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Burn Baby, Burn! 05/19/2009 - 1:39 PM

Rog by Pete Bodo

Okay, I understand that it's not all about me, all the time. But I need to write a little about me to put this whole Roger/Rafa rivalry thing in perspective. My boy Luke, who's six, was invited to a birthday party starting at 10:30 on last Sunday morning, I knew that if I took him, I'd miss the live coverage of the Madrid Masters, but I figured I could catch the highlights later. One disadvantage of my job is that any Sunday is, at least in theory, a work day for me. I've had to learn not to feel guilty about taking Sunday off.

Anyway. I took Luke to the birthday party, but not long after noon I found myself wondering how things were going in Madrid. Nadal was the favorite, of course, but in a recent post for ESPN I speculated that Madrid might present Federer with an interesting window of opportunity. Just how off-base would I end up looking? So I punched up the browser on my Blackberry and, after much navigating, I learned that Federer had won the first set, and they were even halfway thorough the second.

Interesting, I thought, wonder if he can make it hold up.

By the time we left the party and made our way home it was around 3 pm. I got right on the computer at the apartment and checked the final score. My immediate reaction upon seeing that Federer had won  was: Wow, must have been something to see. . .

Now, I've basically spent my entire adult match watching and writing about tennis matches. At this point, it takes an awful lot to make me feel like I might really have missed something, and even more to make me go out of my way at an inconvenient time to watch a tennis match. In my world, there's always another match, another player, another controversy, another icon; the down-side of a sport that rewards a player so handsomely and immediately is that the here and now quickly becomes the there and then. Meanwhile, the game inevitably coughs up the next big thing.  Think you missed a "must see" or "once in a lifetime" event?  Just wait a week for the next one.

Yet I found myself thinking, I've got to see this match. . .   And it wasn't just because I knew I'd have to write about it here.

So that's how I ended up watching Tennis Channel at 2 am on Monday morning, with a bag of chips in my lap and a cold beer. The network was re-broadcasting the Madrid final starting at 1:30 am, so I dutifully set the alarm. I bolted out of bed at 1:20 and flicked on the tube. The fact that I already knew the outcome meant nothing at all. And that's the greatest endorsement of this rivalry that I can offer: It can get you out of bed in the middle of the night, even if you already know the outcome. This Federer vs. Nadal thing is special. Even to a jaundiced eye.

It's entirely possible that one day we'll all look back on this match -  Federer against Nadal, fighting it out in the dirt inside the Magic Box, 2009 - as a career-defining moment. It could  go on to be the most critical victory of Federer's career. For Federer has introduced a big question mark in the Roland Garros narrative, and revived the idea that he may yet win the clay-court major.

if Federer wins at Roland Garros - whether his final-round victim is Nadal or someone else - Madrid will stand as the turning point: the moment when Roger Federer finally got some wind behind his sails and floated free of the shoals of self-doubt and a self-protective embrace of disappointment. We all know just how much that Roland Garros title means in the big picture; the French Open championship match could have a more profound impact on tennis history than any other major final.

A Federer win in Paris would also represent an impressive act of courage and will, for one of the more compelling (and, for Federer fans, agonizing) aspects of the Swiss champion's hunt for the game's golden fleece is that fate threw him a curve ball so wicked that even the most perverse spoilsport couldn't have dreamed it up. Fate didn't give Federer a couple of good players to beat, the way it did Pete Sampras, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, and others. It gave him one exceptional one - a nemesis who is especially able on the clay surface that deducts the most from Federer's game.

This challenge has been, and continues to be, as difficult as it must be unnerving. Just think about it - wouldn't Federer's life be a lot easier if he'd lost a final to a Safin here, a Hewitt there, a Roddick somewhere else? The guy hasn't lost a Grand Slam final to anyone but Rafael Nadal, to whom he's lost five. What's a genius supposed to do when someone out there can taunt, Who's your Daddy?

This state of affairs has to be as irritating as it is unusual, as demoralizing as it is unambiguous. But on Sunday, Federer shook his head to clear the cobwebs, looked around at the landscape, took a deep breath and played just the kind of match he needed against the guy who made him forget how good he truly is. Oh, I know Nadal was tired and curiously passive, I saw him fail to reach shots that are usually fodder for his topspin cannon. But that doesn't really matter - do you think it mattered to Federer? Do you think it mattered to Nadal? You all heard what he said:  . .If I'm tired it's because I played longer than I should have yesterday. . .

Translation: It's my own danged fault that I had a semi-final war.

Let's look at Federer's accomplishment on the two fronts that most count, the strategic and the tactical. On the strategic front,  Madrid could not have ended up on the ATP calendar at a better time for Federer. Given Federer's age (27), experience, and record, it's safe to say that playing the Euro-clay events was important to Federer in only one respect: the degree to which it might help him win at Roland Garros. He had little to gain by knocking himself out in the run-up events, and even that little could be negated if Nadal managed to rack up a few more Ws at The Mighty Fed's expense in the process.

Federer needed just two things out of this clay-court season: to experiment with whatever new tactics he could think up, and to get adequately comfortable to playing on red dirt under competitive conditions. That means one or two events, preferably without meeting Nadal, for it's far more important for Federer to make Nadal wonder what he's thinking than the other way around. The demise of the Hamburg tournament and the addition of Madrid was a great logistical development for Federer, even though he notched up his last win on clay over Nadal (in 2007)  at the event Madrid replaced, Hamburg.

The combination of altitude and surface speed at Madrid helped Federer a lot more than it did Nadal, who had reservations about the way the altitude would affect his preparation for the French Open, and who made it a point note that the red clay in Madrid was, at least in relative terms, extremely "fast." Looking back, I now believe that Federer probably only played Monte Carlo in order to remain in the good graces of a key sponsor, Rolex (he lost to Stan Wawrinka and seemed not too upset about it). That means he budgeted two tournaments as a run-up to Paris: Rome and Madrid. Although TMF lost to Novak Djokovic in the Rome semis, he got the matches he wanted, on a surface well-suited to his game (until Madrid, Rome was thought to have the fastest clay). He got the same - and more - in Madrid.

So, while Madrid posed an unwelcome complication for Nadal, it was a boon for Federer, enabling him to accomplish three important objectives: He tuned up his clay-court game under ideal conditions for building his confidence; he got the competitive preparation he needed and, as an unexpected bonus, he beat his rival, on his rival's home turf, to plant what doubts or fears he could in Nadal's mind. It's funny, isn't it, what a significant change a tweaking of the calendar can represent.

Strategically, Federer is in better shape going into Roland Garros than he has been since the year he took out Nadal in Hamburg. And while the clay in Paris isn't apt to be as slow as ever (slower than Rome or Madrid), Federer will be playing on it with greater confidence  - especially if the weather is hot and dry, as is sometimes the case.

The other facet of Federer's win in Madrid was the tactical - the specific things he did to beat Nadal. First off, he played with a confidence we haven't seen in some time. At the start of the match,  while the strains of Disco Inferno still echoed in the Caja Magica, (Did they really play that cheesy number  to warm up the crowd? What next, Ion Tiriac doing the frug?), Federer looked grim and distracted, the way he has so often in the past year or so. While it's nice to know that even The Mighty Fed sometimes hates to go to work, the furrowed brow and tight lips don't exactly convey or inspire confidence in what he's about to do. But by the time he hit that marvelous forehand drop shot and held comfortably for 2-all, it was clear that things might go a little differently this time.

Ultimately, Federer's win rested on a few critical and mostly subtle changes in his game, and his approach to what might be called "the Nadal Problem." Federer seemed for the first time in ages to want to attack - to take the game to Nadal and pressure him. He played right on the baseline or even inside it, looking to take Nadal's ball on the rise (Nadal mostly played from a good six or seven feet behind the baseline). Although Federer rarely took his aggressive posture to the serve-and-volley or chip-and-charge realm, he served and volleyed some, and even chipped and charged a bit.

Mostly, though, he seemed to be looking for the short ball to jump on, and Nadal obliged him. Federer's ability to attack was a function of court speed and his position on the court, but it was also a sign of confidence. Federer has always been a little reluctant to engage in problem-solving, and it's partly because doing so undermines the sense that he's a spectacular natural talent whose every move is inherently and casually elegant. But inside the magic box, he was willing to get down and dirty.

Rafa Federer also showed more variety and deception than he has in the past. He used the drop shot sagaciously, and he came up with a new solution to the ongoing problem of finding himself pinned in his own backhand corner - that was the forehand, hit down his own backhand line (inside-in?) after Nadal had already started his sprint toward his own forehand corner in anticipation of the devastating Federer inside-out shot.

This time, Federer also handled Nadal's lefty serve better, even though Nadal managed an 80 per cent first-serve conversion percentage. One of the elements that has always hurt Federer in his matches with Nadal is the Federer has never been an aggressive returner; he likes to get the ball back in play, because he knows he can take control of and dictate the terms of a rally. That's not good enough against Nadal, who will seize on any opportunity to take control of the rally, starting with his opponent's return.

Still, it was Federer's serve, not his return, that played the biggest role in the victory. Although his first-serve conversion percentage was a solid if unremarkable 63 per cent, his second serve had sting and penetration, and so much spin that one ad-court delivery pulled Nadal so far off the court that he disappeared from my screen. Mainly, Federer served with authority, and the threat that he might attack behind any serve had to be a constant source of concern for Nadal. Federer attacked the net 18 times, and won 10 of those points. That may not sound like a great statistic, but it doesn't take into account the overall effect his willingness to attack had on Nadal's comfort and shot selection. As Mike Estep once told his then-protege Martina Navratilova, "If you're not getting passed 25, 30 times, you're not coming in enough."

When you combine all these elements, you end up with a textured, nuanced game distinguished by an exquisitely controlled aggression - the only kind of aggression that might be effective against as formidable a marksman as Nadal. All along, Federer has been insisting that he doesn't need to make any major changes in order to beat Nadal, and on Sunday he showed exactly what he meant by that.

Whether he can duplicate the feat against Nadal at Roland Garros is an entirely different question, and one it would be importunate to ask unless the meeting became imminent. For different reasons, the big challenge for both men will be fighting through the field to get at each other.

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Posted by Tim (2009 Year of Red Rogie!) 05/20/2009 at 11:02 PM

lets face it clay was dull until Fed beat Del Po, and then the final, which turned the script on its head, FOR ONCE!

if Delpo had gained the final and lost to Nadal, the tennis world would be ASLEEP, lets face it...

Posted by Corrie (not Carrie or Cory) 05/20/2009 at 11:20 PM

Pompous, arrogant Roger, with an ego so big he needs a truck to carry it around (a Mercedes truck of course) and humble, noble, sporting Rafa, with a collection of tics and time wasting devices also carted around, but in a humble Toyota, actually seem to regard each other as quite nice, pleasant buddies.

Posted by Russ (Was Rafa really tired?) 05/21/2009 at 01:01 AM

I have arrived to help with the arrest and incarceration of Mr. Zemek for the crime of treason.

But hey, maybe if Rafa would bounce around a little less and stop sprinting around the court doing suicides before matches and on changeovers, he might have had enough energy to beat the Fed? I mean, clearly-- the *only* reason Fed won was because Rafa was so completely tired and exhaused. The due was on fumes. Even Bjorn Phau would have beaten him.

Which begs the question... should he have been fined for not putting forth his best effort? I mean, here's the #1 player in the word on his favourite service getting smoked in straight sets by a dude that he owns. Unable to convert a single break point. Unable to save a single break point. In Madrid. I smell a rata.

Posted by gillian richards 05/21/2009 at 03:03 AM

When Roger won Rafa in Hamburg 2 years ago- everyone was saying Roger will win Roland Garros it did not happen.Don't forget RAfa this year has won 3 out of 4 clay tournaments & was a finalist in the event(MADRID)he did not really want to play in.
We will see what happens in Paris- I am sure Rafa will be up fior this.
Roger will be confident however Rafa has lost one match on clay this year- you would have thought froim the correspondence he had lost every match on clay

Posted by Kofi 05/21/2009 at 03:51 AM

I think Madrid is faster because it is higher above sea level so the atmospheric pressure is lower ('thin air') and the ball gets less friction with the air, as well as less effect (in-air trajectory bending) due to spin (e.g. Nadal's topspin), so the players say that "the balls fly" and find them difficult to control between the lines. Besides the surface in Madrid is new and it seems it is a bit harder than other clay courts, which makes the bounce more similar to that of hard courts.
In Hamburg I think the main difference is that the bounce is low, which is good for Federer's comfort hit zone and for Nadal not to punish him so much with high topspinned balls, specially to his backhand.
This is basically what I understand, but someone may correct me.

Posted by Rosangel 05/21/2009 at 06:14 AM

Perhaps people predicted it because they knew (even though they didn't want to know) that there was a nugget of truth in there, Tim?

Hey, a win is a win...the circumstances of every win aren't the same.

I'll take Andy Murray's view over Tracy Austin's on whether Rafa was likely to be tired, any day of the week....

But the real point most people are making is that, given the circumstances of the win, it may not mean much in Paris.

Posted by . 05/21/2009 at 08:33 AM


Posted by Nam1 05/21/2009 at 10:29 AM

Tim, perform yes, which Rafa did, not necssarily win.

Not all Rafa fans chalk up his loss to tiredness.

Fed won fair and square in Madrid, just like Rafa won fair and square in FO, 2008, Wimby 2008 and AO 2009.

I saw plenty of Fed fans making excuses for those losses.
(mono, back, light, etc , etc...)

BTW,I think you are hilarious although in my opinion, you do support the wrong player!!

Posted by Ken 05/21/2009 at 12:00 PM

overblown analysis. the win was not that big of deal as it's made to be here. bodo is a fed sycophant and panders to fed fanatics, who lap it up. nearly EVERY article or blog he writes is fed-centric. yet the semi-final was a way better match by objective standards. most of federer's "tactics" djokovic had already employed in all his matches with nadal this season - down the line shots, drop-shots, etc. nadal was tired in the final and this matters. no matter what people want to believe. now suddenly the "master" fed is going to win roland garros? did anyone here SEE lasts year's final? 6-3. 6-1. 6-0. need i say more?

Posted by Maplesugar at work 05/21/2009 at 12:37 PM

Ken, I wish Pete pandered to Fed KADS (but then he wouldn't be Pete!). Truth is, he does not worship at our Fed's altar at all, and I always read his pieces with trepidation in anticipation of him hurting my feelings.

Go, Fed! The REAL #1. (Sorry...I was channeling Serena just then.) Rafa is the real #1.

Posted by Samantha Elin(supporter of al things Scandinavian) 05/21/2009 at 12:46 PM

Go Tim, keep the Fedbear haters in line.

Posted by Crazy-for-Rog 05/21/2009 at 12:59 PM

Rosangel@1:15PM: "I do hope that was meant to be funny, Tigress. Because it certainly made me smile."

It made you smile? Why? Because Federer is clearly a foul-mouthed, sore loser, and an arrogant jerk, who has no integrity in the way he plays the sport? And dear humble Rafa is such a role model, refusing to ever accept that he is the favorite, taking his time between points (seeing them clock Rafa before he was ready to serve, on TV, was really funny!), clocking in at 38 seconds before he hits his serve, making his opponents wait at the net (this time Fed said - "not playing your game this time, buddy"), making his opponents wait an additional 10 minutes before they head out of the locker room, making sure to say "no excuses" after the match, since all his excuses have been made before the match - "For sure I'm not 100%, I cannot lie, no? I'm not my best physically after this match, but for sure - I try my best tomorrow, no?"

Posted by Sherlock 05/21/2009 at 01:33 PM

Yowsee. Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. :)

Posted by olive 05/21/2009 at 02:29 PM

thank you kofi!

i finally understand the difference between these the madrid and hamburg clay court surfaces and how it effects play. i really appreciate your explanation.

but can you or anyone else explain the difference between the madrid clay court surface and the australian open hard court surface. how is it that the australian open surface favors nadal's game but the madrid clay court surface doesn't? or put another way. how is it that the madrid clay court surface favors federer's game and the australian open surface doesn't necessarily?

Posted by Tigress 05/21/2009 at 02:36 PM

Crazy-for-Rog at 12:59:

Word!! You should re-post this on a more active thread where everyone can see it. TV should run a timer on every point Rafa serves, with a bright red light when he passes 25 seconds, Bright orange at 30, Maroon at 35, and a bright purple light with a buzzer at 40 seconds.

Posted by Rosangel 05/21/2009 at 03:04 PM

Crazy-for-Rog: I'm not even going to bother to reply to your putting words into my mouth. You're getting defensive over nothing.

The only thing I will say is that Tigress isn't generally considered the local arbiter on who should teach whom good manners.

I have always said that if enough people are bothered by it, it would be a very good thing if the rule on time between points was enforced - but I frame it as an enforcement issue. Players would soon adjust if they knew that points would be docked.

Posted by Tim (2009 Year of Red Rogie and Free Reeshard!) 05/21/2009 at 03:33 PM

Russ, what's the fate of Mr. Zemek? Dont let Federbear go all DIck Cheney on him, ok? I'm sure with some encouragement, he will change his ways soon enough :)

Posted by Tim (2009 Year of Red Rogie and Free Reeshard!) 05/21/2009 at 04:06 PM

Ros, nugget of truth? id call it more a built in excuse that rides on Rafa's reputation for being 'worn out' 'tired' 'run down' and all of the rest of it we've heard over the years...

odd considering no other player seems to get those built in excuses, and certainly would never use them!

did Roddick use it as an excuse after his 20-18 fifth set win in Oz? if anyone had the chance it was him, and he gamely showed up to fight in the semis and no one took away the effort of his SF conquerer as quickly as they take these wins from Fed...

Posted by Crazy-for-Rog 05/21/2009 at 06:48 PM

Tim, the current world number one has lost the most matches due to sheer exhaustion, more than any other world number one I can every remember. Let's run down the list of Rafa losses that came with an asterisk for the winner:

1) Madrid '09 F - fatigue from SF, high altitude
2) USO '08 SF - fatigue from the excellent season up to that point
3) Cincy '08 SF - fatigue from playing/winning Toronto the previous week
4) Chennai '08 F - fatigue from SF against Moya
5) USO '07 QF - bad knees, physically worn down
6) Wimbledon '07 F - fatigue (played consecutive days due to rain)
7) Hamburg '07 F - fatigue from SF against Djokovic
8) AO '07 QF - fatigue from SF against Murray

I'm sure I can come up with many more to add to this list, but this is from what I remember off the bat.

Posted by Tigress 05/21/2009 at 07:29 PM

Crazy-for-Rog: So true. The indestructable 22 year-old is always the one with the 'fatigue' excuse. This nonsense was getting old and tired 2 years ago. Thanks for the list of lame excuses.

Posted by Rosangel 05/21/2009 at 08:53 PM

Hey, four of those losses came directly after giving his all in winning one of of the best matches of the past three years - of which Nadal has played (and won) more than anyone in the ATP currently. Doubtless it has to do with the way he wins matches. It's pretty pointless suggesting that it doesn't have any effect on his body, or that there isn't a large mental effort involved. That's just something he'll either need to live with, or deal with by further changes to his game. A win is a win - I've always said that. But there's nothing wrong with fans looking at the circumstances of a loss if they want to, when the point of the analysis is trying to assess what might happen next to a certain player or in a given matchup.

The Hamburg SF in 2007 wasn't against Djokovic but Hewitt.

In the USO '07 QF Nadal was in visible pain - it was excruciating to watch. Not his opponent's fault that this garnered attention - but that's what was going on.

Posted by Rosangel 05/21/2009 at 08:59 PM

Oh,, why do I bother?


These arguments always unwinnable. Most people accept that the man who wins a match wins fairly whatever the circumstances, but it should be possible to discuss those without them being labelled as "excuses" each time. What sensible analyst leaves out key data?

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