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Late Night Massacre 01/20/2009 - 7:56 AM

Nadal It's a beautiful Melbourne evening: A light breeze, dry air (which feels almost like fall air after the 105-degree high of this afternoon) and lots of happy Aussies inside Rod Laver Arena. It's one big party in here--a party at the expense of Christophe Rochus, the small Belgian with miserable luck who must lose to Rafael Nadal tonight. First-round matches in majors often lack suspense, especially when the top seed plays a part. But so far, this one is more than a drubbing. It's like watching a man being fed to a lion, except I have a wireless connection and a very comfortable seat (I imagine the Romans would have enjoyed such amenities).

Nadal continues to stroke winners from every corner of the court (boom! There goes another backhand, this one over the outside net post and into the corner) as poor Rochus looks on in amazement. Nadal claimed the first eight games of the match before Rochus recovered some dignity. Then the Spaniard closed the second set with three consecutive aces. For my money, he has the best forehand in the game, and perhaps the best backhand, too (I refer you to last year's Wimbledon final, in which Nadal hit both the finest slice backhand passing shot and the most remarkable two-handed cross-court bomb I've ever seen). Now he can serve, too?

An opponent like Rochus, of course, doesn't tell us much about the form of the world No. 1. Nadal could win this match in straight sets on a very bad night. But if you're looking for positive signs, well, there are many. Nadal is serving for the corners and hitting those corners. He's standing close to the baseline during (rather brief) rallies. He's stepping into his returns and moving forward whenever he gets the chance. The question, as always, is whether he'll be able to do that when the competition stiffens.

No matter how well he plays and how many titles he wins, Nadal still doesn't inspire as much confidence on hard courts as he does on clay and grass. This isn't surprising, but perhaps for different reasons, I suspect, than most observers suggest. The book on Nadal is that he often plays too defensively on hard courts (and hits the ball too short), and that he doesn't serve well enough. I don't think that's true these days, as his gold medal run at the Beijing Olympics showed. Nadal plays more aggressively each year, no matter the surface and his game is perfect for hard courts. It just happens to be more perfect for clay and grass. The chief reason? On cement, to my mind, Nadal's superior hand-eye coordination becomes less of an advantage. (Match update: Nadal spins, runs hard to the baseline, and loops a topspin lob winner. The lion roars again.)

How often do you see Nadal mishit the ball or hit an outright shank? Considering how hard he swings, and how much spin he applies with an extreme western grip, not too often. That's the case on clay and grass, too, where the bounces are unpredictable. In the rain, in the dark (the Wimbledon final), in the blinding sun, on clay, on grass--it doesn't matter. For everyone else, it does, or at least, it matters more than it does for Nadal. I can't help but think that his Uncle Toni, who made a point of teaching the young Nadal to deal with shoddy courts and conditions, has a lot to do with his nephew's impeccable timing, no matter what the ball does after it bounces. (Forehand winner down the line; Nadal to serve for the match.)

Hard courts, of course, give the truest bounces in the business. On hard surfaces, Nadal's supreme spin, so effective (and so unpredictable once it crashes into clay or a worn down patch of grass) becomes more predictable. His drop shot, which is underrated, becomes less of a weapon, too.

These are subtle difference, but important ones--differences that define wins and losses against opponents like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. It's not the whole story of Nadal's failure to win a major on a hard court, but it is part of it, and part that is too little discussed.

That said, I fully expect Nadal to win a hard court major or two, and perhaps this one (we'll know more about his chances later in the week, especially if he meets someone like Fernando Gonzalez, the slugger who demolished Nadal here in 2007, when Nadal's offensive skills weren't nearly as developed).

A final update: Nadal detonates another winner to bring on match point, followed by another forehand blast to end this bloody affair, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2. One hour and 17 minutes and one Belgian carcass later, I'm through for the night. By the look of things, Nadal has many nights to go.


52 Comments

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Posted by Alexis 01/20/2009 at 04:47 PM

How did Rafa even lose a game to Rochus?? LOL. Nah, just kidding. Obviously for Rafa, this was like playing a high-schooler. No way to really gauge where Rafa's game truly is. Both Rafa and Andy Murray got easy early-round draws. Don't expect to see either guy tested until at least the 4th round. We'll see if that turns out to be good news or bad news.

Posted by Alexis 01/20/2009 at 04:50 PM

"how come its a massacre when Nadal beats a journeyman 6-0 6-2 6-2 but not when Roddick does the exact same?"
___________

LOL! Good point. And Federer had to play a guy who just missed being seeded, and according to the British press, his straight-sets victory was 'unconvincing'. You just have to laugh at all this crap.

Posted by Live for Tennis 01/20/2009 at 05:31 PM

Federer did have a tougher opponent compared to Nadal.

However, Nadal's shots were OUTSTANDING! Throughout the match, he blasted the ball with precision and speed (esp. on the forehand side). Mentally, he seems intense and focused.

The only complaint I have is that I wish he would have worn a sleeveless shirt! Such awesome eye-candy! VAMOS RAFA!

Posted by Tom P 01/20/2009 at 05:52 PM

Nice discussion going here -- thanks for the comments. A few things from me as I eat my breakfast:

Racquets: Yes, racquets have changed the game. No denying it. But the players--and what they learned from previous generations, not to mention their increased size and strength--are mostly responsible for the look of modern tennis. I've had this discussion with physics experts and pros for years, and I have no doubt that people put too much emphasis on equipment. It helps, but racquets don't swing themselves.

The size of racquet faces: Nice comment on that from Hallelujah. Still, I've talked to several physics types (yes, actual scientists) who say that once you get beyond 95 on a frame, it doesn't make much difference for spin, at least, since the ball doesn't stay on the racquet that long. Just figured I would add this.

Amit, I agree, there are others who compare to Nadal on the backhand side. But not on the forehand. I've never seen a shot like it--it's otherworldly. No doubt in my mind it's the best shot in tennis.

Posted by bluesunflower 01/20/2009 at 05:59 PM

I feel jealous to all you guys who have managed to watch Rafa's match. Here in the UK they ve repeated Andy's match in full on BBCiplayer and eurosport and parts of Hewitt's understandable and but alas for me no Rafael except in the news. De's looking delicious though! so its great to read all your comments. Vamos

Posted by bluesunflower 01/20/2009 at 06:25 PM

having a blonde moment or evening in this case! There IS a replay I can watch on the interactive service!

Posted by Nick 01/20/2009 at 06:25 PM

Amit:

Sweetheart, lighten up. Federer played far from the caliber he suggested we'd see when his petty trashing of Murray's favoritism for this event took place. Old Roger actually had to save 2 Set Points in the 2nd Set. The way he talked before the tournament you'd have thought he'd have beaten Seppi as badly as Nadal beat down poor Christophe Rochus. Federer made public statements questioning whether anyone but he or Nadal should be favored, then has to save points to keep from playing a 4th Set in his first round. How embarrassed would he have been to be in a 4th Set in Round One of a tournament he thought he should be favored for?

Federer has a history of being a little mouthy when results don't go his way. Remember all the stuff he used to hurl in Nadal's direction up until 2007? He'd say Rafael was being coached from the stands, and that Nadal was just a "one-dimensional player". All of which was supposed to cold water Roger's mounting losses to Rafael. Now it's Murray who's Federer's New Thorn, having lost to him 4 straight times.

It's true that Federer's accomplishments are heady stuff. And he'll likely improve off the ugly match (and he'll have to if he wants to win here). But he got a little bit of the comeuppance he deserved for very mildly trashing Murray. Just gotta love it, at least a little :)

Posted by quackie 01/20/2009 at 06:27 PM

"The size of racquet faces: Nice comment on that from Hallelujah. Still, I've talked to several physics types (yes, actual scientists) who say that once you get beyond 95 on a frame, it doesn't make much difference for spin, at least, since the ball doesn't stay on the racquet that long"

very interesting! thank you tom!

Posted by † Hallelujah 01/20/2009 at 07:56 PM

Gah, I need some AO on my TV

Posted by Amit 01/20/2009 at 08:01 PM

Nick,

Hmm. Just so we are on the same page -

1) Federer beating Seppi, ranked 35th in the world, in 4 sets would be deeply embarrassing for Federer.

2) Going to 4 sets with Seppi would automatically diminish Federer's claim that he/Nadal/Djokovic should be favorites.

To provide a parallel - Sampras (ranked 17) made similar comments before USO'02. His 3rd rounder with Rusedski (ranked 33) was a 5 setter involving 3 TB sets. He ended up winning the tournament and was not embarrassed by that 5-setter in the 3rd round.

Posted by Denzel 01/20/2009 at 08:08 PM

What everyone didn't really hear about is that Nadal has once again tweeked his game! 10 ACES! Maybe Rochus is injured, but Nadal doesn't hit very many aces. Also, rumor has it that he's worked on his forehand just for hardcourts; not as much loop on it!

Posted by nick 01/20/2009 at 08:42 PM

This going to be nadal year hands down. WOW he owned that guy. Ace or not nadal has game.

Posted by Nick 01/20/2009 at 08:47 PM

Amit:

Your Sampras paralell falls short on validity and substance. By the 2002 US Open you speak about, Sampras had gone over 2 years and 33 tournaments without a title of any kind - not even the smallest tournament. That's far from where Federer stands today as World #2 and reigning US Open Titleholder. Yeah - it'd be a lot more embarassing for Federer now for a multitude of reasons, mostly because Sampras never made any such public claims that he could win that 2002 US Open, or even that he should be considered a favorite, or make any kind of noise about who should NOT be favored. He kept his mouth shut. As Sampras himself has said subsequently: he never thought he could actually win it until he was in the Semi Finals and faced Sjeng Schalken.

Further, you misunderstand what I did say regarding Federer's pre tournament comments. The emphasis really was on Federer's proclamation that he thought it strange Murray was made THE favorite. Why that should be odd to Federer is beyond me. Murray had won two titles in the prior 4 months, had beaten him 4 straight times, all on hard courts. So for Federer to express his bewilderment of Murray's staus as favorite for the Australian Open is a lame attempt at grandstanding by Federer, who knows all to well that Murray pretty much has his number now having won 5 of their 7 career meetings.

The real point is that Federer played that match with Seppi as erratically and inexplicably poorly as someone who has a lot of self doubts. On the court, his error-prone play was completely opposite of the bravado that we heard in his pre tournament editorializing.

Posted by Tom P 01/20/2009 at 08:48 PM

Twist Serve, I like your point and I do think it's related. More of his opponents feel comfortable.

Posted by Amit 01/20/2009 at 10:04 PM

Nick,

Sampras did not keep his mouth shut. That is precisely my point. He did make pre-open comments in 2002 about knowing how to win in New York etc...none of it I would consider grandstanding. It is a legitimate recognition of one's own strengths and skills.

I don't get the embarrassing part - why would losing a set to world number 35 (not the match, A set) be embarrassing to anyone? I can quite imagine Seppi taking a set from any of the top 4, but not winning a 5 set match. Isn't winning the match what it's all about? Even when Federer was in his surreal TMF mode, he did lose sets to people, just not the match.

Federer's comment about Murray was very specific. Nadal is the reigning #1, Djokovic the winner here and TMC, Fed himself won the last HC grand slam. Nalbandian beat Fed and Nadal convincingly in late 07 as well. Was he proclaimed the favorite at the Australian ? What is the criteria that makes Murray the ONLY favorite at Australia this year?

If you go by pre-tournament history, Fed had no business winning USO'08. Between July and August of last year, he had lost 4 out of preceding 7 singles matches. As Federer said, Grand Slam is a different beast. I assume he would know. Till Murray wins one, he is not the favorite to win one in Roger's opinion. Why do you think the Williams sisters are perpetually favored to win any slam they enter?

Why is making this statement grandstanding ? Federer has been extremely complementary of Murray's tennis skills, to the point of saying he was surprised Murray 'arrived' after Djokovic. I guess he committed the sin of not saying what a large fraction of the media wanted him desperately to say.

Playing a first round match poorly is hardly an indicator of how things will pan out later in the tournament. I thought most players just want to win the early rounds with a minimum of fuss.

Federer's match with Seppi, from the second set onwards, was an issue of his 1st serve disappearing and 2nd serve falling well short of the usual. His 1st serve dropped from 73% to 43% in the second set. The topic (and a possible back injury) has been beaten to death in various fora (from Abu Dhabi to Doha to here), so I won't go into it. Will wait and see if his serve (and serving posture/back arch) improves. It has little to do with self doubt per se. Typically, players with a lot of self-doubt
don't save break points repeatedly.

You think the only way to substantiate his "bravado" is by playing 7 matches without error ? That'd imply this is more a matter of schadenfreude than anything else.

Posted by Heidie 01/20/2009 at 10:14 PM

yadda, yadda, yadda. Come on guys!! I'm bored to read how you guys trash the exquisite performance of Young Boy Wonder. At least we know one thing for sure... he no longer is a "wonder". Ask the mighty Fed.

Look, who cares who his opponent was? The truth is you gotta look at the statistics, his performance and his confidence. The past two years Rafa was out performed by Fernando Gonzalez and the Tsonga guy. What did they do afterwards? Besides Fernando at Beijing (and we all know how Rafa took care of that) and Tsonga at the year end Madrid, they both had lucky tournaments. They performed well and it was "there" tournament. Nothing more, nothing less.

Besides being No. 2 for three consecutive years and a recent No. 1 (ooops.... who did he take over? No more that The Mighty Fed). Come on guys! Give credit, where credit is deserved.

BTW, I may be a Rafa Fan, but all this talking also makes you understand and admire the condition, technical ability and performance of Roger Federer. Lets look at this. Fed dominated for 4 years. No injury, no excuses, all performance. Even Rafa has trouble come year end.. His body can't take it, so also, lets give credit where credit is deserved.

We can all talk about Murray when he finally wins one, in the meantime, he only has a couple of ATP trophies. Djokovic? He only has one GS and he is even verbal about not being able to handle the pressure. For those of us who play, we know that it is not only in th physical condition or our ability... much of this game is our psychological and emotional performance when the tough gets going.

Vamos Rafa!!!!

Posted by federerfan 01/20/2009 at 10:20 PM

Although I disagree with the thought that going 4 would somehow embarass the fed or disqualify him from being the fav, I too felt that fed could have done better to keep his mouth shut pre-tournament and after he actually won the GS, take up the press at the conference and tell them to shut the hell up in future.
I dont care if you are God, you dont go around saying you are the man, even if you ARE the man.

Posted by federerfan 01/20/2009 at 10:27 PM

and to be fair to murray, i had a kinda mild shock yesterday when ESPN flashed a graphic saying, what the ATP ranking pts were post wimby todate, murray in #1 with over 5K pts, djoker second about a 1000 pts less than murray and rafa #3 and fed #4 another 800pts down with about 50 pts between them.
Majors may be a different animal but they guy did get to the last GS final, so he needs to go one better, not like he needs to figure out the right end of the racquet in a GS.

Posted by felizjulianidad 01/20/2009 at 11:30 PM

Until there really is proof otherwise, Nalbandian has the biggest backhand in the ATP. Nothing else even comes close; that backhand can topple just about anyone.

That said, I'm all for Nadal on this one. He didn't look particularly good in Doha, but let's see him build up some confidence. My hope is for Nadal to have an Agassi-like career. If he manages to win one of the hardcourt GS tourneys, it isn't far-fetched to imagine a career Golden Slam, although I doubt he will break a total tally of 10.

Posted by scineram 01/20/2009 at 11:35 PM

Since when is Gonzo a claycourter?

Posted by James Gang 01/20/2009 at 11:35 PM

Of course he can. He's gonna beat these scrubs like a bad sack of potatoes.

Posted by jetsetter 01/21/2009 at 12:50 AM

Happy to watch Australian Open First gram of the year,, by the way, to0 early to judge which or who will be the champion.. All of them are well prepared, looks fits and ready to hit the ball. Lets wait till quarter final, then maybe we can guess our bet...May the best man win....Goodluck to you guys...

Posted by Amit 01/21/2009 at 12:58 AM

Federerfan,

Well, our mileage varies on this. Fed claiming that he is the only favorite at AO would be more ego than substance. He didn't do that. Simply expressed surprise that the British press (that level-headed organism) had Murray as the overwhelming (and ONLY) favorite while Nadal, Fed and Djokovic were sort of there too.

The Guardian has assumed Murray is the champion, with Nadal a minor inconvenience along the way. All this, while a 3 time champion and the current champion are playing the tournament. I think that's a bit much. Fed might've thought so too. He articulated it when the entire British press was salivating for him to anoint Murray the champion already. Hence the hoopla.

Is Murray capable of winning this AO? Most definitely. Is it a certainty modulo a random upset? By no means. I can see any of the other 3 take him down in a hard fought match. Nadal at USO was a spent force; he isn't here.

Felizjulianidad,

On Nalbandian's backhand, I am with you. It is a lethal and beautiful shot. I would put Murray in the same category, but find Nalby's shotmaking more elegant.

Posted by luke the duke 01/21/2009 at 12:59 AM

Nick,

1. Federer had no need to play his best. he's saving his energy for big fish, as rafa should be doing, but isn't.
2. I have nothing against murray, but federer has a point. MURRAY'S NEVER WON A SLAM! he not the defending champion, or finalist, or even semifinalist for that matter! Exhibition play, big whoop! no pressure, easy! he had pressure in the u.s. open, couldn't hack with tmf. murray is the heir apparent to future champion, no question. BUT DON'T PASS THE CROWN UNTIL HE'S WON 3 MAJORS IN A CALENDAR YEAR, LIKE FED, OR WIN ONE CONEISTENTLY, LIKE NADAL!!!!!!
And don't act like fed is dead because of one match! no one gets on nadal's case when he looks sloppy, and believe me he has looked sloppy! even in his best year ever! last year, he lost to davydenko in indian wells last year, and he looked SLOPPY!!!! anyone can win it,and murray and nadal have great shots at winning this title. BUT, only one of them can go to the finals....

Posted by Mike 01/21/2009 at 03:54 AM

Nadal is the best. The only sloppy thing I see about all this fugly read is the fed fans. Breaking news fed look slow.

Nadal is going to win all the grandslams. So that would make it 9 >_< .

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