The dream final

Thinking back over 2009-2010, a phrase that might be summoned to mind is, ‘What a difference a year makes.’

At exactly this time 12 months ago, Rafael Nadal was the reigning World #1, on a 33-match winning streak on clay, and just one victory away from being the first person to claim all three clay Masters 1000 tournaments in a single season. Standing in his way was the written-off World #2 Roger Federer, who hadn’t won a title in close to eight months, and against whom he held a 9-1 record on clay.

Of course, we all know what happened then. It kick-started the most unexpectedly wondrous 12 months for Federer and his fans, and the most unexpectedly frustrating 12 months for the guy at the other end of the net. Over the last few weeks, however, past form seems to have had no influence as Rafa reestablished his stranglehold over the clay season and Roger suffered a string of unexpected losses to players he would usually have beaten. In some ways, the situation for this final is rather similar – Rafa is looking for glory, Roger is looking to make up for recent disappointments.

What a difference a week makes, too. It almost seems like Roger takes perverse pleasure in proving time and time again to his doubters that he is not ‘done’; that when he suffered what some called one of the most embarrassing losses of his career against Montañes in the Estoril semis, it meant nothing for, once again, “he can pace himself and peak at just the right time,” as I said optimistically in my preview of the Estoril match. Arguably against expectations, he made it to the Madrid final after four encouraging matches featuring two blowouts and two epic tussles.

And what of the match itself? Good old Rafa, humble though he may be, is going too far when he says, “[Roger] the top favorite in this tournament.” The Spaniard’s record on clay speaks for itself. It takes some very special play to beat him. Old news. Roger may be at a disadvantage with the Spanish crowd and having played two consecutive three-setters, though this could be cancelled out by the fact that this faster playing clay favors his gamestyle compared to other tournaments like Monte Carlo, Rome, and RG. Neither have been consistently on top form over the week – Federer, though making steady progress, lost the second set against Ferrer largely because his serve and backhand broke down just at the wrong moment, and Rafa played a horrendous (by his standards) first set against Almagro.

For Roger to win he’ll have to have a huge serving day, much like he did in the first set against Ferrer, and have a good mental attitude; two components that have deserted him during other meetings with his rival. Rafa will probably just have to do what he normally does. Pummel Roger’s backhand, and generate unearthly amounts of topspin.

This match could be a blowout, or an intense grapple for dominance. It could set the trend for the rest of the year, or it could end up being an anomaly. Whatever happens, millions of  fans around the world will be watching, and because of the hype, the prestige, the legend, there is one thing I can be relatively sure about – tennis will probably win.

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Rallying

Roger entered his first three-match winning streak since the Australian Open when he defeated Ernests Gulbis 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 to move into the semi-finals of the 2010 Mutua Madrileña Madrid Open.

It may have been a struggle but this match, along with Federer’s 6-3, 6-1 drubbing of countryman Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round, offered up encouraging evidence that the ‘slump’ he had entered over the last few months was not going to end up becoming worryingly permanent, in differing ways.

Firstly, the match against Wawrinka. Stan looked like the smart bet to upset Federer at the start of the tournament, given the World #1’s recent record against Top 40 players – but he ended up not being much of an obstacle at all after breaking in the first game; Roger later returned the favor a grand total of five times. Fed’s W/UE stats stood at 23/11 compared to the not-terrible (given the scoreline) 18/24 made by Wawrinka.

Yet for some – looking at you, Peter Bodo – this was apparently not enough. The good old editor of good old Tennis Magazine suggested in his write-up of the match that the Swiss #2 wasn’t “wanting to beat Federer with the degree of unfettered determination and aggression called for by that difficult job,” and that he (Bodo) required Federer to “have to scratch and claw against a quality opponent,” before the results of the past few months could be forgotten, going into Paris.

Bodo must have been very satisfied with yesterday’s match against Gulbis, then. Rallying from a set and a break down, Roger won six games on the trot to take the second set against the talented Latvian, before breaking at his second opportunity in the third and surviving some tight service games to emerge as the winner. The fact that he managed to fight back from such a deficit was precisely what made his performance in this match – Gulbis has been uncharacteristically excellent lately, his serve is probably one of the best in the game; he took the first set our of sheer brilliance of play, not because Roger was under-performing.

Yet with increased intensity and fierce little ‘Come on!’ barks reminiscent of the 2008 US Open, Roger tightened his screws and brought his A game to the table to snatch the win. Perhaps the memory of the turnaround achieved here in 2009 spurred him on; it’s no doubt that his improving performance in Madrid has been healthy, and the man himself seems to agree; “In all the matches I’ve hit the ball cleanly, serving well. There are no complaints from my side. Even the set I lost today was good.”

The win itself, like seemingly everything good Federer does these days, brought him a little closer to a couple of records. Every point he amasses between now and the 14th of June brings him that little bit closer to surpassing Pete Sampras’ record of total weeks at #1. Also, he now has 208 ATP Masters match wins, one away from all-time record holder Agassi at 209, and if he were to win the title would equal the record for career ATP Masters titles at 17 to share it with Agassi again, and Rafa Nadal, the player who once again awaits in the final should Federer defeat David Ferrer this evening.

Getting to the final is plainly no guarantee. Ferrer reached the semi-final courtesy of a long 7-5, 6-3 match against Andy Murray that finished at 1am local time, and leads the tour on clay this season, with a 27-4 win-loss record. In all the 21 sets across 9 matches they have played against each other, Ferrer has claimed two, one on clay, and the other when they last met on the hard courts of 2009’s Cincinnati, where the Spaniard was the only player in the tournament to steal a set from the Swiss on his way to the title in a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 match.

Taking the head-to-head into account, this looks like a match Federer should be winning. He sounded confident in his press room quotes, and, going by the stereotype, his game is a bad match-up against Ferrer’s, who doesn’t have a particular stand out weapon nor plays with enough variety to trouble the Swiss on a normal day, in theory. But the message we, as tennis fans, have had beaten into us over the last 12 months is still worth remembering – nothing is ever guaranteed.

But if – yes, if – everything goes according to plan, this time tomorrow we will be sitting down to enjoy the latest episode in the classic modern rivalry of men’s tennis, with a Federer/Nadal final. Sit tight, folks. Let’s not jinx it.

Onwards and upwards

“Being Number 1 is what motivates me,” said Rog after his 6-2, 7-6(4) victory over Benjamin Becker, and probably also his most straight-forward win in months.

In two ways, this match was a hopeful sign of rejuvenation. Firstly, Fed’s stats – to those who use stats as an indication of level – stood at W/UE 35/17 – much improved over his match against Montañes at the weekend, where the UE account hit a stratospheric 48. He also faced no break points on serve. Secondly, he managed to recover and take the second set in the tiebreak despite blowing two break points in Becker’s first service game and later two match points at 6-5 up.

Getting to 5-5 in a set and then blowing it all away has been a problem for Roger in best-of-3 matches lately; he currently remains on an 8-match losing streak from having reached this position in the final set, beginning with a match against Karlovic in 2008; and we weren’t the only ones having flashbacks to the Indian Wells match against Baghdatis where Roger blew two match points in the second set before going on to collapse in the third. Said Federer: “When I lost that drop shot at match point, I thought, ‘Oh no, another match I’ll lose 7-5 in the 3rd!'”

Despite all that, there’s no reason to get too excited. Becker is hardly a clay-court god, and Fed often seemed to have problems returning serves to his forehand side, as well as not changing up his tactics in the second set when Becker was so strong on serve. A greater challenge is yet to come in the form of Leonardo Mayer or more likely the Swiss #2, Stanislas Wawrinka, formerly of Team Fedrinka, who notably took out Fed in straight sets in the third round of Monte Carlo last year.

Yet all in all, it certainly is a step in the right direction. It wasn’t a perfect match but it was on the level of many of Federer’s early-round performances. It remains to be seen whether he can continue to raise his level, or whether his rhythm will once again be disrupted with an early loss in Madrid, the last tournament before the big one – the French Open.

No more tarnished records

On reflection it’s rather ironic that I titled my last post The Home Straight. It really was the home straight – literally home, straight back home to Switzerland for Roger after a 6-2, 7-6(5) defeat.

But this post isn’t going to be about that match, analyzing that result. I’m sure there will be plenty of depressing articles floating around within hours, once again proclaiming Federer’s inevitable demise. If that’s what you’re interested in, head on down to Google News. Knock yourselves out.

Also, excuse me if I get a little overly dramatic. I didn’t decide to write this out as an expression of cynicism about what’s going to happen in the future. We’re talking about a guy who’s on a record streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals! The next best current streak is at one.

But the fact of the matter is that whether the genuine decline has already begun, is starting, or is yet to come, there’s going to be a fair bit of, hmm, how to say this – mockery regarding all that Fed has done on the court. I’ve been reading it since he lost – This guy on court today is #1? This guy on court today is the GOAT? and even Time to retire.

To the detractors reading this – I’m not asking for more worship. I’m offering up some perspective. For example, one of the stats that tennis fans could potentially drag out during the good old GOAT debate is match win percentage. Sampras notched up an incredible 77.44%.  Federer is at an even better 80.7%. ‘It’s simple!’ I hear you cry. ‘Roger wins again!’ Yet actually, strange though it is to defend Pete in an article about Roger, I’d have to disagree. Pete is obviously retired; Roger still playing with his biggest slump perhaps still looming. The results that will determine how far that 80% dips down are still yet to come. The man with the greatest win percentage ever, Björn Borg, finished with a 82.46% win record and retired at 26, meaning he never properly experienced a decline and many of his stats have been left superior because of it.

The point I am aiming to make is that later results and slumps and failures should in no way tarnish the records and the achievements of the greats, and therefore I present a little sentimental reminder of all the good things Roger has achieved, in video, picture and quote form.

“Maybe Roger Federer will rescue tennis. He plays like we did in the past.” – Ilie Năstase

“This is the greatest performance I’ve seen by an individual.” – John Lloyd

“What puts Federer ahead is that his game is complete.” – Tim Henman

“In the tiebreak, he goes to a place that I don’t recognize. He finds a gear that other players simply don’t have. He wins 7-1.” – Andre Agassi

“He is the most beautiful player I’ve ever seen and I don’t ever get tired of watching him.” – John McEnroe

“I hope you know how much this means to me.” – Roger Federer

“In an era of specialists, you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist…or you’re Roger Federer.” – Jimmy Connors

“This may well be the best shot you will ever see.”

“We are witnessing history. This is the most dominant athlete on planet earth today.” – Jim Courier

“I don’t quit once I step on court.” – Roger Federer

“We wanted to see Roger make history.” – James Blake

“Federer wouldn’t have been Federer if he hadn’t come back with something amazing.” – Boris Becker


Estoril: The Home Straight

It seems a bit generous to call reaching the semis of Estoril reaching the ‘home straight,’ but despite having only two matches down, with two to go that’s exactly what it is.

Roger defeated the Frenchman Arnaud Clément 7-6(7), 6-2 to advance to the semis. The ATP covered his progression as the continuation of his “quest for perfection,” taking a leaf out of the book of René Stauffer, and barring any upsets, he will probably be lifting the trophy on Sunday.

But back to yesterday’s match. Judging by the first set, it seemed clear that the incredible tennis that won Roger his only title this year, the Australian Open, was still AWOL. Federer “got off to a bad start in the first game, falling to 0-30 then he played a great passing shot,” to get broken to love and then fall into an immediate 2-0 hole.

Yet unlike in the third sets of his recent losses to Berdych and Gulbis, once Roger recovered the break he didn’t go on to lose the set anyway, taking the tiebreak 9-7 after saving one set point.

The second set was much smoother sailing and Federer broke immediately, making use of the drop shots that won him the French Open to take it 6-2 without any major hiccoughs. All in all it seemed a more encouraging performance than against Phau; his first serve percentage, for example, was up from 48 to 60%. His overall verdict was similar to that of the Phau match; “I didn’t play beautiful tennis. I had to play safe, which isn’t something I’m used to doing. I have always struggled against him and today you could see that.”

Next up in the semi-finals is the defending champion, Spain’s Albert Montañés, a consistent player who has most notably been ranked within the Top 100 for all but 20 weeks since 2001. Montañés has played well this week, dropping a mere ten games, and his clay-court prowess makes him a greater threat here than elsewhere on the tour. Federer and Montañés’ last claycourt match was at the 2008 French Open, where Montañés took the first set of a rain-delayed encounter in a tiebreak. As discussed in my tournament preview, he will have the ability to make things difficult, especially if Federer has an off patch like at the start of his match against Clément, and is a tougher opponent than both Clément and Phau, but, lacking in any major weapons, it remains to be seen whether he can pull off the upset.

And what of Federer’s form more generally? Montañés will have even less of a chance if we start to see some sustained improvement from the start of the week. By all accounts he has been practicing extremely well – Peter Bodo reports he was “conspicuously sharp, focused, and in-form” during a three-hour Sunday practice with Sam Querrey, and the fan reports from RF.com (thanks for those guys!) have been even more gushing than usual.

One of the many things Roger has taught us is that he can pace himself and peak at just the right time. Hopefully that’s what we’ll begin to see as we head into two tournaments full of good memories from 2009; Madrid and Roland Garros.

I’ll be doing a preview of Madrid when the draw is out later today. Until then!

Phau falls, Clément awaits

It was Federer’s first clay-court win of the  season, and most would agree that it was later than expected.

Roger notched up a 6-3, 6-4 victory over the #140 ranked Bjorn Phau in the 2nd Round of the Estoril Open and thus has progressed to the Quarter Finals, three victories away from his first title since the Australian Open in January.

Incredible tennis wasn’t required and, admittedly, wasn’t on offer. The final winner/unforced error tally stood at 19/34 and 11/47 for Roger and Phau, respectively. Phau’s errors came in handy when Roger won five points in a row after being down 0-40 on his serve when serving for the first set; the final three being won as a result of errors from the opponent.

Yet as we know rustiness can be shaken off with continued play and such a small tournament is the best possible platform for it. Federer seemed aware from this when he said; “This win was not always beautiful but it doesn’t matter. I’m sure my best tennis is not far away.”

“There is always pressure in the first match, it doesn’t matter who it’s against. The first round in any event is never easy.”

Roger’s next opponent, the Frenchman Arnaud Clément, is likely to offer up more of a challenge. Just like Phau before him, he has enjoyed past victories – three of them, in fact – over the World #1, and just like Phau the last of them was over nine years ago; in the 3rd Round of the 2001 Australian Open as Clément enjoyed a run to the final.

Discounting the two good victories that led him to this point, the 32-year-old has lately been suffering some discouraging results, most recently a straight-set defeat against the World #781 Peter Torebko in the first round of Tunis. Yet Clement is no mental midget, and marked down his 300th career win by moving into the quarters (talking of career wins – Fed is inching closer to his 700th at 692). A former Top 10 player, he is also likely to draw encouragement from his past victories over Roger, however long ago they were, and the notion that his opponent is not yet hitting top form.

Looking ahead, another victory would take Federer into the semis, where he would face the winner of a match between Albert Montañés and Pablo Cuevas. Let’s hope over the next few days we’ll see more headlines, as there were today, proclaiming, ‘Federer finds his clay momentum.’ After the doom and gloom of the last couple of months, it certainly makes for a nice change!

Estoril Preview

Roger heads to the Estoril Open in Portugal next week, a tournament at which he has a perfect record having only played there (and won) once, in 2008.

On paper, going by the entry list, things look like they should be pretty simple. The #8 seed, Pablo Cuevas, has an ATP ranking of #56. The highest ranked player behind Federer is #15 and Indian Wells champion Ivan Ljubicic, returning from an injury. Joining him in the bottom half of the draw is #18 Gael Monfils, also returning from an injury. Following Roger’s recent early losses he will be looking to repair his form and get some wins under his belt and while this looks like the ideal low-key event to allow that to happen, victory is never a given.

The draw was released earlier this afternoon and after a first round bye, Fed will face the winner of a match between a qualifier and #140, Bjorn Phau. His head-to-head against Phau is tied at 1-1 apiece, with Phau having notched up a straight set victory over the 18-year-old Federer in Washington 1999. Roger got his revenge in 2007, dishing out a bagel against him in the R128 on his way to winning the Australian Open title. Phau’s most recent result was a 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal loss to #70 Dudi Sela in the hard-court Athens challenger held earlier this month. All of Roger’s recent losses have been tortuous three-set affairs exhibiting, among other things, mental resilience from the opponent, and it’s undeniable that it seems unlikely that Phau would be the one to mimic them.

A second-round win would catapult Roger into the Quarter-finals where he would face one of Igor Kunitsyn, Arnaud Clement, Alejandro Falla, and #7 seed Juan Ignacio Chela. Assuming Chela makes his way out of that group (he has had decent recent results, most notably a 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Sam Querrey in the Houston final), Federer takes a 4-0 win/loss record into the hypothetical matchup. Discounting one 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 Federer victory in Miami 2003, Chela has never taken more than three games from him in a set – though he’s still capable of an upset, having in the past scored wins over then-#3 Andy Roddick, then-#3 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Lleyton Hewitt.

In the semi-finals, the opponent would be the winner of the second quarter, headlined by #4 seed Albert Montanes and #8 seed Pablo Cuevas. Federer and Cuevas have never played; Cuevas’ favourite surface is clay and his most recent result was a R64 loss in Barcelona to the #112, Ivan Navarro, 6-2 6-4. Montanes has faced Roger as recently as the Australian Open, where he was beaten 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in an unspectacular but routine match. The only set he’s taken was in a tiebreak at Roland Garros 08. Montanes is also a preferred claycourter, and having scored a recent easy win over Marin Cilic (though Cilic is, admittedly, not proficient on the dirt) he has the ability to make things difficult if Federer has an off day.

In the bottom half of the draw, the most obvious contenders to make the final seem to be Ivan Ljubicic and Gael Monfils, both returning to the tour following rib and hand injuries, respectively. #6 seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez has been suffering a crisis of form recently, and #5 seed Florian Mayer’s most recent result was a quick loss to #183 Federico Del Bonis in the final of a Rome challenger. But back to Ljubicic and Monfils – Roger’s combined head-to-head against the pair is 17-3, with those three losses all coming against his good friend Ljubicic, the most recent of which was over seven years ago in Basel. Despite this, Ljubicic was obviously in good form in his Indian Wells victory last month, scoring wins over Djokovic and Nadal. It remains to be seen whether the injury will have had any effect on him and whether he can summon the clay-court form that took him to the the French Open semi-finals in 2006, and go deep in Estoril.

Federer and Monfils last met in the quarters of Roland Garros 09, when Federer defeated him 7-6(6), 6-2, 6-4 in one of the more stress-free matches he played during that tournament. Monfils, like Montanes, won his only set against Federer at Roland Garros 2008, a semi-final match that finished with a 6-2, 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 scoreline and was the Frenchman’s best performance in a slam to date. Despite having proficiency on all surfaces, Monfils has perhaps been most successful on clay, and could certainly be a challenge to a Federer not totally on his game.

Whatever happens, it’s always nice to see Roger playing again, and this tournament should give us a better idea of what sort of results to hope for as we head into two tournaments where he is the defending champion – Madrid, and after that the second slam of the year, Roland Garros.