Now the final major clay event before Roland Garros, Rome gave fans an oppurtunity to see their favourite players on a truly slow, traditional surface.
On the ATP side, the King returned to the throne as Rafael Nadal once again defeated Novak Djokovic in the final, 7-5, 6-3. Having been rained out on Sunday, the final did not get under way until noon local time on Monday. A critical point at 30-30, 4-5 in the first set was wrongly called out against Djokovic and quickly corrected. A point he likely would have won to gain a set point ended up going against him. The frustration mounted and Nadal sprang like a shark to blood, breaking Djokovic and then holding once again for the first set. Despite some trading of breaks early in the second, Nadal settled and took hold of the match to take the title.
Nadal won 12 sets and lost none, defeating Ferrer and Berdych en route to the final. Having already won titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Nadal becomes the favourite for Roland Garros once again, if only slightly ahead of number 1 Djokovic and Federer.
The WTA final saw plenty of drama as Maria Sharapova climbed back from a 4-6, 0-4 defecit to eventually take the title from the grasp of Li Na, winning 4-6, 6-4, 7-6. The epic affair was nearly spoiled as rain delayed the third set tiebreak, but was completed later on the Sunday to crown the champion.
This gives Sharapova her second clay title of the season and was her fourth final of 2012. With Petra Kvitova struggling to be fit, Sharapova’s devastating baseline play may set her as the favourite for Roland Garros along with Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams. Roland Garros remains the only major title to alude Sharapova over her career and will be hungrier than ever with a new found success on clay.
ATP Surprise of the Week – Andreas Seppi – Home field advantage is a term often tossed around in sports around the world, but rarely mentioned in tennis. This past week, the Italian crowds of Rome were clearly behind their man, clay journeyman Andreas Seppi. Seppi needed three sets in all three of his wins including massive upsets of Isner and Wawrinka. After dropping the first set in a tiebreak against Wawrinka, Seppi rode the wave of the crowd in a momentus win over three sets, all in tiebreaks. The Italian easily fell to Federer in the quarterfinals, but the run will remain an unforgettable effort in his career.
WTA Surprise of the Week – Angelique Kerber – Perhaps the surprise is not the semifinal result on the week, but the season. Kerber continues to be a mix of Wozniacki-like consistency, both in matches and week to week, and Kvitova-like lefty power. The German has now provern herself on all surfaces, and a combination of improving movement with devastating power and placement has earned her some massive results this season. A darkhorse that could make some serious noise at Roland Garros, she is one to spot on the draw.
Novak Djokovic not only turned the tennis world on its head last year as he won three of four majors, he turned the seedings we’ve become so accustomed to upside down. Regardless, it was the same old as Federer continued to draw Djokovic and Nadal drew Murray. Nadal/Federer could be a possible semifinal, however being the second and third seeds, and it was exactly that for the first time in ages.
It’s been said so many times in tennis circles it’s become a cliche. The left handed, physical, unconventional, clay master Spaniard. The right handed, smooth, elegant, gentleman of Wimbledon Swiss. We’ve heard it all. Hell, books have been written on it. Yet, late in the first set, I believe we all realized once again how palpable those differences are, and indeed how special this rivalry continues to be.
It is the type of extreme difference nigh on impossible to achieve let alone see in team sports. It’s also such an extreme difference rarely accompanied by such greatness and regularity in tennis.
It may have been the perfect stage. With Djokovic now a slight step above all, Nadal and Federer were allowed to fight among themselves and show off just how relevant not just their rivalry is, but how relevant and close they remain.
In reality, this match was an audition. A reminder of perhaps the greatest rivalry tennis has ever seen. Yet it was not the final, it was a semifinal. The old rivalry versus the new. And so it was fitting that once again Rafa was dragged around court by the master, but outlasted him and eventually outplayed him quite handily.
Due to Federer and Nadal’s large chasm in styles and approaches, their matches turn into wildly entertaining cat-and-mouse affairs that are largely based around trying to hit the ball to the other’s backhand. Once that happens, one uses lazer like precision, the other relentless physicality, to push the opposing player around the court and win the point. This is all wonderful for Nadal, and has been for years. Nadal’s wildly unconvential matches up perfectly against Federer’s convential, albeit effortless and precise, style.
But what if Nadal were to meet his match? A player who’s game matches up in the exact perfect way to tear down the war machine that is Rafa. You know where I’m going with this. Of course, Rafa has lost many matches over the past several years. But when pre-2011-Nadal was healthy and played his best, he simply did not lose.
It has to be noted, that Nadal met his match, a player playing at the top of his ability, and a player with the exact type of game to tear the Spaniard’s down. And it was’t Novak Djokovic.
Fernando Verdasco pushed Nadal to the absolute limit in 2009 and foreshadowed the type of play that could defeat Nadal. Verdasco and Djokovic aren’t the same player, but there are similarities. First off, Verdasco is left handed, Djokovic is right handed. However, Verdasco’s forehand is incredibly flat, (on that day) reliable, and able to expose Nadal’s backhand by firing cross court from any spot on the court. This is all true of Djokovic’s backhand. Much like Verdasco’s forehand and left-handededness “cancelled out” Rafa’s largest weapon, his forehand, it also dismantled his reliable approach to point construction. Nadal is finding the exact same difficulties in this area due to Novak’s backhand.
Breaking It Down and Breaking Down
The Australian Open final will be remembered for what is now the longest major final ever played. This largely implies that the match was incredibly close to have dragged on for so long (after the epic Isner-Mahut, it is difficult not to jump to this conclusion). In reality it should be remembered for not being close at all.
After winning the first set 7-5, Djokovic dominated what was a series of pretty junky tennis, winning the next two sets 6-4 and 6-2. In reality, he should have wrapped it up in four. It is almost as if these two are resigned to the fact that they’re in it for the long haul, and it is going to be gruelling, regardless of the scoreline.
Now would be the time to throw in the old cliched tennis to boxing analogy. Sure, it is a nice one. Both are individual sports, both involve breaks between periods of action, and it makes tennis look pretty damn good. The difference is, despite being punched in the head repeatedly, boxing matches don’t take six hours. If Nadal/Federer is a fencing match, Nadal/Djokovic is a Medieval bloodbath with battle axes. If Nadal/Federer is judo, Nadal/Djokovic is the UFC.
The two of them pushed the level of physicality in the US Open final to a point rarely seen. Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Both players move so well and play such good defense, they rely purely on instinct at the end of long points (and eventually, long matches). In the end, this is what makes the difference. Djokovic’s muscle memory, right now, is at an insane level. The smoothness and accuracy he was finding off both wings late in the match was incredible. The footwork wasn’t there, but he was still able to just his upper body strength to move the ball and keep the backhand flat.
For Nadal, it is not quite the same. The most obvious point is his missed backhand passing shot at 4-2, 30-15. Despite Nadal’s efforts to work on his backhand, and it has improved mightily over the past couple of years, old habits die hard. The power goes, and so does some of the accuracy and craftmanship. It becomes a “get me over the net” shot. Maybe it’s because Nadal is a natural right hander, but plays lefty? I’m not sure.
This makes life incredibly difficult for Nadal. Dictating points from the forehand is not as easy, as it is cancelled out by Djokovic’s backhand. To make matters worse, Nadal’s own backhand tends to fail him in long matches whereas the fitness and muscle memory of Djokovic’s largest weapon continues to tick and give him a slight upper hand.
Losing the Battle, Winning the War
Nadal and Federer’s rivalry has long been talked about, analyzed, and cliche’d into oblivion. It’s one of the greatest rivalries sport has ever seen. But what a treat to have, with an outgoing Federer, a new rivalry for the ages. The reasons for one man’s success and the other man’s failure are only now beginning to simmer in the minds of hardcore tennis fans. This rivalry is another that has never been seen before, dares to push the sport to the edges of physicality, athleticism, and endurance, and should be celebrated as such. As tennis fans, we should line up our water bottles, tug at our shorts, look to the heavens, tear off our shirts and jump in.
Nadal’s Tournament So Far: Defeated: Fish, Delpo, Muller, Sweeting, Russell.
What Rafa Needs To Do: It hasn’t been breezy, but Rafa once again has himself in another Wimbledon semifinal. Getting this far never seemed too much in doubt, but Delpo definitely gave him a scare and Fish woke him up when he won a set.
For Rafa, things are pretty obvious. Keep that serve big, make sure the forehand is working and placing balls where he needs it, and be ready for a fight (which he always is). I think it’s safe to say that Rafa isn’t quite at the level he was from last year, and he’s got health issues that threaten to derail his run. He’ll need his A game for sure.
Murray’s Tournament So Far: Defeated: Lopez, Richie, Ljubicic, Kamke, Gimeno-Traver.
What Murray Needs To Do: It’s felt like Andy’s run to the semis has been easy. Routine. The draw helped him out, and it was simple. Right?
Partially. I think it’s safe to say that Andy’s draw could have been a whole lot worse, and wasn’t. At the same time, he’s dealt with Feli’s big serve, Richie’s variety, and Ljubicic’s Mr. Cleanness and made them look pretty routine. Those are definitely opponents who will ask the question of the big names, and Muzz has been ready to answer back right away.
It’s always a different beast, the business ends of slams, when only the cream of the crop remain. But I really do think Muzz is looking confident and solid. He had a fantastic clay season, looked comfortable, and looks absolutely fine with the pressure of Wimby.
In terms of his game and strategy, his serve is going to need to be cracking. If he starts having trouble on his serve consistently, it’s not going to be pretty. He will also need his backhand, probably his greatest weapon, which has been able to neutralize Rafa’s forehand in the past.
I’m going out on a crazy on this one and calling Muzz in 5 grinding sets.
For those who missed it, I asked on Twitter for people to send in their thoughts on who would win both semifinals, and how many sets it would take. Here’s the results. Whoever correctly picked both winners and respective total set count will get a follow Friday! Here’s the results from this match.
Andy in 5: 4 total: @mitchjos, @sheilokavieira, @anna_tennisfan, @MindTheRacket Andy in 4: 8 total: @BraveThinkSol, @tenniswatch, @ruthlesscourt, @Ms_Art_House, @R0si, @Daszmarelli, @zbrain, @Daily_Scores Andy in 3: None
Weapons: Changes tactics brilliantly, which helps him keep balls deep and returns aggressive Weaknesses: Can be beaten down by big servers, game not firing on all cylinders as last year
Rafa comes into Wimbledon as the odds on favourite to win his title. Despite not playing his greatest tennis, he sorted things out in France en route to another Roland Garros title. As the defending champion, and the number 1 ranking in the balance, Rafa will have to navigate through a tricky draw to reach the late stages of this tournament, where he’ll likely end up the favourite to take it once again.
Only one man has won more Roland Garros titles than Rafa: Bjorn Borg. Even though Rafa could retire today and be considered the greatest clay player of all time, it’s a record very much worth drawing even with. Not only will it bump him to double digits in the slams category, it will cement the fact that even though he played during the time of the GOAT, he was indestructible at his major in Paris.
What It Means For Fed
Clay has long been Roger’s worst surface, and has only ever managed 2 wins over Rafa on the dirt. He faced him 4 straight years from 2005-08 and managed to take 3 sets total, and only 4 games in the final in 2008.
Outside of the most weeks at number 1, defeating the King of Clay on his clay major has really been the only notable thing Fed hasn’t done. A win would not only give Fed that precious Roland Garros final win over Rafa, it would give him a legitimate shot at number 1 going into the end of the year, and ultimately show that even late in his career, is not a force to be underestimated.
Keys To The Match For Rafa
Rafa’s best opponent this fortnight has not been John Isner, but in fact himself. Mentally he’s looked unstable, the forehand hasn’t always been on, and he’s had some extremely slow starts to matches. That being said, he played the best he has all tournament against Cap’n Crunch in the semifinal, and looked more like the Rafa we know.
In other words, Rafa doesn’t need to “try” to do much of anything spectacular. He knows how to play Fed, and he sure knows how to play Fed on clay. Exploiting the backhand in forehand-backhand rallies, going down the line with the forehand, serving out wide to the Fed backhand, the list goes on. Mentally, however, he’s going to be as solid as he’s ever been. Fed is going to come at him with everything he’s got, and he needs to be prepared for a grind. Which I fully expect him to be.
Otherwise, he needs his backhand to be solid. It doesn’t need to be amazing, but good enough. It’s been a weak point at times this week, either slow, or on the back foot, and it’s ended points too early for him.
Keys To The Match For Fed
Simply put, Fed is going to have to do everything he did against Nole and then some. Not difficult, right? Fed’s backhand, both this tournament and this year, has been pretty average. Against Nole, it looked a lot more like a typical Fed shot. However, Nole really tried to exploit it, but his backhand wasn’t up to snuff. This meant that Fed actually got the advantage in backhand to backhand rallies because the ball wasn’t coming in too deep, or too quickly.
Now that backhand has to hold up to Rafa’s forehand. Fed needs to continue his great footwork, try to run around to the forehand, and stay aggressive. Along with the backhand, his serve was fantastic against Nole, and he’s going to need that for some free(r) points on serve.
Mentally, he looks ready and aggressive. The Fed we’re used to seeing. He’s going to need every ounce of that, and worry about things on his side of the net for the first set, and not let Rafa get in his head. He also needs to convert break points, and hold in games after wasted ones. But you don’t need me to tell you that.
If Rafa shows up, I really think he should be ok, but I think we’re in for a much closer ride than the last time these two met in this tournament.
It was close. Nearly the biggest upset in recent slam history, and dare I say possibly the biggest upset in French Open history… a set away. But the match was always going to end this way.
Rafa defeated Tree in 5 sets, dropping the second and third, and needed to summon a ton of strength in the fourth and fifth set to stave off early elimination. Both of Isner’s sets came in tiebreaks, naturally. I must say, his serve was absolutely cracking, and his willingness and ability at the net was fantastic. Power and different looks are what throw the best of players off their game, and it was a deadly combo for Isner.
However, he needed to win that fourth set if he was going to win the match. Rafa slowed his tempo down, and in the lull of the beginning of a new set, Rafa broke and fought his way for the set. By the end of the set it was clear that Tree’s level and energy were dropping drastically and he was all but out of it.
This match is another reason why the guys at the very top of the men’s tennis iceberg are simply amazing and inspiring. If you manage to take them to five sets, kicking and screaming, you still have to find a way to break them and outlast them. Even though Tree seemed to have a serious grip on the match after the third set, within minutes he was broken and all of a sudden it seemed like Rafa had every ounce of momentum with him.
We’ll see how Nole’s fitness does, as well as the other top guys. I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be some great 5-setters this fortnight.
For the third year straight, Rafa and Fed will tee off in Madrid. The difference this year is that it will be in the semis, not the final.
It’s been a long, tough path for Fed who barely survived Feli and had his hands much more full with Sod than the scoreline would suggest. To be honest, I’m having a tricky time figuring out if Fed’s level of play is down, or more that it’s clay, and he’s running into good opponents. I think it’s definitely true that Fed isn’t trying to be super creative out there and is sticking too his strengths (particularly the forehand and even the serve) and I think that’s the right move.
Rafa is obviously the favourite tomorrow, but I’d hesitate to count Fed out so quickly. The courts are playing incredibly quickly, and Fed has found ways to end points quickly as well as stick in longer rallies. I’m also not entirely convinced by Rafa just yet. He had the odd bump in Monte Carlo and has had a rather straight forward draw this week.
The real question, however, will be whether or not Rafa or Fed can challenge Nole in the final, assuming Novak wins. I’ll preview the final tomorrow night, which should be fantastic. Happy semis watching!
If a picture says a thousand words… well, here’s a picture of Rafa moping on a changeover. Is there much more to say?
Instead of a potential blockbuster night time quarterfinal showdown between Rafa and Ferrer, Rafa was once again denied due to injury. The whole situation is made even worse by the fact that Rafa had been practicing well and, from what he felt, done away with the sickness that had been plaguing him in earlier rounds.
But if you’re going to lose, what better way to lose than to a friend? In his presser, Rafa absolutely insisted he not be asked about the injury and was both noble and completely respectful of David’s victory.
Q. What can you tell us about the injury? What did David say to you at the end of the match?
RAFAEL NADAL: I can say nothing about the injury. Seriously, I would prefer don’t talk a lot about the injury.
Tonight, first of all, I don’t know nothing. Second thing, for respect to the winner and to a friend, I prefer to talk about the match. I think he played at a very high level. I just congratulate him and wish him all the best for the semifinal. I think he’s doing a fantastic tournament. If he keep playing like this, he going to have a good chances.
What David told me at the net is for me and that’s it.
Q. It’s going to be difficult for us to write a piece without appreciating how well you could move. It seemed to us you couldn’t move as well as you would like to have been moving tonight. Is that a fair statement?
RAFAEL NADAL: You see the match?
RAFAEL NADAL: So you are ready to write everything. I don’t have to tell you about what I felt on the court because I tried my best all the time. But is obvious that I didn’t feel at my best. I had a problem during the match, in the very beginning. After that, the match was almost over. So that’s what I can say.
But you know what, for me is difficult come here and speak about. In Doha I wasn’t healthy. Today I have another problem. Seems like I always have problems when I lose, and I don’t want to have this image, no? I prefer don’t talk about that today. If you can respect that, will be a very nice thing for me. Thank you.
Q. What was the problem, though?
RAFAEL NADAL: You are listening me? I can’t tell you which problem I have. First thing, because I don’t know. That’s my answer.
Sorry, but… really, press? The dude is hobbling and tearing up on court, and you just absolutely have to know what it was that was bothering him? He’s not Jay Cutler, leave him be. That’s story enough.
As for Rafa, wow. While Rafa Nation silently weeps the loss of their man, at least you can go out of this tournament with a head held high. Not only does he not want to draw special attention to the injury, he doesn’t want to be seen as someone who only loses due to injury (keep in mind he finished the match) and gave full respect to David (who, yes, is having a fantastic tournament).
So there you have it. Fed/Nole tonight, Muzz/Ferru tomorrow. I would think that Muzz should be ok to get through, but that will very likely be a fantastic, high quality match. As for Fed/Nole? I’m not even going to try. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s blood on the court by the end of the night. Nole is playing at the top of his game, Fed has been slightly inconsistent at times but will want sweet, sweet vengeance. I’m not going to be getting very much sleep tonight, am I?
You may remember the incredibly popular MTR series “What’s In A Hard Court?” where I contemplate what makes up the material of hard courts, the differences, and other deep questions about life.
Well get excited about the first part in a one part series, “What’s In A Grand Slam?”!
Well, if you think you know, Rod Laver sure has something to say about it. He essentially tells us that Trix are for kids, and a real “Grand Slam” is getting all four big tournaments in a calendar year.
First off, let’s take a look at where the phrase “Grand Slam” comes from. Interestingly, Patrick McEnroe tackles this issue in his book and goes over some of the complications of it. Back in the good ole days, what we now call “slams” (we’ll call them “small s” slams) were simply called “majors”. This term gets thrown around nowadays but seems almost ancient to a new generation’s ears. That or a golf term (equally as ancient, I believe).
This means that a “Grand Slam” (we’ll say “capital S” Slam) was winning all four “majors” in the same calendar year. Thus, a “slam” is different than a “Grand Slam”. I guess what I’m saying here is that really, a “Grand Slam” is winning all of the “slams”, but in the same calendar year.
If it’s over 2 years, we just name it after your first name. For example, “the Serena Slam” or my personal favourite, “the Brodie Slam”.
So what of a Rafa slam? Is it slightly less impressive than a Grand Slam? Yes. By a hair width, I’d say. In today’s day in age, a legit Grand Slam is a hell of a lot to ask for. Proof? Mr. Goat himself has never done it.
Don’t kid yourself, a lot needs to happen for a “Rafa slam” and I think it’s a tad ridiculous to be talking about it before it even happens.
It was a strange day for Rafa, who managed to go out without much of a fight and win a championship in the same day.
The loss to Kolya was far from suprising and far from enjoyable. Rafa was clearly ailing and by the end of the first set, he was out of steam. By the second set, he was barely moving. The snarl was anywhere but his face, which looked closer to a sick puppy than a bulldog.
Then he came out and won the doubles title. To be fair, the 10% of the time Rafa squared up the ball against Kolya, he was able to hit it well. Obviously there’s a lot less running around in doubles and that combined with no ad scoring must have helped.
There you have it. Rafa’s first title of 2011: Doha doubles champion.
Elsewhere, Fed was all business against Jo. Fed has been cruising all week and has been clutch in tiebreaks as per usual. He’ll be in tough against The Fuzzy Koala in the final however, and I think it will be a good test to find out exactly where he is.