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.

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.

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!