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Headlights and Shadows 01/27/2009 - 9:06 AM

Good evening from Melbourne, where a heat wave is on the horizon. Temperatures will reach into the 100s the rest of the week and are bound to affect the remaining day matches. (You think Fernando Verdasco wants to play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with the roof closed? I don't.)Federerpotro

Will Serena handle the heat and the volatile Svetlana Kuznetsova? Can Carla Suarez Navarro, the tiny Spaniard who upset Venus Williams, stand her ground against Elena Dementieva's rugged baseline game? Can Gilles Simon, the clever Frenchman, set a trap for Rafael Nadal? We'll learn that and more later today. Until then, here are my observations from Tuesday of week two at the Australian Open.

Big Talent, Bad, Bad Night
Can Juan Martin "Deer in the Headlights" Del Potro become a great player? Many people believe so, and I want to agree with them. Two years ago, when the Argentine had a string of retirements and poor showings, I wondered whether he had the resolve to compete on the game's biggest stages. Last year, the 20-year-old erased many doubts by winning four titles and becoming the youngest man to finish inside the Top 10. The doubts returned last night in Melbourne.

Del Potro played an absolute stinker of a quarterfinal. Yes, Roger Federer was in form--by far and away his best form of the tournament--but it takes two to produce a 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 score in a men's quarterfinal. Federer rattled off the final 13 games of the match as a sulking Del Potro retreated from the challenge.

Del Potro showed poise when he defeated Marin Cilic in the fourth round (he lost the first set before winning the next three). Clearly, though, he wasn't prepared to play Federer under the lights in a major tournament. We'll see over the next few months how much this hurts him.

Federer was fabulous. He drilled forehands, dinked drop volleys, served aces, and generally made the 6-foot-6 Del Potro seem like a boy of 12 years old. I can't help but wonder if Andy Roddick's victory over Novak Djokovic earlier in the day gave Federer an added burst of energy. He likes playing Roddick--they have a good relationship, whereas his rivalry with Djokovic is a bit more strained--and holds a 15-2 record against the American. Right now, the tennis world is just as Federer wants it. The Big Four is no more; instead, Federer and Nadal are on top, and everyone else lags miles behind. Are we on track for our first Federer-Nadal final at a hard court major?

Fast and Fit
Make no mistake, this was Andy Roddick's most important victory at a major tournament in quite some time. Since he won the U.S. Open in 2003, Roddick has played in two Wimbledon finals and one U.S. Open final, losing to Federer on all three occasions. In all those years, though, he has never beaten a Top 5 player at a major.

We all know what people say about the best-laid plans. Well, Roddick and his coach, Larry Stefanki, are not listening. So far, their approach to the Australian Open has been perfect: Lose weight, run fast, withstand the heat, serve big, and watch your opponents wilt.

Djokovic, who retired with cramps early in the fourth set, was at a disadvantage in this match. After his Sunday evening contest against Marcos Baghdatis, Djokovic went to bed at 5:30 a.m. He didn't practice on Monday; he also requested a night match on Tuesday, but the request was denied (not surprising considering Federer's popularity here--he belonged on prime time television). Still, the long night isn't the only reason for Djokovic's loss. He had to adjust to a new racquet and he also started his pre-season preparation a bit late. Djokovic didn't seem quite as fit, or composed, this year as last year. Credit to Roddick for exposing those weaknesses.

Me, Myself, and I
Dinara Safina did it again: She beat her opponent--the remarkable Jelena Dokic--and narrowly escaped defeating herself. Dokic's run to the quarterfinals has been the highlight of the tournament. She has overcome depression, ended her relationship with her temperamental father, and regained the form that once took her to No. 4 in the rankings. Here's hoping her good fortune continues.

If Dokic is the most inspiring woman in the draw, Safina is the most entertaining. One minute, she clubs four deadly winners, launches three aces, and belts a few swinging volleys. The next she smashes a racquet, draws a code violation for foul language, double faults four times in the decisive game of a set, and spikes a ball as hard as she can. How is it that this long, lean, gifted athlete can do no wrong for long stretches and then, at a moment's notice, become incapable of tying her own shoes? I asked Safina if she is her own worst enemy.

"Most of the time it's me against myself playing," she said, smiling. "You know, I play against me, my shadow, myself, everything against me. If one day I will play only against [my] opponent, this will be the perfect day."

Sign of the Apocalypse
I'm not trying to stir up trouble here, but I just can't resist a little speculation. What if Serena Williams falters in the heat, or if Svetlana Kuznetsova plays way over her head on Wednesday afternoon? I don't give Kuznetsova much chance, but if she does win, we might well have four Russians in the semifinals. And not just any four Russians, but Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Kuznetsova, and Vera Zvonareva, who crushed Marion Bartoli on Tuesday. Yes, that's right, these are the four Russians most incapable of winning big matches at majors, the ones most susceptible to dramatic collapses and mind-blowing defeats. Kuznetsova is the only member of the group who has won a major, and she did it with a lot of help from Dementieva, who couldn't cope with the pressure of the U.S. Open final. If it happens, what we lose in quality tennis we'll make up for in fine theater.


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Posted by Mark 01/27/2009 at 09:24 AM

I really like your realistic point of view. The AO turned into a Gladiator's battle, just to meet the profit, money making demands. Talent turned out to be irrelevant for winning. Makes you think why would you want to be part of these big events? It also does not send a positive message to the future young tennis generation!

Posted by Mark 01/27/2009 at 09:30 AM

I like your realistic point of view! The AO turned into a Gladiator's fight not a tennis tournament. Poor organization and what a way to inspire young generations to get into this beautiful sport knowing they have to meet the demands of the profit making machine as oppose to playing tennis. Talent is irrelevant when playing tennis it is endurance that counts and being able to put up with all the politics. What a shame!

Posted by John 01/27/2009 at 09:46 AM

Well I am really sad to see Del Potro going out like this. But still he is young and has a long way to go. In a match like this against someone as great Roger Federer, he can learn a thing or two from the maestro.

No arguments from my end. Federer was a mile ahead from Del Potro and as they say "The Numbers Don't Lie". Well done Fedex.

Perhaps you may wanna share your view of the game. I would love to hear them.

Posted by Heidie 01/27/2009 at 09:48 AM

Djokovic, retiring again? I mean, OK the weather could be a burden on anyone, but retiring again when he's down. It reminded me when Justin Henine retired in the final against Amelie Mauresmo not allowing her to savor the victory.

it seems that Nole doesn't want to give anyone the satisfaction of whippin' his rear end. He'd rather walk out than having to chew up to the fact that ARod is a different player this year and that he never expected to lose at the hands of the American.

Azarenka was sick a couple of weeks ago and had to retire from a tournament, Jie Zheng had her wrist bad, Monfils probably didn't prepare well for the tournament and his body took a toll, but Nole? He never gave us signs of fatigue, or sickness or anything else? Probably he was sick and never mentioned it... then again, probably his sickness is quitting in defeat.

Posted by ava 01/27/2009 at 09:52 AM

I agree that Federer only likes Nadal as his main competition. He really seems to be indifferent to the Djokovics and Murrays. I don't know why?? Maybe because Nadal has been much more respectful to him than the others?? Or Nadal has earned his respect after his consistent performances against Federer?
Whatever the reason, I don't think Fed likes Murray or Djokovic.

Brilliant match against Del Potro though.

Posted by michale 01/27/2009 at 10:03 AM

sissyboy Djokerfish can't have it his way...quits

Posted by twist serve 01/27/2009 at 10:09 AM

If Federer is anywhere near top form it's nearly impossible to see a Roddick victory.

I'm now more interested in the other half of the draw. It could be interesting watching Nadal play Simon and then possibly Tsonga. Simon beat Nadal from a set down in Madrid by extending the rallies. That must have said something about Simon's willingness to battle. And Tsonga, of course, has no confidence deficit against Nadal. He beat Nadal easily at the tournament last year, but he also came within a hair of beating Nadal the next time they played.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say Nadal doesn't make it to the final if he has to play Simon and Tsonga back to back.

Posted by ac90 01/27/2009 at 10:34 AM

I really like your realistic point of view. The AO turned into a Gladiator's battle, just to meet the profit, money making demands. Talent turned out to be irrelevant for winning. Makes you think why would you want to be part of these big events? It also does not send a positive message to the future young tennis generation!

Posted by Mark 01/27/2009 @ 9:24 AM

This is incredulous. Why is fitness not used as a barometer to judge "talent"? It doesn't matter how well you can hit a ball if you're too tired or lazy to get to it. In fact, I'd say fitness is one of the main things that separates the very top players from everyone below them. Take, for example, federer and nadal: why is it so hard to win 3 sets off them? It's because they force you to play at your highest level for all of them and their level does not drop no matter how long the match lasts or how hot it is. Berdych match was a classic example. Watch any of Nadal's 5 set wins and you'll see the same thing. There's a reason Federer trains in Dubai during the summer and puts in so much work on his conditioning. It's precisely for these types of days and matches.

Give Roddick the credit he is due for his play in this match. Sure it's less entertainment value to see Djokovic retire, but sport isn't about entertainment for the competitor. It's about winning. Any young person wanting to play tennis competitively SHOULD watch this match and realize that if his fitness is deficient, he should make it a priority to correct this deficiency.

Posted by Dean 01/27/2009 at 10:39 AM

I have to admit, this is the first time I've enjoyed watching Roddick's game. It's been one dimensional in the past. Against Djokovic he moved with great fluidity, had penetrating shots from both wings, returned well and didn't rely only on his serve.

Posted by CL 01/27/2009 at 10:49 AM

Hey Tom - if you are dropping to read comments: Is there ANY way you could get to the on air or off air people at ESPN and give them a giant Razzberry? Their coverage is execrable ...BEYOND execrable. They cut away from exciting matches to interview people who won earlier. They ran a tape of Serena being interviewed about her screen play in the middle of a match!!! An important match. They seem to have no faith that the actual game of tennis is worth watching. PLEASE talk to them.. Tell them to check ESPN's comment mail box. They will find comments from all over the USA about how dreadful and on some level insulting.... to the fans and to the sport... their coverage has been.


Posted by Diwakar 01/27/2009 at 10:57 AM

I tend to agree with twist serve....Though I would like to see a Fed/Nadal final, it seems far away. Nadal's improved serve could be the key. Can he like Fed, Murray and Djoker get more free points using his serve, apart from being consistent that he has always been???

Posted by gpt 01/27/2009 at 12:06 PM

omfg i love the bit about the four russians. i'm totally pulling for kuznetsova now.

Posted by sophie 01/27/2009 at 12:20 PM

I agree that Federer only likes Nadal as his main competition. He really seems to be indifferent to the Djokovics and Murrays. I don't know why?? Maybe because Nadal has been much more respectful to him than the others?? Or Nadal has earned his respect after his consistent performances against Federer?

I think the reason is a mixture of the two points that you suggest, but it is mainly the latter. Rafa has been up there alongside him, consistently proving that he deserves to be there for years now. I think Federer has a lot of respect for him and they obviously have quite a bond, even though they are rivals.

"I'm gonna go out on a limb and say Nadal doesn't make it to the final if he has to play Simon and Tsonga back to back."

I'll be shocked if that is the case. Nadal is playing out of his mind right now and on a completely different level to the form he had in his last meetings with these players. I think Rafa is on a mission here and although I respect everyone left in the draw, I'll be stunned if he doesn't make that final.

Posted by Believer 01/27/2009 at 12:23 PM

ac90 nailed it above. Grand Slam tennis is all about fitness and stamina and winning 3 out of the 5 sets. That is why you always see real champions winning those titles. There is a reason why its called majors. Its tough to take 3 out of 5 sets from either Federer or Nadal. (if they are healthy).

Posted by Sharon 01/27/2009 at 12:53 PM

Novak is dissapointing me, he has such a promising career but if he keeps retiring than he will never live up to his potential. Andy played very well though, his new coach is defentely an improvement, but I doubt Andy will beat Roger. After watching Del Potro demolished on the court, it's safe to say that Roger is at his best. I am really hoping for a Nadal-Federer final. On the woman's side I'd love a Dementieva-Safina final, that would be perfect.

Posted by 01/27/2009 at 01:10 PM

Another retirenment from djoko. Roger against murray last year at shangai he was dying but he didn't give up there you go he rather say my oponnent won thanks yo me instead of say I wasn't good enough

Posted by carlo 01/27/2009 at 02:03 PM

the top 4 players have an alternate day and night schedule. roger had his 4th round during the day so he has a night schedule on the qtr. nole had his night schedule on the 4th round so its only fair to have him during the day. there was no favoritism.

Posted by Mark 2 01/27/2009 at 02:25 PM

The Serbs went bust this tournament. Good luck to Jo-Willy tonight. I like his celebratory dance after winning matches!

It's time for Serena to bring out the goods and show the Russians who belongs on top.

Posted by rose 01/27/2009 at 03:01 PM

hello everyone

am happy i saw the line that says that federer likes the tennis world the way it is no big four i never liked the idea of the big four jus rafa en fed lookin down @ the rest am crossing my fingers for the nxt chapter of the fed/rafa major finals!

Posted by late night tennis fan 01/27/2009 at 03:22 PM

Novak is certainly a study in contrasts -- glowering and baring his teeth and bragging, or running off with not a bit of fight in him! I'm not a huge fan of Roddick's rather one dimensional game, but I rooted for him all the way yesterday. At least Roddick gives his all and now that he is fitter, it's a great thing to watch! How could the ESPN commentators call it a "brave effort" on Nole's part? He didn't look ill enough to not finish his match. Who was it they fined for poor effort not so long ago? Novak deserves one of those! No, my dear Novak, the king is not dead. There are kings and princes around you, but you are not one of them!

Posted by Alex 01/27/2009 at 03:25 PM

We will see how well Nadal does. Lets be honest, all of those who said he plaid great and is on a mission.... who did he play so far? The only guy who actually was ranked in the top 30 or 40 was Gonzo who was too tired to fight Nadal after his long match.

To me, Nadal has not proven much this year and at this tournament. Unlike Roger who except the Russian had to play top 30 players. And Seppi is no walkover either. If anything Roger showed today how willing and fit he is.

I doubt that Nadal will make it to the finals and if he is to meet Roger he will get blown away, such is the determination of Roger now to make it a 14th.

The problem really with Nadal's game is that he just runs and returns. He does it good and the game is suited for clay or even grass but when you see Rogers games then you can easily see why he barely breaks a sweat. It would be interesting to see how many times Nadal hits a ball during a match compared to Roger. That must be at least twice the number and with that goes the milage on his knees. I doubt that with that game he will make it another 2 years before something breaks down.

That's the beauty of Rogers game. You only hear the other guys running and he goes for it when he has the chance. Tonight was a great demonstration. I am sure Potro has given Roger hundred bucks in the locker... for the lesson on tennis he received today.

Posted by ivan 01/27/2009 at 03:43 PM

Having watched the quarterfinal matches with Djokovic & Roddick, Federer & Del Potro I've got to say a few things. First and foremost the temperatures on the court were 61c at one point during the Djokovic and Roddick match. This temperature is fatal! Not every person feels the same in the extreme heat just like we're not all good at all the sports. I'd rather see Djokovic retire than collapse on the court like Azarenka (29-30c, but with a viral sickness) almost did against Serena Williams. This needs no further explanation, especially if you've actually watch the matches before commenting.
As for Federer and Del Potro match, it was good to see Federer come back this year with full force. I can't wait to see the match with Roddick and Federer.


Posted by Paige 01/27/2009 at 03:53 PM

Go Verdasco! Go Dementieva!

Posted by Stev137 01/27/2009 at 04:15 PM

Get off Djoko's back. I live in Melbourne and It was very hot on court in the direct sunlight (>50 C). He just had heat stress and that is all it was. They should have used the roof. Perhaps he is less physically strong but he has good points to make here. It was too hot to play and he risked damage if he continued. Matches should not start at 10 PM. Scheduling and weather should not decide the winner rather than tennis ability. The real culprit is Australian Tennis Channel 7 who put ratings ahead of common sense and the AO officials for their silly policies. The players may stop coming like they did in the late 70s and early 80s if they continue this way.
Good luck to Roddick he played very well. He will need to keep it up now and he does not know how much it really took out of him till next match.
If Nadal and Verdasco meet it will be a great match in the semi.

Posted by 01/27/2009 at 04:24 PM

I checked the weather in Melbourne in the middle of the Djok-Rodd match and wunderground reported 95degrees, hot, but not 61c hot. That thermometer(the 61c one) must've been baking in the sun.

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