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.