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Showtime 02/01/2009 - 5:07 AM

Hello all, since I won't be writing a wrap of tonight's final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, I've decided to post some thoughts after each set. Check back here for more as the match progresses.

First Set
First, a little background on the conditions and atmosphere inside Rod Laver Arena. At the start, the air was humid, more so than it has been all week (it was another hot day today). When the players were introduced, Federer received far louder applause, though there has been plenty of cheering for Nadal.

Federer opened the match with a sloppy service game that included a double fault and three bad errors. He then broke Nadal and later broke again for a 4-2 lead. Nadal took five of the last six games to win the set.

My overall impressions so far: Federer isn't serving terribly well. He's also rushing his forehand when he decides to run around his backhand. His backhand, as usual against Nadal, has had more than its share of shanks. He isn't approaching the net that often, and when he has, he's hit some terrible volleys. So far, he's playing far from his best.

Nadal: I thought he looked a step slow in a lot of the rallies; perhaps he's feeling some effects from his five-hour semifinal against Fernando Verdasco (I'm told Nadal went to sleep at 5:40 a.m. after that match). He missed more forehands in that set that I would normally expect to see him miss. He also served poorly. His backhand has served him quite well so far: a few outright winners and more forces. All in all, he was fortunate to win the set with mediocre play (he did pick up the pace in the last few games).

That's all for now. I'll be back with more a bit later.

Second Set
The mood swings continue here inside Rod Laver Arena. Nadal saved a break point early in the set with an ace and then leveled the score at 2-2. He immediately broke Federer, but his play declined from there while Federer, for the first time tonight, began to play like Federer. He won the last four games to take the set.

Impressions of Federer: He hasn't missed a forehand in a while and just won a set while serving 37 percent on his first serve. He has to be pleased. His backhand was much better that set: improved accuracy, more pace, better angles.

Nadal: He was talking to himself after letting that 3-2 lead go to waste. He's not getting many free points on his serve and still looks a smidgen slow to me. The backhand remains a thing of beauty tonight (though he had a few errors late in that set). His forehand isn't quite right so far. Very good (it always is) but he has hit too many careless shots (I'm blaming footwork, at least so far). Nadal is working a lot harder out here than Federer (a.k.a. Mr. Effortless). Not surprising, but I'm not convinced Nadal can continue to grind like this and win the match. He has fooled me before, but he has a long road ahead of him tonight.

I'll be back with more in a bit.

Third Set
A stunning turn of events in this set. Nadal, who has received treatment on his right thigh, struggled to hold serve the entire set while Federer held easily. At 4-4, Nadal escaped a 0-40 deficit (two of those points were on second serves). At 5-5, he walked the wire again, this time recovering from 15-40 (he saved a third break point in the game, too).

Impressions of Federer: He had this set. He missed a few chances to control break points with his forehand and wasn't aggressive enough when he had a chance to seize the advantage. Federer won the opening point of the tiebreaker, but immediately shanked a forehand. He missed another forehand (this one a wild one, wide right) to fall behind 4-3. He still isn't making enough first serves. On the plus side, I can't imagine that Federer can play better defense than this. He continues to make Nadal work and to track down balls from corners far and wide. Can he step up the offense, especially his serve? We'll see.

Nadal: The entire third set, I kept telling myself, no one can play this close to the edge and win a match. The man is a marvel. Once the tiebreaker rolled around, Nadal didn't miss. At 5-3, he played his finest point of the match, blasting a crosscourt backhand, working his way to the net and then dropping a soft backhand volley, from a full stretch, just over the net for a winner. He has to feel lucky to be in the lead here. Does he have enough energy to close out the match?

Fourth Set
Federer makes the most of his chances this set. A few crisp forehands on important points, better serves, and also a lot of resolve (he broke to open the set, lost his serve, and then broke again). This match is in his hands: He's controlling most points and serving better. The match is almost four hours old. If Nadal can last this set and win it, it might be his greatest achievement yet.

Fifth Set
Rafael Nadal, improbably, amazingly, is the Australian Open champion. Of the five Federer-Nadal matches that have lasted five sets, this was the worst fifth set performance by Federer. I thought he looked fairly fresh when the set began, and he won the fourth set with little trouble. By the middle of the set, though, his serve had lost power and accuracy, his forehand had less acceleration, and his backhand went astray. Was he fatigued physically? Mentally? Both? Nadal showed surprising energy down the stretch.

Nadal's victory raises the inevitable question: Can Federer be considered the greatest player of his generation now that one man has beaten him in a major final on all three surfaces, and in less than a year at that? It's a remarkable accomplishment for Nadal, and a blow for the now teary-eyed Federer.

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High Stakes 01/31/2009 - 8:45 AM

Super Bowl? If an 9-7 team is playing in your sport's ultimate event, you can't call it super, never mind with a capital "S." (Apologies to readers from Arizona, and best of luck.) What we have in store for us in Melbourne tomorrow night, though, ought to be truly spectacular: Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal in their first major final on a hard court and 19th meeting overall. Call it Super Bowl XIX. Here is what's at stake. (And if you want to read some fine coverage of the women's final, a.k.a., "Serena's Melbourne Massacre: Revenge of the Champ," check out Abby Lorge here.)Fednadal

No matter what Roger Federer does the rest of his career, he deserves a place among the game's all-time greats. Is Rod Laver--by virtue of his two Grand Slams--better? Or perhaps Bjorn Borg should wear the crown, simply for executing the French Open-Wimbledon double, the most difficult turn in the sport, three consecutive years? I'll admit that after three years of this back and forth, I've begun to tire of the argument. If Federer ties Pete Sampras' record of 14 major titles or beats it, he's the greatest (as long as you're willing to accept that just as strong an argument might be made for Laver). If Federer does this by beating his rival in the process, all the better. The danger here is if he loses. In terms of history, there is more on the line in this match for Federer than Nadal, who has beaten Federer four consecutive times and 12 out of 18. Federer usually rises to the occasion, and this final is one of the biggest of his career.

No. 1
Nadal will retain the No. 1 ranking at the end of this tournament, no matter the outcome. If he wins tomorrow, though, he'll have a firm grip on the top spot (his ranking points lead will exceed 3,000). If he loses, Federer would have the last two majors to his name and seem likely to return the top spot before the season ends (he has few points to defend leading up to the French Open).

Federer and Nadal have the best rivalry in sports at the moment, and because of them the sport is more relevant to casual fans than it has been in years. In all but one of their meetings at majors, they have produced a compelling contest. Last year's Wimbledon final woke up the world; this is a chance to grab attention again and do a lot of good for the sport.

Trivia, and Thank You
Do you think the Federer-Nadal rivalry is the best in tennis history? Maybe this trivia question will help you decide:

Which rivals played the most times in the final of a tournament?
A. Andre Agassi v. Pete Sampras
B. Ivan Lendl v. John McEnroe
C. Ivan Lendl v. Boris Becker
D. Boris Becker v. Stefan Edberg

I promise answers in a follow-up post, but I can't promise when that post will appear. As of tomorrow, I'm on full-time magazine duty, trying my best to recap what has been a wonderful tournament (and if I'm lucky, explain what it all means). I'll return with thoughts on the Federer-Nadal final, either tomorrow, or once I return to New York (on Monday). Thanks for stopping by these past two weeks and check back tomorrow. I'll be here if time permits.

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Wide Ball 01/30/2009 - 11:09 AM

Nadalverdasco "What happened to serve and volley?" It's one of the most tired complaints in tennis, and one that I dearly hope will never be uttered again after last night's Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, this year's Aussie surprise.

For five hours and 14 minutes--an Australian Open record--Nadal and Verdasco not only played the best match of this tournament, they preached--loudly, boldly and repeatedly--the virtues of the modern baseline game. No ball is safe, no matter where it lands. What happens when Nadal crushes a forehand that bounces 15 feet outside the baseline? Verdasco returns it, with interest, down the line for a winner. When Verdasco smashes an overhead at Nadal's ankles? Nadal flicks his wrist, waits, and then whips a dipping forehand pass (Verdasco had to smile at his friend after that one, and Nadal smiled back). When, at deuce late in the second set, Verdasco hits a sidespin slice that curls into the doubles alley? Nadal, on the run, curls a forehand down the line, sliding to a stop and pumping his fist. Set point.

Has a tennis court ever been so wide as it is in the modern game? It's no wonder you can't approach the net consistently these days. Oftentimes, the only approach shot good enough is one that goes for a winner anyway, or near so.

Even when Nadal and Verdasco engaged in long rallies, they weren't rallies in the traditional sense of the word. Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander used to rally. These guys murder--absolutely murder--the ball, unless they're in such bad position that they must slice (the backhand slices of both men were low and biting all night long), loop, or apply more spin to angle the ball so absurdly that it seems to come in sideways. From defense to offense and back again they went, relentlessly running each other from one doubles alley to the other. All night long, it took several shots that might ordinarily go for winners to win a point (as Verdasco put it, "With Rafa, you need to win the point three times, more than with all the others"). The scrambling and remarkable defense from both men often defied belief. One Spanish reporter, seated behind me, said after one of Nadal's galloping, sliding, arm-twisting, wrist-snapping forehand winners (right on the line, of course), "Rafa's going to explode." That was in the second set.

Speaking of winners, Verdasco hit 95 of them, a remarkable sum against anyone, never mind against Nadal. Nadal hit 52 and--brace yourself--committed just 25 unforced errors to Verdasco's 76. Yes, 25 errors over five sets and five hours. He absorbed blow after blow, ace after ace, from a man playing far and away the best tennis of his life. He withstood an assault in the fourth-set tiebreaker (Verdasco, playing at full throttle, claimed the first six points) and survived another 54 minutes of tense tennis, as the backhand and forehand winners flew off Verdasco's racquet.

Finally, after many hours of beating back break points (he saved 16 of 20 for the match) Verdasco cracked. He double faulted to give Nadal a 0-40 lead in the final game. Nadal, overcome by emotion and drained from having concentrated so intently for so long, said he began to cry. The tension was too much. Two points later, Verdasco double faulted again. It was the only sour note in a match of the finest quality. Nadal fell to his back, reminiscent of the Wimbledon final.

"For sure I will have this match in my mind all my life," Verdasco said.

Nadal has now played in six of the best matches of the last decade--two in Rome, against Guillermo Coria and then Roger Federer, one in Monte Carlo against Federer, two at Wimbledon against Federer, and this semifinal against Verdasco--and won all but one of them. On Sunday, he has a chance for one more miracle, a victory that would deny Federer from making history by tying Pete Sampras' record of 14 major titles.

Nadal, speaking in Spanish, said he would like to see Federer win his 14th major--just as long as it doesn't happen against him on Sunday. Could he possibly have enough energy to win the title? If we were talking about anyone else, I would say no. Nadal, amazingly, just might.

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Old Times 01/29/2009 - 8:27 AM

What might Andy Roddick's career look like if Roger Federer did not exist? Roddick, competitive soul that he is, has said before that if given the choice, he would much prefer playing in the Federer Era than any other. Without Federer, Roddick might well have two Wimbledon titles and one Australian Open to go along with his one U.S. Open victory in 2003. He might have spent a year or two, rather than a few months, at No. 1 in the world. He might not have had to explain--thousands upon thousands of times--why Federer wins almost every time they meet, no matter how many times Roddick approaches the net or how much weight he loses, no matter who sits in his box or in the umpire's chair.Roddickfed

"The thing about Roger is you can know where to go, and you can still come out on the bad end of it sometimes," Roddick said. "That part is a little bit frustrating at times."

This was the calm Roddick speaking, the one who had cooled off after another two hours and seven minutes of banging his head against the human wall who has single-handedly reduced his place in tennis history. Without Federer, Roddick might be an all-time great. Because of Federer, he isn't.

Earlier, Roddick had lashed out at Enric Molina, who had a tough night in the umpire's chair--"Have some sack, dude," Roddick screamed after a contentious ruling. He dropped the f-bomb, apologized, and then rescinded his apology when Molina issued a warning. He also mocked a linesman whose vision was less than 20-20 on one of Federer's 16 aces (Roddick stared and waved, as if to test the man's eyes). Now, though, he spoke softly and carefully as reporters gathered for his press conference. In truth, Roddick took this defeat--No. 16 out of 18 against the living legend--better than anyone could have expected.

"Overall, it was an okay match," Roddick said. "He just beat me. It's plain and simple."

It is simple, and Federer explained why, in one sentence. Against Roddick, he said, the plan is, "Get the return back, and then let's see what you can create." Federer doesn't hit many winners off his return of serve, but he puts more returns in play than any player I've ever seen. Even against Roddick's heaters, Federer stands up close to the baseline and, on second serves, sometimes inside it. Roddick served well tonight and only produced eight aces (Federer usually hits more aces than Roddick when they meet; last night, he hit twice as many). Federer, no doubt, has the quickest hands in tennis. He also sees the ball quite well at night, a talent that Roddick said could play a role in the final on Sunday.

Roddick is simultaneously one of the luckiest--not many of us earn millions smacking a ball around in the sun--and unluckiest athletes on earth. It's the rare tennis player who can say he began his career when the sport's all-time great champion, Pete Sampras, was on his way out (Sampras beat Roddick at the 2002 U.S. Open, his last major title) and then play alongside a perhaps greater great, a man who may tie Sampras' record of 14 major titles at this tournament and surpass it later in the year. Remember, at the beginning of 2004, Federer and Roddick had the same number of major titles to their names. Unfortunately, it might just be Roddick's lot in life to never win a second one.

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The Yips 01/29/2009 - 3:25 AM

I feel for Elena Dementieva. She's one of the fittest women on the tour, trains quite hard, and hits forehands and backhands as well as anyone in the women's game. She's also, by all accounts and impressions, a sweet person (no diva, this Dementieva). Sadly, the svelte Russian is afflicted with a disease known to club players as the yips.Serenasemi

For a while, the yips can go into remission, and its unfortunate carrier might well win a few tournaments, or even an Olympic gold medal. Sometimes a player can go so long without an episode that observers--even seasoned ones--might begin to believe that, miracle of miracles, the player has been cured.

And then suddenly, said player--in this case, our dear, dear Dementieva--steps up for her seventh major semifinal and a chance at her first major final in more than four years and--bang!--the yips are back. And nothing--nothing--can be done about it. After a hard-fought first set against Serena Williams, Dementieva double faulted eight times in the second set, including three times when she served with a 3-1 lead (she was broken), once at 3-3 (also broken), and two more times at 4-4 (broken again). A few of these doubles were doozies (the ball landed three to 10 feet outside the service box). Sitting in the cool air-conditioning inside Rod Laver Arena, I found myself--after every fault--tempted to look away as Dementieva readied herself for a second serve. When someone has such a severe case of the yips, it feels impolite to look at them.

Take away Dementieva's serving woes and this, for the most part, was a high-level semifinal. The baseline rallies were long, powerful and loud, with both players screaming at higher decibels with each stroke. Dementieva was much steadier from the baseline overall, even though she let loose a few of her trademark squeals after unusually awful errors. Williams, of course, served beautifully, as she always seems to do in the latter rounds of the majors. I was struck by something else in her game, though, something that ought to give Dinara Safina a lot of grief in the final: newfound zip on her running forehand. Only when Williams is at her very best does she hit the ball well on the run. Against Dementieva, she hit numerous crosscourt forehands from wide positions, including one that set up an easy backhand for a break of serve at 4-4 in the second set. Williams then spun back toward her box, screamed "C'mon!" and took a seat in her chair before serving out the match, which ended with a thunderous overhead, 6-3, 6-4.

In the second semifinal, Safina--much to everyone's surprise--rather routinely dismissed Vera Zvonareva in straight sets, 6-3, 7-6(4). This match had only a whiff of the comic drama we've come to expect from an afternoon with Safina (she surrendered a 5-4 lead in the second set and fell behind by a break of serve before recovering). Safina impressed with her continued aggression (no pushing today) and her range at the baseline. She may not be the fastest woman on tour, but height is an underrated defensive weapon. It's tough to put a ball out of this woman's reach.

If Safina can control her nerves--an yes, that "if" is large enough that one could see it resting on Safina's shoulders from outer space--we have the makings of a strong final, especially if Williams loses control of her backhand for long stretches, as she did in the second set today. Williams and Safina are two of the most striking athletes in the field, Williams with her powerful legs and large biceps, Safina with her long limbs and broad shoulders. As we've seen so often at this tournament and in history, though, the muscle between a player's ears matters the most. Williams has the best competitive mind in the business, so strong that I doubt Safina--even a Safina who plays free and easy--can overcome it.

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Forehand Madness 01/28/2009 - 6:45 AM

Rafael Nadal def. Gilles Simon, 6-2, 7-5, 7-5Nadalsimon_2
Rafael Nadal started fast and closed strong against Gilles Simon, the wiry and talented Frenchman. In the middle of the match, Nadal reverted to his old hard court ways: Too much spin, not enough pace. He regained his form quickly, though, and ran Simon off the court in the final few games. Simon had a lot to do with the dip in Natal's play. Rather than wilt on a big stage, as Juan Martin Del Potro did last night, Simon went for more and made fewer mistakes. He's a wonderful talent who ought to reach the latter rounds of majors many times in the future.

Nadal has been impressive in every way this week, but two things stand out. First, he's serving a lot better (better placement, more power, and better use of the slice serve in the ad court). Second, his forehand placement is, well, absurdly accurate. I've never seen a player who can manipulate a tennis ball so precisely and cleanly, swing after swing. When Nadal lines up for a down-the-line winner--the most risky groundstroke in tennis--you just know that he won't miss it. Has that shot ever been so easy for any other player? The man can hit lines at will. Two more victories and Nadal tightens his already firm grip on sport.

Fernando Verdasco def. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-3, 6-2
Fernando Verdasco rather likes the role of spoiler. The hard-hitting lefty followed up his defeat of pre-tournament favorite Andy Murray by knocking out last year's surprise finalist, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Verdasco played a bend-don't-break match, denying Tsonga on 11 of 13 break points. Verdasco will be the heavy underdog against Nadal, who has beaten his Davis Cup teammate in all six of their meetings (he has lost one set).

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Wet Bulb Globe 01/28/2009 - 5:46 AM

Serena Williams says she likes playing in the heat. Let's give her the benefit of the doubt, but it seems she likes playing indoors even more. After a sloppy first set in 100-degree temperatures, Williams found her serve, sharpened her forehand and defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova, 5-7, 7-5, 6-1. Kuznetsova couldn't serve out the match at 5-4 in the second set (she missed a routine forehand volley on break point).Serenakuz

Williams acknowledged that the decision to close the roof (which afforded each player a 20-minute rest) helped her.

"It was really an outer-body experience," Williams said. "I felt I was watching someone play in a blue dress, and it wasn't me, because it was so hot out there."

It wasn't just the heat that troubled Williams. On one side of the court, the sun made serving difficult. In the first set, she won 40 percent of the points on her first serve. In the next two sets, she won 86 percent and 85 percent.

Kuznetsova said she was angry about the tournament's decision.

"Closing the roof middle of the match, I don't get it," Kuznetsova said. "Serena was tough. She's playing great. I give her credit. But I don't get this rule."

In all her years on the tour, Williams has served well no matter her conditioning (when she won this title two years ago, her serve carried her most of the way). So far this tournament, her serve has been maddeningly inconsistent, so much so that she screamed the f-word during her fourth-round match. The roof changed everything, and if Williams remains confident in her serve the rest of the tournament, it's going to take an incredible performance to stop her from taking the title. Elena Dementieva, who will meet Williams in the semifinals, probably has the best chance of showing Williams the door.

A few thoughts on the roof policy. Had this match been played in 2007, the roof would have remained open for the entire match (back then, the rule required a match to be completed under the same conditions present at the start). In a press conference on Wednesday, tournament director Craig Tiley and tournament referee Wayne McKewen explained that the rule was changed last year with input from players.

So I don't bore you to death, I'll quickly describe how tournament officials decide whether it's too hot to play outdoors. They use what's called a "Wet Bulb Globe" measure, which incorporates temperature and humidity (warning: it doesn't involve soaking light bulbs in water, so please don't try that at home). When that meteorological measure reaches a certain point, the tournament closes the roof at the end of a set (and cancels outdoor play).

The rule may change again next year, Tiley said. My view? I'd hate to be in the position of the tournament referee on a day like today. Still, I'd much rather have seen the rest of the Williams-Kuznetsova match played with the roof open. It's not as if the temperature went up another 15 degrees from when the match had started. Kuznetsova had good reason to be angry.

One final thought on today's women's action: I can't wait to see more of Carla Saurez Navarro, especially in Paris. She's a dynamic player with great speed, a pretty backhand, and a forehand that, to my mind, is a bigger weapon. She has soft hands at net, too. Is she too small to take her game to the next level? The Justine Henin fan in me says no.

Want to know what Serena would have done had she lost? Abby Lorge explains that and more.

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Your Answers 01/28/2009 - 2:07 AM

Answers Hot day in Melbourne, where officials have closed the roof over Rod Laver Arena (a controversial decision) and suspended play on the outside courts. I'll be back with more on the day's events later on. For now, here are answers to five of your questions. Thanks for stopping by.

Is it easier to see the lines on a two-tone blue court (as opposed to a green/blue contrast, for example)?
My impression is the lines stand out on either court, and I've heard no complaints from players. Peter Bodo complained about the all-blue courts in a post earlier this week, and I agree that on television, the color scheme doesn't work. In person, though, I don't mind it.

Do players read the press reports on matches or avoid them in an effort to prevent any kind of stress?
At the risk of stating the obvious, every player is different. Andy Roddick seems to read the sports pages; earlier this week I saw Vera Zvonareva reading the interview transcripts of fellow players (she told me she was bored and that it's not a habit). I usually suspect that a good number of players who claim to ignore media coverage actual read quite a bit (they seem to know what people are saying about them, despite professing ignorance). Others, I'm sure, couldn't care less.

Is there any possibility that the Australian Open will be moved on the calendar?
I say slim to none. Right now, it coincides with the summer vacation and a holiday weekend (Australia Day). I'm also told by locals that if you push the tournament back a week or two, you actually risk hotter temperatures. I don't see it happening.

I've noticed more women using one-handed backhands lately. Maybe it's just chance, but I hope I'm wrong. Is a new trend coming?
My guess: This is apparent because the Spaniards have had a strong tournament. I don't see a trend. If anything, I would expect two-handed backhands to become even more dominant. Kids are learning to play at younger ages, and it's difficult to control a one-hander as a child.

Can you tell me how it's decided who gets to call the coin toss? Is it simply at the umpire's discretion? Also, how is it decided where the players sit? I know some of them have preferred sides, but what happens if two opponents want the same side?
Love the question: Something we don't often think about (and I didn't know the answer). According to folks at the International Tennis Federation, the choice of chair is first come, first serve. I have no idea whether players talk about it beforehand or whether the lower seed instinctively defers to the higher seed. As for the coin toss, the umpire just asks one of the players to call heads or tails (in other words, the choice is random). No matter what, each player has 50-50 odds, so it doesn't matter who gets to call the coin.

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High Stakes
Wide Ball
Old Times
The Yips
Forehand Madness
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