deftly executed drop shot (
preferably cross court) being hit on a clay court, just clearing the net and dying a silent (red?), dirty death on it's powdery, rust coloured surface - like seeing a skilled executioner at work.

6. There's nothing 'unrefined' or 'childish' about the drop shot. It should be present in the arsenal of every modern player - more so on clay. Ignore the 'Red Death' at your peril. After years of considering it beneath him and thinking he knew better, even Roger went over to the other side. Speaking of which...

7. Despite his affairs currently being more domestic in nature, with marriage, honeymooning on the job and the mother of all paradigm shifts - looming parenthood, and despite what transpired on court a week ago (and the very prickly press cons afterwards), and despite his last notable clay court title coming around two years ago at the (now defunct) Hamburg Masters, and despite having had his hopes and quite a lot of his dignity dashed at Roland Garros last year, Roger Federer remains (unless proved otherwise) the 2nd best clay courter in the world.

Not really born to slide, but still...
(Photo: Getty)

8. Despite what your motivational expert might tell you, it is both scientifically and technically impossible to defeat a fully functioning (injury free) Rafael Nadal on a clay court.

9. Rafa's unique (freakish) gifts make him particularly suited to clay in a way which perhaps no player before him ever has been. Or maybe ever will be.

10. The amount of topspin imparted on a ball struck by a Rafael Nadal Forehand is considered by some to be the eighth wonder of the world.

EIghth Wonder of the World?
(Photo: Claude Paris/AP)

11. Rafa functioning at anywhere near the height of his powers on a clay court is the closest thing we have in tennis to an indefatigable, destructive force of nature. The equivalent WTA force is Venus Williams on grass.

12. Corollary: Beating Rafa on a clay court requires him to be injured or excessively fatigued.
Proof: Federer (Hamburg 07), Ferrero (Rome 08)

13. Further Clay Court Corollary: There is no such thing as a clay court 'contender' at Roland Garros - only players that haven't yet run into Rafael Nadal.
Proof: Nicolas Almagro (RG 08); won only three games in a straight set
loss to Nadal that I likened to having his knee caps removed in a Guy Ritchie gangster movie; he was at the time considered by some silly people to be the third best clay courter in the world.

14. Never be so brazen as to attempt to begin your clay court season at a Masters 1000 event 'cold turkey'. You may run into Rafael Nadal in your opening match.

15. Entering any clay court event that Rafa doesn't appear to have heard of might be a better way to ease oneself in to conducting an effective clay court campaign (N.B. 'Effective' here spans the entire set of skills found in modern tennis but in no way implies the possibility of a win over Rafael Nadal).

16. You'll then be ready to take on David Ferrer at his regular haunt in Valencia which is the next step in 'easing' oneself in to conducting an effective clay court campaign.

17. Don't under any circumstances accept a wildcard to Barcelona expecting Rafa to be at anything other than his most brutally efficent. Rafa's love of this event is only exceeded by the size of the trophy here.

Unbeknownst to Rafa, he'd also won over 5 titles simultaneously in the 'clean and jerk' category...
(Photo: Eurosport)

18. Rafa has indicated that he may not enter the newly created co-ed clay court 1000 event in Madrid. Normally I'd think of this as an absolute gimmee for Roger Federer. This year? Not so much.

19. If Rafa really doesn't turn up to Madrid this year he'll go down as this year's recipient of the ATP Humanitarian of the Year Award and his forgoing of the 1000 points up for grabs will be listed under the 'Charitable Works and Donations' section of his website.

20. Goathood and all other references to professed excellence are meaningless when on a clay court facing Rafael Nadal.

21. Similarly, phrases like 'all things being equal' during conversations focusing on match analysis are meaningless and actually pretty stupid when discussing any clay court matches that involve Rafael Nadal. All things are never, can never be 'equal' in that situation.

22. Andy Murray has all the makings of a great clay courter except for his suspect fitness. But we've not seen the new Murray perform on clay yet - you know, the one that has won more matches than all his rivals in the last 9 months, the one that seems to make sport of beating up on the top three and the first guy to win three titles this season.

23. Novak Djokovic has a very impressive record on clay but is currently giving me no reason to believe he'll be able to keep that up. Nevertheless I'm keeping optimistic.

24. Andy Murray will at some point before RG, surpass Novak Djokovic to become the number three player in the world.

25. Nikolay Davydenko is back in action at Monte Carlo this week and should be capable of having a great clay court season. He should in fact be capable of playing on any surface, but for some inexplicable reason forgets what a tennis ball is on grass.

26. David Ferrer should theoretically be at the head of a bunch of clay courters that only come unstuck against the top four. He didn't however live up to that last year.

27. Expect big things from David Nalbandian.

28. Expect inexplicably bad things from David Nalbandian.

29. "Marat... Meeting Rm 4A, 4:30pm - we need to talk about your clay court swan song...". Seriously.

30. Andy Roddick somehow managed to get to the semis at Rome last year before having to pull out with a back injury. He's giving us plenty of reasons not to dismiss him on his least relevant surface.

31. James Blake had a great run at Rome last year too, but unlike Andy, is unfortunately giving is plenty of reasons to dismiss him on his least relevant surface.

32. If his performance at last years Davis Cup Tie against Spain is anything to go by, expect Sam Querry to outperform James Blake.

33. Tommy Robredo is beginning to look largely irrelevant on clay and most all other surfaces.

34. I've not seen much of Nicolas Almagro since that grizzly match against Rafa last year. Understandable, as he's probably undergoing post traumatic stress therapy of some kind (and having work done on those knee caps). Be good to see him back as he does have a good clay court game and is very interesting to watch. Just don't go reading too much into the talk of people that big you up so much, Nicolas. And lose some pounds.

35. Clay Court Tennis would benefit from a return to form for Guillermo Coria and his drop shots. Unfortunately I don't think we're ever going to see it.

36. It's becoming increasingly fashionable to say that there are no clay court specialists remaining in the modern game. Ignore these people and their 'populist' approach to tennis. David Ferrer is a clay courter, Novak Djokovic isn't. Tommy Robredo is a clay courter, Marat Safin isn't. Seems easy enough to me...

37. That said, clay court tennis is increasingly becoming a hybrid of the lengthy, loopy exchanges we know and (some of us) love, and the flatter, point-ending ball striking more prevalent on the hard courts.


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Credit has been given wherever possible.
If you feel your copyright is being infringed upon by any particular image, please contact me and I'll have it taken it down.

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